Russia continues the war in Ukraine, but for this, it needs more and more soldiers for the front. The authorities in Moscow are trying to mobilize as many troops as possible. They hand out leaflets glorifying the military and urging young people to enlist – in a conflict that has so far killed tens of thousands of people. Criticizing Vladimir Putin or war can have serious consequences. In fact, just using the word “war” leads to a ten-year prison sentence. Protests are banned, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people speaking out against the invasion. For example Serghei, who runs a private vocational school. He was asked to recruit for the Russian army, but refused. And he is not the only one. Andrei, for example, was a student, but he was expelled because he protested. Watch a report by “Focus Europa”, a Digi24 and Deutsche Welle project. The show is broadcast on Friday at 10:30 p.m. and repeated on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Andrei Kotenko is 20 years old and wanted to become a journalist. He says he was among the best students at St. Petersburg University – until a year ago. He had good grades, was praised by his teachers and respected by his peers. His promising career ended abruptly in March 2022, when Andrei joined a lecturer who condemned the war. In addition, he posted photos on Instagram criticizing the invasion.
One of the messages was “No to war”. Another criticized the ban on speaking openly about the invasion and a third used less complimentary words about the authorities.
And suddenly, his academic success ended. The university harassed him in every possible way and eventually expelled him – even though he had good grades.
Andrei Kotenko: “I felt terrible, because they stole my dream. My life seemed over. I wanted to scream, I was so angry.”
The university management rejected Andrei’s complaint. He sent us a statement saying that the young man was expelled because of bad grades. But he declined our request for an interview.
Andrei sued the university for the return of tuition fees, plus damages. The case went to court.
The legal dispute took place in a system where more and more critics of the war are being silenced and more and more soldiers are being recruited, especially in the remote regions of Russia – like here in Novosibirsk. Billboards urge young men to enlist. Advertisements on television and on the Internet praise the Wagner Private Army as well as the regular military forces.
From now on, students will also be targeted for recruitment – like at this private vocational school. The authorities asked its founder, Serghei Chernișov, to post the Ministry of Defense announcements on the website.
Sergey Chernișov: “You have to be completely crazy to post recruitment posters like these on a school’s website. As I see it, it’s total nonsense, because people who want to study at vocational colleges are exempt from military service. And now, are they the ones who should drop everything and join the military? Besides, it goes against our values.”
Chernyshov refuses to advertise the army, even though he knows that this may have unpleasant consequences. As a critical thinker that he is, he sees no alternative.
Sergey Chernyshov: “You can’t act as if nothing is happening around you. You can’t ignore that tragedies are happening in both camps, both in Russian and Ukrainian families. People are dying on both sides . The infrastructure and the economy are suffering. To pretend that nothing is happening would be absurd.”
Back to Andrei Kotenko, the former student from St. Petersburg. His case took an unexpected turn. The court ruled partially in his favor, and he sent us the decision. The university must refund the tuition fees and compensate Andrei – the equivalent of over 11 thousand euros. However, he is not optimistic about a future career in journalism.
Andrei Kotenko: “I can’t make big plans. I don’t know what I will do in half a year, a year or 10. What is happening to me is symbolic. Just half a year ago, I thought I would finish university and start my career – just like before February 24 last year, when people thought they would live in peace.”
Andrei Kotenko left St. Petersburg, but not Russia, his homeland. He can’t imagine taking that step, no matter how uncertain the future.
Editor : G.M.