On the snowy afternoon of Jan. 22, a group of Russians and Russian-speakers gathered at the Pioneer Court Plaza, in the shadow of the Tribune Tower, to call for the release of all political prisoners, the end of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and a free Russia in general. Standing among them, holding up a protest sign, was a woman I’ll call Olga.

Out of an abundance of caution, I will just say that she and her friends mounted a protest action in their city. It didn’t end well — those who weren’t arrested fled the country, ending up at the Mexican border seeking asylum in the United States.

They fled with little more than the clothes on their backs. But even in her first weeks in U.S., Olga asked me if I knew about other opposition activists in Chicago, and if she could get involved.

I didn’t have a good answer for her until a few weeks ago, when I heard about exiled activists all over the world organizing rallies to mark the second anniversary of the detention of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny and the crackdown on the protests that followed. In the past two years, the Russian government has become even more repressive, arresting people for calling the war in Ukraine a “war” (the government’s preferred vernacular is “special military operation”), and relaying information about what was happening on the ground. Now one of the rallies was being organized in Chicago.

Naturally, Olga wanted in.

I tried my best to spread the word, even putting up flyers, but wasn’t too optimistic. Opposition rallies in Chicago don’t usually get much participation. My pessimism deepened as I saw snow in the Sunday forecast. I called Olga just to check if she was still going, but there was no hesitation — she bundled up, but she was going.

As we headed to Pioneer Court, I mentioned the flyers.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were putting up flyers?” she asked. “I could’ve helped.”

I pointed out that she was busy running around, taking on menial jobs just to make ends meet.

“I could have put them up on the way to work!” she responded.

As we reached Pioneer Court, any concern that we’d be the only ones vanished. Ten minutes before the start of the rally, there were already 30 people, and the crowds just kept growing. The general consensus was that at least 100 people attended.

We called for the release of the political prisoners. We called for the end of the war in Ukraine. We called Putin Russia’s shame and chanted that Russia will be free. In retrospect, we probably could have used more English-language chants, but after watching photos and videos of protesters getting tasered and beaten, feeling helpless, it was, I admit, cathartic. 

The rally wrapped up about 10 minutes later than planned. As some protesters went to the nearby Apple store to get warm, I heard Olga quietly repeating one of the chants.

“Russia will be free, Russia will be free, Russia will be free,” she said again and again, like an affirmation, like a mantra. Then she looked up and smiled. “This will be ringing in my head all day.”

“You know,” Olga told me later. “When I was back in Russia, I remember seeing photos of the protests abroad. … Just knowing that we weren’t alone, that people who left haven’t forgotten us. … It meant a lot.”

The activists are planning another rally on Feb. 24, to mark the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine. The location and other details are still to be determined. But Olga and other activists like her will be there, and they will keep showing up — until Russia is free.           

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Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...