Point of No Return: Speaking out for democracy and freedom
Anastasia Voronovsky’21 grew up in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but as an international student on Beloit’s campus, she gained a new perspective on her home country and grappled with what she learned.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Voronovsky spoke out, risking her relationships with family and friends, her career, her return to Russia, and even her own safety. She’s since founded two organizations to support Ukraine and reject Putinism.
This is her story — in her own words.
My journey to Beloit
I grew up in an ultra-nationalistic Russian family. My dad is a highly-ranked military pilot, and guests in our house were frequently members of the military. At the age of 12, I was enrolled in a school for the daughters of military personnel. I used to ask uncomfortable questions at the boarding school. They expelled me from school because of my political opinions, but I remained an uncomfortable, loud child.
I came to Beloit by chance through a student exchange program. The university in Moscow where I studied previously was a partner school of Beloit, and I was the only student who got the chance to go to Beloit that semester. Beloit College altered my worldview.
I had considered myself a knowledgeable and free person, but once I got free internet access, I learned things about my country that I would never have known by continuing to live in the circle of my acquaintances in Russia. I realized that I had held false beliefs and judgments influenced by Russian propaganda and my upbringing.
The exchange semester in Beloit was incredibly hard for me. I found myself in a challenging environment where I did not feel I was the smartest person in the room. This allowed me to grow intellectually and as a person, which is why I decided to transfer to Beloit.
I majored in international relations with minors in journalism and health and society. I wrote a thesis on freedom of speech and journalism in Russia. In the summer of 2019, when I returned to Russia after the exchange program, political rallies broke out in the country in support of the journalist Ivan Golunov, after the authorities arrested him for his anti-corruption investigations. I was expelled from my university in Russia for organizing a protest, but I was able to transfer to Beloit College as a full-time student, for which I am incredibly grateful. A short time later, Russia invaded Ukraine.
My mentors and teachers at Beloit College were my fellow students and my professors. I am grateful to Beth Dougherty, who gave me the foundation that I use every day in my activist work. Ron Watson was my guide to the world of politics and social problems in the United States. Beloit College requires courses outside your chosen major. This is how I met the amazing professors Sonya Maria Johnson and Yaffa Grossman, who gave me moral support when I needed it the most. I even learned from teachers I didn’t have a class with, such as Professor of Environmental Studies and International Relations Pablo Toral. I’d heard amazing things about Pablo, so I wanted to take a class with him. Unfortunately, that never happened, so I went to his office with a box of Russian chocolates to finally meet him and introduce myself.
Beloit also gifted this world with author, journalist, and my kindest friend, Danny Postel’91, who graduated from the college 30 years before me and is the politics editor of New Lines Magazine. Danny texted me after hearing about one of our upcoming protests. We found out that we had both studied at Beloit College. On the day of the protest, Danny showed up with coffee for my entire team. After getting to know me and learning my story, he contacted journalist Ben Schamisso, who wrote a story for Scripps News.
Beloit College gave me the academic foundation for my political career today, and it opened up a world where I found lifelong friends and colleagues.
The invasion of Ukraine
After graduating in 2021, I started working at the headquarters of a cell phone company. I had a steady job and was on a fast career track when the war started. Like many others, I was in denial about the possibility of war, until the night of Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia attacked the once brotherly country of Ukraine. I could not bear it psychologically. I had a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with depression. I was afraid to acknowledge that my country was committing genocide in order to seize territory for the ambitions of Putin and his entourage, and that my relatives and friends applauded Putin’s unprovoked aggression on the Ukrainian people.
The corporate world turned out to be a prison for me because I could not engage in activism. I had absolutely no strength or time. All that I could do at that time was send donations for humanitarian aid to Ukrainian families. For months, as a Russian, I was consumed by guilt. I knew I wasn’t doing enough.
In July 2022, I left my job, started looking for like-minded people, and met Dr. Denis Pedyash, who has become my colleague, mentor, and best friend. We began to organize anti-war actions in Chicago. At first, there were only a few of us. By November 2022, there were more than 30 people involved. We began our work with visits to foreign embassies in Chicago to thank them for accepting Russian immigrants fleeing the mobilization and the dictatorship. Winter was approaching, and we joined the project Return Heat and Light to Ukraine, which to this day helps Ukrainians left without electricity and heat as a result of Russian military attacks on power plants and infrastructure.
The end of January 2023 was a point of no return for us. We organized a protest in support of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and all political prisoners. We took to the streets of Chicago in support of all political prisoners and those who cannot go to rallies in Russia. We expected 15-20 citizens would join us. About 200 people showed up that day. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Some of the organizers were crying out of happiness. Our shock was mixed with joy and the realization that not everything was lost. We realized there are many of us who disagree with the war. We realized our work was not in vain and that we have a responsibility to speak out.
I am the organizer of two organizations in Chicago that oppose Putinism. One is an NGO called RADR (Russian America for Democracy in Russia - Chicago), whose Freedom Birds for Ukraine project provides humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians and raises funds for the Ukrainian army. The other organization is called Voice of Free Russia (@VoFR_Chicago), which advocates for pacifist resistance. Their rally slogans are less radical towards Putin’s Russia, and they do a great job of organizing protests and other events. Voice of Free Russia has a mostly Russian-speaking audience — people from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and other countries from the former Soviet Union — however, our doors are open to all who share the values of democracy.
These days I am immersed in news of the war 24/7, regularly monitoring all possible sources, including official Russian information channels, telegram chats, and Ukrainian sources (I have now learned Ukrainian). The war between Russia and Ukraine has opened up a new phenomenon of propaganda, which I am sure will be studied for a long time. Though many of my former friends and family in Russia support the terrorist actions of President Putin, I know they are not bad people. They are victims of propaganda and misinformation.
In less than a year, we’ve held more than 10 rallies against the war: in support of political prisoners, demanding the release of our colleague Evan Grishkovich, who was illegally arrested on a fabricated charge in Russia; demanding the return of abducted children to Ukraine; countering Putin’s propaganda; interacting with Navalny’s team; and engaging in anti-Putin educational activities in the media and social networks. We have also attended press conferences with Anton Troianovski, the Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times.
Looking to the future
As I write this, almost 500 days have passed since the invasion of Ukraine. Each of these days has been a living hell for the Ukrainian people. Many families have lost loved ones in the fighting, while walking on the street, or in houses and apartment buildings and hospitals destroyed by Russian missiles. People are buried under the rubble, children lose limbs and die, and those who survive will forever remember the sounds of war and the trauma of days spent in bomb shelters. Every day I hear news about Ukrainians who live for months without drinking water, heat, and light, and still find the strength to fight. They fight every day. They fight for their lives, for their country, for their future. I am convinced that this is our common battle, in which not only Russians and Ukrainians are involved. A victory for Putin in this war would be a victory for fascism and a defeat for freedom and democracy.
Yes, my activism comes with consequences. I haven’t seen my family since I moved to Beloit and became a full-time student. Both the pandemic and the distance contributed to this. Having moved to the U.S., we found ourselves separated by an ocean, and by an abyss of misunderstanding between us. The U.S. and democracy itself, according to my family members, are the enemies of Russia. My family now considers me a traitor.
I am clearly aware that the more I do here in the U.S., the less opportunity I will have to return to my country until and unless a regime change comes. I am harassed online and I have received threats to my life. I know that my family is in danger. Russian security forces have already been to their doors, and can knock on their doors again at any moment. I am aware that I am facing a prison term in Russia, that my activities are regarded by the authorities as “discrediting the Russian army.” And yet these consequences cannot be compared to the suffering of the Ukrainian people at the hands of Putin’s military.
I do not know what the future holds for me, how my activism will affect my career and my life. Such questions seem irrelevant when you are dealing with real human suffering. For now, my thoughts and efforts remain in support of the Russian and Ukrainian people — and their future.