Fear and Pride In Russia’s Opposition, “All the people from the chat who arrived at 2 p.m. were arrested!”

March 9, 2022. Most of Russia’s, Novosibirsk opposition movement against the war was wiped out for their participation in anti-war protests.

On March 6th a large group of protestors gathered in the Siberian city scanding ‘No-War’ on Lenin Square. The authorities came down in full force leading to mass arrests.

“All the people from the chat who arrived at 2 p.m. were arrested!” Victor, a leading member of the Novosibirsk opposition says.

The March 6th protests were promoted via Instagram and attracted a lot of attention; not only from people against the war but also from the police.

When protestors showed up with placards reading ‘No-War,’ the police quickly detained all in attendance. And carried them away in police vans while forcefully removing anyone who resisted.

Members of the tight-knit opposition discussed the protest via their closed-off Telegram chat. With such a social media presence for the event the leaders of the city’s opposition were sure there would be a large police presence at the scene.

‘’They just attacked passers-by, some girls just went to the mall, they were stuffed too. Then the area was cordoned off. I arrived at 3 p.m. We just walked around and looked. So I wasn’t caught.’’ Victor, a leading member of Novosibirsk’s opposition, explains what happened March 6th.

Victor narrowly avoided arrest because he didn’t attend the protest from the start. He recalls how he saw others being arrested while walking towards Lenin Square. It was difficult for him to see his comrades getting arrested but there wasn’t much he could do unless he wanted to suffer the same fate.

The mass arrests came two days after Vladimir Putin’s office passed two laws outlawing any reference to the term ‘war’ in any protest action. As a result, all anti-war protestors are now subjected to incarceration when protesting against Russia’s invasion.

It showcases the draconian measures Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking to rid the country of any domestic anti-war criticism.

“They have now introduced criminal liability, and not administrative, for any appeals in social networks and any organization of any protest. Legally, we can still go to the streets for solo rallies without picketing.” Victor says. But even taking to the streets is very dangerous.

Protestors Chanting “shame on you”
Video Cred: Victor

‘’It comes to the point of absurdity, the slogan “No war” itself is prohibited. We aren’t allowed to call this war a war, the president called it a special operation, because legally the results of a special operation are a military secret. During a special operation according to international standards of military operations, you can hide the number of your own losses. And hide any information about the combat operations.’’ Victor continues – his name was altered protect his identity.

Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war daily protests have been organized across the Russian Federation.

Two weeks into Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, Putin’s regime is cracking down on the Russian opposition domestically. OVD-Info, the leading independent statistics bureau in Russia, measured a total of 13.500 people opposing the war have been arrested.

On weekdays protests throughout Russia start at 7 p.m. Weekday protests mostly consist of small numbers of picketers and gatherers. On the weekends’ protests start at 2 p.m. With large gatherings as a result.

Protests in Russia are often held on major squares in the city, in the case of Novosibirsk this square is known as Lenin Square.

Most protest actions in Novosibirsk have been historically safe. The city is known for its close association with the opposition, and almost successfully elected Sergey Boyko – a member of the FBK party – as their major in 2019.

The FBK is the leading political party in opposition to Vladimir Putin’s office. Its party head, Alexei Navalny, is currently serving a sentence in Penal Colony 2. A prison often flagged for its Human Rights violations of detainees. 

Although Russia has a history of minimizing any voices opposing the government the recent developments have given Putin’s office new ways to prevent critical voices from spreading even when it comes to civilians. ‘’Our government has been pursuing a policy of destroying the opposition for a long time, they hold on to their power so much that they imprison and spread rot on any opposition figures.’’ Nina, wife of Victor says.

Today many of the politicians in support of opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny have left the country. After Navalny’s arrest prominent figures in the opposition such as Sergey Boyko and Lyubov Sobol have gone into self-imposed exile abroad in fear of similar fates.

‘’When the opposition leaders(politicians)were gone, people had to organize themselves, and this telegram chat, these 50 people all know each other, maximum of one handshake. Periodically there are cleanings from moles, everyone is very worried about safety.’’ Nina, Victor’s wife, says.

The FBK’s office is trying to work from abroad but with much of foreign correspondence being restricted it’s becoming increasingly hard for them to reach the citizens. And the authorities is actively seeking leaders in the opposition.

During the first week of Russia’s invasion the country didn’t see a lot of police intervention. But with almost half of the 13.500 arrests coming on March 6th the situation in the country changed exponentially.

More than 5.000 arrests, in 69 cities, took place on Sunday the 6th of March throughout Russia. A week later, Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th, 850 arrests were added to that number.

All Arrests occuring on the weekend of March 6th

“Until this Sunday (March 6), Novosibirsk was the most calm and correct city in Russia in terms of police actions.” Victor says. “With such an appeal, the reaction of the police must have been strong. But no one could know how much.”

As an experienced protestor and a leading voice in the opposition, Victor was cautious about attending the protest from the beginning. He knew that something was off if the event was being spread around via Instagram.

‘’At that moment, at 2 pm, when people came out on March 6th, to Lenin Square, all the protesters were surrounded and crushed and scattered into police vans. Even a girl with a dog. Photos of a pug in a police station appeared all over Russia,’’ Victor says bitterly joking.

Because of heavy intervention many police stations throughout the country are overloaded. Although larger cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg have relatively decent measuring mechanisms to record arrests, smaller provincial cities such as Novosibirsk are unable to be as accurate.

But the exorbitant amount of arrests is only part of the story.

The Russia-Ukrainian war is driving members of Russia’s opposition to the brink of sanity. ‘’I really broke down, only my wife saved me. She told me that I was fucked.’’ Victor says while talking about the toll the invasion has had on his mental health.

The dilemma between fighting for what the anti-war opposition believes in and living in relative safety puts them before a difficult choice. They either stop protesting the war or risk a jail sentence of 15 years and the endangerment of their loved ones.

One of the biggest fears amongst the opposition are potential provocateurs. Provocateurs are working with the authorities to instigate dissidence, making it easier for authorities to arrest and identify members of the opposition. ‘’Not everyone approaches the crowd to chant, many stand on the sides, away from the cops, to run away, not to attract too much attention to themselves.’’ Victor talks about a man who whipped up the crowd on March 6th.

‘’The main crowd was taken away by one guy, I could not make inquiries about him, he was cloudy. He turned on the crowd (to chant). It was somewhat like a provocation, he himself looked like a provocateur. Now there are a lot of them.’’ Because of the closeness of the opposition in Novosibirsk, it was easy for Victor to identify that this person wasn’t a close member of their community. ‘’His reputation in opposition is not very clear, they say he is either out of his mind or already with the cops. But now he was given 8 days on the 28th, and now the arrest has been extended.’’

Although he wasn’t sure if the person instigating dissidence was indeed a provocateur, the tight-knit community has become careful of anyone outside of it. ‘’In addition to Navalny’s team, some unknown forces appeared, there was just anonymous advertising on social networks. Someone offers to go to a rally, but who? I ask this question! A person who is 18 or 20 years old, he or she  simply won’t question who it is, he will simply come and be captured.’’ Victor says.

The protest ‘’On March 6th, broke all records,’’ Victor says. The protest with a large police presence was much bigger than the ones that came before.

Citizens living in Russia who’re against the war remain hesitant about attending protests. ‘’I might participate in a protest, can’t really say right now, cause I’m scared they might track it or something.’’ A former employee from TV Rain says.

TV Rain was the largest news broadcast channel for the opposition before it was disbanded earlier this week; due to threats and government intimidation.

‘’But, at least for now, I see even more people protesting. That’s a surprise to me. I thought that after 10 days of this war, people will stop doing it, but no, there are even more people protesting right now.’’ She continues.

The need to stand up against injustice outweighs the looming dangers they face. ‘’Yes, of course, I feel fear,’’ Victor says while laughing bitterly. But the reason for continuing to voice their anti-war stance is simple, ‘’Fuck war,’’ Victor says.

Victor’s fight is not a fight against Russia, or for Ukraine, his fight is against war in the hope that his daughter might live in a safer world.

Russia’s new laws are violations of the European Convention of Human Rights act, an act signed by Russia back in 1998 to protect human rights violations. ‘’These are very draconian steps, which is sort of taking Russia into a whole new era of human rights abuses.’’ Hugh Williamson, Europe, and Central Asia director of Human Rights Watch says.

Organizations such as Human Rights Watch are doing their best to document violations of human rights inside and outside of Russia. But Williamson feels more could be done in the case of Russia. ‘’What Russia is doing at home involves many grave violations of human rights. So it deserves its own attention. It deserves international attention and focus of countries that can try to influence Russia’s behavior.’’

The situation in Russia is harrowing for people outside of the country to watch. ‘’Why did this happen to my country?’’ A Russian citizen abroad says when looking at the recent developments in her home country. ‘’I’m afraid I won’t see my parents and friends for a very long time. I’m worried about traveling there.’’

Although more people are taking to the streeets at the moment they remain fearful of retroactive punishment allowed with Putin’s new laws. ‘’I know stories because I attended rallies against the war despite active resistance of the authorities to any protest. And I need to hurry because maybe I’m not far from prison :)’’ Victor messages via Telegram when requesting an interview.

Apart from the dangers of imprisonment members in the opposition also fear the safety of their families. Victor shared some of the threats he received because of vocalizing his anti-war stance.

Last week the Human Rights Council in Geneva created an investigation into what’s happening inside of Russia after invading Ukraine. The investigation looks into human rights violations currently taking place in Russia as a result of the regime’s new laws. ‘’And that is embarrassing for Russia, Russia doesn’t want to be singled out as being the centre of an investigation of the whole international community against what it’s doing in Russia.’’ Hugh Williamson says about the current human rights violations inside the country. According to Williamson it’s a step in the right direction.

Victor thinks Russia could soon face a civil war inside its borders. ‘’I foresee a split among the people. Both sides are very aggressive, and those who are against the war, and those who support the invasion into Ukraine, and everyone has their own truth.’’ But he really hopes it won’t come to that and that the war ends soon.

‘’From my position, I think that until we all take up knives and weapons against each other, we can still look at how the situation will develop. Right now I do not intend to run, it is illogical. Now we are in a state of panic and stress. My roof was leaking (going crazy), despite the fact that I am a psychiatrist.’’ Victor says.

‘’This is how the entire opposition feels right now. All the people who think the same as me are very worried. A lot of people just oppose the war. Not against Putin, not for Navalny or Ukraine, just against the war.’’ He says plainly. ‘’We understand that we will be under sanctions for a very long time. And we will be in international isolation for a long time. Well, now we only have to do everything to stop the war.’’

*Names of sources have been changed to protect their identity

© Victor & Wikimedia commons – all pictures have recieved permission for publication

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