“At the military enlistment office, I turned on the Ukrainian national anthem”: 17-year-old Vlad Kolesnikov talks about his decision to combat Putin’s propaganda
June 10, 2015
Hundreds of people have been writing to Vlad Kolesnikov, a 17-year-old technical college student from Podolsk. They have been writing with offers of assistance and shelter, and to thank him and advise him to be more careful.
“I cannot express in words the emotions I feel reading Facebook,” says Vlad, his voice trembling with emotion. “There has been so much support from strangers, it is simply incredible.”
Vlad has acquired a lot of friends on the Internet, but his own grandfather, a former KGB officer, has condemned him. At the technical college where he studied he was assaulted. (Vlad asked not to write that he had been beaten up: “It was only a split lip, a couple of bruises, a couple of blows to the head, and three drops of blood.”) And now the police have taken an interest in him.
And all because Vlad Kolesnikov not only does not hide his political views but has also decided to declare them openly.
Vlad Kolesnikov: Putin sits with his pack of criminals and runs the country with the aid of powerful propaganda. This is my subjective opinion. Maybe I am wrong, but I believe it is true. You know the Russian media have been vigorously promoting the image of khokhly [a Russian term of abuse for Ukrainians] and pindosy [a Russian term of abuse for Americans] as enemies. I also supported this until I watched a video on YouTube. It was 2014, and I will probably never forget it, because the video changed my life. The content of the video was completely banal. It was just an American family. The wife is Russian, the husband, American. He gives her a gift, they go to a shooting range. And instead of the propaganda we get—that it is a fascist regime where everyone is obsessed with sex and money, and everyone betrays each other—I saw people like myself. The only difference was that they smiled more. Since then I have been digging more, looking for different kinds of information, and reading the western press. I have realized the Russian media makes lots of mistakes, exaggerates, and in most cases just blatantly lies.
Radio Svoboda: And your relations with your relatives have been complicated because of the fact they do not share your views?
Vlad Kolesnikov: Yes. And not only my relations with relatives, but with everyone, you could say. I know only two people who more or less share my views: my friend Nikolai Podgornov and one other person whom I won’t name. But all the people I know—my whole college, all my relatives—they are all against me. It is just Nikolai and me,
Radio Svoboda: You and Nikolai decided to hang up a banner in Podolsk that read, “Fuck the war”?
Vlad Kolesnikov: Yes, it all started when I was at the military enlistment commission and told them I did not want to serve in the army and did not want to fight against my brethren. Maybe that sounds sentimental, but that is the way it is. We decided we could not tolerate it anymore and would voice it openly. First, we wanted to hang a banner in Moscow, but then we thought it would be torn down quickly, and so we looked for a good place in Podolsk. We walked around for a long time and found a building with an accessible rooftop in the middle of town and decided to hang the banner there. We went to a fabrics shop. We bought a five-meter-long piece of cloth. We spent a long time picking out cloth that would be sturdier. We bought paint. This is expensive for a college student, but it was worth it. We spent all night making the banner and sitting on the rooftop. We fastened the banner to iron cables so that it would hang longer, and we locked the door [to the rooftop] so that it would take the police longer to get in. They had to summon the Emergency Situations Ministry guys. I think we gained two or three hours more time on them that way.
Radio Svoboda: You told the military enlistment commission straight out that you did not want to fight?
Vlad Kolesnikov: I don’t have very good eyesight, so I am not fit for military service. I went through the medical examination, and there was I before the draft board. There were tables shaped like the letter П set up there, and the people who did the assessments were seated at these tables. I had the Ukrainian national anthem recorded on my telephone. I don’t like the Russian national anthem, because I consider it mendacious. Everything it says about freedom and so on is just pure rubbish. Before entering the room I decided to turn on the Ukrainian anthem, because I do not support the Russian army at all and consider serving in it disgraceful. So I turned on the Ukrainian anthem and said, “Guys, I’m not going to fight in the Russian army.”
Radio Svoboda: Vlad, you would agree that you are a very unusual young man. You are immune to propaganda, and are fearless to boot.
Vlad Kolesnikov: In fact, I was just lucky. I just did not have a TV for a certain time, and I did not watch the news. And when I got a TV, I turned it on and saw the nonsense that was going on there. I turned right to that program where [TV journalist Dmitry] Kiselyov fiercely argued that the hearts of gays should be burned. I was sitting there and thinking, Is this a comedy show? Then I realized that a new kind of news had emerged in Russia. It is hardcore, and produced in keeping with all of Goebbels’s principles of propaganda: enemies surround us, the country has been occupied. Total drivel.
Radio Svoboda: So, you turned on the Ukrainian national anthem at the military enlistment commission. The members of the draft board were probably stunned when they heard it, no?
Vlad Kolesnikov: It was something incredible. Some people were dumfounded. Others jumped up and shouted, “What are you doing? Do you know where you are?” After a while, a man came running in. He took me to a separate room and laid two certificates in front of me. One said that I had problems with my eyesight, which is true. The other said that I had a personality disorder and something else. In short, the military enlistment commission had assigned me to the loonies, because I had gone in there playing the Ukrainian anthem and expressed my opinion. That was a turning point. When that certificate was put in front of me, I realized I would not put up with this anymore. I had simply gone in there, and I was immediately classified as a loony.
Radio Svoboda: And there is your latest feat. You came to school in a t-shirt with the Ukrainian flag on it.
Vlad Kolesnikov: Yes. I had voiced my political views earlier at the college, and had often argued with the teachers on this score. As you can imagine, nothing good had come of this, but neither did anything super bad, except lowered marks and other trifles. But then it got fun. Near the college, I immediately met the class teacher. At our college, they are called professional masters. I will never forget that look. At first, he looked at me like a normal, decent person. Then he saw what I had on my t-shirt. He looked up at me, and I saw this hatred! Then I went upstairs and walked into the classroom. Within five minutes, the people sitting in front of me turned around (I was sitting in the back row) and said, “Kolesnikov, should we smash your face in now or later?” Well, just you try, I said. As you know, they kept their promises, not that day, however, but a few days later, after I had published my posts, when they had heard a lot of interesting things about themselves. I can argue my position, why I think Crimea was annexed, why Donbas was occupied. I have arguments, I have facts, and I know people who served there. On TV, they say there are no Russian troops there. In reality, of course, it is the other way round. They could not come up with convincing arguments. It all came down to my being a disgrace to the country, and I should tear the flag from my shirt. It is an interesting policy, actually. It turns out if you express your opinion you are disgrace to the country.
Vlad Kolesnikov was forced to leave college (he was immediately expelled) and leave Podolsk. His grandfather, with whom he lived, also did not share his political views and sent his grandson to his father in Zhigulyovsk. It was just in time. Kolesnikov called his grandfather to say he had arrived safely and heard the disturbing news that two police officers had come and asked where he had got the Ukrainian flag and where his t-shirt was now.
“All democrats in Russia were sent into exile, and that is how I feel now, as if I am in exile. Many people are now advising me to go to Kiev. But that is the most extreme option. If someone thinks I will sit this out, get a foreign travel passport, leave for Ukraine, and that will be the end of it, they are mistaken. For now, I am planning after Zhigulyovsk to return to Moscow and do a couple of protest pickets,” promises fearless Vlad Kolesnikov.
Translated by the Russian Reader
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Russia Day (Russian: День России, Den’ Rossii) is the national holiday of the Russian Federation, celebrated on June 12. It has been celebrated every year since 1992. The First Congress of People’s Deputies of the Russian Federation adopted the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on June 12, 1990.