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Sunday, September 25, 2022

The war in Ukraine finally feels real for Russians, says student

For many Russians, the war that’s been playing out on their TV sets is now hitting home.

Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and has been waging a war in the country ever since. But the Russian government calls that war a “special military operation,” and has downplayed its severity at home. 

One Moscow sociologist, who spoke to As It Happens earlier this week, says the majority of Russians have been largely ambivalent about the war. But that all changed Wednesday when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a mass mobilization of Russians to the battlefield, promising to draft 300,000 young men to fight in Ukraine.

More than 1,300 Russians were arrested in anti-war protests around the country on Wednesday. Plane tickets out of Russia are selling out fast, and the borders are backed up as people try to flee the country.

As It Happens host Nil Köksal spoke to a young Russian woman in St. Petersburg on Thursday who opposes the war. CBC is withholding her name, because she fears she could be arrested for speaking out. Here is part of that conversation.

What were you feeling when you heard what Vladimir Putin said yesterday, that he was announcing this mobilization?

I felt fear and anxiety. It was close to what I felt on the 21st of February, just when everything started. And it was quite the same feeling.

[For] seven months, this war was only on our TV, and it [didn’t feel] like it was really a war. But yesterday, I felt that it’s really about my family, it’s really about my country, my friends, and that everybody can suffer from it.

I still live in this feeling.

Three people stand with suitcases in an airport.

A Russian citizen who gave his name only as Vasiliy arrived in Istanbul on Thursday with his wife and teenage daughter, and six suitcases. Russians have been leaving the country in droves since the government announced a massive military mobilization in Ukraine. (Reuters)

From people you’re speaking to, or people you know who might be drafted to fight in this war, what are they saying? What are they most afraid of?

We even don’t know who can be drafted because in the documents officials published, there are no restrictions, and everybody can be mobilized. So everyone now [is] living in the feeling of fear because they don’t know what’s going to happen to them. 

Boys who are studying with me, they are afraid too, because formerly officials said that they won’t mobilize students, but in fact, they can do it.

For a long time, since the war started, we were hearing that many Russians believed what the Kremlin was saying and, you know, not calling this a war. What are people saying now about this war that they weren’t saying before?

First of all, a lot of people really started to use the word “war” because, as you correctly said, before it was called a special military operation. But now, for people, it’s a real war because they need to send the members of their family to die there. And I can see that a lot of people are changing their opinion on this issue. And now, of course, they are against [it].

But as you know, Vladimir Putin is not giving in. Yesterday, we heard threats about nuclear weapons being used potentially. Do you feel there’s anything you can do now to oppose what your government is doing?

I don’t know what to do because [for] every action, there is high risks. And I am in a condition where just any action can ruin my life, and I don’t have much opportunities to move somewhere.

But there are still some actions that we can do inside of Russia. First of all, yesterday there were protests on the streets, and about 1,400 people were detained there — as is usual in Russia. 

WATCH | Hundred arrested in anti-war protests:

Hundreds arrested in Russia for protesting military mobilization

President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of Russia’s first military draft since the Second World War sparked waves of protests across the country, resulting in over 700 arrests.

Despite the risks and the dangers, you agreed to talk to us, and we’re grateful for that. Why did you want to do that?

Because I think that now is really important to share the voice of Russians. Because everyone around [is] listening to Ukrainians, and this is really good. I support it. But it feels for me that Russians are still quite unheard, and it’s not OK because we are suffering from this too.

You’re young. You have your whole life ahead of you. But I’m wondering what it feels like to be a young person in Russia right now.

It’s really hard now for me because it feels like I cannot dream anymore, because just all my plans and all my dreams can be ruined just only in one day.

And now I just decided to stay in Russia for a few years to finish my education at the university. And then I will be trying to move abroad somewhere, maybe to Europe or the U.S.A. or Canada or somewhere else, just to continue my studying for a master’s degree.

You don’t see a future in Russia for you even after the war?

Unfortunately, because even after the war, our country will be poor. And I’m not sure that something will change differently there.

We don’t often get to speak with people in Russia. Is there anything you want Canadians to know?

I just want to remind Canadians that democracy is … yours to keep and you need to protect [it], or you may see some awful things in your country, like in Russia.

So just please continue to fight for the better future, to protect your democracy and just to spread the peace to the whole world.

Do everything you can to help Ukraine. Help Russia. [Help the] Russian opposition, if you can somehow do that.

That’s more than enough. And I believe that kindness will win.

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