In Ukraine, those who do not want to fight on the front or who want negotiations cannot say so publicly for fear of accusations of being traitors.
“I don't want to fight. They are sending the soldiers to almost certain death because they have far less means than the Russians. Also, I don't think that (President Volodomyr) Zelensky, Europe or the United States have negotiated enough to try to stop this war. But, of course, you can't say that publicly, nor do we have a way to escape.”
The young man speaking wants to preserve his anonymity. For uttering statements like this, he can be accused of desertion, collaboration with Russia, or being a traitor or a spy. He could also end up being sentenced to more than ten years in prison. Dimitry, a pseudonym to protect him, no longer even dares to talk about these issues by online chat with his friends.
The day before, one of Dmitry's friends had been taking photos on a Dnipro street with his cell phone. He was followed home by two men from the "Secret Services", as these plainclothes officers are referred to by everyone in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, in the east of the country neighboring the Donbas region. Once there, they checked his computer, hard drives, mobile phone, his content on social media; and they asked him why he took photos and if he worked for the Russians. It is also common that at the checkpoints on most streets and highways of the country, passengers are asked to show the photo folder of their mobile phones if they are considered suspicious.
Control does not seem democratic
"They say that this war is between authoritarianism and democracy, but all this control does not seem very democratic, right?" asks Dimitry, both nervous that someone is watching us and relieved to be able to share his bitterness over a war that, for him, began in 2014.
This war has increased anti-Russian sentiment even among those who speak Russian
“Many of us were not in favor of the war in Donbas. Many people there feel Russian. We ourselves have many relatives in Russia. And we didn't think it was right that they attacked them. And we couldn't say that publicly either because it was considered treason and being pro-Russian. But then the dead and wounded soldiers began to arrive. So a lot of people changed their mentality and started to feel more Ukrainian and nationalistic,” he adds.
Bohdan Chuma, a Hispanic professor at the Catholic University of Lviv, says: “This war has increased anti-Russian sentiment even among those who speak Russian, are of other ethnic groups, or had a stronger local identity like those from Odessa, who now feel more Ukrainian than from Odessa. Putin has been the best creator of a Ukrainian national identity. He has achieved, according to the polls, that 97% of Ukrainians recognize Zelensky as the national president."
Homes affected by Russian bombardment in Dnipro
Accusations of espionage
“Our relatives in Russia used to send us money to help us. Now, when we tell them that their army has bombed us, they don't understand what is happening, but they can't complain," explains the owner of a shop next to the factory and nursery that were bombed by the Russian Army at the end of February.
A majority of the college-educated working-class youth does not want to go to the front lines.
She also prefers to preserve her anonymity. She is afraid that her words may be misunderstood and the "Secret Services" will accuse her of being a traitor. Or that this journalist is a Russian spy. Or that something happens with her statements that she cannot understand, but that ends up harming her or her family. People in this part of the country are always trying to prevent possible accusations of espionage.
Mentioning the idea of a deserter causes contemptuous faces in most conversations I have. There are even those who deny the possibility that a Ukrainian man may want to evade the honor of defending his people by fighting in the army. But according to Dimitry, among his friends — college-educated working-class youth — a majority do not want to go to the front lines. According to a report by Israel Merino, those who have managed to cross into countries like Poland to avoid it face insults and rejection by other refugees.
“If I could, I would go to another country where there really was a democracy and I could say all these things without fear of ending up in prison for being disloyal. I love my country and everything that Russia is doing to us hurts me a lot. But it is not going to be solved by means of weapons,” he concludes before saying goodbye.