Published 03 Oct 2018
In a penal colony in Arctic Siberia, Oleg Sentsov is on hunger strike. The Ukrainian film director was sentenced to 20 years for conspiracy to conduct terror attacks in what is believed by many in the international community to have been a cynically motivated show trial around a bogus charge - part of Russia’s propaganda war to intimidate activists against its annexation of Crimea.
Sentsov, who has been striking for more than four months, is calling on Russia to free all of its Ukrainian political prisoners. Information going in and coming out of such colonies is notoriously controlled so the exact state of his health is hard to gauge, although a photograph released last week by the penitentiary service shows him very gaunt. Speculation is rife over whether Putin has decided to leave him to die inside.
Hunger strikes as a form of protest have started trending upwards in Russia, in response to a clampdown on criticism of the Government and freedom of expression. And it’s not only dissidents that are resorting to them. A strike was also announced recently by 86 Siberian miners over unpaid wages.
The tradition of hunger striking
Hunger strikes go back a long way in Russia. They were a favoured strategy of dissidence in the Soviet era and before that, the Bolsheviks had themselves used the tactic against the Tsars. One of the most prominent in history is Anatoly Marchenko, an oil driller who became politicised during several stints of incarceration, he wrote an autobiographical account of his time in the prison system that circulated via the underground (“samizdat”). He died after a three-month hunger strike in 1986 during which he had been demanding the release of all prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union; his death sparking an outcry that contributed to Gorbachev backing a large-scale prisoner amnesty.
Hunger strikes as a tool of power for the powerless have also been favoured in other countries. In India they are an ancient practice, and were utilised by Gandhi in the modern era to protest against British colonial rule. Ireland is also particularly noted for them. In pre-Christian times, they were carried out on the doorsteps of those strikers had a grievance with, as to allow someone to die at your door was considered a great dishonour of inhospitality. They later became a form of mass action resorted to by the IRA to protest their classification as criminals.
Why hunger strikes?
Marchenko said: "I am convinced that publicity is the sole effective means of combating the evil and lawlessness which is rampant in my country today." Hunger strikes can be effective as an attention-grabbing spectacle to leverage public pressure for some cause or improving conditions. Beyond that, they are a radical reassertion of free will over one’s own self; a statement that ownership by the Government has its limits and the striker can live or die on their own terms.
With the rise of the idea of the prison as a site of discipline came strict behavioural regimentation. In refusing to eat one takes back control of interactions with the prison environment, redressing the inequity of decision-making.
The prisoner’s body, then, becomes the site of a battle of wills. This explains why force-feeding - often used to end strikes in custody - is experienced as so unbearable by strikers. It is not only physically uncomfortable, but a violation of will that Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his account of the Siberian prison system The Gulag Archipelago compared to rape. Whether force-feeding by doctors is done to save lives or as a mode of torture and punishment is contentious. International guidelines deem it inhumane.
The question of bodily self-determination has, in the case of Sentsov, a dimension of national identity. Refusing to recognise the Russian jurisdiction imposed upon him, he claimed he is “not a serf to be sold with the land”.
The very extremity of hunger striking is a statement of the depth of one’s iron-willed commitment to resistance. Other news-grabbing acts of extreme physical sacrifice in which the body is itself commandeered as a symbol against state oppression have been employed by Russian activists in recent years, among the most high-profile being Petr Pavlensky’s performances, from sewing his mouth shut to nailing his scrotum to Red Square.
Existential victory in an unfair fight
It could be said that there is a counter-intuitive logic to hunger strikes, whereby physical harm to oneself can be a tool in the struggle for mental freedom and dignity; a spectacle disquieting enough it can function as a circuit-breaker upon an unjust order.
Russian-Jewish dissident, Joseph Brodsky, has spoken persuasively of the power of poetic gesture when possibilities of literal overthrow have been exhausted. He escaped the repressive climate of Leningrad for New York in the ‘70s, having done a stint of hard labour in a gulag after the Soviet authorities took issue with his clandestine writings and labelled him a social parasite.
In a famed commencement address to graduating American college students some years later, Brodsky told them that they’d all have to confront evil at some point in their lives. He divulged some secrets of defiance in the form of a story of a man ordered to compete chopping wood with his fellow inmates in a Siberian prison yard: The prisoner refuses a break and cuts well into the evening, long after the others retire. He bemuses and finally frightens the guards with his absurd excess of compliance - a display of eccentric individualism that in its refusal to conform to their expectations gives him mental power over them and amounts to an existential victory.
Brodsky is making the point that in an unfair fight, the key to defiance is not just noble sentiment but the audacious exploit; the act of enterprising invention. As he said: “As long as you have your skin, coat, cloak and limbs, you are not yet defeated, whatever the odds are.”
Written by Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray is a freelance film programmer, critic and journalist who was born in New Zealand and now lives in Berlin. She is interested in the intersection of art, politics and collective history.
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