Members of the Russian diaspora join global protests marking the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Ukrainian freedom march in Berlin. Photo by Global Voices

February 24, 2024, marks the 365th day of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, following the previous one in 2014. To mark the first anniversary of the invasion, several groups of Russians living abroad have gathered to publicly demonstrate their support for Ukraine and their rejection of Russian president Vladimir Putin's imperialistic and authoritarian ideology.

When Moscow annexed parts of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, there was little protest in Russia and among Russians living abroad. Following the 2022 invasion, things have changed significantly. Inside Russia, the government is keen to project a show of unity with citizens rallying behind Putin: On February 23rd, buses brought around 100,000 people to the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow to take part in a massive political meeting and concert in support of what is still officially called a “Special Military Operation” in Russia. Over the course of 2022, however, there were only 18 days when no one was arrested inside Russia for protesting the war.

But abroad, things are different. Several Russian diaspora opposition organizations, along with groups of individuals, have called for public action to unite and to join Ukrainians and their supporters to mark the February 24 anniversary.  These include the Free Russia Foundation, a US-based group advocating for democracy in Russia: 

Many others launched similar calls. The daughter of murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Zhanna Nemtsova, posted that she was going to a protest in Lisbon, and called for every Russian abroad to unite with Ukrainians.

Tomorrow and over the weekend, protests against Russia's invasion of Ukraine will take place around the world. I think we should go out. Except for mass street protest, all other forms of solidarity with Ukrainians remain invisible 1/4 pic.twitter.com/23MzgCcV4Z

— Zhanna Nemtsova (@ZhannaNemtsova) February 23, 2023

The Anti-Corruption Foundation, also based in the US and associated with Alexey Navalny, a key political opponent to Putin leader currently imprisoned in Russia, launched a similar call:

These appeals were heard and resulted in public events of various sizes in over 100 locations around the world, including Berlin and Prague, where Global Voices went to observe the events.

Berlin: United from the start

Screen shot from the Facebook page of the event

In Berlin, the Ukrainian freedom march gathered over ten thousand people and ended at the iconic Brandenburg Tor. The procession passed in front of the Russian Embassy located on the Unter den Linden avenue.

Ukrainians, Germans, as well as Russians and people of other nationalities joined and marched together.

This billboard in Russian from the Berlin demonstration reads: “Russian Mothers: Overthrow Putin!” Photo by Daria Dergacheva, used with permission.

Prague: One degree of separation 

Prague is an important center for three communities affected in different ways by the war: Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians.

Ukrainians have lived in former Czechoslovakia as a recognized minority since the establishment of the country in 1918 and in eastern Czechoslovakia accounted for nearly 5 percent of the population. After the Czech Republic was established in 1993, Ukrainians moved there mostly for economic reasons, and in 2021, the Ukrainian community, which includes service and construction industry workers, but also students, medical staff, and wealthy investors, was estimated to be nearly 200,000. After the start of the war on February 24, 2022, many Ukrainians were given shelter in the Czech Republic; an estimated half-million live now in the country.

The Russian migration dates from 1917, when subjects of the Russian Empire who opposed the Bolshevik Revolution sought refuge across Europe. In then Czechoslovakia, the government launched a special program called Ruská pomocná akce (Russian Help Program) that provided refugee status and support for schools and universities in Russian, but also in Ukrainian and Belarusian. After World War II and particularly after the 1968 invasion by Warsaw Pact armies, the number of Soviet soldiers and their families—who were of many ethnicities, including Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian—stationed in Czechoslovakia was estimated at over 110,000.

A new cohort of Russians started arriving in the mid 1990s, including businesspeople, students, and, over the years, opponents of Putin's government. Today there are an estimated 100,000 Russians—some with Czech or other citizenships—living in the Czech Republic.

Belarusians, present from 1917, also started arriving in the mid-1990s, and today represent a mixed community of IT specialists, students, opponents to President Lukashenka, and wealthy investors. Belarusians are now estimated to number at least 4,000, but the community is probably much larger in reality.

The sometimes overlapping, but mostly divergent, history of these three groups in the Czech Republic is likely one of the reasons that, on February 24, 2023, Ukrainians and Russians started their demonstrations separately.

On the Russian side, the Prague-based Russian Anti-War Committee organized an exhibition in Republic Square, in the center of the city, to showcase the work of Russian volunteers supporting Ukraine and Ukrainians. The initiatives highlighted include the collection of funds, humanitarian aid, free Czech language classes for Ukrainian refugees, support in finding jobs in the Czech Republic, and programs for children.

Outdoor exhibition on Republic Square in Prague showcasing independent Russian support to Ukraine. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Anton Litvin, a key figure in the Prague-based Russian diaspora anti-Putin movement, gave an opening speech under the white-blue-and-white flag that has come to symbolize opposition to Putin before a crowd of around 100 people, and invited leaders from the community to speak about their work and motivations.

Some of the recurrent themes of the speeches given on February 24 revealed the anxieties of many Russians who live abroad, oppose Putin and support Ukraine, including a deep sense of guilt and shame at being Russian or speaking Russian, the moral obligation to not remain silent, gratitude towards Czech society and authorities, the therapeutic impact of providing help, and most importantly, the need to self-decolonize and be respectful of Ukrainians’ feelings. Many also acknowledged their position of privilege in comparison to those opposing their government inside Russia, where any public demonstration opposing Putin or expression of anti-war sentiment is immediately and severely punished.

After the meeting, Litvin encouraged people to join the Ukrainian-led demonstration in nearby Wenceslas Square on an individual basis. He also requested that they not display any protest signs in Russian, including the white-blue-white flag, to respect Ukrainian feelings. Many Ukrainians accuse Russians, including today's opponents of Putin, of having remained largely silent after the 2014 invasion, and thus decry the presence of Russians at meetings in support of Ukraine.

The white-blue-and-white flag is the only flag displayed by anti-Putin Russians on Republic Square in Prague. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

At the main demonstration organized by Ukrainians on Wenceslas Square, other flags were on display, such as the Belarusian opposition's anti-Lukashenka white-red-and-white flag, as well as Ukrainian and Czech flags.

The Belarusian white-red-and-white flag is the symbol of anti-Lukashenka opposition and was widely present at the pro-Ukraine demonstration on Wenceslas Square in Prague. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

The banner displayed below summarizes the attitude of many Czechs supporting Ukraine: “When the last Ukrainian soldier falls, Putin will come to get you.”

This banner displayed at a demonstration in Prague reads: “When the last Ukrainian soldier falls, Putin will come to get you.” Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

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