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An anti-war protester in Moscow says the risk of arrest is worth it

Yulia Zhivtsova sits in Pushkin Square holding Harry Potter books with the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Zhivtsova has been participating in the protests against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Yulia Zhivtsova
Yulia Zhivtsova sits in Pushkin Square holding Harry Potter books with the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Zhivtsova has been participating in the protests against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Updated March 5, 2022 at 10:38 AM ET

As Russian troops intensify their assault on major Ukrainian cities, many people within Russia are choosing to speak out against the war.

The Russian independent human rights group OVD-Info reports that over 8,000 people have been arrested at anti-war protests across the country since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last week.

Russia's legislature passed legislation Friday that imposes prison sentences of up to 15 years for those who criticize the war, which Russia's government only refers to as a "special operation." In response, the BBC and several other major news organizations stopped reporting in Russia.

Yulia Zhivtsova lives near Moscow and has been participating in the protests. She was already arrested by police once, at the very start of the protests. She insisted that NPR publish her full name, despite the potential threats to her safety.

"From what I've learned at school, when I was a child, we were always taught that Kyiv was the mother of all Russian cities ...," she said. "So it's quite a horrible thing to realize that one day you wake up, and your tanks are going into Kyiv. ... It's just like a very, very bad dream."

She spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Below are highlights of the interview edited for length and clarity.

On what the protests are like

They just happen spontaneously.

Before it was more disorganized than probably right now. But the problem is that the measures that have been taken by the government are getting tougher and tougher, they are introducing some new laws. Like if, even if you post something like, "Please go out and protest against the war," you can go to jail. ... You might face criminal charges, not some administrative, whatever it is.

But when it all started a week ago, it looked a bit less, I don't know, dangerous. So I was arrested on the very first day. So on the 24th of February, on Thursday, and I was one of the first being detained, because the moment I heard about the news, I decided that I needed to do something. So I went to Pushkin Square, maybe not in the morning, but as soon as I could.

Who is going to the protests?

Very different people, and even some people who ... [saw] the Second World War, and it was quite, quite stupid and quite annoying to see those people arrested as well. So they're called, like, "Children of War." So those are the people who saw the actual, well, the previous war, but as children. So they are very old now, like 80 or something like that. ...

I know that some people like that were arrested and it has been reported. Also, there is horrible news about children being arrested because they were with their parents, protesting as well. ... They were just with their parents. So they all go to the police station, and the pictures are quite horrifying. So people of very different ages.

What was it like to get arrested, the very first day of Russia's full-scale invasion?

It's not an arrest. It's a detainment. So they let me go the same evening, so I did not stay the night at the police station. So now I'm facing some fine, something like that. So I'm waiting for my hearing.

I did not have any posters or anything like that. Usually if you have a poster you get arrested right away, even if it's just a blank piece of paper. So what I did was I got two Harry Potter books. One is from Hufflepuff, which is yellow, and another one from Ravenclaw, which is blue. So the yellow and blue editions. And I was just reading those two books at Pushkin Square. So it looked like the Ukrainian flag. ... So for about an hour, the police did not know what to do with me because it was quite unusual. But then yeah, they decided to just take me to the police station.

I was just reading about the Dark Lord ascending. And I think it's quite well, funny. If we may call anything funny these days.

Police officers in Moscow detain a woman on Feb. 24 during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Kirill Kudryavstev / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Police officers in Moscow detain a woman on Feb. 24 during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Why protest? Why did you want to be out there on that day in particular?

Russia and the Ukraine are kind of very close countries, we're historically tied. And it's not that we want to go to war with each other. So that's the obvious reason, I think.

From what I've learned at school, when I was a child, we were always taught that Kyiv was the mother of all Russian cities. That's what we study in our history books. So it's quite a horrible thing to realize that one day you wake up, and your tanks are going into Kyiv. ... It's just like a very, very bad dream.

You've been protesting the Putin government for close to a decade. Do these protests feel the same? Do they feel different?

No, it feels very different. Because there are very many people who have never protested before, on one hand. But on the other hand, the protests, they seem more dangerous, because of what's going on now.

So too many people got arrested. Also it's been going on for already a week. And it's still going on, and people are getting arrested again and again. So it seems a bit more dangerous. Already they are introducing some new laws. And it doesn't look very nice, but people are still going out. And that's nice to know. ... But it feels different. It feels that people are much angrier. And much more scared, at the same time. ...

And people who are getting arrested for the first time, they really did not realize that it is possible to just have a poster that says "No to war" and end up at the police station. They really did not think that this was possible in our country. So they are quite surprised.

Do you believe there are more people in Russia who oppose this war than the size of protests might indicate?

Yeah, of course, there are very many people who are, like, waiting for something to happen and then just to join in. They don't want to get arrested. They don't want to lose their jobs...

But on the other hand, there are still very many people who do believe all in all the propaganda nonsense, and well unfortunately, there are also quite many of them. I mean, even my dad is quite pro-Putin these days. And he says he's ashamed of me or something like that.

Most of my friends, ... most of the people I know, do not support the war. But still there are people who believe it's a good cause, or whatever they were told from TV. And this is very sad. It's very annoying, especially if it is somebody from your family.

What are those conversations like with your dad, who you said is pro-Putin and said he is ashamed of you? That must be very hard.

Oh, I just told him that I would block him for a while. And if he needs something, he may call me. ...

So probably, I'll see him this weekend. Probably I'll just avoid having any conversations because, well, when it comes to politics, it's very difficult to talk to him.

Do you worry about speaking critically of Putin and doing so publicly? Do you worry about risk or repercussions for you or your family?

On one hand, yes, of course. But on the other hand, the situation has changed dramatically over the past few years. So now, unfortunately, you can't say that you are safe if you don't speak out. Unfortunately, now, it's kind of a lottery. And you can get detained somewhere near the protests if you're not participating in them for real. ...

So there's no point, like keeping silence. ...

There are many stories about different bloggers getting arrested, even being put into jail for some stupid things that they did many years ago, before some law even existed. For example, like it happened to Khovansky. ...

And this is very silly, because he was never against Putin, at least not openly. ... But somehow somebody complained, and he got arrested for something that he did very many years ago when the charges that he's facing did not even exist. So when people see that, they realize how crazy it all is now. So there's no point. So if I keep silent, I'm still not safe. That's the issue. And more and more people are realizing now that keeping silent doesn't actually help.

As someone who opposes war with Ukraine but could suffer from sanctions that affect the Russian economy, what does you think about Western sanctions on Russia?

I think the main sanctions that I would support are the sanctions against Putin's friends. ... different people from the government and oligarchs, etc.

I really hope that very soon, they might just get annoyed by not being able to use their money abroad, by not being able to go abroad, or send their children to, I don't know, Harvard or wherever. And maybe that will make them stop Putin somehow, tell him that he needs to stop.

Because I don't think the usual people, the usual protesters, can actually do anything in this case. When I go and protest, it's not because I think Putin will look down at me and say, "Oh, there are too many people, I'll stop." Well, that's nonsense. We won't have enough people because everybody's too afraid. So it's more for the future generations like, "You see? I was out there. I was protesting. I was against this."

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Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.
Patrick Jarenwattananon