In Russia, children opposing the Ukraine war are being targeted
A 12-year-old was punished over her anti-war artwork, the latest sign of a growing crackdown against young people.
Last April, 12-year-old Masha Moskalyova was asked to draw a picture for art class showing support for Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine.
Instead, she drew a mother and a child standing in the path of missiles with the captions “no to war” and “glory to Ukraine”.
The following day, her father Alexey Moskalyev, who was raising her alone in the town of Yefremov, in the Tula region, about 200km (125 miles) south of Moscow, was called to her school.
Both father and daughter were taken away in police cars.
Alexey was interrogated by local officers, who found disparaging comments he had made online about the Russian military, comparing them with rapists.
In court, Alexey was fined 32,000 rubles ($420) for discrediting the armed forces.
The next day, Federal Security Service (FSB) agents paid a visit to Masha’s school, accused her father of poor parenting and said Masha should be taken away. After that, Masha was too scared to attend class.
Alexey was ultimately arrested and Masha was taken into care – a sign of how far the Russian authorities are going to suppress criticism of the war in Ukraine.
On December 30, 2022, five police cars and a fire truck had parked outside their home.
Alexey told Russian human rights group OVD-Info he did not want to let them in without a warrant, but he opened the door when they began barging it down.
The police and FSB ransacked the apartment, allegedly taking the family’s life savings, mobile phones, laptops and Masha’s anti-war drawing.
At the time of writing, Russian authorities – including the Investigative Committee for the Tula Region – had not responded to a request for comment.
Alexey claimed that his head was slammed against a wall and that he was locked in a room with the national anthem on full blast. He was then charged again for discrediting the army; he now faces up to three years in jail.
Last week, Alexey was held for two days in a pre-trial detention centre while Masha, now 13, has been taken to a children’s shelter.
According to his lawyer Vladimir Biliyenko, Alexey has since been released and is under house arrest.
“Alexey is under house arrest, he is only allowed contact with me and the investigators,” Biliyenko told Al Jazeera by phone.
“Masha is in a shelter. We’re working to have her returned and the house arrest lifted. We’ve filed a complaint to the prosecutor general and the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation. If the father receives a prison sentence, the daughter will be sent to a children’s home.
“The charge carries a maximum of three years so it’s not that severe, and an actual term of imprisonment is relatively rare. But this is a political case, so it could go either way.”
Biliyenko did not comment on Alexey’s alleged mistreatment while in custody.
Svetlana Davydova, head of Yefremov’s commission for juvenile affairs, told Russian state media outlet RBC, that the Moskalyevs had been put on a list of “families in socially dangerous situations”, and that she had filed a lawsuit to deprive Alexey and Masha’s mother, who lives in a different city, of their rights as parents.
Masha is currently stuck at the children’s centre, which has told local media she would not be released.
“It’s common for the entire family to be dragged into persecution, even if only one member is ‘guilty’ in the regime’s eyes – especially if that someone’s a minor,” Dan Storyev, managing editor of OVD-Info English, told Al Jazeera.
In October last year, a 10-year-old Moscow schoolgirl was detained when her classmates’ parents complained that her profile picture in a class group chat was “Saint Javelin”, a meme which has become a wartime symbol of Ukrainian resistance – the Virgin Mary cloaked in yellow and blue, holding a big gun.
Later, the girl and her mother were questioned and their home was searched, but in the end, no charges were made.
In another case in eastern Siberia, the 16-year-old son of anti-war protester Natalia Filonova was sent to a remote orphanage 300km (186 miles) from home, while she was detained for participating in a rally and allegedly assaulting two police officers with a ballpoint pen.
“We’re currently seeing a worrisome trend of minors being persecuted by the regime, along with their families,” Storyev continued. “The regime’s goal is to inspire fear, so they threaten families with separation, claiming that parents aren’t raising the kids right – as was the case with Alexey [Moskalyev].”
Storyev listed other instances where under-18s have fallen afoul of the authorities after expressing anti-war positions.
He said that in Moscow, police stopped at a boy’s home and turned off the electricity after he expressed his position on Ukraine. Two high schoolers were harassed by the public for refusing to stand during the Russian national anthem and playing the Ukrainian anthem instead. In Yekaterinburg, another child was publicly scolded for writing a letter to a soldier, urging him not to kill and to come home. And a 16-year-old was fined for saying if he was conscripted, he would fight for Ukraine, Storyev said.
“According to our data, at least 544 minors were detained in anti-war protests in the past year, and seven minors are currently criminally prosecuted for their anti-war positions,” he said. “In particular, minors are targeted for sharing posts or comments about anti-war rallies, spreading leaflets against mobilisation and war, holding solo demonstrations, expressing anti-war views during school events, demonstrating [an] anti-war piece of clothing, and making anti-war inscriptions.”
Storyev also mentioned there have been instances where young teenagers were arrested for more direct action, such as sabotaging railways and burning down military conscription offices.
Meanwhile, authorities try to win the younger generation over to their way of thinking, with classes to instil patriotism and an extracurricular “important conversations” programme, examining recent events from the perspective of the Kremlin.
“The regime is trying to squeeze children into a heavily militarised culture,” said Storyev. “The attempts to do so have been going on long before the war — the state sponsors cadet schools and cadet classes within regular schools. [Masha] went to such a school with cadet classes,” he said.
“Through the attacks on schools, children and parents, the Kremlin aims to obliterate and terrify Russian civil society, but despite everything, Russian activists — among them children and parents — continue to stand up against the war, even at a horrible cost.”