In Putin’s Russia, anti-war protesters face jail and abuse

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RIGA, Latvia — Five weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, a 31-year-old whip-thin musician walked into a supermarket on Maly Street in the Russian city of St Petersburg, carrying her guitar and tiny stickers about war. In a small protest, she stuck them on price tags.

“The Russian army shelled an art school in Mariupol where about 400 people were hiding from the shelling,” it read. And another: “Weekly inflation has reached a new high not seen since 1998 because of our military actions in Ukraine. Stop the war.”

But a client has reported the police and the musician, Alexandra Skochilenko, now jailed pending trial, faces up to 10 years in prison and, she says, terrible abuse.

Russians routinely face fines, jail and stigma for protesting the war. But some small-scale activists are singled out for the worst — terrorism or hate crime prosecutions carrying prison sentences of a decade or more — to deter others from engaging in any dissent.

Skochilenko’s hugs drew the aggravated charge of spreading misinformation 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 of President Vladimir Putin in flames on social media with the caption “burning in hell”. A Russian Orthodox priest has been arrested in St Petersburg for saying on video that Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine will go to hell. And a Moscow city deputy, imprisoned awaiting trial, was charged with opposing the war at a council meeting. All face sentences of up to 10 years.

Russia’s anti-war movement has proven persistent, despite a violent crackdown on street protests and a government campaign encouraging ordinary Russians to speak out against dissidents. But the severity of the sentences, which varies greatly, sows confusion and fear. Nobody knows exactly why one person gets a small fine, another a big one, and someone else can get up to ten years in prison. Cruel unpredictability acts as a deterrent, as it did under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

While in jail awaiting trial, Skochilenko was bullied and sexually assaulted, according to her attorney. At first, she was locked in a freezing cell with 17 other people. The toilet didn’t work and the roof was leaking. She was then transferred to a cell for six inmates, where the self-proclaimed “boss” and other prisoners tormented her. Russia’s federal prison system did not respond to a request for comment.

For weeks she has been denied the gluten-free diet she needs because she has celiac disease. She developed abdominal pain and lost weight.

But Skochilenko said his abusive treatment only amplified his protest. “My detention and the cruelty to me made my act public and gave it such magnitude,” she said in comments to The Washington Post, forwarded by her lawyer.

Before Skochilenko’s arrest, she enjoyed hosting free jam sessions, making music videos, drawing sweet cartoons with deep messages, and playing electro-acoustic instruments at back-to-nature hippie festivals. Even as a schoolgirl, living in a crowded communal apartment room with her artist mother, she was a charismatic child who did the unexpected, according to her friend Alex Belozyorov.

“She stood out from the crowd. She was a bit different and always grabbed people’s attention. She wasn’t interested in things that ordinary schoolgirls of her age were interested in. She was creative and artistic,” recalls Belozyorov.

Several years ago, she taught drama and cinema to Ukrainian children at a summer camp in the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine. When Russia attacked Ukraine this winter, she imagined bombs raining down on these children, according to her partner, Sonya Subbotina, 29. Friends in Ukraine called Skochilenko from bomb shelters, crying.

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“Before the war – before she heard from her friends in Ukraine – I wouldn’t call her an activist,” said Subbotina, a pharmacist. “It was not hate that was her motivation but her humanity and the fact that she really cares about people in Ukraine. She wanted people who think Ukrainians should be killed to realize that they are being lied to.

After Skochilenko was reported to police for replacing supermarket price tags, they used CCTV to follow her to a friend’s apartment. When the police showed up at his door a few days later, he called her in a panic. She rushed to his aid, unaware that the police were setting a trap. Five police officers were waiting to arrest him.

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During an interrogation that lasted until 3 a.m., investigators attacked his sexual orientation, according to Skochilenko’s lawyer and friends. The police told her to “find a normal man and have babies”. Later, during a search, a prison guard put his hands in Skochilenko’s briefs and touched her indecently, Subbotina said.

In court, Skochilenko smiled and made a heart sign with his hands. But prison was destroying her, said friends and her attorney. She lost nine pounds in a few weeks.

The cell “head” and other inmates forced her to stand all day. The “boss” denied her access to the bathroom for hours and made sure she missed meals. She ordered Skochilenko to sweep the cell, then said it had not been done properly and made her start over.

“Then the other inmates joined in this bullying, saying that Sasha [Skochilenko] stank. They forced her to wash her clothes early in the morning. That’s all she did, just wash her clothes from morning to night,” Subbotina said.

The cell “leader” turned up the volume of pro-war propaganda on the prison television, broadcasting it all day from early morning. “They turned on the news from state television and then they all stared at her, because according to the accusations, Sasha is not a patriot and is almost a traitor to the country,” her lawyer Yana Nepovinnova said.

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The lawyer said that Skochilenko suffered from poor health. After a public outcry, she was eventually taken away from the bullies and prison authorities eventually ensured that gluten-free food parcels were delivered to her.

But other health problems piled up. 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 temporarily transferred to a psychiatric ward because she is bipolar.

“It is extremely hard for her. She is an intelligent and educated young woman. And because of the conditions of detention, her health is deteriorating,” Nepovinnova said.

Recalling totalitarianism

Local anti-war activist Dmitry Skurikhin, 47, said singling out people, seemingly at random, for harsh punishment was “a classic method” used by Putin’s regime to stifle dissent. “You terrify a few people, and everyone else will be scared,” he said.

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Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the harsh sentences were part of a broader effort by Putin’s regime to suppress civilian activity and partly reflected the influence of line security chiefs hard surrounding the president.

The authorities’ efforts to turn the public against dissidents and encourage people to report their neighbors and colleagues, he said, “are more reminiscent of the elements of a totalitarian regime.” This harshness of responses to any lawful individual protest activity does not stem from Putin wanting it. It is an initiative of the state authorities, the security forces: a demonstration of their power and of who is the boss of the country.

During her first weeks in prison, Skochilenko had been childish and fragile, crying constantly, according to Nepovinnova. “She is very strong now and brave, and she wants to fight the charges. She thinks about her defense strategy and she wants to help the other inmates.

Skochilenko told the Post, “I am not an activist. I am an artist, a performer. She views her time in prison as an anti-war protest, calling it “the greatest work”.

“Not only can this not be stopped by our authorities,” she said, “but it comes with their full support and funding.”

Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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