In March 2022, St. Petersburg artist Aleksandra Skochilenko – who usually goes by the familiar form of her first name, Sasha -- protested Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine the previous month by replacing five shelf tags in a grocery store with information about the war, which the Kremlin insists on euphemistically calling “a special military operation.”
The five shelf tags she posted read:
“The Russian Army bombed an art school in [the southern Ukrainian city of] Mariupol where about 400 people were seeking shelter.”
“Russian conscripts have been sent to Ukraine. The price of this war is the lives of our children.”
“Stop the war! In the first three days, 4,300 Russian soldiers were killed. Why are they silent about this on television?”
“[President Vladimir] Putin has been lying to you from the television screen for 20 years. The result of these lies is our willingness to accept war and senseless deaths.”
“My great-grandfather didn’t participate in World War II for four years so that Russia would become a fascist state and attack Ukraine.”
Skochilenko was arrested on March 31, 2022, and charged with knowingly distributing false information about the Russian military. After being held in pretrial detention for about 20 months, the 33-year-old was convicted on November 16 and sentenced to seven years in prison. She admitted posting the shelf tags, but denied committing a crime because they contained no false information.
Her lawyers have said they will appeal the conviction and the sentence.
In an uncompromising speech to the court before Judge Oksana Demyasheva read the verdict, Skochilenko pondered the supposed danger posed by the “five tiny pieces of paper,” which would have been seen by only one or two people if the government’s accusations against her had not become a major international cause célèbre.
“The state prosecutor said repeatedly that these five tiny pieces of paper were exceptionally dangerous to our state and society,” Skochilenko said. “What weak faith our prosecutor has in our national society if he thinks that our state and our common security might collapse because of these tiny papers! What harm did I do? Who suffered because of my act? The prosecutor didn’t say a word about that.”
Skochilenko is among the numerous Russians who have been sentenced to long prison terms on charges ranging from discrediting the armed forces to extremism to treason. The number of treason cases alone has skyrocketed since Russia invaded Ukraine, with many defendants being arrested, tried, and imprisoned behind closed doors.
Under Putin’s government, which has clamped down harder than ever on domestic opposition, civil society, and free expression since launching the invasion, even defiant courtroom speeches in trials widely seen as politically motivated have become an important genre of dissent. Sasha Skochilenko’s remarks on November 16 are the latest iteration of this genre.
The following are excerpts from Skochilenko’s speech in court:
Your honor, each sentence is a message, a kind of a message to society. You may evaluate the information [on the shelf tags] differently than my lawyers do, differently than I do, but you must agree that I have moral views of my own and I have stuck with them to the end.
My case has been widely covered in Russia and abroad. Videos and documentaries are being made. Books are being written about it. No matter what decision you make, you will go down in history. You may go down in history as the person who imprisoned me. You may go down in history as the person who acquitted me. You may go down in history as the person who made a neutral decision and handed me a suspended sentence or fined me.
It is up to you. But remember, everyone knows you are not judging a terrorist or extremist. You are not even judging a political activist. You are judging a musician, an artist, and a pacifist.
Yes, I am a pacifist. Pacifists have existed always. They are a special type of people who are convinced that life is the highest possible value. Pacifists believe that any conflict, even the most terrible one, can be resolved only by peace.
I am scared to kill even a spider. It is terrible for me even to think that it is possible to take somebody's life. This is the way I grew up. This is how my mom brought me up. Wars end not because of soldiers. They end because of pacifists' initiatives. When you put pacifists in jails, you postpone the peace that is desired by all.
Yes, I am a pacifist. I believe that life is sacred. If we give up the veil of this world -- such as cars, apartments, wealth, power, success, social connections, social networks -- the only real thing left is life. Oh yes, life. It is incredible. It is amazing. It is unique. It is stubborn. It is strong. It appeared on Earth, and so far we have not been able to find a similar place in all of space.
It breaks through concrete blocks. It breaks through stones. It turns from a tiny seed into a gigantic baobab tree. From a microscopic cell to a gigantic whale. It inhabits mountain peaks and hides in the Mariana Trench. It spreads with unstoppable force from the Arctic ice to the hottest deserts.
Its most perfect form is the human being. Humans are an intelligent form of life. It is a life that is capable of understanding itself. It is life that can understand its own mortality. And very often, we do not remember that and live as if we were going to live forever.
But human life is very short. It is miserably short, and all we can is to prolong the brief moment of bliss.
All those who are alive want to live. Even on the necks of those who have been hanged, one can find fingernail scratches. That means that in their last seconds they were clinging to life. They wanted to live so much. Ask a person whose cancerous tumors were just removed what life is about and how precious it is.
That is why scientists and medical experts around the world are working to extend human life and find treatments for lethal diseases.
That is why I am unable to understand why we need military operations. Why are we doing this? Military actions shorten life. Military actions mean death.
You can call it anything you want. You can say I was mistaken, misled, or brainwashed. But I always stick to my opinion, my truth.
I don’t know anyone other than the state prosecutor who wants to put me in prison.
In fact, I think that deep down even the state prosecutor doesn’t want this. I think he became a prosecutor to imprison real criminals and miscreants -- murderers, rapists, pedophiles. But it turned out completely differently. He has to imprison those who are supposed to be imprisoned and this is the key to moving up the career ladder. That is the system we have. Let’s not pretend this is not true.
I don’t blame you. You are worried about your career, about having a stable future to provide for your family, to give them food and have a roof over your head, to give your children or your future children a head start. But what will you tell them? Will you tell them how you sent to prison an ailing woman because of five tiny pieces of paper? No, you will definitely tell them about other cases. Maybe you will convince yourself you were just doing your job. But what will you do when the pendulum swings back the other way?
That is the law of history. Liberals replace conservatives and conservatives succeed liberals. After the natural death of one political leader, another one comes with the opposite policies. And the first becomes last and the last becomes first. It might seem odd to you, but I sympathize with you.
Even though I am behind bars, I am freer than you. I can make my own decisions and say what I think. I can quit my job if they try to make me do something I don’t want to do. I don’t have any enemies. I am not afraid to be poor or even homeless.
I am not afraid that I won’t have a dazzling career or of appearing funny, vulnerable, or strange. I’m not afraid of seeming different from other people. Maybe that is why the state fears me and others like me so much and keeps me in a cage like a dangerous animal.