“I am pathologically incapable of betraying my conscience,” said St. Petersburg artist and musician Aleksandra Skochilenko in an interview from pretrial custody with RFE/RL’s North.Realities. “I have no hope. The Investigative Committee and its head, Aleksandr Bastrykin, personally, have selected me for the harshest possible punishment.”
The 32-year-old who often uses the first name Sasha, was arrested in April for replacing five store-shelf price tags with messages against Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. She has been charged with distributing “fake” information about the armed forces and could face up to 10 years in prison.
“My country thirsts for blood,” she said. “Including mine.”
Despite her fragile health and the nonviolent nature of her offense -- she admits to replacing the price tags, but denies that they said anything that was false or defamatory --Skochilenko has been held in pretrial custody for more than three months. Her custody has been extended until at least August 1 and could be extended again.
RFE/RL was able to submit written questions to Skolchilenko for this interview, and she sent back her replies through her lawyer.
Including Skochilenko, at least 73 people in Russia have been charged under a law hastily adopted days after the large-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24. Many of the defendants are politicians, journalists, priests, activists, and even police officers. On July 8, Moscow municipal lawmaker Aleksei Gorinov was sentenced to seven years in prison under the law.
Skochilenko said prison officials have been reluctant to accommodate the dietary restrictions she requires because of her gluten intolerance, despite pressure from civil-society activists and her lawyers.
“I have constant stomach pain and sometimes I start vomiting when I am eating,” she said. “Imagine living every day with the symptoms of food poisoning. That is my life now.”
She has also begun suffering from heart issues that had been under control since she was a teenager.
“I have had heart pains for the last two months,” she wrote. “From time to time, my vision goes dark, I have shortness of breath, chest tightness, dizziness, and pain in my left arm.”
She added that she worries that her cellmate would not be able to get help if she lost consciousness during the night or that an ambulance would not arrive in time to help her.
Initially, Skochilenko was placed in a standard six-person cell with a “trusty” named Yelena. Officially, Yelena was in charge of making sure the cell was kept clean, but in reality, Skochilenko said, her task was to make the artist’s life miserable.
“In front of everyone, she told me that I ‘stank’ and forced me to wash all of my things by hand,” Skochilenko wrote. “She watched me all the time and forced me to clean the toilet with a sponge instead of a brush.”
“There were other strange rules that she made up, like you could only hold a broom one certain way,” she added. “We had to do a complete cleaning of the cell three times a day. Every surface had its own rag, all of which had to be washed by hand after each cleaning…. [Yelena] didn’t allow anyone else to open the refrigerator, and she only let others eat during certain times…. All day long, she kept the television on playing war films or news about the ‘special military operation.’”
Yelena, Skochilenko said, later had her pretrial sentence reduced to house arrest.
Officials also seem intent on demonstrating that Skochilenko was psychologically incompetent. A prison psychiatrist who examined her at the pretrial jail concluded that Skochilenko was competent.
Nonetheless, investigators insisted she be sent to a psychiatric hospital for two weeks’ evaluation. A committee of “five doctors and one special consultant” also concluded that Skochilenko was competent and did not need psychotropic medication.
“Maybe they did this as an additional way of pressuring me, or maybe they just wanted to humiliate me as much as possible,” she said. After she returned to jail from the hospital, investigators required that she undergo yet another in-house psychiatric evaluation.
A finding of mental incompetence could be used to justify such treatment as forced medication, she added. She said that one of the psychiatrists who examined her “kept insisting that I should go to church.”
Skochilenko has long suffered from -- and been treated for -- bipolar disorder, which can include periods of “paralyzing depression.” However, she said, this condition has not been a particular problem for her since her arrest.
“The years that I spent working on my mental health and education, including consultations with doctors, medications, years of psychotherapy, and participation in seminars -- have proven effective,” Skochilenko told RFE/RL. “And I have also received enormous support, which has helped me to cope.”
Authorities Are 'Terribly Afraid'
She says she does not regret replacing the five shelf-tags with information about Russia’s war against Ukraine, even though “those five tags decided my fate.”
“A whole police group was created to hunt me down and they captured me in just 10 days,” she said. “Of course, I was never hiding.”
She believes Bastrykin and other investigators intend to punish her as much as possible because they are “terribly afraid.”
“When a person is terribly afraid, they tend to see huge threats where there is nothing,” she said. “I weigh 47 kilograms. I don’t know how to fire a gun. I can’t fight. I sometimes suffer from paralyzing depression. My health is iffy. Even under small stresses, I begin to have symptoms. I love people, children, and animals. I am a poor candidate for organizing an armed rebellion. But fear is an irrational thing.”
“Like everyone who has been unjustly prosecuted in Russia, I am sometimes scared,” she concluded. “I sit here and, most likely, I will die in prison for freedom of speech and for pacifism.”
“But my faith in freedom of speech and in humanism is stronger than my fear,” she said.