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Punishing an Artist in Wartime Russia

Igor Slabykh

Just over a month after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a St. Petersburg artist, Alexandra (Sasha) Skochilenko, conducted an antiwar performance. She replaced five price tags in a store with tags bearing antiwar statements. Among such statements were, for example, the following: “My great-grandfather participated in World War II for four years not for Russia to become a fascist state and attack Ukraine” and “The Russian army bombed the art school in Mariupol, about 400 people were hiding in it from shelling.”

On November 16, 2023, Judge Oksana Demyasheva of the Vasileostrovsky District Court in St. Petersburg sentenced Skochilenko to seven years for this activity. This marked the beginning and the end of a standard but perhaps the most horrifying antiwar case in Russia. The number of such cases in Russia has approached several dozen after the new amendments to the Criminal Code were enacted last year.

The Investigative Committee concluded that Skochilenko had committed a crime under Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation: the public dissemination of, in the guise of credible information, knowingly false information about the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, motivated by political hatred.

How the Case Went Forward

As stated in the indictment, the use of Russian armed forces in Ukraine is aimed at “maintaining international peace and security” and “protecting Donbas from the aggression of the current Kyiv authorities,” while the information on the price tags did not correspond to this narrative. At the same time, the defendant had “unfriendly feelings” towards the actions of the Russian armed forces, the president of Russia, and Russian government agencies. This was the “crime” of Skochilenko, for which the artist will have to spend seven years in prison, while the average term for murder in Russia is one year less.

The prosecution presented evidence of Skochilenko’s guilt in a very straightforward manner. For example, in the episode involving the shelling of the art school in Mariupol, government experts referred to a propaganda website, according to which the defendant's information was false. To prove the falsity of the claim that “4300 Russian soldiers died in the first three days [of the war],” the prosecution referred to a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense, which provided different figures. The court agreed with this approach, disregarding the constitutional right to freedom of speech. Similarly, the court ignored data from international organizations and other documents that the defense presented as evidence of the truthfulness of the information on the price tags.

Overall, the court’s conduct in this case has been more than indicative. To begin with, the court was not supposed to detain the nonviolent defendant, who suffers from gluten intolerance, ovarian cysts, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and a heart defect—for none of which she is likely to receive adequate treatment while incarcerated. However, the artist was detained pending trial from the beginning of the investigation and now has spent more than a year in jail. The trial resembled more torture than the administration of justice. For example, in October 2023, due to the hearing schedule, Skochilenko had no opportunity to eat for two consecutive days, and the court refused to take a break for meals, medication, or restroom breaks. 

The court behaved in similar fashion many times throughout the proceedings. The court even prohibited Skochilenko from bringing water into the cage where she was held during lengthy court sessions. While doctor visits to the defendant in the detention facility are extremely important, the court consistently refused to postpone hearings whenever they coincided with planned doctor visits. 

From the outset, the court adopted a course of harassment against the defense: during the proceedings, approximately thirty warnings were issued to the defense attorneys; the court threatened to remove defense attorneys from the courtroom; and the court consistently denied, without explanation, all defense motions. The defense’s motion to recuse the judge also was denied without explanation. Court bailiffs restricted access to the proceedings for some spectators and journalists. On one occasion, bailiffs used tear gas against the spectators.

Judicial Error or the New Norm?

In her closing statement, Skochilenko drew the court’s attention to the absurdity of the prosecution’s position: the replacement of five price tags in a store, which only three people—the seller, the security guard, and a babushka—would notice, does not amount to a socially dangerous act. Moreover, thanks to the investigator, the prosecutor, and the court, thousands of people in Russia and worldwide have learned about Skochilenko's actions.

Skochilenko has an appeal ahead. However, Russian realities offer little chance that the appeals court will correct a judicial error. Harsh sentences against any antiwar protests are not a bug but a feature of the Russian judicial system. Unfortunately, after Russia's withdrawal/exclusion from the Council of Europe, Russian prisoners cannot even hope for a distant future intervention by the European Court of Human Rights.

Meanwhile, three days after the sentencing, it appears that Judge Demyasheva will be promoted to deputy chief justice of the district court.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute

About the Author

Igor Slabykh

Igor Slabykh

Lawyer and Legal Manager

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more