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It’s not that the fear has gone, according to Maria Kuznetsova of OVD-info, a Russian human rights group that tracks arrests and detentions. But the unwritten deal with the devil has been breached. That explains why after months of inscrutable behavior by the Russian masses, visibly angry people took to the streets on Wednesday in dozens of cities across the country, chanting, essentially, “down with war.”
The spark of fury ignited shortly after Russian President Putin announced he’d be calling up 300,000 men—and not all of them young—to fight in Ukraine. “For twenty years the authorities have said, ‘we don’t interrupt your personal life. We don’t have high taxes,’” Kuznetsova tells Fox News. “But in exchange for that, you don’t speak up about human rights violations, war, repressions, election fraud.’”
For six months, the war in Ukraine seemed very far away to many Russians. For some it was just a TV show. Now, Kuznetsova claims, that war which by law you still cannot call war in Russia, has come to peoples’ doorsteps, to their homes. It is no longer possible, she explains, for Russians to shrug off whatever their government does as “not our problem.”
“People are furious. I wouldn’t say that they lost their fear. But now they feel that maybe it’s better to go to protests (and suffer the consequences) than die in a war that they don’t even believe in or are indifferent to.”
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1400 people were detained over Wednesday’s demonstrations and more protests were called for Saturday and as of this writing there had been a few. Kuznetsova appreciates the risk the protestors have exposed themselves to—given, as she points out, that even posting loosely critical or ironic statements online can lead to arrest under Russia’s strict new penal codes.
And those rounded up Wednesday were not all nabbed at the protests themselves. Authorities, she says, used facial recognition technology to track people down and pick them up at their homes after the fact. Their software can even see through face masks.
Kuznetsova claims the police were rougher with those detained this time around, more brutal and in cases called the anti-war demonstrators “Nazis and Facists” warning them they’d be sent straight to the Donbas. Military summonses were served to male detainees, who, incidentally, were less than half of those picked up.
“For the first time in ten years, the percentage of women arrested was higher than the percentage of men. At least 51% of all those detained were women. It shows that in many ways, it’s a protest of wives, mothers, girlfriends and partners of people who may go to war.”
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It appears the fishing net for combat duty is wider than the Kremlin and Ministry of Defense originally promised—men in the reserves with specific military skills and experience.
“We saw really terrifying videos from Yakutia and Buryatia and other national regions of Russia where men were just grabbed in the hundreds in factories where they work. And they were just given a few minutes to say good-bye to their families,” Kuznetsova explained.
She said in the bigger cities it will be easier for men to hide. And urbanites will be more likely to understand something about their rights, an area that the regime has, according to Kuznetsova, made systematically hard for Russians to be aware of over the years. In the same way that it has slowly eroded or squeezed protest and blocked the flourishing of healthy civil society. Kuznetsova is hopeful men can escape their summonses, saying authorities don’t care about the individual–it’s not that they want YOU. This is now a numbers game, she explains.
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I ask Kuznetsova if thinks Putin is shocked by the resistance he has encountered to his “partial-mobilization” announcement, which many believe will far exceed the 300,000 conscripts officially sought. And is he concerned about the mass flight out of the country? Kuznetsova says it is hard to know but easy to imagine the Kremlin did not expect this. And how big or constant does protest activity have to get in order to change the tide of events?
“It’s complicated in Russia,” she says. “For example, in 2012 (when Putin took office for a third term and Russians cried foul over voting irregularities) hundreds of thousands of people went to the streets in Moscow and they changed some laws but basically the situation didn’t change dramatically. It depends not only on protests, but on other forms of social disobedience.
If people start to protest at their workplace, especially if they work for government, if they start leaving jobs saying ‘we won’t continue working for propaganda or government, for military’ that would have much more of an impact. But maybe protest is something that can start other ways of social disobedience.”