Anti-war Russians in Washington challenge Putin to stand with Ukraine

But here, 4,900 miles from Moscow, he felt helpless. It seemed he could do nothing but check on his friends and hope for the best. So he went to the Russian Embassy to protest, “trying to show them my disrespect for what Russia has done.”

“I decided I couldn’t spend my time like I usually do,” said Slabykh, 42.

Slabykh is among a growing number of Russians in the region who are joining Ukraine supporters demonstrating against the war and against Putin himself. They love their country, they say. Its customs, its people, its spirit. Most still have family and lifelong friends in Russia. But they say they can’t stay silent as their homeland visits war and terror on Ukraine, where many of them also have family and friends.

And they cannot remain silent here, they say, when speaking out against the war is forbidden in Russia. Friends at home were arrested for protesting. Others, they say, are increasingly concerned that attending anti-war rallies will cost them. Sentences of up to 15 years in prison have been announced for criticizing the war. More than 4,500 anti-war protesters were arrested there on Sunday alone, according to the independent human rights organization OVD-Info.

“It’s getting scarier every day because the police are now arresting random people who gather in groups of more than three to four people,” said Elizaveta Volkova, a Russian student currently studying in Washington.

On a cold evening last week, Roman Istomin and Olga Petrova stood outside the White House during a protest organized by the local Ukrainian community. The couple, from the Russian city of Perm, moved to the United States in 2014. They had protested against Putin’s leadership and participated in pro-democracy movements while living in Russia. Since the start of the war, friends in Russia have been beaten and arrested for taking part in anti-war demonstrations. It is their responsibility, they said, to voice their opposition here since so many people back home cannot.

“I love Russia. I can’t just cut it out of my life,” said Petrova, who wore mascara in the blue and gold colors of Ukraine and held a sign that read, “Stop Russian Aggression.” But I am firmly opposed to war, especially a war that my country has started.”

The couple are disheartened by the lack of information about the war available to Russians at home and by the propaganda they receive that justifies the war on specious grounds and denies responsibility for rocket attacks on neighborhoods and schools. and the death of civilians. They describe some relatives as having been “brainwashed” by the official Kremlin line and fear that misinformation could have disastrous long-term effects.

Istomin blames the Russian leader directly and does not mince words about what his fate should be.

“Everyone just wants Putin dead,” he said. “I haven’t seen anyone who wants to live a second longer.”

In DC, Russians join protests outside the Russian Embassy on Wisconsin Avenue, where motorists march past, honking their horns in support. And they showed up every day in support of the Ukrainians in front of the White House demanding ever tougher sanctions against Russia and more military aid to Ukraine.

“We have to demonstrate that many of us here outside the country and there inside the country do not support it, do not like what is happening, do not accept it, do not think it’s normal,” said Dmitry Valuev, an IT consultant who moved to Northern Virginia from Russia 11 years ago with his wife.

Valuev, 42, is one of the organizers of Russian America for Democracy in Russia, which has about 200 members in the Washington area and several thousand in the United States, he said.

“We are trying to make ourselves more visible,” Valuev said. “To go to rallies and say, ‘Yes, I’m Russian and I support Ukraine. And I am against war.

Russians living in Washington are also beginning to hear about the effects of the sanctions back home. Prices in supermarkets are rising sharply. Many stores have posted limits on how much each customer can buy of sugar, buckwheat, vegetable oil and other staples. Slabykh said a woman he knew in Moscow bought a year’s supply of disposable contact lenses because she feared they would soon be unavailable. Two people he knows have told him they are worried about shortages of heart medications and antidepressants in pharmacies.

Others in Russia are not yet feeling the effects of the sanctions and do not believe they will present long-term difficulties, said Maria Bulycheva, who has lived in the United States for three decades but has close family members. at home. “They think China will help them and they won’t feel any impact other than temporary discomfort,” she said.

But many of the sanctions have been in place for less than a month, and they will be felt more as the weeks go on, Slabykh said. “Most people don’t understand that it will be very difficult and it will become more and more difficult for people, especially the poor,” he said.

Volkova didn’t expect to spend her freshman year of college during anti-Putin protests in Washington, but that’s what happened for Moscow’s freshman studying at George Washington University. The 17-year-old hasn’t known a Russia ruled by anyone other than Putin. When the war started, Volkova says, “my whole world fell apart”.

“I am ashamed that my country’s name is being used as a cover for the actions of a dangerous terrorist gang,” Volkova said.

Volkova has participated in four protests so far. She wants her voice to be heard. She wants more Russians to know what’s going on and join the protests. And, for her, the protests are also cathartic.

“For me, protest is just something I can do to not shut up,” she said. However, even here, speaking out is not without risk.

In Russia, it is forbidden to criticize the war. Even calling it a war is against the law. Officially, the war can only be described as a “special operation”. Participating in protests or speaking out has resulted in fines and arrests. Most Russians get their news from state-controlled television and radio. Independent reporting has been muzzled. The truth is a crime.

Russians in America who have family at home often choose their words carefully. Or they say nothing at all. There are, of course, Russians in the Washington area who support Putin and the war, several people interviewed for this article said. But there are many others, they said, who simply don’t feel comfortable going public with their objections.

A man who only asked to be identified by his first name, Dmitry, stood outside the Russian Embassy with his daughter on a recent Saturday afternoon to protest Russia’s actions. He wanted to show the Ukrainians that they had the support of the Russians and that Putin was not the only face of his country. But he feared that giving his full name would cause problems for his family in Moscow.

“The biggest risk is that I can’t see them,” he said. “But my sister could lose her job. My mother, who knows? There are many ways to humiliate.

In Europe, even Russians who oppose the war say they have been targeted and insulted simply because they are Russian.

“Across Europe, people who are not involved in the war are being targeted and removed from their jobs,” Aleksandra Lewicki, a sociologist at the University of Sussex, told The Washington Post. “There is a clear sense of the enemy: it is Russians, of all backgrounds, who are targeted by racist hate crimes and derogatory comments.”

But of more than a dozen Russians living in the Washington area interviewed for this article, none said they had been criticized or condemned in any way.

At the demonstrations she attended, including one at the Russian Embassy on the morning the war began, Bulycheva made a point of telling the Ukrainians who were there that she was Russian and was against the war. They took her in, she said.

Bulycheva has lived in the United States since 1993, but her parents and other family members remain in Russia and she is in daily contact with them. The 50-year-old economist, who has dual American and Russian citizenship, said she felt a duty to protest against the war. She kept her Russian nationality, she said, because she wants to be able to have a say in her future.

“I still have hope for Russia,” she said. “I wanted to have the right to influence Russia to be a prosperous, normal and healthy country.”

Hope for Russia’s future spans generations. GW freshman Volkova has it too. A double major in business and political science, she says she is not giving up on better prospects for her country. And she wants to be part of it.

“Just yesterday I was thinking, in 10 years I want to be education minister in Russia,” she said. “In my bright and free Russia.”

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