At today’s hearing [in Sasha Skochilenko’s criminal trial on charges of disseminating knowingly false information about the Russian army], Sasha’s defense lawyers and Svetlana Drugoveyko-Dolzhanskaya, a linguist who conducted an independent forensic examination and found no knowingly false information in Sasha’s messages, were able to question one of the authors of the linguistic forensic examination [commissioned by the prosecution].
Olga Safonova, a specialist in political science (!), was enlisted to contribute to the linguistic forensic examination. But, as she was instructed to do by a staff member at the forensics expertise center, she evaluated whether what was written [on the anti-war “price tags” that Ms. Skochilenko is alleged to have posted in a Petersburg supermarket] was in line with the Russian Defense Ministry’s position, not whether it was truthful.
[Safonova] admitted that her analysis of one of the messages was “slightly misleading.” She was “at a loss” when asked to respond to the assertion that Sasha faces up to ten years in prison on the basis of such misleading conclusions, among other things.
After a recess (due to her heart problems, Sasha found it difficult to endure the stuffiness and lack of water), the examination of the witness was continued by Drugoveyko-Dolzhanskaya. Safonova was forced to admit that among the sources against which she checked Sasha’s messages, only the Defense Ministry’s website corresponded to her own definition of an official source — unlike the website Life.ru and anonymous Telegram channels. She also could not answer a school curriculum-level question about impersonal sentences, although their erroneous definition in the forensic examination is one of the “proofs” of Sasha’s guilt.
In addition to pointing out the errors in the forensic examination and its noncompliance with government standards, Drugoveyko-Dolzhanskaya recalled that, according to the Justice Ministry’s methodological recommendations, when an expert strays beyond their area of professional competence, it is a procedural error and is inadmissible [as evidence in court]. Safonova was forced to agree. Drugoveyko-Dolzhanskaya followed this up by asking a direct question: “Can you, as an expert, prove conclusively that Skochilenko knowingly falsified information?”
Safonova replied that she could not.
The new prosecutor abruptly interrupted her and requested that the hearing be postponed.
You can come out and support Sasha at 11:30 a.m on June 13. Many thanks to everyone who continues to attend the trial, shares information about the case, and donates money to pay the lawyers and buy food and medicine care packages! You can help Sasha financially here:
In the late 1990s, St. Petersburg State University, for reasons unknown, gave away one of its dormitories on Vasilievsky Island — 10 Bering Street — with a two-story attic built on. Later, one of the university’s vice-rectors regretfully claimed that if the building had not been given away, the university would have had room to house over 500 students. Today, the building houses apartments (a three-bedroom flat there will run you 20 million rubles) and offices. It is owned by the Bering-10 Condominium Association, whose chair is Olga Diomidovna Safonova. She has the exact same name as an associate professor in the Faculty of Political Science at St. Petersburg State University.
Safonova has been involved as an expert witness in the criminal cases against [Petersburg anti-war protesters]Victoria Petrova, Sasha Skochilenko, and Vsevolod Korolev. They face up to ten years in prison if convicted. These are quotations from the expert analysis in the case against Victoria Petrova:
“Objective facts indicate that the war crimes against the civilian population of Ukraine have not been committed by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, but by the Kiev regime and the armed formations controlled by it.”
“The practical intent and purpose of the statements under examination [i.e., Victoria Petrova’s posts] consists in generating false ideas among readers (listeners) that the actions of the Russian federal leadership are condemned by society, as manifested by the threat of the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine and against European countries.[…]In the materials submitted for examination, the negative assessment of the policy of Russian federal state bodies vis-a-vis their deployment of Russian federal armed forces to protect the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens and maintain international peace and security, is not supported by arguments and evidence.”
Safonova graduated first from St. Petersburg State University’s law faculty, then from its philology faculty. In 2005, she defended her dissertation in political science. Here is a quote from the abstract: “Social deprivation has become a characteristic feature of the lifestyle of a significant portion of the Russian populace. A drop in the level of real monetary income has entailed increased competition for survival, thereby generating an increase in the stratum of people whose intentions have become criminal, i.e., unlawful.”
At least until the mid-2010s, Safonova led an active social life. The Village found the academic’s picture in a dozen photo reportages from different parties, as published by Sobaka.ru and Geometria. Here she is at a presentation by the jewelry house Freywille; here, at the (now-closed) restaurant Gusto’s birthday party; and here, at the opening of XXXX Baltika Brew.
The Village spoke about Safonova with graduates of various faculties at St. Petersburg State University: their assessments of her were contradictory. Journalist Anastasia Romanova, who took Safonova’s lecture course on political science, remembered her as “the toughest teacher, whose pass-fail exam was very hard to pass.” “She honestly read the whole class the riot act,” said Romanova. “It was very scary to go to her.” Emile, a graduate of the political science faculty, where Safonova taught a course on law, recalls, on the contrary, that “the course was a formality,” and “at some point that woman just disappeared.” It was one of the easiest subjects to pass,” he said.
In 2012, commenting to Delovoi Peterburg on the newly adopted law on foreign agents, Safonova said, “There are many organizations that, under plausible pretexts, are engaged in near-subversive activities. We as a state should be concerned about this, and it’s good that this issue has been addressed.”
“I remember that Safonova gave what I thought were absurd descriptions of the political regimes in other countries. She said there was no democracy anywhere. It seems to me that most students found her unpleasant both as a teacher and as an apologist for the regime. A couple of days ago, a classmate sent me an article in Rotunda about her involvement in the expert analysis [in the case of Victoria Petrova]. I wasn’t surprised,” says Emile. Romanova adds, “She didn’t give the impression of being a stupid person. Arrogant, yes. I think she understands perfectly well what is happening now.”
“I demand an immediate cessation of all hostilities and an international investigation of all crimes committed. […] I call on all Russians to fight for their rights and against the dictatorship, and do everything to stop this monstrous [war],” a young woman named Victoria Petrova says confidently and clearly on the screen in courtroom 36 at the St. Petersburg City Court. The members of the public attending the hearing — they are thirty-three of them — applaud.
A month ago, Petrova was an “ordinary person,” a manager in a small family-owned company. Now she is a defendant in a criminal case, charged with disseminating “fake news about the army,” and has been remanded in custody in the so-called Arsenalka, the women’s pretrial detention center on Arsenalnaya Street in Petersburg. The case against her was launched after she posted an anti-war message on the Russian social media network VKontakte. If convicted, she could face up to ten years in prison. In the following article, The Village explains how, thanks to Petrova’s lawyer, the case of this unknown “ordinary person” has resonated with the public, why Petrova’s mother is not allowed to visit her, and what the prisoner herself has to say.
On the sixth of May, at seven in the morning, Center “E” and SOBR officers came to Petrova’s rented apartment on Butlerov Street with a search warrant. They seized phones, laptops, and seven placards on the spot. The next day, the Kalinin District Court remanded Petrova in custody in Pretrial Detention Center No. 5 for a month and twenty-five days.
“The investigator said that, if he had his way, he would have released Vika on his own recognizance. But he was instructed to petition the court to place her under arrest,” Anastasia Pilipenko, Petrova’s lawyer, told The Village.
A case was opened against Petrova under the new criminal article on “public dissemination of deliberately false information about the deployment of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” According to the new law, any information on the so-called special operation in Ukraine that does not come from official Russian sources can be deemed “fake.” In Petrova’s case, the grounds for the criminal charges were a post on VKontakte, dated 23 March 2022, and the nine videos that she attached to it, featuring journalists Dmitry Gordon and Alexander Nevzorov, and grassroots activist and blogger Maxim Katz.
Who else has been arrested in Petersburg on criminal charges of spreading “fake news” about the Russian army?
Nearly 32,000 Victoria Petrovas are registered on VKontakte, and more than 1,800 of them live in Petersburg. The Victoria Petrova in question is depicted on her VKontakte pages as a woman wearing a light beanie, glasses, and makeup in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. She has 247 friends and eighty-nine followers.
Her post dated March 23 was deleted by VKontakte at the request of Roskomnadzor two days after it was published. But she made other anti-war posts, in which, among other things, Petrova recounts how she was jailed for ten days for taking part in a protest at Gostiny Dvor. In total, since the start of the “special operation,” she was detained twice on administrative charges.
When Center “E” [Center for Extremism Prevention] and SOBR [Special Rapid Deployment Force] came for Petrova on May 6, she thought at first that she would be charged once more under the Administrative Offenses Code. Realizing that now it was a matter for the Criminal Code, Petrova wrote her mother a detailed note explaining what to do with her apartment and her cat, and what things to send to the pretrial detention center, said Petrova’s attorney Pilipenko.
Pilipenko is now the only link between Petrova and the world: no one is allowed to see the prisoner except the lawyer.
Pilipenko’s mother has her birthday on February 24. On the evening of the 24th this year, she and her daughter were going to drink tea and eat cake. But [the war] started early that morning.
“People who are also opposed to [the war] are taking to the streets. The police are putting them in paddy wagons. They face fines and arrests. Cake is canceled — I have work to do […] I am spending the night at a police station,” the lawyer wrote in her Telegram channel. She spent a month and a half working this way.
Pilipenko is thirty-five years old. She graduated from the Northwestern Branch of the Russian State University of Justice. For a year she worked as a clerk in the Leningrad Regional Court. “It was like going into the army,” she says. Usually clerks eventually become judges, but Pilipenko first became a lecturer, then a barrister. “I would never have become a judge, I would not have been able to make decisions that changed people’s lives,” she says.
“But it happens that you can get a case dropped at the investigation stage. Or get the charges reduced to less serious ones. By today’s standards, that is tantamount to success for a defense lawyer,” says Pilipenko.
Pilipenko was not acquainted with Petrova until May 6, when the woman’s apartment was searched. The lawyer was asked to take the case by the Net Freedoms Project. The case is being handled by the Russian Investigative Committee’s central office.
“This means that there is no one investigator, that the entire investigative department is working on the case,” Pilipenko explains.
It was the lawyer who drew public attention to Petrova’s case by writing the following on May 11 on social media:
“Vika is an ordinary young woman. […] She has an ordinary life, goes to an ordinary gym, and has an ordinary cat. She has an ordinary job in an unremarkable company. […] Perhaps the only unusual thing about Vika’s case so far is just her ordinariness. She’s just like us. She’s not an activist, not a journalist, and not the voice of a generation.”
Victoria Petrova is twenty-eight years old. She was born in Petersburg, where she graduated from St. Petersburg State University’s Higher School of Management.
“Vika had a long braid, was very serious, gave the impression of an intelligent person, and got good grades. Intuitively, I feel that Vika is childish in a good sense, unspoiled,” Sofia, a classmate of Victoria Petrova’s, told The Village.
Another friend from school, Daria, in a comment to Mediazona, described Vika as a “born A student,” a “battler in life,” and a person who “was the most organized of all.”
“And her heart always aches over any injustice,” Daria said.
Pilipenko says that Petrova is “a very calm and organized person.”
“I was amazed by this at [the May 7 bail] hearing. People behave differently when they are arrested for the first time. Vika behaved with great dignity,” Pilipenko says.
Before her arrest, Petrova lived alone with her cat Marusya. The animal is now living with the heroine’s mother, while Maruysa’s owner is now at Pretrial Detention Center No. 5.
Pretrial Detention Center No. 5 is located on Arsenalnaya Street, which is a deserted place dotted with small manufacturing facilities and the premises of the shuttered Krasnyi Vyborzhets plant, which was going to be redeveloped as a housing estate. A banner sporting the prison’s name and an image of the Bronze Horseman is stretched above the entrance to the Arsenalka. From the street side, the complex consists of a typical rhombus-shaped concrete fence, reinforced with mesh and barbed wire. A tower sheathed in corrugated iron juts out above it. On the right, behind an old brick wall, there is a a building in the shape of a cross — a psychiatric hospital “for persons who have committed socially dangerous acts in a state of insanity.” The old Crosses Prison itself, a remand prison for men, is about a kilometer away. Five years ago, all the prisoners were transferred from there to a new facility in Kolpino. The women remained in the pre-revolutionary red-brick Arsenalka complex.
Businesswoman Natalia Verkhova has described life at Pretrial Detention Center No. 5.
“The meter-thick walls and the thick iron doors outfitted with peepholes and bolts. The mattresses a couple of centimeters thick. The prison-baked loaves of bread, often burnt. The broken toilets. The concrete floors in basements where the ladies wait for many hours to be shipped out [to interrogations, court hearings, and other prisons]. The queues at the care packages office and for visiting inmates. The duffel bags chockablock with romance novels in the corridors.”
Former inmate Elizaveta Ivanchikova describes the largest cell in the Arsenalka (for eighteen inmates), to which Petrova, like all newcomers, was first assigned.
“There were nine bunk beds in [the cell]. There were bedside tables next to the beds. In the middle of the cell there was a large iron table with wooden benches. All of this was bolted to the floor. There was also a refrigerator, a TV, a sink next to the toilet, and the toilet itself, behind an ordinary door, without a lock.”
Pilipenko says that Channel One is constantly turned on in this cell and there are many unspoken rules for maintaining cleanliness.
“For example, you can only comb your hair in one place, because if eighteen ladies do it in different places, the hair would be everywhere,” says Pilipenko.
A head inmate keeps order, and at first Vika did not get on well with her. The head inmate did not like that the new girl did not know how to behave in the detention center.
“For example, when the guards come to toss the cell, you need to stand up and lock your hands behind your back,” says Pilipenko.
The conflicts were quickly settled, however, and Petrova was subsequently transferred to another cell.
This, according to Pilipenko, was preceded by an incident in the second part of May, during which plaster fell directly on the imprisoned women.
“Vika said that the girls were sitting and drinking tea when part of the ceiling collapsed on the table. Vika was not injured, but one inmate suffered bruises,” Pilipenko says.
The Telegram channel Free Sasha Skochilenko! reported that the plaster collapsed due to severe leaks: “The residents of the cell gathered the pieces of the ceiling, the largest of which weighed about three kilograms. The pieces were wrapped in sheets and the floor was swept.”
Petrova is currently in a cell for six inmates. During their last visit, when Pilipenko asked her how she was doing, Petrova replied, “You know, okay.” Petrova was surprised by her own answer.
“The letters she receives play a big role. Without them, she would not have any way to keep herself busy. This is the biggest problem in remand prison,” says Pilipenko.
Petrova has received hundreds of letters, mostly from strangers, including from other countries. Petrova has told Pilipenko that she received a letter from a person who works in management at VKontakte. “He is upset that the social network played a role in my criminal case,” she told her.
“Vika definitely replies to all the letters. Except for those whose senders marked them with Z-symbols,” Pilipenko promises.
Petrova can correspond with other “ordinary people,” but it seems she cannot correspond with journalists. The Village sent her questions through her lawyer, but the sheet of paper with the answers was confiscated from Petrova right in her cell. Our correspondent then wrote to Petrova through the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service’s online FSIN-Pismo system. All three attempts that the The Village made to communicate with Petrova were not approved by the censor, and the negative responses came within a few hours, although the standard processing time is three days. Then, on the advice of Petrova’s lawyer, our correspondent sent all the same questions via FSIN-Pismo, but did not indicate that they were from the media. On the day this article went to press they were delivered to Petrova, but there has been no response from her yet. According to our information, other journalists have also failed to make contact with Petrova.
Petrova’s mother is also not allowed to see her daughter. According to the lawyer, one of the investigators said that “permission to meet with Mom will depend on the results of Vika’s interrogation as the accused party.” The investigators want Petrova to admit wrongdoing.
Victoria’s mother Marina Petrova lives in a three-room flat on Lunacharsky Avenue. Pilipenko filed an appeal against the order to remand her client in custody, hoping that “on grounds of reasonableness, legality, and humaneness” Petrova would be transferred to house arrest at her mother’s residence.
On the eighth of June, a hearing on the matter was held in the City Court. During the hearing, Pilipenko stated that her client was “actually being persecuted for voicing her opinion about the special military operation.” She also said that Petrova does not have a international travel passport and presents no flight risk, that there are no victims or witnesses in the case [whom the defendant theoretically thus might attempt to pressure or intimidate if she were at liberty], and that she had been charged with a nonviolent offense.
The defendant participated in the court hearing via video link from the Arsenalka. In her seven-minute closing statement, she explained what, in her opinion, had been happening for the last three and a half months in Ukraine.
Among other things, she said, “As a result of eight years of brainwashing by propaganda, Russians for the most part did not understand that [a war] had begun. Meanwhile, the completely immoral Z movement, ‘zedification,’ has been spreading across the country that once defeated Nazism. […] I do not feel any ideological, political, religious or other enmity towards the state authorities and the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation as institutions. In my anti-war posts, I said that people who gave and carried out criminal orders and committed war crimes should be punished for it.”
Judge Tatiana Yaltsevich denied the defense’s appeal. Petrova will remain in jail at least until the end of June.
On the evening of June 8, subscribers to the Telegram channel Free Vika Petrova! were warned that reposting her speech in court “could lead to criminal prosecution” — probably also under the article on “fake news” about the army.
The next day, Petrova commented on her speech to her lawyer.
“She says that since she has already become a political prisoner, she cannot help but use the court hearings as a means to talk about what is happening. She has not remained silent before, and she has even less desire to be silent now that many people will hear what she has to say,” reports Pilipenko.
Source: “‘An ordinary person’: the story of Vika Petrova, who wrote a post on VKontakte and has been charged with spreading ‘fake news,’ but refuses to give up,” The Village, 9 June 2022. Thanks to JG for the story and the heads-up. Translated by Thomas H. Campbell. Ms. Petrova’s support group has a Telegram channel and is circulating an online petition demanding her release.