We go to Moscow to look at the growing antiwar movement in Russia, where activists are risking a brutal crackdown to oppose their government’s assault on Ukraine. Arshak Makichyan is a climate activist who recently joined protests against the invasion and says the actions of the Russian government do not reflect the will of the people. He says Russian citizens suspect President Vladimir Putin could declare martial law soon, as part of a broader campaign to suppress dissenting voices. Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions have unintended consequences on peace activists, whose access to virtual private networks and foreign social media platforms has been hurt, leaving them less able to find alternative sources of information. “It’s difficult and dangerous to fight this regime,” says Makichyan.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
We look now at growing protests in Russia against President Putin’s war on Ukraine amidst a brutal crackdown by police. More than 5,000 people were arrested at demonstrations in at least 69 cities across Russia on Sunday alone. Since the war began, more than 13,000 Russians have been arrested for speaking out.
Our next guest has joined the demonstrations since the day Russia began its attack in Ukraine, February 24th, which was also his wedding day. Arshak Makichyan is an Armenian Russian climate activist, protesting before the war, as well, as part of the school strike for the climate movement. This week he tweeted what he called “a new flag of real Russia,” and supported reparations to Ukraine, writing, “We will be sorry forever for things done by our government,” adding, “Real Russia is us.”
Arshak Makichyan, welcome to Democracy Now! Are you worried about speaking out, given how many thousands of people, 13,000 people, have been arrested in Russia, by a number of estimates, since the war began, for protesting?
ARSHAK MAKICHYAN: Hi. Thanks for inviting me.
Yeah, of course I’m worried, but mostly I’m worried about Ukrainian people who are dying now because of our government. I was striking, I was protesting here in Russia for three years. I was prepared to be arrested because that’s how activism works in Russia. If you’re doing something and if you have influence, then they’re arresting you. And yeah, that’s the price of activism in Russia. And yeah, I was ready to be arrested, and I am ready to be arrested, because, yeah, it’s our life in Russia. It’s activist’s life in Russia.
And the terrible thing that’s happening in Russia, that they’re starting to torture people, even detained people from peaceful protest, even in Moscow. And the situation is getting worse and worse. Like two years ago, it was difficult to be an activist. A year ago, it was worse, when they tried to poison Navalny and they declared his team extremists. And now it’s like living in dictatorship. Like, they can stop you on the street and start searching you, and you cannot do anything against it. Like, you don’t have anything to defend yourself.
And, like, it’s terrible to live in Russia now, because it’s terrible to see how insane can the regime go, because they’re having this zed letter written on everything. It’s like a new Nazi symbol. And it’s terrible to see, like, your country — I love Russia. Like, I love Russian culture, and I love music, literature. But what is happening now with our country is terrible. We see how our economy is collapsing. We see how, like, the government going insane. And we don’t know what to do, because, like, Putin has his nuclear power. He has millions of police, and they are brainwashed. It’s impossible to talk with them, because they’re saying, like, “Yeah, you’re not allowed to talk about the war. You’re not allowed to do this and that.” And, like, it’s impossible to talk with them, because they were brainwashed for eight years. And I don’t see a solution, but, like, activism and protests now in Russia.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Arshak, can you talk about how you access information about what’s going on in Ukraine? Because there has been a massive crackdown on independent media, as well as social media, Facebook and Twitter. How are you getting information about the war in Ukraine?
ARSHAK MAKICHYAN: We’re using VPN, and I can read in English, and, like, it’s not so difficult for me. But it’s difficult for older generation, because this crackdown on independent media in Russia started long before this war. They started to declare almost all our independent media foreign agents like a year or two years ago. So, this situation now is even worse than before. But yeah, you can get information if you want to, but it’s difficult to share this information with other people, because it’s getting dangerous, because, like, a lot of independent media is shutting down because it’s now illegal to call this war a war, or it’s illegal to — like, there is something like war censorship in Russia now.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what do most Russians understand about what’s happening? I mean, we’re hearing so many reports, given that you can’t use the words “war” and “invasion,” independent media shut down. What do you think is the general response?
ARSHAK MAKICHYAN: There is no general response in Russia, because Russia is a big country. And if we are talking about Moscow, I think people in here do understand what is happening, and they’re preparing themselves for the wars. But Russia is huge, and there are a lot of regions, and people in there don’t get the information, or they don’t understand what is happening. So, it’s so complicated. And yeah, Russia is so complicated. So we need to do our activist work better in here, because, like, I’m not sure if these sanctions, like shutting down Apple Pay or things like that, can influence people in regions in Russia. So —
AMY GOODMAN: Are people feeling the effects of the sanctions, the mass shutdown, the largest, I think, corporate sanctioning, let alone government sanctioning, of corporations pulling out, not operating right now?
ARSHAK MAKICHYAN: Yeah, of course. You can feel it if you live in Moscow or St. Petersburg or in some other cities. And yeah, it’s not like — it’s influencing our lives, and we feel some of kind of, like, isolated from the world, because now you cannot buy even currency in Russia and go to Europe. It’s getting so complicated. And, like, maybe sanctions are good for influencing general society in Russia, for them to understand that, like, it’s our responsibility that our government doing, and it’s terrible what our government is doing, but on the other way, like, sometimes it’s affecting our access to the internet. Like, now we cannot pay for VPN, maybe, because our financial system isn’t connected anymore to the world financial system. So, if you want to have access to the internet, to independent media, you need to pay for VPN, and now with these sanctions, maybe you won’t be able.
So we need to find some new solutions, because I think it’s very important for Russian civil society, for Russian antiwar movement, to be connected to the world, to have this opportunity to raise our voices. And, like, when they are, at one side, Russian government trying to shut down all our social media, now, like, I cannot share anything on my TikTok. I was using this platform to share antiwar statements, and now I cannot do that, because TikTok shut down in Russia. And yeah, at the other side, like, international platforms doing restrictions for Russian people, and sometimes it’s influencing Russian civil society that’s fighting this terrible regime in Russia, and it’s quite difficult and dangerous to fight this regime, and we were doing it for years, and maybe we need some help, I think.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Arshak, can you also respond to those who say that there’s a risk that Putin might declare martial law? Are you concerned about that?
ARSHAK MAKICHYAN: Of course, we were concerned about that. But if he wants to declare martial law, he should, like, to accept that there is a war in Ukraine, and there is a war between Ukraine and Russia. And now they’re calling it like “special operation,” and they do not want to tell the truth to the people, because people, I think, they do not want a war. So they are brainwashing people and saying that it’s not a war, it’s a special operation. And yet, if they declare martial law, then maybe there will be bigger protests, I think. So, it’s not that’s easy for the government, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Arshak, can you describe your wedding day, what it was like, what you did?
ARSHAK MAKICHYAN: We were planning this wedding for a month, because it was dangerous to be an activist even before the war, as well. And we were planning it as a safety measure, because if you are married, you have these extra rights, like to meet your wife or husband when you are in prison. And we were preparing ourselves for the prison, because if you’re an activist, you should be prepared.
And yeah, on the February 24th, we, like — I was sleeping, and, like, my girlfriend, she woke me up and said that there is a war. And we were shocked. And it was terrible, like, that Putin is stealing from us even our wedding. He was stealing everything from us, like our future, our human rights, one by one, and now he had stolen our wedding.
And we canceled all our celebrations and stuff like that, and I had written on my shirt, like, “[bleep] the War.” And so, it happens that my wedding, our wedding, was more like activism and more activism than an actual wedding, because it was like a safety tool and a statement against this war, because, like, we are the future of this country, and we want to have normal life. We do not want to be arrested for 15 years just for speaking up against this war. We want normal life. We want, like, to be with Europe, to educate ourselves, to be normal people. We do not want to be heroes. Like, we want to be normal.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Arshak, you are a peace and climate activist, and a lot of the sanctions against Putin right now are around oil, gas, a unilateral ban that Biden, for example, has put on Russian oil, gas, coal. The significance and the connection between war and the climate emergency?
ARSHAK MAKICHYAN: Yeah, of course, there is connection between climate crisis and the war, but now I cannot talk about climate in Russia anymore, because people are dying in Ukraine, and there is terrible situation in Russia, as well. And if we want to talk about sustainability, if we want to talk about future, we need to have a secure present, and there is no — like, people do not have present in Ukraine, because Russia is bombing their homes, Russia is bombing their hospitals. And we do not have present in Russia, as well, because if you want to be normal person, to be — if you want to be normal person, of course, you should be against this war. You can be arrested. So, yeah, we don’t have a future anymore in Russia, as well, so I stopped my fight for future, and now we’re fighting for our present.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lastly, Ashak, many Russians are trying to leave the country. Explain how difficult that is, given the sanctions and other restrictions on Russia. And also, do you plan to leave?
ARSHAK MAKICHYAN: A lot of my friends are leaving the country now, and it’s very complicated, because, like, you can fly just to Armenia or Georgia, and maybe to Turkey, and, yeah, the tickets are very expensive under the current economical situation, when people don’t have money. It’s difficult, especially for activists. Like, yeah, it’s very complicated. And I think we need some ways for activists in danger to have this opportunity to leave the country, because, like, a lot of people do not want to be arrested for 15 years, and they were fighting this terrible regime for years and years, and they deserve some respect and some help from the world, because the world is just starting to realize how dangerous, stupid and horrible is our regime, and we were living with Putin for 20 years, and we were fighting him for years. And yeah, we need to figure out some ways for activists, for people in danger in here, because sometimes it’s unbearable to continue your activism because your family is in danger, your life is in danger. They’re watching you every day, every hour. So, of course we need some help in things like that. And about myself —
AMY GOODMAN: Arshak Makichyan —
ARSHAK MAKICHYAN: And about myself —
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we just have 10 seconds. Yourself, are you thinking of leaving?
ARSHAK MAKICHYAN: No, I think I want to stay in Russia. Maybe, like, I will have some rest from Russia, like, sometimes, but I want to stay in Russia because it’s my country.
AMY GOODMAN: Arshak Makichyan, I want to thank you for being with us, climate and peace activist based in Moscow, Russia.
Coming up, David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. Stay with us.