How Russia proves it's 'right,' one scapegoat at a time
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Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian director of the 2011 film "Gamer," has been sentenced to 20 years in a Russian prison by a military tribunal in Rostov-on-Don.

What was Sentsov's crime? According to the verdict handed down by the military court, Sentsov will spend the next 20 years behind bars for "terrorism." Sentsov was arrested by agents of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) at his home in disputed Crimea, accused of plotting, along with his alleged co-conspirator Alexander Kolchenko, to blow up a statue of Vladimir Lenin. In addition to conspiracy to deface a statue, the two were found guilty of setting fire to the headquarters of pro-Russian groups in Crimea and being members of Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist group deemed a terrorist organization by Moscow.


At his so-called trial, the court dismissed his claims that he had been tortured and compelled to "confess" by FSB agents. Prosecutors cited "sadomasochistic equipment" the FSB allegedly discovered in Sentsov's apartment to argue that his injuries and bruises were self-inflicted in "attempts to gain sexual pleasure."

In his closing statement, Sentsov condemned the "court of occupiers" and said that "cowardice is the worst sin," quoting The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, another artist victimized by a repressive Russian state.

The historical analogy that immediately comes to mind upon reading the details of Sentsov's arrest, trial and imprisonment would have to be the show trials during the period of Stalinist repression, which reached its most fevered pitch in the mid-1930s as Soviet leader Joseph Stalin solidified his control of the country. In this analogy, Russian President Vladimir Putin is cast as Stalin and Sentsov as one of the thousands of unfortunate artists who fell victim to his hysterical waves of repression.

However, we should caution ourselves against stretching the analogy beyond its obvious breaking point. Putin is not Stalin and Sentsov is not Bulgakov.

Sentsov most definitely is, however, a scapegoat. Scapegoats, in the original, biblical sense of the term, serve as embodiments of collective sin. Sacrificing the scapegoats serves to expurgate that sin and leave the community cleansed. By destroying the sacrificial animal, the sacrificing community achieves atonement and returns to its true, pure self.

In the same manner as the Great Purge served to define the national project and the Russian identity by disappearing its perceived antitheses — artistic and ideological deviants — Putin's Russia is creating itself by kidnapping and publicly excoriating the men and women it calls "fascists," a codeword for pro-Western Ukrainian nationalists. The accusation of sadomasochism completes the narrative: The enemies to be ritually sacrificed are not only political fascists, but sexual perverts and cultural deviants who seek to overthrow the vestal regime that is Mother Russia.

From a purely legal standpoint, exactly which community is being purified by Sentsov's imprisonment is not entirely clear. A Ukrainian citizen by virtue of his birth in the Crimean town of Simferopol, Sentsov was thrown into a statist limbo after Russia annexed the peninsula in March 2014.

Following the annexation, Russia decreed that all Ukrainian residents of Crimea had to declare their intention to remain Ukrainian or automatically be considered Russians. The deadline for Ukrainians in Crimea to retain their citizenship was April 18, 2014. According to the military tribunal which tried him in late August, Sentsov never filed his paperwork to retain Ukrainian citizenship, and is thus a Russian and subject to its Kafkaesque legal system.

Sentsov is not the only Ukrainian national languishing in a Russian prison at the moment. Nadia Savchenko is a helicopter pilot captured during fighting in eastern Ukraine who has been held since June 2014, charged with killing two Russian journalists. Savchenko is the only woman to pilot the Sukhoi Su-24 and the Mil Mi-24 helicopter, two icons of Russian aerial might. The language used to describe her in the Russian press is accordingly sexist, dismissive and degrading. Savchenko is also a member in absentia of the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament: elected during her internment, Savchenko is not merely a foreign national but a representative of a foreign government imprisoned by Russia. According to Kiev, Savchenko is one of at least 10 Ukrainian citizens being held in Russian jails on politically motivated charges.

Russia is asserting jurisdiction over nationals of the former Soviet bloc, holding a member of Ukraine's parliament and a prominent director on fabricated charges. That one is a man accused of "sadomasochistic" inclinations, and the other a female military pilot, is symptomatic of Russia's cultural war, waged on both foreign and domestic fronts. While lionizing the heroes and progress of the Soviet era, Russia is reverting to its deeply conservative social roots, where women stay at home and perverts go to the gulag.

The lesson the Kremlin wants the court of Russian public opinion to draw from Sentsov and Savchenko is not that "terrorists" will be punished no matter their nationality, but that Russia's cause is pure, and its enemies are "fascists," perverts and "killers in skirts." Russia's crusade against the immoral West is not merely rhetorical, but requires fresh sacrifices to illustrate the truth of its sermonizing. Sentsov and Savchenko are the latest lambs to the slaughter, but they will not be last.

Popova is a Russian-British freelance journalist with a focus on Eastern European politics and society.