The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov
Dir. Askold Kurov, 2017
Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.
And so begins Franz Kafka’s famous novel, The Trial (1925), deliberately referenced by film director Askold Kurov in the title of his most recent documentary , The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov (2017). Kurov’s film follows the political show trial of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov by the Russian Federation during July and August of 2015.
Sentsov, who hails from the Crimean city of Simferopol, was a vocal opponent of the Russian annexation of Crimea. He was also a participant of the Ukrainian ‘Maidan’ Revolution, which began in November 2013 as a call for closer integration with Europe and ended in late February 2014 with nearly a hundred protesters shot in the streets of Kyiv and pro-Russian president Yanukovych fleeing from the law to Rostov-on-Don, the same Russian city in which Sentsov’s case was eventually heard. His prominent activism led to the encounter with the Russian justice system that forms the central focus of Kurov’s documentary. Arrested on suspicion of terrorism in May 2014 and tortured by the Russian secret service, Sentsov refused to a plea bargain. It was then that the captive was informed of his would-be sentence: twenty years in prison. During the trial that followed, the key witness for the prosecution, Gennadiy Afanasyev, recanted his testimony against Sentsov on the grounds that it had been given under torture. International outcries of support for Sentsov followed from film industry colleagues  including Ken Loach, Agnieszka Holland, and Pedro Almadóvar, and human rights organisations  such as Amnesty International. Petitions were signed and protests held before Russian embassies worldwide. The final verdict was, nevertheless, precisely as promised by the initial interrogators. After a year in custody, Sentsov was sentenced to twenty years in a Siberian penal colony, where he is currently still detained.
When asked about the implicit parallel drawn between Joseph K. and Sentsov in an interview  published in the Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta earlier this year, Kurov responded that his choice of title had been inspired by the sheer “helplessness” which for him characterised both trials. Unfounded charges of terrorist activities, sophisticated torture methods, the prosecutors’ absurdly mechanical tone, even the inevitability of the “guilty” verdict: factors such as these are certainly strong similarities between Sentsov’s own case and the archetypal Kafkaesque nightmare. But the courtroom in Rostov-on-Don was not exclusively a site of the “helplessness” that Kurov identifies as central to the fates of both Joseph K. and Sentsov.
Kurov’s film documents the workings of the repressive state machine of the Russian Federation. Although a certain Kafkaesque logic (or lack thereof) is admittedly present in the real events of Sentsov’s trial, the ashamed and perplexed figure of Joseph K. is altogether absent. In his courtroom speech  delivered just before the final verdict on 19 August 2014, Sentsov recites the words that will ultimately become political mottos for his fellow Ukrainian citizens in their fight against Russian aggression: “I am not going to ask for anything from you. A court of occupiers by definition cannot be just”. Referring to the torture to which he and Gennadiy Afanasyev have been subjected, he defiantly states: “I don’t know what your convictions are worth if you aren’t ready to suffer for them, or even to die”. He goes on to urge those Russian citizens who do not believe state propaganda to protest against their lawless government and the war crimes it has committed in Ukraine: “All I can do is wish that the […] informed portion of the Russian population will learn how not to be afraid”.
Patterned on recognisable cultural models of resistance, such as those of the Decembrists or the Soviet dissidents, Sentsov’s behaviour throughout the trial has nothing in common with the dreamlike confusion of Kafka’s characters. It is in fact closer to another life strategy, amor fati, the love of fate, as initially articulated by the Stoics and, much later, by Friedrich Nietzsche:
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati. That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it ⎯ all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary ⎯ but love it.
Over the course of his trial, Sentsov shapes himself into a Nietzschean “Yes-sayer” who is able to perceive his own horrific situation as “necessary” and use it to speak out. This becomes clearer still on reading his letter on the fate of the Kremlin’s political prisoners, smuggled in 2016 from the Siberian colony where he is detained: “If we’re supposed to become the nails in the coffin of a tyrant, I’d like to become one of those nails. Just know that this particular one will not bend”. Sentsov’s courage is bewildering. His pathos does not conform with the voguish notion of a “post-truth” world. In fact, his message of “love of fate” would appear just as archaic as the repressive political situation against which he is reacting.
It is important to remember that Kurov’s documentary is situated within the broader crisis of the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine, and the geopolitical delirium spread by Russian state mouthpieces on this account. These efforts have resulted in the arrests, show trials — distinctly Stalinist in their tone — and imprisonment of forty-four Ukrainian citizens  in Russia and occupied Crimea as hostages of Putin’s regime. Under circumstances such as these, is it enough to proclaim, as Kurov does, that the machine of terror in modern Russia is “Kafkaesque” and we feel “helpless”? Is it enough to admire Sentsov for embracing his fate? It puts a comforting distance between “us” and the “hero”, does it not? Between “us” and the “nightmare” of war in 21st-century Europe, which has already cost ten thousand lives. Can we allow ourselves to be mesmerised by this strangely archaic and eternally recurring European nightmare? On the count of ten, we might find ourselves in a train running through a postwar wasteland. On the count of ten, we might find ourselves in Europa …
The Trial: The State of Russia vs. Oleg Sentsov will be screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest on 10th June. For more information see here .
Sasha Dovzhyk  is reading for a a PhD in English at Birkbeck, University of London.