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Ukrainian political prisoner’s drawings from Russian captivity go on display in Berlin

07.12.2021   
Halya Coynash

Viktor Shur, photo of part of the exhibition in Berlin, posted by Elena Ilina

An exhibition has opened in Berlin of the works of Viktor Shur, a Ukrainian political prisoner, incarcerated in Russia since December 2014.  Shur is now 64, and forced, as his daughter Olha puts it, “to draw the life he is not living”.  A German initiative, entitled Letters to Political Prisoners’, decided to organize an exhibition of Shur’s work with this opening on 26 November at Atelier Soldina in Berlin.  Those visiting the exhibition had the opportunity to communicate with the artist, albeit only through writing letters which will, nonetheless, give him pleasure.

For those who are nowhere near Germany, there is another solution.  Please write to Viktor and he may well share some of his intricate drawings with you.  In the seven years that Russia has been holding him prisoner, Viktor has lost his father and his adult son, and it is vital that we show him that he has not been forgotten.

Viktor Shur was born in Chernihiv on 10 March 1957.  He took after his father, a well-known Chernihiv art-collector, and became both a jeweller and an art-collector. He and his father had built up a collection of local icons.

It was due to Shur’s work that, when in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, Shur took Russian, rather than Ukrainian citizenship, assuming that it would make it easier for him to travel to Russia and transport antiques and works of art between the two countries.  He himself, and his family, are Ukrainian and he does now have Ukrainian citizenship, but at the time of his arrest he officially held only permanent residency status in Ukraine.  That, however, cannot change the fact that, as the Memorial Human Rights Centre puts it, “Shur’s persecution was against the background of an unending anti-Ukrainian campaign dating from the end of 2013 in both the state media and in the pronouncements of officials holding high-ranking posts in the Russian Federation.”  One of the components of this anti-Ukrainian campaign, Memorial adds, was the criminal prosecution of Ukrainian citizens and people expressing views that diverged from those pushed by Moscow.  Memorial HRC considers that Shur’s prosecution can be viewed in this light and believes he should be considered a political prisoner.

Shur is one of several Ukrainians who have been arrested since the beginning of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment on mystery ‘spying’ charges.  In his case, like that of Valentin Vyhivsky, who was arrested three months earlier, in September 2014, the charges proved specifically fluid. 

On around 7 December 2014, Shur received a phone call from a client and arranged to drive to the Bryansk oblast (across the border from Ukraine). He was supposed to return immediately, but simply disappeared.  The family began searching but it was only after a week that Shur phoned and said that he had been arrested for fighting with a policeman and that he would return in another week.

The family were then told that he had been arrested for violating the rules for a state-guarded site, with that subsequently stepped up to a charge under Article 275 of Russia’s criminal code with state treason and collaboration with the security services of a foreign state.

The family much later ascertained that he had been seized in the zone between the Ukrainian and Russian borders by men in masks who smashed the car windows and used smoke bombs against him.

The FSB appears to have accused him of having photographed a field.  The FSB claimed that this was a site of strategic importance, containing flooded mines and a former military aerodrome.  There was no way for Shur to have known this, nor, presumably, the local residents, who let their cows graze on what appeared to be just a field.

Shur told his late son that the so-called investigators used psychotropic drugs to get information (or more likely ‘confessions’) out of him.  He also said that torture had been applied, but gave no details.  During all of Olha’s visits, a guard has been present and Shur would certainly be stopped and then face reprisals if he was to talk about the treatment he had received.  

‘Spying’ or ‘treason’ charges are extremely convenient for the FSB, since the trials can be held in total secrecy.  Shur was initially held in the Bryansk SIZO [remand prison] and then taken to the FSB’s Lefortovo prison in Moscow.

It is very likely that Shur’s agreement to admit to the charges was obtained either through torture and threats, or by assurances, via a state-appointed lawyer, that he would get a shorter sentence.

He did not.  He was sentenced on 7 October, 2015 by the Bryansk Regional Court to 12 years’ maximum security imprisonment.  The court website reported that he had been found guilty of state treason in the form of espionage.  He was supposed to have “on 9 December 2014 carried out reconnaissance activities on the territory of the Bryansk oblast – he gathered information constituting a state secret about a protected site belonging to Russia’s defence ministry with this ordered by the Ukrainian State Border Service. Were this information to be handed to Ukraine’s Security Service, the latter could have used it against Russia’s security”.

This was a closed court hearing, and Shur never had access to an independent lawyer.

Shur has spent seven years in the appalling conditions of Russian prisons, and this has taken a heavy toll on his health.  As well as bronchitis and a bone-related condition which may be causing his severe headaches, Shur has also complained of deteriorating eyesight.   If you can write to him, please write legibly.  His art work is clearly a lifeline, and it would be a tragedy if he could not continue.  Please also help him and Russia’s other political prisoners, by ensuring that people in your country know about him. 

PLEASE WRITE TO VIKTOR SHUR

As well as showing him that Ukraine and people beyond are concerned about him, letters and cards also send an important message to Moscow that he is not forgotten.

The messages need to be hand-written, in Russian.  If this is difficult, the following can be cut and pasted, perhaps with a beautiful Christmas (or birthday card for 10 March)

Здравствуйте!

Желаю Вам здоровья и терпения, и очень надеюсь на скорое освобождение. Простите, что мало пишу – мне трудно писать по-русски, но мы все о Вас помним.

 [Hi.  I wish you good health, courage and patience and hope that you will soon be released.  I’m sorry that this letter is short – it’s hard for me to write in Russian., but you are not forgotten. ] 

Address

241021 Russian Federation, Bryansk, 30 Komarova St., Prison Colony No. 1,

Shur Viktor Valentinovich (born 1957),

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