Hours after architect Anna Gnedovskaya shared a Facebook post condemning her country’s invasion of Ukraine and calling for Russians to take to the streets in protest, the police came knocking on her door. She fled, but was detained on Friday.
“Two policemen waited for her outside the building all night,” said Viktor Tatarskii, a 37-year-old biologist from Moscow, told the Financial Times. They told Gnedovskaya – who did not attend the protest – to accompany them “as a witness of a fraud”, adding “but you understand everything yourself”, Tatarskii said.
His mother – one of 1,500 opponents of the conflict detained across Russia in the hours following the invasion, according to official data – now faces a court hearing for allegedly threatening public order.
The launch of what President Vladimir Putin called “a special operation” to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” Ukraine has dismayed many of its own citizens. Following his early-morning address to the nation on Thursday as the incursion began, people in Moscow and other cities were reported to be panic-buying food and withdrawing dollars from banks.
As yet it is hard to accurately gauge public opinion of Putin’s plans. Ahead of the invasion, a Levada poll indicated that 60 per cent believed the west was responsible for escalating the crisis.
The protests are far from the largest in Russia in recent years, where an intensifying crackdown on dissent has outlawed demonstrations without a permit and made taking to the streets almost impossible without the threat of jail. Russia also lacks the dissident tradition of Ukraine, where protests are a core part of political culture and many have criticized what they see as their neighbors’ passivity.
But on Friday social media in Russia continued to teem with calls to halt the aggression and protesters plan another rally in Moscow next week.
Tatarskii was one of thousands of mainly young people who took to the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and other major Russian cities on Thursday night to make their opposition clear.
“I’m very much against war. I believe it’s a crime to have a fratricidal war, “he said, referring to Ukraine’s deep cultural and historical ties to Russia. “I’m against war in general, but this one is. . . an aggressive and criminal war. ”
Pavel Akimov was among those detained after he protested outside the Kremlin on Thursday carrying a poster reading “Putin = War.” The 32-year-old neurological scientist, who was released and faces a $ 200 fine for violating Russia’s restrictions on protests, compared the events to those in Germany at the dawn of World War II.
“There is a real feeling [as if] we are in the Berlin of 1939. . . that this is a historical moment, ”he told the FT, speaking by phone from the police station. “This is real madness. On one hand, maybe it was expected, but on the other it is unimaginable.
“No one needs this except Putin, so he can hold on to power,” he added. “It. . . means decades of degradation for Russia. ”
Dmitry, a student from Belgorod, a southern Russian town at the Ukrainian border, said he wanted the world to distinguish between Russians and Putin.
“The Russians did not start the war. . . It was started by Putin and his criminal group, hiding behind the name of the Russians for their dirty actions, ”he wrote on social media. “They have only two goals – money and power. They don’t care about refugees, the lives of civilians.
“I know what the overwhelming majority of Russians are feeling – pain, fear, powerlessness and. . . shame, ”he added. “Shame that the leader of the country you live in can doom millions of people to the horror of war with the snap of his finger.”
Dmitry Muratov, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and editor of Novaya Gazeta, one of the few few remaining independent papers, also expressed a sense of shame. The paper was published in both Russian and Ukrainian on Friday to express solidarity with Russia’s neighbor.
“We do not recognize Ukraine as an enemy and the Ukrainian language as the language of an enemy. And we never will, ”he said.
Meanwhile, dozens of celebrities posted anti-war statements on social media, including singers Kristina Orbakayte, Zemfira and Valery Meladze and television hosts Ivan Urgant and Maxim Galkin.
Such a move is risky in an environment where the culture industry is largely state-funded and heavily censored. The Interior Ministry has also issued a statement warning against online calls for people to join non-sanctioned demonstrations, saying it would “take all necessary measures to maintain order”.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said on Friday that the protesters “had no legal rights to [protest]to put forward their point of view, without going through the relevant procedures ”.
Putin “listens to everyone’s opinion and understands [how many] have a different point of view, as well as how many understand [why Russia was] forced ”to attack Ukraine, he told reporters.
“Of course, there are citizens who have their own point of view. Clearly we should do a better job explaining things to them, ”he added.
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, thanked the Russian protesters.
“Russian citizens who come out to the protests, we see you,” he said in a video address on Friday. “That means you have been heard. That means you believe us. Fight for us. Fight against war. ”
InAdditional reporting by Max Seddon in Moscow