Russian Communist lawmaker warns of ‘more orphans’ if Ukraine war continues
Leonid Vasyukevich, a lawmaker for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation in the region of Primorye, speaks against President Vladimir Putin's invasion during a legislative session on May 27. | Screengrab from video via social media

More members of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation have stepped forward to oppose President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, a stance differing sharply from the party leadership, which backs what the Kremlin is still calling a “special military operation.”

Leonid Vasyukevich, a member of the legislative assembly in the Far Eastern region of Primorye, read out a statement on behalf of himself and three other Communist deputies at a May 27 session.

“We understand that if our country does not stop the military operation, there will be more orphans in the country,” Vasyukevich warned. “During the military operation, young men are dying or becoming disabled, while they could be very useful for our country.”

The president of the legislative assembly, Aleksandr Rolik, attempted to drown out Vasyukevich’s speech by talking over him, but the rebel lawmaker continued. He argued prolongation of the war “would lead to the inevitable increase in the number of dead and wounded service members.”

Vasyukevich concluded his anti-war speech by declaring: “We demand the immediate withdrawal of the Russian forces from Ukraine.”

With opposition to the invasion essentially outlawed by the Putin government, the Communist deputies’ statement immediately painted targets on their backs. Video footage of Vasyukevich’s speech has circulated online via YouTube and other outlets, but clips are disappearing quickly after being posted. As of press time, some videos were still available here.

Oleg Kozhemayko, governor of Primorye, ordered Vasyukevich and his colleague Gennady Shulga removed from the assembly. The two were taken out of meeting and denied their right to vote as legislators.

Leonid Vasyukevich of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation spoke out against the invasion of Ukraine. | via social media

Kozhemyako was appointed to his position by Putin in 2015 and is a member of the president’s United Russia party. He labeled Vasyukevich a “traitor” and accused him of “defaming the Russian army,” which he said was “in a fight against Nazism.”

The rare public criticism of the invasion was also denounced by the head of the CPRF in the region, Anatoly Dolgachev, who said Vasyukevich’s action was not sanctioned by the party. He accused his colleagues of “discrediting the honor of the Communist Party.”

Dolgachev’s effort to distance the local CPRF branch from Vasyukevich was in line with the position taken by the central Communist leadership in Moscow, which has backed Putin’s invasion from the start.

The CPRF is the largest opposition party in Russia and disagrees with most of the economic and domestic policies of the Putin government, but on the matter of the war in Ukraine, it has been supportive of what party leader Gennady Zyuganov has characterized as a battle against fascism.

In a recent statement, Zyuganov declared that the government of Ukraine “is under control of outright Nazis,” saying the rulers of the country were the “rotten sons…of the fascist criminals and perpetrators of the gravest crimes against the people of Ukraine.”

He was referring to groups like the Azov Battalion and other right-wing militias and political parties which have extensive influence in Ukraine and openly embrace the legacy of World War II Nazi collaborators like Stepan Bandera. Such groups have been integrated into the official military and security apparatus of Ukraine and played a role in the suppression of Communists, left-wing activists, trade unionists, and anti-war organizers in the country.

Before the Feb. 24 invasion was launched, Zyuganov and the CPRF led the effort in the Russian Duma to officially recognize the independence of the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, where fighting with the Azov Battalion and its allied groups has gone on for years. Having earlier resisted such a move, Putin eventually endorsed the parliamentary recognition vote in what was in retrospect a precursor to the invasion.

Zyuganov’s justifications for the war have largely echoed those offered by the government. He has accused Ukrainian forces of “shelling cities under their own control” in order to “create the impression that the Russian Army is responsible for the deaths of civilians.”

Though CPRF legislators have generally been unified behind Zyuganov in their support of the military campaign in Ukraine, Vasyukevich and the Primorye Communist group are not the first to break with the party line.

In early March, three other CPRF parliamentarians spoke out against the war.

Vyacheslav Markhaev, a member of the Duma representing Buryatia in Siberia, accused Putin of manipulating public concerns about the safety of ethnic Russians in Donetsk and Lugansk to generate support for the invasion.

Along with stopping NATO expansion into Ukraine—a demand that has broad support from across the political spectrum in Russia—Putin claims the war is aimed at defending ethnic Russians in the breakaway regions who have been at war with Ukraine since a 2014 U.S.-backed coup overthrew the government of President Viktor Yanukovych.

An estimated 15,000 people, mostly ethnic Russians, died in the fighting between the right-wing Ukrainian Army and its allied militia forces and the separatists from the time of the coup up until the Russian invasion.

Markhaev said the legitimate concern for the safety of people in Donetsk and Lugansk was used by Putin to justify an invasion he was already planning.

“To my greatest dismay, the whole campaign to have [the Donetsk and Lugansk republics] recognized was motivated by entirely different intentions, which were kept hidden. Now we have a full-scale war between the two countries,” Markhaev said.

Three Communist Party members of Russia’s federal parliament have also come out in opposition to the war. From left: Vyacheslav Markhaev, Mikhail Matveyev, and Oleg Smolen. | Photos via TASS

He pointed the finger at NATO and the West for setting the current conflict in motion and providing an opening for Putin’s aggression. Referring to the U.S.-supported 2014 coup, Markhaev said imperialist countries were “promoting their interests by changing the legitimate authority in the state in dispute [Ukraine]…under the false slogan of ‘defending democracy.’”

But he then said the Russian government under Putin was adopting “the same double standards” as Western imperialist powers by using the recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk “to hide a plan for a full-scale war with our closest neighbor.”

Markhaev was joined in his opposition at that time by two other Communist members of the Duma, Mikhail Matveyev and Oleg Smolin.

Smolin, the first CPRF deputy to criticize the invasion, said he was mistaken when he thought Putin would not actually go to war. “I was convinced…our troops would stand on the line of contact and protect the population of the republics from shelling and the threat of territorial occupation by Ukrainian nationalists,” Smolin wrote in a social media post.

He said he was not the only one who thought Putin wouldn’t invade, saying, “Even President Zelensky did not believe there would be a large military operation by Russia.”

Smolin looked to the end of Soviet socialism as a source of current problems: “I was and remain an opponent of the destruction of the USSR, and the problems today are the result of that tragedy.”

Whether the stances taken by the pro-peace Communist lawmakers represent a broader trend within the CPRF is still to be seen. And with anti-war organizing banned in Russia and official media essentially forbidden from broadcasting any news or views critical of the invasion, the scale of public opposition in the country remains difficult to gauge.


> Russian jails fill with anti-war protesters; Communist lawmakers denounce invasion

> CPUSA: ‘No war on Ukraine, No war on Russia, No war period!’ 

> Kiev plans birthday parties for Nazi collaborators; Ukrainian Communists sound alarm

As with many news, analytical, and op-ed articles published by People’s World, any opinions reflected in this article are solely those of its author.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.