/ 13 November 2023

People, love and music … an artist behind bars

Imprisoned: Russian artist Sasha Skochilenko was arrested last year for distributing pamphlets. Her mother Nadezhda tells of her hope and despair as Sasha’s trial drags on. Photo: Change.org

“Every day I feel that my daughter is robbed of yet another day of her life.” 

I have never met Nadezhda Skochilenko or even done a direct interview with her — she is in hiding in Western Europe. 

But what she said tells me of a mother’s deep anguish for her daughter Sasha, the 33-year-old Russian artist, singer and writer, who has been incarcerated for political reasons in a St Petersburg pre-trial detention centre since her arrest on 11 April last year.

“The whole eternity passed since that day, but it still feels like yesterday — so stinging,” Nadezhda told me. I managed to contact her via Telegram, the secure messaging platform, and a family friend acted as a translator/go-between.

The arrest happened less than two months after the 24 February Russian invasion of Ukraine. As Nadezhda said, “Sasha couldn’t stay silent. Like so many people, she spoke out against the war, and did so like the creative person she is, independent and intolerant to injustice.” 

The reason for her arrest — she went to the popular supermarket Perekrestok and placed five tiny leaflets, imitating price tags, with information about a Russian missile strike on a theatre in the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol in March last year; Russian conscripts who were sent to fight in the war;  the deaths of thousands of soldiers and the corresponding silence on Russian state television, according to Mediazona. 

One sticker read: “My great-grandfather fought in the Great Patriotic War [against Nazi Germany] for four years not to see Russia become a fascist state and attack Ukraine.”

She stands accused of distributing fake information about the Russian military, according to a new article of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, which went into effect on 4 March last year. It carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Sasha admitted to distributing the stickers but pleaded not guilty, denying that the information on the stickers was false.

But Nadezhda, when she was interrogated by a detective, “learned that from the top came an order to prosecute her. I got scared that I can do nothing to protect my daughter.” She left Russia after Sasha was arrested. 

“Even if I’d stayed, I couldn’t free her but they could use somehow me to pressure her even further. I’m in a safe place now and I’m speaking for Sasha and other prisoners on every platform I’m lucky to have.”

Nadezhda is deeply worried about Sasha’s deteriorating health. She has a congenital heart defect and also celiac disease, so she has to follow a strict diet for the rest of her life — which is impossible in detention. 

Court hearings resemble torture. During the trial, Sasha’s held in a cage, sometimes for eight hours straight, she was denied her medicine, food and even water.

“Being the mother of a political prisoner means a never-ending wait for hearings, the hope for a change of luck, and inevitable devastation, feeling of helplessness, and despair afterwards,” Nadezhda says. 

“I’m always waiting for the news from her lawyers, who are supporting us for so many months, and serve as living letters from Sasha. You can’t get used to all of this.”

Skochilenko’s trial started in December last year and it’s still continuing with no outcome in sight.

When she is not in court, Sasha can go out of her cell just for an hour, to pace in another enclosed space of 14m2, where she can see the sky only through bars. 

“She cannot read the books she likes. She can use the shower only twice a week. She cannot play music, which she used to do every day, or sing — and music is the most important thing in her life,” says her mother. 

“Every day I imagine, how she has to abide by the prison rules — these thoughts bring pain but I know that her pain is many times stronger.”

Nadezhda says her daughter is a peaceful person — “she never called for violence; all she did was to stop the war. From early childhood she valued other people, love and music above everything. She combines all that perfectly. 

“She knows that every human is a creator. And now she unites an incredible amount of people. She has won a lot of heart with her smile from behind bars. Her open letters from prison are full of life — often people read them and start crying.”

The threat of a long sentence haunts Nadezhda. “I forbid myself to think about the future, because I’m terrified of it, and I only hope for a miracle.”