This interview has been edited and redacted for the safety of those involved, and the images from Moscow we planned on running were lost when our photographer was detained (and later released) by Russian police (that’s not him above).
We are twelve days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Twelve days into a tragic, violent, unnecessary incursion committed by a devious, reckless autocrat who happens to be at the helm of a global nuclear power. Though the Russian military had been amassing at the Ukrainian border for months, the scale and scope of the invasion came as a surprise, not only to the Ukrainians but also to many (if not most) Russians. It is important to note that the incursion was implemented by the Russian government, and more precisely, Putin. The people of Russia were largely unaware of the plan for a violent offensive.
In reaction to the news of a surprise conflict—and even more devastating, the realization that their nation was the aggressor—thousands of Russian citizens took to the streets in over 52 cities across the country to protest, risking their livelihoods (and in some cases lives) to voice their opposition of the violent action taken by their government, knowing full well the risks involved with voicing dissent in Russia, which includes fines, penalties, and imprisonment.
While Ukraine has a committed partnership established with the EU and NATO, they are not yet a member of either, which leaves the powers of the West unable to directly intervene. In lieu of direct intervention, the West has imposed severe economic sanctions on Russia, causing the Ruble to crash and leaving the Russian people destitute. This has led to even greater frustration on the part of the average Russian citizen.
Though the Russian government continues to tighten the noose on an already-degraded right to free speech through intimidation and punishment, the people of Russia continue to speak out in support of Ukraine, and condemnation of the conflict they’re engaged in. We spoke to one Russian who (due to days-old legislation that threatens jail time) was unable to use a slew of words in this interview, including one of the most obvious, beginning with the letter ‘W’.
Where are you from? Can you describe what you do for a living?
I live in Moscow, Russia. I’ve been writing about skateboarding in Russia for more than 10 years, organized numerous international skateboarding trips to Russia and ex-Soviet countries, and for many years, I’ve been guiding international teams around Russia and the ex-Soviet states. I’ve been helping Russian skaters get international coverage in major skate media, and I’ve been part of the Russian skate scene for more than 15 years.
Where have you travelled as far as ex-Soviet countries? Have you spent time in Ukraine?
There are 15 ex-Soviet countries including Russia. I’ve been to 14 of them: Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. I’ve been to Ukraine many times, mostly before the takeover of Crimea in 2014.
What has your experience been in those countries in terms of the relationship with Russia and the Russian people?
Generally, the attitude towards the Russian people has been somewhere between normal and welcoming. All those countries have their own titular nations, cultures and native languages that are very different. With independence and the formation of their national identity, they started using native languages more often and became more self-oriented in terms of culture. The people of Uzbekistan tend to speak their native Uzbek language, the people of Georgia speak Georgian, people of Ukraine speak Ukrainian. Still, at the same time, most of the people in those countries have strong ties to Russian culture. The Russian language is still widely used as a second or even first language almost everywhere post-Soviet from Tajikistan to Latvia and even in Ukraine.
What is your reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
For me, it was pure shock. The rumors about the coming conflict have been around for a couple of months but all the way I didn’t believe in the full-on military operation of the Russian army on the Ukrainian territories. I am in Russia right now, so I have to call it a special operation according to Russian laws (otherwise there is a risk of prosecution) but obviously, there is a way better word that describes it that consists of 3 letters and begins with a letter “W”. The Russian president (not the people of Russia) initiated an offensive and unreasonable act against independent Ukraine. In my eyes, the announced reason and motivation were totally made up and didn’t reflect the actual situation. Being a Russian citizen I find this new page of Russian-Ukrainian conflict a terrible and fearful act. Ukraine has a special place in my heart and I’ll never consider it as an enemy. I am fully against the military solution to this conflict. I would like to see Ukraine be a successful and independent country that is free to decide about its partners and future.
What is the reaction of the Russian people?
I was in Pakistan when it all started. I came back to Russia only two days ago. I found Russian society is divided into those who support Russia’s military actions and those who are against it. I’m not a sociologist to tell you exact percentages, but sadly it feels like the military faction is very big. As for the peace movement, it definitely exists here. It’s quite strong among educated people of my age and those who are younger. Also, I believe it’s strong among the business community. Business is the first to suffer from sanctions. It’s important to understand that here in Russia it’s getting harder or even more dangerous to oppose this conflict. The first couple of days the regime was quite tolerable to peace activities. Then they started a campaign aimed to silence and scare anyone who is against the military operation. Over 4000 people got arrested at street protests all around Russia.
Have you been watching the news? How is it describing the situation in Ukraine to the Russian people?
Russia is still a TV nation. I know in some countries the Internet has become the main source of information, but in Russia, the majority of people still get information from TV news. All the news channels are a tool of the regime’s propaganda. Ukraine right now is definitely the hottest topic. All the news and talk shows are based around Putin’s explanations of the conflict which they retranslate even more radically. According to the official Russian state point of view, Russia went to Ukraine to liberate the people of Ukraine from neo-nazis and fascist regime. This is the point of view they push in the news. It sounds so extravagant and surreal. The level of resistance the whole world sees now in Ukraine is the best proof that the Russian so-called liberation wasn’t needed. It turned out the opposite way.
As for the regime, Ukrainian president Zelensky was elected by the people of Ukraine through two rounds of direct elections. It was the choice of the majority of the Ukrainian population, and he is actually Jewish. It’s very hard to imagine a neo-nazi regime with a Jewish president at the top. In one of the early days of the [special operation], the group of international historians who have been professionally studying the Holocaust, genocide, and Nazism signed the petition that the situation in Ukraine had nothing to do with any of these terms. As for the Ukrainian neo-nazis, it’s true they exist in Ukraine but their groups and ideas have never played a big role in the Ukrainian political agenda. They never had a strong representation in the Ukrainian parliament and political life. It’s wrong to say that they took over the power and ruled Ukraine.
As for the status of the Russian language in Ukraine that Russia wants to protect, it’s true after 2014 the country went through a few levels of Ukrainization of everyday life. It became a painful moment for the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. Still, up to now, the Russian language was widely used for communication in most of the Ukrainian regions including the capital city Kyiv. I know many Ukrainian who have been speaking mostly Russian their entire life. As for the protection of Russian speaking population of the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics that was named as the main goal of Russia’s military operation, it’s true that those places have gone through very hard times during the last 8 years but the military actions that are happening right now have nothing to do with territories of those republics. All the current actions are happening in the territories that everyone recognizes to be fully Ukrainian. To sum it up most of the Russian people receive information via television and I’ve just tried to describe the picture they get.
Why do you think this is happening?
If it’s ok, I’d like to rephrase the question. How did this become possible? You probably know what the principle of separation of powers is and how a system of checks and balances works. A normal state is supposed to have three branches. They are the executive, legislative and judicial branches. They are supposed to oppose each other and protect the country from wrong decisions and mistakes. Well, the whole time President Putin has been in power, his energy was aimed to get as much power as possible. Russian legislative bodies lost their real functions and were turned into printer machines that only know how to say ‘Yes’ to everything the president wants. The judicial branch has become fully dependent on the president’s opinion. The independent media has been suppressed with only a couple of those existing online. In the end, there was no one next to Putin to stop him and assess all the risks. It seems like he fully believed the picture he has been getting from his propaganda sources and expected Ukrainians to welcome Russian forces. Well, it didn’t happen.
Are you seeing the effects of western sanctions in Russia? What has that been like? What are the Russian people’s opinions on it?
The rate of the Russian ruble went down dramatically. Around one week ago, 1 US dollar cost between 70 to 80 Russian rubles. Right now 1 US dollar costs 108 rubles. It means that all the imports will be around 30% more expensive very soon. Many major international brands—for example, Boeing, AMD, Intel, IKEA, Volkswagen, Ford, H&M—have already left Russia or stopped operations on the Russian market. Many Russian people are mad at the Western world because those sanctions definitely affect regular individuals, but others understand where the sanctions come from. Some of them hit those regular people who actually oppose the conflict the most. For example, after MasterCard and Visa announced a stop of their services for Russian users, thousands of Russian citizens who had to leave the country because of their opposition view on the situation ended up with no available savings. And it’s very complicated for them to change the banking system. Also when services like Netflix, Spotify or TikTok leave or limit their operations in Russia, it results in fewer sources of information alternative to Russian governmental media. This situation affects everything. For many years I was doing my best on a small territory known as ‘skateboarding’ to make a better image of my country. Now I feel like our image is destroyed for many years. A lot of my friends who do other things feel the same way. Russia has such a great heritage to represent. It’s sad that our president chose such a wrong way.
Can you talk a little about the sort of censorship you’re experiencing?
The Russian parliament passed the law against ‘fakes’. For them, ‘fake’ is pretty much any kind of information that wasn’t provided by the official Russian sources. Even calling this conflict a ‘war’ is already a fake. Talking or even reposting someone else’s posts about the destruction of the civil Ukrainian infrastructure is fake because according to the Russian officials Russia only attacks military venues and infrastructure. People are getting arrested for anti-war social network activities or those who print anti-war posters. Four major media got shut down in the last few days. Budget-sector employees who signed peace petitions are getting fired. The law that says calling this situation war will result in a prison sentence is already here. The Russian regime wants people to call in a special operation. Two minutes ago I read about a draft law about military service in South-East Ukraine for those who got arrested at street protests. The regime is ready to use its full power to suppress the opposition. They also try to block social networks. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter aren’t fully functional for me at the moment.
The only point of view that isn’t fake is the one that says that the Russian army liberates Ukraine from fascism. Whoever spreads ‘fakes’ might be punished. The punishment is between a fine of several thousand dollars and, for those who do it multiple times, 15 years in jail.