Russians say: ‘Stop the war!’

Tina Burrett speaks to the people taking to the streets of Russia to protest the invasion of Ukraine.

a man wearing a mask is arressted by 2 police officers
Law enforcement officers detain someone during an anti-war protest in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on 2 March 2022. Credit: Reuters/Stringer

Having survived the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Yelena Osipova is no stranger to incarceration during a military conflict. But when the 77-year-old peace activist was arrested on Wednesday, the two police officers pictured tackling her were employed by her own government. She is among thousands of Russians taking to the streets in protest against Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. ‘We have only one demand,’ says Maria, a veteran activist from Moscow: ‘Stop the war!’

On 24 February, the first day of the invasion, 1,700 anti-war protesters were detained across Russia, including three Radio Liberty journalists accredited by the authorities to report on demonstrations. In a video the reporters managed to smuggle out of jail, one is seen telling the police they are ‘official press’ and pleads for officers to stop twisting his arms and legs. On 2 March, Nika Samusik, a journalist for independent news source Sota, was detained for filming an anti-war rally in St Petersburg. After nine days of war, over 8,100 protesters had been detained, according to the Russian protest monitor OVD-Info.

The Russian authorities’ low tolerance for demonstrations and marches is nothing new. Organizing, or even just attending, protests can have serious consequences including arrest, fines – and even imprisonment. Under Russia’s Code of Administrative Offences, calling for an unauthorized protest carries a potential fine of 10,000-20,000 roubles (Around $90-$185). Given that the average national monthly pay cheque was 56,500 roubles in 2021, this is a significant penalty. In addition, the law is interpreted punitively: even a single person carrying an anti-war poster counts as an unauthorized rally. ‘Just posting “stop the war” on Twitter is considered an illegal protest,’ says a journalist in Vladivostok. Persistent protesters – a definition that can mean as little as attending two rallies – face fines of up to 300,000 roubles, 30 days in prison or 200 hours of forced labour. ‘The authorities say taking part in demonstrations is akin to involvement in an extremist organization’, one protester tells me. ‘And yet we will continue to fight for peace,’ she says.

The authorities say taking part in demonstrations is akin to involvement in an extremist organization, and yet we will continue to fight for peace’

Despite the dangers, one young woman in Moscow explains that she continues to take to the streets ‘because a bloody war is being waged in our name and we weren’t even consulted’. She adds: ‘Our rights are openly and illegally violated by a government that does not respect its people. And we protest because we do not want to be socially, politically, and economically isolated from the world – we want freedom of speech and a choice over our future.’

For many protesters, now is a turning point for Russia as well as Ukraine. ‘We want to prevent any more victims of this war,’ says one Moscow protester. ‘We must stop Putin imposing martial law that would cut us off from all independent information, shut our borders, ban protests, and allow the authorities to conscript our young men.’

If Putin hoped his unjustifiable war would rally Russians to his regime, he was mistaken. For many Russian protesters, the invasion underscores the contrast between Russia’s kleptocracy and Ukrainian democracy. ‘We are tired of tolerating a lawless regime ruling the country that we love,’ say one protester. ‘Russian people want a government we can trust.’

But a change of government seems unlikely for now, as Russia’s political elites fall into line behind Putin. On 4 March, the Russian parliament unanimously passed a new law imposing a prison sentence of up to 15 years for intentionally spreading ‘fake’ news about the Russian armed forces. Lawmakers also approved fines for individuals discrediting the military or calling for sanctions against Russia.

On 26 February, Russia’s media regulator Roskomnadzor banned domestic media from using the words ‘war’, ‘invasion’ or ‘assault’ to describe Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. For violating this order, Roskomnadzor took the country’s last independent broadcasters Ekho Moscow and TV Dozhd off the air on 1 March, blocking access to their websites. On 4 March, media services by BBC Russia, Radio Liberty and Meduza were restricted. Access to social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google is also tightening, inhibiting protesters from sharing information and organizing action.

For Putin, control of information is crucial, as it is clear those protesting his butchery in Ukraine are largely younger Russians who rely on independent news sources. ‘The majority of Russians watching state television believe Kremlin propaganda and support Putin and his army,’ says one activist. ‘Younger, more educated Russians are not zombified by state TV and understand what is happening. They are horrified, desperate and helpless. They know there is nothing they can do to stop the madness, but they cannot remain at home and pretend everything is normal. They go to the streets knowing they will be beaten, arrested and thrown into jail because there is nothing else they can do.’

The experience of Belarus shows that mass demonstrations can be stifled with violence’

A woman protesting in Moscow says demonstrators are ‘willing to risk everything for the sake of freedom’. And it is true that the cost of participating in protests is high. ‘Demonstrators risk being fired from their jobs or expelled from university,’ explains a reporter for a Vladivostok media outlet in Russia’s Far East. In response to last year’s protests against the jailing of opposition activist Alexei Navalny, firms fearing the Kremlin’s wrath banned employees from attending rallies. The jailing of Navalny and the banning of his Anti-Corruption Foundation for ‘extremism’ in June 2021 removed the last opposition institution capable of quickly organizing mass demonstrations across Russia.

But although Russian protests against the invasion of Ukraine are smaller and less organized than those against the war in the Donbas in 2014, they are more widespread – and they may still grow. Russian celebrities, who have generally shied away from statements on controversial political topics since the Kremlin took over control of Russia’s airwaves in the early 2000s, are publishing anti-war messages online. Furthermore, protesters are increasingly sharing news of detentions on messaging services like Telegram, which are also becoming a source of information about the time and place of rallies that is difficult for the authorities to control. Activists are additionally working to establish lines of communication with the wider population, especially over the economic cost of sanctions and numbers of Russian casualties.

But even if protests grow, activists are not optimistic their anti-war demands will be met. ‘The experience of Belarus shows that mass demonstrations can be stifled with violence,’ say Polina, a protester in Moscow. ‘I have no expectations but to wash off this shame a little,’ she says. Editor-in-Chief of Novaya Gazeta and Noble Prize winner Dmitri Murakov is equally sanguine, declaring simply, ‘the future is dead.’ Yet given the clear unpopularity of the war in significant sections of Russian society, mass demonstrations that precipitate a coup in the Kremlin may yet unfold. In the meantime, it is important to remember, in the words of Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, ‘This is not the Russian people’s war, this is yet another illegal war by an unelected, irresponsible, and frankly deranged dictator in the Kremlin.’

The author would like to thank Artur Burov for his help in researching this article.