Those who started the war should be the ones leaving

Vladislav Postnikov (Credit: Courtesy)

In May, Geneva Solutions published stories of Russians who opposed the war with Ukraine but refused to flee despite repression. At that time, 35 criminal and more than 600 administrative cases were opened in Russia for anti-war speeches. Now there are 53 criminal cases and 1,938 administrative cases, and the numbers are growing every day.

But those pacifists won’t abandon their convictions in the face of repression. Russian journalist Ivan Zhilin continues to tell the stories of opponents.

“I can't give my country to the orcs.”

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Yaroslav Shirshikov (Credit: Courtesy)

At 8:30 a.m., on June 10, someone knocked at Yaroslav Shirshikov’s, a Yekaterinburg publicist, door. Two men in civilian clothes stood there. They showed IDs from the Center against extremism.

One of them, a major, said: “You have to come with us. You're being detained because of your anti-war positions.” “That's what he said, can you imagine?” said Yaroslav, grinning. “They took me to the administrative law enforcement department. There, a young lieutenant drew up a report for ‘discrediting the use of the Russian armed forces abroad.’ They didn't beat me or insult me, they just politely informed me that I would have to pay a fine of 50,000 rubles for not agreeing with the massacres.”

Before his detention, Yaroslav spoke out several times in the media from anti-war positions. He published pacifist posts on social media and walked around the city wearing a T-shirt with the inscription: “Shirshikov is against the war.”

A report signed by police inspector Sergei Kuleshov stated that what was happening now in Ukraine wasn’t war and that it shouldn’t be called that. Doing that, in the opinion of the officers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is “discrediting the Russian army.” Indeed, “The goals of the war are: destruction of the state, destruction of the people, tearing away part of the state's territory. The present special military operation has other goals: to protect the people of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, and to ensure international peace and security,” the policeman wrote in a report. The policeman didn’t explain how the deaths of 4,253 civilians, including 272 children (according to the UN), the raising of Russian flags in seized cities, and the president's statements that Russia is “returning” territory, as in the time of Peter the Great, correlate with these stated goals.

However, Shirshikov won’t call the war a “special operation.” He hopes to pay the fine which the court will almost certainly sentence him to (all “discrediting the army” trials in Yekaterinburg follow the same script) by “picking up the pieces”: fortunately, mutual help among Russian activists is more efficiently organized now than ever before.

Neither does Yaroslav intend to leave Russia because of pressure from the siloviki [1]. “Never. This is my country, my homeland. Let those who started the war with Ukraine go. We will put things in order here without them. Now a lot of great minds have left Russia. But if they all leave, only the orcs will be left here. And I can't give my country to the orcs,” he says.

Shirshikov admits that he has never been to Ukraine, but notes that he loves it in absentia for its cultural image. “I have, unfortunately or fortunately, no relatives or friends there. But my favorite movie is Only ‘Old Men’ Are Going to Battle [2]. Its main character, a military pilot called Maestro, is Ukrainian, and his mechanic is Russian. And it's so natural... I've been dreaming to visit Kiev and Odessa for a long time, I think they are very picturesque, interesting cities. And the fact that they are being bombed as we speak is unthinkable.”

“Russian language is freer in Ukraine than in Russia”

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Vladislav Postnikov (Credit: Courtesy)

In the spring, anti-war rallies swept Yekaterinburg, like many other Russian cities. Here they were among the largest in the country: hundreds of people gathered in the squares in the city center.

Almost all Yekaterinburg media outlets covered the protests against the war. But not all of them were charged with “discrediting the Russian army.” But the website Vecherniye Vedomosti was fined 150,000 rubles. For a small outlet with only six staff members, it was a serious blow.

“The E Center (the anti-extremism division of the Interior Ministry) found the article on our Telegram channel. It mentioned the arrest of artist Leonid Cherny, who was putting up anti-war stickers. We published these stickers partially blacked out for internal censorship reasons, to prevent the publication from being blocked.” says the outlet's editor-in-chief Vladislav Postnikov.

The posters, posted by Leonid Cherny, had “GruZ 200” (the conditional name of the deceased) written on them, while Vecherniye Vedomosti published only the word “GruZ.” However, this was enough to draw up an administrative report. Postnikov notes: “No one was able to explain clearly how the word ‘GruZ’ discredits the Russian Army.” In the opinion of the Vecherniye Vedomosti editor-in-chief, the increased attention from the law-enforcement agencies and the fines are all elements of pressure on the independent publication.

Coming back to February 24, the day the war started, Vladyslav says that the day before, he watched an address to the Russians by President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky in which he warned that Russia was about to launch an attack.

“The Western countries have been talking about war since autumn. But I didn't want to believe it was possible. I thought it was a geopolitical game, a kind of bargaining,” Postnikov says. “In January and February, I was one of the organizers of anti-war pickets in Yekaterinburg, but my main point was that keeping the army in the field is expensive. And I called for moving the troops away from the borders so as not to waste any money. I didn't think that Putin would cross the line and actually send troops into Ukraine.” For several days, Vladislav admits, he was at a loss. With the entire editorial staff, they filmed anti-war speeches. “But it was impossible to get my thoughts together.”

“To my surprise, many of my acquaintances said they supported the ‘special operation.’ Somehow, anger, rage, and hatred toward Ukrainians had built up in seemingly decent people. Paradoxically, the very people who said they didn’t believe the statistics on the coronavirus and didn’t trust the government suddenly began to. That being said, more than half of my friends and colleagues still don’t agree with the war.”

“Did anyone you know suffer for their anti-war stance?” I asked. “Several people have received administrative penalties. Yevgeny Roizman got three administrative charges for ‘discrediting the Russian army.’ Journalist Elena Shukaeva got five charges of ‘discrediting’ as well. There is an acquaintance from Kachkanar (a small town in the north of the Sverdlovsk region) who is not a public figure got three administrative fines of 30 thousand rubles, each for ‘discrediting.’ I can also classify those who left the country as victims - forced departure is also a deprivation of freedom, one might say, the freedom to live in one's own country.”

Vladislav himself won’t leave Russia. Until 2021, he was head of the Yekaterinburg branch of the opposition “Open Russia,” and says that he is already used to the constant pressure from the state. "One way or another, I'm not doing anything illegal, and the truth, I hope, will win in the end anyway," Postnikov said.

The war, however, also turned out to bring personal loss for Postnikov. “On March 1, my acquaintance Asya Klimova was killed in a shooting at the TV center in Kiev. She was Russian. She had come to Kiev from Nizhniy Novgorod six months earlier. She was a standup comedian. In the early days, she posted a video on Instagram and Facebook, telling what Russians were being told on TV wasn't true. She told how she lived in Kiev for six months without speaking Ukrainian, and that no one said a single bad thing to her. That Russians were not being oppressed in Ukraine. This video turned out to be the last one she recorded.

Vladislav notes another interesting detail about the oppression of the Russian language. “Journalists in Russia have been forced to make footnotes and notes in their articles for several years now (the media is obliged to label numerous people as ‘foreign agents,’ ‘extremists,’ and organizations as ‘terrorist’). I have been working as a journalist for a year and a half, and I recently realized that the Russian language in my texts is becoming more and more distorted. Since this year, we can no longer use some Russian words in our publications (like ‘war,’ ‘invasion,’ ‘aggression’ and other words that ‘discredit’ the Russian army). At the same time, any journalist in Ukraine can write in actual Russian, because no words are forbidden there. It turns out that Russian language in Ukraine is freer than in Russia," he concludes.

“The prospects for our wards are not optimistic”

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On June 2, the Dzerzhinsky district court in Perm fined Dmitri Zhebelev, founder of the Dedmorozimcharity, 30 thousand rubles. He was charged under the same accusation than the others: “discrediting the use of the Russian armed forces abroad.” The charges were based on his posts on social networks:

On April 18, the philanthropist published a short note on his Vkontakte page: “Everything is going according to plan.” He attached statistics from the Ministry of Defence, UNICEF, and the UN on the number of military and civilian deaths, as well as the number of refugees.

In another post, he gave statistics about the military personnel from the Perm region that was under 20 years of age and killed during the “special operation.” He labeled it as “infanticide.”

And in the third, he quoted Vladimir Putin's words about the need to ensure the safety of Donbass residents and cited the statistics of civilian deaths in the Donetsk region since the beginning of the war (according to the “DNR” itself, 145 civilians have been killed in the "republic" since late February and 2,144 have been wounded).

The court found that the director of the charity “discredited” the Russian troops with such posts. This fine wasn’t the first for Zhebelev. He had previously "discredited" the army in March with a solitary anti-war picket.

Zhebelev himself treats the charges with irony. Here, for example, is how he described the visit from the police during the second administrative case: “A polite policeman came by, modestly dropping off a notice. He said, ‘This is a new case, the FSB is there, so it's a big fine.’ The funny thing is that the fine is hardly bigger than my small sense of self-worth, on which I spun both this fine and the last one, and all future ones, along with criminal cases and their terms”.

Zhebelev's reasons for opposing the war (apart from natural humanism) are not ironic at all. “Our foundation is dedicated to helping orphans and seriously ill children. Not only do we raise money for medical treatment, but we also organize, for example, assisted living apartments for those who are both orphans and disabled. We adapt our wards to normal life. With the war, we are now forced, just like during the coronavirus, to be in survival mode. Now it is no longer possible to work on systemic projects, trying to eliminate the causes of social disadvantage. Now the only task is trying to keep the wards from dying. Because we are well aware that there will be problems with foreign equipment: artificial lung ventilation devices, oxygen concentrators, aspirators - there is no compatible technology for most of these in Russia. It is clear that there will be problems with medication as well. God forgives me for saying that, but the prospects for our wards are not optimistic.

Have the people who started the war thought about the consequences for the wards of the Dedmorozim charity in Perm, and for the wards of other charities as well?

[1] Editor’s note: a silovik is a person who works in police, army, drug control, prosecutor's office, ministry of justice, FSB political police, and any other state organization that has a right to use force against people.

[2] Editor’s note: Only ‘Old Men’ Are Going to Battle is a 1973 Soviet war drama black-and-white film produced in the Ukrainian SSR about World War II fighter pilots.

Note from the author: part of the interview published in this material was taken as part of the "Eyewitnesses" project of Tomsk-based TV-2 agency, which has been blocked by the Russian authorities. Despite the blockage, TV-2 continues to operate on social media and tell the stories of those opposing the war.

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