‘I feel I have blood on my hands’: the Russian locals protesting the Ukraine war

It’s 10:30am on one of the worst days of one of the worst weeks of weather in Sydney’s recorded history, and a small group of Russians is gathered on the pavement opposite their country’s consulate, in the city’s leafy, well-to-do suburb of Woollahra. It’s gloomy and cold and raining Biblically, with a sideways wind that snatches spitefully at their raincoats and umbrellas. But the Russians remain dauntless, chanting “Stop the war!” and “Putin is a criminal!” and “Shame on you.”

On the other side of the street are about 40 Federal Police in yellow vests, guarding the consulate’s perimeter. Improving things not at all is the consulate itself, which, by design or chance, has an unfortunate Soviet-era aesthetic, its grim, red-brick bulk squatting among Woollahra’s majestic oak trees like a toad in a flower bed. “To me it looks oppressive, like a military barracks or something,” says protester Ivan Pavlenko, glancing up at the building. “Not like the consulate of a friendly country.”

Pavlenko has been here since 9am. He has pale, short-cut hair and a halting, deferential manner, and is holding a cardboard sign that reads, “I am Russian and against war in Ukraine.” “I am ashamed of what is happening,” he tells me. “I feel like I have blood on my hands because of what Putin is doing.”

Some of the people here are wrapped in the Russian flag, including the protest’s leader, a thin, hyperkinetic character called Ilya Fomin, who marches up and down the pavement, holding a loudhailer, his long wet hair lying lank on his shoulders like seaweed. What surprises me is just how civilised it is. At one point, a woman in a denim jacket and aviator glasses grabs the loudhailer and begins hollering at the building and shaking her fist, but on the whole, the protesters are polite and composed, with a resolve that seems to me to be the very essence of Russian stoicism.

Such protests are increasingly common, both here and overseas, as the world recoils in horror at the actions of the Russian government. The war, which began when President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine on February 24, has so far cost thousands of lives and caused Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.

Ukrainians are bearing the bulk of the suffering, with their sovereignty imperilled and their lives on the line. But the current moment also brings its fair share of grief for Russians, who in the grisly theatre of world affairs, have understandably been cast as villains. For those, like Pavlenko, who oppose the war, a painful reckoning is taking place, equal parts anguish and fury, as Russians in Australia and around the world look at themselves and each other anew.

“I have family in Russia who truly believe that Putin is liberating Ukraine,” Pavlenko tells me, shrugging. “They say I’m not Russian any more because I am against the country and support enemies of the state.”

Pavlenko, however, is undeterred. “I am a ‘state betrayer’,” he tells me. “Okay! But I just want to show that not all Russians are the same. And we also want to push our Australian government to help Ukrainians more, to have more sanctions, and to have closed skies above Ukraine [a no-fly zone].” But mostly, he says, “I want to get Russians to wake up to what’s being done in their name.”

Ivan Pavlenko with other Russians and Ukrainians in Sydney to protest the invasion: “I want Russians to wake up to what’s being done in their name.” Credit:Wolter Peeters


There are about 20,000 people in Australia who were born in Russia, and a further 85,000 who claim some kind of Russian ancestry. Russians have tended to arrive in Australia in waves over the past 140 years, depending on the sociopolitical climate in their country at the time. There have been Russian Jews fleeing pogroms, leftists fleeing the Tsar, tsarists fleeing the Bolsheviks, and everyone fleeing Stalin. There were even some unlucky Russians who, having fled the Russian Revolution in the 1920s and settled in China, then had to flee the Chinese Revolution in the 1950s. A further group came to Australia after 1990, fleeing the collapse of the Soviet Union and the country’s descent into banditry and corruption. “This is why there is no such thing in Australia as a single ‘Russian community’,” says Sima Tsyskin, a former SBS journalist, who came to Australia in 1979. “It’s a complicated picture.”

Each group came with baggage, literal and metaphorical. Some émigrés, such as the post-World War II generation, were more conservative, and remained closely affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church. They, and to some extent their children and grandchildren, are more inclined to look favourably upon Putin, whose mission, as they see it, is to restore to Russia its grand, pre-Soviet empire, with the church and traditional values at its heart. Their politics is informed by nostalgia and fed by Russian media, which paints Putin as Ukraine’s saviour.

At the other end of the spectrum are the more recent arrivals, like Pavlenko, who arrived here in 2008. Highly educated and indifferent to religion, they have experienced the reality of Putin’s Russia up close, and vehemently oppose it. About the only thing all these people have in common is an affinity with hardship, whether it be physical, political or economic, and a certain woundedness that they wear, like an undershirt, wherever they go. In this sense at least, they are not “Russian-Australians”, as Tsyskin puts it, “just ‘Russians’.”

War-time leaders usually enjoy a rise in popularity, at least at first, thanks to the so-called “rally around the flag” effect. Polling by Russia’s Levada-Centre, a respected non-government research organisation, suggests that Putin’s popularity within Russia increased in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, from 69 per cent in January 2022 to 71 per cent in February, 2022. (Such polling should be viewed with caution, however, since even when pollsters are independent, many Russians believe they are government-run and tailor their responses accordingly.) Still, Putin’s apparent popularity is testament to the Russian government’s blanket campaign of misinformation, which has largely convinced the public that the Kremlin is defending Russia by standing up to the West.

Outside Russia, however, the picture is more opaque. Many Russians seem unwilling to defend Putin’s war. Certainly, among the more recent arrivals to Australia, it’s thought that opposition is widespread. “Most of us are against it,” says Petr Kuzmin, who has relatives in Russia and Ukraine. “To us, it’s total anathema.”

Kuzmin, who is 44, is president of Svoboda Alliance VIC, a pro-democracy organisation promoting human rights and political freedoms in Russia. A tech start-up founder, Kuzmin has for the past month been organising anti-Putin protests in support of Ukraine, including a daily vigil on Princes Bridge, in Melbourne, where people gather of an evening from 6pm to 8pm. The vigil will continue, he says, until war in Ukraine is stopped. Turnouts range from a dozen people to maybe 30 or 40, depending on the weather.

“We need to make a stand. Russians have been on the fence too long. They pretend they can be neutral, but that’s not possible any more.”

“I’m determined to make Russians take a position,” he tells me. One Sunday recently, he dropped his children off at Russian school wearing a T-shirt that read: “I am Russian and for Ukraine”. Some parents approached him and told him that he shouldn’t wear the T-shirt around kids. “But I was like, ‘Why?’ ” Kuzmin says. “We need to make a stand. Russians have been on the fence too long. They pretend they can be neutral, but that’s not possible any more.”

Kuzmin was born in Samara, a city in south-west Russia. He studied English at Samara State University and then in the US, where he met his future wife Judith Bishop, an Australian writer from Melbourne. In 2006, he and Bishop moved to Australia. He kept up with events in Russia, and in 2010 came across a blog by the Russian democracy activist Alexei Navalny.

“Navalny focused on corruption and how much it was hurting Russia,” Kuzmin says. “It was very clear, with no rhetoric, just the facts.” He became a Navalny supporter; on trips back to Russia he would visit his office. When Navalny was poisoned in 2020, allegedly on Putin’s orders, Kuzmin donated $2000 to his medical expenses. After being treated in Germany, Navalny flew back to Russia, in January 2021, and was arrested on arrival.

News of his detention sparked outrage worldwide, including in Australia. Kuzmin attended a rally in support of Navalny in Melbourne. “I thought I’d be one of the only ones there but about 20 people showed up.” (Last week, Navalny was sentenced to nine years in a “strict regime penal colony” for what his supporters claim are fabricated charges of fraud.)

Soon after, Kuzmin and his fellow protesters launched a Facebook group whose Russian name translates, rather tepidly, as Reasonable Russians in Australia and New Zealand. At the same time, another group of Russians in Adelaide was setting up the Svoboda Alliance (Svoboda is Russian for “freedom”). Kuzmin headed up Svoboda’s Victorian arm, while also helping manage the Reasonable Russians Facebook page. Inevitably, the two groups became a counterpoint to an older, larger, and mostly pro-Kremlin Facebook group, called Russians in Australia. (The Svoboda page has 72 followers, and Reasonable Russians, 1064. Russians in Australia, meanwhile, has 4700.)

Petr Kuzmin says he will continue to organise anti-Putin protests in Melbourne until the war ends.

Petr Kuzmin says he will continue to organise anti-Putin protests in Melbourne until the war ends.Credit:Peter Tarasiuk

Kuzmin soon became a target. “Whenever I comment on the Russians in Australia page, people say stuff like, ‘Just see what happens when you go back to Russia’ or ‘I’d put a bullet through your head myself.’ ” To provide a sanctuary, Kuzmin and his colleagues made Reasonable Russians a closed Facebook group, giving them the ability to vet newcomers. “But recently a guy has been publishing stuff on the Russians in Australia page that we have been discussing in our closed group, which means we have a mole.”

Understandably, some people are now afraid to speak freely. “They say to me, ‘What’s to say the FSB [the Russian security agency] isn’t in Australia?’ ” Kuzmin says. “We can’t guarantee that the FSB isn’t here, so we tell people only to say what they feel comfortable with.”

The local Putinistas may not be FSB, but they can certainly be intimidating, particularly their bovverish leader, a 32-year-old Sydney man named Simeon Boikov. Boikov, whose wife recently had a restraining order taken out on him, is a descendant of White Russians who fled to Manchuria in the 1920s, after the Russian Revolution, and thence to Australia in the 1950s. He grew up in Croydon, in Sydney, and attended the elite boys’ private school, Trinity Grammar, where he was a choirboy and played rugby for the First XV. Despite this, Boikov calls himself “the Aussie Cossack”, and effects a pre-1917 Tsarist militarism; he’ll often gatecrash anti-Putin rallies, shaven-headed, his ample frame stuffed like bratwurst into a pair of military fatigues, with Cossack insignia pinned to his chest.

Most people I speak to regard Boikov as a right-wing cosplaying buffoon, but he is also highly divisive, often haranguing anti-Putin Russians at demonstrations, calling them “traitors” and “scum”, and accusing them of being paid American agents. In a video he took in January 2021, he and a friend can be seen yelling at supporters of Alexei Navalny, saying they should be “sent to a firing squad” and “a Russian gulag”, and that it would be easier to deal with them in Russia, where they would be “bashed with batons and tactical boots”. At one point he says that Navalny should be “liquidated” like “Stalin dealt with Trotsky”. (Leon Trotsky was assassinated, on Stalin’s orders, in 1939, with an ice-pick to the back of the head.)

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Boikov runs a labour hire company in Sydney, and has an Instagram page with 12,000 followers, on which he refers to himself as a “freedom fighter”. Interviewing him is like mainlining the Kremlin. He describes Russian forces in Ukraine as “peacekeepers who have liberated cities” and repeatedly uses the first-person plural when talking about Russia, before ostentatiously backtracking, as in: “We – sorry, I mean Russia – will restore peace and stability to Ukraine” or “We – I retract that, I mean Russia – have been extremely patient in Ukraine.”

The son of a Russian Orthodox priest, Boikov embodies the three pillars of Russian revanchism: the Faith, the Tsar and the Fatherland. To which you could add the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. “You know what Dostoevsky said?” Boikov tells me. “He said, ‘If a Russian tells you he doesn’t love the motherland, don’t believe him: he’s not a Russian.’ ”


In one sense, the war in Ukraine is a religious one. In early March, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who is said to be close to Vladimir Putin, claimed, bizarrely, that the invasion was about stopping the tide of “gay parades” from the West, and that Russian troops were fighting a “metaphysical” battle for “human salvation”.

Outside Russia, Kirill’s claims caused shock and bewilderment. The head of the Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe, Metropolitan John of Dubna, wrote an open letter to Kirill, describing the war as “cruel and murderous” and asking that he intervene to have it stopped. Kirill was unmoved.

Putin in 2015 with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill claimed, bizarrely, that the invasion was about stopping the tide of “gay parades” from the West.

Putin in 2015 with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill claimed, bizarrely, that the invasion was about stopping the tide of “gay parades” from the West.Credit:Getty Images

“The church in Russia couldn’t care less what the West thinks right now,” says Sima Tsyskin, the former journalist. “The gay parade comment wasn’t aimed at the West, it was purely for domestic consumption. It was aimed at the average Russian who is extremely homophobic, because they have been told forever that gays are evil. So gays are another thing that shows the horrible peril of the Ukrainian threat, along with NATO, Nazis and fascism.” She adds: “It’s just more brainwashing.”

That the church is being used for propaganda shouldn’t be surprising. “Putin has turned the Russian Orthodox church into an arm of the state,” Tsyskin explains. “It is a wide network in Russia and has influence with a lot of people.”

In Australia, the church is largely silent on Moscow. Parishioners have been asked to pray for peace but avoid the politics. Since 2015, the Russian Orthodox Church in Australia has been led by a Sydney-based cleric, Bishop George Schaefer, a conservative American-born clergyman, well known in the Russian community for his opposition to COVID-19 vaccines, mask mandates and lockdowns, and for his support of conspiracy theories, often promulgated by Russian state media, including that authorities are covering up data on the true number of vaccine-related deaths. (Facebook has repeatedly posted warnings on Bishop George’s page for publishing false claims.)

In a highly unusual move, a prominent Russian Orthodox priest emailed Bishop George in September, 2021, CCing 65 other church leaders, to respectfully ask that he stop spreading misinformation. (Bishop George did not respond to Good Weekend’s requests for comment.)

To many Russians, the church’s fence-sitting is unacceptable. “The majority of my parishioners are against the war,” says one Russian Orthodox priest. “Many of them are protesting against it. So they are frustrated by the church’s position, and they are disillusioned.” During the Cold War, the priest tells me, the church took a principled stand against the Soviet Union. “The church was seen as a voice of freedom, and it attracted a lot of people because of that. So people are asking, ‘Why doesn’t the church take the same stance now?’ ”

Ivan Pavlenko says his Russia-based parents didn’t believe what he told them about the war.

Ivan Pavlenko says his Russia-based parents didn’t believe what he told them about the war.Credit:Wolter Peeters

Ivan Pavlenko isn’t particularly religious. Like many Russians in Australia, attending church is less a spiritual experience than a way of staying in touch with Russian culture. “I feel that I am Australian but Russian too,” he tells me. “I still like my Russian books and movies, and I still think in Russian.“

Pavlenko lives with his wife Elise, a project manager at Macquarie Bank, in a quiet cul-de-sac in Sydney’s southern suburbs, in a three-bedroom brick and timber home. The day I visit, the torrential rain has caused a leak in the ceiling, and water is pooling on the kitchen counter. “We’re renting here, so I can’t just go and fix it myself,” he says apologetically.

The older of two brothers, Pavlenko grew up in St Petersburg. His dad was a fighter pilot in the military; his mum taught Russian language and literature. After studying systems analysis at St Petersburg Polytechnic University, he began working in IT for a telecoms company. But by 2005, the labour market had collapsed. “We had a shortage of money, so I began planning to migrate.”

In 2008, he and his wife and two young daughters, aged six and two, landed in Sydney, with $US45,000 in savings. They knew no one except for a Russian acquaintance who let Pavlenko and his family sleep in a spare room for two weeks. Everything was a struggle. Pavlenko had canvassed Australian employers before he left, but none would give him a job without a face-to-face interview. Without a job it was hard to rent a home; without a home address, he couldn’t get a SIM card. After a week, his six-year-old broke down in tears. “She didn’t speak English, she had no friends, and Mum and Dad didn’t have enough time to devote to her,” says Pavlenko. “I felt so ashamed. After that, we bought a bicycle, and she would ride it up and down the street every day, no matter what.”

“In Russia, people don’t smile. And if they come up to you on the street, 90 per cent of the time they want your money.”

Within a month, Pavlenko had a job and a place to stay, a rundown duplex in another southern Sydney suburb. But much about Australia remained a mystery. “I’d spent three-and-a-half years preparing to immigrate, learning English and reading about Australia,” he tells me. “But when you move to a country, it’s the small stuff that gets you.” The grass was high in the front yard, so Pavlenko called the landlady. “All she said was: ‘You need Bunnings.’ I thought, ‘Who is Bunnings? Is he a well-known guy who helps you with this stuff? Is it a website where I leave a request?’ ”

Australians were open and friendly. They smiled at him on the street, and said hello. “In Russia, people don’t smile. And if they come up to you on the street, 90 per cent of the time they want your money.”

Another thing that struck him was how much attention Australians paid to food. “They were always talking about what they were eating, and how to cook this or that dish.” At first, it struck him as frivolous. “In Russia, we had more important things to talk about than food, like politics and war and financial difficulties. But after two years I realised that good food makes you enjoy your life, and that life is not about suffering, it’s about joy, and that we have to be happy, because we only have one life.” Now, Putin’s war has erased that joy. “Now I feel like I’m back in Russia, when everything was grim.”

Protesting against their birth country is no small thing for Pavlenko and his countrymen. As a boy, his grandparents told him to keep a low profile, and that speaking out was dangerous. “That caution is in every Russian’s DNA,” he explains. “It sits inside, an unconscious terror, even in a free country.” He still talks regularly to his parents in Russia. At first, they didn’t believe what he told them about the war: “They couldn’t believe there were mass bombings or that Ukrainians weren’t welcoming the Russian soldiers. Now three weeks after the invasion, the truth is slowly coming to their minds.”

(Konstantin Sonin, a political economist at the University of Chicago,
estimates that 200,000 Russians have left the country since the war began, fearing the economic consequences of Western sanctions and further government crackdowns on dissent. Most of those leaving are thought to be young professionals, leading to concerns about a Russian “brain drain”.)

“Supporting Putin is like supporting Trump, or being an anti-vaxxer or a flat-earther. I simply don’t understand this bullshit.”

Pavlenko believes that change is afoot in Russia. “It’s hard to say, but I don’t think Putin has more time than two years. He will be murdered by one of his ‘friends’, or we will see another Russian Revolution. I have heard that by April 10, Russians will start seeing empty shelves. At that point, hunger will beat propaganda. The refrigerator will win the battle against the TV.”

In the meantime, he will continue to protest. “We want Russians to do mass protests and strikes. We want them to wake up! At the moment they are sleeping, and don’t see and understand what they are doing.” He adds: “Supporting Putin is like supporting Trump, or being an anti-vaxxer or a flat-earther. I simply don’t understand this bullshit.”

Pavlenko and his parents now try to avoid discussion about the war. Instead, his dad sends him bottles of home-brewed moonshine, a spicy type of vodka made from apples. Pavlenko, for his part, brews whisky in a store-bought still. He also enjoys astronomy and has his own telescope. “But the weather at the moment makes it hard to see,” he says, and so he’s been watching movies. One of his favourites is Inception, the 2010 science-fiction action film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, a professional thief who cons secrets from his victims by infiltrating their dreams.

“There’s a phrase in that movie that I love,” Pavlenko tells me. “It’s when DiCaprio says, ‘What’s the deadliest parasite in the world? An idea.’ And it’s so true! One bad idea can ruin your life.” He shakes his head gravely. “We are living in a time when it is so important to use your brain, and your common sense. There is just too much at stake right now.”

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