Despite Moscow’s attempts to stem any dissent against its invasion of Ukraine, some Russians are continuing to protest — even if it means facing draconian punishment for the most benign acts of opposition.
Some have paid a heavy price for their acts of protest. In the early days of the war in February, authorities moved quickly to quash demonstrations, arresting people who marched or even held blank signs, balloons in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, or other oblique references to the conflict.
Critical media outlets were shut down as the government sought to control the narrative. Political opponents were singled out by President Vladimir Putin or commentators on state-run TV.
Lawmakers rubber-stamped measures that outlawed the spread of “false information” about what the Kremlin called a “special military operation” and disparaging the military, using them against anyone who spoke out against the attack or talked about the atrocities Russian troops were accused of having committed.
Yet, people persist in their intent to speak out against the war, punishment or not.
‘I want to get people to think’
Ever since 24 February, Anastasia has started her day by composing an anti-war message and posting it on the wall at the entrance of her apartment block in the industrial city of Perm in the Ural Mountains.
“Do not believe the propaganda you see on the TV, read independent media!” reads one. “Violence and death have been constantly with us for three months now — take care of yourselves” reads another.
The 31-year-old teacher, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she fears for her security, said she wanted “a safe and simple method of getting a message across”.
“I couldn’t do something huge and public,” she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “I want to get people to think. And I think we should influence whatever space, in whatever way we can.”
As the war has dragged on into its fifth month, some like Anastasia feel guilty that they cannot do more to oppose the invasion, even within the constraints of the new laws.
At first, Anastasia said her first thought was to sell all her possessions and move abroad, but she soon changed her mind.
“It’s my country, why should I leave?” she said. “I understood I needed to stay and create something to help from here.”
‘Fear is not an excuse to do nothing’
Sergei Besov, a Moscow-based printer and artist, also felt he could not stay silent. Even before the invasion, the 45-year-old was making posters reflecting on the political scene and plastering them around the capital.
When Russians voted two years ago on constitutional amendments allowing Putin to seek two more terms after 2024, Besov used his old printing press with hefty wooden Cyrillic type and vintage red ink to print posters that said simply: “Against”.
During the 2020 unrest in Belarus over a disputed presidential election and the ensuing crackdown on the protesters, he made posters saying “Freedom” in Belarusian.
After the invasion of Ukraine, his project, Partisan Press, started making posters saying ”Нет войне” or “No to war” — or what became the main anti-war slogan. Video of the poster being printed became popular on Instagram, and the demand for copies was so great that they were given away for free.
After some of his posters were used at a demonstration in Red Square and several of those displaying them were arrested, it became clear that the police “would inevitably come to us,” Besov said.
They showed up when Besov was not there, charging two of his employees with participating in an unauthorised rally by printing the poster used in it.
The case has dragged on for over three months, he said, causing all of them lots of stress over whether they will be penalized and to what extent.
Besov has stopped printing the “No to war” posters and went for subtler messages such as “Fear is not an excuse to do nothing.”
He considers it important to keep speaking out.
“The problem is we don’t know where the lines are drawn,” Besov said. “It is known that they can prosecute you for certain things, but some manage to fly under the radar. Where is this line? It is very bad and really difficult.”
Braving 10 years in prison for miniature anti-war slogans
Sasha Skochilenko, a 31-year-old artist and musician in St Petersburg, failed to stay under the radar and is facing severe consequences for what she thought was a relatively safe way to spread the word about the horrors of war.
She was detained for replacing five price tags in a supermarket with tiny ones containing anti-war slogans.
“The Russian army bombed an art school in Mariupol. Some 400 people were hiding in it from the shelling,” one read.
“Russian conscripts are being sent to Ukraine. Lives of our children are the price of this war,” said another one.
She faces up to 10 years in prison on charges of spreading false information about the Russian army.
Skochilenko was really affected by the war, said her partner, Sophia Subbotina.
“She had friends in Kyiv who were sheltering in the subway and calling her, talking about the horror that was going on there,” Subbotina said.
In 2020, Skochilenko taught acting and filmmaking at a children’s camp in Ukraine and worried about how the conflict would affect her former pupils.
“She was really afraid for these children, that their lives were in danger because of the war, that bombs were falling on them, and she couldn’t stay silent,” Subbotina said.
“It was a shock for us that they launched a criminal case, and a case that implies a monstrous prison term of 5 to 10 years,” Subbotina said. “In our country, shorter sentences are handed down for murder.”