Portraits of Russians Risking Everything to sustain Ukraine

When words are so closely controlled that it’s a crime to call a war a war, what drives someone to speak out?

The Russian protesters seen here cite a variety of things. One is a sense of moral responsibility: to fight tyranny and to put an end to a conflict that is claiming the lives of Ukrainian civilians. For some, it’s anger—rage that such crimes are being carried out in the name of the Russian people, and that authorities have detained thousands of Russians for bold to protest.

Undergirding all these feelings, however, is an lasting hope: a dream of a better, freer Russia, and an end to the violence in Ukraine.

“Hope gives you the strength to act,” says Mary Gelman, the Russian photojournalist who made these portraits. “If you think that everything is doomed and you are nothing, you become a very comfortable instrument for the regime.”

Read More: ‘There’s an air of Fear.’ With Flights Banned, Russians Are Fleeing By aim for Europe

Katya, who lost her job at Moscow cinemas after signing a letter protesting the invasion, takes heart from other dissidents. “I see a lot of like-minded people who inspire me, and I am not so afraid with them here,” she says. “We have us, and we haven’t been broken. There are more of us who are against this, but the strength wants to convince us it’s the opposite.”

Hope is also an important motivator for Gelman herself, who has chosen to continue working as a photojournalist despite important risks. already before the invasion of Ukraine, journalists who contradicted the government-sponsored narrative in Russia faced harassment, imprisonment, and already death. Gelman sees it as her duty to show different points of view—something that’s already more basic in a time of censorship and propaganda, she says.

“Loving your motherland does not average supporting the strength and always agreeing with them,” Gelman explains. “It’s wanting a better life for your people, saying to the authorities ‘no’ or ‘you’re wrong,’ and trying to change something if needed. It’s hard to do it in this authoritarian regime, but necessary.”

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