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.
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.
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.
A few minutes later, the jury’s verdict is unsurprisingly read out in a hurry: She mentions no defense argument and declares Valeria Pasternakova guilty. The sentence is light: the equivalent of $105 in administrative fines. But in the event of another infringement, the case could turn into a criminal one. It could be an impending disaster for these rebellious Russians whom Vladimir Putin has named the “fifth column” in a thinly veiled condemnation.
Small but visible protests
“The judge’s decision had been made before the trial, as usual in our politicized justice system,” complains Polina Petrova, a recruit of the NGO OVD-Info, which defends the right of protesters. “These prosecutions for minor affairs pollute the general functioning of our justice system, which has bigger cases to deal with than posters in courtyards. The authorities multiply prosecutions and convictions in order to scare simple opponents like Valeria,” explains the very engaged lawyer.
Ever since a law that was passed on March 4 that criminalizes the publication of “false” information on military forces, the simple use of the word “war” can be dangerous. It is, however, often forgotten by the experts invited on television sets, sounding boards for the Kremlin’s messages, to justify its “special operation.”
Just as spontaneously, in Moscow and its regions, the phrase “No to war” started to spread, discreetly tagged or posted up in unexpected places, hidden from the eye of the police and the judicial authorities: on a metro door in the capital, on walls in the suburbs, or on the railway fences in Nizhny Novgorod, a city in the west. “Putin assassin,” a daring slogan was pasted on a big rock on a beach near Saint Petersburg. “Yes to peace, Putin go away” could be seen on stickers on poles in Kaliningrad.
Turning "Z" into "poZor", meaning: shame.
On Telegram, the channel “Vidimii protest” (literally signifying “visible protest”) posts pictures of these little anonymous signs, which reveal the existence of an opposition throughout Russia, a small but visible one. These emotional reactions demonstrate a political unease. “Make love, not war” can also be found, most of the time in English, accompanied by a heart with Ukrainian colors.
Discreet but determined, young anonymous girls opt for very political nail art, like a Ukrainian flag. Anonymous people have also thrown paint on the letter “Z” displayed everywhere by the authorities that support the army. Even more ironic, a protestor has added the letter “po” before and t “or” after this letter that has become a totem for pro-Kremlin supporters. This then forms the word “pozor” meaning: shame.
An anti-Putin protest in Munich, Germany
A new form of opposition
Such boldness can be costly. In a supermarket in Saint Petersburg, musician Alexandra Skotchilenko replaced the price tags by tiny bills that reads “love is stronger than war.” This did not escape the surveillance cameras, present inside the stores and on the public highway. Arrested and taken into custody, Alexandra Skotchilenko faces up to ten years in prison under the new law regarding attempts to “discredit” the armed forces.
“The worst with this new law is that it creates one more uncertainty: in the absence of a real rule of law in Russia, no one can know how it will be interpreted or applied,” fears Elena Russakova, a 55-year-old psychologist and head of the municipal assembly of Gagarinskï, a district of Moscow that has become a symbol for these new forms of opposition. Around Elena Russakova, seven local elected officials launched a surprising appeal to Vladimir Putin "against the war.”
On March 1, in this university district deemed liberal, the “soviet” municipal, an assembly usually dealing with very local and concrete issues, asked the head of the Kremlin to reconsider his decision and to not resort to military means.
“Let’s stop this war! How can we continue to deal with the sandboxes on our playgrounds and the financial management problems of our municipal works as long as these military battles continue?" asks Grigory Tolkachiov, a 52-year-old businessman, a father, and one of the rebellious elected officials in Gagarinsky.
Once voted, their appeal was sent to the Kremlin, published on the official site of the local “soviet”, and largely spread on social media. Three days later, the authorities’ response was clear and … judicial: Elena Russakova, as the leader of the rebellion, found herself sued by the prosecutor’s office. “A deputy or head of a municipality cannot be prosecuted for simply exercising their power, or sharing an opinion, or voting,” she points out, having been sanctioned for the moment with an administrative penalty and a heavy fine of about 150,000 rubles ($1,582). Regularly supported in the street and on social media, Elena Russakova managed to collect enough donations in two days — between 100 and 1,000 rubles per person — to cover the entire sum.
“People are scared to express their opposition. But with our status as elected representatives, we are lucky to be able to express ourselves. It is important!” says Russakova.
A Russian brain drain
At least five other local assemblies in Moscow have taken similar initiatives. “It is hard to evaluate the real impact of our call against the war. But it is important to remain faithful to the values that led me to be elected: to show an alternative, to prove that power can have a human face," confides Dmitri Petrov, 39, elected in Yakimanka, a district of central Moscow. A petition “against the war” was launched on the internet in Russia toward the start of the invasion and has collected more than 1.2 million signatures so far. “Our appeals, even at our small level, will perhaps trigger a wider reaction in the country where we want to stay to build another Russia," insists Grigorï Tolkachiov, the elected representative of Gagarinsky.
This war threatens a whole generation.
Others, however, have reacted differently: lawyers or computer scientists, communication experts or financial analysts — people in their early forties who had never shown strong opposition to the Kremlin. They were used to navigating between political restrictions and economic freedoms. But opposed to the military offensive, worried about their safety, restrained by the misdeeds of Western sanctions, they now want to flee Russia and start new careers. “This war threatens a whole generation who, through their work and investments in Russia itself, wanted to build a new country. These efforts and hopes may be in vain,” says Alexandre who, like many others, prefers to remain anonymous. A lawyer, he was able to accelerate the process of having his Russian diplomas recognized in Europe.
Destinations for these economic protesters include Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and Uzbekistan, all of which can be reached by air and without a visa. For Russia, this brain drain could prove to be one of the most damaging effects of the conflict.
“The country is shooting itself in the foot," says Anton, whose consulting firm has lost 60% of its business since the conflict began. He and his family have decided start anew in Dubai — but not quite from scratch, as several of his clients and many wealthy Russians have already sought refuge there. "The Kremlin does not understand the magnitude of what is happening," Anton says. "Those who think, show their opposition with words or in deeds. But we have to reinvent ourselves..."
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