It is a war. Nearly seven months later, Kremlin opponents and supporters alike have lost their fear of the taboo word. But pronouncing it in connection with Ukraine can still result in a fine or even prison. “It’s a war, not a special operation. We need a general mobilization,” said Gennady Andreyevich Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party – historically the bastion of Vladimir Putin’s support. The rapid advance of Ukrainian troops in the last week has caused a commotion in Russia. The president’s entourage is attempting to put out the fire within its ranks. Putin’s spokesperson has even issued a warning: any criticism, whether from the opposition or from ultranationalists, will be subject to prosecution. This week, the Saint Petersburg councilors who requested the leader’s impeachment will go to court.
“A war and a special operation have different roots. You can stop a special operation, but you cannot stop a war even if you try. This has two results: victory or defeat. Winning the [eastern region of] Donbas is a question of historic survival. Everyone in this country should really value what is happening,” Zyuganov told the Russian parliament on Tuesday. The 78-year-old politician, who has been at the head of the party since 1993, used a term banned by the laws against “discrediting” the Russian armed forces. As a result of these laws, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose director Dmitri Muratov won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, was forced to delete news stories that described events in Ukraine as a war.
Amidst the clamor unleashed by Zyuganov’s pointed message, the Communist Party distanced itself from its leader’s statement. “[Zyuganov] called for mobilizing the economy and the political system, not for mobilizing the country’s population,” said his press secretary, Alexander Yushchenko, in a subsequent interview where he called for “severe punishment for those who share these provocations.” By then, a good part of the Russian media had already echoed the words of the Communist leader.
The head of the Communist Party was a key player in September 2021, when he swiftly put an end to some party members’ allegations that Putin’s party, United Russia, had stolen the parliamentary elections through the new electronic voting system. Valeri Rashki, the Moscow Communist leader who had encouraged the demonstrations in the capital, was removed shortly thereafter due to a scandal involving illegal hunting and drunk driving.
Demands for a general mobilization now have reached Putin’s own party. “Without full mobilization, … including the economy, we will not achieve the proper results. The fact is that society should be as united as possible and ready for victory,” said Mikhail Sheremet, member of the Duma Security and Anti-Corruption Committee, on Monday.
The Kremlin has warned that it will not tolerate internal dissent. “Critical points of view, as long as they remain within the law, this is pluralism, but the line is very, very thin, one must be very careful here,” the Russian president’s spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, said on Tuesday in response to questions about the recent wave of criticism.
The spokesperson denied that it is in Putin’s plans to order a mobilization, despite the anger in circles of power over the troops’ loss of territories recovered by Ukraine. “At the present time, no, it is not being discussed,” said Peskov. The Chechen president, Ramzan Kadirov, denounced that cities had been “given away.” A few propaganda officials urged “punishment or execution” for the commanders responsible for the disaster.
Opposition on trial
The rest of the critics, which now include 65 councilors from major Russian cities who are demanding Putin’s removal from office, come from the political opposition. Banned in national parliament, this sector has managed to use municipal councils to stay involved in politics. Its biggest splash was made on September 7 in the Saint Petersburg district of Smolninskoye, when a group of councilors asked the Duma to consider removing Putin from power because of the offensive on Ukraine. This Tuesday a trial took place against Dmitri Paligua, the first of the five councilors, who stood accused of having discredited the president. The court sentenced him to pay a fine of 47,000 rubles, around €780, a measure that is more of a warning than a punishment.
The councilors’ initiative has received support from politicians all over Russia, from the capital to the far east of the country. “We currently have 54 signatures. It is a relative success. I remember that at the beginning of the offensive, we gathered 200 signatures against it. The number has diminished, people are afraid, but it’s a good number,” said Ksenia Tsortrem, a politician from another Saint Petersburg district and a supporter of the petition, over the phone. Several hours later, the number had grown to 65.
“It is a way to show our solidarity and that we aren’t afraid,” she says. When asked about Peskov’s assertion that Russia has political pluralism, she laughs. “No, I don’t agree. It hasn’t existed for a long time. There have been new elections in Moscow and there is not a single independent councilor,” Torstrem adds, emphasizing, “doing politics today is very difficult.” “Alexei Navalny is at another level, and he’s in prison. Vladimir Kara-Murza is also in prison. Those who haven’t left are in prison. Politics aren’t possible, only a bit of activism,” she laments.
For now, the councilors are undergoing an administrative procedure that may involve more fines like the one slapped on Paligua. “I hope the court doesn’t convict us, because we didn’t do anything illegal. We called a legal session, and we addressed the representatives following the procedures set out by federal laws,” Nikita Yuferev, one of the councilors, told this newspaper. After months of unsuccessfully attempting to contact the Russian president to request the end of the offensive, Dmitri Paliuga proposed using legal means: addressing the Duma. Six days later, he was facing trial for it.
“We have not asked the federal deputies to do anything illegal. We only urged them to go to the Constitution and start a process that it allows,” Yuferev said by phone. A councilor since 2019, he said that the intention of his letter was to make Putin’s public aware that the offensive has led to more countries joining NATO and the rearmament of Ukraine.
“I don’t think that making an appeal to comply with the law means discrediting the Armed Forces, but we live in Russia, and if they want to punish us, none of our arguments will be valid for them,” adds Yuferev, who quotes a Russian saying: “No one is safe from jail or poverty.”
The letter came at the time of the clearest advance of Ukrainian forces. “It was a coincidence. We did not expect an attack,” says the politician. They had previously undertaken other initiatives to demand peace. On February 24, the day the offensive began in Ukraine, they made a request to call for a demonstration, which was denied by the Saint Petersburg City Council. Then, on March 2, the council held a public street meeting in which it approved sending a petition to Putin to end his military campaign. “We did not receive a response from the presidential administration,” said the councilman.
For now, the opposition will continue to be relegated to small gestures on the local scene. “Unfortunately, the current high-level Russian politics, the legislative power of the regions and the State Duma, is controlled by the authorities. It does not allow anyone who can cause trouble to enter, much less talk about the mistakes of the special operation. That is why it is necessary to act from municipal politics, which are less controlled,” Yuferev explains.