Opposing War amid Repression: Anti-War Efforts in Russia

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has rightly provoked widespread condemnation. Perhaps the most important source of such condemnation has been the Russian people, many of whom have protested or otherwise dissented from their government’s actions. Peace-minded people around the world would do well to acknowledge anti-war efforts in Russia and to recognize our allies in that country.

The invasion’s start on February 24 was announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin and was met within Russia by anti-war protests in over 40 cities and towns, including Moscow. These protests took place in the absence of official permission and sometimes included hundreds of people.[1]

Protesters carried signs that included the messages “No war!”; “No war with Ukraine! Putin out of office!”; and simply “Forgive us, brothers.” In Moscow, some people gathered at the Ukrainian embassy to lay flowers and a note reading simply “We are with you.”[2]

Anti-war protesters were met by state security forces, who “dashed into the crowds and grabbed people, seemingly at random. They were detained and brought to the police stations.”[3] The watchdog group OVD-Info estimates that almost 2,000 people were arrested.[4]

A schoolteacher protesting in Moscow commented, “It was important for me to show that Putin’s decision is not the people’s decision,” and found encouragement in the protests. “Being in the crowd…felt surreal, heartbreaking but quite comforting.”[5]

These grassroots protests were echoed by many in Russian arts and letters. More than 17,000 Russian artists and others signed an open letter opposing the war. Published February 25 in the online magazine Spectate and circulated elsewhere, the letter declares

The war in Ukraine is a terrible tragedy for both Ukrainians and Russians… It brings great loss of human life, threatens our economy and security, and will lead our country to complete international isolation. At the same time, it is completely pointless — any enforcement of peace through violence is absurd.[6]

Thousands of scientists signed another anti-war letter, which also warned of the international isolation war would bring: “We scientists will no longer be able to do our job normally… conducting scientific research is unthinkable without cooperation with colleagues from other countries.”[7]

Among journalists, Elena Chernenko, a foreign policy reporter for the newspaper Kommersant, organized a petition protesting the war. Her co-signers included journalists for the state-run wire service Tass and the RT television network. Ivan Urgant, the host of a popular late-night TV program, posted the message “NO to war” on social media.[8]

Some of the Russian elite have expressed reservations about the war. Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman, chair of the Alfa Group conglomerate and Russia’s largest private bank, called for the “bloodshed to end.” The board of Lukoil, the country’s second-largest oil company, released a statement urging “the soonest termination of the armed conflict.” The statement also said “We strongly support a lasting ceasefire and a settlement of problems through serious negotiations and diplomacy.”[9]

Even a handful of Russian members of parliament have made tentative protests. Communist Party member Mikhail Matveyev voted in support of Putin recognizing the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. Yet Matveyev spoke out against the invasion on Twitter, saying “I voted for peace, not for war” (he later deleted this tweet).[10]

Two other Communist politicians who voted in favor of recognizing the separatists, Oleg Smolin and Vyacheslav Markhaev, offered similar criticisms of the invasion. Smolin expressed shock at the invasion and stated “I am convinced that military force should be used in politics only as a last resort.” Markhaev claimed the parliament had been kept in the dark about the invasion.[11]

In Russia as elsewhere, dissent from official policy carries consequences. Urgant apparently had his TV program cancelled. Chernenko was removed from the Foreign Ministry’s reporters pool.[12]

In the days after the invasion, independent TV channel Dozhd and radio station Ekho Moskvy closed. Both media outlets were under official pressure for, among other offenses, “deliberately false information about the actions of Russian military personnel” in Ukraine.[13] The Russian government subsequently passed a law criminalizing the spread of “false information” about the armed forces.[14]

Amid such repression of Russians who oppose the current war, those of us in other nations who support peace in Ukraine and elsewhere must make two points very clear:

First, we are opposed to this war, not to the Russian people.

Second, Russians who also oppose the war are our allies.

We can uphold these convictions by rejecting any demonization of Russians as people and by supporting continued contact, travel, and exchanges between Russia and other nations (despite pressures to sever such ties).[15] Let’s not make the current war into a conflict between peoples but build on the common desire for peace.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Rehumanize International blog.

Notes

[1] “Muscovites Come Out to Protest the War,” Moscow Times, February 25, 2022, https://bit.ly/3CDgrKI.  

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Felix Light, “Russians Protest Ukraine Invasion Despite Crushed Opposition, Risk of Reprisals,” Moscow Times, February 25, 2022, https://bit.ly/3MPqAJ1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Elaine Velie, “Thousands of Russian Artists Denounce Invasion in Open Letter,” Hyperallergic, March 1, 2022, https://bit.ly/3IbQgfn.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Light, “Russians Protest Ukraine Invasion.”

[9] Charles Riley, “Russia’s Second Biggest Oil Company Calls for an End to Putin’s War,” CNN, March 5, 2022, https://cnn.it/3KnZTsK.

[10] Ada Petriczko, “A Few Members of the Russian Parliament Speak Out against the War,” New York Times, February 28, 2022, https://nyti.ms/3IZyYmT.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Light, “Russians Protest Ukraine Invasion.”

[13] “Liberal Russia TV, Radio Channels Suspend Operations over Ukraine,” Al Jazeera, March 3, 2022, https://bit.ly/3HYLnG4.

[14] Anton Troianovski, “Russia Takes Censorship to New Extremes, Stifling War Coverage,” New York Times, March 4, 2022,https://nyti.ms/35LL9Fo.

[15] David C. Speedie, “Putin’s War is Wrong – So is Blacklisting Russian Artists,” American Committee for US-Russia Accord, March 7, 2022, https://bit.ly/3CxDzdC.

© 2022 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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