'Terror and repression': Russia's brutal crackdown on anti-war protesters
Immediately as the invasion began anti-war protesters in Russia flocked onto the streets of Moscow, St Petersburg and other major cities across the country in defiance of President Vladimir Putin’s actions, risking arrest and violence by the Russian police to make their opposition to the invasion heard.
It is not just the Ukrainian people who live in fear of the iron fist of the Kremlin. A brutal crackdown against anti-war protesters across Russia has already resulted in over 14,000 arrests.
“Putin, in his official speech to the nation, called those who openly speak against the war traitors. Some people have been attacked and beaten up by Putin’s forces,” said Moscow-based Elena, who has been protesting against the Ukraine war since its inception.
"It is not just the Ukrainian people who live in fear of the iron fist of the Kremlin. A brutal crackdown against anti-war protesters across Russia has already resulted in over 14,000 arrests"
Elena said the protests have shrunken exponentially, as the police have used extreme force with anyone deemed a traitor by the government. Initially, she says there were about 1,500 protestors demonstrating in Moscow.
“Many were arrested. Then I came again after some days, and people couldn’t even gather in groups because they were fewer than the policemen. We were just roaming around the centre trying to gather but we couldn’t,” she recalled. “Then I went to Saint Petersburg. There were more people and they were active, but the police there are even more brutal.”
Elena remembers watching as the police chased and rounded up anyone protesting, including young women, the elderly and disabled activists. She herself managed to evade arrest due to, she says, her ability to run fast.
“Protesting elderly people are not afraid, because they have nothing to lose. They witnessed first hand all the failures of Putin’s politics and economics,” she explained. “Mostly they live in poverty. Usually they are those who took part in the fight for democracy in the early 1990s.”
“They beat and torture those who go out to peaceful rallies. Now I have a fine of 75,000 roubles, that's about 700 dollars, but for Russia where the average salary in the regions is about 30-40,000 a month, it's quite a big sum,” said Natasha, who has been protesting in one of Russia’s major cities.
“We are cut off from the world. Everybody who was able to leave ran away with just one suitcase. Food, medicine, clothes, equipment: everything is gone.”
Natasha was arrested alongside several other women, and some of them face administrative charges for protesting. “Most of the people I know have either left or are on trial. The police take away phones and check everything. There is no law anymore. We are shackled by terror and repression.”
Others have found themselves the victims of pro-Putin far right thugs, who target those involved in anti-war efforts, even those simply displaying anti-war leaflets.
Ivana sits opposite her local business, sipping coffee nervously and keeping an eye out for anyone suspicious after a few what she describes as “neo-Nazi thugs” visited her shop and threaten to destroy it if she continued to hand out anti-war leaflets and stickers.
“It’s scary. And yet we want to find ways to protest, because it’s gut wrenching to watch people suffering in Ukraine,” she said.
Ivana explains that the Russian government has been spreading rumours that her and her fellow anti-war activists are paid by the West to take to the streets. “Some politicians here claim that people are being paid to go to the protest. So there is an on-going joke between us like ‘so you guys are being paid? Where’s my money then? Where can I get it? My bad, I am doing this to fight for our rights’,” she explained.
Meanwhile, outside Russia, the diaspora community has shared the disapproval of anti-war activists as they watch their government drop bombs on Ukrainian civilians. The harsh, punitive measures in Russia against those speaking out against the invasion have not deterred them from taking action.
Anna, a Russian expat in Switzerland, has been assisting in the effort to help those fleeing the war. She has used her technological expertise to create bots and communicate with Ukrainian refugees in order to get them settled quickly and efficiently.
"It will take a few months before the Russian people will feel the bite of sanctions and, when the sanctions do make an impact, it will likely not be as harsh as the West wants"
“There are various donation collection points, large volunteering efforts at Zurich’s main train station to help new arrivals, and various information on support efforts.” she explained. “I was helping to coordinate a 1,600-member Telegram chat and building a bot to help people with registration and accommodation search.”
“Many are stressed, in survival mode, and very grateful,” she said. “Most don’t know any other language than Ukrainian or Russian, don’t have much savings or possessions, so it is very hard.”
Russian political analyst Dmitri Bridzhe says that it will take a few months before the Russian people will feel the bite of sanctions and, when the sanctions do make an impact, it will likely not be as harsh as the West wants. He also does not think that sanctions will turn the Russian people against Putin and his government.
“Instead of people going to protest, they could become more supportive of their government. Not all of them, but the older generation. The younger generation, they travel outside of Russia, and they will leave Russia.”
Part of the reason for this, Bridzhe explained, is that the Russian government has shut down independent and foreign TV networks, leaving the people of Russia with nothing but Kremlin propaganda as a source of news. He is sceptical that the sanctions will have the impact that the West hopes.
“I don’t think the sanctions will work on Putin,” he said. “If all the world cuts their relationship with Russia, it won’t affect Putin,” emphasising that many non-Western countries have not cut ties with Putin, including Turkey, an upcoming superpower in the region, and countries further into Eurasia, such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
“Some Russians will buy products from there, instead of MasterCard and Visa they will use a Chinese payment system, so they have alternatives.”
However, Bridzhe is convinced that the punitive measures imposed by the West will affect oligarchs, as their carefully crafted relationship with the West crumbles, sending them flocking to countries like the UAE and Israel. “They have bank accounts, they have their families there. It will affect the oligarchs. They want to have a good relationship with Western countries.”
While he is sceptical of the impact of grassroots protests, he has faith that cultural figures, such as musicians, could have a knock-on effect in changing public opinion.
Already, he says, Russian artists such as Morgenshtern have been using their influence to speak out against the war.
Germany-based Russian director, actress and artist Viktoria, is no stranger to upsetting the Kremlin, and has spent ten days in jail for her critical works against Putin’s government. Since the invasion of Ukraine, she has been continuously protesting the war and helping refugees get settled.
“Of course, repression in Russia is a disaster. And a lot of my friends are in danger right now. What can I say? People should take to the streets and really fight with the police as it was in Ukraine,” she said.
"She believes that those fighting for peace and protesting the war on Ukraine will be on the right side of history, but what could happen next is anyone’s guess"
“I think that the weakness of Russian civil society and the inaction of all other countries led to this outcome. I am sure that all the politicians understood that this would happen, but they continued to do nothing,” she explained. “This act of aggression is an attempt by a weak, evil old man to retain power with all his might. Now we must do everything possible to help Ukraine.”
She laments the situation in Russia, and compares the crackdown on freedom of speech or assembly as akin to the Stalinist era. “Russia is almost in the same position as in the time of Stalin. The difference is that people are not shot but poisoned.”
She believes that those fighting for peace and protesting the war on Ukraine will be on the right side of history, but what could happen next is anyone’s guess.
Many of the Russians that The New Arab spoke with fear the worst, and find it difficult to predict where the incursion of Ukraine could go next.
“He will go to the end,” Elena believes.
*Names and locations have been changed to protect identities
Amy Addison-Dunne is a writer with an interest in politics, the Middle East and human rights. Her work has appeared in publications such as Mirror Online, Al-Jazeera English, and Middle East Monitor.
Follow her on Twitter: @redamylou