"Everyone came out against and we're all sitting in the same prison truck."
Ilya Zernov is 19 years old. In the winter of 2022 he passed his first exam as a student at Kazan Federal University. In the first days after the start of the war, he protested by putting up posters, posting flyers, and attending anti-war rallies. After being detained, fined, threatened, and searched with police violence, he left Russia. Ilya is now in Serbia, where he found a job and new friends, and is also active in the anti-war movement.
—On February 24, my neighbour woke me up with the words: "Wake up, there's a war." I even asked a ridiculous question: "With casualties?" I could not believe that the authorities would dare to do that. I hoped that maybe it wasn't a war, but rather that troops had been brought in... It is very difficult to describe my emotions – a mixture of horror, anger, and shock. Immediately a thought flashed through my mind: I had to do something, somehow to show my dissent. I went to the store and bought some paints and Whatman paper.
I was shaking. I frantically made three posters: "No to War," "No to Annexation. No to War. No to Putin" and "For Our and Your Freedom". I hung these posters on the balcony of the dormitory so that they could be seen by students walking from the street.
I couldn't stay quietly in the room. I forwarded the pictures of my action to the students' public boards, took down the posters, and went with a piece of drawing A3 paper, on which the words "No to War" were written in red. I took the bus to the centre of Kazan and picketed in front of a shopping mall. Almost immediately the police came up to me, but they only took down my passport information.
I got a call from my roommate: in the dormitory, the administration with odd people had found me, and now they were questioning my roommate. I remember that damn cold Thursday by the minute.
In the evening I was at a rally. A friend was detained.
At night I talked to the head of the dormitory.
I didn't notice what was going on around me, I was absorbed in my own worries and watched footage of the first days of the war without looking away. On February 27, I laid carnations at an action in memory of Boris Nemtsov. There was a rally on the same day. There were only policemen left in Tukay Square. I went to Starbucks, unfolded an anti-war banner, put on a Russian tricolor and went outside. I stood there for less than a minute.
The cops noticed me almost immediately. They stopped, read the poster, and one asked the other: "Are we holding him?" To which he was instantly told, "Of course we fucking are!" They came over, grabbed me by the arms, and shoved me into a prison truck.
In the bus station it felt like I was among my own people. Everyone feels the same way about what is going on, and everyone has come out against and we are all sitting in the same prison truck.This feeling of togetherness was only reinforced by our time together in the cell for administrative detainees. I won't forget that night at the police station, the flashing lights of the truck, the handcuffs.
The next day they took me to the Vakhitovsky District Court. I sat in court for eight hours. They gave me a fine. Many people supported me when I came to the university after my detention. My friends helped me and some went to meet me from the court.
During the next days I put up flyers against the war. On March 6, on the morning of March 6, they came to my dorm room to search me. "Search" is too neutral word for an act of deriding your freedom and your dignity, when your life is forcibly invaded, overturned, and threatened with prison. There is a knock on the door of the dorm room. A neighbour opens and policemen in civilian clothes burst in. I'm lying in bed, and a glimpse of a red certificate is passed in front of me.
I pull on my clothes and get indignant. A cop comes up to me, grabs me by the hair and says: "We're going to break your pie hole." They turn everything upside down, throw textbooks and notebooks on the overturned mattress, accompanied by questions and insults.
A few hours later it ends. And they give me a protocol, but the police officers tell me not to write in violations [during the search], it will be worse for me. And I understood that after the search I was going with them. They told me to pack my things in the pre-trial detention center. And they outlined the prospects of my imprisonment. My neighbours were also intimidated, they were also witnesses. After that they sealed my laptop, phone, flyers, and posters, and I went with them to the station under police escort.
There they threatened me again and told me not to report anything, or else I would be "seriously taken care of". After that they let me go. I asked several times to be given a copy of the report on the search, and the police did everything they could to prevent it. I was able to insist, but they only gave me the first and last pages of the report. Satisfied at least with that, I left in a hurry. Though later I realised that I should have asked for a full copy.
After the house-check, I woke up for two days in sweat and in fear that they would come again. There were no obstacles to them coming and arresting me. I could not live like that: pretend nothing had happened and there was no war. I decided to leave Russia. I took an academic leave, and plane tickets to Serbia via Turkey. There were no tickets for the next few days. I didn't show up at the dormitory or the place where I was registered.
I flew from St. Petersburg to Istanbul, and the next day I flew to Belgrade. Upon arrival I stayed in a hostel for a few days. Then I started looking for [permanent] accommodation. With great difficulty I found a room and settled there. I got a job at a factory illegally. After a few months I quit, because the pay was low and the job was very far away from where I lived.
At the anti-war meetings I met and became friends with the people who moved here. And now I live with friends and work in a cafe, washing dishes. I keep going to anti-war meetings, that's where I mostly socialise.
Here in Serbia, the Russian Democratic Society was formed, which organised the last rally. State terror is scary, but I am not afraid of"pro-Russian" Serbs at all. In Serbia, the human rights situation is much better than in Russia. So I understand that you don't have to worry too much about your safety here. The police are here, the law is here. You can see how the police do not allow provocations at rallies. I have a sense of my own rightness, and I'm not going to succumb to senseless and largely unfounded fear.
It's scary that there's a war going on. And speaking out against the war, when you are not threatened with prison and bullying, brings me back to normalcy.
At a small exhibition in Belgrade, I gave a lecture titled "Do Russian citizens support the war?" The number of Russians who support the war is overestimated. The impression of total support comes from propaganda, on which enormous amounts of money are spent, mass persecution of dissenters, general fear, and the feeling that your actions will not lead to anything positive. So "many" citizens support the war because it is a return to familiar Soviet practices. Such as the introduction of troops into other countries (Hungary, Czechoslovakia) when they behave "incorrectly" from the point of view of the Moscow authorities, the use of propaganda clichés about confrontation with the West, which wants the collapse of Russia, the wave of repression, in the face of which you feel defenceless.
On the contrary, despite the enormous efforts of the state to normalise the war and the hereditary problems of Russian society, I am surprised at how many people in Russia oppose the war.