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‘Hope Gives You the Strength to Act.’ Portraits of Russians Risking Everything to Support Ukraine

2 minute read
Photographs and interviews by Mary Gelman | Words by Tara Law

When words are so closely controlled that it’s a crime to call a war a war, what drives someone to speak out?

The Russian protesters seen here cite a variety of things. One is a sense of moral responsibility: to fight tyranny and to put an end to a conflict that is claiming the lives of Ukrainian civilians. For some, it’s anger—rage that such crimes are being carried out in the name of the Russian people, and that authorities have detained thousands of Russians for daring to protest.

Undergirding all these feelings, however, is an enduring hope: a dream of a better, freer Russia, and an end to the violence in Ukraine.

“Hope gives you the strength to act,” says Mary Gelman, the Russian photojournalist who made these portraits. “If you think that everything is doomed and you are nothing, you become a very comfortable instrument for the regime.”

Read More: ‘There’s an Atmosphere of Fear.’ With Flights Banned, Russians Are Fleeing By Train for Europe

Katya, who lost her job at Moscow cinemas after signing a letter protesting the invasion, takes heart from other dissidents. “I see a lot of like-minded people who inspire me, and I am not so afraid with them here,” she says. “We have us, and we haven’t been broken. There are more of us who are against this, but the power wants to convince us it’s the opposite.”

Hope is also an important motivator for Gelman herself, who has chosen to continue working as a photojournalist despite considerable risks. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, journalists who contradicted the government-sponsored narrative in Russia faced harassment, imprisonment, and even death. Gelman sees it as her duty to show different points of view—something that’s even more essential in a time of censorship and propaganda, she says.

“Loving your motherland does not mean supporting the power and always agreeing with them,” Gelman explains. “It’s wanting a better life for your people, saying to the authorities ‘no’ or ‘you’re wrong,’ and trying to change something if needed. It’s hard to do it in this authoritarian regime, but necessary.”

Portrait of Palad’d’a at home in Saint Petersburg, Russia, 19 March 2022Palad'd'a is a feminist and Udmurt artist. She had openly expressed her anti-war position on social media. She is suspected of a fabricated case of phone terrorism. She was arrested and spent two days in a punishment cell. Now she is at home in Saint Petersburg and waits for further instructions. «I returned from my hometown and immediately packed a bag with water, food, pills and external battery in case of an arrest. I knew I was at risk of reprisals. On March 5 they came to search, and I did not even had time to get to the protests. They had been hammering on my door for several hours. Two men from SOBR in full gear with truncheons, men from the Center for Combating Extremism and the Investigation Committee, two men from the ambulance and two witnesses. I turned on Tchaikovsky at full volume and opened the door. “Girl, what kind of a circus is that? Turn off the music,” one of them told me. I was standing in T-shirt and underpants: “It’s not me clowning around, but you”. They suspected me of making a bomb threat. I understood that it was a fabricated case to tie the hands of activists. They took some old leaflets from meetings, my devices, they read my notebooks and my letters to exes. They also took my suicide note because it said “Peace for Ukraine, Freedom for Russia, Prison for Putin”. Two men in bulletproof vests were sitting in my kitchen reading a pink zine about feminist urbanism. That was comical. I was taken away for interrogation. The lawyer and I spent a whole day in the office. Dealing with the police is the worst. Jokes about rape and invitations to the bathhouse. I saw various pacifist graffiti from the car window, it moved me to tears. They put me in a prison cell. A book with feminist poetry which I took with me saved me. All these days I heard only pigeons, sirens and airplanes. I was released with a commitment to appear in court. There are also
Palad’d’a, a St. Petersburg artist, feminist, and member of the Udmurt people, spoke out against the war on social media. She was imprisoned for two days. “I don’t think the monsters will disappear if you close your eyes ... The main thing is not to keep silent.”Mary Gelman
Portrait of Yelena at her home in Saint Petersburg, Russia, 28 March 2022Elena Osipova, visual artist, 77
. She has been protesting on the streets of St. Petersburg with her political posters for 20 years. Many people call her the "conscience of St. Petersburg". «I am a post-war child and my family survived the Siege of Leningrad. I have been going out to protest since 2002, after terrorist attack on Dubrovka in Moscow during the musical «Nord-Ost». I went out for the first time with a one-man picket to the Mariinsky Palace in St. Petersburg. People just looked at me, but no one came around. After that I decided to paint posters as an artist and share my views this way. Next four years I went out with political posters. People passing by didn't want to look and read that. But that's never stopped me. After a while I was standing with another active group of people. I felt changes because youths’ growing interest in politics. I saw many people who demanding changes and working on that. I saw many protests in Russia, the government has not really done anything for our country development in 20 years. And now they have started the war. 24 of February I got a night call from a Moscow journalist who asked me to comment on this situation. I said: «Russian fuhrer comes to Anschluss». I have been on protests since 2014 and painted posters against war, but I didn't expect it to happen on such a scale. I was arrested by police many times. They demanded me disappear and stay aside I'm afraid of aggressive so called titushki* more than police now. They pursue me from my home and get aggressive when I showed my posters on the street. I was ashamed of their actions. I'm hoping for a change of power. Bulat Okudzhava, a Soviet poet, died without hope for humanity. I still hope and go out with posters against this "special military operation" as long as my health allows. I am glad to see a lot of modern people who protests and speak out against this nightmare
Elena Osipova, a 77-year-old artist known as the “conscience of St. Petersburg,” mounted her first protest in 2002. The day of the Ukraine invasion, a Moscow reporter phoned her for comment. “I said, ‘The Russian Führer comes to Anschluss.’”Mary Gelman
Portrait of Helen in Saint Petersburg, Russia, 22 March 2022Elena participated in five anti-war actions in Saint Petersburg and got arrested. She was imprisoned for five days because she had a green ribbon in her hair. A green ribbon is a symbol of peace. «I participated in five anti-war actions and I got arrested on 13 of March on the street. I had a green ribbon in my hair, this is a symbol of peace. In this day police got the order to arrest people with green ribbons. I spent 8-10 hours in police department and spent a night there. The next day they brought me to the trial. The judge ignored any evidence of my innocent, and I got a 5 days imprisonment. The prison officers treated us like criminals. I was constantly morally humiliated. They laughed when I was talking about rights. I can talk only about this war. Other topics are pointless to me, apolitical now is a crime. We don’t have any moral rights to stay aside in this conflict. I think our president is a war criminal. We should do what we can and speak out as loud as we can».
Elena was sentenced to five days’ imprisonment for wearing a green ribbon, a symbol of peace, in her hair. “I can talk only about this war. Other topics are pointless to me. To be apolitical now is a crime.”Mary Gelman
Portrait of Misha in Saint Petersburg, Russia, 23 March 2022Misha was on anti-war protests in St. Petersburg, he was detained by the police and beaten with a stun gun, imprisoned for five days. «I got arrested by police, when I was going to the anti-war action in Saint Petersburg. They tased me without any explanation. I was shocked. The trial took place after one day. The judge ignored my words and wouldn't let the lawyer to me. They showed the video of the anti-war action with many protestors as the evidence of my guilt and sentence me 5 days imprisonment. I wasn't on this video, but they didn’t care about that. This was just absurd. It was a second anti-war action I visited. I can't find any rational reasons for these crimes by our government and my heart demanded the actions. Since the beginning of the war, I have felt a terrible injustice. More than anything, I didn’t want my country to become the aggressor, revived the dictatorship. But it happened. I feel the horror of this ongoing conflict every day. And it's not even close to going through proud and free Ukrainian people now. I am and millions of other Russians would like to be friends. I want to stay human despite this crazy state propaganda and huge repressions. The Russia we knew is gone. Unfortunately, the multi-year protests of the Russian people against the regime were insufficient. I believe that we can build a free, proud, and open-to-world country. But firstly, the war must end! »
Misha attended antiwar protests in St. Petersburg, and was tased by police and imprisoned for five days. “I believe we can build a country that is free, proud, and open to the world. But first, the war must end!”Mary Gelman
Portrait of Zlatislava at home in Saint Petersburg, Russia, 26 March 2022Zlata is HIV-positive and has cancer, she was detained at the anti-war actions and imprisoned for 15 days. «I was detained together with my friend on 27 February at the anti-war action. It was horrible at the police station. They refused to take into account my chronic diseases, cervical cancer, and HIV-positive status. The police took away our phones, insulted me, and called me a whore and contagious. I was not allowed to bring a lawyer and to call. It seemed to me that everything was happening in some parallel reality. They tried to take fingerprints from me, but I refused. They dragged me across the floor, beat my hands, and spat at me. That was insane. This «special military operation» must end».
Zlata, who has HIV and cervical cancer, was arrested at a protest and imprisoned for 15 days. “The police took our phones, insulted me, and called me a ‘whore’ and ‘contagious’ ... They dragged me across the floor, beat my arms, and spat at me.”Mary Gelman
Portrait of Nika at home in Saint Petersburg, Russia, 23 March 2022Nika is 20 years old photojournalist of independent media «Sota», she was detained 5 times as a journalist. At the same time, she is a student of Saint Petersburg State University, her name is on the list of students due to her participation in anti-war actions. «Since the beginning of the anti-war actions, I became the most detained journalist in Saint Petersburg. I was wearing special vests with a sticker "PRESS" and had a press card and the editorial assignment. They ignored that, just preventing our activity. In the police department, I told other detainees about their rights, because I have talked a lot with human rights defenders and I know about my rights. After the police isolated me to another room every time. It is very difficult to work. My colleagues do not let me take pictures of my actions, because they are afraid for my safety. Our media are pressured, many of our journalists are persecuted in different Russian cities, and others of them are arrested. I am also a student of St. Petersburg State University, I am on the list of students for expulsion due to participation in anti-war actions. They don’t care that’s my job. I started a media company against the expulsion of students and I feel huge of support. But for our administration of the university, it’s the empty sound. Vice-rector for educational matters with some teachers signed a public letter with the support of the special military operation and Putin. We found a dead teacher in this letter, it's absurd. Now we are doing everything to stop this madness. War is war, there is no doubt that its military aggression of the Russian regime. People are suffering because the ruling elite decided to play geopolitical games. It's just awful. This war must stop right now.
Nika, a student at St. Petersburg State University, faces expulsion for antiwar activities. She has been detained five times for her work as a photojournalist for the independent media organization SOTA. “We are doing everything to stop this madness.”Mary Gelman

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