Russian Activists Form Resistance Networks Against Putin and the War in Ukraine

Isabelle Mandraud / Le Monde
Russian Activists Form Resistance Networks Against Putin and the War in Ukraine Grigori Sverdline hosts "Go through the forest," which in Russian can also mean "Get lost." Brussels, November 27, 2023. (photo: Le Monde)

Russian civilians are organizing in order to help army deserters, political prisoners and Ukrainians. They met in Brussels for an 'Anti-War Initiatives Congress.'

Strict instructions had been issued. The location of the meeting, released at the last minute, was not to be divulged; there were to be no tweets; participants were to show ID at the entrance without saying their names out loud; and they were to wait for 48 hours before publishing anything about the event. With these precautions, the Congress of Anti-War Initiatives, held in Brussels on Monday, November 27, supported by the European Union (EU) and the German Foreign Ministry, brought together some 250 Russian citizens actively working against the invasion of Ukraine and the Kremlin's "dictatorship."

These underground currents of resistance, whether helping deserters, assisting the growing number of political prisoners or helping Ukrainians seeking to flee Russia, operate in secret. These "volunteers," as they describe themselves, have formed informal networks, each aware of the risks.

"There are 10 of us, four abroad and six in Russia, and we only use encrypted communication channels," explained Ania Kurbateva, a 33-year-old artist with hair dyed blue. She has been a refugee in Germany since September, and now devotes all her time to the group, which is called "Defense Zone" and provides legal support to Russians prosecuted for anti-war actions.

"As the peaceful protests have almost all disappeared, other, harsher ones have appeared, such as the burning of recruitment centers, the sabotage of railroads... And their perpetrators are even less well protected," she explained. However, resources are scarce. "We started spontaneously at the beginning of the war, we couldn't have imagined that almost two years later, we would still be here," she sighed. "Today, we support 16 people; we wouldn't be able to manage more."

Grigori Sverdline, a man with a lean, determined look, runs the association Idité Lessom, meaning "Go through the forest," which in Russian can also mean "Get lost." Specializing in helping deserters and "those who don't want to fight," the network was set up after Vladimir Putin's partial mobilization decree in September 2022. "Today, we are 'celebrating' our 2,004th customer," Sverdline said wryly. He is the former head of a homeless association in St Petersburg, and a criminal investigation has just been opened against him in Russia.

A mix of discouragement and determination

The more than 20,000 requests for help from men aged between 18 and 55 who wanted to escape the army were collected on a specially opened Telegram channel. In Russia, "volunteers are responible for helping them cross borders; we work out the routes and give them money if necessary," explained Sverdline. "Of course, it's dangerous, all the more so as a new law, which came into force on October 1, bans conscripts from leaving, but we can still take action as there is no centralized database."

Among the participants in the Congress of Anti-War Initiatives, around 20 Russians chose to remain completely anonymous for obvious safety reasons. Le Monde spoke to two young women who want to be called "A" and "B." They are "between 20 and 30," came "from a large Russian city" after a three-day journey and "several flights," and introduced themselves as "independent activists." "We paint graffiti and stick anti-war posters in urban spaces, wherever we can," explained A, who has brightened up her face with fine sequins under her glasses.

"It's taking a lot of risks, being scared all the time, becoming paranoid; but to everyone who asks me about the situation in Russia, I reply: 'We are still alive!'" said B.

A qualified her friend's statement by quickly listing the names of Vsevolod Korolev, Evgeny Beztujev, Oleg Belussov, Olga Smirnova and Ivan Kudriachov, all of whom are awaiting trial or have already been convicted under the law against defamation of the army, or placed in a psychiatric unit like Victoria Petrova, aged 29. "There are more of us than we think," said B.

"Much more, in any case, than people in the West think," insisted Sverdline.

For this second edition of the "Congress" – the first took place in Berlin in December 2022 – there is a mix of discouragement and determination aggravated by the growing repression of the government. The event is co-managed by associations such as the human rights organization Russia-Libertés, which has been very active in France since 2012.

Most designated as 'foreign agents'

Sargylana Kondakova traveled to Brussels from Australia, where she emigrated after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Originally from Yakutia, a Siberian region five and a half times the size of France, she founded an NGO – the Free Yakutia Foundation – aimed at defending the rights of indigenous peoples and fighting Kremlin propaganda.

"In 2022, 500 women took to the streets to protest against the call-up, and it was all organized on Telegram, without any local leaders on site," she explained. "Out of a population of one million, 8,000 men were mobilized, which is a huge number. They were taken from the streets, shopping centers and villages in the north... It's still happening this year, with all those who have debts, are on parole, are unemployed or are homeless most at risk – in other words the most socially vulnerable..."

This is well documented: Her network sends her information, such as a recent video of a closed-door meeting where the regional governor was discussing the quotas required by Moscow.

There were also anti-war feminists at the meeting, who are helping to get Ukrainians out of Russian territory, and members of the Russian-Ukrainian network Kidmapping – whose name rhymes with "kidnapping" – who gather information on deported Ukrainian children.

The Russian Ministry of Justice accuses the volunteers of being "foreign agents." They are often exhausted by the constant search for donations, but are trying to keep their networks active at all costs, whether from exile or from inside the country. But every day brings new departures. The latest are from the LGBTQ+ community, which has been targeted by the Russian courts, who are considering banning "the movement" because of "extremism."

'All forms of protest have come together'

"I stayed until the last moment, but I had to leave three days ago because, after November 30 [date of a Supreme Court hearing on the subject], I could be considered an extremist and risk 10 years in prison," sighed Ian Dvorkine, 33. A trained psychologist, he had to hand his adopted son over to another family, heartbroken. He was already convicted in May for "homosexual propaganda." He runs Tsentr-T, Russia's leading transgender support organization. "Two hundred volunteers have stayed behind and I'm very worried about them," he said. "Since the war, we have become representatives of Western values."

Although they are cautiously beginning to coordinate, thanks in particular to people outside the country, and although they are keen to be recognized for what they are – opponents of Putin – Russian activists are trying to keep politics out of it. The platform that unites them, they stressed, is a leaderless, "horizontal" organization, light years away from Putin's "vertical" power structure.

The political opposition provides no glimmer of hope for the future, as it is unable to meet and its members thrown into prison. Neither Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been in exile for 10 years, nor even Alexei Navalny, who is behind bars, seem to find favor in the eyes of the assembly, over which 82-year-old Lev Ponomarev looks with wonder. "To be honest, I wouldn't make a distinction between civilians and politicians, because any one here could become a political prisoner," said the long-standing human rights activist, who helped set up Memorial, Russia's largest NGO, which was dissolved in December 2021. "What is happening here is unique because all forms of protest have come together."

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