Russians in Australia fight back against Vladimir Putin via the Svoboda Alliance


Ilya Fomin, the president of the alliance’s NSW chapter, said it seeks a Russia that never again embarks on a costly genocidal attack on a neighbouring nation.

Ilya Fomin, NSW president of Svoboda Alliance.Credit:James Brickwood

“The grand purpose is not just to finish the war,” Fomin said. “Our grand goal is to understand how we can avoid anything like this in the future.”

The university academic said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was “not a terrible accident or something random. This is a war that has been prepared for at least 15 years” and has been driven by narratives promoted by the Kremlin both inside and outside Russia.

Before the invasion of Ukraine, there were the poisonings of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Britain in 2018, the interference in the US election in 2016, and the support for separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, which included the shooting down of MH17. Before that, there was the war with Georgia in 2008.

“We think there should be a complete change in the paradigm, in the official narratives of history used in Russia,” Fomin said.

Russian imperialism today relies on “fake democracy” backed by “specific narratives for history, literature and cultural codes of nations of Russia”, he said. These narratives are promoted to Russians at home and Russian communities abroad.

For Fomin and other members, the cost of speaking out is high. “For me and for very many Russians, if they speak out against the war, they become criminals under Russian law,” he said.

“They can be detained and arrested as soon as they go back to Russia. For very many Russians, it’s tough to break all ties because of their aged parents and other compassionate reasons. But this is what we have done.”

“It’s why there aren’t so many Russians who speak out. Because of fear.”

Svoboda Alliance also exists as a way to assert group members’ own Russian identity. Speaking out about the Russian state’s behaviour demonstrates freedom of conscience.

For that, its members are clear: “We are extremely proud to be doing what we’re doing,” said Galina Seredina, secretary of Svoboda Alliance NSW. “Only one or two years ago Australians didn’t know that Russian people like us existed. People didn’t know there were alternative voices.”

Extremely proud of the Alliance’s work: Galina Seredina.

Extremely proud of the Alliance’s work: Galina Seredina.Credit:Galina Seredina

“We’ve done an extremely important job and we’re very proud.”

Their work has not gone unnoticed by the Russian embassy, which typically coordinates Russian expat groups in Australia.

Asked about the Svoboda Alliance’s calls for Russian diplomats to be expelled, the embassy said: “You keep entertaining us with your propaganda journalism. You don’t really expect your inquiry to be taken seriously, do you?”

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The Australia-based alliance has also attracted the attention of Russian politicians. A group of Russian parliamentarians named it “undesirable”, among a cluster of other pro-democracy Russian groups around the world.

Overseas Russian opposition to the Kremlin has been a long time coming.

As the Kremlin successfully strangled the brief emergence of democracy in Russia in part by co-opting legitimate domestic political opposition in the 1990s, it began to expand efforts to control the narrative to foreign political parties, leaders and movements overseas.

Part of the alliance’s goal is simply to offer a different perspective on Russia than the official one promulgated by the government.

Fomin says Russia’s imperialism contains a distorted vision of history, which excludes inconvenient facts. Even today, for example, it’s hard for Russians to know the details of the mass killings during the Soviet era. “In Australia, in the recent discussion about Aboriginal people and their fate, no one rejects that European settlers killed them […] We want the same [honesty] in Russia.” Millions of Soviet citizens were starved or put to death by former leader Josef Stalin, and many more were jailed or exiled.

More broadly, the alliance hopes to inject a less propaganda-driven voice into discussion of Russia’s affairs.

“Putin seeks to generate uncertainty and doubt in communities to de-mobilise and deflect them,” said former ambassador to Russia Peter Tesch. “This alliance runs against that effort.”

“The nature of that group is that it seeks to challenge and contest the Kremlin’s tactics, techniques, and procedures. On that side, it is perceived to be against Russia’s national interests,” said Tesch, who was posted to Russia for six years.

Alliance members were “seeking to communicate about something that’s been of concern inside and outside the Australian state for some time,” he said.

“Namely, how authoritarian systems can weaponise and exploit attributes of our society in ways we can’t do in reverse.”

This year the group wrote to the government detailing how “Russian diplomatic missions in many countries collect information on anti-war activists and ignite pro-Putin sentiment” and how Russia-state-backed “agents of influence in many countries, including Australia, use conspiracy narratives (like the anti-vax movement, QAnon and others) to back actions of the Kremlin”.

One need only look at Europe today, or Australian history, to see how the Kremlin’s proxies have used courts, the media and members of its diaspora to achieve strategic goals.

In Australia, this can involve front groups, or the Russian media apparatus’ amplification of local voices that promote polarising views on Western power and legitimacy.

There is a history to this. Egon Kisch, the mysterious European journalist who defied authorities in 1934 and generated headlines in Australia for months, was a prominent member of the Moscow-directed Comintern international organisation.

Tesch says that because views on Russia are so heavily filtered through official Russian propaganda, “groups like the alliance seek, with the authority of cultural history and understanding, to say: ‘this is what is happening’, ‘this is how Russia functions in this society’.”

The group’s efforts to push back on Kremlin propaganda or offer a modicum of transparency on Russian activities in Australia, is a signal that a part of the Russian community is standing up for democratic values.

Groups like the alliance are not an attempt to create a “Gaullist resistance”, Tesch said, referring to French General Charles DeGaulle’s war-time government in exile. Rather it’s about offering an independent view of Russia from a Russian-Australian pro-democratic vantage.

And when it comes to Russia, identity is important.

Fomin says, “Those born outside of Russia are not under the same suspicion as Russia-born people, even though these people can collaborate with Russia-state sponsored propaganda activities”.

Simeon Boikov, a so-called ‘Aussie Cossack’, is an ever-present figure in pro-Kremlin street protests. But he wasn’t even born in Russia.

“We, as people who were born and bred in the Soviet Union or Russia, don’t find the Aussie Cossack really Russian,” Fomin said.

Being Russian-speaking, alliance members are aware of numerous expat organisations that aren’t connected to the consulate but nevertheless follow its guidance on social matters.

“We would like to talk to them but they do not want to talk to us,” Fomin said.“They don’t want to listen to our story or don’t want to refer to us.”

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While members’ views put them at odds with the Russian state, the mistrust for the Russian community has increased since Putin’s decision to wage a chaotic invasion of Ukraine.

Seredina says: “On the one hand you’re blamed for Russia’s actions, just in general, as if you made these bad things happen.”

On the other hand, non-Russia born people who work for Russian entities are not scrutinised in the same way, she says.

So for now, alliance members simply seek to speak truthfully for whatever audience will listen, fellow Russian immigrants, or the broader society.

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Melbourne-based Manakova admits changing Russians’ perspective of the world, some of whom are steeped in Kremlin narratives, won’t be easy.

“It will be very hard for people who lived in this environment to learn all these stories they’ve been told are fake,” she said referring to the patriotic education and conspiracy-theory driven Russian news.

“We just provoke them to start reasoning and thinking. For some people who have a normal, wonderful life it might take some time to think it through.”



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