A Year of Russian Opposition Over the War in Ukraine

February 27, 2015
March for peace in Moscow. Photo by Ilya Varlamov

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick writes the latest in our series on the anniversary of the Maidan Revolution and the birth of a new nation, Ukraine. Read the others in the series here.

A year ago, Russian opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov, former first deputy prime minister under Yeltsin, and Alexey Navalny,  an anti-corruption activist and blogger, were preoccupied mainly with how to get the world’s attention to the massive corruption in the $51 billion Sochi Olympics — triple the cost of any other Olympics in the world. They had found evidence of insider deals, no-bid contracts, and embezzlement in the companies favored by President Vladimir Putin to construct the Olympic Village and sports facilities and provide infrastructure (See The Interpreter’s translation, Winter Olympics in the Sub-Tropics: Corruption and Abuse in Sochi).

They were also concerned with labor rights, migrant exploitation and damage to the environment; a local environmentalist named Yevgeny Vitishko was sentenced to 3 years of prison for writing graffiti and damaging a fence surrounding the lavish resort of officials who built on a nature preserve.

But by the end of the Olympics, the world was already once again admiring Putin’s virtuoso performance while remaining seemingly heedless of his ability to distract from harsh realities like the jailing and torture of Circassian activists calling attention to the historical genocide in their homeland, or a group of Cossacks attacking Pussy Riot members who protested Putin’s rule.

Then suddenly, there was a profound new challenge from Putin  — Russian-backed separatists took over the parliament and administrative buildings on February 28 in Simferopol and Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Fleet, and by March 18, Putin was celebrating the forcible annexation of Crimea.

Early in our coverage of the war in Ukraine and its affect on Russia we published a report from a brave provincial politician who kept asking inconvenient questions when he found out that paratroopers were missing from their barracks in his home town of Pskov, and ends as recently a mother of seven faced treason charges after also reporting troops missing from barracks near her home in Vyazma. These soldiers, some of them draftees pressured into signing contractors, weren’t supposed to be somewhere else; in fact, they were first in Crimea and then in southeastern Ukraine.

The Russians willing to stand up and oppose President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine are far and few between but they have taken great risks in their acts of conscience and suffered the consequences in ostracism, vilification in the press, beatings and jail.

When the independent Crimea Tatar TV station ATR saw armed, uniformed men seize the airport in Simferopol, take over the parliament building and stroll up and down outside their own building, they asked independent Russian war correspondent Andrei Babichenko in Moscow his opinion about “the little green men,” as they came to be called.

Babichenko told them he could see Vintorez snipers’ rifles which only Russian spetsnaz carried, and the standard uniforms for motorized regiments or airborne troops. He also referred to a report published in the local newspaper Pskovskaya Gubernaya by opposition legislator Lev Shlosberg that the 76th Guards Air Assault Division of the Russian Airborne Troops in Pskov were reported missing from their barracks and been dispatched to Ukraine. Shlosberg further reported that “the officers and contact group have been sent on a trip somewhere.”

“We know where,” said Babichenko, indicating the Crimea.

Later, ATR reporters ran for their lives when the mysterious green men began shooting at them from a building they had forcibly taken over, and ultimately ATR was closed by Crimean authorities under Russian occupation. Lev Shlosberg continued to ask about the deployment of the 76th regiment, now reported in Crimea, and then later, when reports surfaced that some had been killed in the Donbass, he followed their funerals and attempted to get answers. Their relatives, fearful of losing pensions or death benefits, were silent.

In the State Duma, the national parliament, a vote was held on whether to annex the Crimea. It passed nearly unanimously, with many deputies in St. George ribbons rejoicing, but one man, Ilya Ponomarev,  a technology entrepreneur and head of the State Duma’s sub-committee on Innovation and Venture Capital voted against it. He was harassed and demonized in the state media and threatened with specious lawsuits, and finally left the country. He joined the increasingly large community of Russian intellectuals abroad who left in the last year, including prominent writers such as Masha Gessen, economists such as Sergei Guriev and Aleksashenko, entrepreneurs such as Pavel Durov and pardoned political prisoner and businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and art curator Marat Gelman abroad, as well as many other young students and professionals whose temporary asylum seems to be dragging on as conditions worsen in their homeland.

Shlosberg kept talking, and suffered a serious beating in August 2014 by unknown men who did not steal anything from him but put him in the hospital with broken bones and concussion. Undeterred, he kept asking why his country was sending soldiers to an undeclared war, as did journalists from TV Rain, Novaya Gazeta and others who came to Pskov to try to get answers and themselves were beaten by local thugs helping the military cover up the story.

Other brave journalists followed the grim convoys known as “Cargo 200” of dead bodies returning from the May 2014 battle at the Donetsk Airport, when at least 33 people lost their lives, including many Russians, some from the Chechen Republic. Relatives told the regional news site Caucasian Knot of multiple funerals, but the details could not be verified. People were too afraid of repercussions from powerful Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

TV Rain, an independent channel that was warned by the censor and threatened with closure and forced out of its lease early, finally forced to broadcast from a private apartment, kept up a list of cases of soldiers it could verify as missing or killed in action in Ukraine. Other regional media including RBC.ru, Gordonua.com, Novaya Gazeta, Slon.ru and others kept reporting on cases and eventually a list of more than 265 cases were compiled out of the hundreds reported to be involved in the war. Foreign reporters have difficulty getting near this story; a BBC TV crew was beaten after interviewing one mother who described her son’s deployment and killing in Ukraine.

Soldiers’ Mothers groups in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities sent petitions to the Defense Ministry and on one occasion even got a meeting with military officials, but never any answers. They, too, soon began to pay for their persistent inquiries, and the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg was declared a “foreign agent” and subjected to more scrutiny and regulations after a conservative local position petitioned a court about them; Ludmila Bogatenkova, a Soldiers’ Mothers leader in Stavropol Territory was arrested on fraud charges believed to be in retaliation for her work; she was finally released pending trial in poor health.

Prof. Andrei Zubov was dismissed from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations for writing an anti-war article; after massive petitions and protests he was briefly reinstated but then ultimately his contract was not renewed. Ela Kolesnikova, a researcher at the institute, resigned in protest against her colleague’s dismissal and restriction of academic freedom.

The campaign of vilification intensified, with even billboards put up along Moscow roads caricaturing opposition leaders such as Navalny and Valeriya Novodvorskaya, who died in July 12, 2014 after writing many columns and making talk show appearances denouncing Putin’s policies and aggression against Georgia and Ukraine.  Her last blog post which we translated was Why are the Russian People So Silent?

Rock singer Andrei Makarevich of the band Mashina Vremeni was targeted for sensational NTV dramas and denunciations by talk show hosts for his criticism of the war and willingness to put on a concert in Donetsk. Genri Reznik, veteran human rights lawyer and head of the Moscow Bar Association, staged a lone picket in front of NTV studios to protest the persecution of Makarevich. He resigned from his position in February 2015.

In September 2014, 26,000 people turned out to protest the war after the bloody battle of Ilovaisk, in which 300 Ukrainian soldiers lost their lives, and reportedly as many Russian contract fighters.

The intellectuals of the non-Russian former Soviet countries often complain that the opposition to the Kremlin replicates some of the imperialism of their opponents. While figures like Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky opposed the military conflict in Ukraine, they did not believe it was a priority to return Crimea. And with Khodorkovsky in exile and Navalny constantly threatened with prison it did not seem likely they would have any immediate opportunity to confront this challenge in any event. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Maidan activists appreciate the support they did get from both these opposition leaders as well and ordinary people who came to place flowers in front of the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow.

To judge from state TV and social media, under heavy surveillance and government control, broad public support for the annexation and the war in Donbass seemed to indicate the growing success of ultranationalist movements that form the more significant challenge to the Kremlin’s power, given that liberals have no seats in parliament and their parties and newspapers aren’t registered.

Yet the proponents of “Novorossiya,” an aspirational realm to be made up of parts of Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine inhabited by high concentrations of Russians and Russian-speakers, never delivered more than a few thousands participants to activists. Putin also reined in some of their most troublesome leaders, organizing the dismissal of Eurasianist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, known for his close ties with Europe’s far right, from Moscow State University, and ensuring that Yegor Prosvirinin, founder of the popular site Sputnik&Pogrom was interrogated and warned of prosecution for “extremism.”

At the onset of war in Donbass, Kremlin propagandists made heroes out of Col. Igor Strelkov and Major Igor Bezler, commanders of forces in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”. Aleksandr Boroday, for a time head of the DNR, a public relations consultant for Russian Orthodox businessman and philanthropist Konstantin Malofeyev, flourished for a time until first the retreat from Slavyansk then the downing of the MH17 airliner by Russian-backed separatists

Then their stars began to fall, and soon Moscow removed every single one of the Muscovite or Russian-born leaders of the manufactured Donbass insurgency, and replaced them with those native to Ukraine. Some have disappeared and are feared dead; but Strelkov remains in view on ultranationalist YouTube channels and his books are in kiosks.

In November, when ultranationalists planned the annual “Russian March,” they were banished to the outskirts of Moscow to demonstrate and their leader was arrested for “extremism”; the official “National Unity Day” had a far higher turn-out as the government stoked patriotic sentiments around the Anschluss of Crimea.

Other than the war in Ukraine, few other issues could turn people out to the streets; in November doctors came in their gowns to Manezh Square to protest major lay-offs and health care budget cuts, and in December, more radical protesters blocked Tverskaya Street in protest against the economic crisis.

The cost of taking part in protests not authorized by the government is high; even two years after the May 2012 Bolotnaya Square demonstrations against Putin’s rigged re-election, for which some leaders were sentenced to 4 to 5 years, investigators were still rounding up suspects including this week. Even quiet candlelight vigils for the victims in the war in Ukraine led to detentions.

In September, Izvestiya reported the launching of an “Anti-Maidan” movement to be made up of nationalists and conservatives and Russian Orthodox church leaders who said they would work to derail or block any pro-Maidan demonstrations in Russia. The appearance of this government-sanctioned effort revealed the intense paranoia about any spread of the Kiev phenomenon to Russia. When movies are shown or theatrical performances have been staged in Moscow related to Maidan, ultranationalist hecklers are permitted to harass them and police raid them and detain some participants.

Curiously, this movement then morphed into a somewhat different configuration where the church leaders were shed, possibly because the Moscow Patriarchate – half of whose parishes are in Ukraine – realized they had to tone down the rhetoric. So the bikers, Cossacks and Afghan war vets came into the fore. These are the people who openly threaten to beat liberal demonstrators — and have made good on those threats, for example at a meeting in defense of Navalny in January 2015.

Russia’s economy is suffering, but its problems began before the war. An interesting fact that emerged from a meeting with regional governors in February is that deficit for provinces tripled to 642 billion rubles ($9.5 billion) in 2013 when the regions went into debt to fulfill Putin’s post-election populist promises of higher salaries and pensions . This is a telling moment, as it indicates the beginnings of the economic crisis long before the war in Ukraine, Western sanctions, and the fall in the price of oil. Now that the ruble has crashed and Russians have lost a third of both their paychecks and their savings, and the price of oil has also fallen to half what it was last year, Russia is reeling.

Yet so far, these hardships have not led to massive unrest on economic grounds. There haven’t been any big labor strikes or mass protests devoted only to economic issues — only the relatively small doctors’ rallies and a few scattered workers’ actions around Russia. The opposition’s march planned for March 1, to be held on the outskirts of Moscow in the hopes of getting a permit is emphasizing the government’s poor handling of the economic crisis and opposes the war in Ukraine, which is very much related.

Due to harsh government crackdowns, the monopolization of television, increased controls of the Internet, Russia’s struggling opposition is unlikely to mount anything resembling the protests in Kiev or even New York, despite cries of “Occupy!” and “Maidan!” at every demonstration that gets more than a dozen people. Some of these types of protests have been ethnic riots attacking migrant laborers from the Caucasus and Central Asia. This sort of phenomenon has led some analysts to conclude that if there is any massive protest in Russia or threat to Putin or regional leaders, it will be in the form of nationalist discontent, based on economic demands or even fascist in nature.

This overlooks the reality that the main fascistic tendencies are coming from Putin in the Kremlin, not the street, and have led to a war on neighboring country, threats to other neighbors and destruction of relations with the West. A running joke in Russian says that the patriotic slogan “Krym Nash!” (“Crimea is ours!) promulgated by state TV and state propagandists on social media has turned into the anagram “Kryshe Nam” which translates as something like “We’re done for,” with the realization that Russia’s aggression abroad has brought it a crisis at home for which Moscow can only blame itself. But with Western foundations and businesses chased out of Russia, it seems as if there is little leverage the West has to protect Russia’s fragile democratic movement, even as opposition leaders and human rights advocates themselves are demonized as a “fifth column” or “foreign agents” supposedly managed from the State Department, awash in dollar bills.

One year after the takeover of the Crimean parliament at gunpoint, Boris Nemtsov lay dead from assassin’s bullets in front of the Kremlin’s walls, two days before he was to lead the protest March 1. He had been preparing a report about Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. Investigators have not yet found a suspect, but part of what made it possible to kill Nemtsov was state media vilifying him and other opposition as “fifth columnists.” He was under constant surveillance. Billboards, ads, YouTube videos and print media were filled with hatred of him — a week before his death, state-supported Anti-Maidan marchers carried a portrait condemning him as the “organizer of Maidan” in Russia. But as Kirill Martynov said in Novaya Gazeta, instead of Maidan — the hope of change — Donbass — the horror of war — has came to Moscow.