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Geopolitics

Meet The Russians Protesting The War At Their Peril

Despite legal threats or worse, a notable minority of Russians, from students to elected officials, are finding ways to oppose the invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, many others have left the country since the war began, creating a brain drain that could last for many years.

Photo of an anti-Kremlin sticker that reads "Stop Putin" in Munich, Germany

A "small but visible" opposition

Benjamin Quénelle

MOSCOW — On this Wednesday in the middle of spring, Valeria Pasternakova and Polina Petrova, both in their twenties, are in a small courtroom of the municipal tribunal of Khamovniki, a district near the center of Moscow. A banal case before an administrative judge offers a view into the judicial absurdity that Vladimir Putin's opponents face.

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All over Russia, those opposed to the "special military operation" in Ukraine finds different ways to express themselves. But many end up in court.

The lawyer asks questions to the police officer who wrote the protocol for the students' arrest. Seated opposite of Valeria and Polina, he is nervous and vague in his answers. The judge, in her sixties, is protecting him: She rejects questions and requests with evasive glances and pouting. She yawns, showing impatience and boredom, when Polina Petrova, in her energetic plea, looks at her straight in the eyes.

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The Main COVID Risk Now: Long COVID

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“I’m a fighter, you know, I’ve done a lot of things in my life, I’ve been around the world twice… I’m not saying this to brag, but to tell you my background," says the 40-year-old. "These days, I’m exhausted, I’m not hungry, I no longer drive, I can’t work anymore, I have restless legs syndrome.” She pauses before adding sadly: “I can’t read anymore either.”

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

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