July 13, 2024

ProtestNY – A Russian Dissident Initiative in NYC

Over two years of active combat have ensued since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. As Ukrainians all over the world have protested for the end of the war, Russians who oppose the Putin regime and its actions have looked for ways to express their discontent. In New York, a Russian dissident group began organizing weekly protests at the heart of the city in support of Ukraine.

Attendees of a ProtestNY demonstration in October 2023. Photo Credit: Viktoria Ivanova, JPI.

A dozen people holding Ukrainian flags and handmade posters are standing around one of the busiest corners of Times Square. Bundled up in coats and gloves, the protesters start forming a perfect row, interjecting the flurry of movements around them with their sudden stillness. Armed with stoic expressions, they exude a sense of calm intensity as they begin chanting, “Stop Russia, Stop the war.”

A group of eight Russian activists have been organizing weekly demonstrations on Times Square in New York City opposing Putin’s regime and advocating for a free and sovereign Ukraine. The initiative began almost two years ago, using the name “ProtestNY” on social media platforms like Instagram and Telegram. After attending multiple protests in support of Ukraine held in New York at the beginning of the conflict in 2022, a few Russian oppositionists noticed the turnout of fellow activists from their community and decided to start organizing their own rallies. Since then, they have been gathering every Sunday, with specific demands that speak to their conflicting relation to the issue. They advocate for an immediate end to the war that Putin is waging against Ukraine, openly opposing his regime with slogans like “Russia is a terrorist state.” Their activism also covers issues like Russian propaganda about the war and freeing political prisoners held in Russia.

Screenshot from ProtestNY’s Instagram profile, where they announce and popularize the demonstrations. Image via Instagram.

Olga Kosolapova is one of ProtestNY’s organizers. Born in Saint Petersburg, where she spent most of her life, Olga moved to New York City to live with her husband two years prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. With some family still back in Russia, Olga feels she must express her discontent with the regime.

The story of how ProtestNY came to be goes back to September 2022, when Olga used to attend initiatives organized under a broader, more loosely held group of Russian activists called “Митинги в Нью-Йорке” /Rallies in New York/. However, the group started dismantling, so Olga and some other Russians who attended the same rallies began the organization ProtestNY. “We realized there are a lot of Russian people here [New York City] who do not support Putin and his war, so we started organizing more structured rallies every week,” Olga says.

All of the organizers behind ProtestNY have different backgrounds and stories – some had been living in New York before the war, while others immigrated from Russia because of it. A consistent group of people attend their protests weekly with their families and young children. They have now formed a small community, after meeting every Sunday for months. They share smiles, laughs and talk about their day-to-day lives after the end of every demonstration. Their kids play together alongside an unusual attendee – a small, white-furred dog of one of the families. This is ProtestNY. Coming out every weekend to express their shared condemnation of the war has become part of their regular routines.

Among one of the organizers is a Ukrainian woman named Irina, who joined the group as a close friend of Olga’s. “Not many Ukrainians want to join us, but there are some, like Irina, who understand our intentions,” Olga says. Despite their different backgrounds, all of the organizers of ProtestNY share a common urge to oppose the war and speak up against Putin’s regime.

What distinguishes ProtestNY from other initiatives in support of Ukraine is that they have their own specific demands that differ from those activists who are not Russian-born. “The agenda to support Ukraine is the same, but we have our Russian issues, too. We talk about Russian propaganda, Russian political prisoners – this is why we are separate,” Olga says. The landscape of activism in New York is broad; however, Olga believes they have found their specific angle, which no other group is engaging in. They have not experienced any clashes with other activist groups in the city. In fact, there is one other local organization led by Russian oppositionists called “For Freedom in Russia,” which has been organizing protests against the Putin regime for many years, even before the war had begun. Some of them occasionally attend ProtestNY’s demonstrations. Still, Olga believes ProtestNY is the only group committed to organizing weekly protests to show their support for Ukraine and their stance on Russia’s political situation.

The demonstrations are largely shared via Instagram and Telegram. Although the same core group of people gather to protest every Sunday, they occasionally see new faces emerge. “We just want to get more and more people to join us,” Olga says, “This is the only way to influence society and governments.” While the central location for their protests is Times Square, they have also held rallies in other locations depending on their demands. For instance, when they have a specific plea to Russia, like freeing political prisoners, they protest in front of the Russian Consulate. During the United Nations General Assembly in September 2023, they also gathered at the UN headquarters to protest under the slogan “Get Russia Out of Ukraine.” Apart from organizing weekly protests, they also work with different activists who speak out against the war in Ukraine. In the past, they have held movie screenings to raise awareness and they continue to seek collaborations in a similar manner.

Attendees of a ProtestNY demonstration posing for a group photo in October 2023. Photo credit: Viktoria Ivanova, JPI.

Alongside their specific angle and demands, Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine are in a vulnerable position with some unique difficulties they have to overcome. Olga believes that a lot of Russians are too scared to protest. “When we chant ‘Russia is a terrorist state,’ we risk the safety of our families in Russia. When we advocate for more weapons to Ukraine – does it mean those weapons will be used against our own families?” However, Olga cannot overlook the responsibility of speaking up. “Everyone is scared for their family back home. It’s a very sensitive topic for us,” Olga says. “But if we stop doing this, then what happens? It will be worse.”

There are some safety measures that Russian activists can take if they are afraid of the repercussions their families might face. “We advise them to cover their face, wear masks and sunglasses to protect their identity,” Olga shares. “But we still need their voice.” The organizers of ProtestNY believe that people who are at a safe distance from the war itself have a responsibility to speak up for those whose voice is completely repressed. “In Russia, if you come out with a piece of paper that says ‘no to war’ you will face jail,” Olga says.

She believes that Russians who want to support Ukraine often feel disillusioned and do not know what they can do to help. “The Russian feeling is different than the Ukrainian. You feel guilty and scared. You don’t know how Ukrainians will respond to you.” Olga shares that some Ukrainians have rejected to engage with them due to the salience of the conflict and the inherent difficulty in believing Russians could have any true sympathy for the Ukrainian struggle. While they have not experienced any direct clashes, these fundamental dividing lines led to the creation of a separate activist group for Russian political oppositionists, who did not want to impose on the Ukrainian rallies. Despite the different backgrounds, their solidarity with Ukraine is unwavering.

At the same time, Olga speaks of a uniquely Russian psychological burden that many of them bear as a result of the war – a lost sense of identity. “You feel Russian, but you can’t be Russian anymore – you can’t show your flag or your culture because Russia is the killer now. It all symbolizes aggression,” Olga says. “It is like we lost our motherland.”

Despite how sensitive this issue is for many Russians, the activists behind ProtestNY want to encourage everyone to believe that their voices matter and can make an impact. For now, a core group of around 20 people join the ProtestNY demonstrations at Times Square every week. They wish to start gathering a lot more. However, as the war has prolonged, getting new people to attend their demonstrations has become increasingly difficult. “People are tired from this message, they don’t want to hear about war, Ukraine, and how people die. This is a problem,” Olga says. ProtestNY also has a hard time getting media attention due to the repetitive nature of their initiative. “For them [the media], we are old news,” Olga adds.

However, it is precisely the consistency of ProtestNY and the people who support them that distinguishes this group of activists from the rest. With a relentless dedication to fighting against the measures of the Putin administration in Russia, ProtestNY will not cease its weekly efforts.

“As long as the war goes on, we won’t stop,” Olga says.

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