An Exile from Donbas and a Protester in Russia Tell Their Stories
To help people understand what is taking place in Ukraine and Russia, we present accounts from anarchists in both countries. In the first, a displaced person from the capitol city of the “Luhansk People’s Republic,” one of the two areas of eastern Ukraine that was ruled by Russian-funded separatists until the invasion, describes his experience attempting to escape from the war zone and the conditions that prevail in Ukraine right now. In the second, a Russian protester describes the challenges that Russians are facing as they attempt to mobilize against the war under extremely repressive conditions.
While some supposed “leftists” in the English-speaking world have parroted Vladimir Putin’s talking points, excusing the Russian invasion by blaming NATO or speculating that the thousands of Ukrainians who have already been killed must be fascists, we believe that any responsible engagement with these events must center the voices of ordinary Ukrainians and Russians who oppose military aggression. Rather than being mere information consumers, rather than abetting the imperial ambitions of dictators or looking to other self-interested governments to contain those ambitions, we have to build relations of real solidarity with the people who are immediately affected by this invasion—in Ukraine, in Russia, in Belarus, and elsewhere.
Interview with an Exile from Donbas in Ukraine
This week, our Ex-Worker Podcast conducted an audio interview with an anarchist from Luhansk who is currently fleeing through Ukraine. The conversation touches on daily life in the midst of war, martial law, the political composition of the armed forces, the grassroots mobilization of society for defense and mutual aid, the situation at the border, and ways that people outside Ukraine can offer support. You can listen to the audio version or read this rendering of the transcript.
Thanks for speaking with us! Can you introduce yourself?
Yes, my name is D—. I’m a 30-year-old English teacher from Lugansk [this is the Russian spelling of Luhansk], a freelancer, currently in Khmelnytskyi.
Can you tell us a bit about the situation where you are right now?
For the last five years, I’ve been living in Kyiv, and about five days ago, I and a few other people and a couple of animals decided to evacuate Kyiv. So we got into a car of our friends who traveled with us and made it to Khmelnytskyi. Right now, we are stuck here, due to the fact that our vehicle won’t start. So we are in the middle of trying to fix it.
Khmelnytskyi in general is very calm, compared to places like Kyiv or Kharkiv. But it’s only calm in terms of warfare, so to speak—in terms of Russian tanks and shelling and all that stuff. It’s super chill in that regard. But it’s far from chill in terms of how people feel here and the general mood of the local population. There’s a lot of suspicion and tension and nervousness. Every day, local folks predict it will be the last day before all hell breaks loose here as well. In this kind of situation, it’s really hard to enjoy even the actual relative peace that I observe here, in comparison to the place we left.
So that’s the current situation.
We know martial law has been declared across the country. What does that look like in terms of daily life?
Like with any martial law, there are a lot of commonalities. One of those is there are curfews that have been instated all over the country. You’re not supposed to go out after a certain hour. There is also mobilization [i.e., conscription], which prevents all males ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country, and I think today the Parliament has approved President Zelensky’s plans to mobilize everyone. So it seems as if within the next day or so, we will find out how it will develop. Also, there are a lot of militias—we call them Territorial Defense—made up of all the volunteers who decided to take up arms or assist in other ways. They are patrolling the streets now. Whoever looks unfamiliar or sketchy gets questioned, and they try to identify everyone and figure out whether they are a threat to Ukraine, so to speak.
During all the wars I’ve seen so far, there are way less human rights that you can count on. But I guess it does make sense to most people in Ukraine, all this “drastic times, drastic measures” stuff. What I am somewhat worried about personally, since I’m someone who has experienced this before (having my hometown Lugansk invaded in 2014), I know that unfortunately, very often, these drastic times pass, but the drastic measures remain in place for years to come. For example, the curfew that was announced in Lugansk in 2014 was never lifted; it’s been eight years of basically not going out at night, eight years of the military patrolling the streets, eight years of all these austerity measures that were put in place. I’m somewhat worried that Ukraine may lose a lot over the course of this, and I’m even more worried that these things will remain lost once we’re done with this war.
I didn’t actually realize you were also there during the 2014 war in the east. Is there anything you’d like to share about that experience, or how it shaped what you’re experiencing now?
Sure. Well, I have to admit that I didn’t actually see the warfare back in 2014. I left in April of that year without really believing that the war would ever start. I decided to do a bicycle trip to Georgia, so I cycled through southern Russia and ended up in Tbilisi, and by the time I arrived there it was already May 2014, and that was when the war started. So I actually planned to travel for a few weeks, and I ended up traveling for three years instead, because I had nowhere to come back to. So I missed the warring part of the whole thing; I saw it as it was all building up, I saw the events leading up to it, but I have not been shelled before—this is my first time, actually. So I cannot claim to have seen war twice; I have only experienced it in a certain way, in a certain dimension, twice, but I hadn’t previously seen active battlefields like I have over the course of this year.
Have you had interactions with the Ukrainian military forces? What do you know about the composition of the armed forces at this point or the political dynamics between the people who are fighting?
I personally know people who have volunteered for the Territorial Defense from all sorts of backgrounds. There are people who identify as anti-fascists and anti-authoritarians who are doing this, and naturally there are tons of patriots and nationalists who are doing this as well—and there are just common folks who don’t care about politics whatsoever, who just under this pressure and desire to do something to speed up the end of the war, who volunteer as well. But considering the demographics of Ukraine in general, its [lack of] political diversity, it’s very homogeneous to begin with—so naturally, there would be far more right-wing folks in their ranks than otherwise. But in my opinion, this only reflects the actual composition of Ukrainian society on a wider scale, not that this particular occupation is somehow more attractive to the right-wing than to anti-authoritarians.
But this is just my impression; I don’t have the numbers, really.
Looking back over the discussions anarchists were having in the weeks before the invasion, what do you think you understood or predicted accurately? What has surprised you?
I wasn’t really prepared for the invasion, despite the fact that it had been looming over us for at least a year. There had been a rise in attention to this whole thing all over the Western media for about three or four months before it began. I think that until the very last moment, most of the civilians just hoped that it wouldn’t take place, because it’s very hard to spend a full year in constant terror and preparing for your last days. I think that people here developed a habit of reacting to events as they unfold, crossing bridges when they come to them, rather than doing any actual doomsday preparations in advance. So in that regard, it feels like I’ve barely done enough, just like most of the people I m acquainted with.
The way the war has unfolded is also somewhat surprising. I did hope that Russia’s plans would be somewhat less massive in terms of scale, let’s say more humble—I thought it would be something like we had back in 2014 in my hometown, where all the advances were what I would describe as it as two steps forward, one steps back: we would take some territory back, but not everything that we lost, so that everyone can feel somewhat victorious, and then it stops, at least the crazy part, for years. But unfortunately, it seems like my naïve hopes are proving to be wrong at this point. It’s not entirely clear what the goal of the attacking side is, what their endgame is and what it is that they’re trying to achieve. Because the scale of the invasion is massive, and the devastation is pretty much incomparable to what we’ve seen so far anywhere here in Ukraine this century.
How is the experience of war shaping how you think about anarchism and social change, and what we should be doing?
I’m pleasantly surprised by the reaction of many anarchists. They very quickly and effectively found their places in this war; they’re doing stuff, cooperating and organizing and resisting the imperial invasion. There were nowhere near that many people from the left wing fighting the wars that started in 2014. It seemed then as if many people felt that that was a sacrifice we needed to make for peace—I’m referring here to the territories Ukraine lost—that it wasn’t worth shedding anyone’s blood for those. There was this wide-scale acceptance (unsatisfied of course) of those losses. But with this new development, I mean the war that is eight days old right now, many people have realized it was naïve to think that you can satiate this dragon. It’s always going to get hungry again as long as it’s alive, so it’s about time to show some resistance.
As for my thoughts on anarchism… the way that the Ukrainian government has acted during this, it has called pretty much everyone to arms. At the same time, I’ve never in my entire life seen such massive levels of grassroots organizing and people doing stuff for each other, cooperating in numerous ways for free. It’s pretty impressive, and it actually shows that anarchism indeed has a tremendous potential, because we’ve seen how things go without anarchism and without people’s commitment to the cause and people’s interest in doing everything they could to win a war, we saw that back in 2014. The Crimea was lost without a single shot, then Lugansk, my hometown, was lost also without this massive and committed of a struggle. I don’t want to downplay what the military did there, of course, but naturally it’s nothing like the fight we are putting up now, I think. So it does tell me that even in a country where such ideas as anarchy, anti-authoritarianism, and left-wing stuff in general were so beaten down and marginalized and almost erased—even here, there is still so much potential and so much people’s action to fight off what is allegedly one of the strongest armies in the world.
So it actually does give me a lot of hope in general about the ideas I used to hold and still continue to hold.
Can you tell us a little more about some of these ways that society is mobilizing from the grassroots?
Well, it’s all over the internet right now. We see how people are volunteering for all sorts of stuff; some people are driving each other, helping with recreations, feeding each other, caring for abandoned pets, helping with medical supplies, there are some businesses—I don’t want to praise businesses, but even some businesses are stepping up, helping people with logistics, food, medicines, all the essentials that people require, especially in times like this when the normal society breaks down and reorganizes and you can’t really count on anything; you don’t know whether the services that you usually count on will work or be there for you. Here and there, people are stepping up all across the country. The internet plays a huge role in it, and also the sheer desperation and horror of the war in general. When you’re trapped somewhere and it really sucks, you will definitely want to do anything and everything you can, with whomever you can, to ease the suffering of yourself and those around you, and to help to end the catastrophe as soon as possible.
So I do see a lot of examples, with regards to food, health care, and giving people places to crash—I, for one, am crashing at a stranger’s place in a town I’ve never been to before, already for several days now, provided with a lot of things that I would have had to do without otherwise. It’s all really inspiring. So yeah, I think people are stepping up on all sorts of fronts, with all sorts of requests and struggles that others are experiencing. It’s inspiring.
We’ve heard that at this point, over a million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion began. Can you tell us about the situation on the border? What are you expecting when you get there?
I’m still not sure whether I will be allowed to leave. Despite the fact that I’m diabetic, my military papers say I’m still eligible to serve during times of war, and that’s exactly what we have right now. So I think I may have to stay, unless I would be interested in breaking the law. But regardless of whether I can leave, the situation at the borders is definitely challenging for everyone who arrives there. I’m aware of lines at the border 30 miles long, lines of people trying to get through; some people spend days trying to get into Poland.
Something that’s worth mentioning is that people of color, all the Latinos, Africans, pretty much anyone else, are having a much harder time getting through into Europe than white Ukrainians.
There are also things that have been reported to the effect that there are a lot of folks attempting to capitalize on human trafficking; people were told to be very suspicious of guys offering “help” to get further ahead in the line to attractive young females, because according to what I’ve heard, that could be a trap as well. There’s a lot of sketchy stuff. Also, some people are trying to collect bribes of thousands of dollars to bypass the line and other stuff like that. But on the other hand, there are people I know who are doing all sorts of things: hosting up to ten people in their houses near the border, feeding them constantly, volunteering to offer whatever help they can provide for everyone trying to flee. So there are atrocious sides to it, of course, like in any other crisis, and some sides that inspire some hope. But the border with Europe is definitely not a “chill” place at the moment, I can tell you that much.
Anyway, that’s where we seem to be headed at the moment, as soon as we get our car fixed. In any case, regardless of what else is happening, it still seems to be a zone that won’t be shelled any time soon. The closer to Europe, the safer it will be. So that’s the main reason for me to go further and further west, as long as we can.
What do the people you’re seeing there want to see in terms of international support or solidarity? What do you think would make a difference or be effective?
Well, it really depends. I can’t be certain exactly where the money goes when you send it to most NGOs. But I do think this is probably a good thing to do. Most folks need money right now, pretty much anyone who’s trapped in Ukraine and can’t leave needs it. The Red Cross, or whatever group you are certain will never hurt anyone, that is only there to ease and decrease suffering, would not be a waste. The main thing that anyone who is in a war needs is for the war to end; the second best thing is opportunities to escape it. Given the fact that, right now, Ukraine is shutting down the borders for men who don’t want to fight, any ways to get around that—say, doctors who will fake someone’s papers to say that they are very sick and need to go to an appointment in Berlin or Barcelona, or whatever else… it’s still too early to say what things could be helpful in that regard, but those things can be very precious to many as well.
And—personal support. I don’t think there are many people who would decline any help in Ukraine right now. If you know someone who is in Ukraine and you have an extra dollar—go for it, send it to them. I think they will find it very hard to refuse that.
On the scale of [geo]politics, I’m beyond that, at this point. Clearly, whatever the US did as an overseas empire hasn’t led to much good, in any case. Back in 2014, we just watched in silence how our territories were annexed without much resistance. And when the US started scaring everyone and warning everyone and getting more involved, we just had an even bigger and bloodier war. So… I don’t think anything that the US is capable of doing as a country would be very beneficial to us. I can only imagine what would happen if the US got involved on the ground, so to speak, because we’ve seen how that ends up in many other countries such as Afghanistan, Kurdistan, and so on.
So I think the help should be grassroots, from the people to the people, or for organizations who have the interests of the people in mind, not corporations or governments or anything like that. This would be the most effective use of any resources that someone can spare, I think.
Is there anything else you’d like our listeners to know about what’s going on in Ukraine right now?
I don’t know. I think there are plenty of voices coming out from Ukraine right now, unlike Russia and my hometown, so that people can take the average of them to get some sort of picture of what the needs are here, what the fears and hopes are here. Listening to those voices and showing your solidarity is the best we could hope for. Because as these wars continue, people tend to lose interest in them. For as long as there is this interest, we should do our best to spread the word about what’s happening here, and those who are willing to help should not wait to help, because sooner or later, you won’t remember what Ukraine is.
This is how it goes with all these wars around the world. Two weeks is usually as long as the attention span lasts, or at least when it peaks before it becomes another one of those wars that nobody cares about.
Thank you for speaking with us!
Of course. Thank you for talking, I’m happy to share if anyone cares to listen.
My Days in Russia
My days in Russia are tense.
Don’t get me wrong, the bombs aren’t falling on our heads. Yet we are watching bombs fall on people in Ukraine. My family repeat after the Russian TV: “Zelensky is hiding military in civilian urban areas—so they have to bomb them.” Talking to our families and people in the streets is of high importance—people do not really believe in war, but they often try to convince themselves that there is some justification for this war. They do not want to be accomplices of this nightmare. For that reason, a conversation in which people feel confronted and might get their feelings hurt—yet are able to relate and listen to what you say—could be very important.
Day-to-day repression is intense. Anyone, even little children, will be arrested for any kind of poster protest. These days, you cannot stand in the street and hold a piece of paper, no matter whether it says “war” or not—you will be arrested. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the police are beating people up. That does not seem to scare the people, though. Many people go out again, they look for ways to fight, they organize.
Starting today, March 4, it is a crime to protest the war or spread any information about the war that does not come from official Russian state sources. You can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for that. One newspaper reacted, saying that being a journalist is like working with explosives—you can make a mistake only once. The state prosecution office even created special units for targeting the anti-war movement in all the regions of the country.
Still, however hard things are, we are not in the position of facing military aggression. Here, one has a choice whether to fight against it or not. Maybe that is why armed resistance seems easier, somehow: one doesn’t really have a choice. Here in Russia, in order to resist the war, every person has to make a moral judgement and estimate the risks. It’s not really an option to remain idle, especially when this aggression is done in our name—or at least, in the name of our nationality, our supposed identity. Yet it is a choice one has to make. People in Russia are facing that choice now.
Until recently, I had been away from Russia for many years. Before I left, there was repression, but there were ways to organize political struggle openly, to go out to the streets, and we didn’t have to worry too much about arrests or fines. The ultra-right were a cause of concern in some cases; we always had to think about different aspects of self defense. But in 2012, you would not have to say to yourself something like “I am an anarchist. This means that I have to prepare myself for prison and torture.”
Now, our self-defense practices involve questions like “How do we avoid getting arrested for making a post on Telegram?” Speaking in these terms, today, our self-defense is not premised on defending our vision of culture, society, relations, and ideas—it is premised on avoiding repression, reacting to what the state does, preserving our individual freedom, staying out of jail. And this is a large flaw in our movement in Russia, when we consider it in a long-term perspective, because in fact, we don’t have anywhere to fall back to, no one can guarantee us anything. We cannot even guarantee each other that we will stand together holding hands, looking each other in the eye and knowing that whatever will happen, we will be comrades and we will continue the struggle. There is a lack of comradeship, a lack of resources, of infrastructure, a lack of an ideological perspective regarding how to struggle today and how to carry on that struggle through the decades to come. We lack the belief that the best thing you can do for your freedom, for your happiness, for your life itself is to struggle. We lack the belief that if you struggle, even if you die or go to prison, it is worth it and you made the right decision. It is this idea—that struggle is life and life is struggle—this philosophical vision, this feeling, that can enable you to bring yourself back to your senses and maintain morale in the most difficult situations.
Comrades, we are the only ones who can mutually provide that for each other.
Now, in my town far away from Moscow, just to go out with posters and shout slogans, we have to hold a whole day-long meeting to think through our strategy, to come up with tactics and measure risks versus gains versus urgency to do whatever we can immediately. I can hear anxiety and fear in my comrades’ voices. This suppresses the imagination. In these moments, we can feel how, if we can’t imagine our victory, we can’t win. Now, we are struggling even to imagine ourselves organizing and fighting.
This is the difference that I see here, now, returning to Russia after some time away. This is the development that has taken place here over the past ten years. Now, everyone has to consider what we are ready to put on the line, both individually and collectively.
We can see now how we have to work hard to prepare and organize during the quiet times, not only the moments of urgency. Because now, there is no structure, no experience to pass on, there are few people willing to take responsibility and put themselves on the line because it is worth it. There is no organization to make proposals, just confusion, fear, anger, and a feeling of helplessness.
I have noticed one thing, though. I am wondering whether I see this because I am anarchist and I wish to see it, or if I am seeing it because it is happening in reality—but it seems that people feel that Putin has crossed the last fucking line. They see how their government is denying everything while videos circulate showing Ukrainian cities being blown up with rockets and civilians torn to pieces. It feels as if we have passed some sort of point of no return and people are waking up. Everything is still confused, but the noise is too loud and too present to remain asleep for long. People seem to be waking up more and more each day.
The questions of victory and defeat have always been complicated for us as anarchists. Now, if we are to imagine the defeat of Russia, it is a good idea to ask ourselves what that would mean. On one hand, civil wars do not usually open up possibilities for liberation or lead to social revolution—on contrary, usually, they drown everyone in the blood of the participants. A purely military victory will never be a victory for anarchists. What we would consider a victory for anarchists will require generations of revolutionary effort and development in society, involving many fronts of struggle. Military engagement is only one piece in the puzzle of self-defense; it is not possible without a larger social fabric and social relations that provide a meaning and purpose for self-defense. On the other hand, the political and military defeat of the Russian state and its ideology, whatever that would look like, might open cracks, fault lines, gateways to forms of revolutionary social change that have been unthinkable for people in Russia, the “Prison of Nations,” for about a hundred years now.
For some people in Russia, this time it is now or never.
In that regard, I see a tremendous potential in the feminist movement in Russia. Right now, I see the participants in this movement doing the best they can to organize and bring their perspective to the streets and to the people. When it comes to presenting a vision of self-defense that draws together many forms and meanings of struggle into a concrete philosophy, I believe that anarchists and feminists can do better than anyone else. Especially when it comes to armed struggle—and sooner or later, in one way or another, it always does, because that is a part of self-defense—we must carefully listen the perspectives of our feminist comrades in Russia and all around the world, reflecting on their input and making sure there is space for them to organize autonomously. We could benefit from the perspectives of women and trans and non-binary people who have experienced the organizing and struggle in Rojava; this could give us insights into revolutionary processes that are difficult to come by otherwise.
It is possible to imagine two scenarios evolving in this situation. Either we will see the rise and strengthening of an authoritarian state in a way that our generation has not experienced yet, or the events will develop towards a freer tomorrow, with Putin’s regime falling apart and our society finally being able to work together to make changes and confront the conservative right-wing elements that won’t abandon the dream of a Russian world.
Hope alone won’t suffice to make the latter scenario a reality. We will have to put hard work towards it right now, using all the foundations that remain from the past decades and every model that the preceding generations of older comrades left to us.
For us, there is a difference, though: in the midst of such uncertainty and instability, now is the time to start thinking about the long term, to imagine where we want to be in ten, fifteen, or twenty years. We can count the steps we need to take backwards all the way from the future we want to reach to the situation we face now in order to identify what steps we need to take today. Of course, there are many things we can’t predict in advance. But this exercise is above all about approaching struggle as a life-long commitment, understanding repression and the state governments that currently impose it as serious foes, yet also as episodes in a much larger historical struggle that has gone on for a long time, which others will carry on after we are no longer around. In this way of understanding ourselves, we live on in this struggle and the ways that it develops—through the legacy that we leave for generations to come.
As repression intensifies in Russia, understanding things that way might help us to survive what is coming, to be able to stand our ground in the times ahead. It may also help us to define our relationships with the comrades we fight alongside and the comrades that we haven’t met just yet. And there might be many coming up—this situation cuts through the whole of our society, changing the landscape.
This way of thinking could serve to create cooperation and solidarity where they were not possible before, and to connect us as anarchists with other people we could work with to create a better world. The people around us are all we have, and we must understand the current fault lines in our society well. It is time for bravery and persistence like never before—and it is now, when it is hard to imagine what’s going to happen next week, that we have to act in such a way that whatever comes in the next months and years, we will be able to be honest with ourselves and be able to look each other in the eyes with pride, love, and smile.