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'It's Hard For Me To Just Sit and Be Silent': A Young Russian Activist's Anti-War Mission

Ilya Kostyukov, 19, says he believes a substantial portion of the Russian population is still receptive to arguments against the war despite a growing wave of nationalistic support for the offensive.

Since starting an anti-war activist group in the Russian city of Belgorod following the Kremlin’s February invasion of Ukraine, Ilya Kostyukov has faced threats of expulsion from his university, been visited at his home by police, and continues to walk a careful line around the country’s new censorship laws.

While the early days of the invasion saw anti-war protests across major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, five months into the conflict Russia has a dwindling number of dissidents and increasingly few people willing to tackle it head on.

Members of the minority that have spoken out face both a deepening sense of hopelessness and hardening repression from the authorities in the form of arrests targeting activists and new legislation that can lead to a 15-year prison sentence for criticizing Russia’s military.

But the 19-year-old Kostyukov from Belgorod, a city some 40 kilometers from the border with Ukraine, says he believes a substantial portion of the Russian population is still receptive to arguments against the war despite a growing wave of nationalistic support for the offensive.

Kostyukov in Belgorod on July 2.
Kostyukov in Belgorod on July 2.

“It is generally accepted that the majority of citizens of our country are supporters of the government’s policies in Ukraine, but not everything is so simple here,” Kostyukov told RFE/RL. “I created an organization so that an alternative point of view exists in Belgorod. We have already gathered 100 like-minded people despite the fact that the [group] is not engaged in any campaigning right now.”

Kostyukov set up what he calls the Belgorod Anti-War Committee, which has been able to achieve some modest goals in the city while navigating a shrinking and increasingly repressive space for activism inside Russia.

“It's hard for me to just sit and be silent. We can try to change something [this way], and at least we’ll know that we did everything that we could,” Kostyukov said.

Waiting For A Breakthrough

Kostyukov says the group has sent more than 15,000 written appeals to lawmakers at the local and national level in Russia and asked for them to bring the war to an end.

They’ve also focused on more local issues such as the cancellation of a new trolleybus fleet for Belgorod, a city of some 400,000 people north of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. The committee, which is a loose collection of activists and concerned citizens, also covers political trials in Belgorod on their Telegram channel and provides legal support to defendants.

Smoke rises over a Belgorod oil depot hit by fire in April.
Smoke rises over a Belgorod oil depot hit by fire in April.

Kostyukov says the group also plans to put up leaflets around the city and raise awareness about the economic costs that the war is bringing to Russia and residents of Belgorod in particular.

He says that getting the message across that Russia should stop its invasion is becoming more and more difficult, especially as he believes a growing number of people are “convinced by their own nationalism that Ukrainians are Nazis” and that a certain section of the population is unreceptive to changing their views on Ukraine.

Still, he says, arguments about how the war is affecting the national economy resonate the most and can be an easy introduction for people who are otherwise supportive of the “special military operation” in Ukraine, the term that Moscow uses for its offensive. For the moment, the Kremlin has avoided a general military mobilization and has not formally declared itself at war.

“You need to start with everyday trifles and then turn your attention to serious topics related to the ‘special operation,’” Kostyukov said. “At some point later, their empathy switches on and they understand how bad all this is now for their neighbors [in Ukraine].”

Navigating A New Reality

There are some signs of the impact of Western sanctions across Russia, but experts say they will take time to percolate through the economy.

Gauging public opinion about the war inside Russia is difficult. Opinion polls suggest majority public support for the war, but some experts say it remains passive, especially for areas in Russia further removed from the effects of the conflict.

According to the independent Levada Center pollster, the interest Russians have in the war is declining by each month. For instance, 64 percent of respondents said in March they were paying at least some attention to the fighting in Ukraine, but only 56 percent said they were in May.

Unlike in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the war has little impact on many people’s everyday lives, in Belgorod it is more of a reality.

In early April, Russia said two Ukrainian helicopters had attacked a civilian oil storage depot on the outskirts of the city, causing a fuel blaze. Video appeared to show missiles hitting the facility, but the Ukrainian military denied it was involved.

On July 3, Russian authorities reported explosions in Belgorod that they said were the result of a Ukrainian attack. Kyiv has dismissed the claims.

For Kostyukov, this leaves a difficult road ahead. He says he remains committed to independent politics inside Russia and has no plans to stop his activism but adds that he and his fellow committee members continue to walk a tightrope when it comes to censorship and avoiding repercussions from the authorities.

During his interview with RFE/RL, Kostyukov said that he chose his words carefully and only referred to the fighting in Ukraine as a “special military operation” instead of a war due to new laws introduced following the Kremlin's invasion.

He said he has no plans to leave Russia but is worried about what the future holds.

“I don't want to end up in a Russian prison and I'm trying to protect myself however I can,” Kostyukov said. “We act and speak very carefully. We still have to follow internal censorship so that we are not [prosecuted]. It won’t be hard for [the authorities] from our region to mold a criminal case out of nothing.”

Written by Reid Standish in Prague based on reporting by Daria Egorova for RFE/RL’s Russian Service