When the Russian army invaded Ukraine on the 24th of February, I was still asleep. Waking up that day to the terrible news and many messages was the worst morning ever. The first hour I was crying while on a phone call with my father, but the next moment, I was already planning a protest for IE students in front of the Russian embassy. That terrible morning, in a hard process of thinking, there was a thought about going back home to Russia for summer break. As I was harshly homesick all February after a wonderful Christmas break with my family in snowy Russia, I was counting down the months and days until seeing my parents and friends again. Although it was only the end of February, the aggression of the Russian army seemed to cross out all the plans for the rest of the year. Having all the family staying there became even harder than it had been before. Nevertheless, in May I finally bought flight tickets home. I had hoped to meet people who are as against the war as I am, and had feared to meet Putin’s supporters in real life. But being apart from the Russian reality for almost 5 months made me romanticize life in a warpath country. So, let me tell you some true stories that happened to me during the summer.
Life in the third capital of Russia
I was born and raised in the European part of Russia in a city called Kazan (800km from Moscow). For Muscovites and people from Saint-Petersburg, it is a provincial town far from them. But for me, Kazan is a capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, the third capital of Russia, as well as home to many nationalities, especially Tatars which I belong to. Not only do Tatars have their own republic inside Russia, but they also sing their own anthem, raise their own flag, and speak the Tatar language that is completely different from Russian. I consider myself quite a separatist in terms of relations between Russia and Tatarstan. I try to differentiate between the Kremlin’s and Kazan’s politics. Compared to the Russian capital, Kazan is not as controlled by the state. This might be a reason why I was not detained by customs at the airport. There were many cases when ordinary people had to unblock their phones and show the contents of their social media under the pressure of customs and interior safety services. These incidents, however, mainly happened in Moscow airports. So, I was happy to officially cross the Russian border safe and sound and finally see my family in Kazan.
Reading news about Russia while being far from it is fraught with losing connection with reality. As a consequence of the race for more readers or viewers, newspapers and Telegram channels aim to post news that create the biggest resonance. Publishers that I personally read not only show the opposing point of view, but also tell stories of the war supporters and show pictures of people with the Z-merch. This creates an image of Russia as a country with an ignorant popularity that unquestioningly endorses Putin’s actions. Frankly speaking, before going home I was afraid of seeing Z everywhere and of meeting the supporters in person. In reality, the situation is not that devastating. Of course, I have seen the war merch on a couple of passengers in the metro or on car rear windows. I have even made bets with my friends while walking around the city predicting that certain cars will have a Z sticker. I have always won these bets, as I knew that the National guards of Russia patrol cars must put on the merch according to their rules. I stared at these examples of supporters, and they could see the hatred in my eyes. I barely stopped myself from showing a middle finger to them. I knew that my aggression is what they aim for, but I was not going to let them provoke me. One might think that I could have talked to them or asked why they support the crimes. However, my and my parents’ experience shows that conversations with these supporters do not lead anywhere. They are hypnotized by propaganda: Ukraine is a marionette of the West, a.k.a the worst rival, while Russia is a savior and a peacemaker. This ideology is like a chip inserted in their brain. It is barely likely supporters will change their mind.
Sometimes, people show their obedience due to potential consequences. One weekend, my mom and I went shopping and asked the shop assistant about a store offer. She kindly explained that the conditions of the offer had changed since the start of “the special operation.” I felt rage inside after her use of a senseless term that Putin had created to refer to the war and the invasion. My mom tried to calm me down saying that the woman worked in the service sector under surveillance cameras, so she must obey the laws. In the disobedience of the law, she might lose her job, which can be her only source of income, or even be fined for “discrediting the Russian army” (article in the Criminal Law of Russia). I am still not sure that these reasons justify her words, but it is not a secret that disobedience can result in unjust consequences for the ones that do. As an example, on a usual Crimean car service, a worker refused to repair a truck with Z on it, using the argument that they do not help the military. A week later, the authorities decreed to demolish the service no matter how much the owner explained that they do not repair trucks.
The war has also made me put off my rose-colored glasses about Tatarstan’s separatism. As Tatarstan authorities are under the Kremlin’s guard, the republic must take part in the so-called “special operation”. That is why the local government decided to form two battalions, “Alga” (“Forward”) and “Timer” (“Iron”), that fight in the Ukrainian territories. I saw posters and banners inviting men to join the divisions and earn a decent number of Rubles (>200K RUB ~ >3.3K EUR). To compare, an average salary in Tatarstan is 50K Rubles (about 830 EUR). I also have a distant relative whom I have never met who went to Ukraine as a member of the Russian army. As I was told, his injury got him out of fights and made him realize that he does not want to see that violence on the battlefield ever again. In fact, this is not a solitary case. Recently, Russian opposition publisher “Important Stories” released an investigation about a young soldier who holds remorse for the murder of Ukrainians, and admitted that he did not even understand why he fought and what he fought for. To further show the appraisal of the soldiers,, those who come back in zinc coffins get “an honor” to be put on a billboard with a “Hero of Russia” sign on it. I saw many of these not only in Kazan but also in provincial towns of Tatarstan. It is a pity to see how Tatars are also offered and sometimes obliged to give their lives for Kremlin’s crimes. Thus, although there are Putinists and those who are ready to fight for him, they do not make up the majority of the current Russian population. Even those who are on the Z side might change their minds.
Along with fearing meeting Z people, I had also hoped to find someone who is equally against the Russo-Ukrainian war as I am in Kazan. The Anti-war movement in the Russian province was supposed to be the topic of my short film which I wanted to make. However, after spending a couple of weeks there and talking to my friends and strangers, I realized that it is almost impossible to find a person who is a determined anti-Putinist and pacifist. Of course, some of my friends hate the Kremlin’s regime and stand for the stop of the war. I even know a girl who got a dove, a symbol of peace, as a tattoo. But this is the maximum that these people are able to do.
In the case that these freethinkers try to fight the system more vividly and publicly, police will put handcuffs on them instantly. As nobody wants to suffer from the unfair judgment and torture, all that is left for Russians is to keep silence and turn a blind eye to the everyday killings of Ukrainian civilians. Most people quit reading the news and stopped making themselves aware of the crimes that Russians commit every day. I have even heard an opinion that there is “always someone dying because of wars in the world” so there is “no sense in overthinking about this war.” Apparently, they forgot that nowadays someone is dying out of bullets released by their compatriots who might have even lived with them on the same street. Those ignorant people do not realize that war always creates trauma for every soldier, and that every man that eventually will come back to his hometown, will not be able to live his previous life the same. It is also well-known that after every war, crime levels go higher since the traumatized fighters get used to solving problems with violence.
It must be said, at some point, I temporarily got into the shoes of non-caring people due to the overwhelm of emotions and harsh comments made to me. This discouraged me from wanting to take action. I was tired of hearing that my Motherland is a terrorist country. My brain could not hear news about more and more sanctions that make Russia a third-world country. However, I found some willpower, so this apathy lasted for a week and grew my motivation to act even more.
Although I have not found like-minded people, I was not going to go with the Z-flow. I decided to do something on my own. I was inspired by a movie about families who split as a consequence of different opinions on the war. There was a girl who created anti-war art performances. She already has a police eye and a bunch of administrative cases on her. Receiving an education abroad and having to leave the country, I could not afford so much state attention to me. Thus, I had to act secretly. One method to fight propaganda and ignorance is leaving anti-war inscriptions around cities. I discovered this way to take action from a student-run publisher DOXA. They regularly post anti-war signs that were found by readers around Russia. While in Kazan, I have seen some writings on buildings. It always was out of the blue and brought so much happiness. I was delighted to know that there is someone brave enough to express their opposition to the status quo. These inscriptions stimulated me to leave some of my own around Kazan. I left many “no war”, “fuck war”, “glory to Ukraine,” and “peace” writings on branches, walls, and pillars. Although I was afraid to be caught by CCTV, the pleasure and euphoria of personally trying to spread a message of peace were worth it.
Another form of my protest was wearing a “Russia will be free” t-shirt during walks around the city. Surprisingly, I was never stopped by policemen. Sometimes, I even received some approving smiles from strangers. My parents and some of my friends have also supported me. By the end of summer, I surrounded myself only with loved ones with anti-war opinions, since discussions about the Kremlin’s crimes is my routine.
Although I was lucky to stay safe after these actions, there were cases when Russians were detained for such protests. They were fined 30K-50K Rubles (about 500-830 EUR) for “discrediting the Russian army” or “disseminating deliberately false information about the deployment of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” According to this article in criminal law, the criminal can get several punishments including 15-year imprisonment. Considering that many of these administrative and even criminal cases were registered not only in Moscow but also in other Russian cities, I honestly do not know how I was not caught by the police.
My 3 months in wartime Russia made me conclude that most of its citizens are exhausted from the war. Their daily routines do not include news from Ukraine anymore, since it is relatively far from them, they do not feel affected. In the eyes of apathetic people, the absence of mass-market stores, IKEA, and famous beverage brands is only the West’s fault. The rest of the society is divided between active war supporters and vivid pacifists. The first ones wear Z merch, watch or listen to state propaganda, and consider Ukrainian authorities Nazis. The others hate Putin, get disappointed in their compatriots, and seriously think of leaving Russia or have already moved out.
Personally, I belong to the latter group. I am sure that my oppositional point of view is the right one, but there are times when I wish I was ignorant. Being aware of the Kremlin’s crimes is a hard burden that I have to remind myself of every day. It is painful to realize that my Motherland has become a terrorist country. What is more devastating is that I cannot do anything about it, as my sole personal efforts are unfortunately not enough. My hands are tied with the unfair law. My role in Russian society is useless, or even hazardous, as my grandfather said that I am against Russia. Although I do still oppose the Russian government, I believe in the best, and I believe in a country that can be peaceful, nonviolent, and full of talented people. I know that it might take a long time for Russia to become such a country, but I am honored to be one of its not-so-many representatives that fight for peace.
Featured cover image: On the left: “Say no to war” (DOXA); one the right: “Volodya [Putin] VS Zelen’ [Zelensky]. We will beat the drug addicts” (Airat Sharapov). Collage by Jasmine Sharapova.