oDR: Feature

‘You betrayed the Motherland’: Russians are being fired for speaking out

openDemocracy talks to three people who have received abuse at work – or even lost their jobs – after objecting to the war in Ukraine

Dmitry Sidorov
22 April 2022, 12.00am
A lone protester objecting to Russia's invasion of Ukraine
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Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo

“You know very well what you did,” some muscular guys in black told an employee of a Moscow art centre as they prevented him from leaving the gallery. “People like you are the disgrace of the nation!” the owner of a beauty salon told a hairdresser, before pushing her into the street. “You betrayed your Motherland!” a teacher told his colleague, after refusing to keep working with her.

These are just some of the stories shared with openDemocracy by Russians who have lost their jobs or been treated differently at work after raising objections to the invasion of Ukraine.

According to a recent report by the Russian Ministry of Labour, in the near future, around 59,000 Russian citizens will be “released from work” – a new euphemism that means being fired. This ‘release’ is due to a crisis of the Russian economy, which is stagnating under increased isolation from the West.

But there is also a less visible category among those Russians who have been recently fired: those who lost their jobs for speaking out against the war in Ukraine. Here are some of their stories.

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Artist, Moscow

The GES-2 art centre, located on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Embankment, opened to great fanfare last summer. A giant Urs Fischer sculpture, named ‘Big Clay No. 4’, was erected directly opposite the new museum, which was sponsored by oligarch Leonid Mikhelson, reportedly a close friend of Vladimir Putin’s. Muscovites, who gave the sculpture a new, unflattering nickname (‘the turd’), demanded the city authorities remove the installation, which they claimed spoilt the image of the Russian capital. But Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, was adamant: the ‘turd’ remained in place, where it witnessed the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and has survived the first two months of the conflict unscathed.

Big Clay No.4

Urs Fischer's 'Big Clay No. 4' sculpture

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Wirestock, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

The same cannot be said of all GES-2 employees. Before the war, Daniil, an artist from the city, worked at the new institution, running an open arts workshop for children. Parents who had come to look at contemporary art could leave their children to enjoy a quiet and stimulating time. The children, under Daniil’s guidance, would make “something out of paper, wood and clay”. Speaking to me, Daniil said he enjoyed his job and didn’t think he would lose it so easily.

Two days after the invasion began, Daniil wrote “No to war!” with a marker pen on the wall of the gallery’s smoking room. The day passed without incident, but in the evening six men from the gallery’s security team entered Daniil’s workshop and blocked the exit. It turned out that his ‘act of vandalism’ had been caught on CCTV.

The guards told Daniil they would not let him leave his workplace until he agreed to follow them, taking his passport with him. For several hours, they told him they were going to hand him over to the police “for further consideration of the case”.

“Well, you know very well what you did. Now we’ll deal with you,” one of them told him.

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The GES-2 art centre is located on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Embankment

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Elena Rostunova / Alamy Stock Photo

After speaking with the guards, Daniil was convinced that they were no ordinary employees from the gallery’s private security company, but members of Russian security services. “I’ve had to talk more than once with members of the security services, they have an absolutely unique way of speaking and a distinct sense of their unlimited power and impunity,” the artist said. “Ordinary security guards don’t talk like that and don’t look like that.”

Daniil’s two bosses managed to convince the guards not to hand him over to the police. But his official entry pass was deactivated that evening and the artist was told he would never be allowed inside the building again. “I understand it was this security service that pushed for my dismissal. I heard that three or four days after the incident, my superiors tried to reinstate me, and that even the director of GES-2 learnt about the case and tried to intervene in my favour,” Daniil said. But none of these people had any influence on the gallery’s security team, which turned out to have higher decision power than the senior staff of the centre.

“For the state, GES-2 is some kind of sacred place, it’s like [the park] Zaryadye. It’s a very modern European institution, with modern perspectives, but it’s clear that its funding comes from the top. Inside GES, one security service is in control. On paper, it’s just a private security company guarding the complex. I’m convinced they are real FSO officers,” Daniil says. [The Federal Protective Service (FSO) is a federal government agency assuring the protection of high-ranking state officials, as well as certain federal properties.] “Don’t forget that the GES-2 House of Culture is literally across the bridge from the Kremlin.”

After the Russian invasion, GES-2 closed all exhibitions of the current season “for ethical reasons” and issued a statement about the “difficult and ambiguous situation” in Ukraine. openDemocracy asked GES-2 about their policy regarding employees who disagree with the actions of the Russian authorities. The institution’s press service replied: “Not a single employee [of GES-2] has been fired. Some colleagues left the team of their own free will and due to their personal beliefs.”. As for Daniil’s, GES-2 said that his contract had been “terminated because he committed an act of vandalism” in the workplace.

Daniil says his inscription “No to war!’ was painted over with a neat white square half an hour after having appeared.

Hairdresser, Krasnodar

The beauty salon where Aida worked in Krasnodar, a city in southern Russia, is located in a basement under a residential building. Half the cars in the building’s parking lot are adorned with the letter Z, the symbol of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The small anti-war rallies that took place in the city at the start of the invasion were violently dispersed and people with anti-war views now try to speak carefully. Those who do otherwise are quickly faced with prosecution.

Aida worked as a hairdresser in the beauty salon for three years. She thought she had a good relationship with her boss, whose husband is a police officer. The two women chatted about lots of different subjects, but never about politics.

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Souvenirs in support of the “special military operation”

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Oleg Elkov / Alamy Stock Photo

After the invasion on 24 February, Aida tells me she “could not keep silent” and began to express anti-war views on her professional Instagram account. Her boss, who had been ill the week before the invasion, returned to work shortly after. Initially, Aida’s boss ‘bristled’ when Aida suggested purchasing hair products in large quantities due to rising prices and supply issues. “Our great-grandmothers coloured their hair with henna from the fields! And we will get through this, it’s OK!” Aida recalled her saying.

The situation deteriorated further when an older male client asked her how young people “feel about the special military operation”. Aida replied: “I can’t answer for all young people, as young people think differently, but everyone around me is against what is happening now.”

You young people don’t understand life, you haven’t sniffed gunpowder. The West is poisoning us with its propaganda, and you’ve bought it all.

The client lashed out at her, saying, “You young people don’t understand life, you haven’t sniffed gunpowder. The West is poisoning us with its propaganda, and you’ve bought it all.”

Aida’s boss joined in from the other end of the salon: “That's right! It’s good to hear the opinion of someone with experience at last.” She sat down on a chair nearby and told the client: “If we weren’t doing it – then they would have done it to us. And it’s good that people who went to peaceful demonstrations will be imprisoned, because they don’t understand anything in life and swallow the West’s propaganda.”

A couple of hours later, Aida received a direct message from her boss on Instagram: “I don’t want to hear any conversations about politics at work, especially in my presence and especially with clients.” If it had been about anything else, Aida admits she would have said “OK”, but she answered differently, replying: “I didn’t start this conversation, and you also took part. It was fine. But I did hear what you said.” The answer came immediately: “If you take offence at anything, no one is keeping you. You know where the door is.” Aida responded: “If you have any questions for me, let’s talk in person, and not online.” Her boss didn’t reply.

On the following day, Aida came to work early – she needed to prepare for a hair colour appointment. Her boss suddenly appeared at the salon, although she was supposed to have a day off. “I’ve come to work. And from today you can leave your keys, take your things. You don’t work here anymore,” she said from the doorway.

Aida recounts having faced a “torrent of abuse” from her now-former boss, who told her “people like you are a disgrace to the nation”. She added: “Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers did not fight for you to support the West now, you’re braindead, you’re ashamed to be Russian. I’m a patriot! I'm proud of my country! And people like you will continue to muddle along in McDonald’s – that’s all you’re good for.” Today, Aida rents a space in a new salon – not far from her previous workplace – and still works with her old clients. Her income has fallen. “So far, it’s lucky that no one came from the authorities. No one has knocked at my door, not even the policeman’s wife,” Aida said, with a smirk.

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Teacher, southern Russia

Oksana, 38, lives near a large city in the south of Russia. For six years, she has worked as a teacher at a centre offering extracurricular activities, organising events for children and taking them on hikes.

Oksana says she never supported the Russian government and was “always in the opposition”. After the invasion, she signed an anti-war petition started by activist Lev Ponomarev on Change.org, as well as an open letter from teachers against the war. The latter was part of a series of similar open letters from most professional communities in Russia. For Oksana, these two signatures, she says, were a way to fulfil her civic duty (“to do at least something”).

A couple of days later, the head of the institution where Oksana works, a 60-year-old woman, called her in for a chat. Before the war, she had regularly told the team that they could not publicly oppose the Russian state, as it funds the institution.

The director had also been responsible for organising employees to go to pro-government rallies and encouraging them to vote for United Russia [the largest party in Russia, which supports Putin’s policies] in the State Duma elections in 2021 and in all local elections. “If you don’t vote, you will have problems. They say it’s necessary, it means it’s necessary,” Oksana remembers her saying.

I’m worried about what’s happening at work and it affects my personal life. I had a nervous breakdown and went on sick leave...

Naturally, the conversation centred on Oksana’s “activity”. The director told her she had received a letter from the region’s Ministry of Education and Science, where “they found your name and surname in a petition set up by foreign agents”. Oksana was asked to write a letter of voluntary resignation, but knowing her employment rights, she firmly refused.

“I don’t have nerves of steel,” she told me after her supervisor wrote a report on her to the ministry. “I’m worried about what’s happening at work and it affects my personal life. I had a nervous breakdown and went on sick leave.”

While on sick leave, Oksana continued to read her work group chat, where the director kept posting guides on how to teach children propaganda points, such as ‘If we hadn’t done it, they would have done it’ and ‘Demilitarisation. Denazification’. “Thank God they have not started talking about getting children to line up in the shape of a Z,” Oksana laughed.

A week later, Oksana’s sick leave ended. She met colleagues with whom, despite the age difference, she used to have good relations, and they ignored her. Then she found out that she had been deprived of a “small but essential” bonus payment for February.

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“I take children on hikes. We organise a search party looking for evidence from the Great Patriotic War. For six years, I was one of the leaders, together with an older male colleague,” Oksana said. “After I returned from sick leave, he told me: ‘I don’t want to go on expeditions with you anymore. We have different political positions. You betrayed your country.’”

Though Oksana managed to keep her job, she has begun to feel uncomfortable at work. She plans to keep communication with colleagues to a minimum and to spend more time with students.

“I try to be patient with these people. But I no longer hope that they will see the light. They are either blind, or deaf, or their critical thinking has shrunk. I don’t get it – why would you want to return to the Middle Ages?” Oksana asked.

‘Law left Russia a long time ago’

In wartime, the importance of propaganda, both external and internal, increases. Therefore, dissenting teachers and journalists, some of the most important links in the Russian system of internal propaganda, are now most at risk of being fired.

Olga Miryasova, a representative of an independent trade union for teachers, told openDemocracy that over the past month, the organisation has tracked only five cases of teachers dismissals across Russia due to anti-war positions. But Miryasova says a significant number of cases where people leave of their own accord remain hidden, as employees don’t speak out about it, fearing they will struggle to find another job. The union recorded around ten such cases, but there are obviously many more.

Some of these cases have indeed received wide publicity. In St Petersburg, teacher Gennady Tychin, who spoke out against the war, was approached by police officers and taken to a police station, where he spent more than 48 hours. Later, he was fired from his school for “committing an immoral act”, a sackable offence under Russian labour law. In this case, the reason provided was “insulting the leadership and staff of the school in the presence of children.” A Moscow geography teacher, Ramiz Manafly, was threatened with dismissal over an Instagram post in which he wrote that he did not want to “be a mirror of state propaganda”.

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Miryasova recommends that teachers who find themselves in a similar situation refer to Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which guarantees freedom of thought and speech and the prohibition of discrimination on any grounds at the workplace, enshrined in the Labor Code of Russia.

But while the Russian Constitution states “there are no and cannot be legal grounds for dismissal for civic position”, Sofia Rusova, a co-chair of Russia’s independent Union of Journalists and Media Workers, notes that “the law left Russia quite a long time ago”.

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