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‘She won’t survive in prison’ A firsthand account of the conviction of Russian anti-war protester Sasha Skochilenko
On November 16, St. Petersburg’s Vasileostrovsky district court sentenced local artist Sasha Skochilenko to seven years in prison for spreading “disinformation” about the Russian army. Police opened the case against Skochilenko in April 2023 after she replaced price tags in a supermarket with anti-war messages. The 33-year-old, who has multiple chronic health conditions, has spent the last year and a half in pre-trial detention, where she’s been forced to go without proper medical care. A correspondent from the independent journalists’ collective Bereg attended the final hearing in Skochilenko’s case. In English, Meduza is sharing their account.
Alexey Belozerov, another activist from St. Petersburg, is Sasha Skochilenko’s best friend. It’s November 16, and he’s standing in the courtroom of the city’s Vasileostrovsky district court, drafting the message he’ll send to the Telegram group he runs for Skochilenko’s supporters as soon as her sentence is announced. The screen reads, “Years in a general regime prison colony.” All of Skochilenko’s loved ones know a guilty verdict is inevitable.
* * *
“They think that [Putin’s rule] is never going to end,” Skochilenko’s supporters whisper to one another. Outside the courtroom, bailiffs push back the crowd that’s formed so that Judge Oksana Demyasheva can enter.
Oral arguments in Skochilenko’s case begin on November 8 with a dry speech from prosecutor Alexander Gladyshev, who demands an eight-year prison sentence for the activist. In response, one of her lawyers, Yury Novolodsky, says that the “rickety stool of accusation, which once stood on four legs, has completely collapsed by the time of this trial, leaving nothing to support [the prosecutor's claims].” Hearing the word “rickety,” Skochilenko starts to smile.
The first faulty leg of the “stool of accusation,” according to Skochilenko’s attorney, is Skochilenko’s own testimony. While she denied having spread “disinformation under the guise of credible statements,” she did acknowledge that she replaced price tags in a supermarket with anti-war messages, and Prosecutor Gladyshev considered this to be enough.
The second defective “leg,” Novolodsky says, is the testimonies of Russian soldiers who have fought in Ukraine. Investigators obtained statements from them saying that Skochilenko’s “anti-war price tags” containing information about the shelling of Ukrainian cities by Russian forces were “insulting to the Russian army.” However, the soldiers never saw the price tags in question.
The third “leg” the prosecution tried to stand on was testimony from Skochilenko’s childhood friend Alexey Nikolaev, at whose house Skochilenko was arrested. He said in court that he didn’t know about Skochilenko’s plans to conduct an anti-war protest, but he allegedly told investigators during an interrogation that he knew everything. Later, however, Nikolaev explained that an investigator had simply edited his statement to align with the prosecution’s story.
And the fourth and final broken “leg” on which Gladyshev tried to build a case, according to Novolodsky, was his “linguistic analysis” of Skochilenko’s “price tags.” According to the defense (and multiple independent experts), the analysis was definitively “unscientific.”
While her lawyer lays out the problems with the prosecution’s case, Skochilenko blows kisses and winks at her supporters. She then starts swaying from side to side, trying to suppress a coughing fit. (According to her girlfriend, Sofya Subbotina, one of the medications she takes has the side effect of drying out her mouth and throat, but the court rejected her request to bring a bottle of water to the defendant’s bench.)
Novolodsky turns his attention to two specific “price tags” from Skochilenko’s protest: One contains information about the Russian army’s attack on an art school in Mariupol. It’s this flyer that angered the 76-year-old St. Petersburg resident who reported Skochilenko to the police. The lawyer points out, however, that throughout the entire trial, the prosecution has been unable to disprove the information about the attack.
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The second “price tag” the lawyer highlights is one that says Vladimir Putin “has been lying to us from the TV screen for 20 years.” Novolodsky lists multiple occasions when the Russian president’s words have been at odds with his actions, such as when he vowed not to amend the Constitution or to raise the national pension age.
He concludes his speech by saying he believes in the justice system and wishes the judge the best, and then he quotes a passage from Skochilenko’s diary:
And I’ll continue to do everything I can! To speak out in public spaces, with drawings, with performances, at rallies, in creative projects, or with the help of print media, all for the purpose of bringing an end to the fighting as soon as possible. And I call on everyone to do the same. This is a test of your humanity. You’ve been given a chance to pass it.
* * *
Next up is Yana Nepovinnova, another of Skochilenko’s lawyers, who begins her own speech: “We’ve come to the end of the investigation in a criminal case that simply shouldn’t exist. A few years ago, this story would have seemed absurd. For many, it seems that way now.”
Nepovinnova goes on to list the numerous procedural violations made by the prosecutor in his indictment. She then reads aloud a written conversation between Skochilenko and some of her Ukrainian friends from February 2022. “Last night, we rushed to evacuate,” a friend from Kyiv wrote to Sasha. At the judge’s request, she substitutes the phrase “bad word” for profanities, continuing: “These — bad word — started walking through the center of Kyiv. They smashed four central buildings to pieces. There were people inside.”
Then, like Novolodsky, Nepovinnova quotes from Skochilenko’s diary to show the thought process behind the activist’s “price tags”: “The entire protest campaign [must be] completely peaceful and supportive.” Nepovinnova stops to emphasize: “Sasha believed the messages she wrote on the price tags.”
“Sasha won’t survive in prison,” she says. Skochilenko has been diagnosed with celiac disease, a heart defect, and cyclothymic disorder. To prevent her health from deteriorating, she needs to receive gluten-free food and medication and consult regularly with a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, and a psychologist. If she doesn’t have access to medical professionals and the treatment she needs, she could face serious complications.
Nepovinnova asks the judge to dismiss the case against Skochilenko due to a lack of corpus delicti, and the audience applauds. Skochilenko makes a “shush” motion, raising a finger to her lips, but the applause only grows louder. This infuriates the judge. “This is not a circus,” she says, scolding the attendees. “If you applauded, leave the courtroom — otherwise, we will not continue.”
After an altercation with the bailiffs, several people leave the courtroom, but this doesn’t satisfy Demyasheva, who postpones the trial until the following day. This is bad news for Skochilenko, her friends tell Bereg: another day spent in court means another day of the artist eating almost nothing, because she’s taken to court before breakfast and brought back after dinner. She’ll also be forced to go without her medication.
* * *
“Hello, Carbonari!” says Yury Novolodsky, greeting Sasha’s supporters the next day.
“Let me get a shot for posterity!” says Skochilenko’s friend, Alexey Belozerov, as he runs up to the prosecutor. Gladyshev poses calmly for the photo.
When the session begins, the arguments continue with a speech from public defender Margarita Kislyakova. She reads out character references provided by Skochilenko’s colleagues and acquaintances: “Friendly,” “caring,” “compassionate,” “non-confrontational.”
Next up is lawyer Dmitry Gerasimov. “In my 17 years working as a lawyer, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen such an easy case for the defense, from a legal perspective, in which the prosecution itself has provided a mountain of evidence of the defendant’s innocence.” At the same time, he adds, he’s never encountered a case so difficult “from an emotional and psychological perspective.”
“It’s very painful to see a young, smart, educated woman with a number of chronic illnesses behind bars for so long on charges of a nonviolent crime,” he concludes.
The last person to take the stand is Sasha Skochilenko herself. She reads her speech from a piece of paper. She maintains her innocence and tells the audience that she “acted in the interest of the Russian Federation and its citizens.” She adds that she sympathizes with everyone who has died and suffered in the war, including Russian soldiers. “In my view, the most honest — but also the most difficult — decision would be an acquittal,” she says.
At one point in her statement, Skochilenko suggests that Gladyshev is prejudiced against her because she’s in a relationship with a woman. “It’s true that during the trial, Skochilenko said the phrase ‘My girlfriend,’ and I thought she was saying ‘My grandpa.’ But that’s her choice — we don’t prosecute people for that,” the prosecutor responds. He then adds that he sees her anti-war protest as “fearmongering,” which he says is “unacceptable.”
* * *
By midday on November 16, more than 100 people gather outside the courtroom to hear Skochilenko’s final statement. Among them is film director Alexander Sokurov, former Gogol Center director Alexey Malobrodsky, Yabloko chairman Nikolai Rybakov, and St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly deputy Boris Vishnevsky.
This time, Sochilenko delivers her speech without any notes:
My case is so strange and ridiculous that it’s fitting that it was launched exactly on April 1. My case is so strange and ridiculous that sometimes I think that when I enter the courtroom for the next hearing, confetti will suddenly start falling from the ceiling, and everyone will get up and shout, “Fooled you!”
My case is so strange and ridiculous that employees at SIZO-5 [the prison where I’ve been awaiting trial] get wide-eyed and exclaim, “Are they really jailing people for that now?”
My case is so outlandish that I’ve even met supporters of the “special military operation” [the legal term in Russia for the invasion of Ukraine] who don’t believe I deserve a prison sentence for what I did.
“Everyone can see, everyone knows, that you’re not prosecuting a terrorist,” she continues. “Nor are you prosecuting an extremist. You’re not even prosecuting a political activist. You’re prosecuting a pacifist. [...] What are you going to do if the pendulum swings in the other direction?”
Just hours after Skochilenko’s speech, Judge Oksana Demyasheva read out the sentence: seven years in prison. Spectators begin chanting, “Shame!” and asking the judge how she’ll sleep at night after delivering such a verdict. The judge leaves the courtroom without saying another word.
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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