RIGA, Latvia — Five weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, a whip-thin 31-year-old musician walked into a supermarket on Maly Street in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, carrying her guitar and tiny stickers about the war. In a small protest action, she stuck them on top of price tags.
But a shopper snitched to police, and the musician, Alexandra Skochilenko, now jailed pending trial, confronts a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and, she says, harrowing abuse.
Russians routinely face fines, jail and stigma for protesting the war. But some small-time activists are getting singled out for worse — prosecution on charges of terrorism or hate crimes that carry prison sentences of a decade or more — to deter others from engaging in even the mildest dissent.
Skochilenko’s price-tag caper drew the aggravated charge of spreading disinformation about the military “motivated by hate.” Another woman, an art teacher from the north of the country, is facing terrorism charges for posting a picture on social media of President Vladimir Putin in flames with the caption “burn in hell.” A Russian Orthodox priest was arrested in St. Petersburg for stating on video that Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine would go to hell. And a Moscow municipal deputy, jailed pending trial, was charged for opposing the war during a council meeting. All face sentences of up to 10 years.
Russia’s antiwar movement has proved persistent, despite violent crackdowns on street demonstrations and a government campaign encouraging ordinary Russians to turn in dissenters. But the severity of punishments, which vary widely, is sowing confusion and fear. No one is sure why one person gets a small fine, another gets a large one and someone else can get a decade in jail. The cruel unpredictability acts as a chilling deterrent, as it did under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
While in jail awaiting trial, Skochilenko was bullied and faced sexual aggression, according to her lawyer. At first, she was packed into a freezing cell with 17 other people. The toilet did not work, and the roof leaked. She was later moved to a cell for six inmates, where the self-appointed “boss” and other prisoners tormented her. Russia’s Federal Penitentiary System did not respond to a request for comment.
For weeks, she was denied the gluten-free diet she needs because she has celiac disease. She developed abdominal pains and lost weight.
But Skochilenko said that her abusive treatment has only magnified her protest. “My detention and the cruelty to me has made my act public and given it such magnitude,” she said in comments to The Washington Post, conveyed by her lawyer.
Always kind of different
Before Skochilenko’s arrest, she loved organizing free jam sessions, making video clips, drawing sweet cartoons with deep messages and playing electroacoustical instruments at back-to-nature hippie festivals. Even when she was a schoolgirl, when she lived in one room of a crowded communal apartment with her artistic mother, she was a charismatic child who did the unexpected, according to her friend Alex Belozyorov.
“She stood out from the crowd. She was kind of different and always attracted people’s attention. She wasn’t interested in the things ordinary schoolgirls of her age were interested in. She was creative and artistic,” Belozyorov recalled.
Several years ago, she taught drama and film studies to Ukrainian children at a summer camp in the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine. When Russia attacked Ukraine this winter, she imagined bombs raining on those children, according to her partner, Sonya Subbotina, 29. Friends in Ukraine called Skochilenko from bomb shelters, crying.
“Before the war — before she got news from her friends in Ukraine — I wouldn’t call her an activist,” said Subbotina, a pharmacist. “It was not hatred that was her motive but her humanity and the fact that she really cares about people in Ukraine. She wanted the people who think Ukrainians should be killed to realize they are being lied to.”
After Skochilenko was reported to police for replacing the supermarket price tags, they used CCTV to track her to a friend’s apartment. When the police showed up at his door days later, he called her in a panic. She rushed to his aid, unaware police were setting a trap. Five police officers were waiting to arrest her.
During an interrogation that lasted until 3 a.m., investigators attacked her sexual orientation, according to Skochilenko’s lawyer and friends. Police told her to “find a normal man and have babies.” Later, during a search, a prison guard put her hands in Skochilenko’s underpants and touched her indecently, Subbotina said.
In court, Skochilenko smiled and made a heart sign with her hands. But prison was destroying her, said friends and her lawyer. She lost nine pounds in a few weeks.
The cell “boss” and other inmates forced her to stand all day. The “boss” denied her access to the toilet for hours on end and made sure she missed meals. She ordered Skochilenko to sweep the cell, then said it was not done right and made her do it again.
“Then the other inmates joined in this bullying, saying that Sasha [Skochilenko] stank. They forced her to wash her clothes from early in the morning. That’s all she was doing, just washing her clothes from morning till night,” Subbotina recounted.
The cell “boss” cranked up the volume on the pro-war propaganda being broadcast on the prison television, playing it all day from early morning. “They turned on the state television news and then they all just stared at her, because according to the charges, Sasha is not a patriot and is almost a traitor to the country,” said her lawyer Yana Nepovinnova.
The lawyer said Skochilenko has been plagued by poor health. After a public outcry, she was eventually moved away from the bullies, and prison authorities finally made sure gluten-free food parcels were delivered to her.
But other health problems have mounted. Last month, a prison dentist removed her wisdom teeth but did not suture the wounds. Doctors also diagnosed an ovarian cyst, and last week she was moved temporarily to a psychiatric ward because she is bipolar.
“It is extremely hard for her. She’s a young, smart, educated woman. And because of the jail conditions, her health is deteriorating,” Nepovinnova said.
Reminiscent of totalitarianism
A local antiwar activist, Dmitry Skurikhin, 47, said that singling out people, seemingly at random, for harsh punishment was “a classic method” used by Putin’s regime to quash dissent. “You terrify a few people, and everyone else will be frightened,” he said.
Andrei Kolesnikov, analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the severe penalties are part of a broader effort by Putin’s regime to suppress civil activity and, in part, reflects the influence of the hard-line security chiefs who surround the president.
The authorities’ efforts to turn the public against dissenters and encourage people to snitch on neighbors and colleagues, he said, are “more reminiscent of elements of a totalitarian regime. This harshness of responses to any and all legal individual protest activity does not stem from the fact that Putin wanted it. It is an initiative of the state authorities, the security forces: a demonstration of their power and of who is the boss in the country.”
In her early weeks in prison, Skochilenko had been childlike and fragile, constantly crying, according to Nepovinnova. “She is very strong now and brave, and she wants to fight the charges. She thinks about the strategy of her defense, and she wants to help other inmates.”
Skochilenko told The Post, “I’m not an activist. I am an artist, a performer.” She considers her time in jail as an antiwar protest, calling it her “largest work.”
“It not only cannot be stopped by our authorities,” she said, “but it comes with their full support and funding.”
Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.