RIGA, Latvia — A Russian court on Tuesday ordered a two-year jail sentence for the single father of a 13-year-old girl who drew an antiwar picture in art class at school, in a case that led to the daughter being seized by authorities and placed in an orphanage.
Moskalyov was sentenced under Russia’s draconian laws against “discrediting the military,” which were adopted after President Vladimir Putin ordered his brutal invasion of Ukraine last year. The laws ban any form of antiwar dissent and are part of a wave of political repressions that have only worsened as Russia’s war effort floundered.
Moskalyov, of Yefremov, a town near Tula, about 150 miles south of Moscow, was charged in December over antiwar posts on social media. But he and his daughter, Maria, were targeted by the authorities beginning last April, when she was denounced by her teacher after drawing a picture in her elementary school art class that said “No to war” and “Glory to Ukraine.”
In the picture, Maria, then 12, drew a woman standing in front of the Ukrainian flag sheltering a child from missiles. Her sixth-grade class had been assigned to draw a patriotic picture of Russian soldiers. The principal reported Maria to Russian authorities. The teacher reported Maria to the school principal, who called in law enforcement.
Earlier this month, Moskalyov was placed under house arrest and his daughter was taken by the authorities to an orphanage with no access to family, friends or supporters. They have tried to reach her on her cellphone, but it has never been answered.
A court hearing on restricting Moskalyov’s parental rights was scheduled next month, but the guilty verdict and jail term meant he would not see her until after his release from a prison colony.
Moskalyov joins a growing number of political defendants who have fled house arrest, facing tough sentences over their antiwar opinions or criticism of Putin’s government.
The verdict in Moskalyov’s case was delivered just over a week after Putin ordered an even tougher crackdown on antiwar activism and dissent, claiming that “enemies” were trying to destroy Russia from within.
Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court this month issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest, accusing him of war crimes related to forced transfers of Ukrainian children to Russia.
Since ordering the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has presided over the harshest repressions since Soviet times, as he builds an intolerant, militarized society where schools disseminate government war propaganda and children and teachers who express antiwar views are punished or harassed.
“The message is simple: We are going back to the times of the Soviet Union where people said one thing in their kitchen and another thing in public and from a very young age children will have to be taught what to say in public,” said Andrei Morev, a Moscow lawmaker from the opposition party Yabloko, who has taken close interest in the Moskalyov case.
Morev said family lawyers believed the state was holding Maria illegally against her will and the wishes of her father. He said the director of the orphanage had claimed, without evidence, that the child was not being detained against her will. Morev himself was arrested last summer and fined about $650 for discrediting the military.
As human rights observers report a growing number of arrests and harsher jail sentences for Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine, fear and anxiety are rising in society with classmates and neighbors informing on each other in a bid to quash the few voices speaking out for peace.
After multiple military setbacks and rising casualties, and with Western sanctions beginning to bite Russia’s budget, Putin is preparing for a long war, banking on an eventual collapse in Western unity in support for Ukraine.
After Maria’s antiwar drawing was reported to authorities, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, Russia’s main successor to the KGB, questioned the girl, interrogated her father and told him that he was raising her “incorrectly.”
He was initially charged over antiwar posts on social media and fined $425. But in December, additional charges were brought accusing him of discrediting the military. State prosecutor Oleg Timakov on Monday called for a two-year jail term and a ban on using the internet for three years after his release.
The family’s lawyer, Vladimir Bilienko, was finally admitted to the orphanage on Tuesday, a month after Maria was taken into custody there, but he was denied access to her and told that she was “away at a cooking competition.”
He was given a letter from Maria to her father and pictures she had drawn of rabbits and a butterfly, and another of a dog. Her letter ended with a picture of a heart and the words, “Dad, you’re my hero,” Bilienko said on the Telegram channel of the legal rights group OVD-Info.
An independent local lawmaker, Olga Podolskaya, a family supporter who has been attempting for weeks to see Maria, was barred from the orphanage on Tuesday.
Bilienko described the sentence as “absolutely unjust” and said he would appeal. He said he and others would push for Maria’s release from the orphanage into the care of relatives or family supporters. Activists were in touch with her relatives “trying to awaken their feelings of kinship," he said.
“If relatives apply, they will be given priority according to the law but if it is decided that there are no decent candidates for custody, she may be kept in an orphanage,” he said.
Bilienko said he had heard about his client’s escape from house arrest from the court’s press secretary on Tuesday after trying unsuccessfully to reach him in the morning.
Morev said that the case had gotten little coverage in Russian state media, so that few Russians were aware of it. In Yefremov, many of the family’s supporters filled the court during an earlier hearing. But he said supporters of the war had tried to whip up sentiment against Moskalyov in recent weeks.
“The pro-power public on social media are trying to create an atmosphere that everyone in the town is against Alexei, claiming that he’s a drug addict or an alcoholic or a terrible person,” he said.
Russian human rights group Memorial, which last year was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, said in a statement on Tuesday that Moskalyov had been prosecuted for his political views, and demanded that the criminal case be dropped and that he be reunited with his daughter. (Her mother has lived away from the family for a decade.)
“The criminal prosecution of Moskalyov is motivated by his political views and is aimed at the involuntary termination of civil activity of critics of the authorities and intimidation of the society as a whole,” Memorial said in a statement. “As a result, the right of his minor daughter Maria Moskalyova to live with her family has been violated.”
According to OVD-Info, at least seven children were charged over their antiwar positions last year. A sixth-grade boy, Kirill, in Moscow was interrogated by the authorities last March after asking a history teacher why Putin “started the war.” His teacher had told the class that Nazism was flourishing in Ukraine.
In October, a fifth-grade student, Varya Galkina, also in Moscow, was denounced by her school principal over a social media avatar and a poll posted on social media. She and her mother, Elena Zholiker, were detained by police. Zholiker was found guilty of failing to properly fulfill her parental duties and warned she could lose her parental rights.
More than 500 Russians have faced criminal charges for expressing opposition to the war, according to OVD-Info, and thousands have faced administrative penalties.
Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.