Today’s dissidents in Russia: tech savvy and willing to risk it all


Evgeny Kissin, one of the most famous pianists in Russia, has described Vladimir Putin as a “bloodthirsty criminal”. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Gkobe

The world in which Index on Censorship was born seems to be reemerging. In August 1968, after the blossoming of freedoms in Czechoslovakia known collectively as the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union invaded the country. Protesters were brutally crushed. Despite the violence and the stranglehold on freedoms back in Russia, eight fearless dissidents took to Red Square in Moscow to demonstrate.

One of the bold demonstrators was Pavel Litvinov, a young physicist at the time. In that same year Litvinov had co-authored a pamphlet entitled Appeal to World Public Opinion, asking those in the west to fight against the suppression of dissent in the Soviet Union. The poet Stephen Spender responded, suggesting the creation of an international committee whose goal would be to support the democratic movement in the USSR. This committee would engage writers, scholars, artists and public personalities from countries like the UK, the USA and also Latin American nations.

This is how Index on Censorship was brought into life, responding to the call of these dissidents and giving them a voice.

More than 50 years later, the USSR doesn’t exist anymore, but Russia has shocked the world with the invasion and consequential brutal war in Ukraine. What remains is the courage and bravery of people and dissidents defying the regime of Vladimir Putin. Below are just six of the noticeable Russian citizens who’ve spoken up against Putin and the war in Ukraine.

Russian artist Victoria Marchenkova, who’s been using Facebook to encourage people in Ukraine to flee to Canada. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Na4ya

“STOP THE WAR” – that’s what the Moscow-born artist Victoria Marchenkova wrote on her website. Marchenkova works with different styles, but with one thing in mind: approaching the economic situation of the world, international traditions and its heritage. After the war in Ukraine began, she announced on her website that her solo exhibition at a Moscow gallery had been delayed until the end of the Russian invasion. Her exact words? “Please let’s save the world all together. STOP THE WAR”. Very active on Facebook, she has also encouraged people in Ukraine to flee to Canada.[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”2. Evgeny Kissin – pianist”][vc_column_text]The pianist Evgeny Kissin has been an important name from Russia who declared himself against the war. In a solemn video titled Note of Protest, Kissin called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a crime that has no excuse and also described Vladimir Putin as a bloodthirsty criminal. “Sadly, far from all who initiate criminal wars are punished, but none escape the judgment of history,” Kissin said. The video was published on his Instagram account and was viewed around 100,000 times.[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”3. Mikhail Gelfand – biologist”][vc_column_text]Renowned Russian biologist Mikhail Gelfand is considered one of the most important people in the area of molecular evolution, comparative genomics and systems biology. He was the main person behind a letter signed by approximately 7,000 Russian scientists against the war in Ukraine. It’s a bold move. The Russian president has said that every Russian citizen who questions his invasion of Ukraine will be treated as a traitor and that a necessary self-purification of society will help to strengthen the country.[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”4. Marina Ovsyannikova – journalist”][vc_column_text]

Daughter to a Russian mother and an Ukrainian father, Marina Ovsyannikova is a Russian journalist who had a job on the Channel One Russia TV channel. She gained prominence after she broke into a state-controlled Russian TV news broadcast and protested against the war. As a result, she was arrested and fined, but was released afterwards. Today, while she waits trial for interrupting the news programme, she is very active on her Instagram account. If convicted, she could be sentenced to 15 years in prison. In a recent post on Instagram, she wrote: “I wanted to demonstrate to the world that not all Russian people believe the same and I believe that many people… are against the war.”


This video grab shows Russian Channel One editor Marina Ovsyannikova holding a poster reading ” Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. Here they are lying to you” during on-air TV studio by news anchor Yekaterina Andreyeva, Russia’s most-watched evening news broadcast. Photo: Zuma Press/Alamy

[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”5. Ilya Varlamov – blogger”][vc_column_text]The Russian Youtuber from Moscow has been speaking openly about the war in Ukraine on his Youtube channel, which is focused on analysing politics in Russia. Often critical in tone he has interviewed people such as Alexei Venediktov, the former editor-in-chief of the now-closed Ekho Moskvy. He has more than 3.3 million subscribers, where he’s been publishing videos almost daily. At the time of print, Varlamov had not been detained for his criticisms. He does have some experience of this though; he was briefly arrested in South Sudan after security found the remote control of a drone in his luggage, accusing him of trying to film military activities with the drone.


Russian Youtuber Ilya Varlamov. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Mitya Aleshkovskiy

[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”6. Youri Doud – blogger”][vc_column_text]Born in East Germany in 1986, Youri Doud sees himself as Russian by identity. He’s worked as a freelance journalist and in 2017 he launched a Youtube channel with the purpose of interviewing Russian celebrities. After Russia began its so called “mission” in Ukraine, Doud shared on his Instagram account a song called 100-year War, written by the group Noize MC, which has achieved millions of likes and reactions. The song discusses what artists should do when it’s not within their power to change a political catastrophe which is developing. The conclusion of the band is short and clear: “We have no other choice than to honestly speak up about what is happening. So that’s what we are doing.

United States: Cisco sued by Chinese political prisoners over web monitoring

Technology giant Cisco is being sued by Chinese political prisoners for allegedly providing the technology and expertise used by the Chinese Communist Party to monitor, censor and suppress the country’s citizens. Cisco, while rejecting the allegations as baseless, had publicly stated that it helped the CCP build its Golden Shield and Policenet web monitoring systems, commonly referred to as the Great Firewall of China. The case has been brought by US law firm Ward & Ward on behalf of several dissidents.

The curious case of Hada

His 15-year jail term for spying and separatist activities is finally over, but Chinese dissident Hada, (who is ethnically Mongolian) is missing, along with his wife and son.

The 55-year-old writer was scheduled to be released last Friday, while the world was distracted by the Nobel-Liu Xiaobo shenanigans but the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center believes Hada is still being detained.

The organisation said his sister-in-law had told them a state security official had delivered a CD over the weekend with pictures of Hada with his wife and son posing in what looks like a hotel room next to a table laden with food. The photos are dated 10 December, the day of his expected release. Curiously the photos had also been anonymously posted to a human rights website a few hours earlier.

It is highly likely that the authorities are holding them either under house arrest or detention for the purpose of silencing them through isolation and so-called “ideological work”, the organisation’s president, Enghebatu Togochog, told Index.

It is common in China for freed dissidents to be further detained after their release for a while as a measure to prevent possible unrest and to stop media interviews. The photos may be to reassure his family he is fine and out of jail. But until now he has been prevented from calling his family.

So who is Hada?

The New York Times called him “one of China’s longest serving political prisoners.” He had called for greater autonomy for ethnic Mongolians living inside China in the Inner Mongolia region, a vast land of flat steppe: desert in the west, grassland in the east. The Mongolians share similar grievances as the Tibetans: They believe their culture is being diluted and destroyed by Chinese Han migrants.

Hada was arrested at a rally in the regional capital Hohot back in 1995 for his activities with the underground Southern Mongolian Democracy Alliance. According to the New York Times, the spying charges came from interviews he gave with overseas news media.

China: Missing lawyer located

Chinese authorities have told the US human rights group, the Dui Hua Foundation, that Gao Zhisheng – a human rights lawyer who has been missing for more than a year – is in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Zhisheng’s case has drawn international attention due to the unusual length of his disappearance. John Kamm, the foundation’s executive director, said the news was a “tentative step in the right direction toward accountability”, but many questions still needed to be answered such as “What is he doing there? How long has he been there?”