Russian diaspora protests against war in Ukraine Russian diaspora protests against war in Ukraine. Source: Silar - Wikimedia / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-SA 4.0

Russians are ready to take to the streets, despite the risk of imprisonment and other harsh consequences, reports Dmitry Belyaev

Even after a year and a half of war, there are still those in Russia who are willing to protest against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Activists organise solo pickets, create anti-war graffiti, and distribute leaflets.

They are not deterred by the threat of imprisonment, fines, or other punishments that the regime employs to suppress dissent. Most activists understand that their protest will not change the situation in Russia, but they are still unwilling to remain silent.

After sixteen activists were arrested for their anti-war stances in August, protests continued into September. People of various ages, professions, and social statuses took part in protests in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Belgorod, Petrozavodsk, and other cities. Let’s delve into some of these actions.

The Ukrainian flag on Red Square

On the morning of 4 September, 27-year-old Moscow resident Alena Kozhevnikova made her way to Red Square, the very heart of the Russian capital, home to the Kremlin and the official residence of the president. Upon arriving, she draped herself in the Ukrainian flag.

The young woman didn’t chant slogans, make demands, or issue ultimatums; she simply walked around the square with the Ukrainian flag on her shoulders. It is unknown how long the demonstration lasted, but it likely didn’t continue for more than a few minutes. This part of Moscow is always under special security due to the concentration of government institutions. The police detained Alena and took her to the police station. Despite the fact that it’s not formally prohibited to display the Ukrainian flag in Russia, there have been numerous cases where people were arrested even for the accidental combination of yellow and blue colours in their clothing, cosmetics, or nail polish. In this way, Russian law-enforcement authorities are combating what is known as ‘silent protest’.

At the police station, a report was drawn up against Alena about ‘discrediting the Russian’ army and violating the rules for holding a ‘public event’, and then she was sent home. The article on ‘discrediting’ was added to the Russian Criminal Code after the start of the full-scale invasion. In practice, this article can be applied to any criticism of the war and Russian military actions.

As for Kozhevnikova, she was relatively lucky this time. Most likely, she will only receive a fine. However, for a ‘repeat discrediting of the army’, an activist could risk being sentenced to up to five years in prison. Despite the risk of such punishment, in the same month, another Moscow resident went to the centre of the Russian capital to express her anti-war stance.

On the 24th of September, on Pushkin Square, Irina Senshina was detained for wearing a T-shirt with the word ‘War’ crossed out. While on the square, she asked a passerby to take her photo; however, he turned out to be an undercover police officer. Subsequently, Senshina was arrested and taken to the police station. Later, the Moscow court fined her 50,000 roubles (around $500).

‘Not all parents need a white Lada’

Anti-war actions are taking place not only in Moscow but also in other Russian regions. In early September, a resident of Petrozavodsk (a city in northwestern Russia, the capital of the Republic of Karelia), Nikolai Domnin held a solitary picket. He stood near the city hall with a sign that read, ‘Not all parents need a white Lada. Many need living children.’

The phrase about the ‘white Lada’ is a reference to a Russian propaganda news story that aired on one of the federal channels in the summer 2022. The report told the story of the parents of a soldier who died in Ukraine. They used the compensation they received for their son’s death to buy themselves a new car: a Russian-made Lada. The family’s first trip in their new car was to the cemetery, to visit their son’s grave.

Nikolai Domnin’s protest in Petrozavodsk lasted for about an hour. Afterward, he was taken into police custody, and two reports were filed against him for ‘discrediting the Russian army’. One of the reports was related to his anti-war posts on the Russian social network Vkontakte. Nikolai himself stated that his protest would not, of course, stop the war but emphasised that one must take small steps toward larger goals. Now he awaits legal proceedings.

Punishment for a protest that didn’t happen

In September, a Russian court fined a mother of five from Izhevsk (a city in the eastern European part of Russia) 30,000 roubles ($310) for an action that she hadn’t even carried out. Olga Avdeeva, a surgeon, was penalised for her intention to participate in a protest. 

She wore a Ukrainian wreath and created a sign that read ‘Russia doeZ evil’ before heading to the city centre. When she arrived at the square, police were already waiting for her. In addition to the fine, Olga also faced criminal charges under the article of ‘discrediting the Russian army’. The reason for this was a graffiti message ‘fascists’ that Olga had left in the summer of 2022 under a huge letter Z on the building of the city’s opera and ballet theatre.

The criminal case is still under investigation. ‘My eldest son has already been interrogated, and they said there would be a suspended sentence,’ Olga told Russian journalists. Interestingly, Olga is not the first resident of Izhevsk who doesn’t want to see the giant letter Z on the building of the city theatre.

On the morning of 5 September, twenty-one-year-old Dmitry Sh. also drew a swastika and an ‘offensive slogan against Putin’ beneath the same giant Z, as reported by local media. The police arrested Dmitry, identifying him through external surveillance cameras. He is now facing criminal charges for ‘vandalism’ and is currently under a travel restriction order.

The fight against ‘Zvastika’ is also underway in other regions of the country. On the night of 18 September, in the border town of Belgorod near Ukraine, an unidentified individual set fire to an installation of a giant letter Z. The incident was captured on surveillance cameras. Two days later, the police arrested a twenty-eight-year-old resident of the Kaliningrad region, Ilya Ch., on suspicion of arson. During the search, he allegedly was found in possession of a hand grenade and a trotyl charge. As Ilya later told journalists, after his arrest, five unknown men took him to the woods, where they subjected him to electric shocks for several hours and threatened to cut off his legs. A criminal case was initiated against the Kaliningrad resident on charges of ‘unlawful acquisition and possession of explosive devices and substances.’ Ilya himself denies ownership of the grenade and the other explosive materials.

A silent protest

Out of fear of criminal cases and persecution, many Russians express their anti-war stance through anonymous means.

For example, in September, unknown activists in Tomsk (a city in Siberia) dug a grave right under a billboard advertising military service, as a form of protest.

Also, in early September, on one of the avenues in Voronezh (a city in central Russia), unknown individuals hung a banner with the inscription ‘Putin is a murderer’.

However, even an anonymous protest cannot be considered entirely safe. At the end of July, Russian street artist Philippenzo, who had returned from Georgia, was detained at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. Earlier in the summer, he had created graffiti in the centre of Moscow with the text ‘Изроссилование’ (Rapessia; referring to Russian war crimes), after which the police approached him. He had temporarily left for Tbilisi. Prior to this, Philippenzo had been fined for other anti-war graffiti, such as ‘Цинк наш’ (‘Zinc is ours’, zinc containers being the Russian equivalent of body bags for soldiers killed in battle).

After the artist’s detention at the airport, he was arrested for fifteen days and then another fifteen days. Later, it was revealed that a criminal case related to the work ‘Rapessia’ had been opened against him. He is being suspected of vandalism motivated by political hatred. On 1 September, searches were conducted in his apartment and studio. Philippenzo could face up to three years of imprisonment.

According to the Russian human-rights project OVD-Info and the publication Mediazona, since the start of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, over 7430 administrative cases for ‘discrediting the army’ have been initiated; 725 people are facing criminal charges due to their anti-war stance. In total, since February 2022, there have been 19,818 detentions in Russia related to anti-war positions.

‘Justifying Terrorism’

However, it is not only people willing to take to the streets who are arrested in Russia. Those who simply do not hide their disagreement with the Kremlin’s policies are also under threat. Especially when it comes to public figures. Thus, since the end of July, Boris Kagarlitsky, a prominent Russian Marxist writer and academic, has been under arrest. 

In the USSR, he spent more than a year in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison on charges of ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’. Now he is accused of ‘terrorism propaganda’. The case against the 65-year-old Kagarlitsky was initiated because of his post on Telegram from last year, according to his lawyer. In that publication, Kagarlitsky commented on the Ukrainian strike on the Crimean Bridge and wrote, ‘From a military standpoint, the meaning of what happened (the explosion on the bridge) is more or less understandable. There will be problems with supplies, and not only in Crimea.’

The Telegram post also examined the economic and political consequences of the strike and discusses corruption within the Russian elite. Because of this, Kagarlitsky has been in jail for several months, facing up to seven years of imprisonment.

Earlier, he strongly criticised the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the spring of 2022, authorities designated him as a ‘foreign agent’, which obliges him to report on all earned and spent funds. Additionally, Kagarlitsky is required to label himself as a ‘foreign agent’ in all public communications, including on social media. Four years prior to this, the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, the organisation led by Kagarlitsky, was also recognised as a ‘foreign agent’.

In early October 2023, Professor Radika Desai of the Department of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba reached out to Vladimir Putin, requesting a review of Boris Kagarlitsky’s case, which she believed to be unjust. Putin promised to look into the situation but stated that he was not familiar with who Boris Kagarlitsky is.

The fate of Kagarlitsky has been experienced by many other Russian opposition politicians and activists who chose not to leave the country. This group notably includes the prominent politician Alexei Navalny.

One and a half years of war – one and a half years of protests

Despite escalating repression, space for protest in Russia persists. Activists continue to innovate new forms of resistance, often braving escalating risks. This contradicts popular narratives that all Russians either support the war or, at the very least, are not against it. 

However, even when examining statistics on fines and detentions, it’s evident that tens of thousands of Russians openly dissent with Putin’s policies. In reality, the numbers are likely much higher, but a substantial portion of dissenters are deterred by intimidation and are unwilling to assume such risks.

Nevertheless, every public anti-war protest sends a message to other anti-war-minded citizens of Russia – you are not alone, there are many of us, unite, fight, be ready to say your word at the decisive moment.

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