Russian Anti-War Activists Seek Common Goals (When They Don’t Fight)

BERLIN — Seeking to depict the unruly, stagnant nature of the Russian opposition operating in exile, Abubakar Yangulbaev, a young Chechen human rights defender, referred to a Russian fable. from the early 1800s called “Swan, Pike and Crawfish”.

Mr. Yangulbaev said the three animals are not compatible with each other, all tied to the same trolley, constantly pulling in different directions so it never moves.

“We all have different goals — our only common ground is the fight against Putin’s regime and ending the war in Ukraine,” he said in an interview. “We stand with Ukraine, that’s the main point, but when it comes to Russia’s internal affairs, we don’t stand together.”

To tackle that problem, nearly 300 mostly young Russian activists from across the diaspora as well as from within Russia — feminists, politicians, gay rights advocates , representatives of indigenous peoples and many others — gathered in Berlin over the weekend to begin working out a common goal. agenda.

Participants said there was consensus that Russia needed to confront the long string of violent repressions linking the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the country under President Vladimir V. Putin, even as activists How difficult it is to acknowledge any change.

“You cannot build a state based on violence; it was the common ground of everything in the Soviet Union and in Russia,” said Inna Berezkina of the Moscow School of Civic Education, one of the organizers. “Leading society out of the rut will depend on those who don’t start this war, and that takes a lot of strength. You have to understand the depth of society’s decline, understand how much we, our parents, our grandparents and many generations before them have been involved in this.”

Russian opposition figures abroad have a history of being a quarrelsome group, and the current crop is no different. For example, they have never been able to settle on a leader of the movement, and conferences have broken out over issues such as whether the current conflict should be called “Putin’s war”. ” or “Russian war” or whether this is a repeat of 1917. .

Alexei Navalny, a candidate in Russian elections, is perhaps the only politician with the qualifications and credentials to claim the role of a legitimate leading opposition figure, but he will jail in the near future. His subordinates decided to avoid working with other groups in exile, suggesting that would require too much time and energy that would be better spent fighting Putin.

Ask other activists, especially young people, about Russians who claim to be potential opposition leaders, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil oligarch jailed by Mr. or Garry Kasparov, the chess champion, and the answer is likely to be universal: They have long since been excluded from Russia and represent only themselves. An attempt in November by a small group of regional politicians from decades ago to form a “government-in-exile” was also met with scorn for lack of any mandate from the people. .

The absence of a unified number is deeply felt, as is any agreement on how broad to accomplish their goals. “We don’t have a unified opposition, we don’t have a leader, we don’t understand what we should do,” said Polina Yelina, 35, an internet technology expert who fled the country to save her life. two college-age sons from military service, said. .

After attending two conferences organized by the Free Russia Forum a few months apart in Lithuania, Yelina said that she felt that one was an exact copy of the other, with little creativity or ideas. diverse ideas.

Everyone acknowledges the difficulties involved in bringing about change, as Russia under Putin has outlawed even the most trivial protest activities and forced much of civil society to exile instead of facing time in a penal colony. More and more activists are being officially designated as “foreign agents,” a resurrected Stalin-era label that implies they are traitors.

“Hopefully sooner or later the gunfire will stop and then Russia will leave Ukraine, but then what will happen next?” Tobias Lindner, a senior official at the German Foreign Ministry, which helped sponsor the Berlin meeting, said in a statement. “Right now, it looks like where Russia is going.”

He called the activists “democratic hope for a future Russia.”

Yangulbaev, 30, a Chechen activist whose mother was raped by Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman of the republic, said: “With each important historical transition, from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union then to the Russian Federation This country has never thought about its past. leader.

Yangulbaev cited the example of banning the Russian Memorial Human Rights Foundation, a co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The group compiled a list of 3,000 possible war crimes from two wars waged to prevent Chechnya from seceding from Russia. According to Memorial, only some of the perpetrators were jailed.

He also noted that some opposition groups just want to save Russia, some want to destroy it, and others have a highly progressive agenda.

“If we can’t solve our internal problems, we will always have external problems, there will be more Ukrainians,” he said. “Russia will continue to do so even if they lose.”

Representatives of Indigenous groups also sought to emphasize that large numbers of soldiers from their generally impoverished areas were being mobilized — and dying. “It’s not our fight, it’s the main idea,” said Lana Kondakova, a representative of the Free Yakutia Foundation. Yakutia is one of the largest regions in Siberia, rich in diamonds and other resources.

Aldar Erendhzhenov, a member of Free Kalmykia, another indigenous rights group, added: “What is important for us right now is whether the Russian Federation will keep its current form or if it will transform into a different kind. another state”.

Some of those trying to create change are working from within Russia despite facing up to 15 years in prison for criticizing the war. One regional lawmaker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said he was happy to take a breather inside Russia just to be able to use the word “war” to describe the conflict. without facing criminal charges.

“I really want to not feel alone fighting Putin’s regime and its military covetousness,” he said.

The legislator noted that one of the failures of external aggressors of change is that they forget that issues such as economic sanctions or the lack of geopolitical support for Russia are too abstract for people to understand. Russian normal. And the unrelenting negative views about the country presented by the opposition media do not match their views on Russia or the war.

Perhaps the most difficult task facing the opposition, united or not, is trying to influence change from abroad. “My colleagues and I ask ourselves this question every day: What can we do outside to change the mood inside Russia?” Natalia Baranova, 29, who works with both an organization called Greenhouse for Social Technology and the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, a protest group formed when the war started last February.

The group tried to support small-scale protests in the country, including distributing leaflets against the war and launching a petition against the mobilization that several thousand mothers signed by enlisted soldiers.

One idea discussed was that both Ukraine and Russia would need some form of the Marshall Plan, the post-World War II American effort to transform Germany from its fascist past into a vibrant democracy. But that was done under occupation, activists note, while any attempt to rebuild Russia and highlight decades of harsh repression would have to be by the Russians themselves. perform.

Ms. Berezkina, a conference organizer, said the country needed to get rid of the “imperial mindset”. “If this quantum leap doesn’t happen, perhaps even the war’s end and Ukraine’s victory won’t save the situation.”

Aline Lobzina contributed reporting.


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