In Moscow, a Quiet Antiwar Protest With Flowers and Plush Toys

Police buses seem to be ubiquitous in Moscow since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, guarding much of the city center, including a statue of one of Ukraine’s most famous poets. became a popular venue for a quiet but emotional wave of protests against the war.

Since a Russian missile hit a residential construction In the Ukrainian city of Dnipro nine days ago, killing 46 people and injuring 80 others, Muscovites came to lay flowers — along with plush toys and photos of destroyed buildings — at the foot of the statue of Lesya. Ukrainka, a Ukrainian poet and writer. Playwright who lived in the last decades of the Russian Empire.

The ceremony, after one of the deadliest attacks since the war began, has become an expression of sadness, shame and opposition to war. But steadily, the authorities removed the flowers.

“In contemporary Russia, under these conditions, it is a battle – a silent battle,” said Tatyana Krupina, a 28-year-old chemist who joined a small group of friends to order flowers last week. , said.

This is what counts as protests in Russia in January 2023, 11 months after the invasion. Russians have also started ordering flowers in other cities, spurred on by social media.

The flower showdown was one of the first public demonstrations to take place on a large scale since the days after President Vladimir V. Putin announced last September that hundreds of thousands of people would be summoned to battle. fight.

Russia has imposed harsh punishments on those who criticize the war, or even call it a war, so for many Russians, placing flowers seems like a rare opportunity to express themselves. dissent without arrest.

For the anti-government Russians who remained in Russia, the flowers reminded them that they were not alone in their opposition to the war, even as propaganda became increasingly harsh and the letters Z and V, became a pro-war symbol, engraved on public buildings.

And for those Russians who have fled because of persecution, potentially going into service or refusing to pay the taxes that will fuel the war machine, memorial flowers are a sign that there are still people left behind. the country was brave enough to protest.

“This is not just a way to show people in Ukraine that there are people in Russia who do not tolerate what is happening; it shows people that they are not alone,” said Aleksandr Plyushchev, a famous Russian journalist with a significant following on YouTube.

But even placing flowers has potential consequences. At least seven people have been detained, according to a New York Times journalist who has witnessed episodes over the past week. Four people were detained after placing flowers at the site.

The police tried to prevent people from taking pictures of the memorial, and told others to delete the pictures from their phone. But people kept coming, looking for a gap when many people weren’t gathered around the monument so it didn’t look like a illegal public gatherings — and quietly lay their flowers.

“My stamina has run out; I want to express my opinion,” a lawyer named Ekaterina Varenik said Saturday afternoon after placing flowers on the statue. She is referring to her inability to express her opinion publicly.

Ms. Varenik, 26, said the last time she protested was when opposition politician Aleksei A. Navalny was arrested two years ago. She stayed at home when thousands protested the mobilization of war. However, she said of the persecution, “Every day it gets worse, and more and more stringent.”

For more than half an hour, Ms. Varenik stood in front of the statue with a homemade poster that read: “Ukraine: not our enemies, but our brothers.”

She was detained by police soon after and could face up to 15 days in jail.

For many people, standing in front of the statue is an intense emotion.

“How could this happen?” A pensioner named Rita sobbed, who refused to give her last name for fear of punishment and only gave her age as over 50. “People are dying: children, old people,” she said. . “Awful. Perhaps this will serve as a reminder to everyone that we live in a scary world.”

Several prominent Russians have minimized the protests.

“Bringing flowers to a monument does not require courage, or even money,” Dmitri L. Bykov, a poet and writer critical of the government and living in exile, said Wednesday during a panel discussion. streamed on YouTube.

Bellingcat investigative journalist Mr Bykov said: “This is aesthetically beautiful, but completely meaningless. conclusion was the victim of an attempted poisoning in 2019 with a nerve agent similar to that used on Mr Navalny. He said, “There is only one positive effect: Maybe someone will find out who Lesya Ukrainka is – a great poet – and read her work.”

The statue was once the site of conflict with pro-war nationalists, who denounced the mourners and accused them in reports of discrediting the military. Russian team, now a crime in Russia.

The Kremlin’s crackdown on political opposition and protests accelerated after the invasion of Ukraine. About 20,000 protesters have been detained since the war began, according to OVD Info, a human rights watchdog. Many people lost their jobs after protesting, signing petitions or writing social media posts critical of the war.

Ilya Yashin, a city councilor in Moscow, has sentenced eight and a half years in prison for talking about Russian crimes in Bucha, Ukraine. A 19-year-old university student from the city of Arkhangelsk is face to face up to 10 years in prison for social media posts critical of the war.

In that context, defying the police to lay flowers may require a degree of bravery, but it also takes a mental toll that becomes more and more unbearable as the war goes on.

Maksim Shatalov, 36, a former flight attendant, said: “I know that the police can come to my house and arrest me at any time.

Mr. Shatalov became friends with a close-knit group of activists after being thrown into an avtozak, or police vehicle, following a protest in April. During the summer and fall, they protested the mobilization, painting anti-war messages around the city in chalk and placing flowers at other memorials.

Shatalov and his friend Anna Saifytdinova, 36, brought flowers together in front of the statue one recent evening. She has four white roses – the Russians give an even number of flowers in memory of the deceased.

Since one of their friends, a minor, was detained after placing a photo of the destroyed Dnipro building at the foot of the statue, Ms. Saifytdinova waited until there were no people around so they wouldn’t accused of orchestrating an unauthorized demonstration.

“I spent eight days in prison for opposing mobilization,” she said. “If I am detained again, I will face criminal charges.”

That could mean in a sentence of up to 10 years.

“It’s like Russian roulette,” she said. “You never know when something bad might happen or when it won’t. Some people have been detained for holding a blank sheet of paper in public.”

Shatalov said he planned to leave Russia soon for fear of being arrested.

“I believe I would do much better in another country than staying here without a job and without a livelihood,” he said. “What am I going to do while sitting in the prison camp: Will I be beaten all the time or be held all day like Navalny? Or will someone from the private military company Wagner come and try to recruit me to fight in Ukraine with threats that if I don’t sign up? They will push me to the point where I have to kill myself.”

However, some of those at risk of arrest insisted on showing their resistance.

Ms. Varenik, a lawyer, said: “Moscow is a big city and everyone was silent before being detained for their anti-war poster. “I want to show the world that we should not be silent. We allow all of this with our silence.”


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