Bohdan Ziza, a Ukrainian artist, poet and activist, is serving a 15-year sentence for “terrorism” after pouring blue and yellow paint – the colours of the Ukrainian flag – on to a municipal administration building in Evpatoria, Crimea, his home town. He made and circulated a video of the action – on 16 May 2022, shortly after the all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine – and for that was also charged with “incitement to terrorism”.
This is Bohdan’s speech from the dock, before being sentenced by a Russian military court on 5 June last year.
Do I regret what I have done?
I am sorry that I over-reached, and that my action resulted in charges under the Article [of the Russian criminal code] on terrorism. I am sorry that my grandmother is now without the care and support that she needs. Apart from me, she has nobody. And I am sorry that I can not now help others who are close to me, who need that help now.
As for the rest: I acted according to my conscience.
And also, according to my conscience, I do not deny or disavow what I did. I behaved stupidly, and could have expressed my opinion in some other way. But did I deserve, for what I did, to be deprived of my freedom for ten years or more?
I would like to appeal to the court: do not follow the regime’s script, do not participate in these awful repressions. But obviously that would have no effect. The judges and other similar political actors are just doing what they are told.
For these reasons, I will continue to protest, even in prison. And I am well aware of the sentence I may receive, and how it may affect my health and even my life.
But am I worthy of the life that I live? Is each one of us worthy of a carefree life, when we stay silent at a time when, every day, innocent people’s lives are being taken?
This was the worst night of my life. I never experienced anything like it. I thought we would die. There were three Kinzhal rockets, and loads of Kalibrs. They fell very close, they were right above our building. The building shook – several explosions, one after the other. For the first time in the war there was a white glow, the sky was white from the explosions. It was as though we were in a trench, not in our own home. At one moment I thought that it was all flying towards us. There was the very clear sound of a rocket, and then a very powerful explosion. But we have been lucky, again, and we are still alive.
That was a message from my sister, in Kyiv, who had to live through another night of bombardment of the city by the Russian armed forces.
When she went out in the morning, she learned that one of the rockets had hit the next-door building.
For many people, this war that is going on now is happening over there somewhere, far away.
One of the staff at the pre-trial detention centre said to me: “Bloody hell, I am sick of this war. Whenever you turn on the TV, it’s more of the same.” I answered that the war is not over and so you can not get away from it. And then he said: “Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s just that everything is getting more expensive. The cost of running a car now!”
And that’s the problem, here in Russia. For you, this war is an inconvenience, an irritation. You try to wait it out, living your usual life, trying to avoid bad news, and in that way simply not valuing simple things, not valuing the fact that you can wake up in a warm bed, in a warm flat, and say to someone who is dear to you, “good morning”. At a time when in the country next door, millions of people are losing their homes, losing their loved ones, when whole cities are being destroyed. Every day. That’s the everyday reality for Ukrainian citizens now.
In theory, Russian people’s failure to act could be explained, if only what is happening was not being done by Russian hands. The hands of those who bear arms, and those who don’t do anything to stop them. Every day that an ordinary Russian person carries on, reasoning that this is all politics and doesn’t concern him, and living his normal life, he adds money to the Russian Federation budget and in that way sponsors this criminal war.
Of course there are those who do not support what is happening, who take action, who are not silent participants: journalists, various activists – those who refuse to keep quiet.
My action was a cry from the heart, from my conscience, to those who were and are afraid – just as I was afraid – but who also did not want, and do not want, this war. Each of us separately are small, unnoticed people – but people whose loud actions can be heard. Yes, it is frightening. Yes, you can end up behind bars – where I, for sure, did not plan to be. Even for these words I could face a new criminal case. But it is better to be in prison with a clear conscience, than to be a wretched, dumb beast on the outside.
I am also an ordinary citizen of my country – Ukraine – who is not used to keeping quiet when confronted with lawlessness. I am not alone here today in this “goldfish bowl” [slang for the glass cage in which the accused appears in Russian courts]. There are more than 200 people with me: Ukrainian political prisoners, serving time in Russian prisons on fabricated charges. Many of them are Crimean Tatars, who are once again faced with repression by Russia. I am myself half Crimean Tatar, and angry at our people’s suffering.
Many Ukrainians are serving time in Russian prisons simply because they are Ukrainians, and were somewhere that the Russian state thought they should not be. In Russian prisons people are beaten up for speaking in Ukrainian. Or not even for speaking it, but simply for understanding it. Bastards among the guards at pre-trial detention centres or other places where people are imprisoned address prisoners in Ukrainian, to see if they get a reaction, to see if they provoke an answer or a response. If a person reacts, they beat him up.
Those who so passionately seek “Nazis” in Ukraine have not opened their eyes to the Nazism that has emerged in Russia, with its ephemeral “Russian world”, with which armed forces have come to us, to try to extirpate Ukrainian identity.
People in prison suffer in the most terrible conditions. Many of them are elderly. More than 40 people [in the pre-trial detention centre] have critical health problems, and can not access the medical treatment that they need. People die in prison. They are not criminals. Deport them from the country! Why do you keep them here?
I am no kind of terrorist. It sounds ridiculous to even say that. I am a person with morals and principles, who would rather give his own life than take the life of another person. But I am not ready to give my life to the Federal Penal Enforcement Service of the Russian Federation.
I declare a hunger strike, and demand that I be stripped of my Russian citizenship. I demand that all Ukrainian political prisoners be freed. If anything happens to me in prison, I want the world to know that it happened only because I am a Ukrainian, who took a stand against the war in his country.
And if this is my last word, let it be my last word in the Russian language. The last thing I will say publicly in Russian in this country, as long as this regime lasts. The reddish regime.
[Ziza then switched from Russian to Ukrainian, and recited this poem. Explanation of names mentioned below.]
I am not Red, I am Crimson!I am not playing to the gallery!These are not rhymes, they are wounds!And I am not Melnik, I am Bandera!The weather: it’s snowing in my summer,From Symonenko’s motherlandI go to the end, like Teliha!And I believe in wings, like Kostenko!
□ Note. The Ukrainian for “crimson” (“bahrianyi”), was also the pseudonym of Ivan Lozoviaha, a dissident writer and political exile from 1932 to his death in 1963. Andriy Melnik and Stepan Bandera were leaders of Ukrainian nationalist partisan military formations in the 1940s. Vasyl Symonenko was a Ukrainian poet, active in dissident circles until his death in 1963. Olena Teliha was a feminist poet, member of a nationalist underground cell in Nazi-occupied Kyiv, killed by the Nazis in 1942. Lina Kostenko is a Soviet-era dissident who has continued working as a poet and writer in post-Soviet Ukraine.
□ What happened next. After Bohdan Ziza made this speech to the Southern District Military Court in Rostov, Russia, on 5 June 2023, he was sentenced by the judge, Roman Plisko, to 15 years in a high-security penal colony. Shortly after that, Ziza wrote to Zmina, the Ukrainian human rights organisation. He ended his hunger strike and then wrote to Uznik on-line, which coordinates correspondence with anti-war prisoners in Russia, to thank them and the many supporters who had written to him.
On 27 September 2023 Bohdan Ziza’s appeal against his sentence was rejected by Maksym Panin at the military court of appeal in Vlasikha, near Moscow.
Bohdan, who marked his 29th birthday on 23 November, was moved to Vladimir prison. On 5 December, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group reported that he had been visited by his lawyer and is in good spirits. He is sharing a cell with Appaz Kurtamet, another Crimean Tatar political prisoner, and was serving time in a punishment cell after stating that he is not a criminal and refusing to wear prison clothing.
□ What we can do. Advice to non-Russian speakers who wish to write to Bohdan and Appaz is included in this article on the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group site. The group also appeals to other countries’ diplomats to help Ukrainian citizens in Russian prisons (although this does not include Bohdan, since he was compelled, as a teenager, to take Russian citizenship after Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014).
□ More information. Solidarity Zone (see facebook, telegram and twitter) supports anti-war activists jailed in Russia. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, Crimea SOS and Zmina are among the Ukrainian human rights organisation that publicise the fate of more than 180 Crimean political prisoners in Russian jails. SP, 17 January 2024.
Source: “Crimean political prisoner Bohdan Ziza: ‘My anti-war action was a cry from the heart’,” People and Nature, 17 January 2024. Thanks to my friend and comrade Simon Pirani for his outstanding work here and elsewhere, and for his kind encouragement to repost this important document of Ukrainian resistance to Russian fascism.