The Voices of War

99. Special Release: Vlad Sakovich - The View From Russia: An In-Depth Conversation On Anti-War Activism Under Putin’s Regime

VOW 99 | Anti-War Activism

In this compelling episode, we explore the challenges and realities of anti-war activism in Russia with Moscow-based educator and activist, Vlad Sakovich. From the risks of questioning the regime to the complexities of fostering dialogue, Vlad provides a nuanced look into the intricacies of activism in a restrictive environment.

Brief Summary of Vlad Sakovich:

Vlad Sakovich is a Moscow-based educator, psychologist, and anti-war activist. Despite the risks associated with his work, Vlad has been deeply involved in grassroots dialogue initiatives and anti-war movements since the 2014 Donbas War and Crimea’s annexation. He facilitates open forums for Russians to discuss the war and runs an online course on civic facilitation, aiming to change the Russian narrative surrounding the conflict. He is a principal organiser of the Peace Lab project -a series of workshops aimed at promoting grassroots diplomacy, antiwar activism, reconciliation work, dialogues, collective trauma healing, and more.

Key points covered in the conversation:

  • Introduction to Vlad Sakovich
    • Background as an educator, psychologist, and anti-war activist
    • Initiatives like open forums and online courses on civic facilitation
  • Motivations for Activism
    • Gradual involvement sparked by a series of incidents
    • Initial focus on societal change while being apolitical
  • Turning Point in Activism
    • Connection and subsequent disconnect with a Ukrainian mediator at an international conference
    • Realisation of the need for dialogue in conflict situations
  • Challenges and Realities in Russia
    • The diverse profiles of those supporting the invasion
    • The risks associated with questioning the Russian regime
    • The difficulties of fostering dialogue in a restrictive environment
    • The sparse network of anti-war activists in Russia
    • The impact of legislation criminalising dissent
    • The emotional toll of activism in a high-risk setting
  • Work and Objectives
    • The compelling need to take action
    • Various trials and efforts in fostering dialogue
    • The importance of grassroots initiatives in a country where top-down change is unlikely

This episode offers a rare glimpse into the challenges of anti-war activism in Russia, a topic often shrouded in complexity and risk. While this episode remains free to all, please consider subscribing to The Voices Of War here, to gain access to all other episodes. I thank you for supporting the show.

Lastly, to find out more about the excellent initiative by my friends over at IN2 Comms I mentioned in the intro, please go here.

Thank you for listening. To comment or take the conversation further, please connect to us here:

Listen to the podcast here

Special Release: Vlad Sakovich – The View From Russia: An In-Depth Conversation On Anti-War Activism Under Putin’s Regime

As you will notice, I’m publishing the following conversation with Vlad Sakovich, a Russian peace activist, complete on the public channel. While some will undoubtedly judge Vlad and probably me as somehow being Kremlin Apologists, I ask you to read the full interview to know about the challenges faced by those in Russia who oppose the invasion of Ukraine.

In this conversation, you’ll read about one of the very few courageous and extraordinarily brave Russians who are doing whatever they can to increase the consciousness within Russia about the war that is carried out in their name. I conducted this interview with Vlad for a very simple reason. I want to bring to light the fact that there are at least some in Russia who are choosing to reject the dominant narrative and who are fighting in the best way they know how.

While it is undoubtedly true that Vlad and those he works with are a minority, I hope that this interview can highlight the complexities and risks involved in standing up against a powerful regime. It’s a testament to the resilience and courage of individuals who, despite the odds, are striving for a more ethical and peaceful future.

Lastly, and unrelated to my interview with Vlad, I want to remind you of an initiative I mentioned in our newsletter. Namely, my friends over at IN2 Comms are hosting a content creator contest themed Confronting the Climate Crisis. IN2 Comms welcomes entries to show how individuals, societies, and organisations are dealing with climate change either in their daily lives or in their work. There are three main categories open for submissions, photography, video, and AI-generated images. If you’re not on the newsletter distro list, please go to our website to register. Let’s dive into my conversation with Vlad Sakovich, a peace activist from Moscow.

My guest is Vlad Sakovich, who is speaking with me from Moscow. Vlad is a Russian educator, psychologist, and interpreter but has since the 2014 Donbas War and Crimea’s annexation found himself at the intersection of pacifism, anti-militarism, and anti-war activism. Since then, he has led grassroots dialogue initiatives and explored topics of collective trauma and conflict facilitation. He has grown networks within the sparse Russian anti-war movement as well as with colleagues from Ukraine, Belarus, Finland, and Sweden.

In response to the February 22, 2022, Russian invasion, Vlad started facilitating open forums, which are online semis, psychological dialogue spaces for Russians to discuss various topics related to the war. With a group of colleagues, he also runs an online course on civic facilitation, which explores ways to foster and support difficult civic dialogue in society.

Vlad chose to stay in Moscow with his family despite the risk associated with his work as this allowed him to remain connected to the local sentiment, and in particular, those who, like him, were quietly in the background to change the Russian narrative surrounding this war. Vlad joins me to discuss how everyday Russians perceive this war as well as to discuss his efforts and those he works with in creating spaces for dialogue. I must highlight that Vlad is joining me using his real name, which is a very courageous act, especially given how any who question the Russian regime are treated in Russia. On that note, Vlad, it’s a real privilege to speak with you. Thank you for joining me on the show.

Thank you for asking me to come and invite me.

Given your background, I must start by asking about your own motivations to do the work that you do. Maybe we can start with you sharing the moment you realised you wanted to be actively involved in anti-war activism. Was it a gradual process for you, or was there a specific incident that ignited your passion for this type of work?

It was a series of incidents, even if it might be the case that I was gradually getting ready for that, but then something sparks it and it happens. When I think of it, I imagine myself before I got into this topic and into this sphere. That’s a picture that’s familiar for many in Russia and maybe all over the world as well when I considered myself to be an activist in the sense that most of my work and my projects had this flair of change in society and working with people towards how they build the community and stuff.

Never did I engage with politics. That’s also the future of my generation, but also, the way it was in the atmosphere in Russia back in the early 2010s, there is a complete mistrust of any kind of politics and politicians. There is complete mistrust that anything can be changed by politics. There is a game running out there and you cannot influence it. The only way you can change stuff is by dealing directly with people, societies, communities, the perception, and the culture, so on this level.

After 2014, I still stayed in this position for a while. I was opposed to the annexation of Crimea. I was against it but passively and quietly and still doing my own thing. Here I am within the education domain, working with people in psychology, this, and that. I’m against this, but it’s happening. That was still the time when you could post on Facebook how much you were against that stuff when it wasn’t criminalised.

I remember I was participating in an international conference, the Integral European Conference, with people all over the world mostly in the domains of psychology and integral work, and working with communities and stuff. There were maybe 500 people at the conference. It wasn’t 100. It so happened there was a Ukrainian delegation there. I clicked with the person from Ukraine. She was a mediator. We matched. We were so much on the same wipe. We were like-minded. We were soulmates from the first minute we spoke. It was such a strong feeling, this getting together and being like, “I know exactly what you feel. I know exactly what you think.” It was this complete fit.

It felt like meeting a soulmate, which happens sometimes in my life. It was throughout the conference. I remember us sitting on the last night of the conference. It’s all over, and we are waiting for the buses to take us to the airport. Suddenly, the Crimea gets into our conversation. The resonance we had, the fit, and staying on the same page feeling we had all the days throughout the conference, in a second, it blew away. We are so triggered. She’s very much triggered.

I’m against annexation and stuff, but I’m trying to stay in the position like, “It’s complicated. I don’t see realistic ways how Russia can return Crimea right now given the circumstances and how it can be done, and the people who stayed there and stuff.” She burst. It shocked me, the way the connection broke, but that was still not the point that shocked me and was completely in my face.

That woman invited me after a couple of weeks to attend a conference in Switzerland, which was a gathering of more or less peace activists and peacebuilders. It was an NGO working for dialogue, peace, and stuff for quite some time after the Second World War. There, I went. She didn’t. She couldn’t because of other reasons. There was a Ukrainian delegation there as well. We had different kinds of talks and processes, masterclasses, this, and that.

Also, on the last night of the conference, we happened to be sitting outside of the venue, me and most of the Ukrainian delegation in this very communion setting. We took a guitar, had a campfire, and had some wine. We sang songs on guitar. I sang a song that I wrote myself, which was also touching, sincere, and vulnerable. We were also so much together in this, and there was nothing to split us apart. In this atmosphere, the Ukrainian friends who I met there started telling stories about their friends and close relatives being killed in the Donbas conflict. It’s not that I haven’t heard of that before. It’s not that I haven’t encountered that in the news and stuff, but that was such a direct connection and experience.

The very next day, I woke up with this completely irrational feeling that I can’t afford not to do something about it. I had no idea what to do. I got back to Russia and started brainstorming and trying this and that. I was trying to gather the anti-war activists or do some master classes, or do this or that. It was a random search, especially in the beginning. That was a moment when I was like, “I have to do something about it.”

That’s usually powerful for a number of reasons. Firstly, I want to pick out one thing you raised. That is you clicked firstly with the Ukrainian lady of the first conference and then with the Ukrainian delegation. What did you click over? What was it that bonded you? What were the recognitions that echoed between the two sides? At that point in time, they probably weren’t sides. I can relate to Serbs and Croats that I have met throughout my time. When you say the guitar and that sort of stuff, I can relate to that point a lot. I want to tease out some of those points of recognition and the points where you clicked and gelled.

On one hand, that’s something that happens with people whatever their country of origin, nation, or background is for me. It’s this recognition of a very much like-minded person with a similar background when we were sitting at the discussion tables at the conference or something. We had completely similar reactions and responses to what was happening. Often, the time is critical and even sarcastic.

There was also something about cultural similarity. That’s a tricky area to speak about in the context. When you speak about the closeness and similarity of Russian and Ukrainian culture, that’s the way you start touching this colonial space of, “This is an approach that Russia started the invasion.” That’s also true. There was a cultural similarity among us, which brought us together, especially in the international context when there are people all over the globe. We know that we are here together. We were much closer than I was with other Russian delegates at the conference, so it’s mostly personal, but there was this cultural closeness as well. I cannot deny it.

It’s an interesting point. It strikes me that there’s a particular distinction between you and the rest of the Russian delegation. Maybe it’s a more personal question also whilst acknowledging that there are cultural similarities, which are undeniable. I can draw examples from the Bosnian context. Culturally, we are so similar to Serbs, next door to Croats, to the Northwest. There’s no question about that. There’s no denying it. When it was Yugoslavia, we all sang the same songs. We all had the same love for the same bands, etc. Those ties are very strong.

The point you made was that you were somehow more forward-leaning or perhaps you had a different view or perspective to the rest of the Russian delegation. I want to pick that out a little bit. Was that the case? Did I misunderstand? If indeed it was the case, what makes the difference? Why were you different from the rest of the Russian delegation?

This is the way we are different with most of the people. It wasn’t something extraordinary or exceptional.

Do you have any background? Do you have your personal background or personal experience hence the much closer connection to Ukraine and Ukrainians?

Not much. Not really. What distanced me from the rest of the Russian delegation at the conference was my weird, in a sense, trick story background. For most of my life and most of my career, I stayed out of this official path. Once in my life, I was officially employed. I always worked on projects, independent teams, horizontal communities, and stuff like that.

I was also being this romantic guy, trying to change the world and trying to change the society having a disrespect for money and careerism and stuff. Most of the Russian delegations were from a very famous Russian psychological institute with all the certificates and stuff. There were people like that from the rest of the countries as well.

I don’t know. There was something about us. She was a mediator. She was into dialogue, how to make dialogue, and how to make connections. It was already a couple of years of the Donbas conflict going on. She worked on the frontline, trying to do some grassroots dialogue initiatives for people in Donbas from the East and from the West. She was polarised, but she also was trying to go deeper underneath the typically perceived layers of what was going on.

Since we already got personal, I want to mention that the cycle also closed. In 2022 or half a year after the invasion started, that person or the Ukrainian mediator died. She wasn’t killed in the conflict directly. She died of disease. That was partially connected to the difficulties in supplies of medicine in Ukraine and stuff. She was very much emotionally involved and engaged. She was working with the civic society in Ukraine, working with volunteers, and helping the Ukrainian Army and stuff. That stressed her and burnt her out. In a sense, but not directly, I feel that the war killed her. That’s a heavy plate in my heart, to be honest.

There’s also perhaps a dark symbology in that because it was post the first few months or weeks even of the war. Any hope of a peaceful resolution, Russian withdrawal, or even potential Russian defeat on the Eastern front or around the Donbas died. Therefore, any hope of dialogue, negotiations, etc. perhaps didn’t die, but it certainly dwindled off into the distance as the war escalated. Perhaps there’s some dark symbolism there as well. If we can move on to your career and your path, what is the work that you ended up doing? What is the work that you do, and what does that work hope to achieve in a country like Russia?

It’s rather many different directions and trials. I cannot call it a comprehensive piece of work unfortunately and maybe inevitably. In those years after I returned from the conference, I was convinced that I needed to do something until the invasion. That was a series of different initiatives and projects. Some of them were also symbolic.

For instance, I remember we had this N.L. celebration in Russia on the 9th of May, which is Victory Day in Russia. They call it the Great Patriotic War within the Second World War framework. More with years and especially after the Crimea annexation, the celebration became so much militarised with this victorious feeling.

As far as I remember and as far as I’ve been told for a while, it used to be more of recalling the tragedy and honouring people in the past and stuff in a day. The trend towards the glorification of victory in the Second World War was already there for a very long time. After the Crimea annexation, the whole propaganda, militarisation, and military victory feeling in the atmosphere has been pumped up by the government in many faults. They dramatically jumped.

I remember one of the years, which was 2017, ’18, or something, on the 9th of May, we wanted to do something else as an act of opposition to what was going on in the streets and squares. Instead, we gathered all the anti-military activists we found in St. Petersburg. Back then, I was living in St. Petersburg. There wasn’t a lot. There were maybe 40 or 50 of us. Some initiatives weren’t even anti-military or anti-war.

There was no such theme as the anti-war pacifist movement in Russia as a coherent theme, but there were initiatives that fell into this category once they started thinking in this framework. There was a project called the Irene’s Fires, which was an art project after the Crimean annexation for people to try to, in the art form, express their protest against what was going on. There was the Soldiers’ Mothers Project who also tried to help those recruits in the Army. Feminists were into the topic. The LGBTQ movement also got involved.

There was this vibe that connected us even though many of us didn’t call ourselves anti-military or an anti-war pacifist movement. We were brainstorming, connecting, and trying to build the network, which wasn’t there before. It was also the time this initiative started to meet, network, and build connections and somehow feel together. That’s not thanks to me doing a couple of the events. That was a trend. When the invasion started and many people migrated and left the country, I saw that those communities, movements, and teams which were apart consolidated. They started feeling like a coherent movement, which was already preparing for years. It was going on for a while.

It escalated from 2022 onwards. It had to.

I had this very interesting event I attended as a participant and also one of the trainers. There was what they called the peace training as opposed to the military training. It was a project initiated by a Swedish peace activist, one of the leaders of the Swedish pacifist movement. His name is Pele. That was a time when those who could identify as peace activists from Sweden, Finland, Russia, and Ukraine got together for two years in that gathering.

That was very interesting, meeting together, discussing, and being in this group process on the one side feeling that we ought to be and inevitably need to be. There is an interesting paradox we found out there. On the one side, as a peace movement, we can only be a peace movement if we are global, international, or not restricted to our countries. We are opposed the war as a means to do business between countries, communities, and people globally. There cannot be a Russian peace movement, Ukrainian peace movement, or American peace movement. It could be only the peace movement as a whole.

It’s antithetical to nationalism by its nature.

At the same time, the only way the peace movement can influence what’s going on is by influencing it in their own countries and opposing the military rhetoric and politics in their own countries. In democratic countries, they can do it by acting, lobbying, and trying to influence societal opinions and stuff. In other countries, they have to find different solutions. They can only do it in their own countries. Therefore, in every single country, they will be treated as traitors and those serving the other countries.

The only way the peace movement can make a great impact is by influencing their own countries and opposing military rhetoric and politics. Click To Tweet

We had this peace activist in Sweden being called the traitors and servants of Putin. Peace activists in Russia were being treated and called the servants of NATO, even though we were in the same movement. That’s also an inevitable dilemma here. That’s why it was also important to meet together and to see it as a whole.

I wonder how you see that as a psychologist. To me, there’s a lot of social psychology in that in the sense of group belonging and social identity. All of these things and the narratives, you have to embrace. If you are to feel a sense of belonging, or if you are to belong, then you even have to accept all of these additional narratives, some of which you might not even agree with, but you do that at the cost of not being ostracised.

This is perhaps leading to a question about the circumstances in Russia. I imagine if you publicly speak against the war and the invasion, there’s a high risk of being ostracised even if there is a number of people that might hear you and might quietly agree with you. The exit costs are so great. That keeps people locked into a particular narrative. I wonder what you think as a psychologist about that. Also maybe then, we can transition into what you see in Russia.

That’s true. If you publicly speak against the war in Russia, it’s not a high risk that you’re going be ostracised.

It’s prison.

Not really. For sure, you’re going to be ostracised. That’s not a question. It’s not a chance. It will happen. There will be those who support you quietly or less quietly or more quietly. That’s also for sure. There is a chance you’ll get to prison. I do this whole work. It’s not public in the sense that I go to the news and media and scream about it like, “Here it is,” but neither do I have a huge concern about hiding it.

For instance, in these open forums I do, I make a public post and send it to the channels that are close to me and with the people I know who I am more or less familiar with. I say, “You can forward it to the people you also know or to the channels and groups you also know. Let other people come.” It’s this semi-public domain where you don’t post it out for everyone to see, but neither do you hide it because you want to find this balance. Otherwise, which also happened to these open forums, if the same people who are like-minded and who trust each other and know each other keep coming, you are enclosing yourself in this bubble.

It’s a selective group.

In a sense, that is the biggest trend. It is something that is the hardest to overcome in modern Russia as far as I see. There are many things as well, but it’s this enclosure in your informational bubble and those who are with you. Previously, it was maybe on different topics, but that’s the topic. All of us are so much in this bubble that it takes so much effort, even if you dare to try to get out of it.

It’s easy to get out if you go to the streets and you see, for instance, me being in this anti-war bubble. I leave the apartment. I see the posters. I see the propaganda TV people talking about that. It’s so difficult to approach and get into any relationship once you see the split. Relationally speaking, we are all in this bubble. Most of us kept intimate relationships only with those with whom we were on the same page.

Interestingly, once you get into this bubble of, let’s say, anti-war people, those who support the war or support the regime are sure to be ostracised there once they speak publicly as well. Everyone feels it in the air. Once you are somewhere, you are more or less sure what attitude is here in the group. It’s like pro-war. It’s anti-war. You don’t dare to speak otherwise. That’s a huge civic polarisation.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the bubbling effect and the stove piping of information is not just a Russian problem. It’s a global problem. We see this everywhere with these competing narratives in this post-truth world where everything can be true where there’s evidence for every side of the debate and every point of view. Everyone’s opinion is equally valuable or can be shared as widely and as publicly as the next person’s. That’s a problem partially due to technology, but also because we’ve been globally left disappointed by our political elite.

You made the point about Russians and people like yourself who’ve stopped believing in politics or stopped believing in politics and acting in the interest of the people. That is something that broadly resonates certainly with most of my Western audience. That’s the populist movement. It is to resist and stand up against the betrayals of the political elite.

In Russia, there’s a layer over the top of that that is the cost that comes with standing up. Maybe my question is knowing what you know about Russian society, especially given that you live in Moscow, how many people believe that the war is unjust, that the war shouldn’t go on, and would identify as anti-war, broadly speaking? How prominent is that opinion?

No one can really say for obvious reasons. You cannot conduct comprehensive research once you try to calculate your own feelings about it while you are judging by your own bubble. The independent research groups, which I know and more or less trust, which we’re trying to somehow estimate in 2022, tend to say that we have 15% to 20% active war supporters and 15% to 20% active war opposers, and then the rest who are more or less indifferent and want life to be normal as it was once again.

VOW 99 | Anti-War Activism
Anti-War Activism: You cannot conduct comprehensive research once you try to calculate your own feelings about anti-war activism while you are judging by your own bubble.

The standard bell curve applies. 68% close your eyes and try to ignore as much as you can.

There is a tendency that on the one side, many of those who are against the war left the country. They are within the informational field. They keep the connections and stuff, but still, they’re out of the country. Those who support the war occupy 95% of the official public domain, whether it be media, TV, news, any kind of public spaces and platforms, or events. Censorship has obvious dynamics and mechanics here, so we have this asymmetry. Those are three labels, which are against, pro, and indifferent. There are these shades, colours, and all the different pictures in between. I can talk more about them.

Please do. That’s an important aspect because it’s ultimately going to be those that are the marginals that are going to eventually shift the narrative one way or the other. There is the 10% to 15% competing on either side the extremes, so to say. It’s going to be the swing voters that are ultimately going to push the narrative one way or the other. It’d be keen to hear about them, who they are, and what’s keeping them locked into their own bubbles or not allowing them to step out into the other bubbles.

For instance, if you try to imagine this war supporter’s camp, initially, this picture comes to mind. It’s also a picture largely drawn and pictured by anti-war people like us putting labels on each other. The picture comes to mind of this propaganda-brainwashed and critical-thinking absent people, mostly elders. That’s, to some extent, true.

There is an old lady who is also an activist of the local area I live in here in Moscow who tries to lobby opening new social centres here and there and get better infrastructure and stuff. She came to promote voting for the leading party at the upcoming elections here in Moscow. I was like, “I’m sorry. I cannot vote for the party because that is the party of the people who voted for war, genocide, war crimes, and stuff. It doesn’t make much sense to me.” She was like, “Why do you believe that?” I was like, “Why do you believe that?” She was like, “Putin said so. The TV said so.” That was completely within this picture. She was a very kind and good-intended lady who followed the narrative she heard from the news, TV, and stuff. That paints a picture.

There are people who are quite intelligent, who have access, and who read different kinds of news, media, and sources of information. They are not that stupid to believe what the defence ministry in Russia says. Everything else is fake. They know that from both sides, there are fakes and that this is happening. That wasn’t there before as far as I observed, but something triggered in this group, which turned out to be quite large, this feeling of patriotism, greatness, and some mission Russia is onto.

Interestingly enough, the understanding of what that mission is might differ among them, but they share this authentic sentiment. They leave their jobs, go to the frontline, and volunteer there. They donate money and stuff. They have these blogs, etc. There are not many of them, but I encountered one of them at the event I’ve been to. He was a public speaker there because it was also a state-sponsored event. I was observing there. As much as I hated what that person did and said, I cannot deny how sincere he was in that.

I have a friend of mine who is also very intelligent, and never did he support the Putin regime. He worked his own life in the domains of building horizontal communities, giving power back to the people and to the communities and working in alternative education. Never did he support the Putin regime. Never did he support the autocracy. He understands it all. Yet, he’s triggered by the war.

In a way, he supports it because it so happened that from 2014 until the invasion, he encountered some Ukrainians who had to flee Ukraine, which also happens and is also there, who encountered being ostracised. It got up to the point of violence for their pro-Russian or even pro-Russian language position in Ukraine. I assume that those are rather rare cases, but this person encountered them one by one. In a sense, that’s a diverse group.

That’s what makes it more difficult to unpack and challenge. It’s interesting, and I wonder what you think. It seems to me, and I know there’s research to back this up, that the moment one’s identity is threatened, that identity galvanises. We saw this in Ukraine especially as well. The moment Ukrainian identity was threatened, certainly post-February 2022, it became stronger than ever. I wonder if that’s what you’re describing there as well in the Russian context, which is not something that we dare to contemplate in the West that part of the natural human reaction is to rally around the flag.

In a sense. One could even argue that Russia, in a very violent way, served Ukraine in solidifying its identity, sense of belonging, and readiness to serve the country. Maybe this is also shaped by my Ukrainian friends whom I listen to and share some sentiments. Ukraine, through all the horrors it’s going through, has a huge transformation potential partly due to the war and before because the nation got solidified and all that.

VOW 99 | Anti-War Activism
Anti-War Activism: One could even argue that Russia, in a very violent way, served Ukraine in solidifying its identity, sense of belonging, and readiness to serve the country.

What one could even argue is that in a sense, that also served Russian society or potentially can serve Russian society because of A) That national identity. It has been marginalised since the fall of the Soviet Union, so it was on a decline. There was not much for people to unite around, neither the war, the military, and us against them nor something constructive that we were going to do this or that as a nation.

We even engage in the way we build our society. This depoliticisation and being seen out of politics, and this bystander syndrome thing is also part of that. We don’t feel as one, so why bother? What did you do? It also triggered this sense of unity within Russian society. Unfortunately, that was mostly asserted by the war supporters. That’s what the war opposers face as a challenge. They also want to play on that sense of unity on that. It is like, “We can change it. We can do it together.” There is a feeling that this whole sense of belonging to the country or the nation and representing it and being together is on that side. It belongs to them only.

Among the war opposers, there is even this hidden feeling that it’s been stolen from us. The right to be patriotic is stolen from us. The country has stolen from us. One could even say there is a civil war going on in Russia because of how huge this polarisation is. It’s not violent at the moment, but in a sense, it’s only not violent because it’s pressured down by censorship and everything. The polarisation, which is so huge, is there. It’s been there. The war triggered it to be more open and visible. It’s like a wound that was hidden, and then it burst out. That’s painful and potentially even lethal, but that’s also a relief and a way for the body to heal. It might be or might not become.

It might be depending on how it unfolds. That’s right. I find interesting this tension between the two sides. That one side, the nationalist side, is perceived as the one that represents the state. It has stolen the flag and has taken the flag as the symbol of the nation. Whereas those who oppose the war are anti-flag or anti that particular history or culture, they’re the sellouts. That tension is relevant globally, particularly as this populist movement rises. In Russia, we’re seeing that manifest in a much more brutal way towards their neighbour.

The flag is very ironically symbolic here. You might’ve heard of it. When the anti-war movement, those who left the country started to gather and assemble in different countries, it happened to be one of the biggest organisations out of them. They came up with this new flag of Russia, which was white and blue but without red. It is symbolising that we are denying the violence and stuff that Russia represents, leaving only blue and white. They are nonviolent and all that. The idea is good, but what they say is, “We are not them. We are not Russia. We don’t want that flag. We are something different.” Unless you are powerful enough to build such a huge new thing that can replace the old, you’re denying it and saying, “We are separate.”

You’re not changing anything at the core. You’re merely removing yourself from having a seat at the table.

It’s so painful to be there. It’s so painful to be identified with it so you rather break it, but then, your chance to change it also gets wasted.

The resistance one feels from the rest of the world, or at least certainly the Western world, if you gather somewhere with a Russian flag, even as an anti-war movement, you will immediately be associated with the pro-war movement. You made an interesting point about the censorship. That’s something that we hear about, talk about, and perhaps even have an idea or can visualise what that means. It’d be interesting to hear what censorship means in Russia. What does that look like?

When you say you walked outside and you see the propaganda and the posters, most of us have a vague idea of what that is, but perhaps, it’d be useful to learn from you how broad and all-encompassing that is, and what it means to the everyday Russian, that grandma that you mentioned or the old lady that you mentioned, and everyone else around or the 68%, the middle, that’s sticking their head in the sand. What does that look like to them?

There are a couple of layers here. One is that the government hugely funds and therefore occupies the public space with propaganda in different mediums from posters to TV shows, videos, and everything. Once you go to the street, most of them are not even propaganda of, “Those Ukrainians deserve to be,” and stuff. It’s mostly them trying to recruit people to the Army because that’s something they’re struggling with.

VOW 99 | Anti-War Activism
Anti-War Activism: The Russian government hugely funds and occupies the public space with propaganda in different mediums, from posters to TV shows, videos, and everything.

In Moscow, for instance, you have posters of, “Join the Army,” on every single organisation, like the cafeteria, the shop, anything. It’s on every door. The local administrations come to the owners. They give them the posters they say, “You have to post it.” Once you watch the billboards, half of the billboards are the promotion of joining the Army, which shows how nervous and anxious they are about recruitment and mobilisation.

They also are very anxious about still rolling out another wave of general large-scale mobilisation because that frightens people and destabilises the regime. The regime still holds on being passive. It still doesn’t want people to be active. Even if they’re actively supporting the war, it still prefers them to be, “Let’s do our own thing.” That’s one layer.

I haven’t watched TV in years, so I cannot be a direct witness. From what I hear, TV is 99% fueled by this huge propaganda. I don’t have words to describe it. The last time I watched some of those shows out of curiosity, I could not imagine how a normal human being could watch it because it’s so much fueled by hatred and hysteria. It’s nonsense. TV is researched to be the main media source mostly for elderly people only. Most of the rest use different sources.

There is the criminalisation of any public opposition to war. There are a couple of laws. They can get you to prison for a couple of decades at worst. It’s unclear how massive this is. There were waves, especially in the beginning, when there were protests and then a couple of weeks after that when huge amounts of people got into prison. As far as I understand and see, they try to keep everyone alert. They put one person in jail every couple of months for a decade. You cannot say that one person a month is a lot, but since it is public, that’s a way to threaten.

If it’s publicised and if everyone knows, then it’s a deterrent.

You can’t predict. You can be a politician who has huge social capital and is against the war and the European prison, but then, you can be the father of a girl who drew a Ukrainian flag in school. The father got jailed and is still in jail. He is sentenced for a decade or so and his daughter is given to the orphanage. You could be a shop owner who also drew the flag on his shop. It’s unpredictable.

That is what makes it scarier. That’s part of it, keeping the uncertainty alive.

It doesn’t seem to be massive, at least at the time, when you see hundreds and thousands of people being jailed every month. There are no protests. There wouldn’t be. The picture might be different because there is technical censorship. They legally close all the independent media, and then they try to technically ban them.

They put the blogs, websites, applications, and stuff so you can only access them through a VPN. It also shrinks their audience. They try to block VPNs as well. Rumours say that they’re trying to block YouTube as Facebook is already blocked. VPNs keep dying because this protocol is blocked. Those who want to keep their access to those sources of information can, but that takes more effort.

Also, more technical know-how.

That’s a very good example. That’s something that we took on from the Belarus experience. More teams are developing decentralised VPN tools for people to access information. It’s free. They’re coming up with new technical solutions and stuff. Those are social projects. Those are not private corporate VPNs, which are meant to make money from them. Many of the teams I know who are developing these tools are teams consistent with Russian and Ukrainian engineers and software guys within the team.

Doing it as a social project?


What is the impact of the casualties? At least in the West here, there are figures of up to 200,000, if not dead, but certainly wounded. These are serious numbers. These are numbers that one would expect would hit home in Russia as to the severity of this war. If nothing else, the number of sons and perhaps even daughters of Russia that are being killed inevitably on foreign land. How is that received? Are those numbers even remotely publicly acknowledged or whispered amongst the people?

Not at all. Publicly, it’s all completely hidden. There are only the numbers published by the Ministry of Defence, which is a couple of people a day. It’s whispered, but that’s censored. That also feels taboo in society. One of the reasons is that a huge percentage of the recruits were from the remote regions of the country for different reasons, like financial incentives and stuff. They mostly tried to keep the huge cities, especially Moscow and St. Petersburg, more or less intact.

Those remote regions also don’t have much capacity for protests or anything. They’re like, “Here it is.” Individually speaking, I watched a couple of interviews, for example, with mothers whose sons died. There are all very diverse pictures of how it happens. There are mothers rescuing their sons who, by ignorance, got involved on the frontline. She was rescuing them on the time they were on the rotation, hiding them, and stuff. There are those who heard the nation. Perhaps that was for a reason. At least we get the money. It’s also there. It’s incomprehensible to me and to many, but it’s true. Mostly, that’s somewhere below even semi-public, what people whisper on the streets and talk to each other about.

That’s interesting. That’s part of the suppression.

No one believes the numbers by the Ministry of Defence. Everyone is sure there are many people who are dead. That’s the overall feeling. It’s that we don’t talk about what it implies.

It implies action, and action is costly. The action comes with exit costs that are perhaps too great and risks that are perhaps too great to take. That’s especially true if you are in this middle 60% to 70% that is largely unaffected by the war. Broadly speaking, I imagine everybody is, to an extent, affected. If your son is not fighting, if your son is not dying, or if your daughter’s not dying, what is the impact of the drone attacks even in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other regions in Russia? Is this bringing war closer to home to those who remain with their head in the sand?

Surprisingly not. That shocks me, to be honest. One of the first drones that flew into Moscow blew up a couple of kilometres from the place I stay. I’m anti-war and a pacifist activist, so I had this very weird feeling of, on the one hand, feeling insecure that the next day, it might fly and blow up onto my balcony, which wouldn’t be so pleasant. There is also a part of me, which is like, “Let it happen. At least it comes here and we see that it’s happening, not somewhere in the distant place. At least that will wake people up.”

The narrative and the strategy in the news were also mostly to try to talk it down. They didn’t use it to fuel propaganda even more, like, “Those Ukrainians need to unite.” They try to, “Nothing’s happening. It’s all fine.” It’s different for the people living in the Bryansk region, closer to the border, because they’re been attacked every day. There are people dying every month. They’re also out of public discourse. It is like, “It’s happening there. We don’t care.”

What does it look like from your perspective? How does this unfold from your view?

There is something in the process of psychology. They call it the high dream, which is a hope that’s not just a rational one but something you can aspire to. That also has some intuition in it. There is hope that once this cup, which has been placed on the social frictions, polarisation, and conflicts within the society, is taken off for some reason, it could be the fall of the regime. It could be the defeat in the war but the regime is staying. It could be something else.

VOW 99 | Anti-War Activism
Anti-War Activism: There is hope that once the cap placed on social frictions, polarisation, and conflicts is taken off, it could mean the fall of the Russian regime.

There is this high dream that it might happen in the future. If that happens, that’s going to be naughty. That’s not going to be nice and beautiful, for sure. It’s not that the regime is falling and finally, we are free and we can build democracy and be in peace with each other and with the world. There is such a level of tension of polarisation in society. That’s where civic facilitation, in a broad sense, is going to be urgently needed to try to make these bridges and to build and foster dialogue within society, which is polarised. It’s one thing to try to foster it within the society where it’s censored and put down, and it’s a different thing when the wound is burst out and you need to deal with it.

It started this course as well.

Also, all the tensions, which were there already. To be honest, it’s hard to foresee this change in the near future because it seems so uncycled. The war itself hasn’t changed in the last few years. There are not many changes on the frontline and in the situational battles and stuff. Within the country and society, the knot is getting even tighter in a sense.

There’s one other thing I want to pick up before we get to the social dialogue initiatives. Two things spring to mind. Firstly, it’s going into high school. High school students are being trained in the use of guns, hand grenades, UAVs, or drones. That’s one question I have, whether you’ve heard if that’s true. How is that perceived more broadly? How is it interpreted?

What does it say to the everyday Russian back in school? We know of this from World War II, etc. What is this saying to the Russian population? Secondly, also, it is the 8th of September, 2023. I saw on the news that there are whispers of perhaps the members of the Kremlin considering deposing Putin. Whether there’s any truth to that, maybe not even now, but in the near future, what are your thoughts on those two points?

First, they were getting it to schools and even kindergartens and universities since the beginning of the invasion on a large scale and before that, since 2014, but maybe a little bit slower. From propaganda, we see children in the kindergarten. Those perhaps also are exceptional cases. It’s not something that is happening everywhere in every single kindergarten. We’ve seen these pictures of children in the kindergarten being put in this Z letter in a military uniform and stuff.

In schools, they have had it for years already. They have this additional lesson, which is to be conducted weekly for everyone, which is called Discussions on the Important Things. It is supposed to be the propaganda talks. They changed the school books this 2023, the history book and what they call civic science. They also changed it all. The propaganda, they put the chapters on the invasion, which they call the special operation stuff, fascism in Ukraine, and all that. There were many laughs about it.

Also, in the exams on the civic science for the high school students, they took out the questions about democracy. That’s how absurd it is. In the universities, they also have it. They have these talks. They have students being expelled if they demonstrate their anti-war, anti-Putin position, and stuff like that. Some of the teachers who have been expelled in the last couple of years and left the country already organised these horizontal, informal, and self-organised independent universities. They give lectures and talks, and then the government censors them, tries to put them down, and calls them foreign agents. That prohibits the organisation.

For instance, in one of the free universities, those teachers and academia who have been expelled are called extremists. It’s illegal to engage with them in any way. The military training itself also, the law is passed that from 2023, it is going to be in schools. It’s then always a question of how it’s implemented. You try to top-down from the government, and then it’s implemented in all the different ways, depending on the school and teachers.

Some teachers also try to buy out those lessons or try to talk about something else there. It’s vague what you consider to be important and talk about the important stuff. Some do and some follow it. Some students follow it, and some students suppose the teachers. They record the video and audio and spread it publicly among the teenagers and stuff. That always is happening.

Internal policing, so to say, or internal moderation.

It is both ways. In one way, if you are a teacher who dares to start talking about critical thinking and something against the war, you can be recorded. Internal police or someone will shoot a video of you and send it to the government, or vice versa. You could be a teacher who starts to put propaganda on children, and children will record it. They will spread it and they will laugh at you. There is no one to arrest you to put sanctions. They publicly laugh at you, which also is happening. Children overall turned out to be more resilient to propaganda than many assumed. Most of them, especially teenagers, were like, “What are you talking about? Do you really expect us to believe that?” It still differs.

Children turned out to be more resilient to propaganda than many assumed. Most of them are not that gullible to believe every bit of information presented to them. Click To Tweet

There is a significant portion of it.

That’s true. The effort itself is huge, and it’s everywhere. The pressure is everywhere. Children got to express their opinions in hidden ways, secretly, not publicly. Otherwise, they are also at risk of being expelled or their parents being imprisoned as it happened with some of them. Most of the parents who are against war and against the regime but have to stay in the country try to somehow protect their children from that.

They either talk with them about, “This is going to happen in school, but you don’t have to attend. We are going to write this letter that you are sick. You will not attend the lessons and stuff like that,” or they take just children out of schools. There has been not a huge, but significant increase of children going to the family education. They are getting out of school and transitioning to home education instead in the last couple of years.

There are so many different aspects of this that are concerning and worrying, especially when the oppression is so deep.

It’s almost an anecdote here. In 2022, I was also at the event working with the administration of the pedagogical universities. That was the time they introduced the law that the pedagogical universities need to prepare students to be in this new position, which is the heads of upbringing and value-based and propaganda if you read between the lines in schools. Therefore, pedagogical universities need to prepare their students to be in those positions.

All of them, on the one hand, were super excited about it. It turns out that within the government system, and I mean not the officials but the schools or the universities, many need some coherent value-based ideology to unite us so much. They’re like, “Finally, we can work on that. We cannot just bring cynical people who are after making careers and money, but find out something that unites us together.”

Once they start talking about it, even though the law implies this propaganda in war and stuff, they’re like, “We’ll talk about how they can create social projects, change the society, make us a more democratic country, and do this and that. We’ll talk about social enterprises, how to make it a more just community, be self-independent critical thinkers who can collaborate, work in teams, and all that good stuff.” Someone comes from the officials and is like, “Here is what they’ve got to do.” They’re like, “Okay.” I’m not sure how exactly that combines in there.

The cognitive dissonance must be great.

We’re like, “We need ideology. We want ideology. We want something to unite us.” They’re like, “Let us talk about ideology.” We’re like, “We’ll wait for someone to put it on us from both.” There is this need, which is sincere, authentic, and very healthy for society. It’s also well-intentioned, for sure. There is fear. It would be a good thing if they would discuss, talk, and have this dialogue about what kind of ideology they could have that they would like to translate to their pupil, children, and stuff.

Instead, they wait to be served with the narrative.

I more or less understand why, but they are afraid to go into the dialogue when I, as a moderator, try to provoke them into the dialogue of, “What kind of ideology you would like to create?” They were like, “Let’s not go there because it’s not authorised.”

The price for speaking one’s own critical mind is perhaps too high. This is perhaps a good way to pivot to this civic dialogue in a society that you run and create with the open forums. What are open forums, firstly, and what are you achieving? Who is attending open forums? Why do they attend? What do they hope to achieve? What are the challenges? What are some of your concerns about these open forums?

Long story short, open for is a format from process-oriented psychology, which is a branch of the psychodynamic psychological approach. It was created by Armand Mandel. That’s a format where you have a dialogue between people. That’s a way to have a heated dialogue on something in which you have conflict or tension. It’s not a peaceful talk.

VOW 99 | Anti-War Activism
Anti-War Activism: Open forums lead to heated dialogues full of conflict or tension. It is not a debate but an interaction focused on feelings.

A way to have it where you focus not only on what people think and their rational arguments. It’s not a debate. You also focus on feelings, which are considered to be important, but you also focus on something they call the roles in the field. You don’t see the particular people with their opinions and feelings as individuals but also the roles that people occupy. They get into this group or that group, this role or that role. Sometimes, they can even change, and sometimes, they can even change within the format or within the dialogue.

When you say roles, do you mean specific roles in society or identities that they embody and that they represent?

More or less identities, but you could also call them voices. You could call them societal voices, avatars, and spirits if you go more esoteric. They also have something they call ghost roles. These are, for instance, opinions, feelings, or voices, that are taboo, censored, or unpopular, or you cannot pronounce them, or they’re not present within this group. They also influence the dialogue and the conversation. Someone, for example, the facilitator or some of the participants, can occupy that role and speak on behalf of that role. It’s not only my own mind.

In the first couple of months after the invasion started, some international process work psychologists tried to convene global open forums on the Ukrainian war that everyone could attend. It could be Russians, Ukrainians, as well as the rest of the people. After two of them made clear that we cannot do it at the moment, the dialogue between Russians, Ukrainians, and everyone else is not good because of obvious reasons.

One of the reasons was that while there were people from the Ukrainian side and there were people from the Russian side, all of them were against the war. Most of what Ukrainians wanted and had to say to the Russians was not addressed to those people who were present in the forum. It was a miscommunication.

What do you mean by that?

Ukrainians were like, “You Russians attack us and think you’re a great empire.” There are those Russians in the forum who are against the regime against the war that was like, “It’s not us.” The only thing they could do was try to play the role of the war supporting Russia, Putin, or whoever. That was needed as well, but not exactly what the dialogue might look like.

I understand.

The Ukrainians had a space to tell what they needed to tell. That was important as well to be witnessed by the international community and the Russians. That was the beginning of it. It wasn’t unclear and it wasn’t present everywhere. It was weak and in this fog of war for everyone. It was important, but then we could see that the dialogue between the countries is not possible at the moment. It’s too hot.

Within Ukraine, they started to self-organise. They started to create beautiful and healthy places for such dialogue within Ukraine and support groups, psychological groups, dialogue groups, and open forums within the community to talk about the stuff they had. They weren’t united all at once after the invasion started. It was also a gradual process. There were many polarisations, conflicts, this and that, the conflict between those who left Ukraine, those who stayed, and all of it. They had this and they started doing it in a very beautiful way.

VOW 99 | Anti-War Activism
Anti-War Activism: After the invasion of Ukraine, people within the country gradually started to self-organise. Support groups, psychological groups, dialogue groups, and open forums started to create beautiful and healthy places.

I had my colleagues, Ukrainian psychologists and process workers, who were facilitating these forums. They go in there in a very active manner. It also got sparked because of the invasion. That suddenly became very irrelevant. They had fundraising and resources for that. In Russia, it’s silence. I had one person try to organise such a forum once. It turned out to be a gathering for people who know each other, like seven of us or something who spoke with each other. The atmosphere of silence in society was the most present. I felt, “I want to break this silence. I want to create the space for this dialogue, at least in Russia, within Russia, and for Russians maybe in a similar manner.”

First, I invited a friend of mine and a colleague, who is a Swiss process worker psychologist. He also has connections to both Russia and Ukraine. He’s conducted seminars in Russia. His wife is Russian even though they live in Switzerland. The 2 of us conducted 3 open forums in the summer of 2022. Many people attended. It was up to 80 or 90 people at most.

Since it was so confusing, polarised, and hot, I wouldn’t say that we had an actual deep dialogue. It was more of a breaking-the-silence thing. There were people sharing their emotions and their stories. They were sometimes playing roles, but mostly sharing on behalf of themselves. There were different people, those who were against the war mostly. There were some of them who did not necessarily support the war but did not fit into the identity of the anti-war activist, for sure. They were like, “I do love my country and I do want to stay with it. I don’t want to criticise it for everyone.” It is, by its nature, as many anti-war activists did at the moment. It was important.

By the end of summer, that colleague of mine, Reinhauser, was like, “Now I want to take a break.” There was also a feeling that the dialogue was happening, but it was happening under the supervision of someone from outside. A Swiss or an old guy with perceived authority is someone helping us to speak to each other. We felt like, “We need to be able to talk to each other by ourselves.”

I started doing these open forums biweekly by myself and sometimes some friends of mine and colleagues from Russia joined as co-facilitators. The thing is that most of them, 90% of the attendants were anti-war people. I even invited once in a while intentionally those people I know who are supporting the war to attend. Most of them never did. That’s part of that mirror bubble or mirror ostracising. They feel that once they come, it’s insecure for them to be in that space and to speak publicly.

Sometimes, some of them do come. That was also a point of dialogue. Mostly, that turned out to be a space for dialogue for very different people with general anti-war positions to talk and work on different things which appeared from the topic of helplessness, which was a huge thing throughout 2022, and not seeing what we can do anything to the topic of guilt. Many people have hard feelings about feeling guilty and being attacked from all sides, from the Russian side for being a traitor and from the Ukrainian side for being Russian.

There was a topic of victory, for instance. On the 9th of May, 2022, we did the forum with the topic of victory where we tried to speak about and feel into what victory is for us. It turns out that for those who support the war, it’s completely unclear. There is no picture of victory. What exactly should happen for us to perceive it as a victory? For those against the war as well, what exactly? It is Russia withdrawing the Army from Ukraine, and then what? What’s a victory not for Ukraine, but for us? The fall of the regime. What’s next, and how is it going to happen? It’s also unclear. No one is fighting for victory because there is no image of victory, it turns out.

No one is fighting for victory in Ukraine against the Russian invasion because there is no image of victory. Click To Tweet

There was, for instance, a forum on the power and strength of pacifism where we discovered that as this sense of belonging to the country and patriotism was completely on the side of supporting the war, also, the empowerment and the feeling that I have power and I have strength to do something is also reserved by that camp and associated with violence. It’s a violent power. Those who are against war and are for peace there are like, “We cannot exercise power. We don’t feel the right to. That’s also stolen from us.” We had on this how we, as pacifists of different kinds, can be powerful, strong, and not anaemic.

How can they be? Given everything we’ve spoken about so far, the oppressive environment that you find yourself in, where do you draw your power from? Where do you reject the weakness that’s being attached to the cause from the narratives surrounding your cause?

You mentioned this high risk of me being public here in the show and not hiding my name and stuff. That’s, for me, a personal way to retain my power, to do what can be and feels to be maybe risky, but still to do it to be publicly against the war. I’m not going out on the streets screaming, putting posters, and being in process and stuff. It’s not so much because we’re here, but because I don’t see any potential effect from that other than me being jailed.

Whenever I face this dilemma of fearfully hiding my position or being open about it, I try to choose and prefer the second one for my own sake. It’s not for justice. It’s not even a moral thing. It’s my way of retaining my power of feeling that I can afford and be courageous enough and powerful enough to do that. It is saving myself. Trying to go to the other side to have this dialogue and try to understand them and try to see the feelings behind those figures that support the war, for me, is much more difficult than publicly speaking my own position because that triggers me once I encounter it. It is then seeing that figure within me.

For instance, in that last event I mentioned, there was a guy who was very sincere and authentic about his support of the war. He volunteered and went to the frontline. He is an ex-marketing specialist and branding specialist. He was talking about how we, within the country, market the war, market patriotism, and make the mythology and brand of us as a strong nation based on war. He believed in that so sincerely and stuff. I couldn’t deny it.

I’ve listened to them for half an hour. I could clearly identify that even though I won’t do that, symbolically and psychologically, I want to kill him for what he’s doing and what he’s creating. That’s a killer within me. It’s so unbearable to witness and to be present together with what he represents and what he’s building.

Finding the killer within me, finding the one who needs to belong within me. Maybe I choose not to belong to this identity of the country or the nation. Instead, I depend on belonging to the anti-military group and identity. Finding the aggression within me, finding a saviour within me. There is a part of me that feels that we need to complete some mission. I would rather prefer this mission to be something more peaceful and constructive.

Others would call it colonialism of me trying to do something for the whole globe. Who am I to do so? That is also partly true. Finding all these parts and maybe hoping that might help to build this dialogue between the camps, the different people, and conflicting parties within Russia to see that there are similar intentions, feelings, and archetypes that drive us, even though they drive us to the opposing sex.

It’s so interesting because it echoes everything you said right at the start about meeting your Ukrainian counterparts and having this sense of unity, belonging, and togetherness, which is then driven apart by one instance. What you’re describing is exactly what’s happening to you in Russia where you have a sense of belonging.

This one narrative, this one perspective, one identity that one chooses to embrace, or one is, in some way, forced to embrace. If this is all you hear and all you see, then how can we expect an everyday Russian to have the perspective that you have, somebody who’s been exposed to not just the psychological dimensions of what happens in their mind, but also having met people from various countries and segments of society having had different perspectives and seen different views?

For somebody who hasn’t had the luxury of that, it’s very easy for us to cast them out and say they’re evil, which is what broadly happens in the West. It’s very easy in the West. There’s a tendency to think that all Russians are culpable, guilty, and evil. That’s not the case. The old lady you mentioned during our discussion is a nice, lovely lady, but that doesn’t mean that she’s serving a course that is ultimately bringing out bad outcomes for everybody involved. She doesn’t think so.

That’s why the old adage is, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.” It is so true in these kinds of circumstances. How do you measure the impact of your initiatives? Is this even possible that you can measure any impact or how far-reaching it is? How many people are you able to touch and create a bumper in their minds that perhaps 1 in 10 might think about things differently?

That’s a tough one. On a bad day, I feel that my impact is close to zero and I’m impacting nothing. I’m in my illusions of trying to do something. I can’t bear helplessness, which is here. To some extent, that’s true. Most of the people I directly work with or try to influence are already those with anti-military positions. I’m not changing the minds of those who are supporting the war. I’m not even changing the minds of those who are against the war to be more complex in their perception so that we can build a dialogue. Among us all, including me, it is increasing this complexity that one day might allow us to embrace the whole polarisation and the whole conflict.

That’s a typical challenging question that is the reason for every single civic, anti-war, and democratic gathering I attended or organised in the last couple of years. I’m like, “Should we invite those into the dialogue?” There is this huge desire to say no because it’s so hard to talk to them and with them. It’s not clear what to talk with them about. If you don’t invite them, nothing’s happening.

Many people within anti-activism movement refuse to talk with Russian war supporters. But if they are not invited to the dialogue, nothing will happen. Click To Tweet

You’re missing one of those roles. You’re missing one of those identities in the dialogue.

It stays. It doesn’t go anywhere. There is this famous cartoon which was very famous in the ‘90s in the Russian-speaking part of the world called Masyanya. It’s been out for a while. Everyone forgot about it. After the invasion, the author started doing the episodes again on war. He’s clearly anti-war and pro-Ukrainian. It’s political, sarcastic episodes.

They highlight the deep intentions that we have. At the end of one of the episodes, the good people with the UFOs and help from the aliens put all those who want to have war on the island and they kill each other. There is a part of me that wishes this to happen however unrealistic it is. I’m then like, “We need to be more mature if we are about to change this.”

Perhaps what I’m trying to achieve with this forum, course, and everything is to explore together how we can mature, including me and those who I’m working with, so that we can change it or so that we are changing it. That also includes how we, for example, within the course, are creating the war dynamic within the group and how these roles are represented and expressed within the group even though we are all for civic rights, anti-war, and stuff. We then start to have this subtle oppression, and then we explore this.

To be honest, I have no answer on how exactly it’s going to influence if it’s going to influence and if it influences the status quo. Something that came to me with the war and with this work of mine, which wasn’t there before, is I feel that I also matured in the sense that it’s okay for me to keep doing it. I assume that it might be right without knowing or having anything to assure me that it’s right and it’s going to work and influence. I don’t know, and it’s okay. Still, I’m going to do that. It’s that feeling.

That’s powerful because that comes from deep within oneself. It’s not about doing it for someone or because it’s the right thing to do or not the right thing to do. All of that almost becomes irrelevant because it is fueled by intrinsic motivations to do something. Whatever it does is more than was there before. It’s having a seat at the table. It is not letting the narrative be taken from you. It is not letting the flag be taken from you, so to speak. For that reason, I find everything you’re doing so powerful.

I have one last question for you. Given the importance of this being a local dialogue, in this instance, perhaps what you’re describing is an internal Russian dialogue between the various bubbles in Russia to try and find a cohesive whole of what victory looks like, what the future looks like, what ideology we embrace, and who we are as a people.

How do those outside of Russia, not even Ukraine, but outside of Russia and Ukraine, help you do what you do without tarnishing you with the brush of being anti-Russian, so to speak? Even in this show, I know there will be a portion of those who read who will say, certainly on Twitter, “He is a Kremlin apologist.” I have no doubt. There will be a significant portion of those who recognise the humanity that you represent. They will want to help. How can they do it without making your life harder?

There are a couple of things. One is I can’t imagine being in the seat of someone influencing some initiatives, politics, or something in whatever country that tries to support peace. It’s supporting Ukraine. It’s supporting the Ukrainian Army, which is the right thing to do. It is then isolating Russia with sanctions, and all the different ways to isolate it. That is a very understandable thing to do. Once you see this aggressor who is breaking all the rules and using the power of force and stuff, you want to isolate yourself from it. That’s understandable. I try to do it myself. I battle with that, but I try to isolate myself from those support in the world. That’s not a sensible thing to do if you try to influence.

If you instead try to support any civic, anti-war dialogue in independent media, VPNs, and these initiatives in Russia and try to keep these bridges, I’m not sure, but perhaps you are working against the Kremlin and for the peace. One needs to be very accurate here. For me, the examples of the horizontal marginal teams that are creating these projects like VPNs and stuff, which are international teams, they usually include Russians, Ukrainians, Belarus people, and some others. Those are great examples. That’s one thing on the policy level.

It’s a metaphor from the psychotherapeutic field, which comes to my mind. There, what matters is the role of the witness. When, for instance, you work with someone’s trauma, it’s very powerful if there is a well-intended witness who doesn’t try to rescue, save, banish, punish, or whatever. With good intentions, weakness is a process.

With good intentions, weakness is a process. Click To Tweet

That’s the role of the surrounding community. They’re witnessing the conflict taking place and trying to be there, be present, and see what’s going on without turning away from it. That’s more of a symbolic act. It’s not clear what exactly you need to do to be a witness. Even with the open forums, maybe soon, maybe this autumn 2023 if I keep doing them, I will try to invite international witnesses to the process to see if it changes the dynamics. It’s not even to participate, but to observe.

There is this very tricky thing that in a way, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a part of the global process after all of the global polarisations going on. We mentioned a couple of those, like mistrust of the government, mistrust of media post-modern culture and all that. On the one hand, it’s important to see this war and this conflict in the context of the larger frame. It’s not one exceptional thing we need to resolve, and then the rest stays as it is in a way that’s a symptom of what’s going on in the global system. We need to take that into account.

One needs to be very accurate here because the Kremlin uses and utilises in its propaganda these cracks and tensions in the global context and the global discourse. For instance, it uses this post-truth thing to say, “This war crimes in Bucha, we don’t know the truth because it’s post-truth. No one knows the truth.” He doesn’t even try to convince that, “This is the way we believe things happened.” Instead, he tries to utilise this, “No one knows the truth.”

It is like, “There is this crisis of Western liberal democracy.” Is there such a crisis? There is, but instead of trying to find ways to work on that, we’re like, “Instead, we are going to attack this very model and see that we are something else. We are not the solution. We’re the remnant of the authoritarian traditional regime.” It utilises, unfortunately, this global context for its own sake. That’s a subtle balance of seeing it within the larger framework without playing the game of Kremlin propaganda, which also does that.

I knew this would be a powerful interview, and it certainly was. I’m in awe of what you do, especially in the courage of what you’re doing. Thank you, firstly, for the work you’re doing. If this show can bear or act the role of that witness even in the slightest sense, then I will have achieved my aim with the show, especially given what’s happening in Ukraine.

To have somebody speak from Moscow from the heart of the invading Army, so to speak, but to speak so candidly about the paradox of this particular war and the tensions within Russia itself was hugely beneficial to me and I hope to the audience as well. We can only hope that 1 or 2 flames can keep burning to try and keep that dialogue going and increase it ever so slightly. Thank you very much for what you do and for giving me so much of your time.

Thank you, too. As a last note, I felt like saying, being courageous and speaking from Moscow from the heart of the invading country, at the same time, it is also my huge privilege to be speaking from Moscow. By being in the heart of the invading country, rockets are not falling on my head. Neither did they part from the drones, a couple of them, in the last few years. My challenge is how to use that privilege by being aware of how to use it responsibly. Maybe all of us with how to use a privilege that we have in the context.

That’s a very important point.

Thank you for having me. I can’t express my gratitude for hosting me and being the host from the Capitol H.

Thanks. We’ll be in touch.


Important Links