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In Moscow, a silent anti-war demonstration with flowers and soft toys

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Police buses seem ubiquitous in Moscow since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, guarding much of the city center, including a statue of one of Ukraine’s most famous poets which has become a popular venue for a quiet but emotional outpouring of anti-war sentiment.

Since a Russian missile struck a residential building in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro nine days ago, killing 46 people and injuring 80 others, Muscovites have come to lay flowers – along with soft toys and photographs of the destroyed building – at the feet of the statue. by Lesya Ukrainka, a Ukrainian poet and playwright who lived during the last decades of the Russian Empire.

The ritual, after one of the highest death tolls from a strike since the start of the war, has become an expression of grief, shame and opposition to the war. But at regular intervals, authorities removed the flowers.

“In contemporary Russia, under these conditions, it’s a battle – a silent battle,” said Tatyana Krupina, a 28-year-old chemist who went with a small group of friends to lay flowers last week.

This is what passes for protest in Russia in January 2023, 11 months after the invasion. Russians have also started laying flowers in other cities, boosted by social media.

The Flower Battle is one of the first large-scale public demonstrations since the days after President Vladimir V. Putin announced last September that hundreds of thousands of men would be called to battle.

Russia has imposed stiff penalties for criticizing the war, or even calling it a war, so for many Russians, laying flowers seems like a rare opportunity to show their dissent without being arrested.

For anti-government Russians back home, the flowers remind them that they are not alone in their opposition to the war, even as propaganda grows increasingly vitriolic and the letters Z and V become pro- war, are engraved on public buildings. .

And for Russians who have fled because of persecution, potential conscription or a refusal to pay taxes that will fuel the war machine, the flower memorial is a sign that there are people left in the country. who are brave enough to protest.

“It’s not just a way to show Ukrainians that there are people in Russia who don’t tolerate what’s going on; it shows people that they are not alone,” said Aleksandr Plyushchev, a popular Russian journalist with a huge following on YouTube.

But even the laying of flowers has potential consequences. At least seven people have been arrested, according to a New York Times reporter who witnessed the episodes last week. Four were arrested after laying flowers at the site.

Police tried to stop people from photographing the memorial and told others to delete the images from their phones. But people keep arriving, looking for an opening when many are not gathered around the monument so that it does not look like a unlawful public assembly – and quietly place their flowers.

“My endurance is over; I want to show my opinion,” a lawyer named Ekaterina Varenik said Saturday afternoon after placing flowers on the statue. She was referring to not being able to publicly express her opinion.

Ms Varenik, 26, said she last protested when opposition politician Aleksei A. Navalny was arrested two years ago. She stayed home when thousands of people protested the mobilization for war. But, she said of the crackdown, “Every day it gets worse and worse, and stricter and stricter.”

For more than half an hour, Ms Varenik stood in front of the statue with a homemade poster that read: “Ukraine: not our enemies, but our brothers”.

She was detained by police soon after and could face up to 15 days in jail.

For many, standing in front of the statue is intensely moving.

“How can this happen? sobbed a retiree named Rita who refused to give her last name for fear of reprisals and gave her age as over 50. “People are dying: children, old people,” she said. “It’s just awful. Maybe it will remind people that we live in a terrifying world.

Some prominent Russians played down the protests.

“Bringing flowers to a monument doesn’t take courage or even money,” Dmitry L. Bykov, a poet and writer critical of the government and living in exile, said Wednesday in a discussion broadcast on Youtube.

“It’s aesthetically beautiful, but completely unnecessary,” said Mr Bykov, who Bellingcat investigative reporters believe was the victim of an attempted poisoning in 2019 with a nerve agent similar to that used on Mr Navalny. He said: “There is only one positive effect: maybe someone will find out who Lesya Ukrainka is – a great poetess – and read her work.

The statue has been the scene of altercations with pro-war nationalists, who have denounced the mourners and accused them in reports to authorities of discrediting the Russian military, which is now a crime in Russia.

The Kremlin’s crackdown on political opposition and protests accelerated after the invasion of Ukraine. About 20,000 protesters have been detained since the start of the war, according to OVD Info, a human rights watchdog. Many have lost their jobs after protesting, signing petitions or writing critical posts about the war on social media.

Ilya Yashin, a Moscow city councilor, was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for speaking out about Russian atrocities in Bucha, Ukraine. A 19-year-old university student from the city of Arkhangelsk faces up to 10 years in prison for social media posts critical of the war.

In this context, defying the police to lay flowers may require a certain degree of bravery, but it also has a mental impact that has become harder to bear as the war continues.

“I know that at any time the police can come to my house and arrest me,” said Maksim Shatalov, 36, a former flight attendant who said he was fired from his job because of his anti-war stance. .

Mr Shatalov befriended a close-knit circle of activists after he was thrown into an avtozak, or police van, after a protest in April. Over the summer and fall, they protested the mobilization, chalk-painted anti-war messages around the city, and laid flowers at other memorials.

Mr Shatalov and his friend Anna Saifytdinova, 36, brought flowers to the statue on a recent evening. She had four white roses – Russians give an even number of flowers in honor of the dead.

Because a friend of theirs, a minor, had been arrested after placing a photo of the devastated Dnipro building at the foot of the statue, Ms Saifytdinova waited until no one was around so as not to be accused of organizing an unauthorized demonstration.

“I have already spent eight days in prison for protesting the mobilization,” she said. “If I’m detained again, I face criminal charges.”

This could mean a sentence of up to 10 years.

“It’s like Russian roulette,” she says. “You never know when something bad might happen or when it won’t. Some people have been arrested for holding a blank sheet of paper in public. »

Mr Shatalov said he planned to leave Russia soon because he feared being arrested.

“I believe I would do more good in another country than by staying here without work and without means of subsistence,” he said. “What will I accomplish when I sit in a prison camp: will I be constantly beaten or locked in a cage all the time like Navalny? Or someone from the private military company Wagner will come and try to recruiting to fight in Ukraine with threats that if I don’t sign up they’ll just drive me to the point where I’ll kill myself.

Yet some who are at risk of arrest insist on showing their resistance.

“Moscow is a huge city and everyone is calm,” said Ms Varenik, the lawyer, before being arrested for her anti-war poster. “I want to show the world that we should not be silent. We allow all of this with our silence.

nytimes Gt

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