'We Are Fighting Against Evil': Four St. Petersburg Women Face Prison As Russia Intensifies Crackdown On Dissent
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Aleksandra Skochilenko is an artist and musician. Viktoria Petrova is a business manager. Maria Ponomarenko is a journalist, and Olga Smirnova is a civil-society activist.
But the four women have several things in common. They are all from St. Petersburg, President Vladimir Putin's hometown. All four are being criminally prosecuted for "discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation" and face up to 10 years in prison if tried and convicted. And all four are being held in pretrial custody even though they are accused of nothing more dangerous than putting up stickers or making social-media posts about the war in Ukraine.
It is unclear exactly how many Russians are facing prosecution under Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code, which was bulldozed through both chambers of parliament and signed by Putin in a single day, on March 4. The criminal statute, which prohibits the dissemination of false information about the armed forces, stipulates prison terms from three to 15 years.
The Agora legal-defense group said that 32 cases were opened under the statute in April. Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin said on May 3 that there were 35 such cases. OVD-Info, which monitors repression in Russia, has counted at least 44.
Because of the real prospect of long prison terms for people convicted under the new law, Article 207.3 represents a significant new phase in the Kremlin's effort to stamp out opposition to the war in Ukraine and clamp down on dissent.
St. Petersburg rights lawyer Stanislav Seleznyov told RFE/RL that prosecutors have started more frequently charging defendants with Part 2 of Article 207.3, which stipulates harsher terms for violations deemed by the state to have been "politically motivated."
"Investigators 'prove' the motives using old posts on social media that show any criticism of the authorities," Seleznyov said. "And they automatically ask judges to hold defendants in custody pending trial. Investigators [privately] say there are orders 'from above' to keep everyone in pretrial detention."
In addition, he says, prosecutors often interrogate suspects without a lawyer present and pressure them to sign confessions that include language later used in court to establish that the defendant knew the information he or she distributed was false.
"This is a very important point," Seleznyov said. "Many administrative cases [involving similar accusations] were dismissed or mitigated because the defendant believed the information to be true. Even one criminal case about spreading false information about the coronavirus resulted in acquittal for this reason."
Here is a look at the four women facing prosecution in St. Peterburg:
Police showed up at the apartment of 27-year-old business manager Viktoria Petrova at 7 a.m. on May 6. According to her lawyer, Anastasia Pilipenko, Petrova's laptop and telephones were seized. She was taken to the Investigative Committee and interrogated as a "witness" without a lawyer present.
She was charged under the part of the article penalizing "political motivation" and faces up to 10 years in prison.
"Viktoria is fairly active on social media, but she is not an activist -- although she has attended protests," Pilipenko said. "She attended [anti-war] demonstrations in February and March and was detained twice."
The charge against her stems from a March 23 social-media post that caught the attention of prosecutors on March 25. It has since been deleted.
"I can only assume that prosecutors demanded she take it down," Pilipenko said. The lawyer said she has seen the post in poor-quality screenshots provided by investigators, and it criticizes the war and Putin, while also lamenting the loss of life on both sides. Attached to the post were links to several videos, including one by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and one by Zelenskiy aide Oleksiy Arestovych.
At a court hearing, the defense requested that Petrova be remanded to house arrest.
"The judge was doing the weekend shift," Pilipenko said. "She ordered the arrest of everyone who came before her that day. There was one fascinating moment when I asked for [house arrest] and the investigator said, 'No objection.' The judge asked, 'What did you say?' And he answered again, 'No objection.' Then the judge made a little gesture and asked again. This time the investigator sighed and asked the judge to place the defendant in custody."
Petrova remains in custody pending trial.
On May 5, police conducted raids at the homes of five activists of the Peaceful Resistance movement. All five were detained and interrogated by prosecutors, and all were released except for Smirnova. She was charged under Part 2 of Article 207.3. According to the indictment, she acted "from motives of political enmity and hatred."
The charge against her apparently stems from a Peaceful Resistance chat group on the social-media site VK that contained many posts about the political situation in Russia and -- after the February 24 invasion -- the war in Ukraine. That group has since been blocked.
Prosecutors requested that Smirnova's custody hearing be closed to the public, saying it was necessary to protect state secrets. Smirnova was ordered held for two months and sent to a St. Petersburg pretrial jail.
"She is a person of amazing integrity, honor, respect, principles, humanity," wrote St. Petersburg doctor Pyotr Voskresensky in a reference letter submitted to the court. "It can be hard to deal with such people. They are inconvenient. They prevent one from making compromises. They can't be silenced.... Nonetheless, they are the salt of the Earth."
"Olga has known for many years that a crown of thorns awaited her," Voskresensky added. "She didn't seek it, but she wasn't afraid of it. The Russian authorities are building a new pantheon of saints of Russia."
St. Petersburg municipal lawmaker Boris Vishnevsky also wrote a reference for Smirnova in which he emphasized that she had engaged in exclusively peaceful protest for many years. "There is no reason to hold such a person in custody," he concluded.
Thirty-two-year-old artist and musician Aleksandra Skochilenko, who often goes by Sasha, a diminutive form of her first name, was among the first to be charged under the new criminal statute. She was detained on April 11 when she went to help a friend after reading on his social media that police were searching his home. Later, it turned out the post had been written by Investigative Committee staffers to lure Skochilenko.
For replacing price stickers in a store with stickers denouncing the war in Ukraine, she was initially charged under a part of Article 207.3 that stipulates a penalty of three years in prison. Later, prosecutors decided to charge her under the "political motivation" provision of the law that stipulates up to 10 years in prison. Skochilenko does not dispute that she replaced the stickers, but argues that the information on the ones she put up was not false.
She has been ordered held in pretrial detention for two months, despite serious concerns for her well-being. She has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and celiac disease. As a result, she is not able to eat most prison food and has been subsisting on food brought by relatives.
"I am trying to do everything I can for Sasha," said Yulia, a friend of Skochilenko's who asked to be identified only by her first name from fear of retribution. "But my faith in a good outcome is fading with each passing day. There is still hope, but if they give Sasha a long prison term, I can't imagine what I'll do then."
Maria Ponomarenko is a journalist from Barnaul, the capital of the Altai region in southern Siberia. She was on extended assignment in St. Petersburg when she was detained in front of her hotel on April 24. Independent media outlets in Barnaul have reported that the Altai Investigative Committee sent an entire team to the northern capital to arrest Ponomarenko.
She has been charged under the "political motivation" part of Article 207.3 for a social-media post about Russia's bombing of a theater in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in which civilians were sheltering. Ukraine has said about 300 people were killed in the March 16 incident.
Ponomarenko, a mother of two young daughters, has a reputation for helping those detained at various protests over the last few years, bringing parcels to people in jail and donating the income from her journalism to legal-defense funds. Acquaintances told RFE/RL that she took the invasion of Ukraine very hard, often breaking down in tears. At a court custody hearing, she told the judge she had stopped crying.
"My tears will be interpreted as being caused by the fact that I am in jail," she told the judge. "But that is not the case. I will bear this properly. It has happened and I must take it with dignity."
She told RFE/RL she believes the case against her was generated by officials in Barnaul in retribution for her reporting on corruption and rights abuses in her hometown.
In a letter from jail, she said she had learned many useful skills, such as how to wash three items of clothing by hand in a bucket in just five minutes, how to make up a bed with military precision, and how to fashion hair curlers from socks.
"After this, I'll be fine anywhere," she wrote.
"We are holding on and not giving in," she added. "We are fighting against evil. Change is on the horizon.... Russia will be free."
"The hope of all political prisoners," she wrote, "lies in you who remain at liberty."