27 October 2022

Prosecution in Skochilenko’s case cites linguistic examination claiming Sasha is lying and the Russian military are “humane”. Paperpaper.ru analyzed the document

Formal charges have been brought against Sasha Skochilenko. She is facing up to ten years in prison under the new “fake news” article of the Russian Criminal Code. The artist, who recently turned 32, will be tried for replacing price tags at a supermarket with printed messages about the war in Ukraine, including the number of casualties. Her pretrial detention has recently been extended for another six months.

The prosecution case is based on eyewitnesses’ testimony and a linguistic examination. The latter was prepared by two members of the Saint Petersburg University’s Center of Expert Evaluation; one of the experts signed a letter in support of the “special military operation” this Spring.

The authors claim that messages on the tags are false, although it is not within their purview to determine that. Instead of conducting textual analysis, they argue that the Russian military treats the “civilian population” with “exceptional humanness.” They also cite anonymous posts by “War with Fakes,” a pro-Russian propaganda Telegram channel, as a credible information source.

The bias and non-scholarly nature of the report are obvious even to a non-professional, and yet it was entered as evidence by the prosecution. Paperpaper.ru studied the report and discussed it with independent experts to explain in detail why the document has no merit.

Photo: Andrey Bok / Paperpaper.ru

What did the experts analyze

The experts were commissioned to evaluate five messages printed on false supermarket tags:

  • “The Russian army bombed an art school in Mariupol. About 400 people were hiding from shelling there.”
  • “Conscription soldiers are being sent to Ukraine. The price for this war is our children’s lives.”
  • “Stop the war! 4300 Russian soldiers were killed in the first three days. Why is TV keeping silent?”
  • “For 20 years Putin has lied to us from TV screens. The result of these lies: we are willing to justify the war and deaths that have no purpose.”
  • “My great-grandfather did not fight for 4 years in World War 2 for Russia’s becoming a fascist state and invading Ukraine.”

Who are the experts

  • Anastasia Grishanina has a PhD in philology and works as a docent (associate professor) at the Saint Petersburg State University’s Journalism & Communication Studies Department. In March 2022, she signed an open letter from the university’s faculty and staff to the president in support of his “policies aimed at demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.”
  • Olga Safonova, who has a PhD in political science, is a docent at the Political Institutions and Applied Political Studies Department of the SPSU.

Why is examination necessary

Linguistic examination in Sasha Skochilenko’s case was requested by criminal investigator Ilya Proskuriakov. This is a standard practice for all speech-related cases, according to attorney Stanislav Selezniov: “Judges expect a relevant expert evaluation, otherwise they will say it is impossible to establish the facts pointing to criminal culpability.”

Human rights advisor Alexander Verkhovsky agrees: “In criminal cases, public prosecutors will refuse evidence from investigators unless there is an academic evaluation of some sort.”

Stanislav Selezniov

senior partner, Net Freedoms Project

“According to the Ministry of Justice’s guideline, a key element of establishing criminal culpability in “fake news” cases is finding out whether the statement in question formally asserts a verifiable fact (only then its veracity can be evaluated), or if it expresses an opinion or a question. If the latter is true, then it isn’t possible to test the accuracy of such a statement. And you don’t have a case. Whether a statement asserts a fact or expresses an opinion can only be established by an expert linguist who received professional training”

Evaluation reports of this kind has played a major part in notorious criminal cases related to extremism, apology of terrorism and “inciting animosity or hatred.” Many of these documents have gravely violated academic principles and ethical standards.

The leaflets contained “discreditation of” and “hatred towards” the military, the experts found

Investigator Ilya Proskuriakov asked the experts to answer six questions. Among other things, he asked them whether the statements printed on the “price tags” contained evidence of “discrediting the army”, evidence of religious, political or other hatred, or hatred towards a social group.

It is unclear why the investigator was asking about “discreditation,” which is missing from the charging document. The other questions are directly related to the paragraph of the Criminal Code invoked in Sasha Skochilenko’s case. According to the investigation, distribution of information was motivated by hatred or animosity (political or to a social group).

The authors of the report, Anastasia Grishanina and Olga Safonova, answered all the questions in the affirmative.

This is how an intent to “discredit” is proven in the report: “The meaning of the statements has an orientation related to eliciting distrust to the Russian Federation’s Military Force from the reader (listener), undermining the reputation of the Russian military, and thus discrediting the use of the Russian Federation’s military force…”

From Grishanina and Safonova’s report

“Established evidence shows a motif of political hatred and animosity towards a social group formed by affiliation with the Russian Federation’s Military Force, towards the Russian Federation’s state government bodies, and towards President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.”

Military or public officers have never been considered a social group in court, Stanislav Selezniov notes.

Stanislav Selezniov

senior partner, Net Freedoms Project

“In 2009—2018, courts took heed of expert sociologists’ opinions when they said that members of law enforcement (or the FSB, prosecutors, members of the Duma, and so forth) constitute a professional group rather than a social group. Many cases against extremism were dismissed that way”

The experts are trying to prove that the “price tags” contain misinformation. But the question is beyond their competence

The authors of the expert examination gave an affirmative response to the investigator’s question of whether the messages contained adverse information about the army in the form of a verifiable statement.

They write in the rationale section: “The information is presented as a verifiable fact, whereas in reality it is false.” And: “…The messages contain misleading adverse information about the Russian Federation’s Military Force, presented as statements of facts, which could have been tested for veracity.”

According to independent experts, the report authors are not in a position to argue whether the information printed on the price tags is true or not.

Alexander Verkhovsky

director of Sova Information and Analysis Center

“Cases about ‘military fake news’ are covered by a very clear guideline saying that it isn’t the purpose of a linguistic examination to find out whether a statement is true or false, which is beyond the competence of an expert linguist. Frankly, had this guideline been followed, there would be fewer cases, because many do not contain factual statements. However, the guideline isn’t the law, so it isn’t always followed”


Russian Literature Institute of the Russian Academy

(the expert asked to remain anonymous for security reasons)

“I find the evaluation report in Sasha Skochilenko’s case, conducted by the SPSU’s Expert Evaluation Center at the investigation’s request, deficient for several reasons.

One of the reasons: proving that information printed on the tags is false is not a linguistic problem. Linguistic problems are separating information about the Russian military, finding evidence of discreditation and of incitement of hatred”

According to the report authors, anything that is “not corroborated by Russian official sources” is false

The report authors’ conclude that the information on the price tags is false, based on the reports by the Russian authorities and pro-government media, with no other supporting evidence.

This is what they argue concerning the statement “The Russian army bombed an art school in Mariupol”:

“Information conveyed in this statement [The Russian army bombed an art school in Mariupol] is contrary to the actual facts… and is inconsistent with said military operation’s objectives,” Grishanina and Safonova write.

“The Russian Federation’s Military Forces act exceptionally humane towards the civilian population in the course of the special military operation and do not attack civilian infrastructure,” the report authors claim, citing the meeting of the Joint Coordination Office for Humanitarian Response in Ukraine, dated July 29.

“In actual fact, the information contained in the statement in question is false. Claims about an airstrike of the Art School no. 12 in Mariupol by the Russian Army have been distributed by Ukrainian and Western media but have never been corroborated by any data collected by means of objective control, or verified by official sources of information,” the experts insist.

No source references are provided to support this. That might be the reason why the authors added a reference to an anonymous Telegram channel, “War with Fakes”, to corroborate their argument: the channel claimed that bombing of the art school was a fake story made up by Ukrainians.

The experts also try to contest the claim that “4300 Russian soldiers were killed in the first three days [of the war].” They point to the Russian Ministry of Defense’s report from March 25 that said 1351 Russian combatants had been killed in Ukraine. The report authors conclude that the information on the price tag is false, even though this is not a concern of a linguistic examination.

The experts ignore the Ministry of Defense’s reports that prove Skochilenko right

The statement “Conscription soldiers are being sent to Ukraine” is also deemed false by the report authors.

Grishanina and Safonova concede that the Russian Ministry of Defense admitted participation of conscripts in the war. “However, by the time the message was distributed [March 31, the day of Skochilenko’s offense], those troops had been withdrawn into Russia,” they claim without citing any sources.

During the press briefing on the 9 of March, which the experts cited, the MoD also acknowledged that some conscription soldiers had been taken prisoners by the Ukrainian Army: “Nearly all of those troops have been withdrawn into Russian territory. However, one military unit engaged in logistical support was attacked by a nationalist battalion’s sabotage group. Many servicemen, including conscription soldiers, were captured.”

If some conscripts were captured, then they were not “withdrawn into Russian territory.” According to Grishanina and Safonova’s own logic of accepting the MoD’s briefings as truth, it is the experts who provide false information in this paragraph.

Some of the expert findings contradict the prosecution

“Deliberate falsehood” of information is very important in the paragraph invoked in Sasha Skochilenko’s case. The Prosecutor-General’s Office explains: “The criterion of deliberate falsehood does not apply when a person distributing information is sincerely errant about its falsehood.”

The authors of the evaluation report do not consider the question of whether the suspect knew her statements were allegedly “false,” or told what she believed to be true. That means that the prosecution cannot cite Grishanina and Safonova’s report in this respect.

At the same time, Grishanina and Safonova point out that the “price tag” messages make no reference to sources. That leads the experts to the conclusion that “the author is expressing her personal opinion about the RF Military Forces as an ostensibly credible fact.” Yet, expressing personal opinion is not covered by the “fake news” law.

Even after the 2020’s amendments, the Russian Constitution grants the citizens freedom to express opinion, unless it contains classified information; advocates social, racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic supremacy; or incites animosity or hatred. Paragraph 3 of Article 29 says: “Nobody can be forced to express or renounce an opinion or belief.”

Even if Skochilenko’s “personal opinion,” according to the evaluation, contains evidence of hatred or animosity, this has no concern with the Criminal Code article about “military fake news,” which only covers factual statements.

Linguists say the report is biased and unprofessional

The fact that Anastasia Grishanina signed SPSU’s letter in support of the “special operation” indicates her bias and violates scholarly standards, according to a linguist from the Russian Literature Institute and other independent experts.


Russian Literature Institute of the Russian Academy

(the expert asked to remain anonymous for security reasons)

“The expert evaluation in Skochilenko’s case does not meet academic criteria in any aspect down to the small things: missing references, wrong references, references to unreliable sources. Most methods specified by the authors are never applied. And there’s the usual palaver. All of which results in a logically incoherent argument that makes the expert’s bias blatantly obvious”

Grishanina and Safonova begin their report by listing 46 sources they used to prepare the document. However, some of those are never cited in their text, while some others are misquoted. “The definition of ‘information’ in the list of terms makes reference to Galyashina, although Galyashina’s cited work contains no such definition,” an independent expert notes.

Instead of proving some of their statements, the report authors just say: “It seems self-evident that…” Intent analysis and content analysis are mentioned among the methods but never applied. Other methods in the evaluation report are unfamiliar to professional linguists, according to independent experts surveyed by Paperpaper.ru.

Substandard evaluations were instrumental in the cases against Pussy Riot, Svetlana Prokopieva and Yegor Zhukov

Requesting linguistic examination is a standard practice of prosecutors in “thought crime” cases. It was used as early as in the case against Pussy Riot. Expert evaluations were the foundation of charges against Yegor Zhukov and Svetlana Prokopieva, in the case against the New Greatness (Novoe Velichie) group, and multiple cases against Jehova’s Witnesses. According to Dissernet Project’s materials, expert evaluations “blatantly violated academic integrity and standards of scholarly ethics” even in these high-profile cases.

Defense teams have also requested linguistic examination reports, but in recent years judges have been increasingly unwilling to consider such evaluations, while experts for defense have been pressured, according to the counselor Selezniov and the human rights expert Verkhovsky.

Alexander Verkhovsky

director of Sova Information and Analysis Center

“Very different people write linguistic examination reports: some of them are very competent, some others are not at all. There is just one legal criterion: an expert must have an education, in a very extended sense. Having a degree is not essential. Many reports have been written by people who only had a few hours worth of training

The level of expertise in Sasha Skochilenko’s case also raises some questions. One expert, Olga Safonova, is a political scientist who has nothing to do with linguistics. Her colleague Anastasia Grishanina was trained as a social psychologist. She has a doctoral degree in philology, while her knowledge of linguistics comes from a career enhancement training in “methodology of psycholinguistic evaluation of conflictual (extremist) texts.” In 2018, Grishanina authored a chapter in the book Extremism in the Contemporary World, edited by Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation.

When an examination is substandard and one party disagrees with it, this party is entitled to present an alternative evaluation to the court, Selezniov and Verkhovsky explain. The judge then reviews both reports and decides whether a conclusive evaluation is necessary, requested from an institution chosen by the court itself.

Alexander Verkhovsky

director of Sova Information and Analysis Center

“There is a way to challenge expert evaluation. The other party may present a referee review. A few months ago, however, the Supreme Court dismissed the use of this genre. They said the parties could present their evaluations for the court to compare. And reviewing each other is improper. I don’t agree with this, but it is what the Supreme court decided”

Paperpaper.ru — is independent media from Saint-Petersburg, Russia. We’ve been reporting on the Russian-Ukrainian war since the day it started. As a result, our website was blocked by the Russian government.

For 10 years we’ve been writing about the local community, business and initiatives. Yet, our main goal was always to improve life in the city we love.

We are Russian-language media but now we translate our the most significant articles to share it with our English speaking audience. Help independent journalism — save the freedom of speech!

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