“Guys, where’s the main protest?” asks 28-year-old Ksenia, who’s taken to the street to protest for the first time in her life.
It’s 9 pm in Moscow and the police have already broken up the bulk of the protests. Since anyone with anti-war signs is arrested immediately, protesters casually stroll along until a large enough crowd gathers to shout their opposition to what's going on in Ukraine.
Two middle-aged women hiss “no war!” to the police before running away, laughing nervously.
“Let’s work, go!” the policeman orders his underlings. A group of three young police officers take off down the street but don’t find any suitable targets. They finally spot a man, who, as he's being dragged to the police van, is revealed to be very drunk. He is released.
The protesters trickle along smaller streets, following location updates from dedicated Telegram channels. Convoys of police vans follow. It’s a massive game of cat and mouse. The night ends with a 39-year-old man driving a car into the police barriers at Pushkin Square with signs “This is war!” and “Rise up, people!” The car starts to burn; the man is arrested.
On the sixth day of the war in Ukraine, there have been more than 6,000 arrests at anti-war protests across Russia.
“The night of (the invasion), I was in a really great mood," recalls Ksenia. "My friend and I were celebrating February 23 (Day of the Defender of the Fatherland or, more commonly, Men’s Day).
"We were outside, drinking wine and singing on the swings. At 6:05 am Forbes announced Putin declared the start of the military operation. And that’s it. My world divided into a before and after.”
Ksenia works in PR and speaks bluntly.
“Putin is crazy. No sane person would do anything like this. Ukraine will persevere. Meanwhile, we’re going to be in [the] shit.”
'It's been a long time coming'
“You’re not one of those liberals, are you?” asks 49-year-old Yuri. He’s not a fan of anti-war protesters like Ksenia.
“I’m against the war. But to be honest, it’s been a long time coming. The problem is not with Ukraine, but with those Anglo-Saxons who are creeping upon us. Just look at what happened to countries they’ve got into, like Syria. And now they’re trying to get at us (create internal strife) via Ukraine. Therefore, I think all of this is justified and right.”
The liberals that Yuri hates would respond in kind by calling him “a victim of the zombie-box”, or state television. This ideological division runs through many Russian families. However, Yuri’s sentiment is too common to dismiss as crazy talk on the fringes.
The fear of NATO was and is very real here. Examples of Yugoslavia and Libya, two states bombed by NATO forces, are used to drive fears that Russia may be next. The day before the start of the war, Putin told the nation of WWII-era promises not to expand NATO eastward and said those promises had been broken five times. Ukraine's flirtation with NATO membership pushed those fears into overdrive.
Yuri is one of many seeing the events through a prism of fear.
“If I’m called up, I’ll go," he said. "Russians are not afraid of the army. All of us have children. At least my children will be protected.”
What does he think of the sanctions on Russia?
“Our people have always been under some type of sanctions. We’re used to it. If we survived during the hunger and sieges, we’ll make it.”
It’s sunny, people are taking selfies on Red Square, while a long convoy of National Guard buses rolls by the Kremlin walls. More protests are expected.
Nikita, 20, tells Euronews: “I’m mostly against war. But I don’t know what I would’ve done in the place of the government. If war didn’t start now, then maybe five or six years down the road Ukraine could’ve joined NATO and the consequences would’ve been much different for our country. Of course, I really feel bad for the ordinary people who cannot influence their government’s decisions.” Do you mean Russians or Ukrainians, Nikita is asked. “All of us. Our guys are dying over there and so are Ukrainians.”
“I’m against war," said Olesya, 45, who has most of her relatives in the separatist region of Donbas. "But I think this should’ve been done in 2014 and then we wouldn’t have war today. Where was the West, with all its humanitarian concerns, when the Ukrainians shelled the people of Donbas?”
The war in eastern Ukraine broke out in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea. Next, two separatist regions in Donbas, Donetsk and Luhansk, declared their independence from Kyiv. It sparked a conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists, which has seen casualties on both sides.
But even though justification of the Ukraine invasion can be found among Russians, there have been no demonstrations of support.
On the contrary, the people taking to the streets are those against it, despite threats of arrests. Most Russians have family and friends in Ukraine.
“War is always awful. War never leads to anything good and won’t this time either,” – says 18-year-old Tonya, wearing a bag with a hand-stitched "No war" sign.
“I’m scared and hurt for my friends in Ukraine, who write to me ‘we’re going down into the bomb shelter’. We joke, ‘It’s been an explosive morning, hasn’t it?’ and she says, ‘It’s been simply bombastic’. In the past three days, I’ve slept for 10 hours in total. The rest of the time I’m crying”.
A war with a country with the strongest historical and cultural ties to Russia was laughable, ridiculous, absurd. Until February 24, 2022. Putin’s attack on Ukraine took most Russians by surprise.