Notice: All the protesters interviewed for this text refused to present their names out of worry for his or her security.
St Petersburg, Russia – “No to battle!” chanted the group of largely younger Russians gathered on Nevsky Prospekt, the principle road in St Petersburg, on Thursday night time.
Within the morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered what he referred to as a “army operation” into Ukraine after months of tensions with Kyiv and its Western allies.
In a speech earlier than the assaults started, Putin claimed he had been left with “no different choice” however to invade Ukraine as a result of “the battle machine is shifting and … coming near our borders”, referring to NATO.
Russian forces attacked far past the conflict-ridden zones of japanese Ukraine, the place Moscow-backed separatists run areas not too long ago recognised by the Kremlin as unbiased, with air assaults hitting condo blocks in Kharkiv and past.
By night time, as Ukrainians fled to flee their nation, hundreds in Russia, the place protests are tightly restricted, rallied in solidarity.
Whereas East-West frictions grew over Russia’s army build-up on the Ukrainian border these previous few months, dissent on the planet’s largest nation was restricted to a handful of one-person pickets.
Few right here believed the standoff would truly result in battle.
However after Putin opened what has been described as one in every of Europe’s “darkest chapters” for the reason that Second World Warfare, dissent has sharply risen.
“I’ve no phrases, it’s simply disgusting,” a younger lady on the St Petersburg rally instructed Al Jazeera. “What’s there to say? We really feel powerlessness, anguish.”
She was amongst hundreds of Russians throughout a number of cities who took to the streets to specific their outrage; tons of have been arrested.
Earlier on Thursday, dozens of journalists, reporters and media figures, primarily from unbiased shops in addition to the BBC, signed a petition condemning Russia’s operation in Ukraine.
And greater than 100 municipal deputies from Moscow, St Petersburg, Samara, Ryazan and different cities signed an open letter to the residents of Russia, urging them not to participate or keep silent.
“We, the deputies elected by the individuals, unreservedly condemn the assault of the Russian military on Ukraine,” the letter learn. “That is an unparalleled atrocity for which there’s and can’t be justification.”
In St Petersburg, protesters began gathering outdoors the historic Gostiny Dvor purchasing arcade at about 7pm native time (16:00 GMT).
The ambiance was tense, with a number of individuals crying towards the backdrop of a heavy police presence.
One lady held up a bouquet of balloons within the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
The crowds appeared to have little confidence their uncommon protests would change something, however the rallies have been cathartic for some.
“No less than I’m not ashamed to be right here,” one man stated. “I used to be so ashamed this morning.”
“Hope? The one hope is us. Whereas we’re right here there’s nonetheless hope,” added a extra optimistic attendee.
When the rally began, police have been already in place, with the OMON riot squad absolutely kitted out with physique armour, helmets and batons, standing by buses dropped at take demonstrators away.
However there was no effort to cordon off the world.
As a substitute, a policeman with a loudspeaker walked round, warning that this was an unauthorised demonstration and that anybody attending risked arrest and prosecution.
“Ukraine is just not our enemy!” the group chanted and clapped.
“Russia is towards battle!”
In a surreal scene, loud jazz music from the purchasing centre may often be heard between the chants and shouts.
It was troublesome to gauge the rally’s measurement, however there have been a minimum of a number of hundred individuals.
The gang ebbed forwards and backwards as groups of riot police periodically lunged ahead and grabbed protesters, seemingly at random, dragging them into buses to be taken away.
Applause broke out as one in every of their very own was led away, accompanied by shouts of “Disgrace!” and “One for all, and all for one!”
“My pal was snatched away for nothing, he was actually simply standing there,” stated one man. “No less than it’s hotter on the bus,” he joked.
Regardless of the periodic arrests, the crowds grew bigger because the night went on.
At about 9pm (18:00 GMT), this reporter witnessed some individuals being carried away by their legs and arms. Though police have been carrying batons, this reporter didn’t see them getting used.
“Police with the individuals, don’t serve the monster!” somebody shouted.
“I ponder what these cosmonauts are considering,” one woman stated to herself, referring to the riot squad’s helmets.
“Why aren’t you with us? If we go to battle, it’s you who’ll should battle and die,” a lady requested the riot officers.
By 10pm (19:00 GMT), the group thinned amid repeated stress from police, though a big group crossed an underpass and reassembled on the opposite aspect of the road.
“Putin is a killer! Putin is the disgrace of Russia!” they shouted. “Ukraine! Ukraine!”
“How lengthy this battle will go on is a lottery,” one protester grumbled. “Nobody can predict what this man will do subsequent.”