Following the outbreak of the invasion of Ukraine, anti-war Russians were quickly silenced. France 24 collected testimonies from citizens, some having chosen to leave the country, others remaining in Russia and caught in the grip of repression. Many give in to discouragement.
On the morning of May 9 in Russia, before the start of the traditional 1945 victory parade over Nazi Germany, Egor and Alexandra, young journalists from Lenta, a news site that is not very upsetting with regard to the state, carry out their sabotage operation, publishing about forty articles with explosive titles. “Ukraine broke Putin’s plans”, “Russia completely destroyed Mariupol”, “The Ministry of Defense lied to the families of the victims of the Moskva cruiser”. For about fifteen minutes, another account of the war in Ukraine is displayed without detour on this national media usually subjected to censorship: the sudden change of editorial line is not immediately noticed by the management, causing amazement and mockery on the Telegram encrypted network.
After their coup, Egor and Alexandra left not only their editorial staff, but also their country, like many Russian journalists since the start of the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. In order to prevent the outbreak of a civic protest movement, the Kremlin very quickly set about sterilizing the public space by making any dissonant expression illegal. Faced with the brutality of the repression, the protesting fringe of the population stopped demonstrating while the offensive against journalists forced the last independent media, already under very strong pressure, to cease their activity. The Echo of Moscow radio, an emblematic medium that appeared in 1990, threw in the towel and announced its dissolution; for their part, the Novaya Gazeta newspaper and the Dojd television channel, pillars of Russian journalism, have chosen to rebuild their newsrooms abroad – in Riga, the capital of neighboring Latvia.
The Russians bear witness to the parallel reality
In Moscow, however, beyond the obvious signs of disorder – the closure of international brands, inflation – life has not really changed in appearance. The war that is devastating Ukraine remains almost invisible in the streets of the capital. Under the Pouchkine bridge, the dancers always invest in music the banks of the Moskva. A few minutes away, in the heart of Gorki Park, the Garage contemporary art center sends a deaf signal: it no longer shows exhibitions. “We cannot support the illusion of normality with the current events”, justified this private museum on February 26 in a statement still online on its site. “You can’t imagine the pain and shame I feel,” says Igor, a 36-year-old Muscovite, part of whose family lives between Dnipro, Odessa and Lviv, Ukraine. “My generation discovers ‘internal emigration’, a reality that prevailed in Soviet times [un certain repli sur soi, NDLR], he says on Skype. Political discussions are held in the privacy of the apartments. For people my age, it’s a unique experience. »
“I stopped talking about the war and Putin”
Opposition to Moscow’s war in Ukraine cannot be reduced to the large wave of emigration that followed its outbreak. Inside the country, the “special operation” meant a clean break. In discussions, there is now a “before” and an “after”. “How to continue to live in the country without betraying oneself? asks Meduza, another Russian site established in Riga. This online media was founded in September 2014 by Galina Timchenko, former editor-in-chief of Lenta, who left when the site took over editorial control at the time of the annexation of Crimea. Earlier this month, Meduza published a call for evidence to probe the mindset of those who remained in Russia and refused to support the war. “The Russians have almost no way to express themselves but are far from all able – and wanting – to leave the country”, writes the information site in exile.
Dejected, Vyacheslav * seems to have given up: this physics teacher from Novosibirsk, the first city in Siberia, was fired from his school last year after taking part in a demonstration in support of the opponent Alexei Navalny. More recently, he was harassed by the dreaded Committee of Inquiry and ordered to explain his presence at an anti-war rally. “I was shown about 40 screenshots of my Vkontakte pages [l’équivalent russe de Facebook, NDLR], of my ‘liked’ posts, of the list of my ‘friends’ on the network. I was questioned for each of them, ”he testifies on Telegram. A successful intimidation attempt since Vyacheslav “stopped talking about the war and Putin, especially in the presence of ‘patriots-Z’ [référence au symbole affiché sur les blindés russes en Ukraine, NDLR]. Because it leads nowhere and the majority condemns us in crude terms. The professor reports that at the school where he works today, sixth- and fifth-grade students sent videos and letters of support to Russian soldiers, whose responses were then viewed in class. “An initiative from above and limply supported by a teacher,” he says.
You have to pay attention to details, here and there, to detect the muffled protest of opponents of the war. In the Vladimir region, close to the capital, the Dovod site reports discreet manifestations – a poster in a store, a ribbon tied in a square, citizens arrested at their homes. This small independent local media, like there are dozens of others across the country, also draws up the list of soldiers from the region killed in Ukraine, when the authorities are working to conceal the losses.
Seen from Russia: The taboo of Russian soldiers who died in Ukraine
In a closed public space, where the ostentatious signs of rallying to the “special operation” are generally driven by the state apparatus, the majority takes refuge in conformity or silence. “You can always condemn these people and tell them that they should repent, flog themselves and feel guilty, but in my opinion, even if there is something repulsive in it, non-participation is always better than participation. This position is logical and understandable”, judge the opponent Yulia Galiamina, interviewed in Novaya Gazeta. This former municipal deputy from Moscow, who spent thirty days behind bars for “repeated violation of the rules for organizing demonstrations”, does not believe in the effectiveness of demonstrations in the current political configuration. “You can always go out into the street, only to find yourself in the shade or be fined. What will this change? “, she argues, encouraging her compatriots to stay in Russia and invest the political field, even if it condemns the critics of the regime to marginality. An opinion that is clearly not unanimous within an atomized opposition.
In Russia, the influence of propaganda and the absence of real debates have shaped a generalized relativism: in this deliberately maintained confusion, everything can now be called into question. Even within families, the war in Ukraine has become a subject undermined, often opposing old and new generation. The media unaffiliated with the power publish many accounts testifying to the incomprehension and the divisions between the members of the same family, a widely shared reality. Journalist Andrei Lochak made a terrible documentary on the subject, “Razryv sviazi” (“break in communication”), showing relatives who have broken off all communication, unable to overcome their differences, or even simply to listen to each other. “Shooting started at the start of the war. In the meantime, none of the protagonists has changed their minds, ”says the broadcaster, Nastoyachtchee Vremya (or Current Time TV, in English), a Russian-language channel headquartered in Prague. “This film is not an attempt at dialogue but sad proof to the contrary. A ruthless diagnosis of a sick society in which propaganda is stronger than kinship. Similarly, Ukrainians with family members in Russia hit a wall when reporting the reality of war to them over the phone.
In recent years, however, the foreclosure of the political sphere has not prevented the circulation of ideas in Russia. Since nature abhors a vacuum, the intellectual debate has been structured on the Internet: YouTube channels dealing with politics, social issues or history have multiplied and brought out personalities whose audience goes beyond so-called Russia. liberal – among them, the journalist Yuri Doud and the political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann, today designated “foreign agents”. “Before”, Karen Shaynian was one of these opinion leaders in the digital sphere. The journalist put into practice the “theory of small actions” – an approach consisting in accompanying a change in society outside of politics. Through his interviews and reports, Karen Shaynian contributed to the emergence of another Russia, peaceful and tolerant – he worked in particular to tell the life of sexual minorities across the country, a way of undoing stereotypes. Fearing for his safety, he left Russia. Since then, his name has joined the list of “foreign agents”, a status which, because it is granted to free and committed spirits, appears today as a pledge of respectability. From a distance, he documents the new Russian reality. “Power relies on the indifference and passive support of the population. If the people decide otherwise, they can change the course of things,” the journalist wants to believe. “Since February 24, everything has been turned upside down at an unsuspected speed. A quick change in another direction may well occur. »
*Name has been changed.