Your honor! The honorable court!
My criminal case is so strange and funny that it was opened on April 1st. My case is so strange and funny that sometimes I feel like when I come into the courtroom for another hearing, confetti will start falling from above, fireworks will go off, music will start playing, and people will rise up, dance, and cry, “April Fool! April Fool!” My case is so strange and funny that the staff of the [jail where I’m held] open their eyes wide and exclaim, “Do they really put people in prison for that?” My case is such that none of even the most fervent supporters of the special military operations whom I’ve met believes that I deserve a prison sentence for what I did.
My case is such that the investigator quit his job before it was closed. In a private conversation with my lawyer he said, “I didn’t come to work for the Investigative Committee to deal with cases like that of Sasha Skochilenko.”
And he quit my case, which promised him a brilliant career growth and had already put another star on his shoulder boards. He left the Investigative Committee and got a job at a military surplus store. I believe that his choice is immensely brave, and I think that he and I are alike: both of us stayed true to our conscience.
The very 207.3 article [“public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”] is discriminatory at its root because it only punishes a certain group of people—those who do not work for government institutions. Just think about it: the information that I spread reached so many people thanks only to my investigators, for whom—unlike for me—it was “knowingly false.” They spread it among their colleagues, and then among the prosecutor’s office and court staff; they insulted six military witnesses with it, and created an event that has drawn incredible public attention and reached people far beyond Russia.
Had I not been arrested, this information would be known to one elderly lady [who reported me to the police], a cashier and a security guard of a supermarket. Two out of those three people, according to my criminal case materials, were not impressed by the so-called “price tags” in the slightest. Tell me, do investigators spread drugs among their colleagues in order to try to prove someone guilty of a drug offense? Such investigators would face the same charge. Then why am I the only one tried in this court?
If these five small pieces of paper are so frightening then why was this process started at all? So that dozens of times, we would chew over these five statements? Even the state prosecutor has read them aloud—and didn’t blush. Why not also have the appeal hearing, and the cassation hearing, so that we can talk more about Putin, about television—we haven’t finished talking yet, we can still go on, appeal to all the institutions, and talk, talk, talk, maybe for many years still.
So, we have said these five statements hundreds of times. So what? Has the earth opened? Has a revolution in the country begun? Have soldiers on the frontlines start fraternizing with each other? Nothing of the sort has happened. So what is the problem?
The state prosecutor has mentioned multiple times that what I did is extremely dangerous to the society and the state. How weak is our prosecutor’s faith in our state and society if he believes that our statehood and public safety can be destroyed by five small pieces of paper? What damage and to whom did I do? Who was the victim of my actions? The state prosecutor did not say a word about that. When someone starts a military rebellion that inflicts immense damage on our country, their criminal case is opened and closed within a day. So why have I been in confinement for nineteen months—along with murderers, thieves, child molesters, and pimps. Can it be that my humble action is comparable to the aforementioned crimes even in the slightest?
Your Honor! Every court sentence is a certain message to the public. You may think of this information differently than my lawyers or I do, but you will agree that I have my moral principles and that I haven’t departed from them, not by an inch. You will probably agree that I have shown courage, resilience, and fearlessness. In the slang of investigators, to put someone in jail is “to take them prisoner”. And I have not given up under threats of being taken prisoner, of bullying, illness, and the eight-year sentence that prosecution has asked for; I have not been hypocritical; I have been honest before myself and before the court.
If you choose to convict me, what message will you send to our fellow citizens? That you have to break if you’re taken prisoner? That you have to lie, be a hypocrite, change your convictions if you face some pressure? That you can’t have pity for our soldiers? That you can’t wish for peaceful skies above our heads? Is it really what you want to say to people in times of depression, instability, crisis, and stress?
My process is widely covered in Russia and in the world; news videos and documentary films are being made, and even books are being written about it. So regardless of the verdict you deliver, you will become part of history. Perhaps you will become part of history as the person who convicted me; perhaps as the person who acquitted me; perhaps as the person who made a neutral decision and gave me a fine, a conditional sentence, or a time that I have already served. It is all in your hands—but remember: everybody knows, everybody sees that you’re not trying a terrorist in this court. You’re not trying an extremist. You’re not even trying a political activist. You’re trying a musician, an artist, and a pacifist.
Yes, I am a pacifist. Pacifists have existed forever. It is a certain kind of people who believe life to be the highest value of all. Pacifists believe that every conflict can be resolved by peaceful means. I can’t kill even a spider—I am scared to imagine that it is possible to take someone’s life. That’s just who I grew up to be, that’s who my mother brought me up to be. Wars don’t end thanks to warriors—they end thanks to pacifists. And when you imprison pacifists, you move the long-awaited day of the peace further away.
Yes, I am a pacifist. Yes, I believe that life is sacred. Oh yes—life! If you cast away all the trifles of this world such as cars, flats, wealth, power, success, social connections and social media, that’s the only thing that is left at the end of the day. Oh yes—life! It is incredible, it is amazing, it is unique, it is tenacious, it is strong. It emerged on Earth, and so far, we haven’t found its equivalents even far away in space. It can break through concrete, it can destroy rocks, it can turn from a tiny spring into a colossal baobab, from a minuscule cell into a gigantic whale. It lives on the mountains on the top of the world, it hides in the depths of the Mariana trench, by its ineradicable power it spreads from the arctic ices into the red-hot desert. Its most perfect form is the human. The human is a highly sentient form of life. It is life that can be conscious of itself. Life that can be conscious of its mortality. Although most often, we forget this, and live our life as if we will live forever. But it is not so: a human life is brief. It is extremely short. All we can do is make a short moment of bliss a bit longer. Everyone who is alive wants to live. Even on a hangman’s neck you can find traces of fingernails. It means that at their very last moment, they held onto life, they madly wanted to survive.
Ask someone who has just had a cancerous tumor removed, what is life and how valuable is it? That is why today scientists and doctors of the whole world fight to extend human life expectancy and find remedies from deadly diseases. Which is why I can’t understand: why have a military operation? Because warfare shortens lives. Warfare is death. We have lived through the coronavirus pandemic, when we lost our dear elderly relatives—our beloved grandmothers, grandfathers, war veterans, mentors, teachers. There was grief, there was pain, there was mourning, and just as we were finding our feet again, just as we were starting to live… a military operation. But now we’re losing young people. Pain again, mourning again, grief again. So I just couldn’t understand: why have a military operation?
You may call it whatever you want to—I was misled, or mistaken, or I had wool pulled over my eyes… Whatever happens, I will walk out of here and I will say, “And yet it moves.” And I don’t believe that one truth or the other needs to be legally enforced. The state prosecutor believes in a truth that is very different from mine. As you may have noticed, in his accusatory speech he did not explain, he did not provide any arguments why it is the official government sources that are the ultimate truth. No, he did not. Just as he did not explain why, after analyzing diverse information sources, I should have concluded that it is only the official sources that tell the truth. And I can tell you why: faith has no need of explanations. He believes in the existence of the so-called “NATO sycophants” or in the fact that there is no independent media—just ones that are financed from abroad whose goal is to libel and destroy Russia. Let him believe that! It is his right. But the huge difference between our prosecutor and myself is that I would never put him in jail because of that. Especially not for eight years.
I sincerely regret it if I hurt anyone by my action. I really did not mean to do so. My jail confinement allowed me to understand that there are many people with their own unique individual truths in the world—and you can’t argue with them, you can’t convince them. The same goes for the attitude toward the special military operation. And it is a huge tragedy that we don’t all share the same truth and do not accept each other’s truths, and some squabble over it, like dogs over a bone: it causes a rupture in the society, it destroys families and tears apart friends, colleagues, and people who love each other, it multiplies hostility and enmity on Earth, and takes us further away from that long-awaited day of peace. I will not deviate from the truth if I say that every person, every single person in this courtroom wishes for the same thing—peace. And if there is someone who wishes for the opposite—let them cast the first stone at me.
Why have a war? If all we have in this frightening world full of disasters, hardships, and tears, is each other. No, not all the wealth and power in this universe could buy your loved one out of death’s grip. No, not money, not power, not wealth, not power, not cars, not flats, not territories, not palaces, not oil wells, not atomic energy—none of that!
It is only us. We are all we have. And I have people I love, who are what I care about the most. They come to this courtroom every time, they wait, they believe, they pray that I walk out of these doors—alive, healthy, free, and as soon as possible. At home, my elderly mother is waiting for me, along with my sister, my lovely nieces and nephews, and my beloved partner who has had a terrible diagnosis—cancer. I don’t know a single person in this courtroom who really wants to see me go to prison, apart from maybe the state prosecutor.
Although I think that in his heart of hearts the state prosecutor does not want it. I think that he came to work for the prosecutor’s office to put real criminals in prison: murderers, rapists, child molesters. And I think that when he is not busy with our process, that is what he does—and I thank him for it. But the guarantee of career growth is that you must put in prison those who you have to put there. Let’s not pretend it isn’t so, at least now when our process is coming to its end. But I don’t blame you. I know that you care about your welfare, your status in the society, you care about not losing this place, about, god forbid, never being in my place. You care about the well-being of your family, about giving them food and a roof over their heads; perhaps you care about your future children, about giving them good education, qualified medical help… But what will you tell these children about? How you once sent a gravely ill artist, beloved by everyone, to prison for five small pieces of paper? No, undoubtedly, you will tell them about other cases. You must comfort yourself by thinking that you’re just doing your job and that you don’t have a choice. But what are you going to do when the pendulum swings in the other direction?
Such is the law of history, just as absolute and fundamental as the law of universal gravitation: conservatives take the place of liberals, liberals take the place of conservatives. After a natural death of one political leader another comes to power, who leads the country in a very different direction. That is the moment when the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. You know, this may sound strange, but I feel sympathy for you.
Even though I am in a cage, I may be much freer than you are. I can make my own decisions, can say whatever I want, can quit a job if it makes me do something I don’t want to be doing, I can organize my own work schedule, I can spend as much time with my loved ones as I want to. I can dress however I want to. I can love whoever I want to.
I do not have enemies. I am not afraid to find myself without money or even a roof over my head. I am not afraid to seem weird, vulnerable, weak, or funny. I am not afraid of not being like others. Maybe that’s why my state is so scared of me and those who are like me, why it keeps me in a cage like the most dangerous animal.
But a man isn’t a wolf to another man. It's just that it’s easy to be angry at each other because of the difference in opinions, while to love each other, to try to understand and find compromises is very hard. It is so unbearably hard that sometimes it feels simply impossible—at such moments violence, pressure, and intimidation seem to be the only way. But it isn’t so! We need to learn to love each other, be merciful to each other, and to compromise—it is the only way to climb out of this morality crisis in which we have ended up.
Your Honor! You are given a unique chance to show an example to our society through your sentence. And I don’t even mean telling the international community, hey, we don’t have repressions, we don’t send people to prison for five spikelets
, we don’t have a totalitarian or an authoritarian state, we appreciate that people have their own opinion, that they can trust the sources that they choose, that we have freedom of speech… I’m not even talking about that. I’m saying that you can show an example of how a conflict can be solved with the help of words, mercy, empathy—and not with coercion into the so-called truth through a criminal sentence.
There have been many unusual circumstances in our process. There weren’t just a mother and a grandmother in the courtroom, as it happens in ordinary hearings—there was a big crowd, some stayed outside the courtroom, tiresome journalists came… and perhaps, they may have annoyed you with their disobedience or their breaching of order. Please forgive them. We have very recently become interested in how our state and society work, we have just become interested in how our electoral system and our local government work… we lived without an interest in it all, and now suddenly people have come to court to see how the judicial and penitentiary system work. It is a huge step forward for our society in becoming conscious and aware, and a step towards a decrease in crime rates. Please forgive them! They are in that sense—I am sorry!—a bit savage, a bit like small children; they don’t know how to behave in court: on the first day, they didn’t even know how to address the judge or that you can’t laugh, whisper, or clap, like at the theater… Please do not be mad at them, and don’t take it out on me.
What was also unusual in our process is that the defense presented their evidence not over two days, as it normally happens, but over twenty-two days. My defense was very proactive: they interrupted the participants of the process, they argued, they objected to the judge’s actions, and, in your opinion, breached the order… Please do not be mad at them, they just did everything possible to defend me and to act in my interest. Do not take it out on me, as I am not responsible for their actions. Do not take it out on me—I’m convinced that you are wiser than this, and you are above this.
Yes, I understand, this is just your job, an ordinary case, your endless working hours, loads of paperwork. Maybe among all this routine, like at any other work for anyone else, with time, the truth can become unnoticed and forgotten. But the truth is that you hold an incredible power: to determine people’s fates. In this case, it is the question of my fate, life, my health, my freedom, and the happiness of my loved ones. I sincerely believe that you will use your power wisely.