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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
No to war, definitely no to war - those were the final words at TV Rain, Russia's last remaining independent television station. Viewers watched as the hosts rose from the news desk, unclipped their microphones, and surrounded by station staff, left the set. The station broadcast ended with black-and-white footage of the ballet "Swan Lake." It was a final, defiant message to viewers. The same ballet was aired on Soviet state television during a failed coup attempt in 1991, the first in a series of events that eventually led to the end of the Soviet Union. And on the radio...
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MARTIN: An announcer on the popular radio station Echo of Moscow, was cut off mid-sentence during a discussion of Russia's censorship watchdog. Media blackouts like that are due to a new law that threatens anyone with 15 years in prison if they publish or air what the Russian government considers false information about the invasion of Ukraine, which they call a, quote, "special military operation," unquote. It is illegal to use the word war or invasion. Yevgenia Albats hosted a talk show on Echo of Moscow. She is editor and CEO of The New Times magazine. Their website has also been blocked. She says, in Russia, it's feeling a lot like "1984," the novel.
YEVGENIA ALBATS: It is all 1984. Truth is not truth. Lies are not lies. Lies are truth. And war is peace.
MARTIN: As Western media outlets try to assess the threat to their reporters, some have evacuated their journalists or stopped broadcasting in Russia. Yevgenia Albats is staying put in Moscow, where she risks arrest for reporting on the war. But as independent media is being censored, some people in Russia are determined to be heard. The Russian independent human rights group OVD-Info reports that more than 13,000 protesters in 147 Russian cities have been detained since the war began just over two weeks ago.
CONSIDER THIS - as Russian President Vladimir Putin tries to silence opposition to the war in Ukraine, Russians across the country continue to risk violence and imprisonment to speak out. And we'll hear how Russian immigrants and Russian Americans are showing support for Ukraine as attitudes among some in their community shift from acceptance of Putin to outrage.
That's coming up. From NPR, I'm Michel Martin. It's Saturday, March 12.
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MARTIN: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Yulia ZHIVTSOVA headed out to protest.
YULIA ZHIVTSOVA: I was one of the first being detained because, well, the moment I heard about the news, I decided that I need to do something. So I went to Pushkin Square.
MARTIN: The center of Moscow, right near the Kremlin.
ZHIVTSOVA: Usually, if you have a poster, you get arrested right away, even if it is just a blank piece of paper. So what I did, I got two "Harry Potter" books. One's yellow and another one's blue, so it looked like a Ukrainian flag, obviously. So for about an hour, the police did not know what to do with me because it was quite unusual, probably, for them. But then, yeah, they decided to take me to the police station.
MARTIN: Yulia has protested before against Putin and on behalf of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. She knows the risks, but she says it's different now. She's seeing heavier crackdowns.
ZHIVTSOVA: The problem is that the measures that are being taken by the government are getting tougher and tougher. They are introducing some new laws. Even if you post something like please go out and protest against the war, you can go to jail for real. Like, you might face criminal charges, not some administrative, whatever it is, which is quite horrible because I'm already hearing such stories from like friends of friends.
MARTIN: Yulia Zhivtsova us spoke with my NPR colleague Mary Louise Kelly a week ago and told her, use my name, my full name.
ZHIVTSOVA: More and more people realize now that if I keep silent, I'm still not safe. That's the issue. And more and more people are realizing it now that keeping silent doesn't actually help.
MARTIN: Zhivtsova believes that there are more people in Russia who are against the war than are out protesting. She thinks they are afraid that they will be arrested, lose their jobs or get kicked out of their universities. But she says she will continue protesting when she can. She doesn't think the protests will change Putin's mind about the war.
ZHIVTSOVA: So it's more like for the future generations. Like, you see, I was out there. I was protesting. I was against this.
MARTIN: To her, the war is senseless. She grew up believing that Russia and Ukraine had a special relationship.
ZHIVTSOVA: Russia and the Ukraine are kind of very close countries. we are historically tight. And it's not that we want to go at war at each other.
MARTIN: But she knows that many people think differently and don't question the information coming from state-controlled media.
ZHIVTSOVA: I mean, even my dad is quite pro-Putin nowadays. And while he says he's ashamed of me or something like that, I just told him that I would block him for a while. And if he needs something, he may call me. So when it comes to politics, it's very difficult to talk to him.
MARTIN: Events in Ukraine are changing rapidly, and with the loss of independent news outlets in Russia, accurate, reliable information is very difficult to find, even on social media. Facebook has been blocked, and there are plans to restrict access to Instagram. It's more difficult to use Twitter. And people in Russia can no longer upload content to TikTok
ZHIVTSOVA: I don't know. I just feel very anxious every day. And it's all very annoying. I don't know. Just - I don't know. It's all very depressive. So sometimes I'm laughing when I'm answering your questions, but it's like just a crazy reaction to what's going on.
MARTIN: Coming up, we'll hear how some Russian Americans are showing their opposition to the war.
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MARTIN: It's estimated that close to 3 million people in the U.S. identify as Russian American, about 900,000 of whom speak Russian at home. Many left the country to escape the iron-fisted authoritarianism that Putin has steadily reestablished. Liana Zuzulan was born in the U.S. to Russian-speaking parents. She grew up surrounded by fellow emigres, and that made her acutely aware of the complicated relationship many of those who left maintained with their home country.
LIANA ZUZULAN: The older generation of my grandparents nursed what we thought were these idealistic, impossible hopes of returning to a Russia post-communism that would be free. But most of the time, the view of the Soviet Union was that it was a hostile country where religion was persecuted and that our family was lucky to escape. But there were definitely people who thought that someday communism would fall and a certain amount of freedom would return to Russia and that we could return.
MARTIN: Zuzulan is an attorney and international legal specialist who has consulted for the World Bank and others. She lived and worked in Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union.
ZUZULAN: I worked on a U.S.-government-funded legal reform project. It's important to understand that the United States helped support a great deal of reform in Russia like rewriting the civil code, setting up a central bank, setting up a securities and exchange commission. Those were all American-supported efforts to the Yeltsin government to help them reform and enter the modern world economy. And we all thought that Russia might be a, quote-unquote, "normal country," as did many of my Russian-speaking colleagues in Russia, many of whom I'm still really good friends with. We thought that we were part of a process of normalizing Russia.
MARTIN: Since Russia invaded Ukraine, she's been helping to organize fellow Russian Americans who are opposed to the war. And she started by telling me how she feels about what Russia is doing.
ZUZULAN: It's just total shock and grief. I was sadly not surprised because we've been hearing about the military buildup around Ukraine for months. So I was not surprised, but I was still in a total state of shock and devastation. And frankly, this has caused a paradigm shift for many Russian Americans. There were a number of Russian Americans who historically were Republican and conservative. It's a culturally conservative group of people. And they were courted to a large extent by the Putin government because it had been a pro-religious government, it seemed.
So there was reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church in the U.S. with the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia. And a number of the Russian American friends that I have, people I've known my whole life sort of thought Putin was OK. OK, he's a little bit not as free as the United States. But, you know, the churches are open. And the economy is going well. And for people like that, this has cause - I know several people for whom it's a total upside-down paradigm shift. They've now realized that he's really, really evil.
MARTIN: One thing that's been shocking to some people in the - frankly, is the emergence of pro-Putin defenders in the conservative media and even in the Republican Party, and the former president being chief among them, right? And so I was wondering if you have been seeing that in your community. And are there people who think that what Putin is doing is acceptable or even right, and if so, why?
ZUZULAN: There are a few people who are vocal about thinking that what Putin is doing is acceptable. There are several reasons for that. Partly, they are Trump supporters. Partly, they are people who watch exclusively Russian news and have bought the suggestion from Russian news that Russian speakers in Ukraine are somehow persecuted. But also, this is part of an active campaign by the Russian government over the last, I would say, 10 years to become close to the American conservative religious fundamentalist groups. It's - their appeal is we're against gays and we're pro-family, so we are more like you than these evil Democrats. And Russian Americans, along with other conservatives in the United States, have been very susceptible to that.
Now, there are people who didn't buy into all that Putin-is-wonderful stuff. I talked recently to a woman who's 94. Her mother escaped from Russia during the revolution, through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. This woman is 94, born in China, and she is just crying. She's just watching the news, and she's just crying. The other reason that this is so shocking and so upsetting is that Russians and Ukrainians are, in fact, interrelated. One of my grandmothers is half-Ukrainian. You touch any Russian, he will have a Ukrainian and grandmother, cousin. And the same thing is true of Ukrainians. There are many Russians and Ukrainians who have intermarried. This seems almost as absurd as if we, Michel, were to march into Canada. Like, why would we?
MARTIN: So you've been trying to organize other people with your views and your background to speak out against this. You helped draft a letter. It's called "An Appeal By Emigres From The Soviet And Post-Soviet Space About The Invasion By The Putin Regime Into Ukraine." I just want to read the top of it. You say, (reading) we, the descendants of immigrants from the Soviet post-Soviet space living in North America and Europe, appeal to the leaders and citizens of the free world to condemn the invasion by Russian President Vladimir Putin into the sovereign and independent country of Ukraine as a gross violation of international law and moral norms. You say, (reading) there is and can be no justification for this crime.
And then you go on to talk about, you know, how catastrophic this will be, how this will, you know, provoke a refugee crisis. What are you hoping to accomplish with this? Are you hoping that it will somehow get to people in Russia who increasingly are being sort of choked off - are being choked off from independent sources of information? Like, what are you hoping for here?
ZUZULAN: Well, yes, the the point of the letter was to get it onto some Russian websites, which I have, you know, sort of collaborators who are working on that. The other thing is that we also want Ukrainians, Ukrainian Americans, but Ukrainians to know that not all Russians support this.
MARTIN: That was Liana Zuzulan. She is an American lawyer who's organizing fellow Russian Americans to speak out against the invasion of Ukraine. Additional reporting in this episode came from NPR's Michele Kelemen.
It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Michel Martin.
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