MOSCOW -- Scores of Russian citizens and prominent figures are denouncing President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine despite the high risks of expressing anti-Kremlin views publicly.
Outraged and shamed Russians are expressing their views on social networks, publishing collective statements and even holding public demonstrations, all while facing the risk of arrests and beatings.
The United Nations (UN) on Friday (February 25) condemned numerous "arbitrary arrests" of people in Russia for protesting the country's invasion of Ukraine and urged their immediate release.
"More than 1,800 protesters were reportedly arrested. It is unclear whether some have now been released," said UN rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani in Geneva, Switzerland.
Russian forces Thursday launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin frequently refers to as a "fraternal" nation, after months of assurances that the 190,000 troops massing in Russia and Belarus were there solely for training. They unleashed air strikes and sent troops deep into the country.
Rejecting the Putin narrative
Putin called his massive invasion a "special military operation" and identified its goal as "demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine". He relied on a familiar trope that he used in 2014 to rationalise annexing Crimea and fomenting war in Donetsk and Luhansk: accusing Ukrainian authorities of genocide against Russian-speaking citizens in eastern Ukraine.
However, much of the Russian public, like the international community, rejects Putin's argument. It is fiercely criticising the invasion and urging him to immediately halt the war.
For many years the majority of Russian intelligentsia stayed apolitical, avoiding public critiques of domestic political events. However, this time they did not stand on the sidelines.
On Thursday the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy published on its website an open letter signed by scholars and journalists, including members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, professors, independent scholars, writers, university instructors, historians, linguists, sociologists and many others.
The signatories expressed their "resolute protest against the military activities that the armed forces of our country began in Ukraine" and laid "the responsibility for launching a new war in Europe solely on Russia".
They identified the true cause of the war as "the geopolitical ambitions of Russia's leadership, which is moved by dubious historiosophical fantasies".
"There are no reasonable justifications for this war," said the scholars, who completely ruled out the possibility of any Ukrainian threat to Russian security. The war is "unjust and openly senseless", they added.
"We demand an immediate halt to all military activities against Ukraine. We demand respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state," they wrote.
The number of signatories to the open letter continues to grow.
'Impossible to work for a murderer'
Some prominent Russians are taking more decisive and symbolic steps. They include employees of government-run organisations like Elena Kovalskaya.
Kovalskaya, director of the Vsevolod Meyerhold State Theatre and Cultural Centre in Moscow, resigned on Thursday, the day of the invasion.
In her Facebook announcement, she said she was quitting "to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine ... It's impossible to work for a murderer and collect a salary from him."
Ivan Urgant, a host on the Kremlin's Channel One TV station, who earlier avoided political commentary, did not stay silent. On Thursday, he posted a black background on his Instagram page with the caption "Fear and pain. NO TO WAR."
Urgant's show will not air as usual Friday, a spokesperson for Channel One told the Interfax news agency.
Undeterred by the prospect of such retaliation, a flood of Russian celebrities -- actors, musicians, TV hosts, athletes and other public figures -- are denouncing the Kremlin's acts with unprecedented unanimity and resolution. They include Valerii Meladze, Ivan Dorn, Zemfira, Sergei Lazarev, Nastya Ivleeva, Maksim Galkin, Olga Buzova, Svetlana Loboda, Yana Rudkovskaya, Nastya Kamenskikh and many others.
"Up until the end, I didn't believe it -- because it was impossible to imagine," journalist and public figure Ilya Varlamov wrote on Instagram Thursday. "There wasn't a single genuine reason to start combat. There was no genocide, unlike what the propagandists are saying on TV in trying to convince people that the war is necessary and correct. There is no justification for this war or for those who stirred it up ..."
"I think it is a catastrophe and a crime," Russian rapper Oxxxymiron said in a video posted on his social media accounts as he strode through his hometown of St. Petersburg.
"History has seen many Black Thursdays. But today is darker than the others," Russia's top ranked chess player, Yan Nepomniachtchi, wrote on Twitter.
Andrei Makarevich, musician and leader of the Time Machine rock band, does not believe that Putin listens to public opinion.
"He launched a war for the sake of his own personal ambitions," he told Caravanserai. "For him the people are spare change."
On Thursday, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a bilingual issue in Ukrainian and Russian, saying that it would never consider Ukraine the enemy.
The Novaya Gazeta editorial staff feels shame and grief over the war on Ukraine that began on Putin's orders, Dmitry Muratov, the newspaper's editor-in-chief and a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, wrote in his column.
"In the hands of the commander-in-chief, like a key fob for an expensive car, the 'nuclear button' spins round and round," wrote Muratov. "What's the next step, a volley of nuclear missiles? There is no other way to interpret the words of Vladimir Putin about weapons of retribution."
"Only an anti-war movement by Russians can save life on this planet," he concluded.
Anti-Putin movements growing
That movement already has formed.
On Thursday in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and many other Russian cities, pro-peace demonstrations took place and attracted thousands of participants. They shouted "No to war!" and waved signs urging Putin to halt the violence.
Elena Fedorova, a philology student at Moscow State University, who attended a protest Thursday at Pushkin Square in Moscow, described being surrounded by many other Russians who all shared the same civic view.
"The war against Ukraine is something unimaginably terrible," she told Caravanserai. "We and the Ukrainians are fraternal peoples. Our relatives and friends live there. Putin had no right to do this!"
However, the Kremlin responded to the protests with its usual option, force. In various cities, it sent out legions of OMON riot police to round up the demonstrators and haul them away in paddy wagons to police stations.
In Pushkin Square, the police seized placard-bearing demonstrators, beat them with clubs, twisted their arms and packed them off in paddy wagons, said Fedorova.
"I saw how the OMON members arrested Nataliya Vasilyeva, the Daily Telegraph correspondent, even though she told them she was a journalist who was doing her job," said Fedorova. "They said, 'We'll figure it out' and forcibly took her away."
One prominent Russian denounced the war, even though he is already in prison for standing up to Putin.
"This war between Russia and Ukraine was unleashed to cover up the theft from Russian citizens and divert their attention from problems that exist inside the country," imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny said in a video published Thursday by the independent television channel Dozhd.