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International Relations and Human Rights Observatory


The faces of resistance to the Russian government are traveling across Europe

The goal of this traveling exhibition is to draw attention to the blatant violation of human rights in Russia, to show that there are Russians who oppose Putin and the war, and that many of them are imprisoned for their ideas, subjected to torture, and held in unbearable conditions.
By Ignacio E. Hutin

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is a relatively small city with a walkable central area teeming with tourists wandering its narrow streets. Most of them will point their cameras at the walls that have protected the city for nearly 800 years, or at the towers of medieval churches, or at the Baltic Sea that separates this country from neighboring Finland. Few will notice that an active resistance is taking place in town, and that it is starting to expand.

The blue and yellow flags of Ukraine are very common in every corner of the city. A large version of it, intertwined with the Estonian flag, decorates Freedom Square and serves as a backdrop for the political gathering taken place this autumn. Here, the exhibition "Faces of Russian Resistance" is being inaugurated, dedicated to political prisoners and created by Russian political emigrants. Or, more accurately, Russian political exiles.

According to the Memorial Human Rights Center (winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize and officially dissolved by the Russian government the same year) and its Program for the Support of Political Prisoners, there are currently 611 political prisoners in Russia, 628 persecuted, and 110 possible victims.

Among all of them, 16 stories have been selected to be told in Freedom Square. These are the Faces of Russian Resistance: men and women, political activists and scientists, artists and students, young and elderly people. People who have been persecuted and imprisoned and now stand as symbols against repression. Their crime has been to question the power and its arbitrary decisions, including the invasion of neighboring Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

The faces and stories are presented in Russian, Estonian, and English language on a series of fences in the square. Just a few names: Vladimir Kara-Murza, a politician and journalist, sentenced to 25 years in prison for "treason, cooperation with an undesirable organization, and spreading falsehoods." Alexey Gorinov, a deputy, sentenced to 7 years in prison for stating in March 2022 that there were around a hundred children dead in Ukraine since Russia's invasion. Yuri Dmitriev, a human rights defender, falsely sentenced to 15 years in prison for producing child pornography. Sasha Skochilenko, an artist, detained without conviction since March 2022 for posting information in a St. Petersburg supermarket about the bombing of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Maria Ponomarenko, a journalist, sentenced to 6 years in prison on charges of spreading falsehoods. Vsevolod Korolev, a documentary filmmaker, detained without conviction since July 2022 on the same charge.

Artem Tiurin is one of the founders of the Estonian branch of the organization "Russians Against War" and was in charge of coordinating the exhibition in Tallinn. "We selected 16 political prisoners with vivid and unjust stories. We showcase a group that is just a small fraction of the total number of political detainees in Russia, but they reflect diversity and demonstrate that opponents of Vladimir Putin and people against the war are different and diverse people," says the native of Nizhny Novgorod.

The activist also explains that the goal of this traveling exhibition is to draw attention to the blatant violation of human rights in Russia, to show that there are Russians who oppose Putin and the war, and that many of them are imprisoned for their ideas, subjected to torture, and held in unbearable conditions.

"Often, people in Western countries wonder why Russians do not take to the streets and overthrow Putin. What happens is that the price of protesting is very high, even a peaceful protester with a blank sheet of paper can face more than 5 years in prison. Through this exhibition, we try to answer the question of why millions of Russians do not protest. And we demand that the release of Russian political prisoners be included in all future Western negotiations with Putin and that their release be urged through all available means," he demands.

The project was originally planned by a group of municipal deputies in Russia who were forced to leave the country due to persecution and the start of the large-scale invasion in February of last year. Among them, Elena Filina, a former municipal deputy of the Vernadsky district of Moscow (2017-2022), who has been included in the international list of people wanted by the Russian government accused of "spreading false news about the Russian army." This could mean up to 10 years in prison.

The exhibition in Tallinn, the first of 17 planned so far, had positive results and received both popular and official support. During the opening speeches on a Sunday afternoon, many locals and tourists joined the event and read the available information. However, there were also provocateurs, some insults, a man who showed his middle finger to the protesters as he passed by.

Tiurin says that "Estonian society is divided, with a significant number of Russian-speaking residents inclined to believe in Putin's propaganda and harbor hostility towards our initiatives." Despite this, he also points out that Estonia's current migration policies only benefit Moscow and do not alleviate the situation of Russian dissidents: "Migration restrictions contribute to the increase of political detainees in Russia and Belarus."

Although in 2022, 213 Russian and Belarusian citizens applied for asylum in Estonia, this country's restrictions on the entry of Russians have been progressively increasing. Since September of last year, the entry of Russian tourists, i.e., those with short-term visas, has been banned. Local universities have restricted the admission of Russian and Belarusian students, and more recently, private vehicles with Russian license plates were banned of entering the country.

Still, 28% of the nearly one million Russian citizens who entered the European Union in the first six months after the start of the large-scale invasion did so through Estonia. This is the second-highest percentage, behind Finland (33%), according to data from Frontex, the EU agency responsible for border security.

After Tallinn, the "Faces of Russian Resistance" exhibition will continue in Lithuania, Germany, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Latvia, the Netherlands, and Argentina, the only country outside of Europe.

Alex Nowinsky is a co-organizer of the "Free Russia Argentina" movement and is in charge of the exhibition in Buenos Aires, which does not have a concrete date yet but he wishes it can be in early 2024. Nowinsky left his country during the Southern Hemisphere's autumn last year, when the police were looking for him for protesting against the war. He now explains that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the intensification of political repression, many opponents have been forced into exile. "Some of them emigrated to neighboring countries of the former Soviet Union, while others flew farther. Argentina turned out to be one of the most convenient countries for migration. So, once again in history, a wave of Russian immigrants and refugees arrived here."

However, the now resident of the Argentine capital explains that this has two problems: "First, not only Russians who do not support Putin flew to Argentina but also war supporters and employees of the Russian law enforcement agencies. As a result, I was personally attacked twice by Putin supporters in Buenos Aires. Other political activists have also been attacked. In general, they are exerting all kinds of pressure on the Russian peace movement in Argentina. Second, most Argentines do not have a correct notion of what is happening in Ukraine and do not understand Russian politics."

The activist also draws a parallel with military dictatorships in Latin America and says, "Argentines must see what the Russian government is doing to its citizens. The Kremlin imprisons and kills Russians if they disagree with its policies, oppose the war in Ukraine, the rigged elections, and the dictatorship, or if they support democracy. The kremlin is pressuring opponents abroad, including in Argentina. Argentina should not be a safe haven for war criminals and propagandists. That is why organizing an exhibition about Russian resistance here is an incredibly important task."

Nowinsky was not the only one to suffer the pressure of Russian president’s supporters abroad. In fact, it was planned that the "Faces of Russian Resistance" exhibition would be inaugurated in Budva, Montenegro, on October 1st, but two days before the opening, local authorities revoked the permits. "This decision was political and arbitrary. Our organizers in Budva encountered pro-Kremlin sentiments within the local municipality. In fact, local officials began the conversation with the phrase 'we love Putin.' So, we had to postpone the event," Tiurin explains.

That did not happen in Tallinn, the capital of a country with nearly a quarter of the population being ethnically Russian and just over 6% having legal citizenship of the neighboring country. Thanks to the newly formed community of Kremlin opponents that has developed in the city, the exhibition was organized in just one week. The necessary donations were raised in just one day, and obtaining the required permits from local authorities to hold the event in a public space was not difficult at all.

Today, the faces of this active resistance that is beginning to expand are traveling across the European continent. Sharing these stories, spreading this information, helps break myths and prejudices, and also generates international solidarity with a people suffering from systematic repression and persecution.

Ignacio E. Hutin
Ignacio E. Hutin
Advisory Councelor
Master in International Relations (University of Salvador, 2021), Graduate in Journalism (University of Salvador, 2014), specialized in Leadership in Humanitarian Emergencies (National Defense University, 2019) and studied photography (ARGRA, 2009). He is a focused in Eastern Europe, post-Soviet Eurasia and the Balkans. He received a scholarship from the Finnish State to carry out studies related to the Arctic at the University of Lapland (2012). He is the author of the books Saturn (2009), Deconstruction: Chronicles and Reflections from Post-Communist Eastern Europe (2018), Ukraine/Donbass: A Renewed Cold War (2021), and Ukraine: Chronicle from the Frontlines (2021).

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