Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko celebrates birthday in Putin’s prison

It is the 131st day since his unlawful detention in Moscow.

What happens if your son, father, or spouse is arrested by the state that is waging a war on your own nation and casts on your dearest one terrible aspersions?

The documentary Prisoners of the Kremlin, devoted to the misfortune of Roman Sushchenko, tells about that. A Ukrainian journalist, who worked in Paris for six years, he is being held in a Moscow pretrial jail since the fall of 2016. He faces a sentence of up to twenty years in prison. Imagine that if it happens, his term would end in 2037, on the centenary of Stalin’s ‘Great Terror.’

Like it was in 1937, the Kremlin propaganda depicts its victim as a crafty spy, “big fish” caught in the net by the Russian security. But who really is Mr Sushchenko and how did he find himself in the Russian capital in September 2016? And why do the representatives of the journalist community perceive the case as an attack against them and their profession? Roman’s relatives and colleagues give their answers in the film, produced by Ukraine’s Ministry of Information Policy.

Is it possible that a certain correspondent indeed carried out an evil plot against the Kremlin? This may seem a naive question: a man whose only ‘weapon’ is his word could hardly seem to threaten the nuclear power. Yet, unfortunately, we know how fearful and hateful Putin’s regime is of independent journalists. We remember the names of those among them who perished because of telling the truth.

In 2016 World Press Freedom Index, the organization Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia as low as 148 of 180, which is worse than Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, or South Sudan. In annexed Crimea, the so-called Russian ‘authorities’ recently charged the Ukrainian journalist Mykola Semena with ‘separatism’ for an article on the prospective de-occupation of the peninsula. The article was in line with the content of the two UN General Assembly resolutions, which clearly recognize Crimea a part of Ukraine. At the same time, the most loyal journalists and undisguised propagandists receive medals from Putin’s hands, as hybrid war fighters.

Roman Sushchenko worked far away from Russia, in France. But he stood out among others in the profession. “One of the most active journalists whom I knew,” his French colleague Galia Ackerman describes him in the film. Apart from the painstaking coverage of cultural and artistic life in France, Roman published articles about the problems that seem to be very annoying for the Kremlin. He wrote that Putin’s aggression placed the review of a common defense policy on the European agenda. A year before his arrest, in September 2015, Roman supposed that Moscow would try to trade her involvement in the anti-‘Islamic state’ fighting in Syria for concessions concerning Crimea and international sanctions.


Sushchenko in Paris. Photo: Ukrinform

Sushchenko did not underestimate the intellectual component of the resistance to the Russian hybrid offensive against Ukraine. He endorsed the view that what had started in 2014 was not just a conflict between the two countries but an attempt of the dictatorship to punish the Ukrainian people for their democratic pro-European choice. He demonstrated that many in the French audience hear and accept this argument. He wrote about the scandal caused by the conspiracy documentary Ukraine: Masks of the Revolution, broadcast on French TV, which completely repeated Russian anti-Ukrainian misinformation patterns and angered French reporters working in Ukraine. Roman repeatedly and skillfully made fun of the cliches of the ‘Russian World’ propaganda discourse.

Sushchenko called the regional elections in France in 2015 a prelude to the 2017 presidential election, noting that most voters had responded positively to the joint calls of the left and center-right politicians to prevent the success of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front. Later he investigated the voyage of the National Front member Jacques Clostermann to the Russian-occupied part of Donbas. The last interview Roman did before his unfortunate departure to Moscow was devoted to the forthcoming opening of the Russian Spiritual and Cultural Center in Paris, which was regarded by some European media as a tool of soft power or even supposed undercover operations near the Palais de l’Élysée. This interview has remained unpublished.

Charlie Hebdo cartoon on the opening of the Russian Spiritual and Cultural Center in Paris

With the arrest of Sushchenko, Moscow shows to the journalist community that the attention to the shadow side of her foreign affairs is clearly undesirable—and moreover, it is life threatening.

Hunting for ‘spies,’ ‘saboteurs,’ and ‘terrorists’ is a rewarding business under the regime led by ex-Soviet intelligence officer and former head of the FSB Vladimir Putin. At the annual press conference in December 2016, the Kremlin boss said that the evidence against his Ukrainian hostages was abundant: they had revealed “tasks, addresses, and secret rendezvous” that allegedly proved their ‘criminal intentions.’ Sushchenko’s colleague, the Ukrainian correspondent to Moscow Roman Tsymbaliuk, looking into Putin’s eyes, noted that under FSB torture, Russian president would have confessed himself to be a Ukrainian agent.

Sushchenko's arrest in Moscow. Photo: Ukrinform

Sushchenko’s arrest in Moscow. Photo: Ukrinform

There is no reason to consider these latter words as a rhetorical exaggeration. The Ukrainian Valentyn Vyhivskyi is serving an 11-year sentence in Russia he got under the same Criminal Code article on ‘espionage’ that is now imputed to Sushchenko. Wonder why? Vyhivskyi simply communicated with Russian aviation amateurs via the Internet. After being convicted, he told his parents about the brutal torture used during the investigation to wrest the self-incriminating ‘confession’ from him. He had been taken to the woods and threatened he would have been executed and buried there had he not ‘confessed.’

The course of the investigation in the Sushchenko case betrays its nature of an orchestrated spectacle. This spectacle both started and may end at the behest of people from beyond the law enforcement or judiciary. At the presentation of Prisoners of the Kremlin, Roman’s lawyer Mark Feygin noted that, over the recent months, no investigative actions involving his client had been carried out, as if FSB officers were not interested in the secrets the mysterious ‘Ukrainian spy’ allegedly concealed. In fact, the lawyer insists, they merely do not know what is going to happen to this case: the continuation or closure—and obediently wait for a command from above.

The final shots of the film: Roman Sushchenko’s elderly mother with tears in her eyes thanks everyone who supported the hostage and contributed to the fight for his release.


Mother of Roman Sushchenko. Snapshot from the film ‘Prisoners of the Kremlin’

On February 8, her son turns 48, and you can do a lot for him. Please send a letter or birthday card to the address:

Sushchenko Roman Vladimirovich (born 1969), Lefortovo remand prison #2, E20, postbox 201, 5 Lefortovskiy Val, Moscow, 111020, Russia (follow the instructions here).

You can also send your messages to Roman to his employing news agency, Ukrinform: 8/16 Bohdana Khmelnytskoho Str., Kyiv, 01001, Ukraine.

As Roman himself writes to his colleagues, letters he receives from the free world inspire him and raise his strength. They help him to think less about prison bars and more about the sun, blue sky and the future of his country. “There is no better foundation for darkness than indifference, and the best weapon against it is self-confidence,” read his words from captivity. In his letter to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, he says that he has a wish: to bring up his 9-year-old son, see how the child is growing up, and return to his favorite work.

Speak out about the Ukrainian journalist in Russian captivity. Watch and distribute the film Prisoners of the Kremlin. Demand: #FreeSushchenko now.

A journalist’s word must not be barred. Mother’s tears should give place to the joy of meeting and embracing her son.