14 November 2023
On 16 November 2023 a court in St Petersburg sentenced the artist Aleksandra Skochilenko to seven years in a penal colony on charges of ‘spreading information known to be false about the Russian army’ in March 2022. Skochilenko had replaced five price tags in a local supermarket with pieces of paper, urging shoppers to end the war and resist television propaganda. – RiR
In St Petersburg’s Vasileoostrovsky district Court, arguments are under way in the case of the artist Sasha Skochilenko, who replaced a few pricelists in a store with information on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Previously, the prosecution had asked for eight years’ incarceration for her. In the course of arguments, Skochilenko gave a speech in her own defense that was published with cuts by Bumaga. The magazine Spektr quotes this text.
Your honor! Respected court! Despite all the attempts to break me with the help of investigative actions, confinement in a remand centre, starvation, harassment by cellmates, and abominable living conditions, I am still not admitting any guilt for publicly disseminating “knowingly false information in the guise of authentic communications, information that contains facts about the use of the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces for the purpose of defending the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens, maintaining international peace and security, and also containing facts about Russian Federation state organs’ use of their authorities outside the Russian Federation for the stated purposes.”
I am fully convinced that I acted for the purpose of defending the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens, as well as for the purpose of supporting international peace and security. I fear, though, that I understand the article’s obscure formulation differently than do the esteemed court and the public prosecutor.
If one were to understand this article the same way the prosecutor does, then, first of all, it is impossible to agree that I disseminated information in the guise of accurate information. Our expert analysis has shown that the “price tags” I disseminated were art objects. Even an expert linguist for the prosecution noted that the information on the “price tags” was not accurate with respect to the food items under which these “price tags” hung.
What I also do not agree with is the idea that I acted “on the basis of motives of political hatred and hostility, motives of hatred and hostility toward any social group whatsoever.” As our expert linguist with a history background explained, the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces are in no way a social group, and in general, the public prosecutor never did say exactly toward which social group, in the opinion of the prosecution, I allegedly felt hatred or hostility.
Nor did the public prosecutor give us any definition of “political hatred and hostility.” As the experts—psychologists and psychiatrists—as well as my witnesses testified, hatred and hostility are not characteristic of me. I am full of compassion for everyone who has died and suffered in war. I feel sorry for any soldier, sorry for any civilian, and sorry for the destroyed cities.
As you can tell from my personal references and the explanations of the specialist and expert, who are psychologists, I have deep sympathy for other people’s problems. I have worked with people with disabilities and people with mental issues. If you know empathy, then you cannot truly hate. Yes, I was angry at the moment of the war’s outset, and this is reflected in my personal correspondence. But this cannot be called hatred. Anger is an affect; hatred is a fundamental and extended emotion that is uncharacteristic of my fluid and bipolar psyche.
In general and on the whole, I think that constructing an indictment regarding the presence in me of certain motives around a few posts on social networks, unsound expert analysis, and the investigator’s falsified interrogation of my friend, is, to put it mildly, careless and unfounded. No one can get into my head and say what really guided me on 30 March 2022. And those who can, that is, the psychologists and psychiatrists, have testified exclusively in my defense.
Most of all, I do not agree that the information I disseminated was knowingly false for me. As I have said in all my testimony and questioning, the information on the so-called “price tags” was not invented by me but seemed to me the truth, since it was transmitted by my circle of contacts and confirmed by those sources I trusted. A broad collection of them was presented as evidence by my defense.
It is true I am tied to my friends from Ukraine, I am tied to them by long and productive creative collaboration. I am used to trusting them because they have never deceived me. They are decent people who helped me at a hard moment, and I could not help but sympathize with them given the war’s general horror.
“Ignorance of the law does not release anyone from responsibility”—the prosecutor’s accusation is built on that assertion. I did not know about certain Roskomnadzor [Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications] recommendations that were addressed to the media. First of all, I’m not the media, and that means I don’t have to follow those recommendations. Secondly, I didn’t know anything about those recommendations. Actually, I don’t know anything about them now, since those recommendations were not presented by the public prosecutor as evidence. And most important, Roskomnadzor does not make laws of any kind. This letter of recommendation is not a law.
Article 207.3, Part 2, itself, under which I am being prosecuted, punishes for the dissemination of knowingly false information about the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and not for disseminating information from unofficial media. The public prosecutor has insisted that all the media I read is financed from abroad. But he didn’t even present us with a list of “foreign agents.” Are we really supposed to take him at his word? Or does someone in this courtroom know the list by heart? And what difference does it make if I took my information from “foreign agent” media or not? The “foreign agent” label is not the same as “disseminator of knowingly false information.”
This information seemed truthful to me. Period. In addition, the status of foreign agent is a dubious notion for me personally. For example, for many years I worked for the Bumaga newspaper, one source of the information I got that is mentioned on the “price tags.” I know the inner workings of that publication precisely and can swear that we did not receive any financing from abroad whatsoever. Our readers financed us, citizens of Russia and Russian advertisers.
I’ll move on to one more piece of evidence from the prosecution: the testimony of Aleksei Nikolaev. In my opinion, that testimony should not be used as evidence since, according to Nikolaev himself, pressure was exerted on him during his questioning. The testimony of witness Nikolaev contained in the file was written in a bureaucratic language that Nikolaev, my childhood friend, never spoke in. But even if you take that into account, then it’s worth noting what he said about how he knew nothing about my action. How can he give any testimony to the motives for my act?
It’s worth pointing out that Nikolaev’s testimony contained in the file is not confirmed by any other statements by witnesses questioned in the course of the preliminary investigation or trial. Nor is the testimony confirmed by the questioning of Nikolaev himself here, in the courtroom. As both questionings showed, he and I were close friends for many years. We did art together and once, long before I met Sonya, were even in a relationship. Can you really imagine this person, of his own free will, being able to give testimony that repeats word for word the formulation of my indictment, testimony that could send me to prison for 10 years?
The defense’s array of evidence was much more extensive and solid than the evidence of the prosecution. We offered six entire expert conclusions, while the prosecution showed us just one, which was, in my opinion, of extremely poor quality, as we logically proved. Expert political scientist Safonova, a witness for the prosecution, who should not be taking part in linguistic expert analysis at all, gave very contradictory testimony. Nonetheless, she said many correct things testifying in my defense. She said that it was not within an expert’s competence to establish my motives and also mentioned in the first questioning that each person can consider very different sources of information to be the truth.
On the second day of questioning, the expert abruptly changed her opinion and stated that only state sources broadcast the truth since there exists that same notorious directive from Roskomnadzor on this. Nonetheless, to the public prosecutor’s leading question, “Was information from state sources openly accessible and might Aleksandra Skochilenko have read it?” the expert said a very important thing: “Yes, it was. If Skochilenko had wanted to, she could have familiarized herself.” But what if I didn’t want to? Is there a law that requires a Russian citizen to want to read some sources and not want to read others?
My case is as simple as three kopeks. Even the head of Remand Centre No. 5 is amazed: “What is there for them to find in your case?” I would point out that I myself simplified the investigation’s work. I agreed to collaborate and told them everything about my “action,” substantially alleviating their work “collecting evidence.” I told them my address of residence, which the investigator didn’t know, gave them the password to my computer, voluntarily surrendered my cellphones, and also gave evidence. Why shouldn’t I? After all, I have nothing to hide—because I’m innocent.
I do not deserve a prison term as well because the state of my health leaves much to be desired. I have many chronic illnesses, including some requiring constant medical supervision. If my heart defect deteriorates and my mitral valve’s flap collapses even more, I’m going to need an immediate operation, but the examinations that could discover this are almost impossible to obtain in incarceration, and if they do agree and perform it, it may be too late. My arrhythmia, which was confirmed by 24-hour monitoring, according to my cardiologist, is now on the borderline between unsatisfactory and dangerous. If the pauses in my heart’s functioning get longer than a few milliseconds, I’ll have to have a pacemaker put in, which is extremely problematic in incarceration and could take place inadmissibly late due to the bureaucracy and negligence of the correctional institution’s medical service.
Due to my arrhythmia, I am at risk of my heart stopping—at which point I will require immediate resuscitation, which is extremely difficult for me to imagine in places of incarceration. I have an array of illnesses of the gastrointestinal tract that make life in incarceration simply unbearable. All these problems are exacerbated by stress, and right now my life has become torture due to the constant excruciating pain in my stomach. Worst of all, perhaps, is that gluten-free food is vitally essential to me, and at this moment it is available only in Remand Centre No. 5 among all penitentiary institutions. If you send me to a penal colony, your honor, you are dooming me to starvation. I am certain that deep down you don’t want that.
I’m not a dangerous person for society, rather I’m useful. In freedom, I can do a lot of good. Before my arrest, I participated in socially significant projects, including on a philanthropic basis, which is confirmed by numerous positive references from respectable organizations, such as the Higher School of Economics, the Perspectives, 12 Colleges, and Paralympic organizations.
No less important is my activity in mental health education. In the last year of crisis, stress, and instability, the number of psychological illnesses among the population rose drastically, and work in the educational sphere has become even more relevant. A large number of suicides and other tragedies can realistically be averted if we simply tell people that depression is an illness, not a sentence, and that there are ways to treat it, that it is essential to turn to specialists. I have devoted most of my life to this work and have done it selflessly. You can’t imagine what it’s like to hear someone say: “Your book helped me.” In moments like that, you realize that your life and freedom have tremendous meaning. I can’t sit and wait in prison, wasting priceless time—time I might be using to help people. This help is needed now more than ever before.
I am deeply convinced that my “action” does not constitute a crime, since I did not disseminate information that was knowingly false for me, and I am definitely sure that I was not guided by “motives of hatred and hostility.” This has been proved thoroughly and scrupulously by my defense. Many people have attended our trial, which has received wide coverage, and it is obvious to everyone without exception how strong my defense was, how much evidence was offered in favor of my innocence, and how sound that evidence was, and how weak the prosecution’s side looked in that context. I know this, you know this, and everyone in this courtroom knows this.
Modern Russian practice could scarcely find many examples of such incredible work by the defense as in my trial. In my opinion, the most honest decision would be an acquittal.
Translated by Marian Schwartz