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Too civil for society: How activists, journalists, and human rights advocates are standing their ground in today's Russia

For fear of mass repression, dozens of thousands of Russians who condemn the invasion of Ukraine have fled the country in the last three months. However, there still are people inside the country who dare to challenge the government and participate in anti-war protests. Many journalists, human rights advocates, and activists intend to continue their work in Russia, despite the repressive legislation and the threat of criminal prosecution. The Insider spoke with journalist Tatiana Felgenhauer, former chairman of the board of Memorial Oleg Orlov, translator Lyubov Summ, prisoners’ rights advocate Ivan Astashin, artist Katrin Nenasheva, and student activist Dmitry Ivanov to find out why they decided to stay and what difference they hope to make at home.

  • Tatiana Felgenhauer, journalist, former Echo of Moscow deputy editor and presenter

  • Oleg Orlov, human rights advocate, member of the board at Memorial Human Rights Center

  • Lyubov Summ, translator, member of the Russian PEN Center, protester

  • Ivan Astashin, human rights advocate, formerly incarcerated in the case of the Autonomous Combat Terrorist Organization

  • Katrin Nenasheva, artist, activist, social worker

  • Dmitry Ivanov, fourth-year student at the MSU Faculty of Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics, author of the MSU Protest Telegram channel

Tatiana Felgenhauer, journalist, former Echo of Moscow deputy editor and presenter

Tatiana joined Echo of Moscow at the age of 16 and dedicated 18 years of her life to this independent radio station. She has also been a columnist for Deutsche Welle, a television host at the Dozhd’ independent channel, and a YouTube blogger for MBK Media, an online publication founded by exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. At the moment, she runs her own channels on Telegram and YouTube. In 2018, Time awarded Tatiana Felgenhauer the title of Person of the Year as one of “the Guardians” – journalists who suffered from violence or prosecution because of their professional activities. A year earlier, she was stabbed in the neck by a man who forced his way into the Echo of Moscow office.

Around the time when propagandists were asking where I had been eight years earlier (i.e. around the time when Russia says Ukraine launched attacks on the civilian population of Eastern Ukraine who supposedly wanted closer links with Russia), Facebook reminded me of a massive 2014 anti-war rally with Russian and Ukrainian flags. I was there as a correspondent, showing how strongly the people of Moscow – thousands of them – were opposed to Vladimir Putin’s course. So here's my answer to where I was eight years ago.

There are always a bunch of idiots on social media who keep posting comments, and threats, tagging the Investigative Committee, and shouting: “You have to look into her!” Thank God, none of this bullying has had any offline consequences. It would be awful to have something painted across my apartment door. Unfortunately, we’re in a situation where the head of state and his government are inciting a civil conflict. They are endorsing those “Red Guards”, pitting them against everyone who does not approve of the party line. It’s heartbreaking and terrifying. It's a great tragedy to watch your country turn into a fascist-looking state.

It's a great tragedy to watch your country turn into a fascist-looking state

Emigration has always been an option; many started to consider it in 2014, and some even in 2011. Some were shaken by Putin’s castling move, others by the annexation of Crimea. There have been plenty of events that each triggered yet another group of people to consider leaving. It's been at the back of my mind too because there could be a situation that would force me to leave. However, I’m not making any plans, looking for a job abroad, or arranging my departure.

In fact, there’s no point in making plans for more than a day. Extremely confident people make plans for two. So it's hard to say what the future has in store for us. As long as I can work, I will. My YouTube channel is important to me. With my team, I make videos, hold streams, and take interviews. For the time being, this is my only way to stay in contact with my audience, and I treasure it. If YouTube is no longer an option, there’s always Telegram, and some still read Twitter through VPN services.

We don't have a conclusive answer to this question [whether it is possible to cover events in Russia from abroad] because even Meduza, which is quite successful despite its head office being located in Riga, Latvia, still had many Moscow-based journalists. It doesn't anymore. We are yet to learn what it means for a media to be completely isolated from Russia because until now, one way or another, some of the reporters, journalists, interviewers, and investigators operated in the field. We couldn't properly test this model before. It will most likely be a challenge since there are things you have to witness first-hand. For one, you could spend a day wandering the streets and see for yourself how many people are wearing the Z sign. You could check out a dozen shops and see the shortage of sugar with your own eyes instead of relying on a single photo from Belgorod that everyone keeps reposting. I don't think it’s easy to write about Russia from abroad. It might be easier for opinion journalists.

I appreciate Russia's great history, great culture, and wonderful people. Until recently, it had a future. I feel that Russia’s future has been stolen, of course. We’ve been thrown back in time by 50 years or so.

I feel that Russia’s future has been stolen

To recover our future, we must, first of all, stop this atrocious war. I think apologies are due at every level; we must repent and beg the Ukrainians for forgiveness. We must “exterminate” all propaganda and stop the brainwashing. I'd say it will take decades to revive our country because our people have been zombified for decades already. They need de-zombifying first. And then we’ll see.

Oleg Orlov, human rights advocate, member of the board at Memorial Human Rights Center

Oleg has been in human rights advocacy for over 30 years and has co-authored many reports for the Memorial human rights group. He has also visited many post-Soviet war zones as an observer. During the Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis in 1995, when a group of Chechen separatists attacked a public hospital in the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk, Oleg Orlov joined the deputies and human rights activists who volunteered to be human shields for Shamil Basayev’s fighters as they retreated to Chechnya. Over the last two months, Oleg has been detained multiple times for his one-man protests against the Russian aggression in Ukraine. He has also co-founded the Council of Russian Human Rights Defenders, which released its anti-war Humanitarian Manifesto on March 25, 2022.

On February 24, we were abroad, at a travel seminar, talking about our future. Learning about the invasion was terrifying. Unlike the majority of our compatriots, we realized it was a watershed event. I remember several such events in my lifetime. This one is a horrifying, hard-hitting fault line of my entire life.

All Memorial members who participated in that session returned to Russia. It didn’t even occur to any of us to stay. After discussions about our future life, we felt obliged to return, and at the very least, try our best to keep Memorial working under the new circumstances and to further its mission. Since the war began, some of my colleagues have left, while others have stayed. I’m staying too. There have been many occasions when everyone started saying that I should leave and that it would only get worse. I’ve never wanted to leave. It's my country. I started working at Memorial thirty years ago for my country’s sake. I want to live and die in my homeland. My goal is to make it better. That said, I can't promise I’ll stay here no matter what.

For the time being, my treatment has been rather vegetarian. Indeed, I was detained and taken to a police department. I wasn’t alone; many of my colleagues were arrested too, and I got to meet some great people in the police van and at the precinct. The police didn't threaten me or apply any violence. Everything they did was lawful – if we can call it law. However, none of it was in line with human rights law.

The government has passed a great many Draconian laws that have essentially obliterated free speech. This includes “spreading deliberately false information about the activities of Russian armed forces” and “discrediting”, which could mean anything. They interpret “Fascism shall not pass!” as a slogan discrediting their military. Naturally, anyone who dares say a word about the war risks prosecution.

As a result, the overwhelming majority are apparently unwilling to protest. In private, many are opposed to what’s happening but think it more prudent to remain silent. They are afraid of possible consequences; a considerable share of society is indifferent. It is also obvious that the Russian nation is abnormal, that it’s grievously ill and has been for a long while. Its indifference is quite possibly the most serious and terrifying disease. People fail to realize that the war will inevitably impact their lives.

I’m sure there was a window of opportunity to influence those in power. If the white-ribbon movement had walked out in protest as they did in Bolotnaya Square <The Insider's note: a reference to public protests in Moscow in 2011-2012>, if hundreds of thousands of people had spoken out, the government might have taken a different course of action. It might have started disengaging from this war very quickly. Naturally, the war wouldn’t have stopped instantly; Russia wouldn’t repent or withdraw its troops from the people's republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. However, we would have witnessed considerably fewer horrors in the combat zone over the recent months. The Russian government could have also been much more accommodating during peace talks and more willing to seek a compromise, if they aren’t yet. How high, how horrendously high will be the price of this compromise – if it is ever reached! The price is the lives of our compatriots and, on a much greater scale, the lives of Ukrainians, civilians first of all, and tremendous damage to our economy.

If hundreds of thousands of people had walked out in protest, the government might have started disengaging from this war very quickly

Needless to say that Russians have been deprived of access to any alternative information sources, which was done precisely to avoid protests. In a sense, such fear of social unrest demonstrates the weakness of the authorities. Therefore, Russian society had the opportunity to prevent the war from flaring up the way it has flared up now. However, the Russians failed to use it.

Had there been any alternative information available; had people started to realize what was actually going on, awakening could have been possible. I think this realization is inevitable; it might be happening as we speak. Even our state-controlled channels – which I don't appreciate and only started watching recently because I need to know what they have to say – even those channels admit the Russian armed forces are facing incredible resistance from every single city and community. Inevitably, people are starting to realize that the “short victorious war” is turning into something disastrous.

A lot of folks have been asking me: “Where have you been for eight years? Why haven’t you said anything about the shelling of Donetsk?” Eight years ago, we made plenty of trips to both sides of the front line, visiting both the quasi-republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and the Ukrainian side. We saw it all; we documented the horrors. We documented the pseudo-referendum <The Insider’s note: the referendum “On the self-determination of the Donetsk People's Republic”, which took place on May 11, 2014> in our report titled “An Invalid Referendum”, presenting ample evidence that the whole event was a sham because they couldn’t even have counted the number of voters.

When the hostilities began, we documented those too. I was in Donetsk when Ukrainian troops shelled it, including its residential areas. We were frank with our Ukrainian colleagues, and we wrote in our report and international statements that using Grads against residential areas of a city, of any community, was a crime. Our Ukrainian colleagues replied, and we could corroborate, that DPR and LPR troops had positioned their artillery in those residential areas. Indeed, they were telling the truth – but nothing can justify an artillery strike that kills children or hits a hospital. Meanwhile, Russian propagandists went on and on about those strikes but failed to mention that separatists and Russian troops, which were deployed and withdrawn multiple times, were also destroying communities outside Donetsk and Luhansk with their combat activities. We saw the consequences of those strikes; we were present in the locations where people were being killed, and we can see it now on our TV screens.

At some point, we – Memorial – were not welcome anymore. The DPR and the LPR told us: “Our secret services are declaring you personae non grata.” Unfortunately, we got the same kind of negative treatment from the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior for a report co-authored with our Ukrainian partners. Ukraine, too, wanted us to take a side. As a result, we were banished by both parties to the conflict.

Unfortunately, the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior disapproved of our report co-authored with Ukrainian partners

One month into Russia’s aggressive war in Ukraine, we united with several Russian human rights advocates and co-authored a document entitled the “Humanitarian Manifesto” in our personal capacity, and not on behalf of our organizations, many of which have been liquidated. In the manifesto, we call a spade a spade: war is war, aggression is aggression; it leads to massive civilian casualties, and will take a heavy toll on Russia. The document also announces the creation of the Council of Russian Human Rights Defenders to coordinate our actions in these dire circumstances.

The spring draft is in progress, and a great many young people could be drafted. If the events [in Ukraine] follow their natural course, we cannot eliminate the possibility of draft soldiers being deployed there. Alternative civilian service presents a legal opportunity to avoid military service, and it is our objective to provide legal assistance in this regard. Then there are refugees. They need help, and we’re already providing it and are willing to do more. There are also the Russian troops in Ukraine, whose families have the right to know their fate. Some of them are gone without a trace. Their families have the right to receive their bodies if their death has been confirmed; they have the right to demand PoW exchange in the case of captivity. Another major area of our work is helping the politically prosecuted. The number of cases grows by the day, and the introduction of more oppressive laws is imminent. Then there is defending the media and journalists. Admittedly, the chances of successfully defending them in an environment where free speech has been obliterated are slim, but we can and must keep doing at least something about it. In the atmosphere of all-consuming fear and paralysis of Russian civil society, our public statement was important, I think, as a declaration that we aren't paralyzed and intend to keep working.

Lyubov Summ, translator, member of the Russian PEN Center, protester

Granddaughter of poet Pavel Kogan and writer Elena Rzhevskaya, Lyubov Summ is known for her translations from English, German, and Latin: Plutarch, Francis of Assisi, Jonathan Franzen, Salman Rushdie, and many other authors. In March 2022, Lyubov Summ was detained in Pushkinskaya Square in Moscow for carrying a picket sign with a poem by 19th-century Russian poet Nikolay Nekrasov “When Learning of the Tolls of War...”

From late December to February 23, I protested against the war. At the time, I wasn’t “discrediting the Russian armed forces” either technically, because this law would be passed later, or factually, because they weren’t even there yet. My protest was against any attempts at resolving the existing conflict by military means after eight years of negotiations. If the Minsk Accords aren't working, we need to come up with something else. The negotiations were ongoing; neither party had withdrawn. Indeed, people were still getting killed every day, including Ukrainian soldiers. Civilian casualties were also on both sides. It was war as well, but such is the nature of human weakness that we say: “It was different.” My friends in Ukraine used to say: “We’re living in a state of war. We’re living in constant fear that Russia will move forwards.” Meanwhile, we spent all these years trying to figure out a compromise.

When I thought everything was going to unravel early in March 2014, I begged my son, who was very young, in his fresher year at college, to leave. I thought of mobilization; that he might be drafted. He said: “Come, come! Nothing like that will ever happen because it's not possible.” “Planes won’t fly anymore,” I told him. “The world will turn away from us, and you’ll have nowhere to go.” For eight years, he kept telling me what a drama queen I’d been.

As it happened, I had my first police van experience in late February 2014. It was completely accidental. [Writer] Lyudmila Ulitskaya called me, asking: “Is it true you were in a police van? They’ll put you on trial! We must make you a PEN member right away. Translators too can join the PEN Center. We’ll make you one of ours so that no one bothers you.” I applied without giving it much thought while perusing the case against me, which was complete nonsense. However, what happened happened, and over the six months that followed, PEN, headed by Ulitskaya at the time, adopted many great declarations. We released a declaration to defend [Ukrainian writer and journalist Stanislav] Aseyev, who was being kept somewhere in a basement in the DPR, to defend [Ukrainian director] Oleg Sentsov, and naturally, against all forms of violence and warfare. It’s all in PEN's charter; it's not a matter of opinion. The charter of PEN prescribes to stand for every writer or speaker who is being persecuted, to defend peace and cultural ties by all means possible, and never endorse the propaganda of hatred, combating it instead.

The most important outcome can be summed up with the motto of Herzen's Kolokol newspaper: “Vivos voco!” We attest to the fact that we're alive

The PEN community did a good job under the circumstances. We continued issuing meaningful declarations. As little impact as they may have made, I could summarize their most important outcome with the motto of Herzen's Kolokol newspaper: “Vivos voco!” (The Latin for “I call the living!”) We attest to the fact that we're alive. And since we’re alive, so is Russian literature, and so is its humanitarian component and the understanding of our appurtenance to the international community – humanity, that is.

Even though our declarations did not make a big difference, they raised awareness, which also matters. We made sure no one was snuffed out in silence; we offered support. PEN members attended many trials. For one, the head of the Ukrainian Literature Library [in Moscow] was facing prison, but we managed to reduce her term to a suspended sentence.

When I stood in Pushkinskaya Square with Nekrasov's poem, it wasn't Russian literature I was defending. I took down my Facebook page, completely isolating myself from society. Had I not been detained, my protest could have gone completely unnoticed. I’m not on social media, so I didn't even tell anyone I was going. I only told my friends I had been there with Nekrasov from the police van. Had it not been for the police, I’d have stood near the monument to Pushkin for a while, recited a few poems, and been on my way. It was my arrest that made my protest a public event.

There is a rubber stamp in my police report that reads: “[The detainee] used means of visual propaganda to attract the attention of the general public, bloggers, and the media.” The language is impeccable, but I did not attract the attention of the general public because there were none and I had not announced my protest anywhere. I went to Pushkinskaya Square, which is surrounded by a metal fence, and once I entered the square and started looking around, three police officers stopped me. They approached me and said: “What's that sign sticking out of your bag?” I told them: “I’m going to the Pushkin monument to recite poetry.” When I reached the monument, they asked: “So what have you got there?” As I started pulling it out, they told me not to unroll it. I told them: “So how can I show it to you otherwise?” He told me to hand it in, but I unrolled it anyway. And he said: “Well, now that you’ve unrolled it, we’re bringing you in under Article 23.3.”

The police officer included the full text of the poem in my administrative offense report. He copied it by hand, and then looked it up online. Naturally, the first few links were textbooks and resources for schoolchildren. Then he found out that the poem was written during the Crimean War under the influence of Leo Tolstoy's Sevastopol Sketches. As he read it, I was happy to see a police officer returning to his roots, to something we have in common – the school course on Russian literature. But what he said next made my eyes pop out. “These works aim to provoke a violent coup.”

The police wrote in my report that Nekrasov’s poems aim to provoke a violent coup

Meanwhile, this poem, “When Learning of the Tolls of War...”, does not say a word about authority, coups, or violence. We studied it at school, so I remember it by heart. A couple of decades ago, it was removed from the curriculum, but it's still on the recommended reading list. A demo version of the 2020 ninth-grade state exam featured a comparison between this poem by Nekrasov and a poem by contemporary poet Andrey Dementyev. The model analysis speaks of the horrors of war demonstrated through the prism of motherly grief and says nothing about Nekrasov or Dementyev suggesting the overthrowing of the government.

I’ve recently considered leaving the country – for two reasons. One of them is what I heard eight years ago when I also wanted to leave: “What's the point? Will it hurt less after you’ve left? Will you worry less? You’ll be stuck there, feeling awkward about being safe. You’ll lose the blood connection to what's happening here at some point.”

I used to try to spend at least one week a year abroad because it’s important. When you’re stuck here all the time, you start the day looking for your own head on the nightstand. Similarly, if you stay abroad, you lose sight of how people live here.

I’ve recently had this idea: overseas, I would be a free agent – someone who could speak their mind openly and freely. With the new legislation, whenever I consider posting something, I take time to consider whether I’m willing to face the consequences, how deeply I believe in what I’m about to say, and so on. That is, there is no freedom of speech at all. It's not just about the laws that are being passed; it's about me becoming a product of these laws.

In this respect, going somewhere else, where I could protest freely, help people, or even think freely without the permanent feeling of horror, would be great. But when I think about my four dogs, I realize it's not possible for me to leave.

On February 24th – 25th at the latest – my precinct policeman came looking for me for the first time. Before that, no one paid attention to my eight-year-old case file (which is ridiculous anyway), even though I often took part in protests. No one batted an eye. Suddenly I got this phone call from the district where I had lived eight years earlier, before seeing my son off to another country. The precinct policeman said: “I came to your apartment, but there are other people living there.” I told him I was no longer even registered there. On the following morning, I got a call from the policeman of a different precinct, the one where I’m registered now. He started talking nonsense, saying he was calling to warn me about the instances of bank fraud. He asked me to come in person. Then they tried to locate me through my friend. In the evening, the precinct policeman called again, all smiles, saying he had to warn me about protests. Since then, he’s been calling me regularly. He also called me on the day when I went to recite Nekrasov's poem. He said: “Hello, I haven't called you in a while.” I say: “No, you haven't. Besides, I’m sitting in a police van.” And he said: “How come?! You told me you weren't participating in any protests.” I told him I didn't participate in any mass protests because I’m too old for this. I just wanted to recite some poetry. “How imprudent of you!” he said and hung up. Now he’ll probably get back on the crime prevention track with me.

Everything we’re doing, we’re doing with a future in mind. As for the technical question of whether there really is a future... As someone who initially worked in education, I can clearly see that young people have no future in Russia anymore because of what's being done to the education system. Young people participate in protests and go to jail. Even if they avoid incarceration, they could get expelled from college or may never get a chance to defend their thesis. How on earth is this possible? Their future has been stolen.

It's obvious that the state wants to assert itself here and now and to align its entire past with the here and now. Naturally, cementing the present requires discarding the future. Instead of investing in the future, they are investing in this rigid version of the present. The future is under constant review; the memory of the past is being severed. In this sense – without a memory, a past, good education, or investments in the future – we can technically say we have no future.

Ivan Astashin, human rights advocate, formerly incarcerated in the case of the Autonomous Combat Terrorist Organization

Ivan Astashin was a defendant in the case of the so-called “Autonomous Combat Terrorist Organization” and spent over nine years in the penal colonies of Krasnoyarsk and Norilsk. In 2019, 17-year-old Astashin uploaded a video online titled “Happy Chekist Day, Bastards!”, which captured the act of throwing a fire bottle at an FSB directorate in the South-Western District of Moscow. Secret services linked this episode to a series of earlier arsons and explosions in Moscow and put together the so-called ACTO case, accusing Astashin of being its leader. He got the longest sentence among the defendants: thirteen years behind bars, which was later reduced to nine years and nine months.

Upon walking free in 2020, Astashin became a human rights advocate. Despite the rigid terms of his supervised release, Astashin joined an unsanctioned protest against the war in Ukraine on February 27 in Moscow, where he was detained. His arrest drew the attention of the secret services, who have since then approached him three times, “threatening with problems and jail”.

Immediately after my release in September 2020, I took up a position at the Committee for Civil Rights. I resigned from the Committee in January 2022 and continued working in human rights advocacy independently. My job is to help inmates whose rights are violated, starting from torture and up to the matters of healthcare, prison transfers, and incarceration conditions. When inmates are transferred too far away from home, I petition for them to be moved closer to home.

I’ve helped many of my fellow inmates to get a transfer from Krasnoyarsk and Norilsk to a closer location, and now other inmates or their relatives learn about me by word of mouth. Others find out about my activities in my Telegram channel or online publications. I seek out some of the cases myself. For instance, there was Konstantin Lakeev, a defendant in the “Palace Case”, who was transferred to Krasnoyarsk when his appeal was still being heard (that is, before his sentence came into effect). It was illegal, and I knew how to counter it. I contacted his support group, and thanks to our joint effort with his defense attorney, Konstantin is now back in Moscow, preparing for the hearing of his appeal in a Moscow court.

I started studying law in a penal colony in Krasnoyarsk. When I got there, I still had twelve and a half years before my release, and I wanted to find a way to reduce my sentence. While I couldn't hope for acquittal in the Russian justice system, mitigation of punishment was within reach. So I studied criminal law and got what I wanted: my sentence was reduced by two years and three months. Subsequently, I helped other inmates. Apart from the Russian law, I turned my attention to the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights and made appeals to the ECHR at the end of my prison term.

You don't have to be a high-profile prisoner to defend your rights in a colony (I wasn't one either, up to a certain moment) because bureaucracy works both ways. Any paper you send to the prosecutor's office or a court warrants a response. The administration has to allocate a lot of resources to handle such responses, inspections, and lawsuits, while an average colony only has one lawyer. At some point, they could just say: “How about you stop writing complaints, and we give you what you want and leave you alone?” In my experience, it often worked.

You don't have to be a high-profile prisoner to defend your rights in a colony

Since my release, I have been under administrative supervision. In 2017, the legislation was wonderfully amended to include a term of supervised release for those convicted for terrorism until their criminal record can be expunged. My supervised release period is eight years, although the law did not exist back when I was convicted.

Essentially, this variety of parole is a light version of house arrest because I’m not allowed to go out from ten in the evening until six in the morning. I can't spend the night elsewhere, take a business trip, or even go to my country house because I won’t make it back by ten. The police can drop by any night to check if I’m in. They normally make several visits a month, and during the New Year public holidays from January 1 to January 8, they came every day. In addition, there are face recognition CCTV cameras. Those at subway stations submit photos to the police automatically, and if I exit my station at 21:50, the police call me to ask if I made it home on time.

I’m against the war and decided to declare my civil stance by joining a protest rally on February 24 in Moscow. Had I gone to the rally at night, this could have been treated as a criminal offense under Article 314.1 (“Evading supervised release”) but I’m not prohibited from participating in mass events.

[When I was arrested], the police decided that, since I had been convicted for terrorism, it was their duty to keep me at the precinct overnight, and I ended up being illegally held there for 24 hours. Moreover, after the trial, which ended in a 10,000-ruble fine for me, they took me back to the precinct because some agents, who didn’t introduce themselves (presumably, the FSB or the Center for Combating Extremism), wanted to ask a few questions. Over the month that followed, officers from these services approached me three times, threatening me with problems and jail. On March 18, I was detained for no reason, held at the precinct all day long, and released without any paperwork.

After the rally, I felt strongly disillusioned about the protests. We could have avoided arrest because the riot police were scarce, but they saw that most protesters were fleeing, leaped, and rounded up the rest. When we stood in a tight chain, the police couldn't grab anyone from it. Running away from riot police in the city center is not how you protest. If you join an unauthorized rally, you have to realize you may get arrested. So why would you run? I had no intention of running around; I walked out in full conscience of the risks and consequences. On the other hand, if the majority of protesters scatter, standing still is also stupid.

If the majority of protesters scatter, standing still is also stupid

I didn’t go to protests anymore. It was very unpleasant to see photos of people beaten up and bundled into riot vans while others were scattering or making videos. I think protesters need a single tactic because any rally ends up dispersed if some protesters form a chain while others make a run for it. Panic in the face of batons or rubber bullets is understandable, but from what I’ve seen, whenever two policemen appear in the street, a crowd of a hundred people takes off. I don't feel like being part of it.

I don't think we’ll see any mass protests anytime soon. The regime is most likely to become even more oppressive. Our opportunities for human rights advocacy will become even more limited or will disappear entirely. The regime targets primarily its apparent adversaries: politicians and activists. When the country runs out of them (which it almost has), other groups become targets, such as journalists, human rights advocates, artists, or musicians. This process is ongoing, but I think we’ll see even harsher repressions.

Created to combat dissent, the security services have little else to do: even if they squeeze all politicians and activists out of Russia, they will have to look for extremism elsewhere.

I can’t say for sure if I would leave Russia, were it not for my supervised release. On the one hand, I’d have fewer risks and more opportunities. So it might be practical to stay in Russia up to a certain point and continue doing something meaningful. On the other hand, it’s hard to say with certainty when it's time to leave. Criminal cases are initiated out of the blue.

Katrin Nenasheva, artist, activist, social worker

Katrin Nenasheva is a Russian mental health activist and performance artist promoting the destigmatization of mental disorders. Her outdoor art events address the issues of vulnerable and stigmatized social groups in Russia: female inmates (Ne Boysya [Don't Be Scared]), residents of psychiatric homes (Mezhdu Zdes i Tam [Between Here and There]), and torture victims (Gruz 300 [Cargo 300]). In 2018, Nenasheva and a friend of hers were subjected to torture in the so-called DPR at the hands of the Donetsk military and police.

On March 3, Katrin Nenasheva staged an art event titled Mirny Uzhin [Peaceful Dinner] at Moscow’s Open Space venue for independent artists. The event welcomed everyone who wanted to cook dinner together, gather at the table, and share their feelings. Security service agents barged in on the event and detained Nenasheva on the charges of “defying the police”, although she complied with all of their orders. The trial on the following day ended with a 14-day arrest for the activist.

I’m a member of Feminist Anti-War Resistance, where I manage organizational matters, design art events, and oversee a free helpline for activists. I’m also in charge of the community I’m Staying, which brings together people who consider themselves to be a part of civil society. We hold face-to-face meetings in Moscow to discuss how we can help one another as activists and human rights advocates and what challenges we are facing.

I’m also involved with the Life Route charity, which helps people living in psychiatric homes and those struggling with mental challenges. Finally, I’m running a project called Teenagers and Cats to support adolescents suffering from addictions and those with developmental challenges. In March, we started working as an emergency helpline, with our psychologists providing support for teenagers throughout Russia and Ukraine.

Many young people have found themselves under a lot of pressure at home and at school. Because of the war, many teenagers have been having conflicts at home. Some have even been kicked out of the house because of the disagreement over the current events and had nowhere to go. I find it outrageous that a child who understands there is a war going on and worries about it can be thrown out of their home.

A child who understands there is a war going on and worries about it can be thrown out of their home

Russia has no shelters for underage victims of abuse or minors who were expelled from home, and it’s illegal to launch such a shelter. Social services can return a minor back home, but if the minor is unwilling or if their parents could be deprived of parental rights, the minor is placed in a so-called social center, which looks more like a psychiatric ward or juvenile prison. The residents of such facilities are completely isolated from society; living there is often worse than living in the street, so teenagers in a difficult situation hesitate to ask for help.

People in psychiatric homes will also feel even more incapacitated by the system, which has always been repressive and has always lacked space for development and living a full life. People are leaving the country in droves, which means that mental patients will be getting fewer visits. Their opportunities for socialization and interaction with others will dwindle, while it's very important to maintain those ties.

We have already seen photos of psychiatric home residents standing in the shape of the letter Z. They too are susceptible to propaganda, and no one can save them from it except volunteers who are becoming fewer and fewer. Many such patients have phones, but far from all know how to find their way around the abundance of information available online. They need access to communication with different people who can explain to them what’s going on, how to read news, and where to find information sources.

Not only psychiatric home residents but all mental patients have been suffering from the lack of foreign medication, which disappeared from the Russian market over a month ago. I know of several rather unpleasant cases of psychiatric disorders flaring up under the current circumstances. The exacerbation was caused not only by the war and constant fear for their future but also by the absence of specific drugs.

Feminist Anti-War Resistance has a free helpline, which is getting a great many requests. Many girls have been having suicidal thoughts. The war is killing us mentally – and not only mentally, as I believe. Unfortunately, there are no open statistics on suicide rates after the beginning of hostilities, but from what I’ve heard in mental health activist communities, a few people already committed suicide in March – overwhelmed by the war, not knowing what to do, and struggling with a host of other problems.

The FAWR Telegram bot is getting plenty of ideas – we even have a dedicated section. One of its initiatives is the Anti-War Sick Leave. As part of the protests, the activists suggested that everyone calls in sick and stays home from April 18 to April 24. The Anti-War Sick Leave, in turn, has an auxiliary project called the Anti-War Fund. The fund aims to help people facing pressure at work and getting fired or underpaid because of their political stance and also assists with setting up trade unions and holding strikes. FAWR will soon launch another volunteer movement to help [Ukrainian] refugees who were forcibly deported to Russia.

We will be helping refugees who were forcibly deported to Russia

The artistic community has been split in half. Some are keeping silent because the language of artistic expression has been lost: none of the old aesthetic categories work anymore. These artists (including me) are in search of a new language and new forms of interaction. We are all trying to answer the question: “If writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, how acceptable is it to engage in art activism in a time of war and repressions?”

Meanwhile, other artists remain active in their work. Many of the street artists I follow are creating new pieces. A great many protest works of art are being painted and drawn. In our case, art activism goes beyond performance events to include more traditional art practices. At the same time, the majority of works falling under this category are anonymous, so it is hard to assess their impact.

I believe Sasha Skochilenko's case will curb the enthusiasm of many activists (including artists). Her case has made it even more difficult to figure out how to create something vibrant and relevant without endangering yourself.

I plan to launch something like a community or art lab to bring together artists who remain in Russia for a discussion of how our means of expression will evolve. I don't know what the future has in store for us, but now, at this stage of the war, social work, volunteering, and activism seem to be more meaningful and impactful than artistic projects. I can see that some artists are switching to volunteering or social work, and to me, it looks like something that can mobilize us and hold us together.

Social work, volunteering, and activism seem to be more meaningful and impactful at this point than artistic projects

Two weeks in a detention center made me wonder why I’m not leaving. I’m staying because Russia is my home country and because I did not vote for this government or this president. For as long as I’ve been engaged in artistic, social, and activist practices, I’ve been doing all I can to battle the regime and build communities of mutual support and assistance. I’m staying because a lot of people need my help: residents of psychiatric homes, adolescents – I don't feel I have the right to abandon them.

At the same time, I have several important values that are keeping me in place. One of them is the truth. I want to keep telling the truth in various formats, interact with different people, and communicate my position. Another value is a sense of belonging. I need to be a part of the historical change that awaits all of us and is already in progress. Finally, another value of mine is responsibility: I want to be able to say I was consistent in my resistance.

Dmitry Ivanov, fourth-year student at the MSU Faculty of Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics, author of the MSU Protest Telegram channel

Dmitry Ivanov runs a Telegram channel titled Протестный МГУ [MSU Protest], which has over 9,800 followers. “I write about the issues of education, student life, and Russian politics and stream live from rallies and trials,” Dmitry wrote in the channel description.

In 2021, Dmitry Ivanov was arrested for 30 days for rallying in support of Alexei Navalny and got another 10 days of arrest upon leaving the detention center for defying the police when serving his sentence. In March 2022, somebody spray-painted a caption on his door: “Don’t betray your homeland, Dima.” They also painted several letters “Z”.

I have been a civil activist since 2017 and launched my Telegram channel in 2018. The idea occurred to me when MSU students were rallying against setting up a FIFA fan zone outside the main building of the university. At first, I ran the channel anonymously, but when the security services started pressuring me, I realized I would be better off out in the open, doing what I do publicly. It's my personal channel, and I’m the only author. I’ve got a few friends helping me, correcting typos, and running it for me when I can't post anything (when I’m under arrest, for instance).

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when I took an interest in politics. It might have been in 2014. The events back then were hard not to notice, even at the age of fifteen, which I was at the time. My first mass protest was a He is Not Dimon to You rally on March 26, 2017. <The Insider's note: The anti-corruption protests in March 2017 followed the release of Navalny's film He Is Not Dimon to You detailing the alleged corruption by Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's prime minister.> I had been following Navalny’s channel for a year and had seen the Medvedev video, but was a little skeptical. I thought everyone had an agenda of their own. I decided to join the rally out of curiosity, but the police grabbed me almost immediately and threw me into a riot van. That made me realize that the situation was indeed closer to black and white. Those who grab people who aren't violating any laws and put them behind bars are more likely to be in the wrong.

I’ve faced threats and violence from the police, but it was a long time ago, in December 2018. I had an unforgettable face-to-face with the notorious Alexei Okopny of the Center for Combating Extremism. He spent 40 minutes trying to find out my phone password. I didn't cave, but in the course of interrogation, I saw a stun gun and a baton and heard threats of rape, murder, and whatnot. It was very scary but not too effective, as you might have guessed. Since then, I’ve become harder to intimidate because Okopny set the bar high.

I saw a stun gun and a baton and heard threats of rape, murder, and whatnot

Police pressure is mostly administrative and legal. They drew up multiple reports under Part 2 of Article 20.2 of Russia's Code on Administrative Offenses (organizing a rally) and would detain me as I left my home on the morning after a rally. It wasn't until later that I figured out I should spend the night elsewhere on such occasions.

In 2019, I arranged a meeting in support of Azat Miftakhov, a postgraduate student at the MSU Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics. He had been detained and tortured, with the police trying to pin him down on terrorism charges. When he refused to plead guilty, they dropped those charges and instead made him a defendant in an old hooliganism case – outrageous and completely fabricated. Since he was also an MSU student and studied next door, so to say, I thought it would be right for the university community to respond, and we gathered near the Lomonosov monument outside the main building. The rally went well, but I got arrested along with two more protesters: Konstantin Kotov, who was subsequently charged with Dadin's article <The Insider’s note: Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code “Organization of mass riots” received its informal name after the high-profile case of activist Ildar Dadin>, and Nikita Zaytsev.

Over my five years in college (I’m in my fourth year now, but I took a year off), I haven't had a single conversation with the administration about politics. The main building of the MSU has a police department, where I even spent the night after the rally in support of Azat Miftakhov. I’ve had a few encounters with our precinct policemen after protests that took place near the university, but the faculty and university staff never had a word to say, for which I’m immensely grateful. It feels like the MSU still has an atmosphere of freedom, as paradoxical and incredible as it may sound.

On the one hand, our incumbent rector, Viktor Sadovnichiy, has been in office for ages, was Putin’s “trusted representative” at the last election, and always signs declarations in support of the government. At the moment, his signature tops the list below the Russian Union of Rectors’ appeal supporting the war. On the other hand, his public activities do not transform into pressuring students or the teaching staff. Of course, we’ll never be allowed to launch an “ideologically inappropriate” course or set up a student media like DOXA. However, while most liberal universities have taken a turn for the worse lately, not much has changed at the MSU: Sadovnichiy signs his appeals, while students and professors enjoy their freedom. By today’s standards, it’s probably for the best.

It's hard to say whether the government is afraid of students. February 24 made it problematic to talk about politics in rational terms because Putin demonstrated that he lives in his own world, fears nothing, and won’t stop at anything. Admittedly, students have often been at the forefront of protests: young, active individuals with an education, an understanding of what's going on, and a desire for a better life. We’ve recently witnessed a new trend: the female protest. We saw it in Belarus [in 2020], and we're witnessing it in today's Russia.

Naturally, it’s my greatest hope that, whoever assumes the role of the driving force, the protest remains peaceful. No matter what kind of atrocities are committed around us; no matter how others treat us, it's paramount to remain human and adhere to the principles of humanism, trying to respond peacefully if we want to build a better future.

I like how our people are kind-hearted and peaceful. I can see people protesting with flowers and signs, and when they get arrested, they don't lose their dignity. There is a lot of good in our country, and the bad is concentrated in the Kremlin and Lubyanka <The Insider's note: The KGB, later FSB directorate in Lubyanskaya Square in Moscow>. We will get a new government, and I believe it won’t be before long. What we're doing is bringing closer the inevitable.

Before the war, the regime transformation was still an option, with Putin ceding power to a hypothetical “successor”, but now any gradual transformation is off the table. Putin must step down: due to natural causes, through a coup d’état, or over public protests. Once he leaves, Russia will start changing. No matter who the next president is – someone from the establishment or an oppositionist – we must obviously start with signing a peace treaty with Ukraine and negotiating our return back to normal with the West. From then on, we could move on to the ideas we discussed in a peaceful time: create an independent justice system and an efficient parliament, ensure the alternation of power, and repeal the constitutional amendments. We’ve got our work cut out for us. In my opinion, the most important thing is that our society is ready for it.

Putin must step down, due to natural causes or through a coup d’état

On March 16, 2022, somebody scrawled “Don't betray your homeland, Dima” in spray paint on my door, adding three “Putin's swastikas” – the letters “Z”. My mom and I bought a bottle of solvent at a household store and got it off in no time. We made the news, though: many people reached out with words of support, and a few responded with slurs.

Around the same time, similar graffiti appeared on other activists’ doors: near the apartment rented by Olga Misik of the Termless Protest and on the doors of Socfemalternative activist Anna Pavlova and Sota journalist Anna Loyko. A few days later, more activists reported similar acts of vandalism, but the spray paint was different. These acts of intimidation may or may not have been related.

It’s hard to say who was behind them. To my knowledge, the modus operandi is typical of pro-Kremlin SERB activists, but the entire movement seems to have left for the Donbas.<The Insider’s note: The South East Radical Block (SERB) is a Russian nationalist political group that aims to disrupt anti-war and anti-Putin actions.> Some might have stayed, though, and could have done it. They could also have imitators from similar movements.

Back in 2019, some SERB guys installed a mock tombstone outside my entrance door. There was an activist flash mob at the time, with Putin’s tombstones emerging in multiple regions, and they must have thought I had something to do with it. The old ladies sitting on the bench took fright, but the thing was soon taken down.

If those guys had never taken an interest in me before, I might have felt scared recently, but now I can only say: “Well, some clowns messed up my door. I’m not too happy about it, but it's no big deal.” They probably think they’re doing the right thing because we're “the enemy”; we're “traitors”. But it’s more likely that someone told them: “Here’s a list of addresses. Do your thing, and we’ll give you some candy.” I know a few people who draw “Z”-signs out of conviction. Before the war broke out, we crossed paths with the Other Russia of Eduard Limonov party at some rallies. At the moment, they are supporting the war, unlike all decent people, if I may say so, but they are sincere and their style is completely different. At least they use stencils for their graffiti.

Naturally, anyone who has even a remote possibility is considering emigration. However, it’s not an option for me: it's my country and my city. I was born here and have lived here all my life. I don't see why I should flee. I believe that those committing crimes against our country, our nation, and our closest neighbor are the ones who must be punished or must flee to avoid facing the punishment. I’ve done nothing they could put me in jail for, so there is no point in emigrating so far. That's how I see things.

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