'I'm Not Afraid For Myself': Determined Pensioners Risk It All For Russia's Pro-Democracy Movement

Pyotr Zuyev, a diabetic pensioner from Kaliningrad, knows the dangers the elderly face by actively participating in Russia’s pro-democracy protest movement.

On May 9, Zuyev marked his 75th birthday in the infectious-diseases ward of a hospital in the Baltic coast city while serving a 15-day administrative-custody term for participating in a protest the previous month. He had tested positive for COVID-19 while in jail.

“I have been charged under that statute several times already,” Zuyev told RFE/RL. “I guess it will be with me for the rest of my days.”

Generally speaking, the elderly have been the staunchest supporters of authoritarian President Vladimir Putin. According to a Levada Center poll published on May 13, more than half of Russians aged over 55 view the country’s pro-democracy protesters negatively, compared with just 21 percent in the 18-24 age range and 31 percent in the 25-39 cohort. Another Levada poll found that 60 percent of those above 55 felt the April court decision to send opposition leader Aleksei Navalny to prison for 2 1/2 years was “just.”

And a 2018 Levada survey found that 89 percent of those over age 55 get their news primarily from state-controlled television, compared to 49 percent for the 18-24 cohort.

There have been exceptions to this pattern, however, when particular issues have struck at the interests of retirees. In 2005, pensioners led a massive wave of national protests against a controversial reform to their social benefits. Putin’s government was rocked by scenes of old people banging pots and shouting for “revolution.”

In 2018, some elderly Russians joined in with protests against the government’s move to raise retirement ages that were organized by the fairly geriatric Communist Party of Russia, again marching under slogans calling for Putin himself to retire.

But the overall pro-democracy movement in Russia and the struggle for basic civil liberties has gained little sympathy among the elderly. There have been a few high-profile exceptions, such as in December 2009, when Moscow riot police manhandled then-82-year-old dissident Lyudmila Alekseyeva at a protest demanding the right to peaceful assembly and photographs of the incident shocked the world.

'Putin Is A Thief!'

Kaliningrad’s Zuyev, a retired choirmaster, is a clear exception who has become something of a celebrity in the port city. For years now, he has been a regular fixture at democracy demonstrations and pickets. He has come out in support of those considered political prisoners, and he joined local protests in support of neonatologist Elina Shushkevich, who was accused of deliberately killing a premature baby in 2018 and was acquitted in December 2020.

He was detained at a June 2019 pro-Shushkevich demonstration, where he carried a poster reading: “The whole system needs to be replaced and Navalny is the contractor.” He was later fined 150,000 rubles ($2,025). In February, he was fined another 180,000 rubles for attending a January 31 demonstration supporting Navalny, who had been arrested in Moscow upon his return from Germany following treatment for a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives acting at Putin’s behest.

Court officials began garnishing half of Zuyev’s 15,000-ruble ($200) monthly pension. Although Zuyev crowdsourced enough funds to pay off his own fines and contribute more than 200,000 rubles to pay those of other activists, he continues to pay off his debt monthly from his pension.

“They will be taking the money until I die,” he said. “My wife and I decided not to pay the whole amount…. If I pay it and then appear at another demonstration, they’ll just fine me again. It will be endless. But this way, years will pass, and everyone will see how the state is taking away the pension of an 80-year-old man.”

In his latest brush with the law, Zuyev was pulled out of the crowd at a demonstration on April 21 calling for Navalny to be examined by his own doctors while in prison. He told RFE/RL that a plainclothes security agent approached him, addressed him by name, and took him to an awaiting police van.

“They already had a list of whom to detain,” Zuyev said.

The police report filed against him noted: “Zuyev was shouting: ‘Putin is a thief!’”

“So what?” Zuyev said. “I wasn’t disturbing the public or swearing. If there were 250 marchers, as police said there were, then why was I the one who was arrested? In the end, it turns out that Putin is a thief but I go to jail.”

A Cellmate Recruited

He and four other activists from the demonstration began serving their 15-day sentences on April 26. Within a day, Zuyev became ill, his blood sugar soaring and a fever raging. Initially, a doctor examined him, gave him some aspirin, and sent him back to jail.

“The goal of the jailers is to break people morally,” Zuyev said. “The whole atmosphere aims at that…. Psychologically, it is very hard.”

Nonetheless, while in custody he spent his time trying to convert a cellmate who was serving time for public drunkenness.

“I totally recruited him,” Zuyev said with a laugh. “Now our families have become friends. He called me and told me he’d go to the next demonstration with me.”

“And he promised he’d never vote for United Russia again,” Zuyev added, referring to the ruling political party that is Putin’s tool for maintaining a monopoly of power at all levels of government.

In Television's Grip

Zuyev’s jail stretch ended on May 11, but he remained in the hospital for several more days until a second COVID test came back negative. He believes the first test was a false positive and is thankful the outcome wasn’t much worse.

He said that most of his friends who are his age don’t sympathize with his politics.

“There are some who are against Putin,” he said, “but most don’t have the health or the recklessness that it takes. Television has a firm grip on their lives, and hardly any use the Internet. And that makes a huge difference. The people have been deceived. Every word on television is a lie.”

“But I am not afraid for myself,” he added. “I live by the principle: Do what you must and come what may. And my family supports me.”

Anna Volodina is an 85-year-old retiree in the northwestern city of Pskov with a story similar to Zuyev’s. She has been protesting actively in recent years, saying “I don’t have anything to be afraid of anymore.” She has been a member of the liberal Yabloko party for a decade.

She bristles at the suggestion that Putin is irreplaceable and lists as possible successors Navalny, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Roizman, and Pskov’s own liberal regional lawmaker Lev Shlosberg.

“After I moved here, I met Lev Shlosberg by chance,” she told RFE/RL. “Amid all the hatred and lies, it was like a breath of fresh air. He is a man of the future. Pskov should be very proud of him, but he is practically unknown. And many of those who have heard of him, slander him.”

Volodina also said most people her age disagree with her, a fact she attributes without hesitation to state-controlled television.

“I know a lot of people,” she said. “And no one thinks like I do. I haven’t fallen out with them, but I don’t like being in touch with them. Some of them have taken offense and think I’m crazy. They all think Putin is the greatest president.”

“Sometimes I look at state television…to see what the people are seeing,” she added. “Sometimes it just makes me want to smash my set.”