On Thursday morning, I woke up in Moscow to messages from people from different parts of the world, many of whom I hadn’t heard from in a long time: They were worried about my safety. I was afraid to learn what had happened. When I checked the news and learned that the war (which most experts, journalists, and regular folks didn’t think would happen) started, I couldn’t hold back tears.
At 5:30 a.m. Moscow time, when everybody was sleeping, Putin launched “a special military operation” “to protect civilians” in Donbas, a region in southeastern Ukraine. He called it a “demilitarization” and “denazification” campaign. According to the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, his TV address was recorded in advance on Monday, the same day he announced that Russia would recognize the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk districts in Donbas. Russians do not get surprised anymore when Putin tries to pass off prerecorded sessions as live, unstaged events, so guessing his motives there is probably not worth wasting time on. The most important thing is that shortly after Putin’s order, Ukraine reported attacks not only in Donbas, but all over Ukraine, including the capital, Kyiv.
My Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds are full of posts from Russians who are against the war. I have never seen such solidarity on social media in my country. People who haven’t posted anything in years broke their silence to show their disagreement. That campaign under the hashtag #янемолчу (“I’m not silent”) started on Feb. 21, even before Putin delivered his speech about Donbas recognition. It was launched by Russian online magazine Kholod (“The Cold”). “We decided to remind that each of us has a voice, and we can speak out loud what we think of war. When you can’t do anything, it is important to tell that you are against it,” wrote Taisia Bekbulatova, editor-in-chief of Kholod.
The main feelings of liberal Russians are concerns for Ukrainians—many of whom are our relatives and friends—shame for Putin, and helplessness. “This is a fratricidal, predatory war, unleashed by an insane tyrant. We are sorry, Ukraine!” wrote Russian writer Dmitry Glukhovsky on Facebook. The editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, recorded a YouTube address in which he said that he and his colleagues are shamed: “We are in grief. Our country started a war with Ukraine upon Putin’s order. And there is nobody to stop it. That is why we experience shame along with grief … Would the next step be a nuclear attack?” Russian politician Yevgeny Roizman called Putin’s invasion “the betrayal of Russians.” Even the host of a Russian show at state-owned Channel One TV station, Ivan Urgant, shared frustration on Instagram: “Fear and pain. No to war.”
Though few if any of the commentators on social media actually voted for Putin, they admit that they feel guilty for not stopping the president. “Thing is, we’ve had 20 fucking years to do something, and we didn’t. This is on us,” wrote Russian film director Roman Volobuev on Twitter. Others reminded us, though, that actions against Putin over the years didn’t bring any results. “I participated in my first protest against the Putin regime in 2011, in the last one—in 2021. It’s a shame that it didn’t play any role and didn’t stop my country from turning into THIS … It is surrealism and hell,” stressed Russian rapper Noize MC on Instagram.
Hundreds of Russian journalists who cover international politics signed an open letter saying: “We decry the military operation, which Russia started in Ukraine. The war has never been a method of solving conflicts, and it can’t be justified.”
Many people, including my friends and me, wonder what they can do to stop the war. Even single-person demonstrations in Russia end up with arrests (though, according to law, this form of protest is legal and does not need to be sanctioned by authorities in advance). According to the independent Russian human rights media project OVD-Info, more than 1,000 activists who took to the streets with antiwar banners in different Russian cities on Thursday were arrested. Moscow authorities reportedly blocked the Red and Manezhnaya Square, where some activists planned to gather on Thursday. On Wednesday, the opposition party PARNAS and activists Dmitriy Tsorionov and Alexey Minyaylo applied to the Moscow authorities for permission to hold a “March for peace” with up to 150,000 participants on March 5. As of Thursday night Moscow time, the city administration hasn’t responded. But given that authorities didn’t sanction any protests—they blamed the coronavirus—over the past two years, the chances of approval are not high, and March 5 could be too late in terms of how fast the events unfold.
Independent media outlets are worried that the government will try to block it. Russians have reported YouTube, Telegram, and Instagram outages. While I am writing this piece, my internet is unstable.
Meanwhile, Russians are seized by panic. Eleven airports in the regions close to the Ukrainian border have been closed till at least March 2, canceling hundreds of flights. In dozens of schools in the south of Russia, lessons were canceled. If a week ago the majority thought that the conflict would be limited only to informational war, now Russians do not exclude any scenarios and are afraid they may soon hear air-raid warnings in Russia.
On Thursday, the Russian currency, the ruble, fell to its lowest level against the dollar since 2016. Journalists have shared photos of long lines to ATMs. Many tried to get dollars but faced a shortage of currency because of the increased demand. Others are withdrawing cash as they don’t know how sanctions imposed by European Union and the U.S. could affect banks and their savings.
Another worry of Russians is the further isolation of the country from the West. It is already challenging to travel with a Russian passport: Most of Europe does not recognize the Sputnik vaccine, and the U.S. stopped issuing visas in Russia last August. According to reports on social media, Russians who scheduled U.S. visa appointments in Poland, received messages from the U.S. Embassy on Thursday saying that interviews would be canceled at least until March 4 “due to exceptional circumstances.” The Czech Republic suspended visa services for Russians today. On Wednesday, Polish President Andrzej Duda said he would support the sanctions, prohibiting Russians from traveling. Belgium urged the European Union to stop issuing visas to all Russian citizens. “Russia’s reckless attack forces us to be careful with Russians wishing to come to Belgium. At the moment, Russians are not welcome here,” Sammy Mahdi, junior minister for asylum and migration of Belgium, was quoted by Reuters..
It is not the first time regular Russians have suffered because of the decisions of its leadership. “For years, Europe accepted dirty money from Russia and helped to launder it. Now EU discusses whether to ban Russians from coming to Europe—the only way to run away from Putin. Sure, the Russian army invades only after getting Schengen visas,” says one of the comments on Twitter.
Russians are very limited in expressing their disagreement with Putin safely. I hope it would be hard for Kremlin not to notice the significant antiwar campaign. However, I can’t help the feeling that everything has been decided without us. The support of military operations by Russians, most of whom believe in state propaganda or are just passive, can always be exaggerated in surveys financed by the government. The country’s state-funded pollster VCIOM reported that 73 percent approve of Putin’s decision on Monday to recognize Luhansk and Donetsk. However, according to Levada Center, an independent institution labeled by Russian authorities as a “foreign agent,” only 45 percent back the recognition of the Donbas region. If it is true that the minority backs Putin in the Donbas question, I believe that there are even fewer Russians who approve of the war. It may feel fruitless or scary. But Russians still have a real chance to send Putin a message and make the difference.