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‘I’m behind bars, but I’m more free than you’ Chronicling antiwar activist Sasha Skochilenko’s 19-month trial, from her arrest to her seven-year prison sentence, in photos
Sasha Skochilenko, an artist from St. Petersburg, was sentenced to seven years in prison for spreading supposed “disinformation” about the Russian army. In the spring of 2022, Skochilenko was arrested for replacing price tags in a supermarket with antiwar stickers. The resulting trial lasted 19 months. The St. Petersburg news outlet Bumaga and photographer Andrey Bok followed her case closely, attending hearings, chronicling Sasha Skochilenko’s story, and speaking to the people around her. With permission, Meduza is translating and republishing this photo report in full.
“They’re taking Sasha”
Russia’s security officials tracked Sasha Skochilenko for 10 days. They searched for a girl who replaced price tags with antiwar trivia at a Perekrestok supermarket, according to a police report filed by an elderly woman. Skochilenko had left the store to go to her friend’s place, where she would soon be ambushed.
On the morning of April 11, 2022, Sasha was woken up by a phone call from her friend: the police had arrived to search his place, “looking for a body.” By 11:00 a.m., Sasha was already at his door. In two minutes, her friend Lesha would receive a message that would change their lives in the months ahead.
Two days later, Sasha was brought in handcuffs to St. Petersburg’s Vasileostrovsky district courthouse, where prosecutors charged her with “spreading knowingly false information about the Russian army motivated by political hatred.” In court, Sasha’s close friends and her girlfriend, Sonya, hoped that Judge Elena Leonova would take into account Sasha’s serious health conditions: a heart defect, cyclothymia, requiring hourly medication, and celiac disease, which necessitates a special diet.
After five hours of waiting, the judge decided to arrest the 31-year-old woman.
“Even one of the guards said it was quite brutal”
Sasha doesn’t deny that she replaced those price tags, but she insists that there’s nothing “knowingly false” written there. In one of her final hearings, Skochilenko explained her actions:
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.
Like hundreds of other shocked people in St. Petersburg, Sasha participated in antiwar protests after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. She developed PTSD from a night spent in police custody. In the spring, Skochilenko held antiwar jam sessions with fellow musicians. Her correspondence with an acquaintance in Kyiv, included in the case, demonstrates that Sasha took the news of civilians in Mariupol being shelled to heart.
In the first year after February 2022, Russian police made more than 20,000 politically motivated arrests, opening felony cases against 370 individuals for various antiwar statements and speeches — many of them based on denunciations filed by bystanders and offended fellow citizens who support the war. This is how Sasha Skochilenko’s case began.
During her first hearing, Sasha said from her courtroom cell: “Everyone here makes you feel like you’re doing something shameful and bad if you speak out for peace.”
Sasha’s contact with the outside world has been limited: When seeking release on bail, her presence in the courtroom was limited to a video link, making it impossible to see the visitors who came to support her in person. Sonya and Lesha weren’t allowed to see Sasha for months: “Even one of the guards said this was quite brutal,” complained Sasha’s lawyer, Yana Nepovinnova.
When Skochilenko was ushered through the courthouse, bailiffs would force everyone to vacate her path. At one hearing earlier this year, they used tear gas to clear the hallway.
“I have enormous support from people around the world”
After antiwar protests were stamped out, activists who oppose the war and fight political repression shifted their work to Russia’s courts.
Dozens in St. Petersburg started attending Sasha’s hearings: “It was to show that people care,” explained one programmer who isn’t personally acquainted with Sasha.
A community of hundreds of people formed around Skochilenko’s case, and support has spread to other political prisoners in St. Petersburg, as well. Sasha’s trial dragged on for months, and the hostile Vasileostrovsky courthouse became an unexpected rallying point.
“My accusers have power and money, but I have immeasurably more: kindness, empathy, real love, and enormous support from people around the world,” Sasha wrote in a letter from her pretrial detention center.
Sasha’s mother, Nadezhda, supported her from France. Representatives from European consulates and prominent community members attended the hearings.
“When you’re not alone in a courtroom, it’s a bit easier — that’s why I came,” explained performance artist Anush Panina, who herself served 25 days in jail for speaking out against mobilization. “Besides, those supporting Sasha get to see each other,” Anush added.
Sasha, a musician and author of two books, became known worldwide. The BBC included Skochilenko in its 2022 list of the 100 most influential women in the world. Artist Ksenia Sorokina gave Sasha the Golden Mask award she received for her play Finist the Bright Falcon (police would later arrest the play’s creators, Zhenya Berkovich and Svetlana Petriychuk, for supposedly “justifying terrorism”). Protests in support of Skochilenko took place in cities across Europe, and 169,000 people signed a petition demanding her release.
A year after Sasha’s arrest, her girlfriend Sonya was finally able to see her. It was their first opportunity in ages to speak privately. Throughout the trial, they were permitted another dozen or so private meetings. Outside of court, Sonya was undergoing treatment for cancer.
“We’re turning the trials into a real show”
At the end of the year, Yuri Novolodsky (the lawyer who mentored Sasha’s defense attorney, Yana Nepovinnova) became involved in Skochilenko’s case. Novolodsky has been well-known in St. Petersburg since the 1990s when he worked in Anatoly Sobchak’s mayoral cabinet (together with Vladimir Putin). Novolodsky also famously acted as a defense attorney for billionaire Mikhael Mirilashvili and criminal Vladimir Kulibaba.
This disrupted the course of the trial; Novolodsky eloquently argued with the prosecutor, Alexander Gladyshev, and demanded that Judge Oksana Demyasheva be withdrawn from the case.
Novolodsky relied on independent experts, and the defense achieved an unexpected success: the court summoned Anastasia Grishanina and Olga Safonova, who wrote the prosecution’s expert analysis. They were questioned by an independent linguist, Svetlana Drugoveyko-Dolzhanskaya, along with their lawyers.
Olga Safonova admitted that her conclusions about “false information” on the price tags were due to her misunderstanding her role as an expert witness. She even admitted in court that the information itself cannot be considered “knowingly false” for Skochilenko.
“Of course, I’m a bit scared of the verdict. But I’m waiting for the trials. We’re making them into a real show and an incredible experience of dismantling the prosecution’s power,” Sasha wrote to the media outlet Bumaga.
Meanwhile, other courts handed down their first sentences for military “fakes.” Moscow municipal deputy Alexey Gorinov was sentenced to seven years in a penal colony. Politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced to eight and a half years. A judge sent amateur archaeologist Oleg Belousov to prison for five and a half years.
The prosecutor, Gladyshev, requested an eight-year prison sentence for Sasha Skochilenko.
“I’m once again going through torture”
The fall of 2023 turned into torture. Judge Demyasheva held almost daily hearings. Sasha was taken to the court at seven in the morning and spent the whole day behind the bars of the defendant’s cell. The judge didn’t allow breaks and even barred Skochilenko from drinking water and taking her pills.
“And I’m once again going through the torture of hunger, just like when I was first imprisoned. It’s very difficult to go to court. After every one of those days, you just want to lie down all day,” wrote Sasha from isolation.
Skochilenko was brought to court with a heart monitor at one of the hearings. When the device issued a low-power alert, the judge decided that replacing the batteries didn’t warrant postponing the hearing.
The trial’s pace also affected the health of 72-year-old Novolodsky, who ended up hospitalized. At one of the hearings, he asked to speak while seated — but Judge Demyasheva refused.
“You’re judging a pacifist”
Sasha was sentenced on November 16, 2023 — 19 months after she was first arrested.
“How weak is the prosecution’s faith in our state and society if it thinks five small slips of paper could make our statehood and public security collapse?” said Sasha in her final court statement.
In the investigators’ jargon, putting someone in pre-trial detention is called “taking them captive.” And you know what? I didn’t surrender or bend under the conditions of captivity, under the threat of harassment, illness, and hunger.”
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