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Letters as the only means of communication, no plans for the future, dozens of hours on the road for a half-hour visit – such is the reality for the wives and partners of Russia’s political prisoners. While their loved ones rot in pre-trial detention and endure the endless humiliation of unfair court proceedings and the penitentiary system, they spare no effort in making life on the inside easier: raise money for defense and parcels, fight for their visitation rights, and make a ruckus in the media to ensure at least a semblance of safety for their partners. The Insider asked the wives and partners of Russian political prisoners how they are dealing with fear, helplessness, and rage, and if they see a future for their relationships despite the ordeal.

Content
  • “The only feeling I have left is rage”

  • “I can't 'take a break' from a husband in prison”

  • “At first, the sound of steps in the lobby made me jump every time”

RU

“The only feeling I have left is rage”

Viktor (Vitya) Filinkov was arrested on January 23, 2018, in Saint Petersburg in the “Network” case, initiated against an alleged anti-government anarchist organization. According to the Federal Security Service, the cells of the organization were active in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Penza, Omsk, and several Belarusian cities. Nine young leftists from Penza and Saint Petersburg were charged with setting up a terrorist group that had purportedly planned a series of attacks across Russia. On June 22, 2020, Filinkov was sentenced to seven years in a penal colony despite pleading not guilty.

Alexandra Aksyonova, Viktor Filinkov's wife: The “Network” case was initiated in Penza, and I’d known some of the defendants for years. I’d been hanging out with the punk rock crowd since I was fifteen, and the community had always been politicized to an extent, being based on such values as equality, solidarity, and so on. Together with local anti-fascists, we took part in small-scale activism, like distributing stickers or staging Food Not Bombs protests. That's how I met Vitya, and we didn't move to Saint Pete's until later.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

Alexandra Aksyonova
Alexandra Aksyonova
Photo from personal archives

It all started when a guy from Penza was picked up for drug possession. He snitched on another guy, who was tortured and snitched on someone else. Things went downhill from there. Penza is a small town, and local security agencies were aware of the anarchists’ political activism. They knew who the ringleaders were.

I was sure they’d come for me first rather than Vitya. So did he. That's why I left Russia. When a wave of arrests began in Penza, all we were getting were second-hand rumors, which sounded rather alarmist. But then we heard about the arrest of a close acquaintance, who’d been at our place many times, and the realization came: “That's it, we're f*cked.”

I'd lived in Kyiv for a few months, and Vitya came to me to celebrate the New Year together. It seemed improbable, unrealistic that the Penza case would reach Saint Petersburg. We were more preoccupied with hiring defense attorneys for our friends, raising money, and getting a better picture of what was going on.

Rumors of torture began to spread. In November or December, I got a message from Penza through a lawyer: “They’ve got their methods, and these methods are working. Everyone I know should leave.” That's when we realized things were serious.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

I got a message from Penza through a lawyer: “They’ve got their methods, and these methods are working. Everyone I know should leave”

I remember the day when Vitya left Kyiv for Saint Petersburg. I saw him off, and it was a brief goodbye – we both thought he’d return a couple of weeks or a month later. No profound conversations, no getting emotional. He’d even left a flash drive he used for work in the apartment we were renting and said: “No need to go back for it – I’ll pick it up next time.” A few days later, when he was already in Saint Petersburg we learned of Yulik’s arrest. At this point, I couldn’t see straight. I knew they were finally onto us.

I wrote to him, thinking that every second mattered and that he had to do something right away. In retrospect, as I analyzed my actions, I understood it was a stupid thing to do because Vitya had gone to the airport and bought a ticket in his real name. Meanwhile, they’d been following his every move for a long time. No way would they have let him get on that plane.

At around three p.m. on January 23, he texted that he was leaving for the airport ahead of time, to be on the safe side. He said: “I’ll text you when I get there.” And that was it. I never heard from him again. I called many times. First, no one picked up. Then the phone was off. Then my calls were rejected. Then the phone went off again. He was supposed to arrive at around eight in the evening, after a connection in Minsk. I hoped he was just having trouble with network coverage.

I also suspected the Security Service of Ukraine could have detained him at the airport for a chat. So there I was, running toward the information desk in tears, asking for help, for advice, for anything, saying I couldn’t find my husband. Could he have been detained at the airport? He wasn't, as it turned out. The doors opened again and again, and more passengers arrived. So I kept thinking: “He’s coming, he's coming...” One flight after another, and before I knew it, the airport closed down for the night. It was past midnight when I went home, not knowing what else to do. I wrote to Vitaly Cherkasov, an Agora lawyer. I had no more doubts that my husband had been arrested.

It took us over 24 hours to locate him after numerous calls to police stations, the prosecutor's office, the FSB, airports, hospitals, and morgues. We called everyone. They just stonewalled us. The cops knew, of course, that Vitya was in a holding cell, that he’d been tortured. Two days later, we learned of another arrest: our friend Igor Shishkin, who'd taken his dog for a walk, never came back.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

It took us over 24 hours to locate him after numerous calls to police stations, the prosecutor's office, the FSB, airports, hospitals, and morgues

Two days later, human rights defenders Ekaterina Kosarevskaya and Yana Teplitskaya of ONK-4 made it to Shpalernaya, where Vitya was kept. He was hesitant to speak with them, thinking they were FSB, because his torturers had threatened it would only get worse if he blabbed. Only his lawyer Vitaly Cherkasov managed to convince him that the women could be trusted. To me, he had nothing reassuring to say: “We found Viktor, but I’ve got some bad news. He is facing terrorism charges, among others. And he’s been tortured. I’ll call the oversight commission right away.”

Since then, we started fighting to get them to record medical evidence of torture. The lawyer wrote to the prosecutor's office that the FSB officers resorted to torture and that an inspection was due. Guess where the prosecutor's office forwarded the complaint? That’s right, to the FSB. The FSB says its officers did nothing of the sort, “You’re all lying,” but there will be no examination. No one gives a damn about the torture.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

The lawyer wrote to the prosecutor's office that the FSB officers resorted to torture. Guess where the prosecutor's office forwarded the complaint? That’s right, to the FSB

I realized full well that if I returned, I might do some good to Vitya as a co-defendant in court, but it wouldn't be much of a difference. I was overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, being so far away and out of control. I was in contact with lawyers, the oversight commission, and activists, writing letters and ordering books for Vitya to read in custody. All of this felt so small and insignificant.

Violence was happening right in front of me, but my hands were tied. And then we learned about all the horrible f*cking things they’d done to him from his diaries, in which he wrote how they’d arrested him, taken him to the woods, how FSB officers had pressured him... As I was reading, I realized all of it had happened to someone very dear and that I couldn’t offer him any comfort, I couldn't even say: “I’ve got you, we’re in this together, I’m so sorry you had to go through it.”

All I did was read and weep. Every day brought new horrors. I learned about another friend's arrest and two days of torture. His wife was brought in; they humiliated her and used her to threaten him. He was beaten black and blue. I read reports of torture in the Saint Petersburg case and couldn’t help thinking: “That’s just f*cking impossible. Everyone is probably about to realize what a mistake they’ve made, and it’ll all be over.” How I hate these people; how I wish they’d simply disappear.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

Viktor Filinkov, defendant in the “Network” case, in court
Viktor Filinkov, defendant in the “Network” case, in court

The last time we spoke on the phone was three years ago. We had 15 minutes. An officer was listening in and could disconnect us at any moment if they thought we said something wrong. We could only discuss day-to-day matters: “The dog took a good dump. I’m studying, yes, everything is fine at home, no, no one's sick.”

I’m very fond of Vitya. He's the closest person I have. But the only feeling I have left is rage. Fury toward the entire system. And nothing else. I wrote to Vitya that I’d been squeezed dry and that I wanted to end our romantic relationship.

It was very hard because, among other reasons, everyone, myself included, had been consistently building the image of an “inmate's wife.” An inmate’s wife must be a role model. All she ever speaks about is her husband. But sooner or later, it’s over. The couple is no longer in love. At least, that's what happened to me. I was unbearably ashamed of my feelings – or rather, lack thereof. I felt terrible writing about it, hurting him like this. Knowing that I was in Finland, safe and sound, doing just peachy. I realized what it looked like: he was locked up, tortured, convoyed back and forth, and I was the one saying: “It's too hard for me.” Thank god, Vitya and I understand each other.

I often have these stupid dreams about him being released from prison, but only for a day. As far as I know, this kind of dream often comes to those whose family members are in jail. Even in your dream, it feels like it’ll never end, like you’ll be waiting for their release forever, doing nothing but obsessing over their case files. Everyone whose loved ones are in prison exists in a sort of limbo, feeling as though they’ll never return. And if they do, it’ll only be for a day. But that's our reality for now. I want to believe the nightmare will end one day. But it’s hard.

“I can't 'take a break' from a husband in prison”

On July 15, 2022, Andrei Pivovarov, oppositionist and former head of the civil society organization Open Russia, was sentenced to four years in a penal colony and deprived of the right to engage in social and political activities for eight years for “cooperation with an undesirable organization.” As a pretext for his arrest, the law enforcers used 34 shared Facebook posts about Democrats United – a project affiliated with Open Saint Petersburg, an NGO labeled as a “foreign agent”.

Tatiana Usmanova (Pivovarova), journalist, human rights activist, Andrei Pivovarov's wife: The two and a half years since Andrei's arrest have been an emotional rollercoaster for me. There are days when it seems as though we’re doing great and we’ll win. There are also days when I lie on my bed for three days straight, not understanding what to do next. If it weren't for my therapist, lectures, and books on psychology, I’m not sure I'd still be standing. Many “anti-burnout” recommendations go like “switch off your messengers for a week, focus on yourself,” and so on. But I can't “take a break” from a husband in prison.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

Tatiana Usmanova
Tatiana Usmanova
Photo from personal archives

I write to him almost daily. Unable to talk to him, I have to pour everything out on paper, and it’s a sort of therapy as well. I write about all sorts of things, like meeting an old-time friend or going discount shopping. At first, I doubted he’d be interested in such nonsense. But then I realized it was important to me. Our life consists of small, mundane things. So I write whatever comes to mind.

Often, my letters are detailed accounts of the current events in the country. There are a lot of things I can't share because of censorship. But he still needs to know at least something. His replies are sometimes redacted too. When he was in Krasnodar, some fragments of his letters were concealed with black. Life on the inside consists of events, stories, and jokes that may seem insignificant to the outer world. Thus, Andrei shared very lively accounts of the conversations he had with his cellmates. These funny, ridiculous stories were obscured in his letters from the Krasnodar detention center because one of the inmates said something wrong or was a crime boss.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

In letters from prison, censors redact even accounts of funny conversations with cellmates

Apart from letters, I have a lot of tasks related to Andrei's criminal case. Court hearings are ongoing. On Monday, his lawyer can get notified that the trial will take place in Krasnodar on Wednesday or Thursday. So I drop whatever I’m doing and fly out on the next day. We tried to move the court proceedings to Saint Petersburg. Normally, all high-profile cases are heard in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. However, Krasnodar was picked for a reason: the prosecution wanted us to be as far away from him as possible to make his defense harder. They want him to have as little support as possible because, for all the love his friends and colleagues have for him, I realize that editorial offices can’t afford to send reporters to his every court session.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

Andrei Pivovarov in court
Andrei Pivovarov in court

Before we got married, he’d only been allowed a single 90-minute visit from his mother. And it was only because his lawyer managed to secure it through the Supreme Court. He wasn’t even allowed to make calls. He called his parents a few times, and that was it. It creates an immense pressure. But the worst part was when he was put in a PKT cell right after his transfer to Karelia. It's like a SHU but worse.

Andrei spent three months there. Normally, to deserve such punishment, you need to have killed, dismembered, and eaten someone, and then started dealing drugs in prison. As for Andrei, he was thrown in that cell upon arrival, simply because he’d rolled up the sleeves of his uniform and hadn't cleaned his cell, which he’d only occupied for three hours.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

To deserve such punishment as Andrei was given, you need to have killed, dismembered, and eaten someone, and then started dealing drugs in prison

After three months in PKT, he was moved to a cell with strict detention conditions, where he will remain until next January. He’s in a prison within a prison, kept in a separate block, away from other inmates. I was terrified to learn that other prisoners have to turn their faces away from him as they pass by, to avoid even a brief eye contact.

On the way to see him in Segezh, I was rereading “The Gulag Archipelago” to feel the atmosphere. Segezh was among the locations where the White Sea–Baltic Canal was built. When I first read “The Gulag Archipelago” as a child, it felt as though I was reading about Ivan the Terrible’s times. As I’m rereading it now, it feels as though today’s prison authorities are using it as a guide to pressure inmates.

Masha Alyokhina told me: “Tanya, you need to get through pre-trial detention. After that, you’re transferred to the penal colony. There, life is somewhat more tolerable because you get to see the sky, you get to walk around, and it’s okay. Inmates only return to the barracks for the night. There's a shop where they can buy something, a gym, a church, a library. You can sit down on a bench outdoors for a bit. There’s at least some freedom of action.”

Meanwhile, Andrei was put in solitary detention, which is an extremely harsh punishment. His day is packed. It’s not as though he sits around in his cell doing whatever he likes. In PKT, you get up at five a.m., and the lights are out at nine p.m. Who the hell invented this timetable? To what end? Just to torture people. No “biological clock” can wake you up at five in the morning. It's another element of pressure.

He's recently been allowed to wake up at six, and he was very happy about this change to his routine. Still, he has chores to do every hour of every day. They keep him busy. For instance, he has to spend two or two and a half hours a day cleaning his cell, and he can’t clean it in five or even forty minutes and spend the rest of the time reading. He has to keep cleaning for two and a half hours. Otherwise, he’ll get reported.

He has to spend another two hours listening to prison rules and regulations. The same document is read out over and over again and broadcast over the prison radio. During this time, inmates aren't allowed to read or write letters. The rest of the time, the radio broadcasts music. As Andrei says, the playlist is very short, about 40 songs. He used to like it when they put on Loboda’s songs, But they removed her from the playlist after February 24th.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

When the war began, the prison administration stopped broadcasting anti-war singers

On the plus side, they are now allowed to watch TV, for an hour or two a day. They can't use the remote control, though – only watch what they're shown. And the choice isn't great either. They sometimes watch action movies recorded from federal networks, or the patriotic channel Zvezda. They didn’t use to watch the news, but now they sometimes do. They also sometimes watch sports, but not in the sense of getting to see premier-league soccer matches at the same time as Moscow. They watch golf or cricket. As he says, “I have great respect for these sports, of course, but it’s not entirely clear what motivated their choice.”

We got married on July 26, in many parts because I wouldn’t be able to visit him otherwise. Our officials don’t know the terms “partner” or “girlfriend.” I was told in so many words: “You’re no one to him. You should leave.” They kept saying it since the day of his arrest. Some of his court sessions were closed, and no one was allowed in.

These two and a half years have taught me to never make plans for more than a week. I haven't traveled anywhere because I sometimes had to take off to a court hearing on short notice. And I was so stressed all the time, ready to go to the court session just to see him for at least half an hour. Nothing’s changed.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

These two and a half years have taught me to never make plans for more than a week ahead

I’ve given up any political activity. Right on the day of Andrei’s arrest, I switched to human rights projects related to his case, his media campaign, and helping other political prisoners whenever I could. It’s been a while since I did anything political. I lead a quiet, secluded life, trying to minimize risks.

I only go to conferences because I know that publicity keeps Andrei safe. I reach out to human rights groups and European agencies to ensure their continued support for Andrei. We hold letter sessions all over the world. I’m Andrei's contact with the outer world. He’s a very active man and always has a lot of tasks for me to take care of. I’ve become his personal Google: if he needs to find something out, I spend a lot of time analyzing it for him.

We’ve had one long visit since our wedding. We had three days to ourselves. But we couldn't shake off the paranoid feeling that there were cameras and bugs everywhere. We'd had this feeling even before his arrest. Even at home, we felt as though our every move was being recorded.

Andrei and I want to start a family. Hopefully, our wish will come true.

“At first, the sound of steps in the lobby made me jump every time”

Artist Alexandra (Sasha) Skochilenko was sentenced to seven years in a penal colony on November 18, 2023, for “spreading false information about the Russian army”. In the spring of 2022, she replaced price tags in Perekryostok grocery stores with anti-war leaflets containing facts about Russia’s “special operation.”

Sofya Subbotina, Alexandra Skochilenko's civil partner: Sasha was arrested on April 11, 2022. I remember that day in great detail. I woke up early and was about to leave for work. Sasha had a day off but woke up to a call from an old-time acquaintance. He was scared, said the police had come to search his place, and asked for help. Sasha began calling human rights defenders and lawyers we knew. Some five minutes later, he called again and said the police had got the address wrong. “I’m fine, but I could really use some support right now,” he said. And Sasha went to check on him.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

Sofya Subbotina
Sofya Subbotina
Photo from personal archives

The situation made me uneasy, but Sasha assured me she’d be fine, so I left for work. Three hours later, a close friend called and said Sasha’d been arrested. I was dumbfounded, of course. We'd been participating in protests since the war had begun, and Sasha had been writing posts on Vkontakte, so I thought her arrest had to do with those activities.

In court, new details emerged. Sasha first went to see that acquaintance of ours after placing her anti-war pricetags in the supermarket. The cops used CCTV footage to track her and find out which entrance she used. They set up a trap. They came to him early in the morning. He asked through the door what was going on, and they replied that a five-year-old boy had gone missing, that they were looking for the body, and that traces were leading to his door. They threatened to cut the lock with an axle grinder unless he let them in. He was very scared and opened the door. They showed him stills from CCTV footage in the supermarket and asked whether he knew the girl in the images. He said he did.

They got into his computer with an open Telegram chat and saw his conversation with Sasha. So they forced him to call her and ask her to come over. There was a car parked outside his apartment block. When Sasha was about to enter the lobby, operatives got out of the car and apprehended her. It was very scary, of course: a couple of guys in plain clothes grabbed her and started dragging. Sasha was screaming bloody murder, and the tenants of the house even called the police, but she was already in the car. Not one policeman showed her their ID. During the search, she was humiliated, subjected to violence, and even threatened with rape.

It was the first such outrageous arrest – a show aimed at scaring thousands, maybe millions. Unfortunately, it seems as though it worked.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

It was the first such outrageous arrest – a show aimed at scaring thousands, maybe millions

I was terrified. For some time, I stayed in our apartment, and the sound of steps in the lobby or the banging of doors always made me jump: I thought law enforcers were back. When I couldn't take it anymore, I moved in with my friends.

At first, I was barely holding on. I was a mess. The only thing that kept me going was the need to get Sasha food, medical assistance, and lawyers, Every day, I had dozens of tasks to take care of, from morning till night. I brought parcels for Sasha. She has serious health conditions: celiac disease and a congenital heart disease. She’s even survived a few heart attacks.

I ran around the city buying special foods for Sasha. There aren’t many shops selling them in Russia, even in large cities. There are also a lot of weird bans regarding prison parcels. For instance, you can’t bring vegetables or fruit with a pit.

I often communicated with the administration of her pre-trial detention center, trying to get them to allow medication for Sasha and to arrange a visit from her doctors. Normally, civil doctors aren't allowed to treat inmates, not to mention how hard it is to find a doctor willing to see a jailed patient. Even though Saint Petersburg is a big city, we only found one clinic, which charged us a fortune. On another occasion, I managed to arrange for her tests to be taken in prison. It was no small feat.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

Alexandra Skochilenko in court
Alexandra Skochilenko in court

The fight for Sasha's rights with the detention center administration was a long and arduous battle. We have an extensive support group, who wrote to Russia's Human Rights Commissioner and the prosecutor's office, complaining of the humiliation she was subjected to in the cell and failure to provide medical assistance. For over a year now, Sasha has been kept in a twin cell in the infirmary, and her situation has become much better. Sasha’s first cellmate told her right away; “I’ve been placed here to snitch on you, But I don't want to.”

I’ve been in contact with the press the whole time, telling them about Sasha's case. I’ve been interviewed by all of the giants: ВВС, CNN, Washington Post. And the Russian ones too, of course. I think it keeps Sasha safe: if someone gets a lot of exposure, they are less likely to be tortured or mistreated.

When the prosecution presented “evidence” in court, every item came as a surprise. The prosecutor read out the mechanism of the automatic doors at the supermarket and the cashier's job description and working hours... Even the baker's manual! Our lawyer couldn't help asking: “What does the baker’s manual have to do with anything? How is that relevant to Skochilenko’s guilt?”

Our relationship made things worse: since Sasha and I had lived together, I was summoned as a witness. The investigator questioned me twice. As a result, I wasn't allowed to attend the hearings.

I didn’t see Sasha for a year, and we could only communicate through our lawyers and the prison mail. Finally, we caught a break. The prosecution decided against putting me on the stand. They realized full well that I wasn’t going to be much use to them. And last April, exactly one year since her arrest, we were allowed a visit. I couldn't believe it at first.

But I’ve been allowed to visit her twice a month ever since. A visit lasts one hour. We can also call each other, and since Sasha is generally on good terms with the guards, we can sometimes talk for a couple of hours. I feel as though she's once again in my life.

I’m in touch with the wives and girlfriends of other political prisoners. We have a mutual support chat. Almost everyone married their loved ones when they were put in prison or pre-trial detention. Obviously, Sasha and I don't have that option.

Luckily, there are a lot of people preoccupied with Sasha’s fate; they help us financially, write complaints whenever Sasha's rights are violated, and help spread the word. It costs a fortune to support someone in pre-trial detention. Thus, a lawyer's visit costs 15,000 rubles. A doctor's visit costs around 12,000. Apart from that, Sasha needs medication, special foods, and hygiene items. Public support helps us provide her with all of the above.

~$130

~$160

Same-sex marriage is not allowed in Russia.

Vkontakte is a Russian social network similar to Facebook.

Ukrainian singer Svetlana Loboda condemned Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

Maria (Masha) Alyokhina is a Russian political activist and member of the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot.

“The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is a three-volume series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident.

PKT (the Russian abbreviation for «cell-type housing unit») is a special type of solitary confinement for particularly dangerous criminals.

Andrei Pivovarov was arrested on May 31, 2021.

Pretrial Detention Center 3 of the Federal Penitentiary Service at 25, Shpalernaya Street, Saint Petersburg.

A public oversight commission on the rights of inmates.

The Agora human rights group

Yulian Boyarshinov

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