Kremlin’s Crackdown on Anti-War Protest

“Ten years is a monstrous term. They sentence people to less for murder,” the partner of one protester said.

Police officers detain a man during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in central Moscow on March 13. AFP via Getty Images file

By Shira Pinson and Yuliya Talmazan

Swapping out price tags for antiwar leaflets, wearing green ribbons, flashing a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

Those are things that can get ordinary Russians who don’t agree with the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine detained, fined or even jailed.

Since the start of Moscow’s incursion, media in Russia have been cautioned against calling it a “war,” and new draconian legislation has been put in place to stop people from “discrediting” the Russian army, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

That has meant the few Russians who still dare speak up against the war have gotten inventive to escape arrest. But it’s far from guaranteed.

Artist and musician Alexandra Skochilenko, from St. Petersburg, has been in detention for nearly two months after replacing several price tags at a local supermarket with small pieces of paper containing messages about the Russian army’s actions in Ukraine.

One of them read: “The Russian army bombed an art school in Mariupol. About 400 people hid in it from shelling.” Another said: “Putin has been lying to us from TV screens for 20 years. The result of this lie is our willingness to justify war and senseless deaths.”

Skochilenko’s lawyer, Yana Nepovinnova, told NBC News that Skochilenko's act of protest was caught by a customer, who raised a complaint.

Skochilenko, 31, is now facing criminal charges of spreading “deliberately false information” about the Russian army and could face up to 10 years in prison, Nepovinnova said. Skochilenko has admitted to swapping the price tags, but she denies that she was spreading false information, according to her lawyer. Her detention has been extended until at least July 1.

“I feel like they came into our home and took my family away because of some price tags,” Sofia Subbotina, Skochilenko’s partner, said on the phone from St. Petersburg, sounding dejected. “Ten years is a monstrous term. They sentence people to less for murder.”

Nepovinnova said she fears Skochilenko’s case will be used to send a “clear message” to others who dare speak up that they will face the same fate.

“She is essentially behind bars for her words,” Nepovinnova said.

During the decades of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on dissent, political protest in Russia has become nearly obliterated. Still, in the first days of the war, thousands of Russians took to the streets to voice their opposition. But that has largely fizzled out amid police violence, mass arrests and the Kremlin propaganda insisting most Russians support Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. What continues are the one-person protests of all shapes and forms to get one message across: There are people in Russia who do not agree with the war.

Another St. Petersburg resident, Artur Dmitriev, said he was detained in early April for holding up a sign that read: “The war has brought so much grief that it is impossible to forget. There is no forgiveness for those who are making aggressive plans again.”

This anti-war message was, in fact, an abbreviated direct quote from a speech made by Putin last year on the day Russia celebrates victory over Nazi Germany.

This made no difference to the authorities.

After spending 24 hours in detention, Dmitriev, 43, said he had a court hearing and was found guilty of “discrediting Russian armed forces,” according to the court papers he showed NBC News, under the newly enacted legislation. He said he was fined 30,000 rubles, or $520.

Holding up his court papers in a Zoom video, Dmitriev said his guilty verdict proves the absurdity of the system that detained and fined him for using Putin’s own words.

He said he even sent a snarky email to the president’s press office, asking the Russian leader to split the fine since they were now “accomplices.” The office responded but essentially ignored his request, Dmitriev said.

He admitted he was afraid throughout the ordeal and even more so now that he’s on law enforcement’s radar. But he said it’s important to speak up.

“It’s obvious where we are headed. It’s classical Orwell,” Dmitriev said. “If you are standing aside, you are only making it worse. But if you do this, you are letting people know that they are not alone.”