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Profiles: Russians Who Dare To Protest Ukraine War

Mikhail Lashkevich, a researcher at the Institute for Theoretical Physics, was detained by police in August after standing on a busy Moscow street holding a poster that referred to Vladimir Putin as a "raging idiot."
Mikhail Lashkevich, a researcher at the Institute for Theoretical Physics, was detained by police in August after standing on a busy Moscow street holding a poster that referred to Vladimir Putin as a "raging idiot."

During the past several weeks, a handful of Russians have braved public disapproval and likely arrest to stage solitary protests against Moscow's actions in Ukraine. RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to seven of the protesters.

The Physicist

Mikhail Lashkevich is a researcher at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in the town of Chernogolovka, outside Moscow. He was detained by police in August after standing on a busy Moscow street holding a poster reading "Why is our country led by a raging idiot?" on one side, and "It's not your war, but your children are going to die in it!" on the other.

"I oppose the war precisely because it's Russia that's unleashing it, because it's so obviously a war of aggression. I recently read a definition of aggression that is used at the UN, and of the seven points, there's only one that Russia hasn't violated. There's one aggressive action that it hasn't taken -- it hasn't allowed its territory to be used by a third aggressor. But it's done everything else. It's annexed territory, it's introduced its own troops, it's supported terrorist groups on the territory of a neighboring country, and so on," Lashkevich says.

"I don't discuss my views at work. I talk about it only with colleagues that I'm close to. It's a fairly liberal situation in this sense. There's no trouble at work."

(interviewed by Lyubov Chizhova, read the full interview in Russian)

The Gay-Rights Activist

Natalya Tsymbalova is a founding member of St. Petersburg's Straight Alliance, a human rights organization that has rallied heterosexual activists behind the fight for equality for Russia's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) community. On Ukrainian independence day on August 24, she was berated by a hostile crowd for standing on a central street carrying a sign reading, "Petersburg congratulates Ukraine on Independence Day." She's since applied for asylum in Spain after being subjected to troll attacks and threats of violence. (She spoke to RFE/RL before leaving Russia.)

Natalya Tsymbalova
Natalya Tsymbalova

"What's happening now shows that we were right -- this was never limited to gays. They honed their technology of manipulation and propaganda on the LGBT community a year and a half ago already, and now exactly the same thing is happening with regard to Ukraine. They threw everything they had at the gays. We heard all sorts of nonsense about 'pedophiles' and 'Gayrope' -- a reference to everyone in Europe supporting the gay movement. And now we have the same in Ukraine -- they're all 'banderovtsy' and 'fascists.' It's an absolutely virtual concept that has nothing to do with reality," Tsymbalova says.

"A lot of people in our circles are thinking about leaving. Even that small minority who have always said that this is our country and we'll fight to the last are thinking about emigration. There's a feeling that the battle is hopeless and that it's only going to get worse. They're already starting to attack us openly on the street, while the police stand by almost totally indifferent. Tomorrow they could start to kill us one by one. The public is aggressive -- they're ready for it. It's all very dangerous and unpleasant, and the main thing is there's no hope, no hope at all."

(interviewed by Dmitry Volchek, read the full interview in Russian)

The Afghan Vet

Vladimir Barabanov is an Afghan veteran and the head of a local branch of the Union of Afghanistan Veterans in Russia's western Bryansk Oblast. Barabanov, a senior reserve lieutenant who served in Herat and Kabul between 1986-88, held a protest with fellow veterans on September 5. A second demonstration is scheduled for September 13.

Vladimir Barabanov in Bryansk
Vladimir Barabanov in Bryansk

"We remember perfectly how Afghanistan started. We don't want those events to repeat themselves. They told us, the last Soviet soldiers, that the war in Afghanistan war would be the last -- that our losses weren't in vain, that our colleagues died so that such wars would never be repeated. The war that is currently going on in Ukraine with Russia's participation nullifies those losses," Barabanov says.

"Authorities need to distract people from social problems using a small victorious war. I think that the reason for the war is social. People are unsatisfied, both in Russia and in Ukraine. They're looking for someone to blame for our bad lives. All this looks like a special operation -- as former soldiers, we can see that perfectly well.

"How will we look Ukrainians in the eye tomorrow? The war will end, and a Ukrainian will ask: 'And where were you, why didn't you say anything? Didn't your son fight against mine?' The blame will be on all of us. Those of us who are going out on the square want to say that we have no relations to this filth. Why do they hide the loses of the Russian forces? The same thing happened in Afghanistan. There are a lot of analogies."

(interviewed by Arslan Saidov, read the full interview in Russian)

The Geologist

Muscovite Irina Epifanovskaya, 59, is a retired geologist who now spends much of her time engaged in civil activism. She was arrested in central Moscow for standing alone and holding a small sign reading "No war with Ukraine."

Moscow police arrest Irina Epifanovskaya, taking part in action against Russia's war in Ukraine, on August 31.
Moscow police arrest Irina Epifanovskaya, taking part in action against Russia's war in Ukraine, on August 31.

"A lot of people simply walk by when you're protesting. But since I've spent my entire summer doing this, I can say that I've seen an enormous shift since June and July. In recent weeks, people have come up to me and shaken my hand two or three times; some thanked me or said they supported me. There wasn't anything like that before. It's because this undeclared war has entered a new stage, one whose traces are already clearly visible -- the 'Cargo 200' coffins [carrying dead Russian soldiers]," Epifanovskaya says.

"I've already lived most of my life. All of my basic needs are attended to. My children are grown, I had a profession, I had things I loved to do, and I still do. I'm beyond being afraid of what might happen to me when I protest. It hit me so hard, in the deepest part of my soul, that permission was given to send troops to Ukraine! It should be clear to any sensible person that Russia can't fight with the nation that's closest to it. I look at it as my personal affair and my personal grief."

(interviewed by Lyubov Chizhova, read the full interview in Russian)

The Director

Film and theater director Vladimir Mirzoyev was among the signatories of a recent open letter, published in "Novaya gazeta," protesting the war in Ukraine and what they called Russia's self-isolation and the restoration of totalitarianism.

Vladimir Mirzoyev
Vladimir Mirzoyev

"I understand that our population is deeply traumatized by the entire 20th century. These are people who can easily fall into a state of maniacal euphoria and patriotic psychosis, and just as easily fall into depression. It's a bipolar disorder, where people react to generally frightening things in a completely inappropriate way. They deny that a war is being waged. It's possible, of course, to say that Russians are a victim of TV propaganda, but after all it's still not that hard to get on the Internet to find alternative information to compare and contrast the facts. But they don't want to compare anything, they can't accept the thought that their country, their homeland, is the aggressor," Mirzoyev says.

"Of course, the catastrophes of the 20th century aren't lost on the population. All these traumas have been absorbed by families, recorded in the memories of entire generations, and these people aren't healed. Now that they've started pouring salt and sulfuric acid on the wounds, they're breaking down completely. People are very sick. And so they're giving an inappropriate response."

(interviewed by Andrei Shary, read the full interview in Russian)

The Advocate

Aleksandr Osovtsov is a former lawmaker and director of the Open Russia fund. He offers free legal assistance to Russian soldiers who refuse to participate in military operations in Ukraine. He details the right of conscientious objectors under Russian law in a post on his Facebook page.

Aleksandr Osovtsov
Aleksandr Osovtsov

"I believe what's going on right now is an absolutely full-fledged war. Maybe the parties have yet to use their full forces and means, but the United States didn't use its full force in Vietnam or Iraq, and no one was arguing that the phrase 'Vietnam War' had no right to exist. It was a war, and it's the same thing here. As soon as Russian military units were located on Ukrainian territory and engaging in hostilities, it was a war," Osovtsov says.

"It's legally possible for those who want to refuse to serve in Ukraine to do so. Every person should decide for himself. That, of course, won't stop the war, but it can give people the chance not to participate if they don't want to -- and moreover to do it on an absolutely legal basis. I know of quite a few cases when Russian soldiers refused to participate in fighting in Chechnya, and not one of them faced criminal liability as a result.

"At the moment the chance of an antiwar movement in Russia is very small. I really don't want to think like this, but logically I can't imagine another situation. It will take the 'Cargo 200' and 'Cargo 300' -- dead and wounded -- before people start to think and realize that no one normal needs this war."

(interviewed by Mark Krutov, read the full interview in Russian)

The Rock Star

Dmitry "Sid" Spirin, the lead singer of the punk group Tarakani ("Cockroaches"), had his microphone cut off during a Moscow 6 City Day performance on Bolotnaya Square when he called on the crowd to "use their heads" when it came to Russia's actions in Ukraine. Earlier, Russian border guards in eastern Ukraine prevented Spirin from entering the country, where he was scheduled to perform in a countrywide tour that included Crimea, and where Tarakani was preparing to perform some of its songs, including "Freedom Street," in Ukrainian.

"I always try to express myself as simply as possible, whether in private conversations, interviews, song lyrics, or when I'm addressing people from the stage. In other words, I don't use double entendres or innuendo to convey what I want to say. What the audience heard was what I wanted to say: Use your head, don't trust official propaganda, and stand for peace!" Spirin says.

"Rallies, mass marches, and demonstrations are a pretty dangerous thing right now. At least that's what the government has given us to understand. In my opinion any person, at a minimum, always retains the right not to support something, not to do something, not to be 'for' something. This is the Taoist theory of tacit resistance. Can you stop watching television and being a propaganda victim? You can. Do it. Can you not think of your brother as an enemy? Yes. Don't think of him like that. It's passive, but it's also effective, I think. In the end, if everyone refuses to fight, how can the war continue? If every soldier says, 'No, I'm putting down my gun and I'm going home.'"

(interviewed by Yevgeniya Nazarets, read the full interview in Russian)

Daisy Sindelar contributed to this report from Prague

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