The underground Russian resistance to Putin’s propaganda on war in Ukraine, according to activist Alexander Cherkasov

The underground Russian resistance to Putin’s propaganda on war in Ukraine, according to activist Alexander Cherkasov
From left: Maverick Citizen Editor Mark Heywood. (Photo: Leila Dougan) | Soldiers raise the state flag of Ukraine during a ceremony near the city of Bucha, near Kyiv, Ukraine, 31 March 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sergey Dolzhenko) | Co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Alexander Cherkasov. (Photo: Facebook / nikitamur)

On day 505 of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ex-chair of Russian human rights organisation Memorial Alexander Cherkasov spoke to Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood about the war, Putin’s Russia and the power of underground resistance by ordinary people. Cherkasov left Russia a year ago. 'Outside of Russia now, I’m the person who can voice the things that my friends who stay in the country cannot voice.'

While it has been just more than 500 days since Russia invaded Ukraine, the roots of the war extend far deeper into the past. The aggression of the Russian regime is not new, with crimes of conflict and those who commit them with impunity, moving from one war to another over many years.

Alexander Cherkasov, ex-chair of the Russian human rights organisation Memorial, referenced the two wars Russia fought against Chechnya between 1994 and 2000, and the annexation of Crimea – a large peninsula that had formed part of independent Ukraine since 1991 – in 2014. Further afield, there was Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015.

“It’s not now that [the war] has started, it’s not 500 days ago that it has started. It has roots that go far deeper than that. And to fight this war, to fight the impunity, we should not forget about the past crimes,” he said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ex-chair of Russian 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner Memorial speaks out on the truths behind the war on Ukraine

Cherkasov was part of a conversation about Russian dissent with Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood last Thursday. A Russian-born engineer and physicist, Cherkasov has been an activist with Memorial since 1989, and was a founding member of the organisation’s Human Rights Centre in 1990. He describes himself as a historian and journalist, and since leaving his country a year ago, has been speaking out about what has gone on in Russia during the war in Ukraine.

In 2022, Memorial shared the Nobel Peace Prize with human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski from Belarus and the Ukrainian human rights organisation, Center for Civil Liberties. The prize winners were praised for their “outstanding effort to document war crimes, human right abuses and the abuse of power”.

“Memorial [is] a huge coalition that has been present in Russia for 35 years. It started in 1987 … when we were in the Soviet times. This was a human rights movement, and this also was the historical truth movement,” explained Cherkasov.

“Memorial was working on preserving historical memory about all of the terror during the Soviet days. Memorial tried to fight for freedom; to not allow for the totalitarian regime to come back. Looks like we have lost because now in Russia, there are many political prisoners and political repressions are becoming broader, even broader than they used to be in 1970. We lost because the war is back again. Nevertheless, we continue our efforts, together with our colleagues from Ukraine; together with our colleagues from other countries.”

In 2021, Memorial was forced to shut down in Russia, a development that Cherkasov believes was preparation for the onset of the Ukraine invasion. By the time the war started, there were “no independent mass media outlets” in Russia, he said.

“Every day, Ukrainian civilians are killed by Russian missiles and drones. With every day of war, Ukrainian servicemen are dying, and so many people who I know in Ukraine volunteered and joined the army. My compatriots are dying as well, and apparently, my state doesn’t even count them.

“[It is] Ukraine that is defending all the democratic world from barbarism. This is the thing – the Dnieper River is the frontier between the right thing and the chaos, between freedom and slavery.”

The Dnieper, also called Dnipro, is the longest river in Ukraine, and has been the site of a series of clashes between Ukrainian and Russian forces during the war.

Russia’s underground resistance

While it may seem that there is no resistance left in Russia, this is not the case, according to Cherkasov. During the early days of the Ukraine war, tens of thousands of people were arrested for participating in anti-war protests. Many became political prisoners who are still tied up in court proceedings.

“Russia is not silent … Outside of Russia now, I’m the person who can voice the things that my friends who stay in the country cannot voice. Now, in Moscow, my friend and colleague … is being tried by the court, who expressed what he thought about the war. Several times, he protested on his own, and on his posters, he was naming things the way they are, and now he might be in prison for three years. Some of my friends are already in prison, and they were sentenced to seven, some even 25, years of imprisonment,” he said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Russia-Ukraine conflict ‘far from being ripe for mediation’ as African delegation heads to Europe, say experts

While Memorial was banned in Russia, its members continued working with chapters of the organisation in Ukraine and other countries, such as Poland, Germany, Italy and France. Its guiding principle is that “nothing should be discussed about Ukraine without Ukrainians”.

More than two-million Ukrainians have have been displaced and moved to Russia, many against their will, Cherkasov said. Russian human rights defenders, including some independent municipal councillors, have organised a network to coordinate assistance for these displaced people. 

Assistance can take the form of social, humanitarian or legal aid, with some activists working to provide documents to refugees in need. Emerging organisations have allowed Russians to donate money to buy travel tickets for Ukrainians.

Cherkasov described the system as a “horizontal” one, operating underground with tens of thousands of participants.

“These people do not protest right now, why? They participated once but the law says … that [if] you participated in an anti-war protest, next time you’re not fined, you’re imprisoned … So people who openly protested now are engaged in this type of support,” he said.

Underground donations powering freezing cities 

“There was a very powerful event called ‘Light and heat for Ukraine’ last winter … At that time, Russian aviation and Russian missiles targeted power stations, heat stations and other types of civil infrastructure in Ukraine … to freeze Ukrainian population so that protests start and Ukraine is destabilised. There was this event that we found … [where] you can donate to buy some power generation for the cities that were freezing, like Kharkiv that is continuously targeted by Russian missiles. 

“My Ukrainian colleagues say that the amount of power generators that were procured in Europe and delivered to Ukrainian cities is striking. Basically, they stifled this attempt to freeze the Ukrainian population.”

Speaking on the historical relationship between Russia and South Africa – a relationship that has been connected with SA’s neutral stance on the war in Ukraine – Cherkasov emphasised that while the Soviet Union did support the struggle against the apartheid government, it did so as part of a campaign to hinder the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the US.

Africa is being used

“On the one hand, there was huge support to the African countries, but on the other hand, we should understand that it was used as a tool to fight the enemy, and Africa was used as a tool,” he said.

“The Russian empire was a colonial empire. It didn’t have colonies overseas but it had lots of them in Europe and Asia, and their colonial policy was really harsh … They also would easily deport entire peoples – for example, Chechens during the war with Hitler, in the 20th century. 

“Colonial practices of the Soviet Union and Russia are less known. The Soviet Union proclaimed itself as the one who fights colonialism, the same as modern Russia does, but this is not true.”

The current invasion of Ukraine by Russia is essentially a colonial war, continued Cherkasov. It is an attempt to bring an independent republic under the control of what was once the Soviet Union.

“The rhetoric which accompanies that is entirely colonial. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, from the very start, said that the biggest [political] disaster of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. And he tries to restore the Soviet Union as a colonial empire.”

Use your voice to make a stand

What can ordinary people do?

Cherkasov believes that every person has a powerful tool that can be used against Russia’s human rights offences – their voice, facilitated by a pencil or keyboard. Simple demands that everybody understands can shape the common agenda.

“[Democratic governments in Africa] is a huge accomplishment of the recent decades … and public opinion matters. We can shape public opinion, make sure that the governments hear it. We can pressure the governments to voice these simple statements,” he said.

“Russia might appear as a military superpower that [controls] heinous colonialists … but if you took a closer look, Russia is not a superpower like that. It’s a part of an international community, economically and technologically, and this path [of war] is trying to use the rules that were in place a hundred years ago. That’s impossible right now.”

Cherkasov referenced an argument that has cropped up repeatedly since Russia invaded Ukraine: that the war cannot be condemned as other countries, namely the US, have committed similar atrocities in the past.

“Maybe the Americans behave badly,” he said, “but [the Russian regime] just uses it as a justification to perpetuate the colonial practices of Russia in the 21st century. Many people committed crimes in the past, but some have learned the lesson. Don’t be delusional, don’t sanction the repeating of things that were condemned worldwide … Do not provide this excuse to Putin.” DM


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