MOSCOW — Aleksei Moskalyov did not wait to hear his sentence for “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces” on Tuesday. Years behind bars for posts on social media seemed like a foregone conclusion in contemporary Russia. So Mr. Moskalyov slipped off his geotracking ankle bracelet and fled from house arrest.
In escaping, Mr. Moskalyov, a single parent, left behind not just his home but his 13-year-old daughter, Maria — though even before verdict had been read, she appeared lost to him. For the past month, the child, known as Masha, has been in a state-run orphanage, forbidden to communicate with her father.
Hours after leaving, Mr. Moskalyov, whose location was not known on Tuesday, was convicted by a local court and sentenced to two years in prison over the posts, which he wrote in the wake of Russian atrocities in Bucha and elsewhere in occupied parts of Ukraine.
The case has garnered national attention because of Masha. For rights advocates, the prospect of long-term separation for father and child represents a chilling new level of repression in a country where President Vladimir V. Putin in effect banned protesting, and where repression seems to escalate by the week.
Other activists have reported being threatened by the police with losing custody of their children, and some hear echoes of the Great Terror of the Stalin era, when the children of those deemed “enemies of state” were separated from their parents. In one year alone, some 15,000 children were sent to orphanages.
“The horror is that the state, represented by the custody authorities, the police, the prosecutor’s office, and the courts, consciously, with calculated cruelty, separates father and daughter,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based in Moscow. “And in the current Putin system, there is nobody to oppose this.”
Masha was placed into state care in early March, after Mr. Moskalyov, now 54, was detained and placed in house arrest. She has been unable to speak to him since, according to his lawyer Vladimir Biliyenko.
On Tuesday, Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service said that Mr. Moskalyov left his apartment at 4:41 a.m., about 11 hours before the verdict was announced in the town of Yefremov, 150 miles south of Moscow. The agency said it had no information on his whereabouts.
Mr. Biliyenko said the news of his client’s departure had come as a shock.
“I hope all is well with him, that he is alive and well,” he said in a message. “Masha, by order of the court, is being handed over to the guardianship authorities.”
Masha’s mother has not been in the picture since the child was 3 years old, and there are no other close relatives to take care of her, Mr. Biliyenko said.
Marina Ovsyannikova, the Russian state television anchor who made a daring escape from Russia after she displayed an antiwar poster during a live broadcast, said she was sure Mr. Moskalyov was “in good hands.”
“Everything is going to be OK for him,” she said.
Mr. Moskalyov’s treatment at the hands of law enforcement officials makes clear the lengths the Russian authorities are willing to go to to make sure that no one deviates from the Kremlin’s line on the war — and that if they do, they are severely punished.
Before his arrest, Mr. Moskalyov bred ornamental birds on his small farm, where there were also peacocks, pheasants, wild ducks, turkeys and chickens, he said in an interview with a Russian rights watchdog, OVD-Info.
Mr. Moskalyov’s posts on the Russian social networks Odnoklassniki and Vkontakte came to the attention of the authorities last April after an art teacher at Masha’s school tried to generate support among the students for the Russian military. Masha’s contribution: a picture of a mother and daughter holding a “Glory to Ukraine” flag and standing in the path of a Russian rocket.
“No to War,” she wrote underneath,
The school’s principal denies having alerted the authorities, but the next day, Mr. Moskalyov and his daughter were taken away from the school by police officers, along with someone from child protective services, according to OVD-Info.
Mr. Moskalyov was told that investigators had found caricatures of Mr. Putin and that he was being investigated for a post that read: “The Russian Army. The perpetrators are near us.”
He was fined 32,000 rubles, about $420, and the next day, his daughter was taken away from school by investigators from the Federal Security Services, or F.S.B., the primary successor to the notorious Soviet K.G.B.
“For three and a half hours they told me that I was raising the child incorrectly,” he told OVD-Info. “They said that they would take her away from me, and they would put me in jail.”
The authorities tried to pressure father and daughter into publicly supporting the war.
“They suggested that Masha lead some kind of youth team in support of the Russian troops,” Mr. Moskalyov said, “but I politely refused — she has a lot of classes and activities, she doesn’t have time.”
The incident did not end there. More than half a year later, on Dec. 30, Mr. Moskalyov told OVD-Info, about a dozen investigators searched the family home and took him for questioning.
“In the afternoon they locked me in a room for two and a half hours, turned on the Russian anthem at full volume and left,” he said. “The walls shook.”
Then in early March, Mr. Moskalyov was placed under house arrest, and Masha was put in the orphanage.
Since the invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022 and the government began a sharp crackdown on dissent, almost 6,000 Russians have been accused of discrediting the army, according to OVD-Info, which also tracks political repression. More than 2,000 of the cases involve comments on social media.
Most of the cases have been resolved with fines, but a repeat offense can be grounds for a criminal prosecution and a yearslong prison sentence. More than 500 people have been criminally prosecuted, some of them children.
The separation of Mr. Moskalyov from Masha is not an isolated incident.
In the far eastern region of Buryatia, Natalya Filonova, an independent journalist and activist, was imprisoned after protesting last year over the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of men into the Russian Army. After she broke the terms of her house arrest in October, she was jailed and lost custody of the 16-year-old son of a deceased friend. The child, who is disabled, is now in an orphanage.
Mr. Kolesnikov, the Carnegie fellow, lamented a “soulless system, which crushes the destinies of people, including the little ones.” The regime, he said, seems “more fearful than in the late Soviet years.”
On Tuesday, almost a year after the drawing that started at all, Mr. Moskalyov’s lawyer arrived in court for the verdict with another picture by Masha, as well as a letter from her.
“Dad,” it said, “you’re my hero.”
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