At a protest in support of Alexei Navalny, 2021. Image credit: George Markov
Since President Putin launched the war on Ukraine on February 24, thousands of people in more than 65 Russian cities have taken to the streets for anti-war protests. The biggest rallies—to judge from the images on television, attended by some 5,000 people—took place in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. According to OVD-Info, an independent media organization that tracks political arrests and human rights violations in Russia, more than 6,500 people were detained across the country in the first four days of the war. As the television coverage has shown, the police treated peaceful protesters with brutality, using batons and electroshock weapons. According to OVD-Info, many received fines and were released, but some have been imprisoned for up to 30 days.
“No to War” has been the most popular slogan among those protesters, though a few have brandished blunter placards, such as “Putin is a f*cker.” Some have worn masks with mottos like “Enough,” or “Stop the War.” At the same time, antiwar graffiti has begun to pop up on the streets of Russia’s big cities.
On February 28 and March 1, I reached out by phone to a variety of activists I’ve come to know during previous nonviolent protests Russia. I’m a Russian journalist currently living in New York who spent the previous five years covering street protests in Russia. Protesting in Russia is dangerous, but those of us who take the risk of protests or documenting the protests generally make no effort to hide our names or political views, because the goal is to show ordinary Russians who disagree with Putin and his policies.
Political activist Anastasia Philippova is located in Saint Petersburg, where she joined protests that started on February 27. “The police detained me in the center of Saint Petersburg right after the anti-war protest started, because it’s not my war or Russia’s war, it’s Putin’s war,” she said. “At the police department, we gave fingerprints under the threat that the police would break our fingers. One guy turned a portrait of Putin on the wall upside down and was sent to a special detention center. We couldn’t sleep and eat. Later the judge scolded me and eventually imposed a fine of 10,000 rubles”—an amount equivalent to around $100, although with the ruble plummeting in value, it’s hard to know precisely the size of the fine.
Since the beginning of the war, independent journalists as well as protesters like Anastasia Philippova are at risk. Russian authorities have outlawed the use of the words “attack,” “invasion,” and “war” to describe Russia’s conduct in the Ukraine: “special operation” is the only approved wording. Moreover, the Russian Parliament is working on a bill to criminalize the unauthorized spread of unwelcome information about current events Ukraine; doing so may soon be punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
In fact, when Putin declared war on Ukraine, he also declared war on his compatriots, not just through police crackdowns, but also through the ongoing economic collapse that has already affected every Russian citizen.
On Monday, February 28, the ruble dropped to a historic low. At one point on Monday, Russian currency sank to 117.82 per dollar. (On February 23, one day before the invasion, the ruble fluctuated at the level of 79 per dollar.)
Unprecedented sanctions against Russia will have an extremely negative impact on the country’s economy. In addition to a significant and sudden drop in real income, Russia will lose access to the large market share for cars and aircraft. Since the European Union, Great Britain, and Canada shut their airspace for Russian aircraft, Russians lost many travel opportunities. Due to sanctions against a number of major banks, Russian citizens are already experiencing difficulties using their credit and debit cards abroad and, according to recent Putin’s decree, cannot transfer currency to accounts in foreign banks.
“I work for VTB bank that is facing blocking sanctions,” one bank employee who wished to remain anonymous told me by phone: “It means that we won’t cooperate with Western countries anymore. Many people may soon lose their job, including me. The Russian war against Ukraine is a huge tragedy. I wish I could protest in my home city, Moscow, but VTB management made it clear to me that I would be fired for this. I have friends and relatives in Kiev and I just can’t believe in this reality. The rest of the world will hate Russia for this war for many years.”
There is little hope that peaceful protests will influence Putin’s political decisions. A year ago, rallies in support of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny were brutally suppressed in the country. Since then, dozens of political activists have left Russia and many others have become disillusioned with the potential for nonviolent protest under Putin’s authoritarian regime.
Still, the consequences of the president’s actions are likely to be devastating not only for ordinary citizens, but also for the Kremlin elite. This fact, combined with Putin’s nuclear threats, suggests that anti-war and anti-Putin sentiments may already be crystallizing, even at the highest levels.
“Putin will become afraid of his own entourage and sit a kilometer away from them,” says Daniil Kotsyubinsky, a journalist and professor of history at Saint Petersburg State University. “We don’t see any mass support for the war. And these sanctions will be significant for both average Russians and the elite. There is no request for a big war among any social group in Russia. Putin is losing his legitimacy, and this will only increase as the economic situation worsens.” How bad could it get? Kotsyubinsky offered an historical analogy: “Russian emperor Paul I was killed because he deprived the nobles of the privileges granted by his predecessor Catherine II.”
In the current atmosphere of uncertainty, some Russian citizens have decided to leave the country, either for economic reasons or to protect themselves and their families from possible political punishment.
At the same time, there are others who will continue to protest the war.
“I love my city and I am ready for the next rallies,” says Timofey Gorodilov, an activist in Saint Petersburg. “Here, I feel more helpful than anywhere else. I stand for peace in Ukraine and freedom in Russia. If I get arrested—well, let it be.”
Anastasia Shteinert is a political reporter and MA Candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.