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Ilya Yashin in court. May 25, 2022
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‘In Moscow, we’re the majority’ Opposition politician Ilya Yashin is still in Russia and still speaking out. So far, he’s stayed out of prison.

Source: Meduza
Ilya Yashin in court. May 25, 2022
Ilya Yashin in court. May 25, 2022
Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Russia has effectively been under martial law for three months now. Anti-war protests are illegal, independent media outlets have been blocked, and anyone who spreads “fake news” about the Russian army (such as reports of war crimes) can face up to 15 years in prison. Naturally, a huge number of journalists, activists, and opposition politicians have left the country. Ilya Yashin is a rare figure: he’s chosen to stay in Russia, but he also openly refers to the war as a war (which violates Russian law). Four administrative offense reports have been filed against him as a result. Meduza special correspondent Svetlana Reiter spoke with Yashin about what’s changed in Moscow since February 24 — and why he’s chosen to stay in Russia.

Even before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, the ranks of its domestic opposition were running thin. Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny had been poisoned and jailed by the Russian authorities, the country’s remaining independent media had been severely hampered by laws declaring them “foreign agents,” and politicians critical of the government were frequently barred from running in elections. None of this is to mention opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered in Moscow back in 2015.

Since February, the authorities have only cracked down further. It’s now illegal to spread information that “discredits the Russian military,” such as reports of the war crimes Russian soldiers have committed in Ukraine, and Russians can even go to jail for referring to the war in Ukraine as a war. As a result, most high-profile figures have either fled the country or stopped speaking up. Ilya Yashin, former municipal deputy for Moscow's Krasnoselsky district, is a rare exception.

“In no way is this just a 'special military operation' — it’s as real a war as there can be,” Yashin told Meduza. “I’m not going to call it anything else.”

Among many Russians who oppose the war, what it means to remain in the country at wartime and what it means to leave has become a frequent and emotional topic debate. Chess champion and opposition figure Garry Kasparov, for example, has accused everyone who stayed behind of tacitly supporting the regime. Yashin, who theoretically could face arrest at any moment, sees such statements as counterproductive.

“It seems politically and ethically wrong to lump people together at such a difficult moment in history,” he said. “The anti-war movement should strive for unity; we should try to find common interests rather than labeling each other ‘good Russians’ and ‘bad Russians.’ Why don’t we save the infighting for after the war?”

In the same vein, Yashin harbors no ill will towards those who have left.

“I know a lot of emigrants who left and who are greatly benefiting the country,” he said. “And I know people who aren’t doing anything and who are just living private lives. [...] Everyone’s arguing lately. Some people think everyone who left is great and everyone who stayed is an accomplice of the regime. Others think that everyone who left is a coward, and all the rest are the true, honest fighters against the regime. I think that’s a bunch of crap. An artificial controversy.”

Keeping the faith

Though Yashin’s chosen to stay in Russia to maximize his impact as an opposition figure, he doesn’t spend his time protesting at the Kremlin. That, he said, would be a sure-fire way to get arrested. Instead, he conducts livestreams on YouTube and posts on social media, addressing his fellow citizens directly and telling them the truth about the war.

Theoretically, this would be easy for Yashin to do from abroad — and it would certainly be safer. But he doesn’t believe his advocacy would be as effective if he were speaking to Russians from the outside. The reasons are twofold. First, it’s easier for him to report on events like his friends’ criminal trials when he can go to the court himself. Second, he said, it’s important to his viewers on an emotional level that he be in Russia, experiencing the same things they are.

“It’s true that people who leave Russia can lose their connection to it and form a kind of parallel reality in their heads,” he told Meduza. “I don’t have an easy solution for dealing with this; I’m not an emigrant. But I do notice this problem, and I’m keeping an eye on it.”

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There’s a good reason Yashin’s one of a small number — he can think of only five — of opposition politicians still in Russia: the law can be swift, and the consequences of speaking out can be harsh. Yashin has already had four administrative reports filed against him for “discrediting” the Russian army, losing his right to vote as a result, and he could be arrested at any moment. Still, he has hope.

“I hope Navalny won’t serve the entire 15-year sentence they’re threatening him with; I hope Russia’s leadership will change much sooner, and that Navalny will triumphantly be released and serve in one of the highest government positions,” he told Meduza. “If you can’t imagine a decent, good Russia, a place where we want to live, you’ll never be able to convince anybody else that it’s possible.”

And despite dramatic reports of large-scale support for the war, Yashin believes his hope is well-founded. He said he hasn’t faced any direct aggression from people on the street, and that, on the contrary, people are always either neutral or friendly.

“I get the feeling that in Moscow, opponents of the war are in the majority — we just don’t realize it," he said. "The authorities control the media, we’re not organized, and we’re under pressure from the police; as a result, it feels like there are a lot fewer of us than there actually are. But my subjective sense is that the atmosphere in Moscow right now is not even close to the militaristic one of 2014, when all of the cars had ‘Crimea is ours!’ stickers and St. George’s ribbons on them.”

Yashin does see the occasional military symbol in the city, but they rarely seem to have been placed by private citizens, suggesting a lack of sincere support among the population.

"[I see the letter Z] on the Russian Railways building, which I can see from my window," he told Meduza. "Every night, they turn lights on in the windows so that it makes the shape of a Z. [...] But I believe this is happening not because the people in there wanted it, but because someone at the top gave the orders. There are very few private cars with the letter Z, but there are police cars and institutional vehicles. They were given the orders, too."

The shoulders of giants

It's not hard to believe that if Yashin was ever going to leave, he would already have left. From his perspective, the worst has already happened.

“One of my friends, Boris Nemtsov, was killed. Another one, Alexey Navalny, was poisoned and sent to jail. [Andrey] Pivovarov has been behind bars for a year now. They’ve taken down my municipality; my successor, [Yelena] Kotenochkina, is wanted [for spreading “false information” about the Russian military]. Gorinova is behind bars — he has to sleep on a concrete floor in a crowded cell,” he said.

Though Nemtsov and Navalny are the big names of the modern Russian opposition, Yashin has said before that he feels a bit like Nemtsov’s successor. And while he downplays the connection in his conversation with Meduza, he does cite Nemtsov as a factor in his decision to remain in Russia and risk it all.

“Nobody compares to him,” he said. “But one of the reasons, and a fairly weighty one, that I didn’t just get up and leave is that I can’t bring myself to betray his memory. I need to stay.”

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Interview by Svetlana Reiter

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale