Councilors in Smolninskoye, a district of St. Petersburg, the city where Vladimir Putin was born, have accused the Russian president of treason.
On Sept. 7, they petitioned the Russian parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, to remove President Putin from office over the war on Ukraine – even though Russians are not allowed to call it that. Instead, they must refer to the war as a "special military operation."
Nikita Yuferyev joined the Smolninskoye council in 2019. When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, he and other lawmakers from across the political spectrum requested permission to stage anti-war protests that very day. Permission was denied.
On March 2, Yuferyev and his colleagues invited St. Petersburg residents to join an open council session. "Many people showed up, but so did the police and OMON [national guard units]. There were many officers in helmets and prison transport vans but things remained calm," Yuferyev told DW. "We agreed to send an appeal to President Putin, urging him to end the special operation." The appeal went unanswered.
In August, Yuferyev himself sent a personal message to Putin, calling on him to end the "special military operation" for humanitarian reasons. This time, the Kremlin responded, justifying the war as "a special military operation to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine."
Acting against Russian interests?
Yuferyev's fellow lawmaker Dmitry Palyuga then tabled a draft petition on Sept. 7 intended for the State Duma. Both men stress they acted entirely in accordance with Russian law. "So far, there has been no precedent for a conviction following a petition sent to a state body. In fact, Russian law rules out this possibility," Palyuga tells DW.
He says he developed the idea of sending the petition after seeing considerable criticism of the invasion of Ukraine expressed on social media, including on pro-Kremlin Telegram channels. Many accused their president of acting "against Russia's interests."
In July, Alexei Gorinov, a Moscow politician, was sentenced to seven years behind bars for "spreading falsehoods" about Russia's armed forces. Palyuga is well aware of Gorinov's case and knows speaking out against Putin can have serious consequences. "We know we are taking a risk, but we feel this is the right thing to do," he told DW.
Yuferyev and Palyuga published their petition on Twitter, for all to see. It says that according to Russia's constitution, Putin's conduct shows signs of "treason."
It mentions four aspects in particular: The destruction of combat-ready Russian army units, the death and injury of young, easily employable Russian citizens, harm to the Russian economy, and the expansion of NATO upon the outbreak of the war, alongside the equipping of Ukrainian forces with modern Western military kit, which actually undermines the objective of "demilitarizing" the country anyway.
"We do not see NATO expansion as a direct threat to Russia, but we are trying to appeal to different target groups [within Russia] with different arguments, to convince them that this whole thing has to end," says Yuferyev.
He adds that half of all the St. Petersburg council members — among them the leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party — were absent when the body voted to submit the petition. But bylaws state that with 10 city councillors present, the vote could go ahead in accordance with Russian law. Ultimately, seven of the councillors approved the petition.
An appeal to all Russians
When asked what sort of reaction he and his colleagues were expecting, Yuferyev said that, "our appeal, although technically directed at Russia's top decisionmakers, is not really aimed at them. We know they will either not respond at all or they'll respond with something nonsensical." He says the petition is really about rallying Russians who are just as concerned as them. "We want to show them that there are many of us, who are against what is going on."
Palyuga has a similar opinion."We did this mainly to show other people, who also oppose what is happening in this country, that there are elected officials who also oppose this and that these officials are prepared to say so loudly," he told DW.
There have already been consequences. Both men have now been told to report to the police to answer charges of "discrediting the armed forces."
"If they want to punish us, they will," Yuferyev said. "But what are we supposed to do? Remain silent?"
Yuferyev is convinced most Russians are not "militants."
"We were all brought up by a generation who had experienced World War II," he argued. "Our grandparents always said, 'as long as there's no war.' They are talking about a 'special operation' here but people are starting to realize what's really happening, how many deaths there are. Our people are peaceful and I think that people in Russia will soon start to reject what is happening," he concluded.
This article was originally published in Russian.