'Each Russian Protesting Represents a Thousand Others Who Are Afraid To'

Media is blocked and censored and demonstrators are arrested en masse, but Russian protest against the war in Ukraine continues. 'It will get scarier,' one protester told Haaretz, 'but I don’t believe we should be intimidated yet'

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Demonstrators protesting against the war in Ukraine are arrested in Yekaterinburg Russia, on Monday.
Demonstrators protesting against the war in Ukraine are arrested in Yekaterinburg Russia, on Monday.Credit: HANDOUT/Reuters
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

“We called it an interrogation, they cynically called it ‘filling out a questionnaire.’” That’s how Polina (not her real name), a 32-year-old Moscow resident, opened the story of her arrest on Monday after demonstrating against the war.

“They took us there one by one, and a man politely asked to photograph us. We refused, and he said, ‘In that case, we’ll do this the hard way ... So what, we’ll push needles under your fingernails?’ And he laughed.”

Anyone who refused to be photographed was transferred to a different interrogator, Polina said. “They took us away from there, but I managed to hear how he was screaming: ‘You fucking toad, I’ll destroy you.”

A protester in a police bus, on Monday, in Russia. An associate of Nabalani: “You can get a criminal record just for the slogan 'No to war.'"Credit: HANDOUT/Reuters

When Polina was brought to that room shortly afterward, she realized there was no point in resisting. “I heard the shouts and the sobs of other girls through the door. When I entered the room, it was completely topsy-turvy; the desk and the floor were full of water. They poured water on them and sprayed them with disinfectant.”

Alexandra Kaluzhskikh, a young woman who entered the interrogation room before Polina, managed to document the abuse she suffered. In her recording, one can hear slaps and blows, including blows from a plastic bottle, as well as severe verbal abuse and threats.

Demonstrators against the war in Ukraine arrested in Moscow, on Monday. "More than 30 people have complained of violence at police stations after being arrested"Credit: Sergei Koak

Throughout the long minutes of the recording, in between the blows and curses, Alexandra kept citing Article 51 of the Russian constitution, which gives individuals the right not to incriminate themselves, and saying she didn’t want to be photographed.

“Putin is on our side,” the interrogator told her at one point. “You are enemies of Russia, you are enemies of the people.” He eventually forced her to be photographed.

"I heard the screams and cries of the other girls through the door. When I entered the room it was completely upside down, the table and floor were full of water. Water was poured on them, a disinfectant was sprayed on them."

Policemen arrest a man at a demonstration against the war, on Monday, in Russia.Credit: HANDOUT/Reuters

The above description of the interrogation was published in Novaya Gazeta, the only critical media outlet still functioning properly in Russia after other major media outlets, like the Dozhd television station and the Ekho Moskvy radio station, shut down and smaller stations were barred from operating.

“More than 30 people complained about the violence they experienced at police stations after they were arrested for participating in a protest over something we’re forbidden to name,” the paper summed up.

Its avoidance of the word “war” and its limited reporting on the fighting are the price the paper decided to pay to be able to continue operating. Instead of reporting on events in Ukraine, its homepage is full of reports about the suppression of protests within Russia.

“By last year, the suppression of protest had already exceeded all bounds,” Leonid Volkov, a close associate of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, told Haaretz. “Today, there’s already a complete package of new criminal provisions, and you can get a criminal record just for the slogan ‘No to war.’”

Police arrest demonstrators protesting the war in Ukraine, on Monday, in Russia.Credit: HANDOUT/Reuters

Volkov, who fled Russia in 2019, is outraged by those who criticize Russians for not protesting in the streets. “The message coming from outside Russia is utterly naïve,” he said. “It’s very frightening, and very dangerous, to take to the streets right now.”

Leonid Volkov. "You can get a criminal record just for the slogan ‘No to war.’”

Despite this, he noted, many people have been demonstrating against the war. OVD-Info, an organization that tracks arrests of demonstrators, claims that the vast majority of demonstrators are arrested. If that’s true, then only a few thousand people have protested to date. But Volkov claimed the real number is much higher.

“Most people who participate in protests leave the site when the arrests begin,” he said. “In other words, the number of demonstrators is at least 10 times higher than the number of arrests. In previous years, it was 20 or even 30 times higher. Moreover, any person who takes to the streets today represents 1,000 people who are afraid to do so.”

The Committee of Mothers of Russian Soldiers, a network of civil organizations that was founded in the dying days of the Soviet Union, has refused to respond to questions over the past week. The Committee’s attorney, Alexander Latinin told Haaretz that it had decided not to talk with foreign media. “Everybody is very scared,” Volkov explained.

Sergei Koak, on Tuesday.Credit: Sergei Koak

The protestors understand those who are scared, but they take to the streets nevertheless. “I continue to do what I have always done as an activist,” says Sergei Koak, a blogger and political activist, who has been arrested many times over the past few years for participating in demonstrations against the Putin regime. He was arrested at the beginning of the week at a demonstration in Moscow and was released a few hours later. “Obviously things will become even scarier, but I don’t believe we should be intimidated yet,” he says. “When they start throwing people in prison and we find ourselves in a situation of absolute fascism and totalitarianism, then we will have to think again.”

A man taken into custody during a demonstration in Russia, on Monday.Credit: HANDOUT/Reuters

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, there have been protests not just in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but throughout Russian towns in the periphery including Belgorod, which is situated just 80 kilometers from Kharkiv in Ukraine. “About 15 people holding blue and white balloons, which have become a symbol of protest against the war, gathered in the main town square,” Andrew Schilin, a journalist covering the Russian periphery told Haaretz. Schilin has been blocked by the Russian censor. “They smiled, had their photos taken, made heart symbols with their hands, and then the police moved in to arrest them,” he says.

The balloon demonstration was the largest protest in the town since the start of the war. Others have carried out single-handed protests, raising signs against the war. Some of them were detained.

A pro-war demonstration that occurred around an hour after the balloon protest was undisturbed by police. Schilin says the “special operation” enjoys widespread support in Belgorod. “If at the start of the war, there were people who supported the operation but found it hard to explain why, now everyone had all the information they need to explain why the war is the right step.”

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