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Waking Up To War: Russian Anti-War Dissidents Recall The 'Shock And Horror' Of The Invasion Of Ukraine

Iskander Gabrakhmanov protests in Kazan against the war in Ukraine on May 9 last year.
Iskander Gabrakhmanov protests in Kazan against the war in Ukraine on May 9 last year.

Despite rising tensions surrounding Russia's military build-up near Ukraine's border in the months before February 24, 2022, Moscow's massive, unprovoked invasion of its neighbor to the west came as a stark awakening to many Russians.

"Of course, I remember," Ivan Koretnikov, an 84-year-old artist from the Ural region city of Perm, said of the day it began. "It was like a thunderbolt in a clear sky. That's how I felt…. February 24 was like a thunderbolt. Up to the last minute, I refused to believe it."

Ivan Koretnikov
Ivan Koretnikov

Although the overwhelming majority of Russians have either passively or actively supported the war against Ukraine, thousands were appalled by President Vladimir Putin's decision to invade and abruptly understood that their lives and the life of their country had been uprooted overnight.

RFE/RL's Idel.Realities interviewed dozens of these Russians over the course of the last year, often catching up with them after they had been fined or jailed for their anti-war protests.

SEE ALSO: Saying No To War: 40 Stories Of Russians Who Oppose The Russian Invasion Of Ukraine

In July, one woman who protested against the war was still urging her fellow Russians to speak out, warning that "Their silence about what is happening in Ukraine will kill people.

'I Went Out Of My Mind'

"I was simply in shock," recalled Polina Mukhacheva, a recent law-school graduate in the city of Kirov, some 900 kilometers northeast of Moscow. "At first I thought it would mean financial instability and that scared me the most. But then I realized this was a real war and people were being killed, and I went out of my mind."

"I spent the next few days in a blur," she continued. "I didn't know what to do or how we were going to live with this…. I felt lost."

Ilmira Rakhmutullina, a choreographer in the Bashkortostan capital of Ufa, told a similar story.

"My sister and I did not sleep at all the night of February 23-24," Rakhmutullina recalled. "We were so worried that we just couldn't sleep. So we found out the war had begun almost immediately. Of course, we were in shock and horror over what was happening."

Ilmira Rakhmatullina
Ilmira Rakhmatullina

In Samara, some 450 kilometers southwest of Ufa, activist Vladimir Avdonin said his world had been transformed.

"The news of the war caught me off-guard," he told Idel.Realities. "Initially, I was shocked. But I quickly concluded I had to act. That it was impossible to be silent. That all us citizens of Russia bear responsibility for what was happening. That very day, I began preparing to hold a one-person protest."

Vladimir Avdonin holds a one-man anti-war picket in Samara on February 25, 2022, the day after Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Vladimir Avdonin holds a one-man anti-war picket in Samara on February 25, 2022, the day after Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

In Russia, individual pickets are technically legal, although people conducting them are regularly detained and often face charges such as "disobeying a police officer" or "resisting arrest."

"If you do nothing and are silent, you become an accessory to a crime," Avdonin recalled thinking. "I do not intend to become an accessory to Putin's crimes."

'Political Discussions Will Destroy Our Family'

As the Russian military was knifing through Ukraine, the ramifications of the war were dividing families across Russia.

Kirov resident Mukhacheva -- who was detained in April for wearing a green ribbon in her hair, at a time when anti-war dissidents were using green as a symbol of peace -- said her parents urged her not to express her opposition to the war.

Polina Mukhacheva
Polina Mukhacheva

"They think it is best to sit silently and, as they say, not attract attention," she said. "The most they will do is talk among themselves in the kitchen."

"My mother is more or less neutral, but my father is for the war, while my grandmother and I are against," Mukhacheva said. "No one can change anyone else's mind. Mama is seriously worried that political discussions will destroy our family, so she tries to keep silence and avoid conflicts."

Anti-war dissident Iskander Gabrakhmanov, from the Tatarstan capital, Kazan, told a similar story.

"My mother…neither condemns nor supports what is happening," he said. "But my father…wants to restore the Soviet Union. That is the country he grew up in, where he spent his youth, and so he thinks that was a wonderful time. I understand his opinion, but I fundamentally disagree."

A Passerby Called The Police

Yelena Baibekova was a math teacher in the southern city of Astrakhan when Russia invaded Ukraine. She was already in trouble with the law when she heard the news, having held a one-person protest against the war on a central city square on February 22.

"I stood near a shopping center with a sign reading: ‘Putin = War = Crisis = Degradation = International Enmity,'" Baibekova said. "I saw myself how one passerby got upset and called the police, so I moved to a different street."

Math teacher Yelena Baibekova
Math teacher Yelena Baibekova

Police showed up at her home two days later and detained her because a neighbor had reported a towel hanging on her balcony with the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.

"My court hearing lasted three minutes," she recalled, adding that she was sentenced to five days in jail. "Then I was thrown into a cell with some alcoholics who smoked constantly."

When she was released, the director of her school disciplined her for missing work. In April, she was fired.

"When I was in detention, a couple of teachers wrote to say they supported me completely but that they couldn't act as I had," Baibekova continued. "But that was just two out of a total group of 56 people."

'Their Silence Will Kill People'

In the first weeks after the invasion, more than 13,000 Russians were detained, sometimes brutally, for protesting the war, according to OVD-Info, which monitors repression in Russia. The government quickly passed draconian laws criminalizing anti-war dissent in all forms. Independent media and human rights groups were shut down or driven from the country. By the end of the year, anti-war dissidents were being handed long prison terms.

Despite a renewed wave of protests after Putin ordered military mobilization in September, no substantial public anti-war movement has solidified in Russia.

Ufa anti-war dissident Rakhmatullina protested four times in the first weeks after the war.

"The main thing is that people must not get used to what is happening in Ukraine," she said. "And they must not get used to their own feelings of helplessness."

"They can't get used to it because if they do, their silence about what is happening in Ukraine will kill people – both literally and metaphorically," Rakhmatullina concluded.

'I Accept The Risks'

Lyaisan Sultangareyeva, a 25-year-old resident of the small Bashkortostan city of Tuimazy, has been fined repeatedly for her protests against the war.

"I protested because I couldn't stay silent," she said. "I couldn't just stand aside and watch. That was too much. I don't know a single person in Tuimazy who openly protested the war."

"Of course, I am afraid of going to prison," she said. "I am doing everything I can to avoid that. But I am psychologically prepared for it…. I know it will ruin my life and those of my relatives, but I think there is probably no other way. I accept the risks."

Lyaisan Sultangareyeva
Lyaisan Sultangareyeva

Sultangareyeva remains in Russia, as do fellow anti-war dissidents Mukhacheva, Avdonin, Koretnikov, and Gabdrakhmanov.

Fired math teacher Yelena Baibekova left Russia a few months after the invasion and has applied for political asylum in Germany.

Ilmira Rakhmatullina and her sister -- who learned about the invasion during a sleepless night in Ufa -- both left Russia and made their way to the United States, where they are seeking asylum.

"We don't miss [Russia], but our friends, our language, the familiar places of Ufa in Bashkortostan," she said. "I don't know when we'll be able to go back there or if we ever will. Will we be able to visit the graves of our parents [when they die]? Or touch the beloved keepsakes that they will leave to us? But I don't regret that I spoke out for Ukraine."

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities.

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