In 2009 Anna Stepanova found herself in Vladimir Putin’s office with a letter from a group of Arkhangelsk region residents requesting to preserve a hospital in a small rural district. Putin had silently leafed through the papers, and then Anna was shown the door. This was how she got disappointed in the Russian authorities. She began to fight bureaucrats who were abusing power: she defended the factory where she worked, wrote on social networks about a small town’s problems, and took part in the Shiyes protests. It didn’t go without risks, as shots were fired at her car, her pet hotel was burned down, and her grooming studio was bugged. Her anti-war protest in 2022 was Stepanova’s last public action in Russia: she and her family had to flee the country to avoid criminal persecution. "7x7" tells the activist's story.
You should have left yesterday
At the end of July 2022, Anna Stepanova came to her grooming studio in the military town of Mirny in the Arkhangelsk region. The lights in the studio were on, although the woman remembered that had turned them off after leaving the office the day before. It was strange.
A day later, right outside the front door of the studio, Anna found a glue gun. It had not been there before. Stepanova looked around the studio more closely and discovered small microphones glued to the plastic walls of the room.
That day Anna came to the grooming studio with a group of journalists: they were shooting a documentary for a German TV channel about the Shiyes protests. After the filming, she left for Moscow to inform her lawyer about the suspicious findings.
“I left children home with my husband. I bought a train ticket, but I didn’t use it. Instead, I took a different route to Moscow. I talked to my lawyer. He said that [siloviki] were going to charge me with a serious crime. Most likely with something involving terrorism or extremism. He recommended that I'd better leave. He said I should have done that yesterday.”
When back home, Anna told her husband about the conversation. Since the start of the special operation in Ukraine, they had been thinking about leaving Russia. In March, the Stepanovs had applied for travel documents, but received them only in early July - they still don’t know why it took the officials so long to process their application.
The suspicious findings in the studio were just too much; the Stepanovs packed, and with their two children, a cat and a dog drove toward the Georgian border.
How Putin kicked Anna out of his office
Anna Stepanova became an activist in 2008 when after giving birth to her second child she was diagnosed with cancer. At that time, in her town of Savinskoe, home to 7,700 people, the authorities had decided to close a cement factory where most of the people worked. Anna was working there as a mechanic because the job secured some stability for her and her family. When the management began to force people to retire, she stood up for the plant. Together with others, Anna collected signatures for a petition against the closure; they believed that the federal authorities would help: "The tsar is good - the boyars are bad.”
The protests seemed to have worked, the plant was not closed, and in 2014 the owners even started talking about modernizing it. The employees were asked to quit, and by 2015 the building stood empty. Anna had quit a few years earlier for personal reasons: her first husband and she were expecting their third child, but the pregnancy ended in a stillbirth.
After closing the plant, the authorities had decided to close also the local hospital. They started with the surgery department, and the maternity division was scheduled to go next. The officials argued that people were leaving the place for big cities and there was almost no one left in need of childbirth care. The head of the local administration, Alexei Smetanin, suggested that to give birth women could travel to the perinatal center in Arkhangelsk, 300 km away from Savinskoe.
Anna and her second husband, an auto mechanic, were planning to conceive. But during pregnancy, one needs constant medical supervision – which without a maternity department would be impossible. The couple had abandoned plans to have a baby; the woman joined the locals protesting the closure of the hospital.
In 2009, she was delegated with the signatures they had collected to Moscow for a personal meeting with Vladimir Putin. During those years he served as the Prime Minister, and Anna was hoping for his help.
“Back then, access to him was still possible. The reception lasted a minute and a half. There was a long desk in his office. One might think that earlier [before the coronavirus] his desk was short, but it was not. There were guards lined up along the walls. No one passed anything to anyone. He didn't even look up at me."
"He had flipped through the papers, raised his hand, and said: ‘Show her where the door is.’ Then I realized that if the country is ruled by [such a person], then there are bureaucrats across the country who sit in their offices agreeing to anything coming from the top and then doing whatever they want," she says about that day.
After the meeting with Putin, Anna posted a video on VKontakte saying: "I've just seen the prime minister, and believe me, he is the same [a swear word for a homosexual man] as those who sit in their [regional] offices.” Later, the Savinsky hospital was shut down.
Not getting support from the authorities, Stepanova started writing on social media about what was going on in the town of Savinsky, appealing to the law enforcement agencies with complaints about the local administrations in Archangelsk region. Anna says that her complaints had contributed to the resignation of the head of Savinsky, Alexei Smetanin, whom she had blamed for closing the maternity department and the reorganization of schools. Anna had supplemented her petitions to law enforcement agencies with reports from relatives of the women who had died while being transported to the Arkhangelsk maternity hospital. The woman had complained to the Russian Investigative Committee about one of the top officials of the Plesetsk District, who every time the activists planned protests would arrange cultural events to block them.
Because of Stepanova's criticism, the authorities refused to provide her with a building for an animal shelter. Yet Anna and her husband had found a place for their project - and in 2016 they opened a pet hotel in the neighboring settlement of Plesetsk, where they kept and treated dogs.
Back then she felt free and was not afraid to speak out, although she found almost no support among the locals:
“People had been taught that politics was a very bad thing, you shouldn't get involved in it. God forbid until cancer comes to your family, no one would go out on the street calling for help for a sick child next door. And only when trouble comes, people start waving their sabers and screaming that they haven’t been heard.”
A more serious clash with the authorities came years later when she supported the protests at Shiyes station in the Arkhangelsk region.
Warning shots for Shiyes
Stepanova had joined activists who were keeping watch over the train station trying to prevent the construction of a massive landfill for garbage from Moscow. Shiyes is a very personal story for her. After surgery, several courses of radiation, and beating cancer 10 years ago, she knew she had an obligation to fight for the environment:
“It occurred to me that my children might die before they could even reach my age if the Shiyes [landfill] was [built]. We often hear that our [Arkhangelsk residents'] health is not affected by the cosmodrome [in the neighboring town of Plesetsk]. The rockets are harmless, they say. But the fact that our region has the highest cancer and mortality rates is not widely discussed.”
At the end of 2018, Anna asked her husband and children to let her go to Shiyes. In January 2019, when the activists didn't leave the station so that they could keep an eye on the situation, she spent nights in a trailer in the swamps, at -40°C.
“It didn't seem right for men to be at Shiyes at that moment. Because we thought only women could handle physical confrontation or being denied access to certain places. At that time, we wanted peaceful protest, not fights. Our husbands stayed with the children and let us go.”
In March 2019, the protest turned into an open conflict when an excavator driver destroyed the activists' trailer. At the same time, several fist fights occurred between the guards who were protecting the landfill construction site and the activists.
It was during the Shiyes protests that someone fired shots at Anna's car. The police closed the case because they couldn't find the perpetrators.
“Then inspectors from the child and family services came to my house to check on my children's lives. They conducted a rather thorough search looking for extremist literature; they also searched my workplace. In total there were five such searches in 2020 and 2021,” she recalls.
In October 2021, when the authorities had already complied with the activists’ demand to shut down the landfill project, the protestors were still holding occasional meetings at Shiyes to monitor the situation, Anna was coming home from the station when her husband called and told her that their pet hotel was on fire.
Elections and a fire
A month before the fire at the pet hotel, Anna decided to run for a seat in the Savinski municipality council – the offer to run came from Anatoliy Tantsura, a local communist:
“I was told that people who had participated in protests since long were in demand and that I would get elected because everyone knew me. I wanted to help people because a municipal councilor can at least file inquiries [to the authorities]. An ordinary person cannot even get an answer to his request, because he is a nobody.”
Two days before the vote, the communists removed Stepanova's name from the ballot. Anna believes it happened because she conflicted with Nadezhda Vinogradova (back then she was the vice-speaker of the Arkhangelsk Legislative Assembly, and she was running as a Communist Party member for a seat in the State Duma). Vinogradova had supported the construction of the Shiyes landfill:
“My husband and I went to a meeting with Vinogradova at the local community center. My husband asked questions for me because I wasn't feeling well. I asked how it was possible to nominate [for the elections] such a person?”
Before Nadezhda Vinogradova met with voters, Anatoliy Tantsura called Anna and according to her said that if she opened her mouth, she would be removed from the election. Two hours after the meeting Stepanova's name was crossed off the already printed ballots. Tantsura did not answer the activist's questions as to why she was not allowed to run.
Anna Stepanova believes that the fire in the pet hotel was because of her position on Shiyes. Before the incident, she had received several anonymous phone calls with threats to set the building on fire. However, she doesn’t have evidence to prove that it was arson.
While the pet hotel was already burning, Anna’s husband managed to take the dogs, cats, and birds outside. Firefighters, he said later, were just standing there and watching:
"When my husband asked them to water the roof, they said, that it was dark and scary out there.” The building had burned to the ground.
There was no way to rebuild the animal shelter. Instead, the Stepanovs took a loan to open a grooming service in the town of Mirny, her husband’ hometown.
Against the special operation in Ukraine
On February 24, when Anna Stepanova heard about the start of the special operation in Ukraine, she recorded a video message: she asked her Ukrainian relatives for forgiveness and demanded from the Russian authorities withdraw the soldiers.
“My father is Ukrainian; I have many relatives in Ukraine. I didn't believe that a Russian soldier could kill a Ukrainian, I didn't understand why my relatives were saying: ‘Beat the Khokhols [a derogatory Russian term for Ukrainians], save Russia.’ No, of course, I knew why: they have three TV sets in a two-bedroom apartment.”
“The difference between those who watch TV and who look out the window is huge.”
For weeks the activist practically could not sleep. She was searching for ways to help Ukrainians, and even wanted to assemble a volunteer unit for rebuilding ruined Ukrainian cities. A man came from the local prosecutor’s office to warn her that if she took her protest to the street, she would be breaking the law.
Anna said that she wasn't going to do that anyways because it would be pointless.
“I wasn't afraid to tell the man what I thought. He's just like me. But it's even harder for him because he's a man of the system. He said, ‘It's not all that clear-cut.’ But even then, I knew that I wouldn't call anyone to come to street rallies, because one more person detained would mean one more activist lost and one more person in prison.”
She thought that it was still safe to speak out on social media about the events in Ukraine, even if she stayed in Russia. After talking to the lawyer in Moscow, her illusions disappeared:
“We were unable to leave earlier: we had a loan to repay, and we had a hotel to run. I knew I couldn't keep quiet. But I also saw that the screws were getting tightened. I wanted to speak out, but I knew it would be dangerous.”
"We're normal. We're against the war"
Her two children, a 16-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter, didn’t know about the plans for emigration until the last day. Before getting in the car, she warned them that they might not come back.
“It's hard for them, they're teenagers. Their whole lives were there, at home. But they understand what could happen to me or my husband, and they didn't argue. For that I am very grateful to them,” Stepanova said.
The Stepanovs left the country with the assistance of some NGOs and activist friends, who had helped them raise money for travel, housing, and paperwork. Among them were journalist Yekaterina Gordeyeva and musician Yuri Shevchuk, both of whom Anna met during the Shiyes protests.
On August 3, the family arrived in Tbilisi. Four days later, the activist went to an anti-war rally – it was the 14th anniversary of the Russo-Georgian war:
“It was great. I know that over 20 years they've got full control over us, they've tightened the screws. But when you find yourself in a country with Ukrainian flags everywhere, with people going out to rallies and the police guarding them rather than beating them up, then after having lived under oppression for 20 years, it feels like you've been released from prison. You don't see people in Russia who can come out and say Putin is ***, ***, or simply express their opinion. At the rally, like many expatriate Russians, I thanked Georgia and the people of Tbilisi for welcoming us. Thanked those who expressed openly what was on their minds. I told them that I had been against the system for a long time and that I had fled my country. And asked everyone to remember that good must beat evil.”
When the Stepanovs happen to be in a company that includes people from Ukraine and Belarus, they say as they introduce themselves: "We're from Russia. We are normal, we are against the war".
In Tbilisi, Anna wants to help emigrants and refugees. Coming back home, where the grooming studio is now run by a family friend, might be considered if only there is an emergency:
“I might go back only if the political regime changes. I’m not going back to prison. But if the future of Russia depends on me too and I can do my part, yes, I will go back.”
In early August in Shiyes, her eco-activist friends had their traditional meeting. Anna could not go because of the sudden departure, but she keeps in touch with her friends and colleagues:
“This meeting shows that victories still can be achieved. No matter how much people are silenced by the authorities, if they work together, they can do anything.”