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After a Russian girl drew an antiwar poster, her dad faces defamation charges

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Let's go now to a small town in Russia and take a look at how Russia's invasion of Ukraine has changed so much back home. NPR's Charles Maynes reports on a father and his child who spoke out against the war and the consequences they faced.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: In Yefremov, a small, 17th-century river town tucked in a valley a four-hour drive from Moscow, the war in Ukraine has come home.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS PASSING)

MAYNES: Along Yefremov's main street, a giant banner next to the local bait-and-tackle shop calls for a world without Nazism - just one of several expressions of ostensible public support for the Kremlin's military campaign in this town of 35,000.

OLGA PODOLSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Yefremov's lone independent council member and Kremlin critic Olga Podolskaya says what she finds hard to look at most residents find hard to ignore.

PODOLSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: The banner is a daily reminder, Podolskaya says, that in Yefremov and across Russia, some things you're allowed to say while others are forbidden. Alexei Moskalev (ph) and his daughter, Masha, learned that lesson the hard way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXEI MOSKALEV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Their troubles started last March, explains Moskalev in a video taken by supporters. His daughter, Masha, aged 12, was asked to draw a picture about Russia's special military operation in school, he says - only her drawing showed Russian rockets aimed at a Ukrainian mother and child, with the words glory to Ukraine and no to war written on it, setting off an almost surreal chain of events.

MOSKALEV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "The school administration informed the authorities," he says. Soon, 12-year-old Masha was being interrogated by police. Then, the security services discovered social media posts in which Moskalev was openly critical of the Russian invasion, for which he was issued a fine.

MOSKALEV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Fast-forward to late December, and Moskalev describes the moment dozens of riot police stormed a rented apartment he and his daughter had fled to a few towns over, cutting through the doors with power saws as Masha screamed. And then came the charges against him - discrediting the Russian army and a follow-on case aimed at revoking his parental rights. Worse still, Moskalev is a single parent, raising Masha on his own.

When I visited Yefremov earlier this month, Moskalev was under house arrest and a gag order, pending trial. Masha is somewhere locked behind the gates of a local children's home, incommunicado.

ELENA AGAFONOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "No one has heard from Masha since the beginning of the month," says Elena Agafonova, a local activist who passed along a charged cellphone for the orphanage to give to Masha - only no one answers.

The shocking nature of the case - separating a parent from his child - is intended to resonate, says Moskalev's lawyer, Vladimir Biliyenko.

VLADIMIR BILIYENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "It sends a signal to everyone," Biliyenko says - "keep quiet, or the same could happen to you."

Meanwhile, Olga Podolskaya, the local lawmaker, tells me everyone in Yefremov is depressed and afraid.

PODOLSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: If locals discuss the case, they do it quietly among themselves to avoid trouble, says Podolskaya. People remember the Soviet era and what it means to be an enemy of the people, she adds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOSKALEV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: In his final statement before the judge this week, Moskalev argued 90% of those in the courtroom were against the war. How else could you feel about people dying? he said. Only then, another twist - last night, Moskalev fled Yefremov before a judge today sentenced him to two years in prison.

But in Yefremov, the Moskalevs aren't the only ones touched by the war. About a mile from the courthouse, a group of Russian tricolor flags in a far corner of the local cemetery guide my suspicion through the spring mud to a group of fresh graves.

Five, six, seven, eight, maybe more.

Official counts of Russia's war dead remain incredibly low, but the toll of the conflict is evident if you look for it.

Alexander Boltachev, born in 1996, died December 2, 2022.

Mounds of flowers and messages of grief surround framed pictures of young and sometimes not-so-young faces in uniform - fathers, brothers, sons, all killed in the past year. There was no way to know the story of these men or what their families thought of the war. I was alone in the graveyard. But what was clear was this - like Alexei and Masha Moskalev, other families had been torn apart.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Yefremov. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Charles Maynes