Police buses seem ubiquitous in Moscow since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, watching over much of the city center, including a statue of one of Ukraine’s most famous poets that has become a popular spot for a silent but emotional outpouring of anti-war sentiment.
Since a Russian missile struck a residential building in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro nine days ago, killing 46 and injuring 80 others, Muscovites have been coming to lay flowers — along with plush toys and photographs of the destroyed building — at the feet of the statue of Lesya Ukrainka, a Ukrainian poet and playwright who lived during the last decades of the Russian Empire.
The ritual, after one of the biggest death tolls from one strike since the war began, has become an expression of sorrow, shame and opposition to the war. But at regular intervals, authorities have been removing the flowers.
“In contemporary Russia, under these conditions, it is a battle — a silent battle,” said Tatyana Krupina, a 28-year-old chemist who went with a small group of friends to lay flowers last week.
This is what passes for protest in Russia in January 2023, 11 months after the invasion. Russians have also begun laying flowers in other cities, spurred by social media.
The flower tussle is one of the first public protests taking place on a large scale since the days after President Vladimir Putin’s announcement in September that hundreds of thousands of men would be called up to fight.
Russia has imposed harsh penalties for criticizing the war, or even calling it one, so for many Russians, laying flowers seems like a rare opportunity to show dissent without being arrested.
For anti-government Russians remaining in Russia, the flowers remind them that they are not alone in their opposition to the war, even as the propaganda becomes increasingly vitriolic and the letters Z and V, which have become pro-war symbols, are etched on public buildings.
And for Russians who fled because of persecution, potential conscription or a refusal to pay taxes that will fuel the war machine, the flower memorial is a sign that there are still people left in the country who are brave enough to protest.
“This is not only a way to show people in Ukraine that there are people in Russia who do not condone what is happening; it shows people that they are not alone,” said Alexander Plyushchev, a popular Russian journalist with a significant following on YouTube.
But even laying flowers has potential consequences. At least seven people have been detained, according to a New York Times journalist who witnessed the episodes over the past week. Four were detained after placing flowers at the site.
The police have tried to prevent people from photographing the memorial, and have told others to delete the images from their phones. But people keep arriving, looking for an opening when many are not gathered around the monument so that it does not seem like an illegal public gathering — and quietly placing their flowers.
“My endurance is finished; I want to show my opinion,” a lawyer named Ekaterina Varenik said Saturday afternoon after placing flowers on the statue. She was referring to not being able to express her opinion publicly.
Varenik, 26, said she last protested when opposition politician Alexei Navalny was arrested two years ago. She stayed home when thousands protested the war mobilization. But, she said of the crackdown, “Every day it gets worse and worse, and stricter and stricter.”
For more than half an hour, Varenik stood in front of the statue with a homemade poster that read, “Ukraine: not our enemies, but our brothers.”
She was detained by the police shortly afterward, and could face up to 15 days in prison.
For many, standing in front of the statue is intensely emotional.
“How can this be happening?” sobbed a pensioner named Rita who declined to provide her surname out of fear of retribution, and gave her age only as over 50. “People are dying: children, the elderly,” she said. “It is just awful. Maybe this will be a reminder to people that we are living in a terrifying world.”
Some prominent Russians have minimized the protests.
“Bringing flowers to a monument does not require courage, or even money,” Dmitry L. Bykov, a poet and writer who is critical of the government and lives in exile, said Wednesday during a discussion streamed on YouTube.
“This is aesthetically beautiful, but completely pointless,” said Bykov, who Bellingcat’s investigative journalists concluded was the victim of an attempted poisoning in 2019 with a nerve agent similar to the one used on Navalny. He said, “There is only one positive effect: Maybe someone will find out who Lesya Ukrainka is — a great poet — and read her work.”
The statue has been the site of altercations with pro-war nationalists, who have denounced the mourners and accused them in reports to the authorities of discrediting the Russian military, which is now a crime in Russia.
The Kremlin’s crackdown on political opposition and protests accelerated after the invasion of Ukraine. About 20,000 protesters have been detained since the war began, according to OVD Info, a human rights watchdog. Many lost their jobs after protesting, signing petitions or writing social media posts critical of the war.
Ilya Yashin, a municipal councilor in Moscow, was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison for speaking about Russian atrocities in Bucha, Ukraine. A 19-year-old university student from the city of Arkhangelsk is facing up to 10 years in jail for social media posts criticizing the war.
In that context, defying the police to lay flowers may require a degree of bravery, but it also takes a mental toll that has become harder to bear as the war grinds on.
“I know that at any minute the police can come to my house and arrest me,” said Maksim Shatalov, 36, a former flight attendant who said he had been fired from his job because of his anti-war position.
Shatalov became friends with a tight-knit circle of activists after being thrown into an avtozak, or police van, after a protest in April. During the summer and fall, they protested against the mobilization, painted anti-war messages around in the city in chalk and laid flowers at other memorials.
Shatalov and his friend Anna Saifytdinova, 34, brought flowers together to the statue one recent evening. She had four white roses — Russians give an even number of flowers as a tribute to the dead.
Because one of their friends, a minor, had been detained after placing a picture of the devastated Dnipro building at the base of the statue, Saifytdinova waited until there were no people around so they could not be accused of staging an unsanctioned protest.
“I already spent eight days in jail for protesting mobilization,” she said. “If I am detained again, I face criminal charges.”
That could mean a sentence of up to 10 years.
“It’s like Russian roulette,” she said. “You never know when something bad could happen, or when it won’t happen. Some people have been detained for holding a blank piece of paper in public.”
Shatalov said he was planning to leave Russia soon because he feared arrest.
“I believe that I would do more good in another country than by staying here without a job and without a livelihood,” he said. “What will I accomplish when I sit in a prison camp: Will I be beaten up constantly or kept in a cage all the time like Navalny? Or someone from the private military company Wagner will come to try to recruit me to fight in Ukraine with threats that if I don’t sign up? They’ll just drive me to the point where I kill myself.”
Still, some who risk arrest insist on showing their resistance.
“Moscow is a huge city, and everyone is quiet,” said Varenik, the lawyer, before she was detained for her anti-war poster. “I want to show the world that we should not be quiet. We allow all of this with our silence.”
© 2023 The New York Times Company