Photo Courtesy of Amine M

The Bravery and Cowardice in Russia

The war in Ukraine has divided Russian society irrevocably as once seemingly decent people support the senseless destruction of the Ukrainian people. But others are risking their lives to fight the destructiveness of those in power.

Nov 7, 2022

On February 24, Russia started a war on Ukraine. I was on a trip to a different city with my team and our coach to compete in an intellectual game of “What? Where? When?” tournament. The morning before the tournament, we came out of our hotel rooms in silence, already aware of the news. We didn’t eat much during the breakfast, too busy crying and texting our friends and family in Ukraine. After that, being helpless high schoolers, unaware of what to do or how to react, we continued our day as it was scheduled beforehand. When we came to the hall where the opening ceremony was supposed to happen, we heard teams from other cities and schools chanting the Russian hymn. That day changed and ruined the lives of millions of people, and it divided Russians into two groups: the ones who supported the war, and the ones who did not. We had to cut off our classmates, friends and family, who we thought were kind and generally nice people, because they celebrated the announcement of coming death and destruction.
Protests and demonstrations against the war began the same day that the war was started. Putin's administration often responded with violence in the face of public dissent. Police beating up protesters and locking them up for 10 to 15 days was nothing new — we got used to it during the anti-corruption protests in 2021. Still, thousands of people were making anti-war signs and risking their careers and safety by coming out to the protests for one goal — to change the public’s opinion. They were trying to change the opinion of people who were glued to their TVs, unable to take their eyes off the propaganda on national television that was trying to convince them that the war was justified, that most Ukranians are Nazis, and the ones who are not would not be affected by the “special operation,” that they called the war. So, we fought to change their minds and the government had to come up with something new to scare protesters off.
Photo Courtesy of AFP
A new law was added to the criminal code — everyone who is “discrediting” (basically criticizing) the actions of Russian army in Ukraine would be imposed a penalty of 50,000 to 1,000,000 rubles (approx. $700 - $14,200 U.S. dollars). People were fined their annual salary for calling the “special operation” what it actually was — a war — on their Instagram story.
Photo Courtesy of SOTA. The writing on the window says "no war".
It is the first time in Russian history when censoring of speech became this strong. Previously, it was just common knowledge, not declared in the criminal code, that if you criticize Putin’s administration, you are going to face consequences. Now, saying the word “war” when referring to the actions of the Russian’s army in Ukraine is considered a crime by the law. Luckily, opposition organizations like “OVD info” organized crowd-funded charities to help the arrested protesters pay off their penalty and the protesting did not stop. So, the government decided to resolve to violence again.
On September 21, mobilization was announced. It means that every person who has gone through military training (which is obligatory for all men in Russia under the age of 26) will now be forced to join the Russian army in Ukraine (there is a penalty if you ignore the call and try to avoid joining the army). People were not only forced to support the government’s actions, but to also take part in the killing of innocent people. Approximately 700,000 people left the country by the end of September. Because of that, the government had to prohibit international flights for men who were eligible to go to war according to their criteria. There were also a few cases of men committing suicide because they didn’t have the financial means to emigrate and didn’t want to kill innocent people.
The protests became more heated, especially in regions with ethnic minorities, because they were targeted for mobilization orders more strongly than others. Big angry crowds are hard to deal with, so the government decided to make an example by punishing a public figure to scare people off.
Photo Courtesy of Viktoria Volkova. A picture of a woman from Dagestan during a protest.
They chose the Russian poet and opposition political activist Artem Kamardin, a prominent participant of Mayakovsky Square poetry readings. The Readings were a form of Russian opposition’s political protest which root back to the Soviet Union, where they were started by a group of dissidents. One of the monthly meetings of the poets was held on September 25 and the main theme was announced to be “anti-mobilization.” At that meeting, which could only be held for half an hour before the police came, Artem Kamardin read some of his poetry in support of Ukraine, criticizing the government’s actions. On that day, he was lucky enough to run away and not get caught by police.
But the next day, they broke into his flat where he lived with two other political activists, Aleksandra Popova and Aleksander Menyukov. In the official police report, officers came for a “search,” and found Artem guilty of extremism and resistance to the arrest. However, the activists’ version is a little different from that. Police broke into their house, did not let their lawyer enter the building, and then beat, tortured and humiliated them for several hours. The next day, a video of Artem Kamardin apologizing for his anti-war poetry appeared on the internet. In the video, Artem is on his knees with visible bruises and wounds on his face. The video was quickly taken down. Artem’s partner and colleague, Aleksandra Popova, later told the publisher SOTA that she was also beaten up by the policemen, who threatened her with sexual assault, and heard her partner being sexually assaulted in the other room.
After that, Aleksandra Popova and Aleskander Menyukov were let go as witnesses in the criminal proceeding, while Artem was taken to the police station as a defendant. He was finally able to talk to his lawyer, who immediately called an ambulance for him. The medical workers registered a closed brain injury and a concussion so Artem was taken away for hospitalization. However, after the doctors found out about the nature of Artem’s injuries, they refused to provide any medical assistance and he was sent back to the police station. Currently in Russia, being a political activist is the most dangerous position, as they can be beaten up, tortured or arrested for no actual reason and everyone else is too scared for their own lives to help activists in any way. If they do, in the eyes of the government, they become an accomplice. Due to this fact, it is very hard for Russian opposition to find lawyers who are willing to defend them in court. Currently, Artem is being imprisoned until further trials in December.
For me, this story shows that the Russian government cares about neither Ukranians nor Russians. People who stand up to tyranny, that uses horrifying violence to solve every issue, possess hero-like bravery.
Milena Pugina is a contributing writer. Email them at
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