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Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera
Sasha Petrova

For many Ukrainians, everyday Russians are as guilty as Putin

Thousands of Russians protested against the Ukraine war in February last year, but street demonstrations have since dwindled amid a harsh crackdown on dissent [File: Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters]

Ukrainian journalist Nika Melkozerova got her power back just an hour ago.

It goes off “several times a day”, she told Al Jazeera by phone from Kyiv, “as does the water”.

“We have bottles of water all over our apartment now.”

Until recently, Melkozerova was the editor of The New Voice of Ukraine, an English-language news website. Now, she works for Politico, the German-owned newspaper, and files wartime stories at pace – a job that requires a regular power supply.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces have been shelling Ukraine’s energy infrastructure for months, frequently causing blackouts in the capital and across the country.

The destruction also left millions of Ukrainians without heat during a bitter winter when temperatures dropped below freezing.

Even so, while the invasion of Ukraine was launched – and is being commanded – by Putin, Melkozerova holds everyday Russians just as responsible for the war.

“It’s not true that Putin is like an alien who was sent to Russia from nowhere,” Melkozerova said.

“No, most of the population supported Putin – those who did not support Putin lived in an agreement with his government that, ‘We still have gas and oil, we still have a lot of money, so don’t touch us and we will not revolt’,” she added, referring to an unwritten social contract whereby the authorities promised Russian citizens stability in return for their silence.

With the first anniversary of the war approaching, many Ukrainians feel the same, and are asking a critical question: “Why aren’t Russians doing more to stop the war?”

Ukrainian journalist Nika Melkozerova pictured during a blackout in Kyiv, Ukraine [Courtesy: Nika Melkozerova]

Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian political scientist at the University of Vienna who researches Russian influence in Europe, told Al Jazeera that the unspoken Russian contract had become more apparent in recent years, as protests against Putin’s authoritarianism shrank despite his tightening grip on power.

Since the war began, Ukrainians, especially those with friends and family in Russia who denied what was happening in Ukraine, have felt bitterly disappointed, he said.

“People, of course, are angry,” he told Al Jazeera. “There were many stories that Russian relatives would not believe their Ukrainian relatives, for example, when the Russians bombed the Ukrainian cities. They could hear the sound of bombing [over the phone] and the Russian relatives would still not believe them.”

Shekhovtsov believes many Russians are working off a psychological defence mechanism.

“It’s not that they don’t have access to information,” he said. “There are so many ways to see and know the truth but they just refuse doing this.

“It is very uncomfortable for them to know and to realise that they are the baddies.”

Some rationalise the invasion using the Kremlin’s narratives “about fighting NATO or fighting Nazis”, added Shekhovtsov, who hails from Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Russia illegally annexed in 2014.

Like his compatriots, he feels disappointed.

“I thought better of some of my [Russian] friends who I used to have,” he said.

Millions of Ukrainians have friends and family across the border, and Russian is the native language of many, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Some would identify with the term “ethnic Russian”.

Putin argues that Ukraine discriminates against them, but plenty have come out in support of Kyiv this past year, and some have even switched to speaking Ukrainian as an act of solidarity.

Most Ukrainians are not angry at all “ethnic Russians”, Shekhovtsov added, explaining that a large number fight with Ukrainian government forces.

“This anger is … not based on ethnicity. The foundation is political rather than ethnic,” he said.

Hours after Putin announced a “special military operation” to “denazify” and “demilitarise” Ukraine on February 24, 2022, anti-war protests broke out across Russian cities and thousands were arrested in a harsh crackdown on dissent.

In the weeks and months that followed, demonstrations dwindled as anti-war sentiment became increasingly dangerous – even referring to the conflict as a “war” carried penalties.

Several Russians have been targeted for their dovish views. As recently as Wednesday, a Russian journalist was sentenced to six years in a penal colony for “spreading false information” about Moscow’s troops.

But these punishments are not valid excuses, say Ukrainians, who are frustrated that the citizens of a country committing what some term a “genocide” are not doing everything they can to stop it.

According to them, a jail sentence is a lighter load than the price being paid by the Ukrainian people.

On October 14, Melkozerova tweeted to her hundreds of thousands of followers that there are “so few” good Russians.

“The good Russians take the sham sentences in Russia as a badge of honour. Or they send money to Ukrainian army and volunteers,” she wrote.

Addressing the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia last August, Zelenskyy said Russian aggression against Ukraine refers to “not only those who are at the highest levels of the Russian power hierarchy … We are talking about thousands and thousands of different people with the passport of a Russian citizen”.

Those who “shoot civilians in the back of the head” and “press the buttons to strike Russian missiles at Ukrainian cities” are guilty, Zelenskyy said, but also “those who remain silent when they see all this and do nothing – do not protest, do not fight – even when they are completely safe in European countries”.

Alona Shevchenko, pictured with Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, at the Kyiv Tech Summit that her organisation, Ukraine DAO, co-organised, in Kyiv last September [Alona Shevchenko]

Alona Shevchenko, who started Ukraine DAO, an organisation that tackles war-related disinformation and raises money for Ukraine’s military, told Al Jazeera that every Russian should feel a sense of responsibility for the “murders” committed under their nation’s flag.

“Words without actions don’t have any meaning,” she said by phone from London, where she migrated eight years ago as a student. “If you are against war, go and take Putin out then.

“If somebody is killing me on the street and you just stand by and you watch it … you are complicit.”

Criticism of Russian protests also often circulates on social media.

Some Ukrainians say there is not enough action, while others believe the anti-war movement that does organise is inadequate.

While the loud Russian anti-government rallies got quieter soon after the war began, there was a short spark again in September 2022, after Moscow ordered a partial mobilisation to replenish and bolster its forces.

But these demonstrations were denounced by Ukrainians who questioned the protesters’ motives – the rallies, they said, centred on their own fears, rather than concerns over the horrors in Ukraine.

Around the same time, large-scale protests were erupting across Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by the country’s morality police.

“While Iran people fighting for the future, Russians just observe and barely protest,” tweeted Nikita Rybakov, a Kyiv-based designer.

“You actually have to fight,” Shevchenko told Al Jazeera. “In order to overthrow the government, they are going to have to use force.”

She pointed to Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity” at Kyiv’s Maidan square in 2014, when Ukrainians seeking closer ties with Europe fought to remove pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich.

Initially peaceful demonstrations turned into violent riots as Yanukovich ordered his army to fire on protesters, according to the Ukrainian authorities installed after he was ousted.

The citizens fought back with arms and Yanukovich was voted out of office and fled the country, fearing for his safety.

Melkozerova told Al Jazeera that the violence, although unfortunate, was a “necessary move because Ukrainians understood that guys like Yanukovich, like Putin, like [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko, would not go on their own from their posts”.

A man is rescued by firefighters after an apartment block was heavily damaged by a missile strike in Pokrovsk, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, on February 15, 2023 [Marko Djurica/Reuters]

After Moscow sent troops into Ukraine, the Western world almost unanimously acted against Russia.

Kyiv’s allies sanctioned the Russian economy, international sporting and cultural bodies banned Russians from participating in events and some countries refused to issue visas to Russian nationals.

Meanwhile, a wave of anti-Russian sentiment swept across Europe and the United States.

In May last year, a Russian restaurant owner in California told Japan’s NHK he had received abusive phone calls, with one caller screaming he was a “Russian pig”.

Another restaurant owner – this time in Poland – said she and the staff had been told to “get the hell out of Poland”.

But some Ukrainians have little time for the Russians who say they are being unfairly “cancelled”.

“I strongly believe, and this is a view that’s shared by a lot of Ukrainians, if someone is feeling discriminated against today, as a Russian person, while Ukrainians are exhuming mass graves with children in them and we are discovering children in torture chambers – if they are feeling discriminated against and they are not feeling ashamed themselves, that’s not a good person,” Shevchenko said.

Melkozerova agreed.

“I feel disappointed by the fact that even when they [Russians] are in Europe, they’re using all their protest capabilities to protest against Ukrainians for trying to cancel all Russians, not for protesting against the war,” she said.

Members of a forensic team carry a body bag as they exhume a mass grave in Lyman, Ukraine, on October 11, 2022 [File: Francisco Seco/AP Photo]

Shevchenko’s family lives in Nikopol, a city about 10km (6 miles) from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.

Last year, Nikopol was heavily bombarded. It is still targeted regularly.

An app on Shevchenko’s phone alerts her to the air raid sirens in the city.

“When you have your family subjected to that 24/7, you become a lot less nuanced about Russians.”

Can Ukrainians ever restore relationships with the Russians across the border?

Shevchenko laughs.

“No, that’s very funny,” she said. “Russians. We will hate them. My grandchildren’s great-grandchildren will hate them.”

Shekhovtsov, the political scientist, said if the war stopped right now, “it would take years and years to recover at least some of the relations that existed before the escalation”.

Melkozerova sighs.

“I no longer feel anything else about Russians except being extremely tired of them,” she said. “I don’t want my life to be centred to be around what Russians want and feel. I just want Russia to become another neighbouring country.”

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