Russia, thousands continue to protest despite the risks

Ovd-Info denounces the ever-increasing dangers for those who express their opinion, even in private or on social media. The war started once the opposition was silenced. The Kremlin’s repressive machine is at the root of the war in Ukraine. But even if there are no more major street demonstrations, it doesn’t mean that Russians have stopped protesting.

“Thousands of Russians continue to protest against the war despite the fact that it hasn’t been safer to do so for some time, even in a private conversation or on social media”, due to the massive repression carried out by the authorities against dissent and civil society, OVD activists explain -Info, one of the few independent organizations still present in Russia. Anyone who protests knows that he risks being tortured or abused after being stopped, or spending years in prison.

Still legal, even if it was included in the list of ‘foreign agents’ in September 2021, Ovd-Info is present in 71 cities of the country and provides assistance, first of all legal, to people prosecuted for political reasons and in particular for protests against the war, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it is preparing for closure, strengthening a horizontal structure. “It is not easy to operate, but we have organized ourselves in case we will no longer be able to do our job”, testify the two activists Maria Kuznetsova and Dan Storyev, in an online seminar.

“Russia’s imperialism, its militarism, the war in Ukraine and the war in Georgia before that, are just the tip of the iceberg of the Kremlin’s war machine and repressive system. The regime’s ability to nearly destroy Russian civil society that’s what made the war possible. The internal situation in Russia is at the root of the war in Ukraine. That’s why it’s so important to follow what’s happening in Russia”, says Storyev underlining that “without strengthening Russian civil society it is impossible to contain the imperialist ambitions of the Kremlin”. “The war started when all the opposition leaders were in prison or abroad,” he adds.

The two crimes of discrediting military forces and spreading false information about military forces, “very similar, difficult to distinguish from each other, with the second usually linked to a specific episode”, were introduced shortly after the start of the war . But since it is very difficult to get permission for a demonstration and it is de facto impossible to protest legally now in Russia, it is easy to fall into the violation of illegal protest, for which you can be sentenced to prison terms of between five and 30 days. Those who participate in an anti-war demonstration risk a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,350).

And there are a whole range of other crimes used by the authorities to crush civil society and the freedom of dissent, from violating anti-covid regulations, to assaulting an officer, or blocking a road. Immediately after the start of the war, the authorities arrested 16,000 people who had taken to the streets to protest. The street demonstrations then ceased in March and resumed briefly in September. “But that doesn’t mean that Russians haven’t stopped protesting and criticizing the war. There were only 25 days in 2022 when someone was not arrested in connection with anti-war protests.”

By now, anyone is stopped: mothers with strollers, pregnant women, the elderly, the disabled. It also happens more and more often that lawyers are not allowed to enter the police stations where their clients are (it happened 235 times in 2022, 68 the previous year, and five in 2020). In the protests against the mobilization on September 24, 71 percent of those detained were women. And this can confirm the tougher attitude of the police. “Protesting in Russia is not safe, there are significant risks, abuses by the authorities”.

So far, more than 5,700 people have been accused of discrediting Russian forces, in all regions of Russia and also in occupied Crimea. The first conviction can lead to a fine, but if the offense is repeated, they could face up to five years in prison. There are those who have been indicted only for wearing blue jogging shoes with yellow soles, like a professional runner arrested in Moscow while training, or for having exhibited the peace sign, “War and Peace” by Tolstoy, or phrases from Orwell’s “1984” or even just quotes from Putin in favor of peace.

People are snitching again: two waiters sue a 69-year-old woman caught saying ‘Zelensky was handsome’, security guards at a Moscow swimming pool sue a man in a mask wearing the colors of Ukraine and in Krasnodar a couple were arrested for discussing the war over restaurant tables. The husband was detained for 15 days.

In Moscow, the house where Varvara Galkina, a fifth-grade girl lives with her family, was raided and her parents were interrogated at the police station. Varvara had posted her profile photo on a social platform with blue and yellow flowers and an avatar with a drawing of a ‘San Javelin’. Her classmates’ parents reported her after she wrote on a class chat proposing a survey on the war in Ukraine and teachers because she did not participate in patriotism lessons. “Russians are never safe, either in private or on social media, where software that reports keywords is in operation. Even people with fewer than 50 followers have been prosecuted”.

For spreading false information, 145 people have been indicted so far. Opponent Ylia Yashin was sentenced to eight and a half years of probation for publishing a post denouncing Russian military abuses in Bucha.

In all, there are 440 defendants in criminal cases, even with other charges but always linked to their positions against the war and their number “grows every day”, 100 of them awaiting sentence. More than 60 percent of those prosecuted are not from Moscow or St. Petersburg. 55 percent of them had never attended a protest before. The average age of those on trial is 37.

Opposition sites on the Internet have been silenced, “Not like in Cona or North Korea, but the situation is getting worse every day.” In 2022, 210,450 websites or web pages were blocked, “including a United Nations page”. In fact, there is no longer freedom of association in Russia: 557 NGOs have been declared foreign agents, with all that follows, and 76 are undesirable.

Russian dissidents are also not entirely safe in some of the countries where they can take refuge but where they risk being extradited to Russia. “It is the main reason for trials in absentia”. Those who leave Russia will be able to risk having their assets confiscated, as the Chairman of the Duma Vyacheslav Volodin proposed last month, immediately stopped by the Kremlin. who has lived in Russia almost all his life. The same happened to the father and the two brothers. He now he lives in a country of the European Union, but has no citizenship. FSB officer Mikhail Zhilin who fled to Kazakhstan to avoid mobilization was arrested and extradited to Russia. For Russian refugees it is difficult to enter countries of the European Union, after the block on visas for Russians. “The places where they can emigrate more easily are the ones most accessible to the Russian authorities”.