Russians struggle to understand war in Ukraine: ‘We didn’t choose this’

By CNN contributor Jill Dougherty

(CNN) — Tasya, 19, stood with her friends on a cold morning in the Russian city of St. Petersburg as they joined protesters chanting against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “Nyet Voine !” (“No to war!”).

“It’s always safer to hang out with others…to look over your shoulder, in case you need to run,” said Tasya, who asked that her last name not be used for his safety. At one point, Tasya said her friends left the protest to go home or somewhere else to warm up, leaving her alone on the street.

“Then a group of cops walked past me…and suddenly one of them looked at me, then they turned around, walked towards me and stopped me,” she told about the February 24 demonstration.

Demonstrations continue across Russia as young citizens, as well as middle-aged people and even pensioners, take to the streets to denounce a military conflict ordered by their president – a decision in which they say they did not have a say.

Now they are finding their voice. But the Russian authorities intend to end all public dissent against the attack on Ukraine. Police are cracking down on protests almost as quickly as they happen, dragging some protesters away and roughing up others.

St. Petersburg police arrested at least 350 anti-war protesters on Wednesday, bringing the total number of protesters detained or arrested to 7,624 since the start of the invasion, according to an independent organization that tracks human rights abuses. man in Russia.

Opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military operation in Ukraine, while still limited, is coming from unexpected places.

One of Russia’s richest men, Ukrainian-born billionaire businessman Mikhail Fridman, called the violence a “tragedy”, adding that “war can never be the answer” – but he s refrained from directly criticizing Putin, according to the Financial Times.

“If I make an unacceptable political statement in Russia, it will have very clear implications for the company, for our customers, for our creditors, for our stakeholders,” Fridman said.

Another oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, posted on his Telegram channel: “Peace is very important! Talks must start as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, members of Russia’s ‘intelligentsia’ – academics, writers, journalists and others – issued public appeals denouncing the war, including a rare ‘open letter’ to Putin signed by 1,200 students, professors and members staff from MGIMO University, the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations, affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which produces most of the Russian government and foreign service elite.

The signatories proclaim that they are “categorically opposed to the military actions of the Russian Federation in Ukraine”.

“We consider it morally unacceptable to stand on the sidelines and remain silent when people die in a neighboring state. They die at the fault of those who chose arms over peaceful diplomacy,” the letter said.

The letter is surprisingly personal, with the signatories explaining that: “Many of us have friends and relatives who live in the territories where the military action is taking place. But the war has not only come for them, the war has come to all of us, and our children and grandchildren will feel the repercussions.Many generations of future diplomats will have to rebuild the trust in Russia and the good relations with our neighbors that have been lost.

A representative for MGIMO did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Publicly, Russian diplomats followed the Kremlin, even though the head of a Russian delegation to a United Nations meeting on climate change, Oleg Anisimov, reportedly apologized for the military operation, according to the Washington Post, “in name of all the Russians who could not prevent this conflict”, adding that “those who know what is happening find no justification for the attack”.

But many Russians, in fact, do not really know what is happening in Ukraine. State-controlled television broadcasts almost no reports of Russian shelling and shelling in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, but instead focuses on so-called Ukrainian “nationalists” and “neo-fascists”.

About a week after Russian forces arrived in Ukraine, many Russians are still aware that war is happening. The United States and other Western officials had been warning about the coming attack for weeks, but Russian state media, particularly TV news, mocked those statements, saying Moscow would not had no intention of taking military action against Kiev. In a CNN poll conducted before the start of the invasion, only 13% of Russians thought a Russian attack was likely and two in three (65%) expected a peaceful end to tensions between Russia and Ukraine. .

But young Russians like Arina, 25, who lives in Moscow, don’t watch TV – she says she hasn’t watched it for seven years. She’s on the internet, reading blogs and listening to vloggers. She has yet to take part in protests, but she has seen young people on the streets taking part in “silent protests”, sticking “No to war” signs on their backpacks or bags.

She, too, struggles to understand why this war in Ukraine is taking place and what it will mean for her own life as a young Russian.

“It’s very hard to predict anything, of course the situation is horrible,” said Arina, who asked CNN to use only her first name for safety. “Among some of my friends there is a lot of anxiety about the future, a lot of fear, because we don’t know how it will affect us.”

But Arina’s mother sees things completely differently: “My mother believes everything she sees on TV,” says Arina.

“She thinks it was a necessary step on Putin’s part because there are weapons surrounding the country…there is a threat from the West, that’s why Putin is doing this.”

Arina says she even consulted a guide on an online Russian magazine for students, Doxa, suggesting how young Russians can talk with their parents and others about the war in Ukraine. “We understand how painful it can be when your parents, friends, colleagues, grandfathers and grandmothers turn into supporters of war,” it read.

“So we decided to prepare a guide on how to talk about war with those who justify it. In our guide, you will find answers to 17 of the most common arguments spread by propaganda and most often heard in battles. “, did he declare.

Arina read it just in time. On February 28, the magazine reported that Russia’s government agency overseeing communications, computing and mass media had asked Doxa to remove the guide from its website.

Arina says she and her mother “had a very fierce argument.”

“She just doesn’t accept my position and thinks I’m pro-Western, that I don’t understand anything. She doesn’t believe what I say, I don’t believe what she says… We have very different sources of information: I learn everything from independent media, mostly blocked for a long time in Russia, and she watches TV.”

As Arina and her friends follow Ukraine news on social media, they see the revulsion of many Westerners at Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine. Russians, she says, have contradictory, polar opposite reactions.

“The first is that everyone says, ‘Yes, we should be ashamed’. The second is, ‘No, let’s not be ashamed of ourselves and impose decisions on ourselves that have no not been taken by us.”

But both sides agree on one thing, says Arina: They want the international community to know “that the people are not their president, and we didn’t choose that.”

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