Russians Must Accept the Truth. We Failed.

TBILISI, Georgia — “Wake up, Sonya, the war has started.” These were the first words I said to my girlfriend on the morning of Feb. 24, as Russian missiles rained down on Ukraine. The words I’d never thought I’d have to say.

No one in Moscow believed there could be a war, even though it’s painfully clear now that the Kremlin had been gearing up for it for years. Were we, the millions of Russians who were openly or secretly opposed to President Vladimir Putin’s regime, merely silent witnesses to what was happening? Even worse, did we endorse it?

No. In 2011, when it was announced that Mr. Putin would return to the Kremlin as president, tens of thousands took to the streets in protest. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and fomented war in the Donbas, we held huge antiwar rallies. And in 2021 we took to the streets once more throughout the country when Russia’s main opposition figure, Aleksei Navalny, was arrested after his return to Moscow.

I want to believe we did everything in our power to rein in Mr. Putin. But it’s not true. Though we protested, organized, lobbied, spread information and built honest lives in the shadow of a corrupt regime, we must accept the truth: We failed. We failed to prevent a catastrophe and we failed to change the country for the better. And now we must bear that failure.

The Russians who oppose the war now find themselves in a terrible state. It’s not just that we couldn’t stop this senseless and illegal war — we can’t even protest against it. A law passed on March 4 makes the expression of antiwar sentiment in Russia punishable by up to 15 years in prison. (Already, about 15,000 people have been detained for antiwar actions since the invasion began.) Facing an intolerable future, thousands have fled the country. Those who stayed have lost much of what remained of their freedom. After Mastercard and Visa suspended operations in Russia, many can’t even pay for a VPN service to get independent media.

It is as if we’re being viewed as criminals not only by our own state but also by the rest of the world. Yet we are not criminals. We did not start this war, and we did not vote for the people who did. We did not work for the state that is now bombing Ukrainian cities. Time and again, we raised our voices against the government’s policies, even as it became ever more dangerous to do so.

It wasn’t easy. Over the past decade, a plethora of repressive legislation cracked down on public protest, decimated the free press, censored the internet and suppressed free speech. Independent outlets were blocked, journalists were labeled “foreign agents,” and human rights organizations were shut down. Thousands were detained and beaten. Prominent critics were driven to exile or killed. Mr. Navalny was imprisoned and could remain in jail for many years. We paid for our defiance.

Police officers detaining a supporter of Aleksei Navalny last year.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Even so, it is up to us to start the conversation about what has happened. The invasion of Ukraine marks the end, definitively, of Russia’s postwar era. During the 77 years since World War II, Russia was regarded — no matter what other perceptions it carried — as the country that helped to save humanity from the greatest evil the world has ever known. Russia was the heroic country that defeated fascism, even if that victory forced 45 years of Communism on half of Europe. Not anymore. Russia is now the nation that unleashed a new evil, and unlike the old one, it’s armed with nuclear weapons.

The primary responsibility for this evil lies squarely at the feet of Mr. Putin and his entourage. But for those who opposed the regime, in ways big and small, the responsibility is also ours to bear. How did it happen? What did we do wrong? How do we prevent this from happening again? These are the questions we’re facing. No matter where we are — in Moscow, Tbilisi, Yerevan, Riga, Istanbul, Tel Aviv or New York — and no matter what we do.

A state television employee holding a poster condemning the war in Ukraine on Monday.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Responsibility is the key. There was a lot of good in the country I grew up in, the one that stopped existing two weeks ago. But responsibility was what we lacked. Russia is a very individualistic society, in which people, to quote the cultural historian Andrei Zorin, live with a “Leave me alone” mind-set. We like to isolate ourselves from one another, from the state, from the world. This allowed many of us to build vibrant, hopeful, energetic lives against a grim backdrop of arrests and prison. But in the process, we became insular and lost sight of everyone else’s interests.

We must now put aside our individual concerns and accept our common responsibility for the war. Such an act is, first and foremost, a moral necessity. But it could also be the first step toward a new Russian nation — a nation that could talk to the world in a language other than wars and threats, a nation that others will learn not to fear. It is toward creating this Russia that we, outcast and exiled and persecuted, should bend our efforts.

Mediazona, an independent website that covers criminal proceedings and the penal system, has a haunting slogan: “It will get worse.” For the past decade, that’s been a grimly accurate prediction. As Russia bombards Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine things could be anything other than awful. But we must.

Ilya Krasilshchik (@ikrasil) is the former publisher of Meduza, an independent news outlet.

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