The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Even from prison I can see opposition to Putin’s war growing

A billboard showing a Russian military pilot giving a thumbs up and reading "Everything will work out for us!" is displayed on a street in Moscow on July 20. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)
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PRETRIAL DETENTION CENTER NO. 5, Moscow — Every day is the same in prison, a monotonous routine from the moment we are woken up by the sounds of the Russian national anthem (the Soviet one, brought back by Vladimir Putin early in his rule) until the prison guard switches off our cell lights in the evening. The whole day ahead is known by the minute: the meals, the hour-long walk in a circle in the small prison courtyard, packages (on the days when they come in).

But the high point of the day comes closer to dinner, when the prison guard opens the porthole and hands us a stack of letters. Only someone who has been in prison can appreciate how important these can be. I receive dozens of letters every week from all over Russia; from places I’ve never been to, as far as Norilsk and Magadan. Most of the people who write to me don’t know me personally, but want to simply express their solidarity and support.

Most of this support concerns the reason that put me in prison — my opposition to Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine. In letter after letter (all of which, needless to say, are registered in the prison system with the names and contact details of their authors), my correspondents express their indignation and despair over the war. “Please know that you’re not alone,” one woman from the south of Russia wrote to me last week.

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I am, of course, heartened by such sentiments, but certainly not surprised. From the start of Putin’s invasion I knew very well what his propaganda goes to great lengths to hide — and what some people in the West fail (or don’t want) to see: that there are many Russians who oppose this war. The Kremlin knows this. This is why since February it has shut down what remained of independent media, blocked more than 3,000 websites and instituted prison terms of up to 15 years for anyone who publicly opposes the war.

For the same reason, all of Moscow’s central squares — including Pushkin Square, the traditional site of dissident rallies in Soviet times, and Bolotnaya Square, which hosted the largest anti-Putin protests a decade ago — have been continuously occupied by riot police since February. While theaters, concert halls and sporting venues in Moscow have been fully open for months, the complete ban on public rallies remains in place, under the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic.

In such conditions, it is nothing short of remarkable that thousands of Russians — more than 16,400, by the latest count from human rights groups — have defied official bans and the threat of prosecution to stage antiwar demonstrations. But many more have expressed quiet opposition. Before my arrest in April, not a day would go by without people approaching me on the street or in a cafe to shake my hand and say “thank you.” Even more telling, stickers with the letter Z, the emblem of support for the war in Ukraine, are seen almost exclusively on official vehicles. (The police van in which I was driven on the day of my arrest had a large Z across the back window.) You would be hard-pressed to spot one on regular private cars on the streets of Moscow.

Growing opposition to the war among Russians received unexpected official confirmation thanks to a leaked poll conducted by the main government pollster. Publicly released polls invariably show overwhelming support both for Putin and for the war, but their reliability is about as high as the 99 percent official results for the Communist Party in Soviet “elections”; I continue to be amazed by Western analysts who take these polls seriously. A recent media exposé of the Russian polling industry revealed, among other things, that most people simply refuse to respond to pollsters’ questions for fear of repercussions — 2 in 3 before the start of the war, 5 in 6 now. “I don’t want to go to prison” is a popular reaction from respondents, according to a regional pollster. Unsurprisingly, the minority that does respond gives the expected “correct” answer.

But sometimes the Kremlin actually wants to know what Russian society thinks, and this is why it recently commissioned a survey about the war to the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center. The question was phrased carefully: Instead of a direct “yes” or “no,” the respondents were asked to select their “preferred option” between continuing the war and starting peace talks with Ukraine. The results were not meant for public consumption, but were leaked and published by the Bell, an independent online journal. According to government pollsters, the invasion of Ukraine split Russian society down the middle: The options of continuing the war and of starting peace talks received 44 percent each (a further 12 percent “declined to answer” — almost certainly belonging to the second half). Notably, a strong plurality both in Moscow and in St. Petersburg opted for peace talks, as did a large majority of all Russians below the age of 35.

The last finding is perhaps the most remarkable, as this is the generation that has grown up and formed during Putin’s two-decades-plus rule. Again, I am not surprised. In my extensive travels across Russia in recent years, I have met many young people who are tired of the archaism and autocracy of the Putin era. It is this generation — not Putin’s close circle that increasingly resembles Leonid Brezhnev’s aging Politburo — that will shape Russia’s destiny in the coming years.

Instead of generalizing and painting all Russians as enemies, as some shortsighted Westerners seem to be doing, it is important to find ways to start a dialogue with that part of Russian society that wants a different future for our country. If I can do this from prison as I pick up my daily stack of letters, it should certainly be possible for everyone else.

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