Even before Putin officially authorized military action into Ukraine, many Russian civilians didn’t want war, expressing deep unease and foreboding about their president’s imperial ambitions. After the attack began, some Russian soldiers in Ukraine protested by abandoning their military vehicles and surrendering. Now, as the invasion continues to intensify, so does antiwar sentiment among Russian civilians. On Sunday, thousands of Russians protested in antiwar rallies across the country, risking lengthy prison sentences. Police reportedly arrested over 3,000 protesters and detained thousands in at least 49 different cities.
The protests came during a contentious moment in Russian media. Over the past few weeks, Putin has been attempting to stifle antiwar sentiment with a strategic mix of information suppression and pro-Russian propaganda. Russia’s media regulator has blocked any outlets that use the words war, invasion, and attack, and state-controlled news outlets continue to peddle a narrative in which Russia is trying to liberate Ukraine and the threat to Ukrainian civilians comes at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists rather than the Russian armed forces. Last Friday, Putin took things further, blocking citizens’ access to Facebook and major foreign news outlets and enacting a new law criminalizing those spreading “false information” that contradicts state propaganda. In response to the law, the BBC suspended its journalists’ work in Russia, and many independent Russian news outlets shut down out of fear of imprisonment.
Despite Putin’s efforts to criminalize dissent, the protests pushed forward. Videos circulating on social media show masses of people gathered in St. Petersburg chanting “No to war!,” while others show police officers trying to subdue protesters with violence, beating and kicking them down. In Kaliningrad, an elderly woman at a protest addressed a police officer, explaining that she survived the Nazi siege of Leningrad. “What do you want from me?” She asked the officer, in Russian, who called her fellow protesters “fascists” and ordered to have them all arrested.
While some Russians have bought into state-sponsored propaganda about the war, denying the nature of Russian violence in Ukraine, antiwar sentiment has prompted thousands of others to flee the country. Anton Dolin, a prominent Russian film critic, announced his departure this past weekend, writing, “There is no more Russia … This is a moral catastrophe.”