Distressing news has repeatedly emerged from Russia over the last two months. On May 16, Elena Gremina, a cofounder of Moscow’s underground theater company Teatr.Doc passed away just a few weeks after her husband and Theatr.Doc cofounder, Mikhail Ugarov, had a deadly heart attack. On June 4, Roman Sushchenko, a Paris-based correspondent for Ukraine’s state news agency, Ukrinform, was found guilty on charges of espionage by the Moscow City Court and sentenced to serve 12 years in a maximum security prison in Russia. He is just one of more than 70 Ukrainian political prisoners currently being held in Russia.

On May 14, another of those 70, Oleg Sentsov, announced an indefinite hunger strike, timed to start exactly a month before the World Cup, which launches in Russia today. Sentsov is a Ukrainian filmmaker detained by Russian forces in May 2014 after protesting the Russian annexation of Crimea; he is the recipient of PEN America’s 2017 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. His hunger strike is not about his own freedom, but rather an effort to ensure the immediate release of all Ukrainian political prisoners currently held in Russia. Sentsov himself is serving a draconian 20-year sentence on charges of terrorism that are widely viewed as politically-motivated. He has been the subject of extensive global advocacy and solidarity actions. Held in a prison above the Arctic Circle, and now on the 32nd day of his hunger strike, it is uncertain how long he can survive.

Teatr.Doc’s work is especially notable because the theater bases its plays on real stories, like Sentsov’s, the subject of a production entitled War is Near. The company focuses particularly on stories the Russian government does not want to talk about. Subjects of other plays have included Sergei Magnitsky, the Beslan school siege, the Kursk submarine tragedy, and now a story about Oyub Titiev, the imprisoned head of the Russian NGO Memorial’s Chechen branch—Elena and Mikhail’s final play. As a result, Teatr.Doc, unlike most Russian theaters, operates without any support from the government and in the face of constant harassment: police raids, pressure on landlords, invitations to the prosecutor’s office. Money for advertising is scarce, and audiences are small, if devoted. But the Russian government continues to target Teatr.Doc, demonstrating how badly afraid they are of this little theater in a basement.

These two cases—Teatr.Doc and Oleg Sentsov—are strongly linked not only because Sentsov was the subject of a Teatr.Doc play, and not only because they both represent honest, brave, and committed opposition to Vladimir Putin and his regime, but first and foremost because people like Oleg, Elena, and Mikhail are among that rare, courageous breed of people who simply cannot accept injustice. Elena and Mikhail may be gone, but we still can save Oleg.

Sentsov faces an uphill battle; the Russian state does not like ultimatums, and the chance that he will succeed in securing freedom for his fellow Ukrainian prisoners is very small—unless we all raise our voices in support of his efforts. The World Cup is a momentous occasion for Russia, and the government will attempt to deflect the world’s eyes from the reality behind the fanfare. Instead, we must use this opportunity to shine a light on Sentsov’s case and others that Putin would prefer to keep hidden. You can help, by spreading the word on your social media with the hashtag #FreeSentsov, joining the global campaign to #SaveOlegSentsov, and calling for your country’s leaders to put pressure on the Russian government and urge them to honor the spirit of the World Cup by releasing those whose only crime is to call for freedom.


  • Highlight the urgent case of Oleg Sentsov via news articles, opinions pieces, and blog posts
  • Send an appeal to the State Department or your Ministry of Foreign Affairs and diplomatic representatives in Russia, calling on them to raise Oleg Sentsov’s case with the Russian government
  • Spread the word on social media—here’s a suggested post:

For more than a month, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, unjustly imprisoned in Russia, has been on a hunger strike. Join me and @penamerican in calling for his release. Time is running out. @FIFAWorldCup #FreeSentsov https://pen.org/hunger-strike-pen-america-demands-oleg-sentsov-immediate-release/