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'I May Be Behind Bars, But I’m Freer Than You:' A Russian Antiwar Protester Gets Sentenced to 7 Years in Prison
Artist Sasha Skochilenko changed the price tags at a St. Petersburg grocery store with antiwar messages. She became the first person charged under a repressive law punishing dissent.
Shortly after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, St. Petersburg artist Aleksandra Skochilenko, who usually goes by Sasha, protested by replacing price tags at a local grocery store with antiwar messages. They included statements such as: "Russian conscripts have been sent to Ukraine. The price of this war is the lives of our children.” and "Stop the war! In the first three days, 4,300 Russian soldiers were killed. Why are they silent about this on television?”
An elderly shopper reported the tags. According to human rights group Memorial, police spent 10 days interrogating supermarket staff and inspecting security camera footage. On April 13, 2022, Skochilenko was the first person arrested and charged under a new law making it a crime to spread “knowingly false information” about the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine. On November 16, Skochilenko, 33, was sentenced to seven years in prison, after spending 19 months in pretrial detention.
Skochilenko's case is absurd. Skochilenko never denied placing the tags, but denied that the information contained in them was false. As one of her lawyers pointed out: while the prosecution obtained testimony from Russian soldiers that her statements were "insulting to the Russian army," the soldiers never even saw them. She explained her actions in a court hearing: "I just wanted the hostilities to stop, because that’s what I value: life is sacred to me. I just wanted to stop the war, not out of hatred or out of animosity, but out of compassion."
The case illustrates the great lengths that the Russian state has gone to prosecute dissent during the War in Ukraine. In December, opposition politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced to 8.5 years in a penal colony for "discrediting the army" for talking about Russian war crimes in Bucha on his YouTube channel. In April, Washington Post contributor and political activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison, also for speaking publicly on basic facts about the War in Ukraine. In March, a single father was sentenced to two years in a penal colony because his 12-year-old daughter drew an antiwar picture at school; the girl was placed in an orphanage. According to data published by human rights monitor OVD-Info in late October, Russian authorities have launched over 700 cases since the full-scale invasion for anti-war activities.
Skochilenko's treatment in her 19-month detention has been inhumane. She suffers from cyclothymia, a heart defect, and celiac disease. In The Book of Depression, she wrote about her mental health struggles. In pretrial detention, her sleep worsened and she was not allowed to see a psychiatrist who agreed to see her; instead, she was taken to a psychiatric hospital for three weeks, even though an evaluation could have been done in a few hours in pretrial detention. Prison authorities did not allow her to change the battery for her heart monitor. She has been repeatedly denied water and food; she cannot eat the dry prison rations, since she is gluten intolerant. She asked authorities at a hearing: "I don’t understand why you are torturing me with hunger.”
Skochilenko is openly lesbian; the Russian state is openly homophobic. (On November 16, Russian authorities moved to ban the LGBT movement as an "extremist" organization, a designation given to terrorist and neo-Nazi groups.) Her partner of six years, Sofya Subbotina, could not see her for the first year she was in prison. At one hearing, Skochilenko suggested that the state was prosecuting her because she was in a relationship with a woman, and a prosecutor denied that was true: “It’s true that during the trial, Skochilenko said the phrase ‘My girlfriend,’ (devochka) and I thought she was saying ‘My grandpa.’ (dedushka) But that’s her choice — we don’t prosecute people for that."
Russian journalist Anatoly Buzinsky, who now lives in Germany, met Skochilenko in high school in 2006 on a television program for gifted students. In a text message to me, he wrote that in 2006, "we sincerely believed we were living in a democracy." Both went on to work for independent media, are openly gay, and ran into each other at unauthorized political rallies in St. Petersburg. He went to one of her hearings in April 2022, which he said "shook [him] to the core." Here is how he described it to me:
Sasha, so small, fragile, and gentle, yet so strong. I saw the fear in her eyes. She had fallen into the jaws of this repressive machine, from which it's very hard to extract someone. In the court's corridors, I met dozens of wonderful people - my professors from Saint Petersburg [State] University, activists, her girlfriend. It was a clash of two worlds.
In support of Sasha, people of human dignity, compassion, creativity, and love for freedom came forward, while those who showed up for their job were mere cogs in this system, bound by the blood chain.
Russian dissidents have used the statements they give to the court as a way to express dissent, when they lack other platforms to do so. Here is some of what Skochilenko said:
Thanks to my prosecutors and investigators, the information I spread [in the supermarket] has reached thousands of people in Russia and around the world. If I hadn’t been arrested, that information would have only reached an old woman, a cashier, and the security guard at the Perekrestok grocery store.
Call it what you want — You can tell me I’ve been misled, made a mistake, or been brainwashed. In any case, I stand by my opinion and my truth. And I don’t believe any particular truth should be enforced by law.
I may be behind bars, but I’m freer than you. I can make my own decisions; I can say whatever I believe; I can quit my job if it’s making me do something I don’t want to do. I have no enemies; I’m not afraid of finding myself with no money or even without a roof over my head.
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