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Russian Youth Pays Price For Speaking Out Over Ukraine

Russian antiwar activist Vlad Kolesnikov
Russian antiwar activist Vlad Kolesnikov

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Aleksandr Herzen, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov. Now, a 17-year-old from a Moscow suburb is joining such notables in the long-standing Russian tradition of being exiled for his political views.

"All the democrats in Russia were sent into exile," teenager Vlad Kolesnikov says, "and I feel like I have been sent into exile."

For some weeks now, Kolesnikov has been leading a quixotic and lonely campaign to protest Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and Moscow's involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Most recently, he wore a T-shirt with a Ukrainian flag and the words "Return Crimea" on it to his school in the Moscow suburb of Podolsk. He tells how a school official met him outside the classroom.

"You know, I will never forget how he looked," Kolesnikov tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "At first he looked at me like a normal, sane person. But when he saw my shirt, he looked into my face and I saw such hatred!"

In class a few minutes later, Kolesnikov says, the student sitting in front of him turned around and said, "Kolesnikov, do you want me to smash in your face now or later?"

A few days later -- after Kolesnikov published a couple of Facebook posts about the incident -- he was jumped by some classmates. He insists that he wasn't beaten up. "It was just a split lip, a few bruises, some bumps on the head, and three drops of blood," he says.

Last Straw

That was the last straw for Kolesnikov's grandfather, a former KGB officer in whose apartment the youth was living in Podolsk. He packed Kolesnikov off on a train to his father in the Samara Oblast town of Zhigulyovsk.

In a long post on Facebook, Kolesnikov says his grandfather explained his actions with these words: "You are my enemy. You betrayed the country.... You are an immature imbecile and you don't understand that the United States used them [Ukrainians] as cannon fodder to bring down Putin. You are a danger to my family and me. They will come for you."

And his grandfather was right about the last part, Kolesnikov adds. When he called to tell his grandfather he had arrived safely, he was told a couple of police officers had stopped by asking where he got a Ukrainian flag and what had become of the infamous T-shirt.

He has been unenrolled from his school -- officially, "at his own request," he has been informed.

The blue-and-yellow T-shirt, though, was not the beginning. Kolesnikov's life as an outcast began a few weeks earlier when he showed up at the local military commission for his medical examination and his conscription registration.

Kolesnikov says he had no intention of serving in the military or fighting in Ukraine.

"As I was going in, I decided to turn on the Ukrainian national anthem [on his cellphone] because I do not support the Russian Army and consider it shameful to serve in it. So I turned on the Ukrainian hymn and said, 'Guys, I will not fight in the Russian Army. I will not go.'"

Stunned silence was quickly followed by outraged shouting. In the end, the registration commission handed Kolesnikov a form in which it said he had "a personality disorder."

Social Media Solidarity

Kolesnikov admits that very few people in Podolsk share his views. But after the Ukrainian-anthem incident, he and a likeminded friend hung a banner with the Lennonesque slogan "F**k War!" on it.

"At first we wanted to hang it in Moscow, but then we thought it would be quickly torn down so we started looking for a good place in Podolsk," he tells RFE/RL. "We searched for a long time and found a building downtown where we could access the roof and decided to hang it there."

"So that it would be up there longer, we fastened it with iron chains and placed a lock on the door so the police wouldn't be able to get in quickly," he adds. "They had to call someone from the Emergency Situations Ministry. I think we got about two or three hours."

Although rejected by some of his relatives, beaten by his schoolmates, and driven from his home, Kolesnikov doesn't feel alone. Since word of his bold stand has gotten out -- as a result of his impassioned long-form posts on social media -- his Facebook page has been buzzing with support. He is quickly approaching Facebook's 5,000-friends limit and has more than 2,000 "followers."

"I can't express in words the emotions I feel when I read Facebook," Kolesnikov says. "There has been so much support there from total strangers. It is unbelievable."

In a Facebook post published in the early evening of June 11, Kolesnikov says his grandfather has called and urged his father to cut off the youth's access to the Internet and warns that he may soon be incommunicado.

Despite all that has happened to him, Kolesnikov is determined to continue making his views known.

"I am already planning to leave Zhigulyovsk, go to Moscow, and stage a couple of protests," he tells RFE/RL. "If anyone thinks I am going to get a passport and leave for Ukraine and that will be the end of this, they are mistaken."