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Photography ev (via Unsplash)

‘Appalled, embarrassed and hurt’: young Russians on the Ukraine invasion

Three young Russian women tell Dazed about their experiences protesting the war

It was a crisp, cold day when 21-year-old student Anna arrived in Moscow on Monday, February 28. She had travelled from Moscow Oblast with a girl she had befriended through Twitter, along with the girl’s father and friends, to protest Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. They headed to the centre of the city to take to the streets with hundreds of other protestors, bundled into hats and coats in the wintery sun. They shouted “нет войне” – “no to war”. They stooped to pick up anyone who stumbled over in the jostling crowd. Few people held placards – instead, they gripped tightly onto each other’s hands to prevent the authorities from tearing them apart.

Then a police car drove into the crowd. “We ran as fast as we could, but many of us got lost and had to leave before we got caught. Being arrested as a student here also means that they will most likely kick you out of your university, so we have to be extremely careful. And fast,” Anna says. While she got away, Anna’s friend’s father was arrested on Monday. Her ex-girlfriend was also arrested at a protest last week and is currently waiting to hear what her punishment will be. Anna tells me she’s expecting either a hefty fine or 40 hours of community service.

Julia, 24, has also been protesting the Ukraine invasion in Saint Petersburg. “I’ve been protesting in Saint Petersburg for a few days. I couldn’t protest more because I still have work, but I’m going to have some days off and I plan to spend them protesting and helping as much as I can,” she tells Dazed.

Attending a protest in Russia is nothing short of heroic. Protestors have been warned that “negative comments” about the invasion could be treated as “treason”, while over 6,000 Russian citizens have already been arrested for participating in anti-war protests. The police are also notoriously violent. Those who single out Putin for criticism are particularly at risk of ending up on the receiving end of this brutality: “It’s dangerous, it’s really dangerous,” says 21-year-old Elena, a Russian student living in the UK. “It makes the police even more furious.”

“They don’t need a reason to arrest you,” Julia continues. “I saw them arresting a woman with a child on her chest. I saw pictures from journalists on social media of a 90-year-old woman who actually survived World War Two, who was also taken with them for protesting peacefully. I also believe that some girl was arrested for holding a blank poster. There was nothing on it – she was just peacefully standing near the subway with a blank piece of paper, and she was arrested for eight days. Some of my friends are currently in custody too.”

This isn’t the first time Julia has stood up against the Russian state: she also protested against constitutional changes in 2020 and against the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny in 2021. “In Russia, they can basically do anything they want: they can beat up people for nothing; they can arrest them for just standing with blank posters in groups in a city centre,” she says.

Julia goes on to acknowledge that protesting in Russia is a privilege. She explains that as she is self-employed, she’s not “afraid of losing anything” as she’s not tied to any particular companies or organisations. “I can ‘afford’ to get arrested, but a lot of people are very afraid of the police snitching on them and then losing their work, money and a lot of other things,” she says.

“I can ‘afford’ to get arrested, but a lot of people are very afraid of the police snitching on them and then losing their work, money and a lot of other things” – Julia

“It’s not as simple as some people think. When they shout ‘Russians, you have to go and protest, you have to go out and do something’, not everyone has the privilege to do that. I know people are literally dying in the neighbouring country, but I get why some people are afraid [here]. Some people don’t want to ruin their life – some people are more dependent on the government than others. So I can’t blame them,” she says. Julia also explains that she believes many Russians who are in support of the war have been “brainwashed” by the government.

Like Julia, Elena has vocally opposed Putin in the past and attended protests against the unlawful imprisonment of Alexei Navalny in 2021. She says she is “appalled, embarrassed and hurt” by the invasion. “I feel responsible in front of my Ukrainian friends for not having done enough as a Russian citizen to get rid of the regime that is now launching an attack on their home country,” she says. “With that said, my feelings of course cannot come close to what my Ukrainian friends are currently going through.”

She has attended three London protests against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: one outside the Russian embassy, the other two outside 10 Downing Street. She tells Dazed that she was “extremely scared” at the Downing Street protest on February 23. “I went because I knew that not expressing my position would be akin to complacency with what the government of Russia was doing, yet I could not help thinking about my experiences protesting in Russia where I was chased and attacked by police in riot gear for taking part in peaceful demonstrations.”

“However, what I have come to see during anti-war protests in London was the exact opposite of what I feared,” she says. “I felt that my presence mattered and I remain overwhelmed by the feeling of unity between all those who came to show their support and solidarity with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.”

As the world turns its eyes to Russia, Elena, Anna, and Julia all stress that they’re trying their best to stop Putin. “Putin does not have the right to speak on behalf of the Russian people,” Elena says. “But I do feel responsible and I do feel sorry for what my country is doing right now. I feel that the only way I could earn forgiveness is by doing everything I can to demonstrate that I disagree with this military narrative and that I do not stand with the Russian government, but that I stand with Ukraine.”

Anna adds: “I want the world to know that we’re fighting too, fighting against Putin’s crimes. Not the majority of us yet, but I want to believe that more people will join us soon. It’s mostly our generation who protest and share information, but there are some bright minds among the elder ones too.”

“The violence that we saw from the police and the government [at the Navalny protests] was so crazy, people got so scared and they had no choice but to stop. But now I feel like we just don’t have this privilege: we have to keep going, scared or not,” Julia surmises. “We just have to show them that we are not going to stop. We will go outside every day. No matter what it takes.” 

*Name has been changed