Only a few thousand Russians have publicly protested against the invasion of Ukraine, risking arrest, fines, imprisonment, dismissal from their jobs, and more to take a principled stand.
The government, with its tightening grip on the national media and its powerful law enforcement machinery, has spared no effort to stifle such dissent and to prevent those who oppose the war from getting their message out to the broader public.
RFE/RL has spoken to many of those who have protested across the country to find out why they felt compelled to take the risk and to hear their stories in their own words.
Vyacheslav Chernov is a 48-year-old businessman from the town of Tashtarol in the Kemerovo region of Siberia. He has twice been charged with “extremism” for his political activism, and his business has been targeted by local officials. “This country has 1,001 ways to destroy whatever you hold dear,” he told RFE/RL.
He has served an administrative jail term for his anti-war statements, but answered defiantly when asked if he fears a prison term might be next.
“Why should I be afraid?” Chernov said. “I am speaking the truth. And if I have to suffer – I’m not ashamed to suffer for the truth…. What is the point of living comfortably if your conscience is troubled? That is torture, not life. If I lose myself, that would be a bigger catastrophe for me than losing my freedom. If the authorities think they can break me by sending me to prison, let them try.”
Aikhal Ammosov is an activist and musician in the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk who has twice been convicted of “hooliganism” for anti-war graffiti. He currently faces criminal charges for “discrediting the armed forces” for spraying the slogan “No war.” He said he was held five days in solitary confinement after his detention and was threatened with a gun and a taser: “They tried to break me, mentally.”
He told RFE/RL he is certain he will be sent to prison.
“The scary thing is that these cases against me are being used to shut up everyone who is for peace,” he said. “They catch people like me, and everyone in Yakutsk becomes afraid. We are too far from Moscow and St. Petersburg. There is no protection here…. There are practically no human rights defenders at all.”
“I think a lot of people are frightened in Yakutsk,” Ammosov said. “They have been terrorizing us since Soviet times. Our parents and our grandparents were very frightened people… If Russia is a dictatorship, then Yakutia is an ultra-dictatorship. Here you can be crippled for life for having an opinion other than the ‘official’ one.”
“When coffins start coming back, people will understand and when their eyes are opened, they will take to the streets,” Ammosov said. “But for now it is as if they want more war, more bloodshed. ‘We’ll destroy Ukraine and then go further….’ People are so caught up in all that and so intolerant of people who think differently…that they seriously threaten them, following them around and saying: ‘We will take you around the corner and break your arms and legs.’”
Ammosov said he has been stealthily carrying out anti-war activities since the day of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, February 24.
“I even quit my job…in order to fight against the war full time,” he said. “They searched for me for two months, more or less. I was in hiding, staying different places every night.”
Maria Ponomarenko is a journalist from Barnaul in Siberia’s Altai region. She is currently in pretrial custody in St. Petersburg, facing a criminal charge of “discrediting the armed forces” for a social media post about the Russian bombing of civilians in Ukraine’s Mariupol. She faces up to 10 years in prison.
She responded to written questions from her jail cell.
“[The war on] Ukraine is painful,” she wrote. “A pain in the soul, in the heart, in the mind. When the war started, I felt deep despair because it seemed impossible to stop this fratricidal madness. I have the right to call it ‘war’…. In the first weeks, and even now, I felt devastating emotions, a sense of guilt. But I have done everything I could. I wasn’t silent. I didn’t give consent. Silence in Russia today is equivalent to abetting a crime.”
“A repressive machine is shutting our mouths,” Ponomarenko continued. “But even under such conditions, when you might be imprisoned for five or 10 years, we find brave people who refuse to take upon themselves the burden of participating in the murder of the civilian population of Ukraine. We are fighting, although there aren’t many of us. Much depends on free Russians now. If just 5 percent of Russians find the courage and determination, changes will come.”
Anna Krivonos is a journalist in the Far Eastern city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. She was fined 30,000 rubles ($475) for a social media post from March 2 called Sakhalin Oblast Wants Peace that urged people to sign on to her anti-war statement.
When she wrote the post, she said, she was certain that she could convince people that the war in Ukraine was immoral and dangerous.
“I was absolutely convinced of this,” she said. “I thought that people who supported this hell simply hadn’t thought about it enough.”
The passage of time, though, has changed her opinion.
“For all these months, people could find any information, they could check and recheck it from many sources,” Krivonos said. “If they wanted to. If someone is supporting what is going on now, it is a conscious choice. There is nothing more to talk about. I was thinking recently that I am going to the police, to the court, and all for nothing.”
“In fact, even back then, in early April, there was no point,” she added. “The signatures came slowly. Some people signed and then asked me to remove their names, saying they’d changed their minds. I have many friends but out of all of them, only three signed. It was a painful lesson.”
Her court hearing lasted just a few minutes, Krivonos said, but it made a lasting impression on her.
“I had some very strange feelings,” she recalled. “For some reason, there was a sense of freedom, of absolute certainty, and of truth. Earlier, I felt anxiety and fear. But in the courtroom -- only freedom. I think the judge, a woman about my age, had strange feelings too. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and say: ‘You don’t have to do this. You have a choice.’ Because I even felt sorry for her.”
Aleksandr Dneprov is a 33-year-old computer specialist in Naberezhnye Chelny, the second-largest city in the Tatarstan region. He has been conducting one-man antiwar pickets since April. Unusually, he has not been approached by the police. “No one has taken interest in me,” he said.
Asked to describe his feelings on February 24, when Russia launched its unprovoked war in Ukraine, Dneprov said one of them was “shame.”
“There were mixed feelings -- shame and disbelief that our president had committed such a monstrous crime,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that I was afraid -- I was hurt and ashamed in front of the Ukrainian people.”
“Previously I hadn’t felt like a participant in any political events,” Dneprov continued. “But on that day, I felt that it was not possible to be silent anymore. We had to admit that we were guilty. Could we have stopped this earlier? It is a hard question because we didn’t know it would come to this. I never believed my government could commit such aggression.”
“This whole story was cooked up by Russia itself and only Russia is to blame,” he added.
Kamil Churayev is a designer and artist in Ufa, the capital of the Bashkortostan region. He has held three one-man pickets against the war but has not been detained.
“What happened and what is happening is so terrible and significant -- touching literally every one of us -- that it would be dishonest to pretend that somehow it doesn't involve you,” Churayev told RFE/RL. “The pickets were a natural reaction, a desire to convey to people that I am personally against what is happening…. What can I do? I can scribble on a piece of paper and go outside [to protest]. There is nothing else.”
“My friends from Ukraine write that it is important for them to see support from people in Russia,” he added.
“I consider it my sacred right to call things by their real names,” Churayev said. “If a war is going on, I will call it a war.”
Ravil Sharafutdinov is a 29-year-old lawyer from Syzran, a city in the Samara region. He became the first citizen of Syzran to be detained for protesting the war when he carried out a one-person picket on May 3. He was fined 30,000 rubles ($475) for “discrediting the armed forces.”
“From the very beginning, I was categorically against the war,” he told RFE/RL.
But it was only after about 10 weeks of war that he protested in public.
“I guess it became physically difficult to stay silent,” he said. “My conscience wouldn’t calm down. With each day the difference between black and white became clearer and clearer. And it isn’t possible to balance between black and white…. You understand that if you want to remain in the light, you have to cross the line and stop doing nothing. At least, that’s what it was like for me.”
In March, he said, he tried to protest.
“I tried to take a poster into the center of the city,” he recalled. “I stood for a few minutes and realized that I wasn’t ready to be taken away in a police van to a cell. I have three small children and a wife.”
Later he reasoned that such pickets are not illegal.
“I might get a fine or spend a few days in jail,” he said, “but at least I would remain a human being.”
Despite his arrest, Sharafutdinov plans to continue protesting, although he hopes to avoid criminal charges.
“But if it comes to a criminal case, so be it,” he said. “I’ll go to court. I’ll defend myself.”
Yevgenia Isayeva is an artist in St. Petersburg. Shortly after the February 24 invasion, she appeared in the center of the city in a white dress, smeared in blood-red paint. Her protest lasted 10 minutes, and she was sentenced to eight days in jail for “petty hooliganism.”
“My protest…was a sort of experience of freedom for me,” she said. “Since February 24, I was unable to live normally. I felt bad and for the first time in many years, I had panic attacks. But this gesture helped me. I felt better.”
“State propaganda tries to convince everyone that people like me have lost our minds,” Isayeva said. “But I have not lost my mind. I told the police at the station that history will judge us and that it will happen quite soon.”
“We are all prisoners of this system,” she added. “But if we just throw up our hands, then all this blackness will swallow us up, devour us. But there are absolute truths that we must speak.”
“Now is the best moment to act,” Isayeva said, “and not to throw up one’s hands. We must help one another. Turning inward and feeling guilty, in my opinion, is not productive.”