When the president of her country invaded Ukraine, Russian journalist Yana Pashaeva posted a profile picture frame with the Ukrainian flag. "I am ashamed that Putin started a war." "#Iamnotsilent". Yana is 30 years old and lives in Moscow, where she collaborates with Slate magazine and the Reuters press agency. Prior to that, she had written opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Times and was an editor for the independent radio station Kommersant FM. Yana was my colleague in the United States in the Hubert H. Humphrey program, my roommate for a month and, most of all, maia padruga (my friend). I always thought I would be able to have a good word up my sleeve for Yanushka, but now the war has come and I don't have anything to say anymore. All I could do is listen to her, as I have always liked to do.
We saw each other on Whatsapp on Sunday night, in a context that we have never imagined. She had just arrived from an anti-war protest in Moscow where 900 people had been arrested.
Since Russia started the war in Ukraine, over 353 civilians lost their lives, including 14 children, and over 1,684 people have been wounded, according to Ukrainian authorities. More than 600, 000 Ukrainians fled to neighbouring countries and over 67, 000 people have found refuge in Romania.
Yana told me what propaganda and censorship in the Russian media look like these days, how a simple banner at the protest means arrest, and also how journalists, artists, doctors and activists are risking their jobs to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
Hey, Yana, how are you? How was the protest?
It lifted my spirit. I was happy to be part of people who were able to be in one line all together and we were able to walk all together. Police didn't stop us from the beginning, they arrested people just after. I feel good that I did my part. I participated as a citizen, not as a journalist. As far as I could see there were hundreds or thousands of people, way more than Friday or Saturday. Police try now to stop even gathering. If they see 3 people in a group who would stay more than one minute in one place they would come up to you: Good evening, what are you doing here? You would be: I am smoking./ Then finish smoking and go away. And you would be like: Or what?/ We recommend you just to go away.
Where was the protest?
It was very chaotic, because usually the protest is in the square, in the center, but since Thursday the police started to block it every day. So you would go there, you would get out of the subway and it is like hundreds of policemen with their buses which they use for detention. Now we have no leader of the protest and everybody makes up their own ideas of where to go, where to gather. There was not just one space to gather. Today people started saying in groups on social media to meet each other at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. People won't stand, they would just walk and you can just join people who are already walking. The plan was to go to the main cathedral and finish there. But you would go and people would just start running in your direction and you understand there are a lot of police officers who are just catching everybody. If you continued that direction you would go straight to the detention bus.
Tell me more about the atmosphere today, what kind of people participated?
People didn't have any banners or papers, it was just people walking. Any banner means arrest 100%. It was silent protest most of the time, just at one point people felt safe and they chanted No to war.
Most of the people were young. It was heartbreaking for me. It was a father with his daughter who is around 17-19 years old. You don't see this often, two different generations at the protest. There was this moment when people were running towards us, they were running from police, and we understood we can't go that way. And she was: Dad, we should ruuun. (Editor’s Note: On Sunday more than 2,000 people were arrested at anti war protests in Russia.)
What happens when you get arrested?
Usually when you get arrested they place you in a detention bus, then you wait until it is full with other protesters and then they will take this bus to the police office and they will keep you for 3 hours. It is illegal to keep you more because it is like a hostage. The best scenario is when they would give you to sign a paper where it is written: I listened to this patriotic talk and I don't have any complaints about the police. For you it can be humiliating because of course you have complaints, because you didn't do anything illegal. You showed up with no banner, you were just in the street. But in this case you don't have any consequences. Then they can make you pay a fine of 300$. And the worst scenario is 15 days in a detention facility.
Today they arrested my close friend, we were in different places. She wrote to me that they were taking her to the police office. I am worried about her because she didn't answer until now. This was 3 hours ago. (Editor’s Note: Meanwhile, Yana’s friend was released after 8 hours in the police office. She will need to go to court on charges of participating in an unsanctioned protest. She is expecting to receive a fine of around 300 dollars.)
How many protests did you participate in?
This was the 3rd protest. I missed the big protest on Thursday when a lot of people were arrested, because I was working. On Friday I bought flowers and I met some journalists at the Embassy of Ukraine. Some of them had vests with the Press, but it's not enough to have a vest or a badge of journalist at the protests. The police can ask you to show them the paper that you are on assignment with a signature of your boss. It's illegal, but that 's what they do now. I saw this happening to a journalist I was with.
On Friday at the embassy it was just 5 of us. It was the second day after the war started And I was: How come? Yes, it is dangerous to protest, but after the Navalny movie it was still dangerous but there were thousands of people in the street. And now what can be the biggest reason to go on the street if not the war? It makes me feel so sad. From the Ukrainian Embassy we got back to the square and it was full of policemen. I heard them receiving their directions in the walkie talkie and their bosses saying: Check the documents of everybody standing there. So we couldn't even stand because they came and they threatened us that they would arrest us if we stood. And there were no groups of people, people were walking with no signs. There was no opportunity to chant.
Why do you think people didn't show up on Friday and Saturday?
My only explanation is that now we don't have any leaders of the protest. The leaders were activists and they would post on Facebook but now people are afraid of being arrested not just as a participant, but as an organizer.
On Thursday there was a leader and she was arrested. There should be a big protest on Saturday, March 5. There are 2 leaders of the protest, from opposition parties. They notified authorities, they asked permission from authorities before the war started. They did it after Putin recognized Donbas.
Why do you personally go to the protests?
I just can't sit. I can't sit inside the house knowing that this is happening. Many people just criticise on the internet and they would be: This won't change anything, I shouldn't risk or Putin wouldn't hear it. But how do we know if we didn't try? And the anxiety is so high, I can't just sit at home, watch TV shows, I want to do everything that I can to change the situation.
We are not even doing anything there. Everytime I go there I am thinking: Maybe I should have done more. Maybe I should have brought with me a banner and shown it secretly. Everytime it feels like I don't do enough.
What would you write on a banner if you would be able to show it?
There is this phrase from this George Orwell novel, 1984: War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. I think this is the right definition of what is going on with all this propaganda. Authorities make you believe that peace means war, that slavery is your freedom...
Tell me more about this propaganda. What is the public TV showing?
To tell the truth I am not even watching it anymore. I am sick of this, it's just lies. They are just showing nothing about the position of Ukraine. They just translate official Russian sources. I just forced myself to watch something after the recognition of Donbas and all these commentators on state TV were like: Where is our champagne? We need to celebrate. And it was so disgusting. The host was: I am in euphoria now, finally. They think the war is justified. The most nasty thing that comes from TV is those addresses of Putin. When you just see his face and how he is lying to people, he would say: They didn't let us have any other opportunity, we had to do this.
Common, which opportunity they didn't let you? You attacked their country. Nobody was attacking us. From whom are you defending us?
Putin started to call Ukrainean leadership as Nazis a long time ago, nobody understands why. And he is pushing this propaganda that Ukraine is under Nazis right now and that we need to fight them. Yesterday they started to use another narrative. They started to use Zelenski and his team as a bunch of drug addicts. Russians who just believe everything that Putin says, they just start to repeat. These are people who would work on state TV, who are paid by the Government, who are afraid of losing their jobs etc.
How is the independent media covering and how is the threat against independent journalists?
The censorship now is very intense. First of all, the Government restricted the access to Facebook and Instagram. They also blocked Twitter. They slowed down the whole Facebook. Right now if you are in Russia and you are on Facebook you don't see any pictures. It is so slow, you can just check the messages and read the posts, but pictures can't upload. We have outages, it is often that some social media platforms don't work at all.
Right now in Russia it is illegal to call it war. Putin said it is a military operation, not war. Russian authorities notified independent media who called the war a war and they asked them to delete all their articles where they called it a war. And some of them did it because the authorities threatened to block the whole platform. But they wrote: We deleted the text, but we don't support the government in this and we think this is censorship. Among these platforms are: Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow, New Times, Mediazona, TV channel Rain. (Editor’s Note: The editor-in-chief of independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov announced they continue to call the war a war and they are waiting for the consequences.)
The day when the war began authorities notified that the journalists should take information only from official sources like the Ministry of Defence of Russia etc, otherwise they would be fined. The independent media would translate the information that comes from Ukraine and it will always be different information than from our Government.
For example, yesterday it was this footage about the high rise building in Kiev. The Russian Government said that it was not our missile, it was a Ukrainian missile. Their explanation was that the Ukrainian missile was aimed at the Russian helicopter so they shot it wrong. They said it was a mistake of Ukraine's who shot the missile.
Also there is zero information of Russians who are killed. They pretend nobody died. But there are Russian soldiers who got there and they were murdered. (Editor's note: at least 4,500 according to Ukrainan military). And the Russian Government doesn't even take care of them. They are ashamed of people who were killed or were taken hostages. They don't publish any information about this. It seems like they are abandoning those people who went there to fight for this Government. Why would you even want to fight for this country who abandons you?
Describe me please the moment you found the war started on Thursday morning.
After Putin's announcement on Monday everybody was in shock and they were waiting for something. We were checking the news all the time, we were understanding that something was going to happen.
In the morning the war started I was going to bed at 4 AM because I was checking the news and I couldn’t stop, I was just scrolling. And the war started around 2 hours later. When I woke up I saw two messages from two friends from different countries who were sent 40 min ago. And I was like: What happened 40 min ago?
Then I went to see the news on my phone from independent media and I saw terrible footage with missles. I was so anxious, I couldn't even finish any news. I went from one media platform to another, then on Instagram and Facebook.
Russians were sharing stories on how they went to Ukraine when they were children, about their relatives who still live there, how they got messages from them in the morning and how they were on phone the whole morning since they woke up from bombing. Somebody wrote: I never thought I would wake up with the words of my husband - Hey, wake up, the war started. Many people wrote they can't even stand still; they just go from one room to another, not understanding what to do.
They are so ashamed that we are the country that had so many losses in the Second World War. Almost 30 million Soviet people died and it's like they didn't understand this lesson. On the 23rd of February we had a big Holiday: The Day of the Defender of the Motherland. It was a day off and people were praising the defenders and there was a big firework display. And Putin addressed the nation: We have these new weapons and we love you, our defenders. And the next day this happened.
After one hour of reading news and posts I got out of my room and bumped into my roommate and she was like: Oh my God, what will happen to us right now? We were discussing how everybody was skeptical that Putin was starting a war but now it is visible that there are no limits for him and it won't be a surprise if tomorrow there would be a war in Moscow as well. We were discussing scenarios and sanctions. And that many nations already don't like Russians and they would hate us even more and they won't make a difference between Putin and us.
How does the war affect daily life in Russia?
There are some banks which are state banks and are under sanctions. My sister saw a woman who wanted to pay in the supermarket. In Russia Apple Pay is very popular and people pay with their phone. And Apple Pay didn't work because her bank is under sanctions, so she just left the supermarket without groceries.
Also before the war one dollar was 80 rubles, now banks sell them for 150 rubles.
Do you think that this was like a wake up call for some Russians?
Unfortunately, I think that many Russians are so passive so that it won't wake them up. There are surprisingly so many Zombies among people who are fed with all this propaganda everyday and they believe it. I think that just if Putin will prevent them from taking their salaries it would be a wake up call.
The most painful thing is that it is with the nation that it's brotherly with us. So many people feel a connection with Ukraine. It’s almost like bombing your own people. You know that your president is bombing your relatives right now.
At the same time, there are many Russian who risk their freedom and protest and they want to be acknowledged for this. Many people in Europe think it's easy for us, but here it's censorship, unfortunately we can’t simply express. We have the right to protest alone as single protesters with banners but it is violated, we can't really protest.
There was a girl who was arrested for 8 days because she had a white banner, without any message on it.
What are the Russian initiatives of solidarity with Ukraine that most impressed you?
There are plenty of them. There is one initiative that was launched on Thursday, when the war started, initiated by journalist Elena Chernenko, a former colleague from Kommersant who covered international affairs for 10 years. She was in the pool of journalists of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She would follow the Minister of Foreign affairs in different countries and she would have access to all this information together with other 20 journalists. And she started an open letter and asked other journalists to sign it. We, journalists who cover foreign affairs, think that the war cannot be the solution of any conflict and we do not support the war. 300 journalists signed, I signed too. The day after she was excluded from the pool of journalists, so now she doesn't have access to her main source of information.
There were many celebrities who posted videos on social media addressing their followers, they have millions of them. Singers Valeriy Maladze and Lolita Milyavskaya, writers, actors, and they will be against the war. And many of them perform on the state television and probably it won't be work for them in the future at the state television and it's a huge audience and a lot of money.
There is a host of a very popular TV show on state television, it’s a humour show like Jimmy Kimmel, it’s called Vecherniy Urgant (Evening Urgant) and he wrote on his Instagram Painful. No to war. The day after, they announced that his show won't come out, they said there were some technical issues, but everybody understood.
There were many other letters. There is a petition against war on the platform change.org, with over 1 million signatures. Then there was a letter from the doctors which was very emotional. Usually here doctors don't protest against anything, even during the pandemic they didn't protest when they didn't have enough masks and supplies and now they wrote this letter. It is a big thing for them. They wrote they just can't stop their thought of children crying because of this.
Also it was an important gesture of a Parliament member, Mihail Matveev. Before the war Putin recognised Donbas as an independent state and after he recognised it Parliament members voted on it. So it wasn't even a Parliament member who voted against because they are so scared. After the war started, Mihail Matveev wrote that: I voted for the recognition of Dunbas, not for the war, I didn't know it would mean a war. So right now I don't support it. And this is a big step, to go against everybody.
Yana, how do you see your future right now?
I just got more sure about my decision to move out from here because it is already obvious that it's getting only worse. There is no light in all this. We didn't imagine it would ever come to this point. And many people who didn't think about immigration and were satisfied with their life here are now thinking about it.
And how do you see the future of Russia?
I think that our country is turning into North Korea. Isolation, sanctions, censorship, violations of basic human rights.