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The Russians Risking It All

Despite the odds and the heavy punishments, resistance still exists in Russia. Index on Censorship’s Assistant Editor Katie Dancey-Downs talks to those who are braving it to stand up to Putin

A fighter of the Russian Volunteer Corps, tattooed with Ukraine’s military flag. The Russian Volunteer Corps is a paramilitary unit of Russian citizens based in Ukraine which was formed in 2022. Photo: Efrem Lukatsky/AP/Alamy

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“Everybody who walks out into the street knows that they might walk straight into a prison,” explained Dan Storyev, managing editor of human rights media project OVD-Info. Despite the high risks there is what Storyev calls “an epidemic of direct action” – people are setting military recruitment offices on fire. Solitary pickets happen almost daily. Others place flowers on monuments to Ukrainian figures. 

Storyev was talking to Index on Censorship a year on from our special report on the war in Ukraine, which looked into the state of resistance in Russia as part of it. Armed with a central question – what has happened to the resistance since then? – the answer was depressing.

The environment in which people can resist has shrunk much further. Laws introduced at the start of the war to discourage criticism of it were purposefully vague, meaning lots of people have been arrested with little to no reason given. 

“They’re going to find something to charge you with anyway,” Storyev said. 

Dissidents are forced to make apology videos (often preceded with torture) or sing the national anthem. When The Underdog pub in Moscow was raided under suspicion of sponsoring the Ukrainian Army in March, one of the patrons was forced to write “Z for Russia” on the door, before nationalistic songs were blasted through speakers. People were made to sing along to the anthem or be tasered. 

There is now also a fine line in Russia between who is a dissident and who is a journalist or a lawyer. The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gerschkovich was arrested in Yekaterinburg and is now in a former KGB prison. 

“By throwing Evan into detention and charging him with espionage, the Russian state basically sends a signal to everybody that if you’re opposing the war, you’re not safe,” Storyev said. Even a US passport did not protect Gerschkovich from the harsh punishments handed out to those who speak out against the war. 

With many of those who took part in anti-war demonstrations early on in the war having been arrested, these demonstrations are now a rare occurrence. Last August, twice- poisoned journalist and opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza wrote in the Washington Post that Moscow’s central squares were permanently occupied by riot police to stop public rallies. Today, the situation differs day by day, according to Storyev.

“The riot police [have] proved their capacity to react to things with lightning speed,” he said. “They have such a technical and numerical superiority over protestors that, at this point, it is not just brave but nearly suicidal to go out and protest in Russia because the response is going to be immediate and brutal.” 

But, as Storyev said, “Russian civil society remains defiant”.

“It’s been dealt a massive blow by the full-scale invasion, and by the following intensification of Putin’s war on human rights. But civil society in Russia is still very much present and very much alive.”

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When picturing Russian dissidents, people might imagine intelligentsia or scholars. Today, dissidents come from all over society. They are mechanics, firefighters and even police officers. Alexei Moskalev is one of those unexpected dissidents — he owns a small business selling pet birds and was sentenced to two years in prison when his daughter drew an anti-war picture. 

Sometimes resistance is in the small acts, making improvements to people’s lives as and when people can. For example, Storyev is running a project with OVD-Info to improve conditions in prison. One person they are helping is Kara-Murza, who is currently languishing in jail for treason, gradually losing sensation in his feet as a result of poisonings, while receiving no medical attention. OVD- Info launched a letter-writing project to keep Kara-Murza’s morale up, including translating letters from English into Russian, as only Russian-language letters are allowed into the prison. 

“It used to be that they would lock you up and throw away the key and no one knew what had happened to you – now, in large part thanks to us, that’s no longer the case,” Storyev said, explaining how the project shines a light on human rights abuses in Russian jails and directs the public in putting pressure on prison authorities. 

Resistance is also often creative. One such example is the Kopilka Project, which translates and distributes Russian anti-war poems.

When Russian translator Maria Bloshteyn spoke about the project to Index on Censorship last summer, there were more than 100 poets involved. When Bloshteyn spoke with the organisation again in May, along with Kopilka editor Julia Nemirovskaya, the number exceeded 300, with more than 1,000 poems penned in the Russian language. They’ve published an anthology, Disbelief, which contains a selection of the poems. Nemirovskaya explained that it is a collective answer to the collectiveness of the war’s atrocities. One of the poets recently told her that writing these pieces is more important than life. 

Over the past year, Bloshteyn has felt the weight of responsibility that the project brings, with the possibility that they are bringing the authorities’ attention to poets in Russia. 

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to the people whose works we’re translating,” Bloshteyn said, but she also knows that the poets must have considered the risks. “And now that they’ve actually taken the stab, it’s my duty to make sure that their voices are heard as loudly as possible.”

In terms of what exactly is happening to Russian poets, Bloshteyn said the response is wide-ranging. Poet and activist Artiom Kamardine took part in the revived ‘Mayakovsky readings’, which happened regularly in the Soviet era until they were banned, near Moscow’s statue of the renowned poet of the 1917 Russian Revolution Vladimir Mayakovsky. He read poems about the war and Ukraine. He was arrested, brutalised and still awaits trial. One Kopilka poet, Maria Remizova, was accused of defamation of the Russian military forces and, when the judge found mistakes in the procedure, the case was dropped. 

The punishments for anti-war Russians come not just from the state, but from themselves.

Nemirovskaya, who left Russia 35 years ago, explained how many citizens are experiencing guilt and shame – and a sense of complicity. People ask themselves how they missed the moment when Vladimir Putin could have been stopped, even if many of them have joined protests. Nemirovskaya described that feeling: “How could we have been living on a dragon’s back and not noticed? We used the dragon’s warmth, we used its fire for our houses… are we responsible?” 

This guilt is one reason the poets risk everything. Some poets use only initials or pseudonyms, fearful of their families being implicated if they are found out, but others are willing to risk their lives and use their real names. 

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Of course, a lot of the resistance happens from afar, in countries away from the reach of the KGB.

Many of the poets who write for Kopilka, for example, have left Russia. The same applies to the four student journalists from Doxa, who were sentenced to two years of correctional labour for a YouTube video they posted in which they said it was illegal to intimidate students for taking part in protests supporting opposition leader Alexei Navalny. All four journalists have since received humanitarian visas and are in exile in Germany, and most of the Doxa team have also left for Europe. Three of the sentenced journalists have stepped away from journalism.

Ekaterina Martynova, Doxa‘s editor, told Index on Censorship that her team is burnt-out, working mostly in hubs across Europe and faced with challenges like whether it is ethically sound to buy information from the black market, for example on Telegram channels. As a media organisation that deals in opinion rather than daily news, Doxa can largely avoid making this decision, but it might not be so easy for others. 

She said that the understanding of what journalism actually is in Russia has changed, echoing Storyev’s suggestion that there is a fine line between a dissident and a journalist — more than objective information, Martynova said people need to know what they should be doing. “During the war times, you cannot say that you are just a journalist… you should be an anti-war activist,” she said. 

At the end of April, a new case was launched against Doxa’s social media manager, Maria Menshikova, claiming that she had called for terrorism in a post. She is no longer in Russia, although her parents’ apartment has been targeted, Martynova explained. The majority of the Doxa team might be living outside Russia, but Martynova does not believe that anywhere is truly safe for them. 

“In late November last year, another state department suggested that Doxa should be recognised as extremist,” Martynova said. “The extremist label is very different from the foreign agent label. If we will be recognised as extremists, we will be the first media who will be.” 

Ultimately, Martynova knows it would be easier to give up on journalism. For her, being a Russian journalist living outside the country is both a privilege and a responsibility. The pressure is immense for civil society actors when deciding whether to leave or stay, and what they risk when they continue to speak up.

For many, there appears to be little choice. They cannot remain silent. 

Katie Dancey-Downs is the Assistant Editor of Index on Censorship. This article is from the upcoming issue of Index on Censorship, which will be published in July 2023

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