“The Russians are not your enemy”: a lonely petition against the end of the Kremlin war

Historian Andrey Zubov first realized that Russian President Vladimir Putin might seriously consider invading Ukraine in December, when the leader first presented his list of sweeping demands to the West .

They included legal guarantees that Ukraine would never join the NATO alliance and the withdrawal of all Western military forces from Eastern Europe.

“It was absolutely clear that these demands would be rejected and Putin would have to respond,” Zubov told the Moscow Times in an interview. “With a sell-off like that, he has to follow through and hit something. And hitting something means war.

Although he disagreed, like many people living in Putin’s increasingly authoritarian Russia, Zubov felt powerless to change the course of events. A few days ago, he found a place to vent his frustration — a petition calling on Russia to back down written by veteran human rights activist and Soviet-era dissident Lev Ponomarev. He added his name, without hesitation.

the open letter – titled ‘If only there were no war’ – is one of the only signs of public resistance inside Russia against the Kremlin’s military build-up around Ukraine, which according to news agencies Western intelligence, has now surpassed 100,000 troops. He criticizes the “war party” in the Kremlin, calls for peace and urges that political attention be turned to Russia’s growing domestic problems, such as the rising cost of living.

About 100 prominent figures – Ponamarev and a few other Soviet dissidents, actors, writers, singers, journalists and liberal politicians – signed the letter before its publication. Most are seasoned opponents of Putin who have been consistent campaigners against Russia’s slide toward repression under his 22 years in office. Another 5,000 have since added their names via an open form.

Few expect anything to come of it – but still say they want their opposition recorded.

“I’m quite skeptical about the Kremlin’s reaction to any kind of call from citizens,” said Andrey Nechaev, who was Russia’s economy minister in the early 1990s. we think. It is important for us, our colleagues, for Russian society in general to show that there is an alternative position.

Many signatories told the Moscow Times that they were inspired by Soviet dissidents of previous generations and believed in the important moral role of standing up to power, even if it is futile.

“In the most pragmatic sense, it will change almost nothing. But on a higher level – as much as the voice of dissidents can mean anything in the future – it will have an impact,” said famous poet and composer Veronika Dolina.

“Childish and naive”

The petition – which accuses the Kremlin of “deceiving and using people” and manipulating society to start an “immoral, irresponsible and criminal” war – calls on Putin and the Kremlin to back down.

But there are few signs that this interpretation of events will influence Russian audiences. Independent pollster Levada Center found that only 4% of Russians believe the Kremlin is responsible for the escalation of the situation near the Ukrainian border. Most blame the United States and NATO. Even among Russians who say they generally oppose Putin, only 8% think Moscow is to blame.

“There is casualness and negligence in Russian society – the lack of ability to think independently is, unfortunately, almost absolute,” said songwriter and poet Dolina. “Yes, people are childish and naive – but I believe they are absolutely against a real war.”

As inefficient as signing petitions can be, few options are available to those who want to push back against a Kremlin that has completely dismantled all formal opposition and imprisoned hundreds critics.

“Of course, I’m scared – like any sensible person who currently lives in Russia and watches what is happening. Any of us could fall victim to this repression. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to shut up. “, said actress Tatiana Lazareva. “I will always support those who express the interests of society, and not those of the authorities. Petitions are probably the only safe way to express our will that we have left.

If the Kremlin isn’t listening, some of the letter’s supporters want to send their message further.

“Clearly this will never convince Putin of anything, but we have to tell the rest of the world – Russians, Ukrainians, Europeans, Americans, everyone – that ‘Russia’ and ‘Putin’ are very different,” said Zubov, the historian, who lost his professorship at Moscow’s top university after comparing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea to Nazi Germany’s Anschluss. with Austria in 1938.

He added: “Putin says ‘Russia wants this’ or ‘Russia demands this’. No, it’s Putin and the Kremlin making the demands, not Russia or the Russians.

“We want Ukrainians to understand that Russians are not your enemy,” Leonid Gozman, another prominent 90s politician who signed the letter, said in a social media post, calling on others to add their names. to the list.

For actress Lazareva, the motivation to add her name was closer to home.

“As a mother of three, I try to do something – anything – so that at least my kids don’t turn to me later and say, ‘Mom, why did you sat down and remained silent?'”

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