St Petersburg-based artist Sasha Skochilenko has been sentenced to seven years in a penal colony for her protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which involved her replacing supermarket price labels with information about the destruction of Mariupol. The decision, handed down on 16 November, marks a new stage of the repression of those in Russia who speak out about the war.
The verdict was handed down by Oksana Demyasheva, the presiding judge, at St Petersburg’s Vasileostrovsky district court. Demyasheva’s ruling was greeted by chants of “shame!” directed at her by Skochilenko’s supporters, and expressions of solidarity with the artist.
The artist blew kisses, formed a heart with her hands, bowed, exchanged tearful words with her girlfriend and gave the victory sign from her courtroom cage. Throughout her trial she was greeted by cheers of support when being led in by guards.
Skochilenko, 33, was arrested in April 2022, less than two months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Her arrest resulted from a complaint filed to police by a pensioner who was reported to have been especially angered by one of the labels, which read: “The Russian army bombed an art school in Mariupol. About 400 people were hiding in it from shelling."
Skochilenko was found guilty of “knowingly spreading false information” about the Russian military, part of a raft of laws that were passed in Russia after the invasion to further quash freedom of speech. Prosecutors had asked that Skochilenko be given an eight-year sentence; the slightly shorter sentence Demyasheva decided on took into account the time the artist had already served.
The judge did not take into account the several illnesses from which Skochilenko suffers, including celiac disease and a heart condition. Her defence argued that she could die in prison due to lack of medical care.
In her final statement in court on Thursday, which was posted in audio form by opposition media, Skochilenko spoke of the absurdity of her case, the warmongering of the Russian state and the meaning of freedom.
In a translation posted on Mediazona, the human rights news site founded by protest group Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina, she said: “My case is so bizarre and ludicrous that even employees at the detention centre #5 [the pre-trial centre in which she was being held] are astonished, exclaiming: ‘Do they really put people in prison for this now?’
“Wars are waged by warriors, but peace is brought by pacifists,” said Skochilenko. “Imprisoning pacifists only delays the advent of long-awaited peace.”
She said that “despite being behind bars,” she is “freer than you,” and continued: “I’m not afraid to be different from others. Perhaps that’s why my state is so afraid of me and others like me and keeps me caged like a dangerous animal.”
Polina Sadovskaya, the sdvocacy and Eurasia director at PEN America said in a statement: “Rule of law in Russia has become a sham, and barbaric responses like this to art and protest only underscore the government’s desperate need to influence public opinion.”