“President, Change Course!”: Yelena Osipova, The 77-Year-Old on the Frontlines of Petersburg’s Anti-War Protests

Police detain Yelena Osipova during a protest in Petersburg in March 2022. The placards she is holding call for the elimination of nuclear weapons throughout the world. Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

“President, Change Course!”
Yelena Osipova, a 77-year-old artist, has been taking to the streets of St. Petersburg for twenty years with her painted placards on the day’s most burning issues

Some call her the city’s conscience, while others call her the city’s disgrace — just as some consider the “special operation” a humanitarian disaster, while others regard it a liberation campaign. But Yelena Andreyevna Osipova is more afraid of people who are indifferent than of her opponents.

There have never been major renovations in the late nineteenth-century residential building where Yelena Andreyevna lives. Her communal flat is chockablock with furniture that was purchased at least half a century ago. When her guests arrive, the artist takes out a new small white towel embroidered with New Year’s tree toys. Yelena Andreyevna treats us to rice and vegetables. When she puts it on our plates, she says, “It’s delicious, there’s even meat in it.” She is glad that she has a pack of tea in her pantry. She opens it, explaining that the other day that the social security department bought her a grocery care package since she is officially poor.

Yelena Osipova in the kitchen of her communal flat. Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

All her life, Osipova, who graduated from art school, taught fine art in the schools. But she retired thirteen years ago.

“You have to smile at children,” she says, “but after the death of my only son [in 2009], I couldn’t smile anymore.”

Yelena Andreyevna’s pension is six thousand rubles a month [approx. 56 euros]. She receives another one and a half thousand rubles as a low-income allowance.

“Last month they added a little more — it came to about nine thousand. And the maintenance bill is five thousand. Pay, lie down and die?” the pensioner asks rhetorically. “Of course, I don’t pay for anything. I spend money only on food. My landline telephone was cut off for non-payment. I haven’t been fined [for detentions during street protests] because I have no money to pay them.”

Yelena Osipova. Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

“Sometimes unkind people reproach me, claiming that I am paid, that I protest for money, and so on. What money?” the artist asks, perplexed. “All my placards are at my house, I haven’t sold a single one in twenty years. Other people photograph them, make copies and sell them. But I can’t be responsible for that anymore. Sometimes people on the street try to give me money, they sincerely want to help, I see that. But I can’t take their money. If I took even a single ruble, it would negate everything I do. I’m not doing it for the money, but out of conviction. I don’t peddle my convictions.”

Yelena Osipova’s room in a communal flat in Petersburg’s Central District. Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

Several years ago, Petersburgers raised five thousand rubles so that the artist could pay a fine for involvement in a protest rally. But she sent the money to the men who were convicted in the Bolotnaya Square case.

Yelena Andreyevna began voicing her views and beliefs publicly — by picketing with handmade placards in the street — in 2002, after the Nord-Ost siege. She has not stopped since, despite intimidation and prohibitions from the authorities. The artist’s works, her placards and paintings, fill her room in a communal flat from floor to ceiling, as well as a closet and a corridor.

“On the night when the Dubrovka Theater was stormed, I was working at home. I was painting a picture, sitting on the sofa in front of the TV,” she recalls. “The events at the Dubrovka were shown live. Everyone was waiting for the finale, me among them, and I witnessed that horror. I saw a girl with a huge braid being carried out like firewood, and her braid was dangling behind. I saw buses filled with people with their heads thrown back. And then, a few days later, the news showed Putin arriving at a hospital, holding out his hand, and people who had been almost gassed to death, who had lost their loved ones, shook his hand.”

Yelena Osipova. Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

Yelena Andreyevna could not stand it. She took a piece of drawing paper and a brush and wrote, “Mr. President, change course now!” For the first time, she went to the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly on St. Isaac’s Square bearing the placard. She spent the whole day on the steps waiting for allies or at least some interest in her message, but it was in vain. In the autumn of 2002, the police detained no one for solo pickets and no cannibalistic laws on protesting had yet been adopted. No one seemed to notice the artist, however: legislative assembly members deliberately avoided looking in her direction, while passersby walked by her without stopping.

“Russians stomached the Nord-Ost siege,” says Yelena Andreyevna. “No one protested publicly. The Beslan school siege happened as a consequence. Society bit the bullet on that too. Only the parents of the dead children took to the streets with homemade placards. But the country was asleep. People have been putting up the whole time. So we now we have lived to see [war] with Ukraine, to see the whole world turning away from Russia. How could the country of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky have come to this?”

“Don’t become cannon fodder.” Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

“At first I was shocked that a good number of Russians supported the ‘special operation,'” Osipova admits. “When it started and I found out about it early in the morning, I took to the streets with a placard. I was in a completely suicidal mood, but people saved me. That day I saw that many people, young and not so young, shared my views. They came up to me and said thank you. One elderly man even asked me, crying, “How can I help? How can we help Ukraine?” The first time, right after the ‘special operation’ started, I stood with a placard on Nevsky Prospekt, near the monument to Catherine the Great, with the [Alexandrinsky] Theater in the background. It was a convenient place to hang up my placards, because it was already hard for me to hold them. Then I managed to picket for a long time, because I didn’t go to Gostiny Dvor [site of the main anti-war protests, a block from the Catherine the Great monument on Nevsky Prospekt]. There were policemen there, and of course they would have grabbed me right away. The young people came up with a new form of protest that day: they ran in groups up and down Nevsky Prospekt and shouted anti-war slogans. It was such a protest for peace. They didn’t have placards. But all of them were shouting. I didn’t expect this. It resurrected me.”

Yelena Osipova. Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

“There are also people who argue with me, scold me, attack me,” the artist says. “Recently, ladies like the ones who used to work in district Party committees, well-groomed and well-off, attacked me outside the subway. They called the police, and I was taken away. And a week ago outside the Chernyshevskaya subway station [in central Petersburg, near Osipova’s house] I was attacked by about ten titushky, men and women. They did not let me unfold my placard; they tried to take it away and even tore it. I asked passersby to dial 02 so that the police would come and protect me. It is hard for me to judge whether there are more people who attack and condemn me, or more who support me. But for sure the majority of people are indifferent, the ones who walk by without stopping or looking. They don’t want to think about the future or about their children. The main problem is that this whole thing will be left to our children. They will have to clean up everything after we’re gone. A society that doesn’t think about the future has no right to exist.”

The past twenty years have not improved Osipova’s health. It is now difficult for her to stand if she has nothing to lean against — her back hurts, her legs ache. It is hard for her to hold up placards for long. She has to be carried into the police paddy wagon not because she resists, but because she just can’t get into it under her own power. However, the artist categorically insists that she feels neither fatigue, nor disappointment, nor apathy, nor powerlessness.

“On the contrary,” she claims, “I don’t know where I get the strength from. Physically, after the pandemic and due to age, I feel quite bad. I could die at any moment; only the medication keeps me going. But the strength comes from somewhere, and I go out in public to say something important while I still have the time.”

Slogan on black background: “For the preservation of St. Petersburg: our city was built by Russians, Italians, Frenchmen, and Germans.” Slogan on white background: “A Russia that won’t be feared but admired!” Photo: Yelena Lukyanova/Novaya Gazeta

Yelena Andreyevna’s main message is still for the president: it’s never too late to change course.

“Even now,” the artist argues, “this situation, which is insanely tragic, can be turned to good, so that those who died on both sides will not have died in vain, a treaty on the non-use of nuclear weapons all over the world should be adopted immediately. It would be quite right if Putin did this. He is at an age when it is time to think about repenting for the harm that he has caused people during his life.”

Source: Nina Petlyanova, Novaya Gazeta, 28 March 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

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