Ukraine war: The Russians risking freedom to protest Putin’s invasion

Two members of the secretive Feminist Anti-War Resistance group in Russia

It is 03:00 in St Petersburg and the streets are deserted. But in one tiny flat in the centre of the city, two activists are wide awake preparing to do something that can be very dangerous in Russia – stage an anti-war protest.

The pair agreed to meet us, but requested that we protect their identities.

“We do it anonymously, at night, in quiet areas, and we hide from CCTV cameras,” says one activist, who goes by the nickname Mitya.

“We always have our hoods up and we wear masks. We make our posters in gloves and we hang them up in gloves,” explains the other, who we will refer to as Vorobei.

The Feminist Anti-War Resistance is a secretive protest group that sprang up on the second day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

When we meet Mitya and Vorobei, their protest has taken the form of an anti-war message spray-painted on the pavement outside a school. It is part of a series of actions targeting mothers – who may one day have to send their sons off to war.

The activists tell me they were motivated to join the group after being shocked at Russia’s actions in Ukraine. “The war is horrific,” says Mitya. “It’s a completely senseless, imperialist war that should never have happened. It’s all about the vanity of our president, whom we didn’t even elect.”

Anti-war graffiti painted on a street near a school in St Petersburg lasted just hours before it was painted over

The next morning, we set off to inspect the graffiti that Mitya and Vorobei had painted in front of the school. It is a crisp, clear morning in St Petersburg, and the anti-war message is easily visible to dog walkers in the morning sunshine. But it survived just a few hours before it was painted over.

Vorobei says the group hopes the demonstrations will attract others: “If someone was indifferent before, if they see our poster or sticker, maybe that person will decide they don’t support the war.”

Being an anti-war activist in Russia is dangerous. Rights groups say there have been more than 16,000 detentions across the country for anti-war actions. Very few people now publicly oppose the war. Those who do speak out risk arrest or losing their job, university place or business.

“There were [street] protests against the war in the first week,” Vorobei explains.

“They were all broken up in the most violent way – the police use tasers, batons, there’s complete helplessness. And then you might get tortured in the police station. It’s absolutely terrifying,” says Mitya.

The authorities say the vast majority of Russians support what the Kremlin refers to as the “special military operation” in Ukraine, and they deny allegations that activists are persecuted.

It is very difficult to gauge how many people in Russia oppose the war. Both state polls and those conducted by independent researchers put the level of public support for the military campaign at around 70%.

However, critics say opinion polls cannot be trusted in an authoritarian system like Russia, as people often give a dishonest response for fear of repercussions. Russians are often reluctant to talk about politics openly with strangers.

Vitaly in Smolensk

Vitaly, though, is one of those Russians who wants to talk.

We travelled to Smolensk, a city in western Russia, to meet him. The 32-year-old former aircraft engineer has staged a public protest in the centre of Smolensk every day since the war began.

In seven months, he has missed just three days – when he was either in jail or at a funeral.

“Why do I go out every day? In order to create a chain reaction of protest,” he says.

Vitaly has been arrested, fined and even brutally beaten. But he carries on, and tries to convince others to join him. So far, nobody has. We walk with him to the city centre, where he stands under a fir tree with his anti-war placard.

“Has anything changed? No, but that doesn’t mean I’m upset and I’ll stop. At the moment I’m still able to do something, I’m not disillusioned yet.”

Vitaly’s placard reads in Russian: “No to the war!” But he has replaced the first two letters of the word “war” with asterisks.

In March, shortly after the invasion began, the Russian parliament passed a series of new laws making it illegal to use the words “war” or “invasion” in relation to Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine.

Doing so could land you in prison.

“The fear is very high,” he says, wearily. “I have no solution for how to fight this fear. I understand it completely – people have children, jobs. We are silent, and we are afraid. This is what we need to work on – overcoming the fear.”

While we talk, a woman angrily confronts him. She snatches his sign and rips it to pieces, bellowing that he is “selling the Motherland for money”.

Vitaly carefully picks up the pieces of his sign, then pulls another from his rucksack. He always carries a spare – just in case.

People in the western Russian city of Smolensk walk past a sign that reads: "We don't abandon our own"

I stop passers-by to ask whether they support Vitaly. Many are too scared to speak openly about the war, and almost everyone refuses to give their name.

One woman tells me she totally disagrees with Vitaly: “Russia is doing the right thing [in Ukraine]. Our victory should be total and final.”

But many people in Smolensk clearly support his anti-war stance. We see several locals stop to chat, shake his hand and offer kind words.

A young mother called Kira, out walking with her daughter, agrees to speak to me. “We support that young man,” she tells me. “The war is very bad. It won’t bring anything good, not for our country, or for any other.”

Not everyone has been as lucky as Vitaly, who has managed to avoid a long prison sentence – so far. Back in Moscow we went to meet Elena, who wanted to tell us about her son. She shows me his room, untouched since his arrest: “I really miss him. I miss talking to him.”

Dima Ivanov, 23, is a gifted student from Moscow State University. He ran a popular social media channel, where he posted anti-war material. In April, he was arrested and given serious criminal charges.

He faces between five and 10 years in prison. In Russia, over 99% of criminal cases end in a guilty verdict.

Russian anti-war protester Dima Ivanov with his lawyer Maria Eismont

Hundreds of political activists have left Russia since the military operation began in February. “I wanted him to leave,” says Elena, “but he always refused. He said ‘this is my country, why should I leave? I want things to be better here’.”

Elena begins to cry. “I didn’t want him to end up in prison… it’s very difficult for me to think about him suffering.”

Amnesty International has declared Dima a “prisoner of conscience”.

His mother tells me conditions in the detention centre where Dima is awaiting trial are poor. She reads a letter he has written to her, describing his cell: “It’s damp, it’s mouldy and the toilets and sinks are broken.”

While few in Russia openly voice their opposition to the war, as the conflict drags on and casualties mount, the Kremlin will be uneasy about the potential for more dissent.

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