2017 Literary Gala: Oleg Sentsov, PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award
Oleg Sentsov is widely regarded for work that includes two short films, A Perfect Day for Bananafish and The Horn of a Bull, and a full-length film, Gamer, that debuted to acclaim at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2012. His writings include scripts, plays, and essays. Sentsov, an outspoken critic of Russia’s intervention and takeover of Crimea, is serving a 20-year sentence in a Siberian penal colony after his arrest on terrorism charges that have been condemned by human rights groups as fabrications by a Russian government intent on silencing dissent. Sentsov’s trial was characterized by abuse, inconsistencies, and lack of evidence. Yet Sentsov has shown unflinching courage in the face of Putin’s brutal treatment, writing in a letter smuggled from prison: “If we’re supposed to become nails in the coffin of a tyrant, I’d like to become one of those nails. Just know that this particular nail will not bend.” Sentsov was honored with this year’s PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, presented at the 2017 PEN Literary Gala. His cousin, Natalya Kaplan, accepted the award on his behalf. Below are Kaplan’s full remarks, with an introduction by Pam and Peter Barbey.
Pam Barbey: Peter and I are pleased to be here tonight to stand with Oleg Sentsov. The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award is granted each year to an individual writer. The intention is not only to shine a light upon this one writer’s case, but to call attention to all writers who are threatened or imprisoned because of their words.
Peter Barbey: Over the past years and past months it has become impossible to ignore how tyranny is threatened by words and the lengths to which oppressive governments will go to silence those who would speak or write or sing those words. We must not only listen to these words, but be willing to raise our voices in their defense.
This award is special to Pam and I. As the eighth generation publisher of a family-owned Pennsylvania newspaper, and the new owners of the Village Voice here in New York, we realize how important it is for those in the business of words and ideas to stand up for each other.
Pam: And it’s good to put things in perspective. That no matter how Twitter challenged we may feel, others elsewhere endure much more for writing the truth. We would like to introduce Oleg Sentsov’s cousin, Natalya Kaplan, who will accept the PEN/Barbey Award on Oleg’s behalf.
Natalya Kaplan: Good evening. My cousin, Oleg Sentsov, is in prison in Yakutsk, Russia. He is one of those people who cannot sit by in the face of injustice. When the Russian soldiers appeared in Crimea, Oleg delivered food, water, and medicine to the Ukrainian military units that were blockaded. Later, when the Russian military gave the Ukrainians only six hours to evacuate the peninsula, it was Oleg who organized their departure, finding buses, helping the families with their children to pack up all their belongings.
That was his kind of action; he warned others against anything radical. Nevertheless, the Russian secret police accused him of terrorist activity. He was tortured in the dungeons of a detention unit. He says the worst was suffocation: a bag over a person’s head, blocking the air until the person almost blacks out, and then they give literally one gulp of oxygen—and the torture continues.
Oleg is a man of many talents. He studied economics and wanted to become a businessman. He became the eSports champion of Ukraine. At the same time, he wrote articles, wrote a novel, stories, and a play. He became interested in film. His first feature, made with his own money, is about a young boy drowning in the world of competitive gaming. After the good reviews, Oleg was working on another film when he was arrested.
In prison, he has continued to write. He has already five scripts. But he refuses to share them; he says that they will come out when he does. He calls his life in prison “Groundhog Day:” when today is in no way different from yesterday, and will not be different from tomorrow. Too little food, constant cold, showers once a week.
He will not surrender. He will not confess when he is not guilty, no matter what his jailers want. We must not forget about him, and we must not give up hope. What PEN America and all of you do tonight is so important.
And Oleg is but 1 of 44 Ukrainian prisoners who are incarcerated in Russia today. He is very concerned for his fellow political prisoners. He asks that, when you speak of him, you don’t forget the others.
And one more thing, I wrote to Oleg to tell him about this award, he was very touched, and he managed to send Alan to share a message with all of you.