‘Our voices are louder if we stay’: Russian anti-war activists refuse to flee | Russia
Despite reaching one of the darkest moments in more than 40 years as a dissident and human rights activist, Oleg Orlov says he has no intention of fleeing Russia. “I decided a long time ago that I wanted to live and die in Russia, this is my country,” Orlov told the Observer. “Although it has never been so bad.”
That says something for Orlov, who remembers printing homemade anti-war posters in the late 1970s to protest the Russian invasion of Afghanistan or to support the Polish Solidarność movement, and was an observer and negotiator. during the bloody war in Chechnya in the 1990s.
He has been arrested three times for picketing since late February, when Russian troops launched an assault on Ukraine. And he does not rule out a prison sentence in his future.
“I understand the high likelihood of a criminal case against me and my colleagues,” he said. “But we have to do something…even if it’s just to hang out and talk honestly about what’s going on.”
Tens of thousands of Russians have fled the country since it invaded Ukraine, fearing a wave of government repression and a possible closure of Russia‘s borders similar to what happened in the Soviet Union.
However, a diverse and dedicated cadre of anti-war activists remained behind, continuing to protest, post online, fundraise and organize opposition to Vladimir Putin‘s war on their neighbor.
“I made the decision not to go. It was my decision,” said Ilya Yashin, 38, a street veteran and political activist who is also a Moscow city deputy. “I understand all the risks. I understand what this could mean for me.
“But it seems to me that the anti-war voices sound louder and more convincing if the person stays in Russia,” he said.
Yashin has continued to speak out against the war publicly, filming streams on his YouTube channel that reach 1.5 million viewers or more.
He estimated that 80% of his friends and colleagues, many of them in the political opposition or in journalism, had left the country. “I think I have more friends in Georgia and Vilnius now than in Moscow,” he said.
There was no judgment on those who left, he said, as he looked at those who remained with “great sympathy, great respect”. Through his activism, he also hoped to show that many Russians do not support this war.
“What’s the point of doing politics in Russia if you’re not ready to protest the war at such a historic moment?” he said.
The danger for activists like Orlov and Yashin is real. The government has already opened nearly a dozen investigations into alleged “fakes” about the military, punishable by up to 15 years, and made more than 15,000 arrests of protesters.
“There are a lot of people asking for advice on whether to leave,” said Pavel Chikov, the head of Agora, a Russian human rights group based in Kazan, Tartarstan. “I tell them all that if you’re thinking of going, you have to go and watch the Titanic from the [rescue] boat, not on board.
“If people hesitate, they will blame themselves if they stay and can’t leave later,” he said.
Chikov compared the situation to that of militants inside Chile under Augusto Pinochet, or in Turkey after the recent failed coup attempt. “There is no understanding of how far or how far this can go,” he said.
In Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Roizman has been a staple of local politics for two decades. The former mayor and anti-narcotics activist is one of the few regional officials to openly express his support for opposition leader Alexei Navalny. A month after calling the war an act of Russia’s “treason” against Ukraine, he continues to hold open consultations with local residents, a hallmark of his social activism in Russia’s fourth-largest city.
“I’m almost 60, I’ve lived all my life in Russia, where the hell am I going?” Roizman said the weekend.
“A lot of people see me as an example – they stay because they see I haven’t left,” he said. “My presence gives them the assurance that everything will return to normal one day. And I know I’m not alone in the country – there are still plenty of normal people.
Roizman said he was not judging the many who fled, but needed to be able to “look in the mirror”. “I now understand how the anti-fascists felt during the Third Reich,” he said. “But I can’t run away, it’s unacceptable for me to do this.”
The other reasons for staying are various. Some worried about their family members and others feared that once they left, they might never be able to return.
City MP and Pussy Riot member Lucy Shtein said she thinks she could be more effective as an activist outside of Russia, but can’t leave as she awaits sentencing for encouraging a pro-Navalny demonstration.
“I always wanted to stay in Russia until the end because I knew that once I left I couldn’t come back for a long time,” she said.
Dmitry Ivanov, a pro-democracy activist and computer science student who heads the “Protest at MGU” [Moscow State University] The Telegram channel also said he feared that if he leaves, “then there will be no turning back”.
The IT student would likely be ‘welcomed abroad’, and said the police had ‘showed a lot of interest in me’. But he insisted he had done nothing illegal, just “encouraged others to come out and protest peacefully”.
“It’s allowed by law,” he said. “I don’t think I should be scared or run away. It’s my country.”