Spreading fake news about the Russian armed forces can be punished with up to 15 years in prison. Fines go as high as CHF15,000. While thousands of war opponents flee the country, others have decided to stay and fight for peace. Russian journalist Ivan Zhilin met with some of them.
Yekaterinburg: capital of the Urals and the country’s fourth most populous city in the country, with 1.5 million inhabitants. Since the first day of the war in Ukraine, its citizens actively joined the anti-war resistance, organising daily rallies against the “special operation”, with up to 600 participants.
At the last of such rallies on 6 March in Plotinka Square, at the heart of the city, 185 people were detained. Afterwards, the protests continued but became more localised, as harsh laws were introduced to dissuade people from speaking out against the war.
At least 35 criminal cases and 600 administrative cases have been opened for anti-war speech. State-controlled media estimates that at least 200,000 people have left Russia since the start of the war, giving as a reason their disagreement with the government’s policy. But many pacifist-minded Russians have decided to stay.
‘If I leave, it will mean fleeing’
Yevgeny Roizman is a cult figure in Yekaterinburg. After making a name for himself in the fight against drug trafficking, he was elected mayor of the Urals capital in 2013. He is known for consistently opposing Putin and his policies, including Crimea’s annexation. Today the ex-mayor is involved in charity work. His foundation helps children with orphan diseases, assists patients with cerebral palsy and cancer, collects money for medical drugs and rehabilitation, and supports the Yekaterinburg hospice.
“We are coping, but there are a lot of problems,” says Roizman. “All the children with cerebral palsy who have seizures and epilepsy have been on antiepileptic therapy for a year, and now there is no more medicine.”
Sanctions have sent prices of medical drugs and equipment soaring and several antiepileptic and anticonvulsant drugs are no longer available.
Roizman opposes the assault on Ukraine: “Of course, I feel guilty. I understand that my country attacked another country for no reason at all. My country is killing people in another country. It pains me. It shames me. I think any normal person feels the same.”
The former mayor has already been slapped with three administrative fines for “discrediting the actions of the Russian army”. He will have to pay 150,000 rubles [CHF2,200] for anti-war speech. But, he has no intention of leaving Russia: “If I leave, it will mean fleeing. But why should the occupiers kick me out of my country? Let them leave by themselves.”
Human rights activist Anatoly Svechnikov went out on 24 February on 1905 Square with an anti-war banner. He shows me this small cardboard with the inscription “No to War” in the semi-basement offices of the Urals branch of Memorial, one of the oldest rights organisations in Russia, which revealed the crimes of Stalin’s regime.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the “special operation”, Memorial’s Urals branch issued a statement strongly condemning the president's decision.
“We believe that on February 24, 2022, Russia committed an act of armed aggression against a neighbouring state – sovereign and independent Ukraine. A war has begun, and people are dying on both sides. For Russia, the consequences of this irresponsible adventure will be catastrophic,” it stated.
Svechnikov is outraged that despite opposing the war, he unintentionally supported it by paying taxes that are now being spent on combat operations. But he refuses to leave Russia.Despite the court’s decision to close Memorial, he still has hope. “If Memorial can't be saved, I have to at least try to preserve its legacy. I can't leave, because there are people here who I can still help,” he says.
A dissenting voice in the Taiga
End of March, Kudymkar, a taiga city of 29,000 inhabitants on the western flank of the central Ural mountains, unexpectedly made the Russian headlines. In one week, three administrative cases were brought up against Yulia Belyaeva, director of the local theatre, actress Ksenia Otinova and Yana Yanovskaya, chief editor of the local publication Parma News. The three defendants were accused of “discrediting” Russia’s armed forces on social media and the newspaper, an unprecedented event for the small city. Published once a week, Parma-news is a rare example of an independent publication in the deep provinces. It offers an alternative point of view to life in the city and its surroundings. Yanovskaya's column from 9 March did not exactly coincide with the authorities’ party line.
“The grief and tears of a mother who has lost her son cannot be compensated by any money. I do not understand people who support what is happening now. War has never done anyone any good,” the editor-in-chief wrote. She was fined 50,000 rubles [CHF 730].
Even if she is on the radar of law enforcers, Yanovskaya is not going to leave Russia. She says that she cannot leave her parents, andt that someone has to do honest journalism within the country.
“The problem of the Russians is that we all have so-called ‘learned helplessness’. We have lost faith in our own strength and our own possibilities. We have resigned ourselves to the fact that nothing depends on us, that we ourselves cannot change the situation,” says Yanovskaya.
And her words speak the truth. If only Russians in previous years had believed that they could elect a different president, there would not have been a war. If 86 per cent of the population did not support the war, there wouldn’t have been one. Is that support really there or are we just afraid to speak out?
*Some of the interviews published in this article were taken as part of the “Eyewitnesses” project by TV-2, which was blocked by a decision of the Russian authorities. Despite the blockade, the agency based in the Siberian city of Tomsk, continues to operate on social media and tell the stories of those who oppose the war.