“Putin is making sure that the opposition is not united”

Interview with Russian Activists – Part 1: Protests in Russia


Hello, thanks for talking to us. Could you start by introducing yourselves?

VLADISLAV: I’m a 32-year-old man working in tech at one of the best universities in Russia.

DARJA: I’m a 33-year-old woman from a small village in Lugansk. I moved to Moscow in 2011 and am an unemployed product manager and analyst.

OKSANA: I’m 32 years old, half-Ukrainian and half-Russian. I have a 4-year-old son. My grandmother and uncle still live near Donetsk and are sometimes under attacks.

MARIA: I’m an IT specialist living in Moscow.

KONSTANTIN: I am a 34-year-old scientist working in experimental high-energy physics. I did military studies in a civic university and got a reserve lieutenant rank without any actual military service.

NIKITA: I’m 23 years old, I am currently doing my master’s degree in forestry. I also work in the forest industry in Krasnoyarsk

FAR ACTIVISTS: We are a small group of activists from Feminist Anti-war Resistance (FAR), a Russian movement that was founded on 25 February as a response to the Russian invasion in Ukraine. We are just ordinary people, originally from different republics and regions of Russia, but currently we live abroad. We keep in touch with our friends and relatives as well as other FAR activists inside our home country and are pretty involved in what’s happening there.

ALEXANDER; I’m a 27 year old investment manager from Moscow, currently staying in Uzbekistan

A few weeks ago, Russian activists were pessimistic about resisting Putin’s repression. Now there is a new wave of activity. What is the current mood in Russia?

VLADISLAV: Fear, depression.

ALEXANDER>: In general, partial mobilization has frightened everyone, even ardent supporters of the current regime. Males are running away from the country.

There is too much fake news in Russia currently, but official president statements and real actions seem to be quite different as territorial commissariats have their own KPIs for military recruits and so they send military notifications even to those who have no experience of army operations.

KONSTANTIN: I do not really think that people have become more ready to resist Putin since the start of mobilization. What many of us now do (or plan to do) is to avoid being conscripted, by any means – first legally (getting some official status), then sometimes via illegal actions like ignoring a draft notice.

Many people are prepared to do this, but only a small fraction associate what’s going on with Putin’s failures and blame him for that. I am not sure if this mood can be easily converted into massive protests against Putin’s regime in the near future.

DARJA: Many want to leave or have already left the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, I meet a lot of people who hold opposite views; for example, among my relatives or in communities of mothers.

MARIA: It’s too early to tell, because some of the pro-government people just started to understand that something is wrong because of the mobilization, because of the army failures, because of contradicting news and official messages.

But it’s a very, very long process so this new wave is a good sign. But it’s not enough and won’t lead to any significant changes yet. There are several reasons why:

  1. There is one security camera for every 7 people in Moscow and 40% of them recognize faces – so it’s very hard to hide.
  2. Russia has 5,5 police officers for every 1,000 people.
  3. Russia has still been receiving weapons from other countries since late September.
  4. Just read a few stories about torture in Russian jail to get an idea about the cruelty level.

It is hard to participate in protests in Russia without ending up in jail – and this makes your activism pointless. So far, not enough people are ready to act to overcome all these barriers. People are living quite a good life and they are not ready to throw it all away, especially if they have children.

FAR ACTIVISTS: Most of our friends are against the war ­– they experienced shock and pure panic when the mobilization began. Many of those who could afford to leave Russia were dubious after the invasion, but they are now trying to leave in a hurry. For those who were “uninterested in politics”, and “mild” supporters of the government, it was also a shock. But some of the people who support the war see this as an opportunity to win more quickly.

Independent surveys in Russia can only measure the war support with indirect questions, and it’s estimated that about 90% of Russians refuse to partake in surveys. So, it’s not easy to truly see the whole picture. However, it is certain that on average, people are increasingly frightened and depressed.

The mobilization led to a wave of more active protesting. During last months, most protests were mainly the quiet, “partisan” type or kitchen talks, but this time, people took to the streets. However, the acts of repression are increasingly violent as well, and this wave seems to be subsiding.

How widespread are the protests? Are they just in the big cities?

VLADISLAV: Even in big cities they are very small. There is a very high risk of being put in jail for going to a protest. Some independent media say that men caught at protests receive subpoenas to military offices right there, to be sent to war.

DARJA: I think those who are against are afraid to go, or do not believe in their ability to influence anything. There were protests a couple of days after the announcement of partial mobilization in Makhachkala, but they were suppressed.

KONSTANTIN: I live in a small city (below 100,000 inhabitants), and do not see any public protests. We had 2-3 small protests of up to 40 people in late February /early March. This is even smaller than earlier protests in the city during last few years, but I’ve been aware of no others since then.

At the same time, I’ve observed some forms of “quiet protest” here, such as anti-war graffiti. This is sometimes quite noticeable; e.g., there was a Ukraine flag painted on a wall that is hardly accessible but clearly visible from a very large area. It was painted over by city services in less than a day. However, it is difficult to judge how many people are actually doing it.

FAR ACTIVISTS: According to the news, protests happened in 42 cities as of September 21. The most active protests happened in the Dagestan region on September 25. Since many people were drafted from central Russia, a number of protests took place there as well. People were detained in Novosibirsk, Ulan-Ude, Tomsk, Khabarovsk, and Yakutsk.

In Yakutsk, for example, approximately 400 (mostly women) rallied by dancing a traditional circular dance called osuokhay. It is difficult to say how big the protest in the countryside is. The internet isn’t available everywhere.

Who is leading the protests? How large and effective is the Russian opposition?

KONSTANTIN: Only small local activists without any serious political experience are able to organize protests, but they do not have enough skills, and the protests will eventually fail, unless they become really very massive and get out of control. That’s only my vague and very subjective feeling though.

OKSANA: Russian opposition is highly suppressed, and I don’t really know the names of the people who are organizing protests now. I get info about the place and time of the protests from friends incidentally in personal discussions.

FAR ACTIVISTS: Putin made it impossible for any public opposition leaders to rise and gain enough support. The famous cases are the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in front of the Kremlin in 2015 and the attempt to poison Alexey Navalny in 2020. Navalny is alive but in prison now.

Any public opposition leader could be in danger of arrest or even worse scenarios, so many have left the country, and the current protests’ organizers remain anonymous. People spread information mainly through public Telegram channels and encrypted chats in Signal and Matrix. We unite in small groups very carefully, because trusting the wrong person could lead to prison, beating, and torture, and could put our relatives in danger.

MARIA: Right now, all the opposition leaders that were really able to change anything are in jail or dead. And not only the leaders – some key members of their teams as well, so the opposition is quite chaotic now. Some of the organizations and people are still trying to continue their activities, but mostly online. Their vlogs and podcasts are aimed at explaining what is really going on, how the government is lying to us, and how the propaganda is working.

The Financial Times reported that there were arson attacks against army recruitment offices in 16 Russian regions. Are you able to say more about this? What other actions are taking place?

NIKITA: The arsonist of the military enlistment office was detained in Krasnoyarsk. He turned out to be a 23-year-old guy. Оn 3 October he threw Molotov cocktails at the military commissariat of the Soviet and Central districts and fled. Also, when I’m walking in the street, I see a lot of anti-war stickers and graffiti.

FAR ACTIVISTS: Arson attacks against military buildings didn’t start with the mobilization; such attempts have been made since the beginning of the war. The mobilization incited a new wave of these. Wikipedia maintains a map of the new attempts, and there’s a fascinating video example from Uryupinsk. One of the interesting cases is an arson attempt with Molotov cocktails by an 11th grade schoolgirl from Kazan, Tatarstan.

Other brutal actions are mostly random. In Irkutsk region, a man shot an army recruitment officer. There was a suicide case after receiving a subpoena in Veliky Novgorod and a failed attempt of public self-arson in Ryazan.

The usual smaller “partisan” actions also continue – stickers and graffiti on the streets, delivery of home-published newspapers (i.e. FAR’s “Women’s Truth”), leaflets, etc. Cars, monuments and banners with “Z” signs are burnt, get painted over or smashed from time to time. FAR receives anonymous stories about the quiet sabotage of pro-regime actions, even by lower ranking officials. And, of course, there are people who try to stop the trains carrying military equipment.

How is Putin dealing with the opposition?

KONSTANTIN: Harshly. All opposition politicians with any real power who remained in Russia are jailed. The only exception that comes to my mind is some members of Yabloko party, like Lev Shlosberg, but they seem to balance on a very thin blade to not say or do anything that would trigger them getting sent to prison immediately.

People who show up at rallies in big cities are arrested en masse and get sentences of up to 15 days in prison, with the risk of criminal prosecution in case of repeated arrest.

OKSANA: Putin considers the opposition to be traitors and “Western” agents. This opinion is quite common among people in the country, especially the elder part of society – my parents and grandparents have called me a traitor dozens of times just for disagreeing with Putin’s politics.

VLADISLAV: Opposition leaders are treated badly. Most active leaders are put into prison or scared out of the country. He is making sure that opposition is not united.

FAR ACTIVISTS: Currently, male protesters receive subpoenas to army recruitment offices. The usual strategy also continues to apply: activists are charged with something (i.e., protesting, posting online, and even “likes” on social media) and go to jail, protesters get beaten in the streets, in jails, and sometimes at home. There’s a risk of being deprived of parental rights.

The beating is harsh and inflicted randomly, regardless of person’s sex. Sometimes it leads to serious injuries. There was a recent case of sexual violence by a police officer against a male protester, a poet Artem Kamardin.

The conditions in detention centres are harsh: they are cold, dirty, sometimes overcrowded, with sometimes no mattresses to sleep on (or very old ones with insects, blood stains, etc.). Often the road to the detention centre takes several hours in the back of ”avtozak” (prisoner transport vehicle), with no water, food or toilet.

The laws do not apply to you, of course. You get constantly called a traitor, do not get any medications, and your belongings can be returned damaged following your detention.

Part 2 of this interview, on the effect of conscription and sanctions, will be published on theleftberlin.com soon. The names of the interviewees have been changed for obvious reasons.