Olga Nazarenko: “What Is the Point of Having Principles If You Don’t Act on Them?”

Olga Nazarenko, a university lecturer in Ivanovo, risks going to prison for simply hanging the Ukrainian flag in the window of her own flat. Neighbors from the building opposite regularly complain about her. Nazarenko goes on anti-war pickets, where aggressive fellow citizens attack her. And the pickets have already triggered a criminal case against her. Repeated visits and searches by police officers at night and early in the morning have become routine for her children. Nazarenko sees the situation in Russia as nearly hopeless. She is amazed at how the country’s maternal instinct has even been destroyed: Russians dutifully send their children off to die for nothing. Despite all this, she considers it her duty to talk to people. She remains in Russia, and has no plans to emigrate.

Recently, the police rang at Nazarenko’s door at three o’clock in the morning. They demanded to be let in so that they could remove the Ukrainian flag. It has been hanging for six months on the balcony of the activist’s flat in an ordinary multi-storey residential building in the city of Ivanovo. Nazarenko refused to let the police in without a search warrant. Through the door, the night visitors informed her that neighbors had filed another complaint about the Ukrainian flag. The law enforcement officers left, only to return at seven in the morning and knock on the door for a long time. Nazarenko did not unlock the door, but wrote a complaint against the police to the prosecutor’s office.

Over the past two months, the police have visited the well-known anti-war protester at least four times. In the autumn, two criminal cases were opened against Nazarenko, one of them under the so-called Dadin article of the Russian criminal code. The medical school at which the activist has worked for almost twenty-four years has suspended her employment. The university lecturer is currently listed as a “suspect” by the authorities. Despite the fact that term of her undertaking not to leave the country, which went into effect after the criminal case was launched, has recently expired, she has no plans to leave Russia. She talked to Radio Svoboda about her principled choice.

Olga Nazarenko, holding a placard that reads: “If those who oppose the war are imprisoned, fascism has won.
Alexandra Skochilenko face five to ten years in prison for anti-war stickers…” Photo courtesy of Radio Svoboda

— How did you find out that you had been identified as a suspect in a criminal case?

— I learned that a criminal case had been launched against me under Article 280.3 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code (“Public actions aimed at discrediting the deployment of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”) from the Center “E” officers who came to my workplace at around eleven a.m. on September 20. They obliged my colleagues to to serve as witnesses, searched my desk, and found two placards. Before that, my laptop was seized without my knowledge. The bigwigs at the medical school wanted to conceal it at first, but I made a fuss. It transpired that the Center “E” officers did not even give our management rep a copy of the report for the seizure of the laptop, nor did he demand one from them. Then we went to my house; fortunately, there were no handcuffs on me. There they carefully rummaged for a long time: they took our phones (even the phone of my young son), a computer, old leaflets, our personal money, and the savings of our daughter, who is a university student. The money was returned to her, but the police kept our funds for themselves, and they are not planning to give them back to us, apparently.

— How did your children react to the search of your home?

— My son was in a little shock, especially since they took something that belonged to him. My daughter behaved calmly. She talked to the police a little. She asked whether their “assistant” was an adult: the computer technician they brought with them looked quite young. A Center “E” officer replied tersely that they were all adults and all officers. My daughter is already an adult, and she understands everything and supports me. My family took the search well, because this was not my first encounter with the relevant authorities due to politics. In the spring, at seven a.m., the riot police came to search the flat since I had been identified as a witness in a vandalism cased launched against another activist. Then they tried to prevent me from calling a lawyer, seized my phone, my computer, 138 posters, and the Ukrainian flag from the window. The law enforcement agencies’ interest in me had already become something routine.

Оlga Nazarenko in her office at the medical school. Photo by Oskar Cherdzhiyev. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

— How long has the Ukrainian flag been hanging in the window of your flat?

— Every year since 2014, I had hung up the flag of Ukraine on the country’s Independence Day. Last year, I put it in the window and decided not to take it down. Police officers visited me after complaints were made, and they demanded explanations about the flag. I refused to explain anything to them. In the spring, after my apartment was searched, and they took the Ukrainian flag with them. I sewed a new one and hung it in the window again. I did the same thing after the search in the autumn.

— Why did you do that?

— For reasons of principle: if I support Ukraine, then I support it. And most importantly: no one in uniform and flashing a badge gets to decide what hangs in my window.

— What was the first criminal case brought against you for?

— They think that I posted anti-war leaflets in Ivanovo. I refused to give evidence by citing Article 51 of the Constitution.

— Were you not intimidated when they launched a criminal case and searched your flat?

— All this was to be expected. And no, it didn’t intimidate me. I continued going to anti-war pickets and rallies in support of those who have been persecuted for making anti-war statements, and I talked to people on the streets. A second criminal case was soon launched against me under the so-called Dadin article (i.e., Article 212.1 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code: “repeated violation of the established procedure for organizing or holding a meeting, rally, demonstration, march, or picket”). In October, Center “E” officers and the investigator who was running the first criminal case against me came again to search my flat. They were accompanied by several people in black masks and bulletproof vests. It’s hot in our flat, and I saw sweat on their faces, probably from overexertion. I even felt sorry for them. The search was superficial; they didn’t see anything new, apparently. They again seized our phones and a couple of posters. Once they got into the flat, they immediately rushed to the balcony and again pulled down the Ukrainian flag. I told them that I hadn’t violated the law when I hung up the flag, since I wasn’t infringing on the building’s communal property. The Center “E” guys replied that I should understand how turbulent the situation was now. They asked me why I was hanging the flag up. I said that it reflected my position and my aesthetic tastes.

— Do you like the colors yellow and blue?

— Yes, they are my favorite colors: the sky and the sun. The next day I sewed another Ukrainian flag and hung it out.

— Do you usually sew Ukrainian flags on a sewing machine?

— Yes. There are many shops in Ivanovo where you can buy fabric. I found a good one and bought three sets at once. It will last for a long time.

— Why do you think that it is the neighbors who filed complaints against over the flag?

— Only residents of the house located opposite mine can see the flag all the time. The denunciations are probably written by neighbors and residents of the neighboring house. I saw one complaint. The poor lady wrote: “I see the Ukrainian flag every morning and I consider it unacceptable in such a situation as we have now.” I even felt sorry for her. After I hung out the Ukrainian flag, the neighbors living in the apartments below and above mine hung out Russian flags. After the search, a “Z” was again written on my apartment’s mailbox and a note was tossed in it that said, “Ukraine is no more. Take down your rag and dry yourself with it.”

– How did the medical school react to the criminal cases against you?

– The management suspended me on the grounds that the articles of the Criminal Code brought against me hinder my work as a lecturer. My colleagues were upset. We have worked together for many years. Besides, now they have to do my duties. My colleagues do not talk about politics. Most of my colleagues are apolitical. But they have voiced their support to me and hope that everything will be resolved somehow. I studied at the medical school for six years, and after graduation I stayed on there to work. That is, my entire adult life, almost thirty years, has been connected with the medical school.

— Have you been able to get another job?

— Due to the criminal cases, I cannot tell an employer how long I would be able to work for them. So, I will look for something temporary, and then my professional career will depend on the court’s decision.

— How many pickets did you hold in the autumn?

— In September and October, I held four or five pickets. Since the second criminal case was launched, I have not yet gone out to protest, but I’m going to continue to voice my civic stance.

— Why are you going to continue to hold anti-war pickets, despite the serious risks of ending up in a Russian prison?

– I have beliefs, and I will act in keeping with them. As long as I can talk, I’ll keep doing it. What is the point of having principles if you don’t act on them, regardless of the risks?

— Do you have the support of friends, family, and associates?

— I have moral support from friends, and there are also simple acquaintances who support me and help me raise the money for fines. I am being defended by attorney Oskar Cherdzhiyev.

Aren’t you annoyed by like-minded people who emigrated instead of getting involved in anti-war protests with you?

— If the question is about ordinary Russian citizens, and not about protest leaders, then I’m not annoyed. I understand that nothing will change in the near future. People in difficult circumstances choose the best option for themselves. We have one life, and everyone has the right to live it as they please. Besides, emigration is now a rational, appropriate solution. Many of those who have gone abroad continue their protest activities: they go to anti-war protests at Russian embassies, help refugees from Ukraine and Russia, and work on publicity.

— But why is it the best option for you to stay in Russia and go to anti-war pickets, rather than worry about your own safety?

— My choice is based on the fact that I can do more in terms of working with people in Russia than I could in emigration. I’m rubbish at information technology. It’s easier for me to talk to passersby at street protests in the hope of getting my message to them. Russia is my country, and I won’t let them kick me out. I have the right to my own country and I don’t want to leave Russia for anywhere else. I will stay here and do what I think is necessary, voice my position. If I left, I would feel bad because I got scared and ran away.

— Do you think your long-term street activism has produced any results?

— If we’re talking about changing people’s minds, I don’t see any particular results. The war is so propagandized that a few people who publicly voice a different viewpoint cannot shift the minds of the majority in the other direction. My protests are meant to have an effect on the people who are having doubts. I have succeeded in making such people think. But the main purpose of my protests is to support like-minded people among Russians and Ukrainians. Thanks to my actions, among other things, friends in Ukraine know that not everyone in Russia is an “orc.”

— How has the reaction of passersby to your pickets changed since the war with Ukraine began?

— I’ve observed that people have become more guarded and scared. They usually dash past me quickly, averting their eyes. The reactions of those who do not hide them have become quite polarized. Either passersby are emotionally grateful, or they almost pounce on me, fists flying, and call me a Banderite. At the last picket, a man grabbed my placard and tore it up. There have been more negative reactions to my pickets than friendly ones, but this is not surprising. It is amazing how, with such propaganda, one hundred percent of people don’t react negatively to anti-war protests.

— How do you manage to be so tolerant towards people whose views differ from yours?

— I would not call my attitude towards them tolerant. I just understand what motivates their behavior: a lack of critical thinking skills, plus the fear and the reverence for the authorities that is inscribed in their subcortex. Powerful state propaganda combines with excessive loyalty to those in power. Thus, Russian citizens support all decisions by high-ranking officials.

Olga Nazarenko in the lobby of the Ivanovo Regional Office of the Interior Ministry. Photo by Oskar Cherdzhiyev. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

Are you able to understand why the parents of conscripts did not come out in droves to protests after the mobilization was announced?

— It’s beyond my comprehension. The maternal instinct is a powerful biological mechanism. As conceived by nature, it should be stronger than any propaganda. Apparently, there has been a real degradation in our society over the past twenty years. Total state propaganda, which includes not only the media, but also the education system, has aimed to completely distort values. Fear and reverence for power, submission to it, which never disappeared in many Russians, have now resurfaced especially strongly. Unfortunately, learned helplessness has overcome the maternal instinct. I do not know if such people can change anything.

— This is not the first year that you have been constantly going out to protest. Perhaps you have a hope that Russia will become a free country?

— It’s hard to say. Historically, Russia has been going in circles all the time, rather than developing in a spiral. But I still want to hope that Russia will become a developed and free country. However, this won’t happen soon, perhaps in one hundred years.

Source: Daria Yegorova, ‘Why have principles if you don’t act?’: A fight over the Ukrainian flag in Ivanovo,” Radio Svoboda, 29 October 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

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