Diary of a Russian journalist who disagrees with the war: part 2

Anti-war graffiti on the kiosk of Rospechat in Yekaterinburg. (Photo by Arden Arkman)

This article is part of our project, “Ukraine Stories”, supporting Ukrainian and Russian journalists who are victims of war or censorship. Ivan Zhilin, a journalist living in Russia's fourth largest city, Yekaterinburg describes life since the war started and the response to the war in his city.

22-23 April. Days 58 and 59 of the war

Writer Alexei Ivanov accompanied his book “Yoburg” (a slang name of the city of Yekaterinburg) with the epigraph: “City of the Brave”. I had reasons to think this was true before when:

- In 2013,  Yekaterinburg  residents elected opposition politician Yevgeny Roizman as mayor.
- In 2018, thousands of citizens confronted the local oligarchs, their gopnik fighting squads, and the riot police, and fought off the development of their favourite square in the city centre.

I am now convinced of the courage of Yekaterinburg residents who have not embraced war.

As I was preparing a series of articles about Russians who oppose the war, I called six acquaintances from Yekaterinburg, and asked them for an interview, stipulating at once that they could do so anonymously. At this time, when any opposition to the bombing of Ukraine could result in imprisonment, this seemed like a logical suggestion. I was sure that one of the six people would agree to talk. But all of them did. And everyone said: “No anonymity - I will speak openly.”

These people have a lot to lose. Some have careers, some have families, some have been cut off by prison from helping other people. But they go all the way.

Here before me is the stout, do-gooder Anatoly Svechnikov, a self-taught human rights activist and “memorial activist” (legendary historical “Memorial” society, which has now become banned in Russia). On 24 February , he was among the protesters against the war in the main square of the city. When the police started detaining people, Svechnikov was not caught, but the next day he was already helping the detainees in courts, coordinating the work of lawyers. And on 27 February, he was detained and arrested for 30 days – technically for his participation in another protest action in memory of the murdered oppositionist Boris Nemtsov.

Svechnikov is already “in the crossfire” of law enforcement agencies. But he speaks boldly, explaining that for him to keep silent means to accept the war.

“I think that I am responsible for what has happened. At the very least because I’ve paid taxes, part of which my country decided to spend on the war with Ukraine,” he says.

“Of course, the main blame lies with the state, which created the idea in people’s minds that war is acceptable at all. But society is also to blame: for decades Russians grew accustomed to indifference, used to turning a blind eye to problems that did not affect them personally. And here is the result. All nations of the world, except maybe some Amazonian tribes, have understood: trade is better than war. But it turned out that our leadership did not understand that,” Svechnikov says.

We talked for half an hour – and his fearlessness is amazing.

“I’ve encountered bad attitudes because of my anti-war stance”, says Svechnikov. “When I stood in pickets, people came up to me and insulted me, calling me a ‘fifth column’ representative. But I explain it this way: in a situation of great tragedy, people are looking for something to fall back on. And the position of propaganda seems strong to them. They align themselves with it, hoping that behind a strong façade the trouble won't touch them. But it will touch everyone. I think the horror, the blockade, the shortage that our country will face will be even worse than it was in Germany before WW2”.

For now, everything seems really calm on the streets. From the Urals to the Ukraine, 3,000 kilometers away, you'd think the war hadn't reached here. But it did: On April 18, Captain Denis Bespamyatnykh was buried in Verkhoturye (a small town about three hours' drive from Yekaterinburg) – the exact place of his death is not mentioned, officials say simply: “Died in Ukraine”.

Shortly before that, soldiers Vladislav Sagitov and Ruslan Aitov were buried in Krasnoufimsk and Berezovsky – they died in Mariupol.

And many people in the Urals realise: 22-year-old or 24-year-old boys arrive in closed coffins. Does anybody understand what they died for, what they wanted to achieve? And did they want to? And then I notice people walking past a closed kiosk with large graffiti on it showing a man with a placard saying, “No War”; I notice how new green ribbons - symbols of peace – still appear on trees and poles.

Yes, the war against war is often secretive. Often, its actors are unknown. But it is going on, and that gives hope.

Anti-war graffiti in Yekaterinburg. (Credit: Arden Arkman)

In the reception room of Evgeny Roizman, the former mayor of Yekaterinburg, I hear him talking to a woman. She is in despair. She is almost crying: “I do not understand how to communicate with my relatives. They keep saying: ‘There are Nazis there [in Ukraine]. They deserve it.’” He calms her down, most of the conversation goes on behind closed doors, and only fragments of phrases reach me.

Yes, it seems that this man [meaning Vladimir Putin] has a lot of supporters. But Stalin may have had even more supporters, and he was disowned by the state after his death. And Nicolae Ceausescu, the last Communist leader of Romania, once spoke at a rally of a hundred thousand people  – four days before he was shot.  People tend to be on the side where there is power, or on the side where they only think there is power.

I hope we all only think that those who unleashed the war - really have the power of popular support. The problem, though, is that the strength of the opponents of the war is not yet enough to stop it.