As It Happens·Q&A

This Russian professor says he will keep speaking out against the war in Ukraine

Grigory Yudin says it’s “devastating” — but also understandable — that more Russians aren’t speaking out against the war in Ukraine.

Grigory Yudin says he understands by many Russians remain silent, but he will do what he can

A man with curly hair and a reddish beard holds his hand to his chin.
Grigory Yudin is a sociologist and political scientist at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. (Yuri Terik)

Warning: The photo gallery in this story contains graphic images.

Story Transcript

Grigory Yudin says it's "devastating" — but also understandable — that more Russians aren't speaking out against the war in Ukraine.

While Ukraine and its allies have denounced Russia's invasion, the Kremlin calls it a "special military operation" to disarm its neighbour and dislodge leaders it calls neo-Nazis. 

Russians who speak out do so at great personal risk. In the first few weeks after the initial invasion, thousands of Russians were arrested at anti-war demonstrations. Since then, many other dissenters have lost their jobs or been forced to flee

Yudin, a sociologist and political scientist at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, was among those arrested for protesting the invasion of Ukraine. 

He's still in Russia, and still speaking out. Here's part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Dave Seglin. 

How hard is it to be in Moscow right now and speak out against this war?

The main thing, I guess, is that it is incredibly difficult to experience the fact that my country, that Russia, is involved in this terrible war of aggression. That's the main challenge, actually. The rest, I think, matters less.

But the reason why I think it still makes sense to speak up from Moscow is just to give the understanding of what kind of threat the whole planet is facing right now. And this is something that can probably be best seen from Moscow and by Russians.

You've described this as "the most senseless" war in [Russian] history. Now, how many Russians agree with you?

The key thing that one has to understand about Russians is that Russians are generally depoliticized, which means that they are not interested in politics. They despised politics and they were taught to stay away from politics. 

What is the narrative, given what we're seeing in these images, especially this evidence of civilian atrocities, out of places like Bucha?

You have to understand that Russian media creates a completely different picture. People in Russia, they live in a completely different universe if, of course, they are not willing to find an alternative picture. And this is not something you would be tempted to do.

Just imagine you start believing in those atrocities, that your army has committed those atrocities, like what we've seen in Bucha. What would be your reaction? How can you live with that? What can be done to alleviate this? 

Russians are completely certain that there's nothing they can do to change the course of events. They were taught that protesting against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is as senseless as protesting against the rain.

How are Russians making sense of what's happening in Bucha [and] in Mariupol, where there was the bombing of the theatre [and] the maternity hospital

The official narrative does the job of reconciliation. It keeps explaining why what is going on now is just sort of normal; why this is just a special military operation, not a war; why it was justified; why it is going to end really quickly and successfully. It will secure and protect both Russians and Ukrainians. And all the victims, all the casualties are, of course, inflicted by Ukrainians themselves.

So this is a narrative that actually helps you to cope with this situation, helps you to continue with your everyday life.

Serhii Lahovskyi, 26, hugs Ludmyla Verginska, 51, as they mourn their common friend Ihor Lytvynenko, who, according to residents, was killed by Russian soldiers. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

You clearly may not share that view. And so I wonder where the dissenters are in Russia?

The dissenters are actually not so few. There are many.

At the point when the opinion polls were still making some sense — they no longer do, of course, because in this situation, it is completely unrealistic to expect from the people to express their dissent; it is formally criminalized; it is illegal — but at the initial stages of this war, we had as many as 20 to 25 per cent of those who were strongly opposed to this war. And I don't think the number got any lower. 

What [can these] people do? I mean, we've seen them out on the streets in the first days of war, and that actually helped to make the world understand that there are many, many dissenters inside the country.

[At this point], doing this probably doesn't make much sense. So there's a lot of discussion of what can be done in the current situation. And that's a difficult question. 

Just to make you understand how difficult it is, imagine how many Germans, and what would be the way for Germans to protest against the special military operation in Poland in 1939? And that will give you the sense of how things stand here in Russia right now.

Help us understand how Russians view economic sanctions. I mean, here in Canada, at least, we've heard that the world's economic sanctions against Russia would be devastating.

At this point, they're definitely not.

There are various sorts of sanctions. Some of them are targeting the Russian economy in general, but some of them come [for] transnational corporations. And perhaps the sanctions of the first kind are more likely to be felt with a delay, while the sanctions of the second kind might have been felt immediately. 

Those transnational corporations are actually ... announcing that they're quitting Russia. But this is actually not the case. They're not leaving. If you go to a random shopping centre in Russia, you will find like 30 per cent of the stores closed, and you will find the announcement that "We will reopen very soon," which contributes to the shared understanding that this is going to end very soon, probably in a few months. 

Critics of this war have been leaving Russia. Media outlets shutting down. How dangerous is it for you to keep speaking out?

A significant part of my people stay silent about it. Well, probably they have reasons to do so. Probably they were taught to do so. There is probably an explanation for that.

But, still, the fact that the government of my country is doing that, and a significant part of the people are silently supporting that, it's actually devastating for me. 

So as long as I can do anything to stop it, as long as I can tell to the audience outside Russia how dangerous it is, I think it deserves to be continued. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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