Activist Nikita Chirkov hit the streets of St. Petersburg on the first day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a small sign reading: “No War.” A few people passed by, he said, nodding or smiling in support. But after eight minutes, police appeared and hustled him off to the station for allegedly violating coronavirus restrictions.
He told RFE/RL’s North.Realities that he felt obligated to express his support for Ukraine and his disagreement with the policies of President Vladimir Putin.
“I feel fear and hatred toward Putin,” Chirkov said. “I am afraid for my relatives and friends who live in Ukraine. I am afraid of the uncertainty. After this, what will happen in Russia? For me, this war means that I live in an aggressor country with a deranged dictator.”
Chirkov was one of 1,831 Russians detained in 60 cities on February 24 for publicly speaking out against the war, according to OVD-Info, a nongovernmental organization that monitors political repression.
In the northwestern city of Pskov, Vladimir Kapustinsky stood on October Square with a sign reading: “Don’t Shoot.” After only a couple of minutes, a plainclothes police officer appeared and asked to see Kapustinsky’s documents.
“No comment,” the officer told RFE/RL when asked his opinion of the war in Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s swift nationwide crackdown on the anti-war protests -- coming on top of severe repressions that intensified after the near fatal August 2020 poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny -- seemed to presage a new level of state control over Russian society.
“The authorities are going to tighten the screws and persecute dissidents,” said Ruslan Aisin, a political analyst based in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. “[The state] “will fight against the anti-war movement, which will likely only grow. History shows that war euphoria quickly dies down.”
We didn’t choose this war, just like we didn’t choose our leaders."-- Activist Dina Nurm
Lev Shlossberg, the head of the Pskov branch of the liberal Yabloko party, also anticipated a “reaction” from the authorities.
“There is a real chance that martial law could be introduced -- independent media banned, political parties shut down, elections canceled,” he predicted. “There will be a complete crackdown on all dissent, regardless of the political views of the people, parties, or groups. In the wake of the political aggression of the war, we will see total repression inside the country.”
Liberal former St. Petersburg city lawmaker Maksim Reznik agreed, saying the Russian people are “hostages to a junta.”
“In this situation,” he added, “we cannot be silent about the crimes of the junta. Our silence makes us co-participants…. We are living in a new reality.”
The state media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor on February 24 warned all media to report only information about the war from official government sources under threat of being fined or blocked.
The federal Investigative Committee the same day warned the public against participating in anti-war demonstrations, reminding the public that “having a criminal record will mean negative consequences and will impact your subsequent life.”
Nonetheless, anti-war activity continued in Russia on February 25. Moscow-based journalist and activist Marina Litvinovich, who was the first to call for mass nationwide demonstrations the previous day and who was detained by police shortly after doing so, wrote on Facebook that the anti-war movement must take additional steps, including distributing flyers and posters, spraying anti-war graffiti, wearing and carrying clothing and bags with anti-war slogans and symbols, and so on.
WATCH: Security forces in Russia broke up anti-war protests in several cities across the country on February 24:
The newspaper Novaya gazeta published its February 25 edition in both the Russian and Ukrainian languages. The paper’s editor, Dmitry Muratov, a co-laureate of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote that it was done “because we do not recognize Ukraine as an enemy or the Ukrainian language as the language of an enemy. And we never will.”
“Only an anti-war movement of Russians can save life on this planet,” he added.
A group of more than 200 municipal lawmakers from across the country signed an open letter condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“We call on everyone not to participate in aggression and not to endorse it,” the letter states. “Please, don’t be silent: This war can only be stopped by mass public condemnation.”
Dozens of leading cultural figures, including writers, filmmakers, actors, journalists, also signed an open letter calling on “all citizens of Russia to say 'no' to this war.”
More than half a million people have signed a change.org petition denouncing the war and “announcing the beginning of the formation of an anti-war movement in Russia.”
“Become part of the anti-war movement. Speak out against the war,” the petition says. “Do at least something to show the entire world that in Russia there are and always will be people who do not accept the vileness being perpetrated by the authorities, who have turned the state itself and the peoples of Russia into instruments of their crimes.”
But it remains to be seen whether such calls will gain traction.
Many Russians support Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, with some believing the Kremlin’s false portrayal of the Ukrainian government as “fascists” carrying out “genocide” against Russian speakers.
If the decision on a military operation had been made in 2014, it would have saved a lot of lives.”-- Azat, former border guard
“How many children have been orphaned!” said a retiree who asked to be identified only as Raya in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, on February 24. “Half of what you read on the Internet is lies. I was in western Ukraine in Soviet times…and they even back then hated us because we spoke Russian…. It was the same in the Baltic states when I went on vacation there. And Russia gave them so much during the Soviet era.”
A retired former border guard in Ufa, who gave his first name as Azat, said that “if the decision on a military operation had been made in 2014, it would have saved a lot of lives.”
In addition, many of those inclined to protest have been put in difficult positions by the crackdown of the last years.
Yulia Morozova, a physical-education instructor in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, near Ukraine, told RFE/RL that she planned to join the anti-war protests on February 24 but was talked out of it by her friends. She has already served two administrative jail terms for participating in protests and a third arrest would certainly mean criminal charges. Meanwhile, her sister, elderly mother, and other relatives are in Kyiv.
“Right now, I’m so ashamed,” she told RFE/RL. “I feel so helpless and there is nothing I can do in this situation. I hope [Putin] lives to face a court and that he is condemned.”
Dina Nurm, an activist from Kazan, told RFE/RL's Idel.Realities that “it is morally very hard to be a citizen of an aggressor country.”
“We didn’t choose this war, just like we didn’t choose our leaders,” she said. “But we feel responsible for this military aggression. Over the last decade, protests have been brutally put down, and many people simply don’t believe that speaking out against the war can lead to anything other than fines…. But at the same time, we are hearing now from many people who earlier were silent.”