Russian musician, writer, and pacifist Sasha Skochilenko was sentenced to seven years in prison in November for putting five anti-war messages over price tags on items in a St. Petersburg supermarket in April 2022.
She did this just two months after Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine and while the Russian Army was besieging the city of Mariupol.
One message read: “The Russian army bombed an art school in Mariupol where about 400 people were hiding from shelling.” Another: “Weekly inflation reached a new high not seen since 1998 because of our military actions in Ukraine. Stop the war.”
Although what she said was true, Skochilenko was charged with “spreading knowingly false information about the Russian army motivated by political hatred.”
New laws have criminalized virtually anything perceived as criticism of the war or Russia’s armed forces. Even the war cannot be referred to as a war but must be called a “special military operation.”
A guilty verdict was inevitable. Even so, Skochilenko’s prosecution arguably backfired against the regime, giving her a platform to speak against the war and potentially to persuade other Russians to join her in embracing the truth.
Skochilenko was born in 1990, the year before the Soviet Union collapsed and the city of her birth reverted to its historic name of St. Petersburg from Leningrad. As Russia entered a new era, “everyone in the country was hoping for change, waiting for democracy and freedom. But unfortunately, there were only small changes,” Skochilenko’s mother, Nadezhda, wrote to me from Paris.
Although often ill as a child, Skochilenko took pleasure in art, writing poems, and organizing music jam sessions, her mother said.
“Even those who had never played music … could come and play and improvise at any time,” she said. “It was music, just without notes. But because it was from the heart, everyone loved it.”
Skochilenko also wrote short books in graphic form about her depression and bipolar disease.
“This problem exists,” her mother said. “It’s serious, it’s hard to live with, but there are such people, and you can’t be silent about this problem.”
When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Skochilenko “believed that she should do everything possible to stop the war, to tell those who do not know the truth about what is happening,” her mother told me. “That’s why she decided to make such an action in the store, for those people who don’t know the truth.”
Detention and Trial
Skochilenko awaited trial under difficult conditions. At times, she suffered bullying and denial of medicines, gluten-free food for celiac disease, and access to the toilet.
Court sessions were also physically draining, requiring her to stand, with nothing to drink for hours. Yet the proceedings were also a source of support as friends and strangers rallied to her defense. Her lawyers dismantled the case against her, discrediting prosecution witness testimony. Skochilenko herself rebutted an element of the charge against her saying she wanted to stop the war “not out of hatred or out of animosity, but out of compassion.”
Indeed, in her final statement to the court, Skochilenko was even generous to the state prosecutor, saying that although he “believes in a very different truth from mine … I would never imprison him for this.”
“Deep down,” she said, “I believe he joined the prosecution to imprison real criminals and villains – murderers, rapists, child abusers. But it turned out differently: One must imprison those who need to be imprisoned – and that’s the key to promotion…. I don’t blame you. You’re looking out for your career, a stable future to provide for your family.”
Ultimately, despite facing long imprisonment, Skochilenko told the judge and prosecutor, “I am freer than you.”
Skochilenko’s assertion echoed the famous 1978 essay of dissent, “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and political prisoner who was later elected the country’s president. In the piece, a greengrocer suddenly stops hanging the obligatory communist party slogan, “Workers of the World Unite!” in his shop window.
He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt, the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie… He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.
The ultimate power of living in truth, according to Havel, is its potential to transform the thinking of others, “that is to say, everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory at least) by the force of truth.”
Skochilenko has had just such an impact on those involved in her prosecution. An investigator told her lawyer he had resigned because “I didn’t join the Investigative Committee to work on cases like the one against Sasha Skochilenko.” Prison staff have expressed bafflement: “Do they really put people in prison for this now?”
Skochilenko wondered in court how the regime could believe it was threatened by “five small pieces of paper.”
Skochilenko’s impact on other Russians shouldn’t be underestimated, either, according to Natalia Arno, president of the Free Russia Foundation, an organization of Russian exiles who support democracy and oppose the war in Ukraine.
“Sasha became one of the symbols of the anti-war protest movement globally. She is one of the reasons we are not ashamed to be Russians,” Arno told me. “Her message is simple and delivered in a very simple way, changing price tags. But at the same time, it is very powerful, and reaches ordinary people. Not all of Russia’s dissidents do this.”
FRF’s analysis of Russian public opinion shows many fewer people support the war in Ukraine than is often assumed. Arno noted that even a pro-Kremlin pollster acknowledged that enthusiastic supporters of the war amount to only about 10% to 15% of the population.
“Putin needs more mobilization, but there is no support for it despite the fear and propaganda directed at the public,” Arno told me. About 315,000 Russian troops have been killed or injured in Ukraine since the start of the war, equivalent to 90% of Russia’s pre-war military force, according to an Agence France Presse report of an intelligence briefing provided to the U.S. Congress. Conscription kiosks are empty, Arno said, and some have suffered arson attacks, while anti-war material is being printed out and stuffed into mailboxes.
Weak support for the war and difficulties in prosecuting it may lead to political change soon. Last month, Putin announced he will be a candidate in Russia’s presidential elections on March 17. Like Skochilenko’s trial, the outcome is not in doubt. The state controls the electoral process and the media, while the security apparatus is able to crush any opposition.
However, Putin’s unprovoked war in Ukraine is also driving Russians to resist. Protests involving thousands were squelched in the months following the invasion, but the New York Times reported that some 6,500 Russians had been arrested through August on charges of discrediting the Russian Army. Their offenses ranged from wearing the colors of the Ukrainian flag to privately expressing doubts about the war. In one case, the father of a girl who drew an anti-war picture was sentenced to two years in prison.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition politician and journalist has received by far the harshest sentence for criticizing the war. He was convicted of treason and sentenced to 25 years in April 2023. Members of Congress are pressing the State Department to designate Kara-Murza, a U.S. resident and husband and father of American citizens, as “unlawfully detained.” That designation would give him a higher priority in prisoner exchange negotiations conducted by the U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs.
Skochilenko’s, Kara-Murza’s, and others’ acts of resistance may be small in number, but they deny Putin the ability to claim universal support for the war.
The United States rightly penalizes Russian officials for human rights abuses and corruption, denying them the ability to travel or stash their wealth here. Washington should also find ways to reach the ordinary Russians who may have joined the government for a job and a secure future but who respect Sasha Skochilenko, a young woman who embodies the dignity they would like to feel themselves.