I’m a grad student at a university in Moscow. Politically, I call myself a libertarian socialist though I sympathize deeply with anyone fighting for democracy and social justice. I dislike all authoritarians, including those who claim they’re on the left. I’m not a member of any party or political organization. When voting, I usually vandalize the ballot. I’ve protested this war and will continue to do so unless I decide to leave the country. What follows is my personal thoughts as I obviously do not claim to speak for all Russian opposition.
Where we’re at now
I’ve protested Putin since 2011 and all these years I’ve witnessed civil rights rot away and the country slowly descend into a full-blown right-wing dictatorship. That said, the past ten days were more like a nosedive. This week the authorities have eliminated the meager free press we had left, blocked social media, criminalized anti-war protests and even prohibited calling the war “war” (you should call it “special military operation” instead). But unlike American fascists who tried to overthrow democracy in one fell swoop on January 6 (and thankfully failed), Russian fascism crept on us over the two decades of Putin’s rule. War is fascism’s lifeblood, so actually Putin is pretty banal. He does what people like him will always do if they stay in power long enough.
What it feels like now
Some of my friends have already left the country, many are considering it. Almost everyone I know is gripped by anxiety and anger, but also shame and guilt. I feel those things, too, and I know they will stay with my country for decades to come. Interestingly, these emotions are obviously not shared by all my compatriots. People in the streets look and talk like it’s business as usual. It’s as if war is no big deal for them. Or maybe they think it’s not real war but rather some kind of a brief foray into enemy territory. It’s like the end of the world and almost nobody knows or cares. It’s weird.
Why Putin invaded Ukraine
Nobody expected it and nobody really knows. The invasion is not only going to hurt ordinary Russians (probably he’s not really concerned about it). It will hurt and already hurt his oligarch cronies and even himself. He must’ve understood it. So it is difficult to see any rational thought behind the decision to invade. He is likely driven by combined paranoia, delusion of grandeur, long-brewing resentment against the West and the desire to be recognized by the US and EU as a major player, the man to be feared, talked to and respected. It’s also unclear what his endgame in Ukraine is. It’s a huge country of 43 million. It can be invaded, its army destroyed, its leaders captured or killed. But it can’t be held — not with resources available to Russia and not with Ukrainian history of guerilla resistance. Any Russian occupying force or puppet regime wouldn’t last long.
“Russia is fighting Nazis in Ukraine”
This idea is extremely common in Russian external and internal propaganda. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. Far-right politicians don’t occupy any official posts in Ukraine. The most prominent far-right party, Svoboda (in fact, an alliance of several fascist and Neo-Nazi groups), scored only 2.15% in the 2019 parliamentary election. It currently has no seats in the Verkhovna Rada. Svoboda’s candidate Ruslan Koshulynskyi got only 1.6% of votes in the last presidential election. Anyway, if someone like Koshulynskyi got elected, the idea that it in itself warrants a military invasion and occupation is nonsensical. The myth of “Ukrainian Nazis” is the most harmful of all lies produced by Putin’s propaganda machine. It has destroyed thousands of lives on both sides of the conflict. Since 2014, Russians who were not necessarily bad people went to kill and be killed by Ukrainian soldiers in Donbass because they thought they were protecting someone. Propaganda purveyors are war criminals.
“Russia is protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians”
Bombing people to “protect” them is a weird idea. Almost all Ukrainians are Russian-speaking. There is absolutely no sanction for speaking Russian in Ukraine. President Zelensky’s first language is Russian. So the only danger to Russian speakers in Ukraine is the Russian army. Putin often says that Russia and Ukraine are connected through shared history, language and culture. He is right. Given that, the brutality of his invasion and his hypocrisy are even more egregious.
Do Russians want this war?
I would love to emphatically say No, but the truth seems more complicated. According to the Russian state pollster, VTsIOM, 65% of Russians support the “special operation”. As Alexei Bessudnov pointed out, there are several problems with that result. First, how the question is worded is important (less people would support the war if the question said “war”). Second, the poll was done right after the invasion, before its costs were clear. Third, in authoritarian regimes people are often afraid to be candid with pollsters. Anyway, according to the same poll most Russians under 30 oppose the war (women more so than men). People in Moscow and Saint Petersburg oppose the war more than those who live elsewhere. Very predictably, people who don’t watch TV oppose the war the most. Out of the people I know, all oppose it (with an exception of a couple university professors who kinda whitewash it). But most people I know are from academia, so it’s obviously not representative. Given how many Russians hate this war, it is maddening how few actually protest (probably several tens of thousands overall). However, with this level of suppression and intimidation, it’s easy to see why. Russians who say they support the “special operation” are not blood-thirsty, just really misguided by propaganda. In fact, my father is one of them. He is an intelligent and caring man, but so far I’ve failed to convince him. Our arguments get pretty heated at times.
Are Russians responsible for the war?
Again, there’s no easy answer. I don’t think ordinary Russians are fully responsible for their state’s crimes. Propaganda and police terror have debilitated their mind and will. Many are afraid to speak out, others are apathetic or callously indifferent. A large fraction think (and it’s excruciating to admit it) that Ukraine is a threat to Russia, NATO’s proxy, or that Russia is fighting some non-existent Nazis. That said, as a people, I don’t think we’re entirely blameless. After all, we let the tyrant rise, although maybe it was so gradual it wasn’t clear what’s at stake until it became too late. I also don’t think it will be fair if ordinary Russians are discriminated against on the basis of nationality alone. We are held hostage, too. But of course I don’t equate our suffering under Putin to what he is doing to Ukrainians.
Why the Left needs to support Ukraine
Because innocent people are being killed in Ukraine. Because Ukraine is a victim of an unprovoked and illegal aggression. Because Ukraine is a democracy — admittedly fledgling, even feeble — but still a democracy. Because it deserves to be independent and walk its own path. Because Russia is a fascist authoritarian empire which ought to be opposed by everyone who isn’t a fascist authoritarian. Because the causes of justice, equality and democracy are going to suffer a huge blow in Eastern Europe if Russia wins.
What I want Russia to be in the future
Democratic and peaceful. Rid of oligarchs, with safeguards against any future Putins. Much more decentralized and federalized. Providing rights and recognition for ethnic and gender minorities. Denuclearized. Fighting climate change. Social-democratic in the short run and socialist in the long run.
What happens next
Tomorrow, March 6, my friends and I plan to take to the streets once again to protest this ugly, aggressive and totally unnecessary war. So this is how it looked before, this is how it’s going to look tomorrow: a landmark (usually a square in Moscow) is communicated as a rallying point over Telegram. It gets instantly cordoned off by cops (menty or musora). Protesters gather on streets adjacent to the landmark. In several columns of 50-100 people, they walk the streets and chant anti-war and anti-Putin slogans. A cop van (avtozak) pulls over nearby. Black armor-clad riot cops (omon) get out, snatch protesters and force them into the van. Others scatter and regroup on the next street. It continues several times — until you get arrested or the protest dissipates by itself in the evening. There are no black blocs and people don’t try to hide their faces, that’s why even if you don’t get caught the cops can pay you a visit after the rally if they ID you through a surveillance camera. From prison (via his lawyer), Alexei Navalny called on all Russians to go out and protest every day. Some of my friends say he shouldn’t have done that. They think the protest will lose some of its universal appeal if it gets associated with Navalny. Personally, I think he did what he had to do. Silence is complicity.
In terms of consequences, when arrested at a protest, you can get fined, given up to 30 days in jail, fired or expelled from your school. People are given longer sentences (3-5 years) if they attack cops or throw stuff at them, but sometimes simply for being regularly arrested or for their social media posts. Also, it gets worse every day. Since recently, you can get fined or arrested for uttering the word “war” (literally). This very essay is criminal and would certainly get me in trouble for cheering for the enemy, “disinformation” and undermining our nation’s glorious armed forces. I was already arrested once so tomorrow carries more risk for me. The more you get arrested, the worse the punishment. I won’t go to prison (unless the worst comes to the worst) but will pay a larger fine or get a short jail term (5-30 days). I’m not really afraid or anxious (practice?). I just think we’re doing what everyone should be doing in Russia right now. So it’s about duty, but also solidarity. And also a bit of rage. Regarding the future, some of my friends commit to stay in Russia and resist no matter what. I suppose I’m not as brave so probably I’ll leave at some point if things continue to get worse. Sadly, there’s no doubt they will get worse. Also, leaving the country gets more and more difficult every day. But I’m not leaving yet, not for now.
What I want to say to others:
To the people of the world— please help Ukrainians, especially the refugees, they need you the most. But of course support those who stay and fight, too. Don’t fall for Putin’s propaganda.
To other Russians, whether you are at home or abroad — use VPNs, educate yourself and others, organize, protest, be careful, don’t lose hope.
To Ukrainians — you are heroes and I admire you endlessly. I really hope you repel my disgraced country’s invasion. Please forgive us if you can.~