Maria Ponomarenko, a journalist in Barnaul, was sentenced in February to six years in prison for a social media post about Russia’s bombing of the Mariupol Drama Theater, a building where hundreds of civilians had been taking shelter when it was destroyed. Both the OSCE and Amnesty International concluded that it was hit by a Russian missile.
Ponomarenko, who worked for an outlet called RusNews, was jailed in April 2022. She posted a comment in a Telegram channel post about casualties in the theater. Below is her last word during the trial.
I am being accused of a serious crime. Do I expect some sort of leniency? No, I do not. And what does leniency have to do with anything, if I don’t consider myself a criminal?
If I had actually committed a crime, my personality and ethics would not permit me to do that; in fact, I would demand the harshest possible punishment. To prove my innocence now, it would be sufficient to open the Constitution and understand what is happening in our country.
If we are at war, then we should call it a war. Then you can apply wartime censorship. What is the justification for using wartime censorship against me? Is the Constitution no longer the Constitution? Based on the actions of the branches of our government, they are the ones who could care less about the Constitution – not me. For them, it’s just a piece of paper, nothing more, and that is the problem with them. I’m about to get eight and a half years in a penal colony, and do you think I am going to cry, become hysterical? No, this is just a new stage in life. And trust me, there are far more decent people behind bars than there are in the United Russia party…
Until I came under intense pressure, until 2020, I lived very well and had nothing to complain about. Perhaps I should have closed my eyes, just gone with the flow and enjoyed life. But I cannot do that. I’m a mother. Why did I become civically engaged? I came to the realization that money is not the most important thing, that there is something more important that you carry with you in your soul, and that you can’t take a single kopek with you to the grave. I came into this world naked and I go to my grave naked. What will be left when I’m gone? Only my soul. And if my soul holds nothing but greed, the desire to maximally provide for my children, then what will happen to me? I don’t want to be ashamed, for my children to be ashamed. I don’t want to run around praying for my sins in the church when I’m an old grandmother, but to walk around with pride and pray to an icon in the corner of my home, like my grandmother, who lived a righteous life…
V and Z, the symbols being written on our weaponry… I didn’t fully grasp this issue. From the 24th of February until the day of my arrest I cried every evening. I did not handle all of this very easily, this pain, and that two brothers [are killing each other], I do not differentiate between Ukrainians and Russians, I mourn any blood that is spilled. The symbols V and Z. Personnel with epaulets will be watching 17 Moments of Spring today, there was an advertisement about it. Doesn’t that ring any bells? Shtirlitz, the organization he was working for [as a Soviet agent infiltrating the German SS], they had the letter V on their uniforms. What’s going on there? It’s a state-sanctioned crime against the army, it’s spitting on the grave of every veteran – that’s how I feel it in my gut. The symbol Z, where did the fascists use it? In the concentration camps, in the units with gas chambers. And now these people are plastering these symbols everywhere: think about what you are plastering! Somewhere higher up somebody is not right in the head. But don’t you have a head? You are plastering it on your cars. Fascists hung up the V symbol in the towns they occupied. I didn’t come up with this, I’m not the one disparaging anything, so who is? Our military equipment is driving around with fascist symbols, and nobody cares. What will people think of us? On TV they are complaining that in Germany somebody has been arrested for displaying a Z symbol. But that’s to be expected, they have had it since WWII and it has been banned because it was used by fascists. And we adopted it…
If all of this had been stopped in February, in March, then we might have been able to do something, change something. But now, whatever happens, we all must carry this sin. And even though I was against it from day one, I will carry this sin too. I am not separating myself from Russia. I had ample opportunity to leave. But why should I leave if I can help fix things here? Understand, there are many of us. It may seem that you are all alone sitting in your flat, but no you are not! Start speaking out, start doing something, don’t sit there silently. We can’t place our hopes on the people wearing epaulets. These symbols V and Z should be removed and the people who are painting them should go to jail. It’s a crime by the state… Everyone is quiet about that, but on May 9 they’ll go crazy with them, even though now this is an assault on the memory of the victory in the Great Patriotic War.
I knew what I was getting myself into, and I felt since 2021 that I would be jailed sooner or later. Because here people are jailed for fighting corruption, our national pride, and an attempt to fight corruption is met with the harshest resistance. I am not being tried about a post – there are a million posts like mine out there on the internet – only a few people are detained. I am being tried for my actions. There is a phrase by Efrosinya Kersnovska: “Fear, betrayal and seeking favor are the three whales upon which the foundation of our government rests.” It was written a long time ago, over 70 years ago. Has something changed? She also wrote about an incident that took place in Bessarabia, when it was being annexed by the Soviet Union. A political worker, a former sailor, is sitting in the house of a Bessarabian woman and says: “We fought for 23 years and starved so that the workers of the whole world would be free, and you are here eating sausage and white bread.” A young woman who was a former servant in the house responds: “And did we ask you to starve for 23 years to free us from bread and sausage?” Why do I bring up this quote? Because before you go take over someplace else, you should bring order to your own house.
Now about the zomboyashik [zombie box, i.e., television]. You really should watch it! Because only then can you understand the extent of society’s degradation. One minute it’s “we don’t abandon our own” and the rest of the pobedobesiye [victory madness] and the next it’s a plea for help for Anechka Svetochka and Kolenka, who need an operation. We have money for missiles but not for children…
There are frightening people in power now, without principles. Why are they there? Because we have low civic engagement. People who don’t feel responsible for their future. When people develop a sense of personal responsibility and we are confronted with everything we have done in the past, as the Germans have been, then everything will change. And there are signs of this – look at how many good people have appeared… When we complete the entire journey, we’ll realize that making mistakes is not scary or shameful, the main thing is not to repeat them… Don’t just sit there: take action, write letters – it’s the letters that encourage me. Freedom is inside us, everything will be okay, and we will meet again in a free world. I will not serve my entire sentence, because change will come before it’s over. Don’t lose hope. In a way it’s harder for you outside, while I’m here on an all-inclusive package bankrolled by the government. There are many people behind bars, and many of them are innocent, put there by provocateurs in epaulets. But totalitarian regimes are never stronger than just before their demise.
MIKHAIL SIMONOV is 63 and worked for Russian Railways. Simonov was arrested in November 2022 when police busted into the home of his Moscow friends, where he had been staying after his train shift. At the end of March, Simonov was sentenced to seven years in prison for writing two anti-war social media posts in March 2022.
In his VK account (VKontakte is Russia’s version of Facebook), Simonov wrote: “While killing children and women, we are singing songs on Channel One. We, Russia, have become godless. May God forgive us.”
According to Meduza, authorities opened the case against Simonov after Anna Gel, who stumbled on Simonov’s posts “by chance,” filed an appeal. Gel said she decided to contact the police because Simonov’s words contradicted the Ministry of Defense’s reports, and because she in principle “doesn’t like it,” when people criticize the state they live in.
A second witness, Natalia Plotnikova, said she also discovered Simonov’s posts “accidentally.” According to the independent news outlet SotaVision, Plotnikova was angered when she saw a “pile of total liberalism” on her timeline. During the cross-examination, the woman burst into tears and said she did not believe the Russian military was committing crimes.
Also attached to Simonov’s case were some posts from 2020 in which he criticized Russian President and Hague-indicted war criminal Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Simonov’s case was brought to the media’s attention by Dmitry Ivanov, a mathematician also convicted of “spreading fake information” about the Russian military and sentenced for eight and a half years in March 2023. Although state defenders convinced Simonov to admit his guilt during the investigation, he pled not guilty during the trial. We publish his last word below, as published in Russian on several media outlets, including Mediazona and Meduza.
Your honor, esteemed members of the court! I understand that at the early stages of the investigation, I said I was guilty. I answered all the questions posed by the investigator, at least the ones I could understand. Yes, on March 19, 2022, I was at home at a certain address. At the time, I had just finished a difficult two-month shift. I work in the restaurant car of long-distance trains. Back then, I led a rather secluded lifestyle, trying to recover after hard work. And as I was recovering, I did a bit of drinking. My phone was my companion. I came across a news article in Euronews…, and in an emotional outburst, I repeated what the article said. What sort of outburst was this? My inspiration was that people are dying. I have always thought and think today that human life is of unquestionable value, which should be a priority, even though in our country it is not customary to think this way. But me, I was raised believing this.
I will give you a small example from my childhood, which I have always remembered. My mother was a little girl in Leningrad during the Siege. She told me stories of how she pulled her deceased parents on a sled along the Neva to be buried, and how she lived through the war, hoping that this would be the last war. What also comes to mind are the words from the song: “My darling, if only there was no war.” My mother used to say the same thing.
So this was my motivation. For me [war] was a technological and maybe even a natural catastrophe, similar to an earthquake – something that happens in the world causing the death of many people. And human life should be a priority.
Yes, I posted this on my VK page. For me, VK was just used as storage for my photos, for family and personal photos. I never used it to hold many conversations, maybe from time to time. Posts that I published there were all eventually deleted, same as these here.
I was only moved by the understanding that human life is invaluable. No matter who dies as a result of whatever actions – not just military, but natural disasters as well.
I grew up in a military family. My father was in the military and gave his life to the army that was the predecessor of today’s Russian Army. He was a veteran of the Great Patriotic War. So, from my point of view, there could never be anything negative toward the army. It would be the same for me as spitting on the grave of my father.
Finally, I would like to mention my health. Unfortunately, the jail administration provided no help in procuring a note from my medical history. This would serve as evidence that several of my illnesses flared up in the past several months, and a neuropathologist had to be summoned. This is a purely bureaucratic issue, so of course the court will give it no consideration, but unfortunately I, an aging man, will have to consider the issues of my health, particularly given the lengthy sentence that is demanded by the prosecution.
For a long time, many Russians viewed reporting on one another to be a reprehensible act. The practice of citizen vigilance, such as reporting somebody using a carpool lane while driving alone, would be seen as a dirty deed of ratting someone out, of “squealing,” or being a stukach (“stool pigeon”). In the famous words of writer Sergei Dovlatov about Soviet repressions, “We curse Stalin constantly, and of course, for a reason. But I would like to ask, who was it that wrote four million denunciations?”
And now the practice is making a return in Putin’s Russia.
In just the first six months of Russia’s War on Ukraine, Russian watchdog and censorship agency Roskomnadzor reported that the government received 145,000 citizen reports, most of them about social media posts critical of the Russian military. Verstka, an online media outlet, said in March after analyzing Russian court records that this has become a mass phenomenon, with people reporting on conversations in cafes, shops, post offices, and even overheard in the street. Speaking badly of Russian actions in Ukraine, however vaguely, can now be qualified as “public discreditation of the Russian armed forces,” an administrative offense that can be escalated into a criminal charge punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment, or as “public dissemination of fake information about the Russian armed forces,” a criminal offense carrying a sentence of up to 15 years.
Panorama, a satirical news agency, recently posted that Russian internet users are increasingly searching for a way to download “My Denunciation” (Мой донос), a made-up phone app the agency mockingly wrote about in 2019.
“In 2019 we wrote about the app, advertising the ability to ‘denounce from your phone.’ It seemed absurd then,” Panorama wrote in January. “But now, in 2023, we see which queries are sending people to Panorama from the Yandex search engine, and in fact many have heard of this app somewhere and want to download it.”
Oleg Belousov is a resident of St. Petersburg with a hobby seeking relics. Last spring he wrote a comment in a group “Piter’s hunters” for enthusiasts with similarly inklings. He called Putin “Traitor Number One” and used the moniker “Putler,” a portmanteau of Putin and Hitler. Fellow group member Sergei Chmykhun reported him. He later told local media that he was hoping to “re-educate” Belousov, but didn’t think it would amount to a jail sentence. But Belousov has now been sentenced to five and a half years in prison, despite having a special needs child and health problems of his own.
Yury Samoilov was using his smartphone on the Moscow metro when another passenger saw that the phone’s screen was displaying the logo of Azov, a Ukrainian military unit (formerly a volunteer battalion with strong far-right convictions, it has been branded as extremist in Russia). The passenger, a man named Yermakov, reported his sighting to the police, saying Samoilov “demonstrated” the image for one minute. A further search discovered other images on the phone that were deemed to discredit the Russian army. Samoilov was dismissed from the police station after two weeks of detention.
49-year-old Nikolai Bobryshev was teaching a class in a Kursk school in April 2022 when one of his students raised his hand and asked whether what was happening in Ukraine is a war or a “special military operation.” The teacher began to discuss this with the class, commenting that, in his personal opinion, the armed conflict is a war. Unbeknownst to him, Bobryshev was actually filmed by one of the students and the recording was later submitted to the police by a vigilant parent. This spring, Bobryshev was found guilty of “discrediting” the Russian military and fined R30,000. He no longer works as a teacher.
Sergei Vasiliev was working as a DJ at a New Year’s Eve party in a cafe in Novomoskovsk, Tula region. He decided to play a song by the Ukrainian band Potap and Nastya. The New Year’s-themed song called “От Сосны” (“From the Pine”), is over 13 years old and is completely non-political, yet it came on at the same time as Vladimir Putin’s New Year’s message, which the cafe was showing on its TV. A guest at the party deemed this juxtaposition offensive and reported Vasiliev to authorities. He was fined R45,000 for “discrediting” the armed forces.
 Efrosinya Kersnovska was a Bessarabian woman who spent 12 years in the Gulag, from 1941-1953, for the crime of being a “former landowner.” She wrote a lengthy, illustrated memoir of her experience that was published in the 1990s.
 1981 song by Valentina Tolkunova, from the 1981 film, The Order
is Not to Open Fire
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