‘Call them by their names’: Stories of Russian anti-war political prisoners

Screenshot of the Black February website. Fair use.

Black February is a website dedicated to political prisoners in Russia whose crimes derive from their stance against the war that Russia started on February 24, 2022, against Ukraine.  In March 2022, the Russian parliament passed amendments to the Russian Criminal Code allowing for real prison terms for an anti-war stance. The two related amendments are the Articles 207.3 and 280: Both imply punishment for “public dissemination of knowingly false information on the actions of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” Those charged with the latter face up to 10 years in prison.

The people behind the Black February project are artists and anti-war activists; according to news outlet Proekt, one of them is Sasha Starost, an activist and artist herself.

There are individual stories of those who dared to protest the actions of President Putin, his cronies, and a country that, under the spell of overwhelming propaganda and the desire to “not be involved,” close their eyes, ears and mouths. It is a country where television has won over the fridge — a metaphor often used in Russia to indicate how the brainwashing by television propaganda makes people overlook everything, including economic condition – and is still winning over the freezer, where the bodies of recently mobilized soldiers are stored.

Apart from the well-known stories of the last opposition politicians doing their jail terms “for all of us,” there are also stories of random repressions. There are indeed famous figures, such as Ilya Yashin who has pronounced his anti-war it on his popular YouTube and Telegram channels. He has been detained for protesting before but refused to leave Russia, although he knew what his fate would be.  He is now in jail waiting for the court to decide on his sentence of 10 years in prison for “spreading fake information about the Russian army.” Another well-known case is that of local Moscow MP Alexey Gorinov. He has been sentenced to seven years for “disseminating false information.” Black February reports that, in March 2022, during a meeting of the local MPs in Moscow region, Gorinov said a few harsh words about the “special operation” and proposed honouring the memory of  those Ukrainians that were killed in the war with a minute of silence. He became the first accused in the “anti-war rules” who was sentenced to a real jail term.

There are also other cases of ordinary people. St Petersburg artist Sasha Skolichenko was detained while changing labels on supermarket price tags to anti-war slogans. Former Russian Orthodox church priest Ioann Kurmoyarov, who said that those fighting in the war would end up in hell.  Schoolteacher Irina Gen from Penza whose anti-war stance was snitched on by her students.  An archeologist from Omsk Yevgeny Kruglov who reposted Bucha videos on VKontakte. A high school student Yevgeny Fokon from Novosibirsk, also for a repost but this time on Telegram. The list goes on.

Irina Bystrova is an artist and art teacher for children from Petrozavodsk.  She was first charged with “spreading fake information about the Russian army” for posting on her own VKontakte page a photo of Putin saying that he will burn in hell (for invading Ukraine). But, later, prosecutors initiated another case against her, on the basis of her post that said “turn around your weapons!” and classified it as a call to terrorism which carried the possibility of up to 10 years in jail. In an interview with MediaZona, Irina said that she is the only one taking care of her 83-year-old mother, and she does not know what would become of her once Irina is away. The court in Petrozavodsk sent her to compulsory inpatient psychiatric examination in June 2022.  She is now facing up to seven years in prison or compulsory psychiatric treatment.

One can help these (and other) prisoners by writing them a letter, signing a petition, or supporting human rights organizations that are still working in Russia: for instance, OVD-info, or the Black February website itself.

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