Russia’s Antiwar Protesters Are Terrified

And still marching.

Photo: Kommersant Photo Agency/Shutterstock
Photo: Kommersant Photo Agency/Shutterstock

The day after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, Denis, 25, made his way to an antiwar protest in the heart of St. Petersburg. Denis had protested after the opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned and imprisoned, but he was nervous as he approached Nevsky Avenue and saw the “cosmonauts” — what protesters call the infamous branch of Russia’s National Guard that wears balaclavas and riot gear. During the protest, a few cosmonauts began to chase Denis, but he managed to slip away.

While Denis was able to elude the cosmonauts, Russia’s antiwar protesters may have a much harder time outrunning the law. On Friday, the Duma outlawed the spread of “false information” about Russia’s military, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Denis fears that police may use facial-recognition technology, which was reportedly used to track Navalny supporters, to find and arrest him. (Like others, he only agreed to speak on a first-name basis due to safety concerns.) He has heard rumors that members of the FSB, Russia’s federal intelligence agency, are interrogating young men, forcing them to unlock their phones and asking them about their media subscriptions. Three of Denis’s friends have already fled the country, and he flew to his hometown to get his passport. “I am very afraid. I’ve been crying for more than an hour,” he said. “I can’t believe this can happen in the 21st century. The Iron Curtain is closing.”

Almost as quickly as the invasion in Ukraine began, so too did antiwar protests in Russia, a challenge to Vladimir Putin’s regime that has been met with a fierce response. Thousands gathered in the country’s largest cities, and at least 13,000 protesters have been arrested since February 24, according to OVD-Info, a human-rights organization that advocates for freedom of assembly in Russia. Meanwhile, the new law is an extraordinary crackdown on free speech even in the context of Putin’s reign. Calling the fighting in Ukraine a war — as opposed to a “special operation,” as Putin has called it — is illegal. “The risks are really high,” said Maria Kuznetsova, a spokesperson for OVD-Info. Those who express opposition to the war may face charges of treason, a crime that carries a minimum 15-year sentence. “Yesterday, they arrested a human-rights activist who started a petition that now has 1 million signatures,” said Kuznetsova. “We don’t know if he will be in jail for a few days or a few years.”

Despite the risks, many protesters were drawn out for the first time, outraged by their government’s invasion of a country they considered fraternally bonded to Russia. But all spoke with growing fear about how the government, already notorious for crushing dissent, may punish them. 

“It’s my first protest,” said Daria, who attended a gathering in Moscow’s Pushkin Square during the first week of war. Like many Russians, Daria, 28, has family in Ukraine. “I’m not interested in politics, but in this case I’m really interested, and I don’t want war.”

Most protesters were in their 20s and early 30s, and many say the generational divide is a symptom of different media diets. While younger generations get their news from Instagram, Telegram, or Facebook, older generations tune in to state-run TV. “We say they were ‘brainwashed by TV,’” said Anastasia, a 30-year-old in St. Petersburg. “It’s understandable — they were born in the USSR and are used to hearing the truth on TV. But it hasn’t been like that for a long time.”

“It’s hard for us not to see our parents in the streets. They just can’t open their eyes,” added Ekaterina, a 24-year-old in St. Petersburg.

The divide is not absolute. “I want our country to be normal, just normal,” Natalya, a 68-year-old protester in Moscow, pleaded, speaking through an interpreter. “I don’t want to suffer for my country all my life, be pained by everything that happens here. My father suffered like that, and I always knew that something wasn’t right — I began to see that very early on. What would it mean for life to be good in my country? I want people to live well. I want people to be free.”

As restricted as the independent-media landscape in Russia was before the invasion, it has now been all but stamped out. The country’s only major independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, has stopped covering the war. On Thursday morning, the Echo of Moscow radio station, which was founded during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, announced it would close for good; later that day, the country’s most popular independent television channel, TV Rain, shut down too. It broadcast Swan Lake, calling back to August 1991, when networks played the Tchaikovsky ballet during the failed coup attempt by Soviet hard-liners. Facebook has been blocked and a growing list of international news outlets, including the BBC and the New York Times, have suspended operations in Russia, worrying the new laws that ban “fake” information could lead to their journalists’ arrests.

As the protests wear on, organizers say the police are becoming more violent. “On one hand, they are tired because they’ve been working for the whole week in this emergency situation, so they get angry and frustrated and don’t want to do this job, some of them,” said Emma, an activist living in Moscow. “But on the other hand, this is a performative moment. They want people who are watching this to see their brutality to get scared. They’re being brutal to the people to make other people sitting at home, their friends and relatives, say, ‘I better stay home. I better stay silent.’”

Kira, 25, was among those arrested last week. She had attended protests regularly since she was 18, but when she arrived at the protest in central St. Petersburg last week, she had a hard time distinguishing the protesters from pedestrians — not many had signs, and there wasn’t much chanting. She started screaming “No war” while clapping her hands until she found a group of protesters. She continued walking while shouting, “Putin is a murderer! Ukraine is not an enemy!” After a few blocks, the cosmonauts grabbed and arrested her. Kira was driven between police stations in St. Petersburg’s suburbs and spent the next seven and a half hours waiting to go before a judge. She was charged with violating public-health protocols related to COVID-19 and participating in unauthorized meetings. Kira knew she would be found guilty, but she briefly considered fighting the charges on principle. Exhausted and fearing prosecutors might add charges if she made things harder on them, she chose to plead guilty and pay a fine of 10,000 rubles, which was covered by donations made by strangers. If Kira is arrested again, that fine could be anywhere from 100,000 to 350,000 rubles, and she could face serious jail time.

“I posted on Instagram about what happened to me, and a lot of people who didn’t go to protests supported me. They wrote to me and said that I am so brave and they are too scared,” Kira said. “I feel ashamed because I don’t feel brave anymore. I feel scared.”

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Russia’s Antiwar Protesters Are Terrified and Still Marching