In Russia, the phantoms of the past are back

(Credit: Nigina Beroeva)

Facebook has a very touching and nostalgic option: reminding you what happened in your life passed years on the same date. And lately, the platform suggested a selection of photos, many of them relating to 12 June, Russia Day, the national holiday. For the last 10 years of my life and all over the country, there have been rallies against the government on this day. Every year. Facebook is showing me photos of the opposition: Boris Nemtsov, Alexei Navalny, Dmitri Gudkov and tens of thousands other people. There are slogans like “Russia will be free”, “Russia without Putin”, “Stop lying and stealing”. My photos display the three colors of Russia: white, blue and red. But also in my pictures, police officers are stiffly detaining protesters and taking them to police stations. And it gets tougher every year.

12 June, 2022, Russia Day. Boris Nemtsov is dead; he was killed in front of the Kremlin. Alexei Navalny is in jail - they tried to kill him too. Dmitry Gudkov is in forced anti-war exile, as are tens of thousands of Russians. There are no more rallies with thousands of people. In Russia, those who dare to take to the streets with single pickets and “No War” posters are detained at once. But people still come out, and get fined or detained, facing actual criminal sentences. This year for example, on Russia Day, someone put up a sign saying “This is not my day” in front of the Ministry of Defence building.

“Freedom in Russia”

June 12, 2022. As on previous years, I was at the rally. Only this time, it happened on Bastille Square, Paris, France. Several dozen Russians gathered in a place that, for the whole world, has become a symbol of the revolution, of the struggle for freedom. The posters read, “Peace in Ukraine”, “Freedom in Russia”,“No War”. But not a single white, blue and red symbol. In addition to the yellow and blue Ukrainian flags, new flags appeared under the scorching Parisian sun: stripes of white, blue and white again. This flag is not recognised anywhere; it does not belong to any party. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it became a symbol of resistance to the Russian authorities. Now, at small anti-war demonstrations all over the world, Russians come waving this very flag that is not connected to the imperial past of the country in any way.

“The current Russian flag is smeared with blood,” says Artem, a Russian programmer who now lives in France. “Under this flag, the military bombs peaceful cities and kills people. They took the flag away from us. It may only be a symbol, but symbols are very important.” Artem is 23 years old. He doesn't remember a Russia without Putin. The words uttered by the Russian human rights activist Lev Ponomarev at the rally about a democratic Russia that began on 12 June 1990, seemed unreal to Artem.

12 June, 1990. On this day, the First Congress of the People's Deputies adopted a declaration of independence of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. It is important to recall that this was the beginning of the real collapse of the USSR. In essence, the deputies declared the creation of an entirely new country, making the dream of millions of people come true. Now, they said, all Russian citizens, parties and associations will be guaranteed equal rights and opportunities. All would be able to participate in government. From that moment on, the country began declaring its “commitment to the universally accepted norms of international law”, promising to live in peace and harmony with all peoples and nations.

Isolated country

From that moment, Russia changed. It had elections, a free economy, and a liberal and progressive Constitution. With a lot of problems and difficulties, which the young democratic country inherited from 70 years of Soviet oppression.

It’s been only 32 years. And the phantoms of the past are back. The USSR has returned in its worst manifestations. Russia has abolished the rule of the international law. It no longer abides by the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and has been excluded from the Council of Europe. There is talk of abolishing the suspension on the death penalty. Russians are essentially left with only one pro-government party, and no real opposition has been able to conduct political work for several years. Russians realised a long time ago that they couldn’t participate in the government, and most of them don’t even try anymore. The repressive machine has been installed in the country and is gaining momentum every day. The level of propaganda seems to have already exceeded the Soviet Union. The country is again isolated from the rest of the world. And the state has unleashed a bloody war against a neighboring country. What Russia now celebrates on 12 June, is in fact its successful installment of a new USSR.

“What is Russia Day to me? It's that day of 2017, when police officers first put me in a police van, kept me at the station all night, and threatened to rape me” explains Kuzma, a student at a French university. “I was detained after a rally against corruption organised by Alexei Navalny. I went to almost every rally in Russia. And I believe everyone should. It's better than doing nothing. I wasn't planning to leave Russia. I went abroad to study, but the war broke out and I ended up in exile.”

A few dozen Russians in Paris chanted, “Russia will be free!” just as they did at all the rallies over the last few years. “It's a pity that so far Russia, or rather the authorities freed themselves of you and me.” says the young man with a bitter chuckle to his friends, who were waving white and blue flags, the flags of a country that only exists only in their dreams right now. And even just to dream about it, they were forced to flee their country.