1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Meet the anti-war Russians who refuse to flee

Alexey Strelnikov
March 10, 2024

Despite repression from the Kremlin, some Russian human rights defenders don’t want to give up their fight. Why do they do what they do? And what future do they see for themselves?

Police officers carrying away a young man
Police detain a man laying down flowers at a monument to the Soviet Gulag political prison systemImage: AP/picture alliance

Since February 2022, about 20,000 people have been detained at anti-war protests in Russia, according to human rights project OVD-Info, with almost 900 of these cases leading to prosecution.

Despite the intimidation, Russian activists who oppose the war in Ukraine still put up resistance to the Kremlin's policies. Where do they find the courage? Three tell their story.

Anush: A clown's nose in the courthouse

For a long time, 36-year-old Anush Panina from St. Petersburg "basically kept out of politics." All of that changed in 2020 with the mass protests following the disputed Belarus elections and the poisoning of recently deceased Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Panina herself has been detained and fined several times at anti-war demonstrations.

The desire to help other Russians crushed under the wheels of the Kremlin's oppression machine pushed her to start attending court trials as an observer.

Her trademark is a clown's nose, which she puts on at the end of trials when the verdict has been reached. In this way, she hopes to make her support clear to both the defendants and other onlookers in the courtroom.

Since 2022, Panina has watched more than 200 trials carried out under Article 207.3 of the Russian criminal code. Those on trial are accused of spreading fake news about the Russian Army. "I have already served as a lay defense lawyer in two cases, which I'm proud of," Panina said.

Anush Panin
Anush Panina's clown nose is a visual signal of solidarity with those on trialImage: privat

In November, the young woman was herself detained in the court building during the trial of St Petersburg artist Sacha Skotshilenko. Panina allegedly broke legal rules and got written up for it by a judicial assistant. They also twisted her arm and pulled her into another room.  The activist had to be taken to hospital, where her injuries were recorded.

After 18 months of observing trials, Panina feels exhausted. But she is not thinking of giving up. Her previously shiny clown nose has now turned black since the news of Alexei Navalny's death.

"Staying in Russia is a question of dignity for me. There are human rights activists in the country who have defended me since my first arrest. I can't just leave while they continue to work hard here at increasing risk," she says.

Natalya*: Assisting Ukrainian refugees

From the very first day of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Natalya* hosted friends from Ukraine in her home in St. Petersburg. From speaking with them, she realized that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees were facing similar problems.

Natalya decided to join other activists, helping distribute donations to refugees and supporting people to find doctors and psychologists.

"Refugees from Ukraine receive a one-off payment of 10,000 roubles (around $109) in Russia and then have to fend for themselves," says Natalya. According to her, pensioners have the hardest time: Only a few manage to receive a monthly pension of around 10,000 roubles.

Mourners queuing up to visit the grave of Navalny
Mourners queued up to visit the grave of dissident Navalny in MoscowImage: Olga MALTSEVA/AFP

The flow of refugees to Russia has decreased over the past two years, as have the donations. At the same time, however, elderly and disabled people are still being brought to Russia from the frontline areas, sometimes in ambulances.

Natalya has also spent her own money in the past two years to buy necessities for refugees. She keeps a minimum for herself, she explains. "I would rather buy medicine for a sick child or size 42 shoes than buy myself new clothes or perfume," she said.

She's not thinking about leaving Russia, even if she doesn't agree with the government's politics. Her strength and hope are almost exhausted, she says, but "as long as there is life," she will not "lie down in a grave."

Anton: Defense for the defiant

Lawyer Anton Aptekar, 27, has also been standing up for human rights since shortly after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Back then, Russian courts were handing down droves of penalties for participating in anti-war protests and vigils.

Aptekar says it is difficult to assess the success of his cases, though for some of his clients he has claimed compensation for false imprisonment. Most of his clients have been found guilty of "discrediting the army" or violating the rules for holding a rally but have only received a minimal fine.

Anton Pekar
Lawyer Anton Aptekar has no intention of quitting for the time beingImage: privat

According to him, there have only been a few trials recently for "offenses committed during rallies" in connection with anti-war protests. Fewer and fewer people dare to take to the streets in Russia, he says

Aptekar now mostly defends administrative and civil cases. He sees hardly any risks for himself and wants to continue his work. His role is also to provide emotional support for his clients and build up contact with the press, he says.

"Hearing a case in court is a platform where a client and their defense lawyer can talk about what happened without it falling into oblivion," says Aptekar. 

*Name changed to protect identity

This article was adapted from the original Russian.