The Russian People Are Not the Russian Government, Activists Remind Us

Nearly two decades after Bush administration began a nationwide crackdown on the U.S. movement against the invasion of Iraq, antiwar activists in Russia are experiencing a wave of brutal repression as President Vladimir Putin’s regime wages an extremely deadly war on Ukraine.

This is a pivotal moment for the antiwar movement in Russia. Some activists are fleeing the country to avoid persecution and agitate against the war under international protection, according to a Russian activist who must remain anonymous due to fear of arrest. There are also “plenty of examples” of others staying in Russia and developing creative ways to resist despite the threat of arrest.

“Plus, actually many don’t mind getting arrested,” the activist said over an encrypted chat this week. Many Russian antiwar organizers have emphasized that they feel strongly about putting themselves on the line at a time when Ukrainians are suffering so much at the hands of the Russian government.

Still, human rights groups say key organizers face serious criminal charges, and multiple protesters have reported injuries after being arrested and detained. Videos of police wielding batons against demonstrators and using “excessive force” have emerged from recent antiwar protests in Russia, according to Human Rights Watch. Nearly 14,000 people in Russia have been arrested or detained for participating in antiwar actions since February 24.

Meanwhile, Alexi Navalny, the Russian opposition leader jailed by the Putin regime, has reportedly called for mass antiwar protests across Russia this Sunday that could bring thousands of people into the streets.

Human Rights Watch reports that 5,000 people were detained during actions in 69 cities on March 6 alone, and several women allegedly endured violent interrogations by police at Moscow’s Brateyevo police station that could amount to torture under international law. Two activists, 22-year-old Marina Morozova and 26-year-old Aleksandra Kaluzhskikh, discreetly recorded their interrogations and gave the audio to independent media outlets.

The question of whether the Russian antiwar movement will grow into a serious challenge to Putin — or be stifled by police and the propaganda pushed by state-run media — could be answered in the coming weeks as Russian forces continue aerial bombardments of civilian areas and lay siege to key cities in Ukraine. Negotiations aimed at ending the conflict are not making progress, and with everyday Russians suffering under economic sanctions and fallen soldiers coming home in body bags, the truth is slowly seeping out despite the government’s efforts to control news outlets and social media.

In interviews, antiwar activists in the United States say they no longer discuss the war with their friends and counterparts in Russia over the phone. A new Russian law imposes a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison for statements “discrediting” the military or cutting against the official narrative of Russian’s mission in Ukraine, which the Kremlin and state media often describes as a “special military operation” rather than an “invasion” or a “war.”

Activists worry the anti-dissent law will be enforced retroactively, allowing authorities to target activists for statements and online posts made before the crackdown and even call for the extradition of activists who have fled the country.

Women Transforming Our Nuclear Legacy, an antiwar and anti-nuclear proliferation group that brings Russian and American women together, recently published a petition calling for an immediate ceasefire. Unlike in previous appeals, the group withheld signatures of Russian members due to fear of arrest, according to Ann Wright, a well-known antiwar activist who resigned from the U.S. military in 2003 to protest the invasion of Iraq.

“There are a few that are still speaking to the international media … but it’s very, very dangerous for them,” Wright said in an interview.

In a recent international poll by LexisNexis, less than half of Russians approved of the war but only 27 percent disapproved. Another 26 percent had no opinion, possibly reflecting the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent and independent media outlets, which has left many Russians with access to only the state’s narrative on the news.

Younger, tech-savvy Russians use Virtual Private Networks or VPNs that encrypt online data and web surfing for privacy to bypass the country’s censorship of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook and access international news about the war. However, increased sanctions imposed by the U.S. are making VPNs difficult or impossible to use. Activists say most students and young people in major metropolitan areas such as Moscow and St. Petersburg oppose the war, while members of older generations swallow the Kremlin’s misleading narratives on state-run TV.

“The Russian people are going to suffer big time in terms of all of the sanctions on them,” Wright said. “The people are isolated; nobody is giving them visas to leave the country.”

Paula Garb, a longtime activist who lived in the Soviet Union for 20 years and worked as a peacemaker during conflicts in Georgia and other areas of the post-Soviet bloc, said she remembers living in an “information bubble” created by state television broadcasts when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. However, the repression of activists and independent news media appears to be more severe now, resembling the Soviet Union under the authoritarian grasp of Joseph Stalin after World War II, Garb said.

“It does seem as though maybe there is 50 or 60 percent of the whole country which may not be happy about the conflict, but are just accepting the Russian government’s narrative,” Garb said in an interview. “Thousands of people are willing to be activists, but it may not be enough — yet.”

Garb and Wright said observers across the world were taken by surprise by Putin’s brutal assault on Ukraine. Many assumed Russian troops would defend the two pro-Russian breakaway provinces in the Donbas region, but the full-scale effort to topple the Ukrainian government that has claimed thousands of lives so far seemed like a remote possibility just a few weeks ago. Antiwar organizers were forced to act quickly as Russian military action escalated into an all-out invasion, pushing more than 2.5 million civilians out of the country.

“Russians say ‘don’t hate us for what our leaders have done,’” said Wright, who has visited the country twice in the past five years. “We were hoping in the U.S. that the world wouldn’t hate American citizens for what both Bush administrations did to Iraq.”

Wright said the U.S. antiwar movement was also sidelined by the media as the U.S. government went to war with Iraq and Afghanistan under President George W. Bush, and thousands of activists were arrested by police over the course of several years.

“It’s not like our government here was pleased with the antiwar sentiment,” Wright said.

Activists say we must not draw absolute parallels between the conflict in Ukraine and the U.S.-led wars in the Middle East, or the many other conflicts fueled by U.S. military support around the world, such as the occupation of Palestine and the civil war in Yemen. However, like many of these conflicts, the future of the war on Ukraine remains unpredictable.

Putin has not achieved the swift victory he may have imagined, and the conflict in Ukraine is already a humanitarian catastrophe that threatens to become a quagmire lasting for months, if not years.

Wright said multiple international antiwar coalitions continue to organize and support Russian activists, but they still need all the support — and media attention in and outside Russia — that they can get.

“We have to keep looking for those who are brave enough to speak out,” Wright said. “They are going to be heroes at the end of all this, if they are still alive.”