MOSCOW—When I first arrived at Pushkin Square about an hour before the start of a planned anti-war rally on Sunday, I thought I might have been in the wrong place. The plaza beneath the statue of Russia’s favorite poet was dominated by supporters of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, brandishing the Dixie-esque flag of Novorossiya and signs denouncing NATO, the United States, and the “fascist” government of Ukraine. The counterprotesters, evidently, got an early start.
Over time, however, the ranks of those attending the “March for Peace” grew to become the overwhelming majority. It was Moscow’s first major anti-war rally since March and the first since violence began in eastern Ukraine. Estimates of the crowd size varied. Organizers had hoped for a turnout of 50,000, the official police estimate was 5,000, and the AP put it at 20,000.
It was difficult to get a handle on the size of the event—a fact that seemed like it could have been intentional. A slow-moving police checkpoint complete with metal detectors and pat-downs at the entrance to the fenced-off march route created a bottleneck that kept the crowd divided. Beyond a few shouting matches and some finger pointing and shoving along the edges, I didn’t see any violence, though the police presence was massive. But it was abundantly and depressingly clear from talking to both sides of the crowd that there’s a divide not between political ideologies or geopolitical positions but between versions of reality.
One attendee, Ekaterina Alexeyeva, told me the event seemed bigger and more enthusiastic than previous marches she’d attended in the city. “Ninety-nine [point] nine percent of the people in Russia are really pro-Putin, but this gives me hope,” said Alexeyeva, who works for a distributor of American-made commercial vehicles. “I think it’s my duty to be here because it is a platform where you can just [talk] to people who understand you. In my circle, there are not that many people who share my opinion, who are against the war and what the government’s doing.”
Several protesters questioned whether support for Putin was really as high as has been reported.
“They think the vast majority support them,” said Yegor, an artist and IT specialist who, like several people I spoke with, preferred not to give his last name. “We want to show that we’re more than 15 percent.”
Andrei Hartley, pushing an infant in a stroller along the march route, told me he believes the support for Putin may be “30 percent less” than has been reported because people are “afraid to answer the question.” But, he conceded, Putin “still has quite a lot of support because many Russians want to be brave and be proud of the Russian empire. To be honest, I hate Putin and I hate everything he does.”
Hartley, who works in food distribution, told me that “we’ve felt the effects of consumer behavior” as the state of the economy has worsened and sanctions have started to bite. Nonetheless, he feels there’s no hope of the government changing its actions until the “economy is two or three times worse than it is now; then the people will react. People live pretty well right now, so that’s why they’re not willing to go against Russian policy.”
The protesters undoubtedly represent a tiny minority of opinion in Russia. Anti-government opposition has been significantly weakened since the much larger protests around Putin’s re-election in 2012, with a number of the most high-profile figures in the movement either in exile or under house arrest. But the impact of the war is becoming harder to ignore, as soldiers who are not officially even in Ukraine start returning in coffins.
“All of us are mothers of sons who are going to be involved in this war. We’re against the war as mothers,” said Anna, who carried a placard depicting Putin casting Josef Stalin’s shadow. “The Russian government needs to resolve its own problems, and it’s willing to pay the lives of Russian people and Ukrainian people to resolve its own problems.”
The counterprotesters in Pushkin Square, unsurprisingly, saw events differently.
“I saw on the Internet that this was organized as a peace march, but the slogans were not peaceful,” said Andrei Gashakov, who works in real estate. “They accuse Russia of occupying Ukrainian territory. It’s not true. The people of Donetsk and Luhansk are asking Russia to help them. They are asking the Russian government to prevent the Kiev junta from killing off the people.”
“We have to unite against fascism and Nazism, which in Ukraine was supported by the U.S. Department of State and the European Union,” said Elena, a housewife who carried a sign comparing the violence in eastern Ukraine to the atrocities of World War II. “These Nazis organized bloodshed in Donbas and used artillery against women and children, only because they disagreed with the coup d’état. That’s why they’re suffering.”
“Most American people don’t even know where Crimea is. Why do they care?” asked Alexander, an Internet entrepreneur. Drawing a line between U.S. support for the Ukrainian government and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he continued: “I want the American people to start asking questions about why their government is interfering in everything.”
Grisha Rabinovich, who works in marketing, told me that he’s not a supporter of Vladimir Putin’s government but also feels Western governments are interfering. “It’s business,” he said. “America needs markets. Russia needs markets. Ukraine is a big market.” He also posed a hypothetical: “If in Canada, fascism and Nazism took over and they made all the people who speak English speak French, wouldn’t America do something about that?”
Nobody (well, almost nobody) is for fascism and genocide. But given that they are getting their information from diametrically opposed media sources—the international media and Russia’s remaining independent outlets vs. the state-aligned TV networks and newspapers—the two sides had entirely different versions of what’s going on in Ukraine. It’s hard to see how the protesters will be able to make too much headway when the two sides can’t even agree on a set of facts.
But one peace marcher, Maria Egorovna, took the long view. Eighty-seven years old and walking with a cane, she stood out in a crowd that skewed toward yuppie Muscovites. She told me she had spent World War II in Siberian exile and had been participating in protests since the pivotal and deadly demonstrations outside the Russian White House during the constitutional crisis of 1993. Asked whether she was hopeful for change, she replied, “I’m a Russian. I’m used to being patient.”