Since Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to invade Ukraine, thousands of people in Russia have risked their safety and freedom to engage in illegal public demonstrations to protest the war, many of whom have been arrested by Russian police for doing so. As Ilya Matveev and Ilya Budraitskis recently wrote for Jacobin, “While some signs of ‘rallying around the flag’ are inevitable, it is remarkable that despite complete control over major media sources and a dramatic outpouring of propagandistic demagoguery on TV, the Kremlin is unable to foment enthusiasm for war.” TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Ilya Matveev from St. Petersburg about the state of anti-war sentiments and demonstrations within Russia, and about the need for the international left to oppose the war and show solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
Ilya Matveev is a researcher and lecturer based in St. Petersburg, Russia. He is the co-host of the podcast Политический дневник (Political Diary) with Ilya Budraitskis and is a member of the research group Public Sociology Laboratory.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at the Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. Today is Monday, Feb. 28 and the full scale Russian military invasion that began last week continues to wreak havoc on Ukraine and its people and to upend the post Cold War geopolitical arrangement. News is coming out by the minute regarding developments in the war, the international response from NATO-aligned states and others, including new sanctions on Russia, the unfolding refugee crisis that has resulted, and as of this morning we learned that the first face-to-face talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials will be held in Belarus, although it is unclear if a stop to the invasion is an outcome we can reasonably expect from these talks. The fog of war is incredibly thick right now. As always, we here at The Real News will do our best to bring our audiences up to date information and analysis of events as they unfold while also bringing you all the voices and context behind the headlines.
One crucial story in that regard that has been sorely undercovered has to do with the people inside Russia who are opposed to this war and have even been risking their safety to protest the invasion of Ukraine. In a recent piece for Jacobin magazine, Ilya Matveev and Ilya Budraitskis offer some critical and sobering thoughts regarding the anti-war sentiments inside Russia, such as they are. As they write, “Since Alexei Navalny’s arrest in January 2021, police and the security services have essentially crushed the organized opposition in Russia. Navalny’s organization was deemed extremist and dismantled. Demonstrations in his defense resulted in some 15,000 arrests, and almost all independent media were either closed down or branded foreign agents, severely limiting their operation. Mass demonstrations against the war are unlikely. There is no political force capable of coordinating them and participation in any street protest, including even a single person picket, is swiftly and severely punished.
“This and intellectual milieus in Russia are shocked and demoralized by the events. One reassuring sign is that no clear support for war is discernible in Russian society. According to the Lavata Center, the last independent polling agency, itself branded as a foreign agent by the Russian government, 40% of Russians do not support the official recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics by the Russian authorities, while 45% of Russians do. While some signs of rallying around the flag are inevitable, it is remarkable that despite complete control over major media sources and a dramatic outpouring of propagandistic demagoguery on TV, the Kremlin is unable to foment enthusiasm for war. Still,” Matveev and Budraitskis write, “Nothing like the patriotic mobilization that followed the annexation of Crimea in 2014 is happening today. The left around the world needs to unite around a simple message: no to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There’s no justification for Russia’s actions. They will result in suffering and death. In these days of tragedy, we call for international solidarity with Ukraine.”
To talk about all of this and more I’m honored to be joined by Ilya Matveev, one of the co-authors of that article. Ilya is a researcher and lecturer based in St. Petersburg, Russia. He is the co-host of the podcast Political Diary along with Ilya Budraitskis, and is a member of the research group Public Sociology Laboratory. Ilya, thank you so much for joining me today.
Ilya Matveev: Thank you for inviting me.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I’ve been really and genuinely appreciating the work that you and Ilya Budraitskis have been doing. It’s been especially helpful for those of us in the English-speaking West, who really only have mainstream media to rely on and very scant information about what is happening inside Russia, and what leftists and anti-war movements exist and how much they can exist in Russia right now. So I’m very grateful to you for taking time to talk to us about that today. But before we get there, I wanted to take a step back and ask if you could talk to our audience about what the past week has looked like for you and the folks on your side of all of this in Russia, as many of us never expected that Putin would take this step until it actually happened. So I was wondering if you could walk us through what the past week has been like for you as this has all unfolded.
Ilya Matveev: Right. Many of us here in Russia also did not expect Putin to make this step. I would just name one example. There is another podcast on Russian politics, which is much more famous than our podcast, [foreign language], because it is published by a major independent news outlet called Meduza. By the way, they have an English version of their website and it is very helpful, so I would like to plug them. I mean, the authors of this podcast are very perceptive, very informed sort of political analysts. Until the last moment, they said that the war is not coming. They said that Putin will not make the step of actually waging war on Ukraine, even when Putin recognized the People’s Republics, so even when he recognized these breakaway regions in Donbas. Even after that, they still maintained that there’s not going to be a war.
In one last Facebook post, one of the authors of this podcast said, if there’s a war, then I will cancel the podcast. I will no longer do it, I will no longer speak because it doesn’t make sense for me to do it anymore because I was completely wrong. And you know what, in a few hours, the war started. So to me, this is really indicative of the mood in Russia and also the analysis of informed people in Russia. So no one expected this and the people who make these podcasts, they’re very informed. They’re one of the best informed and most prescient people in terms of Russian politics, and they were wrong. So everyone was shocked. Everyone was shocked. The last week was extremely demoralizing. I mean, people, my friends, people I talk to, my Facebook feed, is just shock and a lot of pain, a lot of shame, actually, that this is happening. And it is very painful. It is very painful. It is also very scary. It is very scary because the outcome is unpredictable. The only thing that is certain is that nothing will be the same anymore for us in Russia, just like for people in Ukraine. So what will happen next? No one knows and everyone is extremely anxious.
Maximillian Alvarez: That about sums it up. No one knows and we’re all extremely anxious and scared. The feeling is very much mutual over here in the States. But I guess, just like in Russia, there are different camps of people who are viewing this very differently. In a weird way, or I suppose it’s not so weird, it feels a lot for me like it did after 9/11 here in the States where suddenly the corporate media just snaps into action and everyone’s beating the drums of war and everyone is taking hard nationalist stances about this and explaining Putin’s rationale in a very specific way, explaining what’s happening in Ukraine and what role the US and NATO have played in this. It’s very demoralizing on this end, too, to see how quickly we all have fallen back on that war propaganda path without using our critical thinking to understand what’s happening here.
I guess I just wanted to express solidarity with you all as we navigate that and walk into this terrifying new reality together. Before we get to talking about the anti-war sentiment in Russia, I wanted to ask, picking up on what you were just saying, what the conversation has been, particularly among Russian leftists, since the invasion began. How have you all been trying to make sense of Putin’s motivations here and what do you think perhaps people in the West are not seeing or understanding about how this invasion actually came to be?
Ilya Matveev: Right. So, first of all, I would say that the left in Russia, just like the left everywhere in the world, in the United States as well, it is very divided, obviously. Traditionally it is very divided. But in this particular moment, I would say the unity in this question of the invasion is perhaps the strongest in many, many years and maybe decades. People who were reluctant to criticize the Kremlin for its actions in Eastern Ukraine before, and people who were really not opposed to the annexation of Crimea, they are now unequivocally against this war. People who I disagreed with very strongly before, we now basically agree on this main question of the war. So the left is very united in its analysis.
I mean, some sections of the left, they still try to justify this in terms of this official narrative of anti-fascism and stopping NATO imperialism or whatever. But these are small, small groups. Among the non-systemic left, so-called non-systemic left, so not counting the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which is a parliamentary party completely controlled by the regime. So not counting them, the non-systemic left is united in the opposition against the war. And even several members of the Communist Party, of the official Communist Party, they made a statement that they reject the war. Also, I think two or maybe even three members of Parliament from the Communist Party made a statement that they refuse to accept this war. So this is extremely important, that, I think two people, two people from the Parliament, which is in Russia called Duma, so two Duma members from the Communist Party rejected the war. I mean, this is a hopeful sign, I would say.
So the causes of what’s happening. We don’t have a consensus on what caused this particular invasion but I have my own analysis and I’m trying to develop it right now. I think that we did not anticipate genuine nationalist imperial views among the Russian elite and we did not think that Putin and parts of his ruling circle are truly Russian nationalists that are willing to sacrifice everything and to stake everything on their imperial delusions. So I cannot explain this with economic motives. In fact, I wrote an academic paper on economic imperialism in Russia. Before all this happened last year, I wrote this paper and I concluded that our government is willing even to sacrifice capital accumulation when they perceive a threat from NATO. So for instance when it’s about confrontation with the West, they’re willing to test their relationship with big capital. That was my conclusion. But what’s happening now goes beyond this geopolitical calculus, it goes beyond just confrontation with the West.
Now it’s about reconquering Ukraine as part of historic Russia, as Putin said in his speech. So now it’s about the desire to rebuild the empire, in fact, the Russian Empire. This is what Putin referred to. He did not refer to the Soviet Union, which was, according to him, a mistake because it was a confederation, officially. So a desire to build a Russian empire that was united and could not be divided, as the official slogan went. There was an interesting story recently that a Russian official news agency called RIA Novosti, RIA News, they accidentally published an editorial that was dedicated to Russia winning this war, even though Russia did not win the war. Accidentally, they published this story that they prepared in advance for this particular event of Russia finally conquering all of Ukraine.
In this editorial, they wrote that two tasks have been solved. One task is preventing Ukraine from joining NATO, stopping NATO advance, stopping the advance of the West. But another task, and they say this explicitly, a more important task, a more important one than enlarging NATO, was that Russia is reunited with Ukraine. Ukraine is now part of this Russian world, and finally Velikaya Rossiya, as they were called during the Russian Empire. They are now united with Malorossiya, which was the name for Ukrainians during the times of the Russian Empire. They explicitly say that it’s even more important than stopping NATO. So restoring the Russian empire, basically, restoring this unity of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. So for them it’s more important. And of course, I mean, it’s just an editorial, but it’s in these official websites and it corresponds to what Putin was saying. I don’t think it’s just a story, just a smokescreen. I think it’s a genuine belief in some sections of the Russian elite. We did not anticipate this level of nationalist fervor, but it is there, it is there, and this is what we need to recognize.
Maximillian Alvarez: If this question requires too much speculation we can move on from it. But when I was reading the piece that you and Ilya Budraitskis wrote for Jacobin, you mention how political dissent in Russia has been treated since the demonstrations involving Alexei Navolny last year, and I would point Real News viewers and listeners to an important interview that Radhika Desai conducted with the Russian sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky where he explained this time last year the changing political dynamics in Russia and where Putin’s politics fit in all of that. And so, Ilya, I was wondering if, building off what you were saying, if you had any thoughts about, again, I guess what Putin hopes to get out of this and why he acted so drastically.
Let me explain what I mean. Because in the West, a lot of the coverage is really focusing on the image of Putin that he himself loves to project as a strong, more autocratic figure who has this national control and that this invasion is really a reflection of that, of his autocratic designs. I’m not saying that’s not a part of it. But at the same time, I think that after COVID and with the political threat of Navalny and the protests that we saw last year, it’s clear that there are cracks in the Russian political order and that maybe this invasion is related to that in some way. I guess, do you have any insight on what the invasion means for the internal political struggle in Russia that Putin’s been facing?
Ilya Matveev: Right. So, like I said, the invasion was very unexpected, so I don’t have a solid answer. What I can say is that the reason does not lie in Russian society. It’s not like a huge chunk of the Russian population actively wanted war with Ukraine. I mean, there are people like that, like Russian nationalists who were calling on the Kremlin to continue what they started in 2014 and to reconquer all of Ukraine, but this is a very small minority. I mean, people like that are a very small minority. And in general, ordinary people did not really want anything like this. I mean, yes, ultimately some of them accepted it, so they accepted the official narrative because it’s easier to accept it than to be against it. But according to various polls, and according to, I mean, I have not seen official press releases, but I heard that there are some opinion polls that indicate that basically the Russian population is divided.
So 50% of people reject the war and 50% of people accept it. But even among those who accept it, it’s not enthusiastic. It’s not cheering. It’s more like, we had to do this. Maybe we’re right in this. I hope we’re right in this. So it’s something like this. It’s not really a strong conviction. So in that sense, the idea that Putin did this in order to improve his own standing in Russian society, in order to prop up his legitimacy, I don’t think it’s true. It’s too much of a gamble and the gamble did not pay off. So, I mean, no consensus emerged after this thing.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. I think we’re now all realizing, including Putin, that this was not going to be as quick and swift as he expected. Now the question is, where does everything go from here? I think maybe the expectation was that Russian forces would take Kyiv in a matter of days and install a new government and this would just be a next stage in that, like you said, a continuation of what happened with the annexation of Crimea. And it’s proving to not be the case, and now here we are in a situation that we can’t turn back from. I really appreciate your insight, man, and I don’t want to keep you too long, but I was wondering if we could round out by talking about that side of the Russian population that is opposed to this war. We have been seeing some photos and coverage of the anti-war demonstrations within Russia over the past week by people who know full well how illegal those actions are and how they will face the brutality of the Russian police. So I was wondering if you could, again, give us a view from your side of the world of what those anti-war demonstrations have looked like and what possibility there is or isn’t for an anti-war movement in Russia.
Ilya Matveev: Right. So I think a bit of context is required here. It’s important to understand what kind of protests happened in Russia in the last few years. The latest wave of protests happened one year ago when Alexei Navalny returned to Russia and was imprisoned immediately. They also released this video about Putin’s palace. And this is when the latest series of protests happened. They were completely illegal. So COVID, the pandemic, gave the authority its final excuse to completely ban all protests including even single person pickets, even though, I mean, it’s social distancing in its purest form because it’s one person. I mean, they still arrest people for just going on the street with a banner like this. All kinds of street protests are illegal and they were illegal when Alexei Navalny returned to Russia.
At that point, his organization that was still present, that was still functional, so it was trying to mobilize people to go in the streets, and they were, I mean, to some extent they were successful. They mobilized like 150,000 people, something like this, across Russia. It’s a respectable number, but it’s not a breakthrough. The police were ultimately able to overwhelm these protests because there were just not enough people on the streets. At some point Navalny’s organization called for stopping the protests because it did not make sense to continue. These people were just getting arrested. They were just imprisoned from several days to a couple of years if they were framed for attacking police or something like this, which never happened, actually. It was just extremely dangerous and also it did not lead to any real effect.
So Navalny’s organization had to stop the protests. In the last year, we did not have any street protests anymore, any opposition protests, because there was a conscious decision to stop them because they do not lead to anything, because not many people are willing to protest under the circumstances. And those who are willing to protest, they’re just arrested and demonstrations are dispersed. In this particular context, we need to see the recent protests against the war. So even though the latest wave of protest was ineffective, still people went to the streets because they just couldn’t do otherwise. They couldn’t just ignore this and stay home because the protest will not lead to anything and so on, it will not result in anything. So people still went to the streets even though they saw what happens if you protest during last year’s Navalny’s arrest.
Unfortunately these protests, once again, were just completely dominated by police. Police presence is enormous in Russian cities. Police have very sophisticated ways of stopping protesters. Riot police are huge in Russia. Just riot police alone is something like 40,000 people, and these are extremely trained policemen. Special forces, actually divisions, are trained specifically to disperse any kind of protest. So it’s 40,000 people, just them, across Russia, at least 40,000. There is no official number, but the estimate is 40,000. Then you have several hundred thousand national guards. They’re less trained than riot police to repress people on the streets, but still they’re much bigger in number. So the national guard. And then you have ordinary police. Then you have FSB, which is the special services. So with hundreds of thousands of people who could be deployed to disperse the crowds.
And then legally speaking, they think that they have all the rights to stop any protest that happens in Russia. So in terms of strict mobilization the picture is very bleak. We have to just recognize this. It’s a bleak picture. At the same time I see that most people are simply unable to accept what’s happening. They cannot express this, but for many people this is completely unacceptable and it feels painful to watch. That’s the problem. It just feels painful to watch this. Unfortunately in these interviews that I’ve been doing the last few days I’m sometimes getting emotional, but I can’t do otherwise. It’s really painful to watch our country just bombing Ukraine, just using artillery on cities in another country.
It was painful to me to watch the confrontation in Donbas where the shelling happened from both sides. And in fact, I never called for Ukraine to reconquer the Donbas regions, because this was the position that some liberals took, that Ukraine just needs to use force to reconquer those regions. I always rejected it. In fact, I went to anti-war rallies rejecting the conflict from both sides, from the Russian side and from the Ukrainian side. So I was never cheering for Ukraine to reconquer these regions, but what’s happening now, it’s even worse. It’s Donbas but on the scale of Ukraine as a whole.
So in my opinion, not many people are just accepting this. I mean, yeah. How can they express it? I don’t know. But I see that on social networks that are now practically banned in Russia, so they use technical measures to stop them from working. On the street in terms of even just a small sticker on the side of the wall that people do and that says “no war.” There are a lot of them in St. Petersburg. So I see some small expressions of discontent. And I think that this discontent is really widespread in Russian society.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I mean, I think that you hit the nail in the head, man. I mean, it’s incredibly painful to watch for the loss of human life, for all the ways that this bloodshed could have been avoided, and all the ways that we need to be fighting harder to avoid it and to stop it. I guess that’s where I wanted to end up, because you and Ilya Budraitskis have a really powerful call at the end of your Jacobin piece for international solidarity and mobilization against this war. And so I wanted to just maybe ask, by way of rounding out, if you could say a little more about your message to not just the Western left, but to all those around the world who also don’t want this, who don’t want to see people dying, who don’t want to see people forced out of their homes and for all of this carnage to keep unfolding the way that it is. I guess, did you just have any final words that you wanted to say to folks watching and listening out there about the need for all of us to come together and fight for peace as hard as we can?
Ilya Matveev: Right. Well, first of all, I can only repeat what I said in the article. The primary slogan should be noted, Russian invasion of Ukraine. When the left now tries to present it as somehow a balanced picture of NATO expanding and Russia taking as if these are two same things, this is a mistake. This is a political mistake. Even though as an anti-imperialist, obviously I never supported NATO, so this is not the time to talk about NATO. This is not the time to try and rationalize this because it goes beyond NATO and even official [inaudible] says as much, that it’s not just about NATO. So unequivocal support for ending this war, this is the primary thing.
But another thing I would like to say. I’ve noticed that sometimes academic institutions, for instance, are now expelling Russian students, for instance, and journals rejecting papers from Russian scholars, and stipend programs for Russians closing because of all this. I think that this is a mistake. I don’t think that this is helpful in any way to Ukraine. This is just closing any opportunities for the people in Russia who are in fact against the war. The West sort of turns against them as if they’re somehow responsible for this. I don’t think that this is helpful. These actions, when universities expel Russian students and reject any connections with Russian partner universities, for instance, I don’t think it’s the right way. Because it’s not like Putin cares about these particular connections, it’s not like he cares about peer reviewed articles in Western journals or stipend programs for the Russian youth. Really, I mean, it cannot change his behavior, but this will only make the situation worse for people who stay in Russia and who are very unlikely to support the war in any way.
So this is another thing that I just wanted to say, and I wanted to point out that people are trying to fight in Russia. So it’s important to express solidarity with them as well. Obviously it’s incomparable to what’s going on in Ukraine, I’m not claiming that people in Russia are suffering as much as people who live in Ukraine and who are now hiding in bomb shelters. But at the same time I think it’s important to express solidarity with those people who are fighting against this in Russia. In fact, on Bernie Sanders’s Facebook I saw a very message that he expresses his solidarity to Ukrainians as well as to those Russians who fight against this. This is the sentiment that I fully sympathize with.
Maximillian Alvarez: So that is Ilya Matveev, a researcher and lecturer based in St. Petersburg, Russia. Ilya is the co-host of the podcast Political Diary along with Ilya Budraitskis and the co-author of a great piece also written by Ilya and Ilya Budraitskis for Jacobin Magazine. He is a member of the research group Public Sociology Laboratory. Ilya, thank you so much for sharing your time and your insight today, man. I really appreciate it.
Ilya Matveev: Thank you.
Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez at The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support, become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.