MOSCOW — Thousands of people protested President Vladimir Putin’s attacks on Ukraine in cities across Russia on Thursday, a striking show of anger in a nation where spontaneous mass demonstrations are illegal and protesters can face fines and jail.
More than 1,700 people were arrested in at least 47 cities across the nation, according to rights group OVD-Info. The group was declared a foreign agent last year, when Putin launched a sweeping crackdown on activists, rights groups and opposition figures.
The protests came with an outpouring of horror from liberal Russians, social media influencers, athletes, actors, television presenters and others.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Thursday spoke out against the attacks during a court hearing, as members of the Russian political elite either remained silent or celebrated.
Navalny appeared via video link in court on charges of fraud, one of several cases against him, after he was nearly fatally poisoned with a chemical weapon by Russian security agents in 2020 and jailed in 2021 upon returning to Russia following medical treatment for the poisoning in Germany. His political organization was banned as extremist last year. He calls the charges against him political.
“I have no method of communicating with the outside world,” Navalny said at the Lefortovo District Court hearing. “I ask that my appeal to the court and to the world be recorded,” he said.
“I am against this war. I believe that this war between Russia and Ukraine is being waged to cover up the robbery of Russian citizens and to distract their attention from the problems that exist within the country from the degradation of the economy,” Nalvany added.
He said the war would lead to many casualties and ruined lives. “This group that has now seized power” was waging war to cling to the spoils of office, he said, including palaces in Moscow and on the Black Sea.
His arrest a year ago provoked the biggest protests seen in Russia in cities across the country. On Thursday, the anger and dismay for many Russians was just as visceral, although many were afraid to risk a criminal record and jail for taking to the streets.
With Putin’s moves to crush dissent, including a bar on critical reporting of the military and security agencies, analysts predicted the protests would probably be swiftly curtailed. Last year, many activists and opposition figures were either jailed, placed under house arrest or forced to flee the country to avoid prison.
About 1,000 protesters rallied in central Moscow, chanting “no to war,” with some of them carrying antiwar banners. Riot police closed in quickly, forcing them into police vans. Large protests took place in other cities such as St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Perm.
Russia’s Investigative Committee warned it would track down protest organizers and participants, threatening “severe punishment for mass riots.” At least 290 people were arrested in Moscow, 128 in St Petersburg, 50 in Perm and 37 in Yekaterinburg, OVD-Info reported. More than 290,000 people signed a petition against the attacks on change.org.
Marina Agaltsova, a lawyer with the Russian human rights group Memorial, said those who did protest were extremely brave, adding that “Russians are deeply terrified of arrests and court trials over rallying people to go out and protest.”
Human rights activist Marina Litvinovich urged Russians not to cry and “not to be afraid, but to just come out and say that they are against the war,” in comments on social media. Calling on people to protest is an offense under Russia’s restrictive laws.
Exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Putin critic jailed in 2005 for 10 years on charges of fraud, said anyone who helped “this junta” was a war criminal. “I urge you to do everything possible, everyone in their place, to stop the war!” he wrote on Telegram.
Comedian and television presenter Maxim Galkin wrote on Instagram, “There can be no excuse for war! No war!” Ivan Urgant, a presenter and actor on state television, posted on Instagram, “Fear and pain. NO WAR.”
Liberal political analyst Vladimir Pastukhov called the attacks on Ukraine “the mistake of the whole nation” of Russia in commentary on the Echo of Moscow radio website. “The price will be incredibly high, which is frightening to think about,” he said. “This is a war already lost by Putin … the occupation of Ukraine, direct or indirect, would be a noose around Russia’s neck.”
Ekaterina Schulmann, a prominent liberal political analyst and journalist, said everyone was afraid and urged people to speak out after “the deafening silence of the initial horror.” She said, “Our old life is gone, and a new life is coming. It’s poorer, more dangerous, and more limited, but that’s no reason to change your principles. Good and evil do not change places just because our personal circumstances change.”
Alexei Kouprianov, a data analyst who runs a St. Petersburg Facebook information page on coronavirus data, condemned Russia’s aggression and “expressed solidarity with Ukrainians, guilt and remorse.” He said, “I regret we failed to overthrow the regime before it went too far.”