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‘They ripped out the tooth but said they couldn’t sew up her gum’ The girlfriend of Sasha Skochilenko, the first person in Russia to face felony charges for ‘spreading disinfo’ about the military,’ describes her case

Source: Meduza

On April 13, a court in St. Petersburg jailed artist Sasha Skochilenko for replacing price tags at a local grocery store with stickers bearing anti-war messages. Skochilenko stands accused of the felony offense of spreading “disinformation” about the Russian military. Meduza spoke to her girlfriend, Sofya Subbotina, about the artist’s life before and after Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, her arrest, and the conditions of her pre-trial detention, which now jeopardize Skochilenko’s life.

Sofya Subbotina

Tell us how the two of you met. What was your first impression of Sasha? Sasha and I met a little over five years ago in a singles group for women seeking women. Right away, I thought she was an extremely interesting person. I liked her photo: her long hair was down, and she was wearing a flower crown. Underneath, she’d put a quote from a book by Timothy Leary, and right away I felt we spoke the same language somehow. 

Sasha is creative and open to new experiences. She has enormous empathy for people. She always helped friends and strangers in trouble. She is someone who lived according to a code of humanism and compassion.  

What was Sasha doing before the war started? In 2011, she was an independent journalist documenting the Bolotnaya Square protests, working for Bumaga, an online news outlet based in Petersburg. Then she created a comic about depression, where she tried to explain to friends in simple terms how she feels during her depressive episodes. When the comic went viral online, she got the idea to publish it as a book. That was her first comic; later, she made several more, including Notes on Depression and What Is Mania? In 2019 and 2020, Sasha taught acting and filmmaking classes to children at a summer camp in Zakarpattia, in western Ukraine. She also shot videos for poet and musician friends and recorded lectures held at Eve’s Ribs, a feminist organization in St. Petersburg. 

But she’s a musician first and foremost. Over the last few years, she’s been organizing jam sessions for professional and amateur musicians, where people can show up and improvise together.

Where did she go to school? She has two degrees, the first of which is from an acting academy. She was studying art direction but left in her final year to get a second degree for free. She enrolled at St. Petersburg State University and, in 2017, earned a degree in Social Anthropology with honors. 

Do you remember where you were when the war started on February 24? Sasha was at work, and I had the day off. I watched Maxim Katz’s video, where he talks about the start of the war and its consequences for Russia, and I had this horrible feeling of derealization: I just couldn’t believe it was actually happening. Sasha was also horrified. She was afraid for her friends in Kyiv and for the kids she’d been teaching at camp. Those kids had been so kind to her, and she couldn’t bear the thought that bombs were falling on them now. We realized that life was going to change forever.

Sofya Subbotina and Sasha Skochilenko

Sofya Subbotina’s personal archive

When the war started, we both went to the city center to the protest at Gostiny Dvor — that was a joint decision. About a week and a half later, Sasha went to another protest, alone this time. She was arrested, held overnight at the station, and fined. Sasha also held a couple of jam sessions to collect donations for Apologia of Protest [a human rights organization that provides legal aid to activists detained at protests], plus she wrote openly about the war on Vkontakte. 

Did it occur to you to leave Russia after the war began?

I had thoughts to that effect, which I shared with Sasha, but she’d always loved Russia and thought she could be useful here. She didn’t want to leave. And so we decided to stay.

Did you know that Sasha was planning a demonstration involving price tags? She actually didn’t discuss that particular action with me. I saw the idea for it online; it came from the Feminist Anti-War Resistance. Those altered price tags were all over the Internet, and lots of people were placing them in their local stores, but Sasha and I didn’t talk about it at all. Above all, it was a performance piece. Sasha always expressed her feelings through art, no matter what form it took.

Could you have predicted that this action would end in criminal prosecution?

Before that action, our house had never been searched. I often worried for Sasha because of her anti-war Vkontakte posts. The day she was arrested was very odd: a friend of hers called her to say his house had been raided. And she told him she’d start looking for lawyers and human rights defenders on his behalf, but 10 minutes later he called back and said that the cops had the wrong address and were already gone, that everything was all right. And then he asked Sasha to come over for emotional support. When she left to go there, I was worried. It turned out that there was an ambush waiting at his house, and he’d lured her into a trap.

How did this happen?

This was an old friend of Sasha’s, they’d known each other since their school days and were close. As far as I can make out, the police went to his house because they’d identified Sasha using CCTV. She was on her way to his house with her guitar to play music and stopped by the store for some chocolate to have with their tea. That was when she placed the anti-war price tags. 

My friend who’s helping me lead the media campaign to free Sasha told me not to talk to this person, since he’s obviously cooperating with the prosecution. He told them everything about Sasha, gave them our address, and later Sasha said he testified against her. Maybe they threatened him somehow, but I can’t say for sure. That’s just a guess.

How did you learn that Sasha had been arrested?

A mutual friend of ours called me, a couple of hours later, to say that the police had taken her away and were on their way to search our place. He’d gotten that information from the person who had helped the cops lure Sasha to his apartment and given them our address. Apparently, he felt ashamed and called our friend to warn him.

The biggest shock for me was that they opened a criminal case against her instead of just a misdemeanor charge. When I heard that prison time was on the table, I was utterly horrified.

Do you know anything about the arrest itself?

They were rough with her. They put her in handcuffs. When we saw her at her first hearing, she had bruises on her wrists, and later she told us that the detectives humiliated and insulted her, that they threatened her with different forms of violence. When they were searching her apartment, they told her they’d destroy everything if she didn’t give them her computer password. 

Sasha Skochilenko at her arraignment hearing on April 13, 2022

Marina Mamontova

How was the trial? When Sasha spoke, what did she say?

There were two trials, actually. Lots of people came to the first one to support Sasha, and everyone was clapping for her. The trial itself was closed, so we were all sent to wait in the hallway. We sat there for three or so hours, and then they let us back into the courtroom to hear the ruling. 

We had some strong arguments for why Sasha shouldn’t be placed in pre-trial detention. First of all, there were lots of people vouching for her, for instance the municipal representative Boris Vishnevsky. Also, Sasha has two serious illnesses: celiac disease, which requires her to observe a strict gluten-free diet, and bipolar disorder.

But the court said that her crime was a serious one, that she could destabilize society and so she must stay in pre-trial detention. They said it wasn’t possible just to place her under house arrest. In court, she thanked everyone who had come out. She said she loved me very much and kept blowing air kisses. 

The second trial took place on May 17, for our appeal against Sasha’s pre-trial detention. More than 100 people came to support Sasha, but they didn’t even bring her to this hearing. It took place via video conference, despite objections from Sasha and her lawyer. We were only allowed into the courtroom when the ruling was being announced. It was technically possible to move the camera so Sasha could see us, but the bailiffs just refused to do it. The next hearing is going to be on May 30 in the city court for Vasileostrovsky District. [Update: the court extended Skochilenko’s pretrial detention until at least July 1.]

It's been two months since Sasha’s arrest. Have you tried to get a visit with her?

I would very much like to see Sasha, and her lawyer has made two requests to the detective in charge of the case, but we were refused both times. The lawyer told me to write a petition, which I then brought to the detective, but he said he’d reject it before he’d even read it. They made me a witness and called me in for questioning. I only answered questions concerning my biography and specific moments in my life with Sasha, but otherwise I refused to answer, pleading Article 51 [against self-incrimination]. At first, I thought we couldn’t see each other because of my status as a witness, but, as I later learned, I’m only a character witness. Character witnesses are often the defendants’ parents or spouses, which doesn’t at all preclude visits.

Are they accepting packages for Sasha?

The time Sasha spent in the temporary holding facility was a nightmare. We brought her a little package on the first morning after her arrest, but in court she said she hadn’t received it. They starved her for two days — they didn’t feed her once or give her practically any water. She spent around 12 days there, but they kept returning the food we brought on the pretext that Sasha was about to be transferred.

On the first day, it so happened that her friends brought her food, which the prison authorities accepted but didn’t give to Sasha. A few hours later, I arrived during visiting hours. They refused to take my package of warm clothes, even though Sasha didn’t have underwear, slippers, or anything warm to wear in there. We went back that night, this time with the human rights activist Dinar Idrisov. Only after he made the request did they accept our package.

You mentioned that Sasha has celiac disease. Were you able to get the jail administration to serve her special food?

Already at the first hearing, we presented documentation on Sasha’s celiac disease and informed the court that she requires a gluten-free diet. But the jail administration severely restricted the number of packages we could send, saying that gluten-free food was not allowed. We started filing letters of complaint with various offices: we wrote to Svetlana Agapitova, the human rights commissioner for St. Petersburg, and to Tatyana Moskal’kova, the commissioner for the entire Russian Federation. It took about a month of publicizing Sasha’s situation, and also the case of another woman with the same diagnosis, before they agreed to feed her a special diet. Before that, people told me that celiac sufferers would have to spend a long time washing off the food they were given — for instance, fried fish — to remove the wheat-based batter and get a little something to eat.

But, despite all the public attention we’ve brought to the issue, I recently learned that they’ve only been giving Sasha her gluten-free food every other meal, and sometimes even less often. So, usually, there’s no gluten-free food for her to eat. Sasha has been complaining, through her lawyer, that she feels nauseous after eating. She gets stomachaches and feels extremely weak over the course of the day. She also has pains in her heart.

Drawings by Sasha Skochilenko while in pretrial detention

The “Free Sasha Skochilenko!” Telegram Channel

Has she received medical attention?

It’s very hard to see a doctor in pre-trial detention. While she was still in the temporary facility, she started having severe pain in her lower abdomen, which continues to this day. They took her to the gynecologist, who did an ultrasound and found that she has a cyst on her right ovary. But they didn’t tell Sasha about it for several days, even though she was still in pain. Recently, they took her to the gynecologist again, who found that the cyst has gotten larger. He prescribed hormonal medication, which we brought to pre-trial detention. But they gave her the pills without any instructions, so for an entire week she didn’t know how to take them.

Her wisdom tooth has also been hurting her for a long time. She was supposed to get it removed this spring but couldn’t do it because of her arrest. They ripped that tooth out right in pre-trial detention but said they couldn’t sew up her gum because they lacked “sewing materials,” so the wound remained open. It immediately got infected, and half her face was swollen. She was in horrible pain and had to take antibiotics for two weeks.

Finally, Sasha has had a lot of trouble sleeping throughout the entire month and a half [she’s been in detention]. She has a psychiatric diagnosis, and her symptoms are likely to get worse under these conditions. We’ve now found a psychiatrist who has agreed to see her, but we haven’t been able to get them to allow a visit.

What about letters from Sasha, are you able to receive those? What are her thoughts on this whole situation? What does she say about her physical condition?

We’ve only been able to pass each other short messages through her lawyer. Sasha tells me about her life in pre-trial detention — mostly very sad things. She’s talked a lot about being abused by her cellmates, problems with food, and her health issues. She’s written several open letters, which we’ve published on a dedicated Telegram channel called Free Sasha Skochilenko. The letters are Sasha’s appeals to a wider public, but what she tells me is that she’s doing very badly and doesn’t know what will be left of her if she spends 10 years in such a place. She’s afraid she’ll simply forget who she is and what she did before. 

What does her lawyer say about her case? Can he make any predictions?

He can’t comment on anything yet because Sasha’s case is Russia’s first-ever criminal case under the new laws. It’s impossible to predict anything in advance. But on the very first day, when Sasha was arrested, the lawyer said it was all very serious because the case was being “directed from Moscow.” That’s what the detective told him.

What’s the best way to help Sasha right now?

Sign up for our Telegram channel, make donations to the organizations listed there, post information about her case on social media. We’ve just launched a series of videos where scientists and cultural figures speak out in Sasha’s support. People really are supporting her. The artist Ksenia Sorokina gave Sasha her Golden Mask, the most prestigious theater award out there. She’d received it for [best costume design] on the play “Finist the Brave Falcon,” but almost immediately decided to donate it to Sasha. As she put it, it’s not the time to celebrate when artists are in jail.

Sasha’s friends and I were invited to one of the play’s performances, where the director, Zhenya Berkovich, said something really touching about Sasha. She said that, at this moment, the artist Aleksandra Skochilenko is in jail, and that they want to sentence her to an unjustifiably long time in prison for a couple of anti-war price tags. “Our theater would like to give her our Golden Mask award in solidarity,” Berkovich said. And then Ksyusha [Ksenia] Sorokina handed me the award to give to Sasha when she’s released.

I miss Sasha very much and worry about her physical and mental health. Sasha wrote that she’ll come back to me a totally different person. That’s so painful to hear. She was always such a bright and joyful girl. I can’t imagine what this time in prison will do to her.

Interview by Alexey Slavin

Translation by Maya Vinokour