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Is a 'cold civil war' brewing in Russia?

Juri Rescheto
July 13, 2022

Russians who disagree with Kremlin policy are fleeing the country. More than 100,000 are thought to have left since the start of the war in Ukraine. Those who stay risk losing their jobs — and their freedom.

Putin visits a school in Vladivostok
Schools in Russia are being told to align with Kremlin policy on the war in UkraineImage: Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin/picture alliance/AP

This may be the last time in her professional life that Moscow math teacher Tatiana Chervenko corrects homework before the summer vacation. She hopes she will still have a job to come back to at the start of the new school year — but it's by no means certain. Her open opposition to the war in Ukraine has alienated her from the school administration. "Slowly but surely, I'm being put under pressure," she tells DW. "Even for apparently trivial things."

Consequences of anti-war stance in Russia

Chervenko points to where a pupil has scribbled something in the margin of an exercise book. Really quite harmless. "I didn't notice it, of course, but still I was reprimanded by the principal. She said I hadn't done my duty; I should have summoned the pupil's parents to the school to discuss it. Just because of this doodle!"

When Russia launched its war on Ukraine, hundreds of Russians took to the streets. Tatiana Chervenko was one of them. Even though it was a peaceful protest, she was arrested, and fined the equivalent of about €300 (ca. $300). Afterward, the school principal invited her in for a face-to-face talk about her political views. "We know what you did. This is prohibited," the principal told her.

Two black-uniformed policemen escort a young woman, who is wearing a mask and carrying a placard in Cyrillic. It is night-time; there are brightly lit shops and some other people in the background.
Police officers detain a protester at a demonstration in Moscow on February 24. Her placard reads "I'm against the war"Image: Denis Kaminev/AP/picture alliance

"I asked: Why? It's my free time, after all," Chervenko reports. "She said: 'Yes, but your pupils' parents may have a problem with it.'" The teacher says the school administration has had it in for her ever since.

'Just go!'

Tatiana Chervenko is not alone. All over Russia, state employees are being intimidated. They are told that anyone who is against the war is against the state — and must voluntarily resign. Recently, a threat directed at high school principals came from the Duma itself, the lower house of the Russian parliament. Its chairman, Vyacheslav Volodin, declared: "This is about the security of our state. About the future of our country. So, tolerance notwithstanding, the honorable principals should be aware of their responsibilities. If they aren't, they should just go. Stand up and walk away."

The Russian teachers' association fears that statements like these, coming from the very top, will be interpreted lower down the hierarchy as a call to action, and that critically-minded teachers will now be silenced. Speaking to DW, Svetlana Lozovskaya, a member of the association from Ulan-Ude, commented: "This is disastrous for Russia. For the whole of Russian society. We are now experiencing a kind of cold civil war in Russia." Society, she said, is divided. Nonetheless, she hopes that there will still be people who speak the truth who will stay, and who will carry on speaking it right to the end.

But there are fewer and fewer such people in Russia. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Russian professionals have already left their homeland, fearing persecution for their criticism of the Kremlin. Journalists, researchers, IT specialists, artists, and actors are fleeing to Georgia, the Baltic states, Turkey, or Germany.

A middle-aged man with grey hair, in a black suit, gesticulates as he speaks at a pair of microphones.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of Russia's State Duma, issued a thinly veiled threat to heads of educational institutionsImage: Anton Novoderezhkin/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

Konstantin Mikhailov, a well-known young historian and theologian, has been living in Vienna for a few weeks now. In an interview with DW, he explained that, as a researcher, he wanted to be allowed to speak freely about his work. "More and more things are being banned," he said. "More and more, the state power is meddling with history, while at the same time its knowledge of it is very poor. This why I wanted to be at a safe distance when speaking even about innocuous things."

Risky research into Russian Orthodox Church

Things that used to be innocuous are apparently no longer considered so by the Russian authorities. The focus of Mikhailov's research is the Russian Orthodox Church; his specialist field is gender issues and homosexuality. Research in this area is now risky, Mikhailov explains. He is currently working on a book about new religious movements in Russia, which more and more are being declared extremist. "Of course, I am not a member of any of these movements — but I myself could be declared an extremist because I am conducting research into them," Mikhailov says. He concedes that there is still no official censorship in Russia, but adds that what exists is "state-organized self-censorship."

Man in a blue suit and maroon tie holds a lit taper against a blurred backdrop of red drapes , candles, and a sort of crown.
President Putin (above) enjoys the support of Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, for the war on UkraineImage: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Apart from open opposition to the war, there are also some very practical issues motivating Russians, especially young people, to flee the country, such as the 23-year-old Roman Stich, an IT specialist. Most of his clients are based abroad. After Russia was excluded from the international money transfer system SWIFT as part of Western sanctions, Stich was barely able to do any business from Moscow. "I employ 80 people, and my first thought was for them," he told DW. "And then there are political reasons. I don't want to pay taxes to a militaristic Russia, and I don't want to be associated with that country anymore. I don't want anything to do with it in future, either."

He does with Georgia, though — the country where he has been able to make a new start. This is where Stich sees his future, as well as the future of thousands of others, those he describes as "decent" Russians: compatriots who openly position themselves against the war.

Unlike Roman Stich, the math teacher Tatiana Chervenko doesn't want to leave Russia. Just recently, she says, a pupil came to her in tears: She had relatives in Ukraine, and didn't know who she could talk to about it. Chervenko says she's needed as a teacher precisely for moments like these. If she loses her job after the summer vacation, she will take the school to court. She intends to fight until the end.

This article has been translated from German. 

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Juri Rescheto DW Riga Bureau Chief