In prison every day is the same, a monotonous routine from the moment we are awakened by the sounds of the Russian national anthem (the Soviet one that Vladimir Putin brought with him at the beginning of his rule) until the prison guard turns off our cell lights in the evening.
The whole day in advance is known by the minute: the meals, the hour-long walk in circles in the small prison yard, packages (on the days they arrive).
But the climax of the day is nearing dinner, when the jailer opens the porthole and hands us a stack of letters. Only someone who has been in prison can appreciate how important these can be.
I get dozens of letters from all over Russia every week; from places I’ve never been to Norilsk and Magadan.
Most of that support relates to the reason that landed me in prison – my rejection of Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine. In letter after letter (all of which, of course, are registered with the names and contact details of the authors in prison), my correspondents express their outrage and despair at the war. “Please know you are not alone,” a woman from southern Russia wrote to me last week.
I am, of course, encouraged by such feelings, but certainly not surprised. From the beginning of Putin’s invasion, I knew very well what his propaganda goes to great lengths to hide—and what some people in the West don’t see (or don’t want to see): that there are many Russians who are opposed to this war.
The Kremlin knows this. That’s why since February it has shut down the remaining independent media, blocked more than 3,000 websites and imposed prison terms of up to 15 years on anyone who publicly speaks out against the war.
For the same reason, since February all of Moscow’s central squares – including Pushkin Square, the traditional site of dissident rallies in Soviet times, and Bolotnaya Square, which hosted the largest anti-Putin protests a decade ago – have been non-stop occupied by riot police.
While theaters, concert halls and sports venues have been fully open in Moscow for months, the total ban on public rallies remains in place under the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic.
Under such conditions, it is nothing short of remarkable that thousands of Russians — more than 16,400 by human rights groups’ latest count — have defied official bans and threats of prosecution to stage anti-war demonstrations. But many others have expressed silent opposition.
Before my arrest in April, not a day went by that people didn’t come up to me on the street or in a café to shake my hand and say “thank you”.
Even more revealing are stickers with the letter Z, the symbol of support for the war in Ukraine, which are almost exclusively seen on official vehicles. It would be difficult to spot one on normal private cars on the streets of Moscow.
Growing opposition to the war among Russians received unexpected official validation thanks to a leaked poll by the government’s main polling institute.
Publicly released polls invariably show overwhelming support for both Putin and the war, but their reliability is about as high as the official 99 percent results for the Communist Party in Soviet “elections”; I am always amazed at Western analysts who take these polls seriously.
A recent media exposé of the Russian election industry revealed, among other things, that most people simply refuse to answer pollsters’ questions for fear of the consequences – two out of three before the war began, five out of six now. “I don’t want to go to jail” is a popular response from respondents, according to a regional pollster. Unsurprisingly, the minority who respond give the expected “right” answer.
But sometimes the Kremlin really wants to know what Russian society thinks, so it recently commissioned a poll about the war from the Russian State Polling Center.
The question was worded cautiously: instead of an outright “yes” or “no,” respondents were asked to select their “preferred option” between continuing the war and starting peace talks with Ukraine.
The results were not intended for public use but were leaked and published by Bell, an independent online journal. According to government pollsters, the invasion has split Russian society down the middle: the options to continue the war and start peace talks each received 44 percent (another 12 percent “did not answer” — almost certainly belonging to the second half).
Remarkably, in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, strong majorities opted for peace talks, as did a large majority of all Russians under the age of 35.
The last finding is perhaps the most notable, given that this is the generation that grew up and emerged during Putin’s two-decade rule.
Again I’m not surprised. In my extensive travels across Russia in recent years, I have met many young people who are fed up with the archaism and autocracy of the Putin era. It is this generation – not Putin’s inner circle, which is increasingly resembling Leonid Brezhnev’s aging Politburo – that will shape the fate of Russia.
Instead of generalizing and portraying all Russians as enemies, as some short-sighted Westerners seem to be doing, it is important to find ways to start a dialogue with that part of Russian society that wants a different future. If I can get out of jail, if I can pick up my daily stack of letters, surely everyone else should be able to.
Vladimir Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician who has been jailed in Moscow since April for speaking out against the war in Ukraine. Amnesty International has labeled him a prisoner of conscience.
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/even-from-behind-prison-bars-in-russia-i-can-see-opposition-to-putins-war-growing-41895930.html “Even behind bars in Russia, I see growing opposition to Putin’s war”