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Just like Pussy Riot, Sasha Skochilenko has incurred Putin’s wrath. But we won’t let him win | Nadya Tolokonnikova


“Despite the fact that I am in a cell, it is possible that I am much more free than all of you.” These were the defiant words of the 33-year-old Russian artist Aleksandra “Sasha” Skochilenko in the closing statement of her trial in St Petersburg last Thursday. Two hours later the judge sentenced her to seven years in a penal colony. The charge was knowingly spreading false information about the Russian army, all for five pieces of paper with facts about the cost of the war in Ukraine, which she subversively placed in ordinary places for ordinary Russians to see – on products in supermarkets.

They say history does not repeat itself, but rhymes. Eleven years ago, I was being bussed from my cell to a court room every day. I was only allowed to shower once a week and, if I was lucky, I slept for a few hours each night. During the free moments I had, I constructed my defence as well as my closing statement. This was my only chance to express myself to the court, and to the world. In mine, I said: “We are freer than the people sitting opposite us and representing the prosecution because we can say everything we like, and we do.”

Russian prisoners live in barracks and are forced to work. We inherited this from Stalin’s gulag. Most of the female prisoners are forced to sew military and police uniforms. There’s something so morally wrong and disturbing in the fact that Sasha, a pacifist who was jailed for protesting against the war in Ukraine and insists that a human life is the most sacred miracle in the whole world, will be forced to produce military uniforms for the Russian army.

Sasha is everything that Vladimir Putin is not. She’s empathic, compassionate, kind, intelligent, courageous, beautiful, artistic; she truly cares about the future of her country. Unlike Putin, who hides his wives, lovers and children, Sasha is brave enough to be openly gay in Putin’s Russia.

Pussy Riot members, from left, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova behind glass in a court room in Moscow, Russia on 2 September 2012.
Pussy Riot members, from left, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova behind glass in a court room in Moscow, Russia on 2 September 2012. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/AP

Russia under Putin is morally bankrupt and not equipped with the moral compass necessary for comprehending Sasha’s idealism. That’s why it is determined to destroy her. Yet Sasha gives me hope for the future of our country. There are very few of us who stand up and speak out for truth and democracy, for Ukraine’s territories to be returned, and for war criminals to be brought to justice. All Russians who oppose the war and Putin owe Sasha for this; they have to make sure she’ll be released soon.

There are a few ways that Sasha might be released. The first option: overturning Putin’s government, which will bring the restoration of law and order in Russia. If this comes to pass, the war in Ukraine will come to an end, Russian troops will leave Ukrainian territories (including Crimea), and Sasha will be immediately released and her conviction annulled.

This sounds like a good plan, but as someone who has been trying to get rid of Putin since 2007, I can’t give you any guarantees as to how much longer this process might take.

Sasha’s health is quickly deteriorating in prison: she has chronic conditions, including a congenital heart defect, bipolar disorder and coeliac disease. We all remember the Sergei Magnitsky case. He was a tax lawyer turned anti-corruption campaigner who died in a Russian prison because he was denied proper medical treatment. I’m not ready for Sasha to become the next Magnitsky. Enough martyrs.

The second way to release Sasha is through an international prisoner exchange. I want to see Sasha boarding a plane on its way out of Russia. I want Sasha to live safely with her partner, Sonya. I want her to continue working on her books that teach people how to live with depression and bipolar disorder. If anyone deserves a miracle, it’s Sasha.

Sasha is my age, and I recognise myself in her. We spent our childhood in 1990s Russia, a culturally diverse environment that was rapidly changing, thriving. We grew up hoping for Russia to emerge as a European country with key values of happiness and comfort of its citizens. We thought that the authoritarianism and imperialism of the USSR were behind us, that we could listen to our favourite queer pop stars, speak freely, and love whomever we wanted.

But Putin came along and made it his life goal to destroy our dreams – to destroy everything that people like me and Sasha hold dear. We were creating our art – art our government labels extremist or degenerate – despite the hatred and hostility dealt out to us. We were flowers growing up through the cracks in the concrete. But Putin’s oppressive system was set up to grind those flowers to the ground – to stamp on them with military boots.

Putin’s enemies are democracy, truth and anyone who stands for those ideals. He sides with any monster or terrorist who he sees as useful in his goal of destroying people’s belief in democracy and truth. He aims to to destabilise peace and progress around the world.

My very first words when I was released from a penal colony in 2013 were: “Russia will be free.” I still believe this – even though any future freedom will come with a deep generational shame and debt to the entire world: to the people of Ukraine most of all. But, collectively, we have no choice but to hope and push for this. Otherwise, he’ll have won.

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