Anti-war protester in Moscow says the risk of arrest is worth it

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Yulia Zhivtsova sits in Pushkin Square holding Harry Potter books in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Zhivtsova took part in the protests against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. // Yulia Zhivtsova

Updated March 5, 2022 at 10:38 a.m. ET

As Russian troops intensify their assaults on major Ukrainian cities, many people in Russia are choosing to speak out against the war.

Independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info reports that more than 8,000 people have been arrested in anti-war protests across the country since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began last week. .

Russia’s legislature on Friday passed a law that imposes prison terms of up to 15 years on those who criticize the war, which the Russian government calls only a “special operation”. In response, the BBC and several other major news agencies stopped reporting in Russia.

Yulia Zhivtsova lives near Moscow and took part in the protests. She has already been arrested once by the police, at the very beginning of the demonstrations. She insisted that NPR release her full name, despite potential threats to her safety.

“From what I learned in school, when I was a child, we were always taught that Kyiv was the mother of all Russian cities…” she said. “So it’s a pretty horrible thing to realize that one day you wake up and your tanks come into Kyiv. … It’s like a very, very bad dream.”

She spoke with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly. Below are highlights from the interview edited for length and clarity.

What the protests look like

They just happen spontaneously.

Before it was more disorganized than probably now. But the problem is that the measures that have been taken by the government are getting tougher and tougher, they are introducing new laws. Like, even if you post something like, “Please come out and protest the war,” you can go to jail. … You could be subject to criminal charges, not administrative acts, whatever they may be.

But when it all started a week ago, it looked a little less, I don’t know, dangerous. So I was arrested from day one. So February 24, a Thursday, and I was one of the first to be arrested, because as soon as I heard the news, I decided I had to do something. So I went to Pushkin Square, maybe not in the morning, but as soon as I could.

Who goes to protests?

Very different people, and even people who… [saw] World War II, and it was pretty, pretty stupid and pretty annoying to see those people arrested too. So they’re called, like, “Children of War.” So these are the people who saw the actual war, well, the previous war, but as children. So they’re very old now, like 80 or something. …

I know some people like this have been arrested and it has been reported. Additionally, there are horrific news of children being arrested for being with their parents, also protesting. … They were just with their parents. So they all go to the police station, and the pictures are pretty terrifying. So people of very different ages.

What was it like being arrested on the very first day of the full-scale invasion of Russia?

It’s not an arrest. It is a detention. So they let me go the same evening, so I didn’t spend the night at the police station. So now I’m facing a fine, something like that. So I’m waiting for my audience.

I didn’t have any posters or anything like that. Usually if you have a poster you are immediately arrested, even if it is just a blank sheet of paper. So what I did was I got two Harry Potter books. One is from Hufflepuff, which is yellow, and another is from Ravenclaw, which is blue. So the yellow and blue editions. And I was just reading these two books on Pushkin Square. So it looked like the Ukrainian flag. … So for about an hour the police didn’t know what to do with me because it was quite unusual. But yes, they decided to take me to the police station.

I was just reading about the rise of the Dark Lord. And I think that’s pretty good, funny. If we can call it anything funny these days.

Why protest? Why did you want to be there on that particular day?

Russia and Ukraine are sort of very close countries, we are historically linked. And it’s not that we want to go to war. So that’s the obvious reason, I think.

From what I learned in school, when I was a child, we were always taught that Kyiv was the mother of all Russian cities. This is what we study in our history books. So it’s a pretty horrible thing to realize that one day you wake up and your tanks come into Kiev. … It’s like a very, very bad dream.

You have been protesting against the Putin government for nearly a decade. Do these protests feel the same? Do they feel different?

No, it’s very different. Because there are very many people who have never protested before, on the one hand. But on the other hand, the protests, they seem more dangerous, because of what is happening now.

Too many people have been arrested. Besides, it’s been going on for a week already. And it goes on, and people get arrested again and again. So it seems a bit more dangerous. They are already introducing new laws. And it doesn’t look very nice, but people are still going out. And that’s good to know. … But it’s different. We feel that people are much more angry. And much more scared, at the same time. …

And people who get arrested for the first time, they really don’t realize that it’s possible to just have a sign that says “No to war” and end up in the police station. They really didn’t think that was possible in our country. They are therefore quite surprised.

Do you believe that there are more people in Russia who oppose this war than the size of the protests might indicate?

Yes, of course, there are a lot of people waiting for something to happen and joining in. They don’t want to be arrested. They don’t want to lose their job…

But on the other hand, there are still a lot of people who all believe in all the propaganda nonsense, and unfortunately, there are quite a few of them too. I mean, even my dad is pretty pro-Putin these days. And he says he’s ashamed of me or something.

Most of my friends, … most people I know, don’t support the war. But there are still people who believe it’s a good cause, or whatever they’ve been told on TV. And it’s very sad. It’s very annoying, especially if it’s someone in your family.

What are those conversations like with your father, who you called pro-Putin and who said he was ashamed of you? It must be very hard.

Oh, I just told him I’d block him for a while. And if he needs anything, he can call me. …

So probably, I’ll see him this weekend. I’ll probably avoid having conversations because, well, when it comes to politics, it’s very hard to talk to him.

Are you afraid to criticize Putin and do it publicly? Are you worried about the risks or repercussions for you or your family?

On the one hand, yes, of course. But on the other hand, the situation has changed dramatically in recent years. So now, unfortunately, you can’t say you’re safe if you don’t talk. Unfortunately, now it’s a kind of lottery. And you can be detained somewhere near the protests if you don’t actually participate. …

So it’s no use, like keeping silent. …

There are many stories of bloggers being arrested or even imprisoned for stupid things they did many years ago, before any law even existed. For example, as happened to Khovansky. …

And that’s very silly, because he’s never been against Putin, at least not openly. … But somehow someone complained and he was arrested for something he had done many years ago, when the charges he was making object didn’t even exist. So when people see that, they realize how crazy it all is now. So it’s no use. So if I keep silent, I’m still not safe. This is the problem. And more and more people are now realizing that keeping quiet doesn’t really help.

As someone who opposes war with Ukraine but may suffer from sanctions that affect the Russian economy, what do you think of Western sanctions against Russia?

I think the main sanctions I would support are the sanctions against Putin’s friends. …different people from government and oligarchs etc.

I really hope that very soon they might just be annoyed that they can’t use their money overseas, that they can’t go overseas or send their kids to, I don’t know, Harvard or whatever. And maybe that will make them stop Putin somehow, tell him he has to stop.

Because I don’t think the usual people, the usual protesters, can actually do anything about this. When I go to protest, it’s not because I think Putin is going to look down on me and say, “Oh, there are too many people, I’m going to stop”. Well, that’s nonsense. We won’t have enough people because everyone is too scared. So it’s more for future generations like, “See? I was there. I was protesting. I was against it.”

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