“I can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison in my country for what I said last weekend,” says full professor of Family Law Masha Antokolskaia, “I may never be able to return.” She immediately adds: “However, that is of course nothing compared to the risk that people in Russia are taking when they take to the streets.”
Antokolskaia has decided that she can no longer turn a blind eye to this. Last Saturday, she was at the embassy in The Hague, and the week before that she was on the Dam. “It may be because I have nothing to loose. My mother died two years ago. I no longer have any immediate family in Russia that could get into trouble as a result of my actions.”
‘I considered Putin a pragmatic thief who would not start a large-scale war’
Guilt and shame were the prevailing emotions for Antokolskaia the past few weeks. She has lived in the Netherlands for the past 27 years, but was born in Moscow and studied there too. “We cannot claim that we didn’t know,” she says. “Until a month ago, I would have never thought that Putin would really invade Ukraine. Like many, I considered him a pragmatic thief who would not start a large-scale war. However, we certainly knew that he was gathering increasing amounts of power, and that he was building a world based on false propaganda in which everything was twisted around. We all knew this, and except for a few individuals, we did not take enough public action against it.”
Deeply entrenched fear
“Putin is not Russia,” says Antokolskaia. He is also fighting his own people. “His years of propaganda have created a completely parallel world. Protests for peace have become a crime. Many people want to flee the country. Russian suffering cannot be compared to the suffering of the people of Ukraine,” she wants to clarify this, “but every time I hear that another tank was blown up, I think about the 19-year-old boys that are inside. It is a tragedy for them and their families as well.”
‘Protests for peace have become a crime’
“Fear is deeply entrenched in her system,” says Antokolskaia who was born in 1964. “We never had any illusions about the regime in my family. My mother was young in Stalin’s time. She was always afraid. In the 1930s, during the Stalin terror, my grandfather would always go to work with a bag that included some items in case he was suddenly detained. I was a teenager during the darkest period of the Cold War, the time in which the closed coffins returned from Afghanistan. We tried to catch some of the world news on short wave, the BBC, the Deutsche Welle, but it was difficult; the signal would be disrupted.” Now she is surprised that there are intelligent people in Russia who believe the state propaganda, including some of her acquaintances. “Even though they can, or could in any case, read everything on the internet.”
No longer out of sight
Last May she walked through Moscow, through the university neighbourhood that she grew up in. Apple trees were flowering, nightingales were singing. “Moscow is a beautiful city. All sorts of memories from my childhood came to mind. I can’t believe that it was my farewell to the city, but as things are looking now, I will never be able to return there.”
‘I have always kept quiet, never protested’
She talks about how she found herself amidst Russian human rights activists in front of the embassy. The organisation asked if people wanted to say anything. Impulsively, Antokolskaia said “yes”. Through a megaphone, in front of the cameras, she related an anecdote from the story Rikki Tikki Tavi by the British-Indian writer Rudyard Kipling, a story she knew from childhood. In the story, there is a muskrat who is so afraid of the cobras that they always move along the wall and never go into the middle of the room. But in the story’s climax, the rat still has the courage to tell the bravest mongoose where the cobras are hiding their eggs.
“I feel like that rat,” says Antokolskaia. “I have always kept quiet, never protested. I hugged the walls, staying as far out of sight as possible: that is deeply entrenched in my system. But now even the most scared rat is coming out of hiding.”
Although she has Jewish roots, Antokolskaia is a member of the Russian Orthodox Parish of Saint Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam. Officially, the church falls under Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. However, the clergy of the Amsterdam parish have said in a statement that it condemns the invasion of Ukraine and will not name Patriarch Kirill, who has rallied behind Putin, in the services. “We have also organised help for refugees on behalf of the church,” says Antokolskaia.
She and a group of volunteers from VU Amsterdam and the church will provide legal advice to refugees: “So much is still unclear: how will we get their children to school? How can we make sure that they are insured? Will they be allowed to work? Who will pay for specific expenses if they are with a guest family for more than a few weeks? I want to help organise these practical legal matters. It is the least I can do.”