I took part in the protests against the war on Ukraine in Saint Petersburg on Thursday — the first day of the declaration of war — and on Sunday. On the first day, friends and comrades of mine published posts on Facebook with the intention of rallying in the streets, so we gathered with fellow activists in the Russian Socialist Movement near the Gostiny Dvor Metro station, where the protest was spontaneous and disorganised. From the very beginning, police detachments and police vans were ready waiting for us. The authorities likely monitor all social networks, allowing them to take such preemptive measures.
In front of the Metro station, the confused people were already surrounded by police and riot units. People did not understand what to do or how to express their position against the war in Ukraine. Among the participants in the action, there were people of all ages, but practically no posters and symbols; the composition of the participants of the action seemed to me similar to the rallies against the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny.
After 20 minutes of being there — and after the police broadcast to disperse the crowd — the timid cries of “No war” and “Putin is a killer” finally began. They began to arrest people almost immediately; right in front of me they detained an elderly woman with a “No war” poster. Gradually, there were more and more people, and the demands to stop the war became more confident and loud, then the OMON (Otryad Mobil’nyy Osobogo Naznacheniya, Special Purpose Mobile Unit; the Russian equivalent of SWAT) and police units actively began an operation to detain people and clear the area. During this time, I managed to give two interviews to journalists; after the second interview, they began arresting me. I did not resist, so the detention went quite calmly; I was pushed into an already full police van.
There was a combative and resolute mood in the van. People quickly organised themselves, handed out leaflets for OVD-Info (an independent human rights media project dedicated to combating persecution in Russia), and dialled the numbers of the support service for those detained at the rallies. After 15 minutes, the police van went to the Sixteenth Police Station, where we were held for about 18 hours. From conversations at the precinct, I realised that the 32 people detained with me were not there by chance — they all radically opposed Vladimir Putin’s aggressive policy towards Ukraine.
In the precinct, we quickly organised ourselves, and just fifteen minutes after we had arrived, the lawyers from the Apologia Protesta (Protest Defense) already knew about our detention. We had our own group chat for detainees in the Sixteenth Precinct, where we quickly made decisions and consulted lawyers.
Volunteers and relatives of the detainees brought us about five packages in total, which was very supportive and inspiring. After several hours of staying at the police department, the police began to call us to check the documents to draw up protocols. At about the same moment, our lawyers arrived but were not allowed into the precinct (though this in fact violates the Constitution of the Russian Federation on the right to legal defense). After some time, they began to call us one by one to the interrogating officers, demanding evidence and that we sign the detention protocols without lawyers. Lawyers advised us in advance in a chat that we should not agree to this under any circumstances.
The last thing I remember before being transferred to the detention cell is how a lawyer tried to speak to us through the window. Then, I was called to the policeman, and after refusing to sign the report, I was placed in a special detention centre. I spent the whole night there until we were taken to court. During the whole night, we didn’t manage to sleep in the cell — the conditions were horrendous, the political detainees were not allowed to eat, and they were not given blankets. (The benches were very hard, and it was very cold in the cell.) Only once in a while was I able to doze off for a couple minutes.
Already in the morning, we were taken to the court, where we were given a supervisor who was supposed to accompany us everywhere in the court building. The police were persuading us to refuse lawyers, arguing that they would let us go the same day. Most of us were taken by the police when we were still in our cells. In court from noon to 9 pm, I felt relatively normal, but after that I began to lose consciousness. Without waiting for my lawyer, I pleaded guilty and was fined.
Back on the streets
On the second day of the protests, I was unable to come to the demonstration due to poor health. But it was on this day that people began to self-organise on Telegram and Facebook, and multiple independent and autonomous groups began to appear on social networks, where people coordinated their actions. Self-organisation is a hallmark of protests against the war in Ukraine, which do not have a single political centre. At past rallies, this function was taken over by Alexei Navalny’s headquarters; now it is increasingly based on the initiative and self-organisation of small groups. I especially remember the second day of the protests with surreal actions by law enforcement agencies: people were put into police vans to the music of Vladimir Putin’s favourite band Lyube and to the anthem of the Russian Federation. As a friend of mine put it, even a dramatist like Vladimir Sorokin could not have come up with such a thing.
The third day of protests was the most powerful. By this time, the “Petersburg Against the War” group had appeared on Telegram, where the protesters were warned about the arrests and about the whereabouts of the National Guard and the police. The protesters marched in a column of many thousands through the centre of Saint Petersburg until, around the middle of the rally, law enforcement agencies began to divide the main column into parts and detain the protesters. On this day, the detentions were already quite tough: the police were especially ruthless, not refraining from breaking limbs.
On Monday, February 28, people were also called to go to rallies, and the organisation Vesna (“Spring,” an association of young activists who are united by democratic values) had taken over the functions of organising protests. On Sunday evening, the court appointed an administrative arrest for the federal coordinator of the Vesna movement, Bohdan Litvin. Litvin was sent to a detention centre for 25 days for posting a VKontakte post calling for a rally against the actions of Russian troops in Ukraine on February 25.
My acquaintances and friends have said that their social media accounts have been checked for extremist statements. At the moment, the police are tearing through activists’ social networks, their places of work and study, and their bank accounts.
Nonprofit organisations are helping to inform soldiers’ mothers (materials can be found at https://soldiersmothers.ru/), a traditional base of protest in past wars, such as Afghanistan to Chechnya. Such sources tell them about the rights of conscripts, how to resist conscription effectively, and how soldiers can resist orders from superiors. Unfortunately, political symbols are prohibited in Russia, and at the protests, I did not see any placards from soldiers’ mothers. However, interviews with mothers of soldiers are beginning to appear in the media; for example, a Meduza story about one such woman from the Saratov region. The woman said that she did not know that her son would be sent to Ukraine. According to her, he himself did not know where he would be taken. It was revealed only upon arrival. According to Ukrainian news, Russian soldiers abandoned the Pantsir antiaircraft missile system in the Kherson region and deserted.
Among my acquaintances, friends and relatives, virtually everyone is aware of the war that is going on in Ukraine. Much to my dismay, most people who lived in Soviet times are apolitical or inclined to legitimise Putin’s actions toward Ukraine in some way.
I want to express my gratitude. First of all, to Apologia Protesta: lawyers Anastasia Pilipenko, Yana Nepovinnaya, and Ekaterina Zharkova. They recorded all the rights violations during our thirty-hour arrest with incredible courage, coordinated communication, and helped with documents. Second, I admire the relentlessness and willingness not to give up on the activists with whom I have spent the past thirty hours. I have not seen such solidarity in the entire history of my activist experience, which really inspires hope. Third, activists of the Russian Socialist Movement and students and teachers at the European University in Saint Petersburg supported me all the way, so I am grateful to my political and academic alma mater for support and encouragement.
Valentina Pavlova is a feminist researcher at the European University at Saint Petersburg and a member of the Russian Socialist Movement.
Featured image: Russian law enforcement officers detain a person wearing a press symbol during an anti-war protest in Saint Petersburg, March 2. Photo: Reuters/Stringer
This article was published on Jacobin. Read it here.