“Everyone is hoping for some kind of conspiracy at the top — that one of Vladimir Putin’s close associates or oligarchs will kill him,” says popular Russian blogger and longtime Kremlin critic Dmitry Chernyshev. “But it seems to me that will not be a solution,” he adds.
Instead, Chernyshev, a 55-year-old writer and lecturer, is calling on Russians to join a National Resistance movement he’s setting up and is encouraging wide-ranging civil disobedience going well beyond street protests. He says armed resistance and sabotage will be needed to overthrow the Russian leader.
That marks him out from other Kremlin critics and opposition figures as they struggle to map out a way forward to continue to challenge Putin.
This week a group of veteran Russian human rights and political activists agreed to set up an anti-war council and to focus their efforts on opposing the invasion of Ukraine. They are preparing an open letter calling on Russia to end its war on Ukraine, in which they will declare it “our common duty” to “stop the war [and] protect the lives, rights and freedoms of all people, both Ukrainians and Russians.”
The soon-to-be-published manifesto will be signed by a dozen opposition luminaries, including Lev Ponomaryov, Oleg Orlov and Svetlana Gannushkina. Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, who was sentenced to an additional nine years in prison last week, has also called on Russians to attend anti-war protests.
But speaking to VOA, Chernyshev, who fled to Israel after his family was threatened by authorities and is trying to establish from Tel Aviv a movement to oust Russia’s leader, says more is needed and his strategy is broader. He says it won’t help Russia, if there’s “just a transfer of power from one hand to another.”
Russia will be as badly off if Putin is replaced by someone like Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard, or Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, he says. “It seems to me that the security forces have committed so many crimes that they will not give up power by peaceful means,” he warns.
Russia’s dissidents and rights activists say they are now living through the darkest period they have encountered since the end of communism. Tens of thousands of Russians have fled the country since the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, fearing that if they didn’t do so they would end up in jail.
Their departure will further weaken opposition to Putin and make mass revolt even more unlikely, fear some activists, and has been compared by some to the flight of the White Army from Crimea in November 1920, when around 165,000 people fled Russia in three days. Estimates for the current exodus run as high as 200,000.
The White Army and its supporters fled because of defeat by the Bolsheviks on the battlefield and while there has been no clash of arms in Russia now, there is also a widespread sense of defeat. “The opposition has been crushed, chased into exile or underground,” according to Ben Noble, a professor of Russian politics at University College London.
The screws have been tightened on anti-war activists and Kremlin critics, who are facing increasing repression, including police beatings, intimidation, work dismissals and other threats. Around 150 journalists have fled Russia, and one of the country’s last remaining influential independent news outlets, Novaya Gazeta, announced this week that it will cease operations until the end of the war in Ukraine after it received a second warning from the state censor.
Political activists expect the search for internal enemies to blame for the country’s descent into sanction-induced economic hardship will only get worse for them. Putin has called for the country to purify itself of fifth columnists and traitors.
In these circumstances Chernyshev says there is little option but to foment an uprising. In a recent Facebook post, he published a manifesto for national resistance, in which he called for a rebellion. “The Resistance Movement is announcing preparations to overthrow the criminal Putin regime,” the manifesto began.
“We will use all methods, including the right of people to an uprising. It is the citizens' inalienable right to protect their rights and freedom from usurpers through any means, including armed struggle. We have exhausted all peaceful means: we organized rallies — they were dispersed. Ran honest media reports — they were banned. Led an open political struggle — the oppositionists were killed, imprisoned, exiled from the country, and were tried to be poisoned,” the manifesto continued.
One of Chernyshev’s role models is Charles de Gaulle, the wartime French leader. “I am very inspired by the example of de Gaulle, who had nothing, no army, no soldiers. He called on the French to resist,” says Chernyshev. “When France was defeated by Germany in 1940, de Gaulle commanded an army that did not exist. But gradually these armies appeared when it seemed that everything had already been lost. Gradually, a resistance movement began to form,” he adds.
He wants to target judges and security officials who prop up Putin’s rule in a bid to demoralize them and make them feel vulnerable. “It is one thing when they are sure that they are hidden and no one knows anything about them, and quite another when their names and addresses are made public.” He doesn’t detail what he hopes will happen to these officials, but he mentions “sabotage.”
Chernyshev has been an active Kremlin critic for years. He has had a series of jobs since leaving the Russian army after serving as a conscript. He has worked as a security guard, a driver, and a guide for hunters before studying design and graphic art, eventually becoming a creative director for an advertising agency. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, his blog became one of the most-read in the country.
“Before the 2014 elections, I declared a personal vendetta against Putin,” he says. He attended pro-Navalny rallies and was detained once for 15 days. "When the invasion started, I wrote harsh posts against the war,” he says. He was arrested and taken to Lubyanka, the headquarters of the domestic FSB intelligence agency, where “they interrogated me very harshly for three hours,” he says.
“They wanted me to sign a document swearing allegiance to Putin and other nonsense. Of course, I did not sign the document, but in order to have time to get my children out of Russia, I promised to stop my activities on the Internet. I have four children and the threats were serious. They promised to send me in a freight train to Donetsk and tie me to a pole as a looter, so that the people would deal with me,” he explains. “If it were not for the threats to [my] children, I would have stayed in Russia,” he says. He sold everything he could and flew on March 15 with his family to Israel.
Other political activists believe the circumstances are not right for the kind of national resistance Chernyshev hopes to foment. They say Putin has prepared for years to see off any “color revolution” that emerges. Others point to polls suggesting the Russian leader has support for his invasion of Ukraine.
Chernyshev dismisses the criticism. “Everyone who has conducted surveys knows that 9 out of 10 people interviewed on the street refuse to answer. People receive calls on their home phones and ask if they support government activities. People are afraid to answer truthfully and, of course, say they say they support. I am sure that Putin's rating is at an extremely low level. I urge you not to believe in the results of the polls,” he says.
And he believes food riots will start to emerge when the economic hardship brought on by Western sanctions worsens. “I may be wrong but doing nothing in such a situation seems like a betrayal to me,” he says.