“We Had a Delightful Crew in the Paddy Wagon”: An 80-Year-Old Petersburg Anti-War Activist Tells Her Story

Liudmila Vasilyeva is detained at an anti-war February 24 at Gostiny Dvor. Her placard reads, “No war, please” Photo: Artyom Leshko/Novaya Gazeta

We met with Liudmila Nikolaevna Vasilyeva in between demonstrations. On February 24 she—a survivor of the WWII-era Siege of Leningrad and a Soviet veteran of labor—was arrested outside the Gostiny Dvor shopping center and taken to a paddy wagon. Her plan for February 27 was to buy flowers, take them to the Solovetsky Stone, and then to be on Nevsky Prospect [the main drag in St Petersburg] with the other protesters by 4 p.m. 

“I managed to go to the hairdresser’s this morning before you came. I hadn’t had a haircut for nearly a year because of covid.” 

Wearing a sober black dress and pearl necklace, Liudmila ushered me into her apartment. At the entrance we were met by her tomcat Africus and a kitten named Flash Drive recently picked up on the street. 

“They woke me up the morning of the 24th, they were meowing,” Liudmila recalls. “I turned on TV Rain right away, where I heard about the war. My tears came flooding out, my blood pressure went up to 200—I haven’t experienced anything like that in ages. Back in 2014 when it was all just starting with Crimea and they hadn’t started fighting in Donbas, I asked my son Denis to print out a poster saying “No to the fratricidal war” and went out to picket. Vitaly Milonov called me a Banderovite then, but I was just talking to people: ‘Mothers, how can you be silent and not come out in protest, it’s your sons who will be killed!’ At work my co-workers kept assuring me ‘Liuda, there won’t be a war!’ But I could see what was going on and I remember everything as if it was happening right now.”

“I don’t believe there are Nazis in Ukraine,” Liudmila continues. “People there want freedom, while Putin wants to re-establish an empire. My heart hurts for everyone: for our boys who’ve been sent to fight, and for the Ukrainians. How could I not go to the demonstration?”

Her son Denis told her over the phone where and when the solo pickets would be happening. He currently lives in Germany.

“I felt helpless for a long time, kept asking myself: what can I do, how can I stop this? When my son called on the morning of the 24th, I told him right away, ‘I’m going out to protest! Just tell me where to go and when!’ And then I got ready and headed out. I got out of the subway and saw girls with placards. They didn’t even have time to unfold them—they were all arrested immediately. I said, ‘Give me your placard—I’ll stand there in your place!’ Of course, the police came running up right away. But I didn’t hand over the placard, so they took me off to the paddy wagon with it unfolded.”

“We had a delightful crew in the paddy wagon,” Liudmila smiled. “The girls were already there, some twenty-year-old boys with a bouquet of carnations—not even my children’s age, my grandchildren’s. We said hello and I suggested, ‘Why stay silent, let’s yell “No war!”’ And we yelled really really loud in the paddy wagon—maybe they could even hear us out on the street. One of the girls recited some of her poetry, I recited ‘Where does Russia begin’ by Viktor Bokov, and we all sang [Boris] Grebenshchikov’s ’Train on Fire’. When I hang out with young people I become younger myself. And then I started teaching the ones in masks and helmets a lesson: ‘Guys, look who you’ve arrested. Kids! It’s easy enough for you to wage war with them, but for some reason you’re afraid of [Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadyrov.”

“They took my [internal] passport and at this point, evidently, they realized that I really am a survivor of the Siege—it’s written there in my passport where and when I was born. They started asking me whether maybe they should call an ambulance for me. I said, ‘I don’t need any ambulance, and I’m not going anywhere—I’m staying here with the young people.’Then they came in again: ‘Let’s go!’ And this time the kids said ‘Go on, go on.’ So I went—got out of the paddy wagon and once again started yelling ‘No war!’, and told the young folks in parting, ‘I love you. You’re marvelous!’”

After releasing her, the police decided to drive Liudmila home in their police car.

“At first I said that I didn’t want their help and asked them to let me out by the subway.”

She added: “I don’t need a ride: you’ll try to plant drugs on me.”

“But they said they’d been ordered to do it. Then I started talking with them. One of them was silent the whole time, but the other one talked with me.”

On the way home Liudmila softened and invited the policemen in for tea, but they declined, saying that they weren’t allowed when in uniform.

“And then—I had already gone to bed—the doorbell rang. I put my robe on and peeked in the peephole—there were two people, not in uniform, a man and a woman carrying a bag. They said they came from police headquarters to apologize and had brought something sweet to eat. I’m not supposed to have sweets because of my age, but I made tea and had a ‘preventive conversation with them—we spent more than an hour sitting in the kitchen. They claimed that the men who had detained me were not police, but [Russian National Guardsmen]. I said it was all the same outfit. They appeared to more or less agree with me. I sent them off with the wish that they live in such a way that they would not be ashamed of what they were doing.”

“You see, I talk with everyone,” Liudmila explained. “We are people and we must try to get through to everyone. I can give examples: they earn practically nothing, while Sechin gets a million a day, at their expense. They’re all kids to me. And they have their own kids. I try to awaken a little goodness in them, so that the police hear something humane instead of aggression in response. I urge them to read the news from various sources, to have an opinion of their own instead of one imposed on them—many of them reply to me with phrases straight from the TV.”

Liudmila calls herself a “progressive lady”: she watches RBC, Euronews, and the Culture channel, reads the news from several different media sources, and listens to podcasts on her laptop.

“I tried to watch Russia 1 and RT to see what they’re saying there, but I couldn’t listen for more than three minutes: they’re roaring, calling names, so much noise and aggression and not a single true word. We are threatening the entire world and have gotten to the point that every single one of our words has to be fact-checked. But I don’t just watch the news, don’t get the wrong idea. I read books too. I started reading Nabokov’s Lolita but haven’t been able to finish it because of everything that’s going on.”

“Boris, my husband, loved to read,” Liudmila goes on. “When we visited people he always went straight to the bookshelves—to see whether he might borrow something. It’s too bad that he passed away nearly twenty years ago. He was very clever and erudite—and he educated me when we first met. I was an idealistic Soviet girl. I listened to what they told us—by the way, it’s practically the same as now: enemies all around, we’re defending ourselves all alone. I would say to Boris, ‘But in the paper it says this, on TV they say…’ And he’d reply, ‘And have you seen what’s written on the fences?’ He taught me to think. So when I was invited to join the Party, I said no: ‘As long as the Party people are like you, I’m not joining. You say one thing but in fact you’re fawning and two-faced.'”

Liudmila Vasilyev shows us her Leningrad Siege survivor ID. Photo: Artyom Leshko/Novaya Gazeta

When the war [WWII] started, Liudmila was two months old. She stayed in Leningrad with her mother.

“Of course I don’t remember anything from the first years, but I do have fragmented memories from closer to the end of the Siege,” she said.

“I remember how ice from the kitchen sink reached all the way to the floor, how we ate potato peels, I remember the rats running around.”

“The Second World War was one enormous tragedy. Mama always fought for us and didn’t lose her optimism—she was always cheerful, didn’t cry, but if you woke up at night you could see her lying in bed with her eyes open and tears running down her cheeks. Her husband’s uncle was on the Leningrad front. He and mama were saints. They’re the ones who were victorious! But the way our government is exploiting the war and the victory over Nazism these days: it would be better not to talk about it.”


“I’m going out again on the 27th for the March in memory of [Boris] Nemtsov,” Liudmila shares her upcoming plans. “I’ll buy flowers and go to the Solovetsky Stone. I do that every year. And every year on August 19th I go to the Mariinsky Palace, even though it was so long ago. During the [attempted coup in August 1991] my sister said, ‘Liudmila, they’ll kill you there.’ But I told her I can’t just stand there and not do anything. In 1991 the whole square was packed, but now people don’t come out to protest as much. All the more reason to go. Even if no one else was there, I would still go. And what do I have to fear now? I’m 80. My blood pressure has gone up—so what. I lived through yesterday and did it with style. Talked to the young people, gathered more strength. I saw their faces, their beautiful eyes. They’re still full of vim and vigor—they want to change something. I do too. And I want to take part in this, to speak out, to stop the war, so that people don’t die. The world is made up of people. Without them there’s nothing there. And to save even one life I will go on talking with just about anybody.”

Liudmila Vasilyeva at the February 27 anti-war rally at Gostiny Dvor

P.S. On February 27 at 4:00 p.m., Liudmila was arrested again at Gostiny Dvor. This time she was standing with no sign, a small woman surrounded by five riot police officers. She opened her arms wide and said, “Well, what are you waiting for? Arrest me!” They did. 

Source: Artyom Leshko, Novaya Gazeta, 27 February 2022. Photos by Artyom Leshko/Novaya Gazeta. Translated by the Fabulous AM