Russian President Vladimir Putin, announced last week a partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists to go to the battlefront in Ukraine. This measure has generated a wave of protests throughout the country and mass flights across borders to surrounding nations. In response, the president has forcibly suppressed the demonstrations, installed offices at the border crossings for registration and military enlistment; and signed a law that increases the penalties for surrendering and refusing to fight.
Maria Kuznetsova24, has lived in exile for a year in Georgia and is the spokesperson for the Russian organization for the defense of human rights OVD-Info. This is one of the entities that works to inform and denounce the crimes committed by the Russian Government and that gained great importance by exposing the harassment against Russian citizens since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. In this interview, Kuznetsova talks about the harsh situation Russians are experiencing caused by the war and aggravated by the partial mobilization announced by Putin.
Q. According to OVD-Info data, as of today there are already more than 2,400 detainees in Russia for the demonstrations against the partial mobilization. Being an organization where you all operate abroad, how do you get information about arrests?
A. We have a telephone line and a Telegram account through which anyone can call or write to us. We have evidence that our registries are quite efficient. For example, our number of detainees in last year’s protests over Alexei Navalny’s arrest was very close to what Russia later had to give to the UN. It is true that we have less reliable statistics on the smaller cities and, above all, on the more remote regions. Still, we can probably say that we are able to collect 90% of the information.
P. What is it that differentiates these protests from the previous ones?
R. I would say that something striking about these protests is that more than half of the detainees are women, something never seen in Russian demonstrations. Normally, 60 to 80% of those arrested by the police are men. The situation is changing drastically, especially in some regions with ethnic minorities like Dagestan, where women are the main responsible for the protests.
I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that women they are empathizing with men that they will have to go to war, that they are their brothers, partners, children… The second reason is that men are threatened now. If you are arrested in a demonstration, there is a good chance that the authorities will send you the order to attend the mobilization.
In addition, before the demonstrations used to be concentrated in the big cities and were carried out by young people between twenty and thirty years old with a good educational background. This is changing, because the mobilization has reached the poorest regions of Russia. I would say that currently the people who take to the streets are those less privileged and with a lower educational level.
Q. So, do these protests represent a turning point for Russian citizenship?
R. I would say yes, but for this you have to understand that in Russia there is a “tacit agreement” between Putin and Russian society for 23 years. This consists of the government not asking people to get involved in politics in exchange for them not speaking out against the repression. This is basically the strategy that the Executive has to hide that it is a authoritarian regime.
Today, the opposite happens; people are being asked to involve their personal lives and go to war. This has come as a shock to all Russians, especially those who live in regions far from the war, such as those bordering the East, China or Japan.
The serious censorship that the country is experiencing also influences. I think that the lack of access to information means that most Russians did not have a real opinion about the war. We see that this is changing and that more and more people are beginning to be against the war and the mobilization. What we saw in the protests before were Russians demonstrating against the conflict for moral reasons, out of empathy towards the Ukrainians. Now, I hear people at the protests saying that I’d rather go to jail for ten years than have to go to war and kill people. The population has realized that it is important to protest and show your opinion.
P. Do you get testimonies of detained people who are sent as part of these 300,000 reservists?
R. Many of those detained in the protests receive the call for mobilization, which does not mean that they go directly to the army and fight in Ukraine. Even so, we are not sure what will happen to them after their period of detention. Yes, there are cases of people sent with serious reasons not to go to war. For example, recently there was a case where police asked a man diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia to come to the recruitment center. We also know of people with severe disabilities who have been claimed by the military. The authorities do not care about the circumstances, they only care about the number of people enlisted for war.
Q. Do you think these protests will have a real impact on the Kremlin?
R. I think there is a change, because we have never seen this type of protest in the Caucasus, in Siberia or in the East. In the same way that these people are changing their minds, I see it likely that the small political positions will also change their minds. So I would say that what we see is, perhaps, a boycott that begins in the small states of Russia and that will have a greater impact on the demonstrations.