“To prove my innocence, all you have to do is open the constitution and read it.”
Standing in the metal cage of a Siberian courtroom, Russian journalist Maria Ponomarenko this week closed her trial, triggered by a social media post about the war in Ukraine, by dismissing the entire process as a sham.
“What is happening to our country? If there’s a war, call it a war,” she told the judge. The next day, Ponomarenko, a mother of two, was sentenced to six years, becoming the first journalist imprisoned under Russia’s tough new censorship laws, which include a ban on the word “war”.
Across Russia, hundreds of other cases related to antiwar speech and protests are now going through the courts, making the past 12 months the worst period for political repression in the country’s modern history.
Around 20,000 people were detained for political and antiwar protests last year, according to human rights group OVD-Info. Most were held only for short stints and issued a minor offence, but receiving a second leaves them open to as much as a five-year jail term.
At least 440 people — artists, priests, teachers, students and doctors — have had criminal cases opened against them, according to OVD-Info. Many are awaiting trial in jail, and some face sentences of up to 15 years. Others have fled the country.
In interviews in Moscow and St Petersburg, those caught up in the crackdown described how their lives, and the country, had been transformed.
While repression already weighed heavily on many before the war, Russia still had independent media, regular mass protests, and an active civil society. Authorities tended to target specific individuals, focusing, for example, on pulverising the main opposition movement.
But since February 24, when Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbour began, the crackdown has been all-embracing, leaving virtually no corner of society untouched.
Authorities have shut down the press, criminalised speech around the war, ordered a string of arbitrary arrests and egregious jail sentences, and fostered a bitter culture of denunciations. Protests have virtually disappeared. Most journalists and activists have been forced out or jailed.
Sitting in the corridor of a Moscow courtroom last week, Irina, 38, waited for a hearing in the case of her husband, a musician accused of planning an antiwar action that never took place. He has called the case “absurd”.
Irina said she had lost count of how many times she had sat like this, waiting outside a courtroom, over the course of the past year.
“We’re just completely exhausted living in this [situation] all of the time,” Irina said.
Like many across Russia, the journalist Ponomarenko, 44, was accused of violating provisions, introduced in March, that prohibit sharing information about the war that is “knowingly false” or “discredits the armed forces”.
What constitutes such information, only the state gets to decide.
“With all due respect to the participants of the process, I feel like I’m in a psych ward, not a courtroom,” Yana Nepovinnova, a lawyer defending 32-year-old artist Sasha Skochilenko, said in an interview. “We’re in a ward, and Sasha and I are the only people who are sane.”
Skochilenko was arrested in April for an act of protest in St Petersburg, replacing price tags in a supermarket with ones that bore antiwar messages.
One read: “Russian conscripts are being sent to Ukraine.” This, the state’s linguistic experts said, was false information since it could not be found on the website of Russia’s defence ministry. At this point only professional troops were sent to the front, according to an official position that quickly unravelled.
“It’s nonsense,” Nepovinnova said. “How can it be false information, if even the Russian president himself has since confirmed that it happened?”
For what her lawyer called a “farcical” situation, Skochilenko has already spent almost a year in jail. If she is found guilty, she faces up to 10 years in total.
Ponomarenko’s crime was posting about the shelling of a theatre in Mariupol, a port city in southern Ukraine. In September, Ponomarenko’s media outlet reported that the journalist had attempted suicide while in pre-trial detention.
Lawyers for the protesters have started calling in witnesses in an attempt to prove certain truths about the war.
Speaking in his makeshift church in a former St Petersburg brewery, where Orthodox icons lined the otherwise barren walls, Father Gregory Mikhnov-Voitenko described the role he recently played as one such witness in court.
The Archbishop of the Apostolic Orthodox Church, which is separate from the Moscow Patriarchate, agreed to speak in the case of a 22-year-old Moscow university student who faces up to 10 years for “false” posts about the destruction of Mariupol last spring, among other topics.
Since the activist priest had spent many months supporting refugees from Mariupol in Russia, he simply told the court what he had heard from them: that their city suffered destruction.
“So you didn’t actually see it with your own eyes, did you?” the prosecution replied, according to a transcript of the exchange published by news outlet Mediazona. At the same time, the Kremlin is openly extolling its programmes to rebuild destroyed Mariupol, which is now under Russian occupation.
“There is an absurdity to it,” Father Gregory said.
Up to mid-December, there were only 25 calendar days without any political detentions in Russia in 2022, according to OVD-Info.
The group, which monitors abuses and provides legal aid, also recorded a sharp rise in violence by security services against detainees in the past year, including several cases of torture in police stations.
After a mass mobilisation for the armed forces was announced in September, it also received a flood of reports of draft notices being handed out to detainees — and then to the male lawyers who came to defend them.
“We’re also seeing violence used much more often against women,” said Maria Kuznetsova, an OVD-Info co-ordinator. “One woman was detained when nine months pregnant. Another was detained with a months-old baby, and the newborn was put in the police van too. Things have never been at this level before.”
More than 210,000 websites were blocked last year, according to internet rights monitor Roskomsvoboda. This included most western social media platforms and most independent Russian-language media. Facebook and Instagram were branded “extremist”. Though many Russians downloaded VPNs, the online world shrank.
In private, many liberal and antiwar Russians still in the country speak about the fear and paranoia the past year has instilled. For some, the space for free expression has returned to the confines of one’s kitchen, in an echo of the Soviet past.
At least half a million people have fled the country, some for political reasons, but mostly to escape draft orders.
In Russia, those caught up in the spiral of repression have no choice but to plough on. “Of course, we expect it to be brutal, but we’re not giving up,” said Nepovinnova, the lawyer for artist Skochilenko.
“You think I’m going to start crying? You think I’ll fall into a hysteria?” the journalist Ponomarenko told the court shortly before her sentencing. “No, I won’t. This is just a new chapter in my life.”