The Australian Russians protesting the Ukraine war

It’s 10:30am on one of many worst days of one of many worst weeks of climate in Sydney’s recorded historical past, and a small group of Russians is gathered on the pavement reverse their nation’s consulate, within the metropolis’s leafy, well-to-do suburb of Woollahra. It’s gloomy and chilly and raining Biblically, with a sideways wind that snatches spitefully at their raincoats and umbrellas. However the Russians stay dauntless, chanting “Stop the war!” and “Putin is a criminal!” and “Shame on you.”

On the opposite facet of the road are about 40 Federal Police in yellow vests, guarding the consulate’s perimeter. Enhancing issues under no circumstances is the consulate itself, which, by design or likelihood, has an unlucky Soviet-era aesthetic, its grim, red-brick bulk squatting amongst Woollahra’s majestic oak timber like a toad in a flower mattress. “To me it looks oppressive, like a military barracks or something,” says protester Ivan Pavlenko, glancing up on the constructing. “Not like the consulate of a friendly country.”

Pavlenko has been right here since 9am. He has pale, short-cut hair and a halting, deferential method, and is holding a cardboard signal that reads, “I am Russian and against war in Ukraine.” “I am ashamed of what is happening,” he tells me. “I feel like I have blood on my hands because of what Putin is doing.”

A few of the individuals listed below are wrapped within the Russian flag, together with the protest’s chief, a skinny, hyperkinetic character known as Ilya Fomin, who marches up and down the pavement, holding a loudhailer, his lengthy moist hair mendacity lank on his shoulders like seaweed. What surprises me is simply how civilised it’s. At one level, a girl in a denim jacket and aviator glasses grabs the loudhailer and begins hollering on the constructing and shaking her fist, however on the entire, the protesters are well mannered and composed, with a resolve that appears to me to be the very essence of Russian stoicism.

Such protests are more and more frequent, each right here and abroad, because the world recoils in horror on the actions of the Russian authorities. The warfare, which started when President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine on February 24, has to date price hundreds of lives and brought about Europe’s largest refugee disaster since World Struggle II.

Ukrainians are bearing the majority of the struggling, with their sovereignty imperilled and their lives on the road. However the present second additionally brings its justifiable share of grief for Russians, who within the grisly theatre of world affairs, have understandably been forged as villains. For these, like Pavlenko, who oppose the warfare, a painful reckoning is happening, equal components anguish and fury, as Russians in Australia and all over the world have a look at themselves and one another anew.

“I have family in Russia who truly believe that Putin is liberating Ukraine,” Pavlenko tells me, shrugging. “They say I’m not Russian any more because I am against the country and support enemies of the state.”

Pavlenko, nevertheless, is undeterred. “I am a ‘state betrayer’,” he tells me. “Okay! But I just want to show that not all Russians are the same. And we also want to push our Australian government to help Ukrainians more, to have more sanctions, and to have closed skies above Ukraine [a no-fly zone].” However largely, he says, “I want to get Russians to wake up to what’s being done in their name.”

Ivan Pavlenko (with hat) joins other Russians and Ukrainians in Sydney to protest the invasion: “I want Russians to wake up to what’s being done in their name.”

Ivan Pavlenko (with hat) joins different Russians and Ukrainians in Sydney to protest the invasion: “I want Russians to wake up to what’s being done in their name.” Credit score:Wolter Peeters

There are about 20,000 individuals in Australia who had been born in Russia, and an additional 85,000 who declare some sort of Russian ancestry. Russians have tended to reach in Australia in waves over the previous 140 years, relying on the sociopolitical local weather of their nation on the time. There have been Russian Jews fleeing pogroms, leftists fleeing the Tsar, tsarists fleeing the Bolsheviks, and everybody fleeing Stalin. There had been even some unfortunate Russians who, having fled the Russian Revolution within the Nineteen Twenties and settled in China, then needed to flee the Chinese language Revolution within the Nineteen Fifties. An extra group got here to Australia after 1990, fleeing the collapse of the Soviet Union and the nation’s descent into banditry and corruption. “This is why there is no such thing in Australia as a single ‘Russian community’,” says Sima Tsyskin, a former SBS journalist, who got here to Australia in 1979. “It’s a complicated picture.”

Every group got here with baggage, literal and metaphorical. Some émigrés, such because the post-World Struggle II technology, had been extra conservative, and remained intently affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church. They, and to some extent their kids and grandchildren, are extra inclined to look favourably upon Putin, whose mission, as they see it, is to revive to Russia its grand, pre-Soviet empire, with the church and conventional values at its coronary heart. Their politics is knowledgeable by nostalgia and fed by Russian media, which paints Putin as Ukraine’s saviour.

On the different finish of the spectrum are the newer arrivals, like Pavlenko, who arrived right here in 2008. Extremely educated and detached to faith, they’ve skilled the actuality of Putin’s Russia up shut, and vehemently oppose it. About the one factor all these individuals have in frequent is an affinity with hardship, whether or not or not it’s bodily, political or financial, and a sure woundedness that they put on, like an undershirt, wherever they go. On this sense at the least, they don’t seem to be “Russian-Australians”, as Tsyskin places it, “just ‘Russians’.”

Struggle-time leaders normally get pleasure from an increase in recognition, at the least at first, because of the so-called “rally around the flag” impact. Polling by Russia’s Levada-Centre, a revered non-government analysis organisation, means that Putin’s recognition inside Russia elevated within the weeks main as much as the invasion of Ukraine, from 69 per cent in January 2022 to 71 per cent in February, 2022. (Such polling needs to be considered with warning, nevertheless, since even when pollsters are unbiased, many Russians imagine they’re government-run and tailor their responses accordingly.) Nonetheless, Putin’s obvious recognition is testomony to the Russian authorities’s blanket marketing campaign of misinformation, which has largely satisfied the general public that the Kremlin is defending Russia by standing as much as the West.

Exterior Russia, nevertheless, the image is extra opaque. Many Russians appear unwilling to defend Putin’s warfare. Definitely, among the many newer arrivals to Australia, it’s thought that opposition is widespread. “Most of us are against it,” says Petr Kuzmin, who has relations in Russia and Ukraine. “To us, it’s total anathema.”

Kuzmin, who’s 44, is president of Svoboda Alliance VIC, a pro-democracy organisation selling human rights and political freedoms in Russia. A tech start-up founder, Kuzmin has for the previous month been organising anti-Putin protests in assist of Ukraine, together with a day by day vigil on Princes Bridge, in Melbourne, the place individuals collect of a night from 6pm to 8pm. The vigil will proceed, he says, till warfare in Ukraine is stopped. Turnouts vary from a dozen individuals to possibly 30 or 40, relying on the climate.

“We need to make a stand. Russians have been on the fence too long. They pretend they can be neutral, but that’s not possible any more.”

“I’m determined to make Russians take a position,” he tells me. One Sunday lately, he dropped his kids off at Russian college carrying a T-shirt that learn: “I am Russian and for Ukraine”. Some mother and father approached him and informed him that he shouldn’t put on the T-shirt round youngsters. “But I was like, ‘Why?’ ” Kuzmin says. “We need to make a stand. Russians have been on the fence too long. They pretend they can be neutral, but that’s not possible any more.”

Kuzmin was born in Samara, a metropolis in south-west Russia. He studied English at Samara State College after which within the US, the place he met his future spouse Judith Bishop, an Australian author from Melbourne. In 2006, he and Bishop moved to Australia. He stored up with occasions in Russia, and in 2010 got here throughout a weblog by the Russian democracy activist Alexei Navalny.

“Navalny focused on corruption and how much it was hurting Russia,” Kuzmin says. “It was very clear, with no rhetoric, just the facts.” He turned a Navalny supporter; on journeys again to Russia he would go to his workplace. When Navalny was poisoned in 2020, allegedly on Putin’s orders, Kuzmin donated $2000 to his medical bills. After being handled in Germany, Navalny flew again to Russia, in January 2021, and was arrested on arrival.

Information of his detention sparked outrage worldwide, together with in Australia. Kuzmin attended a rally in assist of Navalny in Melbourne. “I thought I’d be one of the only ones there but about 20 people showed up.” (Final week, Navalny was sentenced to 9 years in a “strict regime penal colony” for what his supporters declare are fabricated fees of fraud.)

Quickly after, Kuzmin and his fellow protesters launched a Fb group whose Russian identify interprets, quite tepidly, as Cheap Russians in Australia and New Zealand. On the identical time, one other group of Russians in Adelaide was organising the Svoboda Alliance (Svoboda is Russian for “freedom”). Kuzmin headed up Svoboda’s Victorian arm, whereas additionally serving to handle the Cheap Russians Fb web page. Inevitably, the 2 teams turned a counterpoint to an older, bigger, and largely pro-Kremlin Fb group, known as Russians in Australia. (The Svoboda web page has 72 followers, and Cheap Russians, 1064. Russians in Australia, in the meantime, has 4700.)

Petr Kuzmin says he will continue to organise anti-Putin protests in Melbourne until the war ends.

Petr Kuzmin says he’ll proceed to organise anti-Putin protests in Melbourne till the warfare ends.Credit score:Peter Tarasiuk

Kuzmin quickly turned a goal. “Whenever I comment on the Russians in Australia page, people say stuff like, ‘Just see what happens when you go back to Russia’ or ‘I’d put a bullet through your head myself.’ ” To supply a sanctuary, Kuzmin and his colleagues made Cheap Russians a closed Fb group, giving them the power to vet newcomers. “But recently a guy has been publishing stuff on the Russians in Australia page that we have been discussing in our closed group, which means we have a mole.”

Understandably, some individuals are actually afraid to talk freely. “They say to me, ‘What’s to say the FSB [the Russian security agency] isn’t in Australia?’ ” Kuzmin says. “We can’t guarantee that the FSB isn’t here, so we tell people only to say what they feel comfortable with.”


The native Putinistas is probably not FSB, however they’ll definitely be intimidating, notably their bovverish chief, a 32-year-old Sydney man named Simeon Boikov. Boikov, whose spouse lately had a restraining order taken out on him, is a descendant of White Russians who fled to Manchuria within the Nineteen Twenties, after the Russian Revolution, and thence to Australia within the Nineteen Fifties. He grew up in Croydon, in Sydney, and attended the elite boys’ personal college, Trinity Grammar, the place he was a choirboy and performed rugby for the First XV. Regardless of this, Boikov calls himself “the Aussie Cossack”, and results a pre-1917 Tsarist militarism; he’ll typically gatecrash anti-Putin rallies, shaven-headed, his ample body stuffed like bratwurst right into a pair of navy fatigues, with Cossack insignia pinned to his chest.

Most individuals I converse to treat Boikov as a right-wing cosplaying buffoon, however he’s additionally extremely divisive, typically haranguing anti-Putin Russians at demonstrations, calling them “traitors” and “scum”, and accusing them of being paid American brokers. In a video he took in January 2021, he and a buddy will be seen yelling at supporters of Alexei Navalny, saying they need to be “sent to a firing squad” and “a Russian gulag”, and that it could be simpler to take care of them in Russia, the place they might be “bashed with batons and tactical boots”. At one level he says that Navalny needs to be “liquidated” like “Stalin dealt with Trotsky”. (Leon Trotsky was assassinated, on Stalin’s orders, in 1939, with an ice-pick to the again of the top.)

Boikov runs a labour rent firm in Sydney, and has an Instagram web page with 12,000 followers, on which he refers to himself as a “freedom fighter”. Interviewing him is like mainlining the Kremlin. He describes Russian forces in Ukraine as “peacekeepers who have liberated cities” and repeatedly makes use of the first-person plural when speaking about Russia, earlier than ostentatiously backtracking, as in: “We – sorry, I mean Russia – will restore peace and stability to Ukraine” or “We – I retract that, I mean Russia – have been extremely patient in Ukraine.”

The son of a Russian Orthodox priest, Boikov embodies the three pillars of Russian revanchism: the Religion, the Tsar and the Fatherland. To which you can add the author Fyodor Dostoevsky. “You know what Dostoevsky said?” Boikov tells me. “He said, ‘If a Russian tells you he doesn’t love the motherland, don’t believe him: he’s not a Russian.’ ”

In a single sense, the warfare in Ukraine is a spiritual one. In early March, the top of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who is claimed to be near Vladimir Putin, claimed, bizarrely, that the invasion was about stopping the tide of “gay parades” from the West, and that Russian troops had been preventing a “metaphysical” battle for “human salvation”.

Exterior Russia, Kirill’s claims brought about shock and bewilderment. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church buildings in Western Europe, Metropolitan John of Dubna, wrote an open letter to Kirill, describing the warfare as “cruel and murderous” and asking that he intervene to have it stopped. Kirill was unmoved.

Putin in 2015 with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill claimed, bizarrely, that the invasion was about stopping the tide of “gay parades” from the West.

Putin in 2015 with Patriarch Kirill, the top of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill claimed, bizarrely, that the invasion was about stopping the tide of “gay parades” from the West.Credit score:Getty Pictures

“The church in Russia couldn’t care less what the West thinks right now,” says Sima Tsyskin, the previous journalist. “The gay parade comment wasn’t aimed at the West, it was purely for domestic consumption. It was aimed at the average Russian who is extremely homophobic, because they have been told forever that gays are evil. So gays are another thing that shows the horrible peril of the Ukrainian threat, along with NATO, Nazis and fascism.” She provides: “It’s just more brainwashing.”

That the church is getting used for propaganda shouldn’t be shocking. “Putin has turned the Russian Orthodox church into an arm of the state,” Tsyskin explains. “It is a wide network in Russia and has influence with a lot of people.”

In Australia, the church is essentially silent on Moscow. Parishioners have been requested to wish for peace however keep away from the politics. Since 2015, the Russian Orthodox Church in Australia has been led by a Sydney-based cleric, Bishop George Schaefer, a conservative American-born clergyman, well-known within the Russian group for his opposition to COVID-19 vaccines, masks mandates and lockdowns, and for his assist of conspiracy theories, typically promulgated by Russian state media, together with that authorities are protecting up knowledge on the true variety of vaccine-related deaths. (Fb has repeatedly posted warnings on Bishop George’s web page for publishing false claims.)

In a extremely uncommon transfer, a distinguished Russian Orthodox priest emailed Bishop George in September, 2021, CCing 65 different church leaders, to respectfully ask that he cease spreading misinformation. (Bishop George didn’t reply to Good Weekend’s requests for remark.)

To many Russians, the church’s fence-sitting is unacceptable. “The majority of my parishioners are against the war,” says one Russian Orthodox priest. “Many of them are protesting against it. So they are frustrated by the church’s position, and they are disillusioned.” In the course of the Chilly Struggle, the priest tells me, the church took a principled stand towards the Soviet Union. “The church was seen as a voice of freedom, and it attracted a lot of people because of that. So people are asking, ‘Why doesn’t the church take the same stance now?’ ”

Ivan Pavlenko says his Russia-based parents didn’t believe what he told them about the war.

Ivan Pavlenko says his Russia-based mother and father didn’t imagine what he informed them in regards to the warfare.Credit score:Wolter Peeters

Ivan Pavlenko isn’t notably spiritual. Like many Russians in Australia, attending church is much less a non secular expertise than a approach of staying in contact with Russian tradition. “I feel that I am Australian but Russian too,” he tells me. “I still like my Russian books and movies, and I still think in Russian.“

Pavlenko lives with his wife Elise, a project manager at Macquarie Bank, in a quiet cul-de-sac in Sydney’s southern suburbs, in a three-bedroom brick and timber home. The day I visit, the torrential rain has caused a leak in the ceiling, and water is pooling on the kitchen counter. “We’re renting here, so I can’t just go and fix it myself,” he says apologetically.

The older of two brothers, Pavlenko grew up in St Petersburg. His dad was a fighter pilot within the navy; his mum taught Russian language and literature. After learning techniques evaluation at St Petersburg Polytechnic College, he started working in IT for a telecoms firm. However by 2005, the labour market had collapsed. “We had a shortage of money, so I began planning to migrate.”

In 2008, he and his spouse and two younger daughters, aged six and two, landed in Sydney, with $US45,000 in financial savings. They knew nobody apart from a Russian acquaintance who let Pavlenko and his household sleep in a spare room for 2 weeks. Every part was a wrestle. Pavlenko had canvassed Australian employers earlier than he left, however none would give him a job with out a face-to-face interview. With out a job it was laborious to lease a house; with out a residence handle, he couldn’t get a SIM card. After per week, his six-year-old broke down in tears. “She didn’t speak English, she had no friends, and Mum and Dad didn’t have enough time to devote to her,” says Pavlenko. “I felt so ashamed. After that, we bought a bicycle, and she would ride it up and down the street every day, no matter what.”

“In Russia, people don’t smile. And if they come up to you on the street, 90 per cent of the time they want your money.”

Inside a month, Pavlenko had a job and a spot to remain, a rundown duplex in one other southern Sydney suburb. However a lot about Australia remained a thriller. “I’d spent three-and-a-half years preparing to immigrate, learning English and reading about Australia,” he tells me. “But when you move to a country, it’s the small stuff that gets you.” The grass was excessive within the entrance yard, so Pavlenko known as the landlady. “All she said was: ‘You need Bunnings.’ I thought, ‘Who is Bunnings? Is he a well-known guy who helps you with this stuff? Is it a website where I leave a request?’ ”

Australians had been open and pleasant. They smiled at him on the road, and stated howdy. “In Russia, people don’t smile. And if they come up to you on the street, 90 per cent of the time they want your money.”

One other factor that struck him was how a lot consideration Australians paid to meals. “They were always talking about what they were eating, and how to cook this or that dish.” At first, it struck him as frivolous. “In Russia, we had more important things to talk about than food, like politics and war and financial difficulties. But after two years I realised that good food makes you enjoy your life, and that life is not about suffering, it’s about joy, and that we have to be happy, because we only have one life.” Now, Putin’s warfare has erased that pleasure. “Now I feel like I’m back in Russia, when everything was grim.”

Protesting towards their delivery nation is not any small factor for Pavlenko and his countrymen. As a boy, his grandparents informed him to maintain a low profile, and that talking out was harmful. “That caution is in every Russian’s DNA,” he explains. “It sits inside, an unconscious terror, even in a free country.” He nonetheless talks recurrently to his mother and father in Russia. At first, they didn’t imagine what he informed them in regards to the warfare: “They couldn’t believe there were mass bombings or that Ukrainians weren’t welcoming the Russian soldiers. Now three weeks after the invasion, the truth is slowly coming to their minds.”

(Konstantin Sonin, a political economist on the College of Chicago,
estimates that 200,000 Russians have left the nation because the warfare started, fearing the financial penalties of Western sanctions and additional authorities crackdowns on dissent. Most of these leaving are regarded as younger professionals, resulting in issues a few Russian “brain drain”.)

“Supporting Putin is like supporting Trump, or being an anti-vaxxer or a flat-earther. I simply don’t understand this bullshit.”

Pavlenko believes that change is afoot in Russia. “It’s hard to say, but I don’t think Putin has more time than two years. He will be murdered by one of his ‘friends’, or we will see another Russian Revolution. I have heard that by April 10, Russians will start seeing empty shelves. At that point, hunger will beat propaganda. The refrigerator will win the battle against the TV.”

Within the meantime, he’ll proceed to protest. “We want Russians to do mass protests and strikes. We want them to wake up! At the moment they are sleeping, and don’t see and understand what they are doing.” He provides: “Supporting Putin is like supporting Trump, or being an anti-vaxxer or a flat-earther. I simply don’t understand this bullshit.”

Pavlenko and his mother and father now attempt to keep away from dialogue in regards to the warfare. As an alternative, his dad sends him bottles of home-brewed moonshine, a spicy kind of vodka made out of apples. Pavlenko, for his half, brews whisky in a store-bought nonetheless. He additionally enjoys astronomy and has his personal telescope. “But the weather at the moment makes it hard to see,” he says, and so he’s been watching films. One in all his favourites is Inception, the 2010 science-fiction motion movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, knowledgeable thief who cons secrets and techniques from his victims by infiltrating their goals.

“There’s a phrase in that movie that I love,” Pavlenko tells me. “It’s when DiCaprio says, ‘What’s the deadliest parasite in the world? An idea.’ And it’s so true! One bad idea can ruin your life.” He shakes his head gravely. “We are living in a time when it is so important to use your brain, and your common sense. There is just too much at stake right now.”

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