*Some names in this article have been changed to avoid identification as sources were concerned for their safety.
On February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his “special military operation in Ukraine”, Chinese scholar Shuhrat* felt that the thing he treasured most in this world – Russian literature – was being annihilated.
“For the entire day on the 24th, I do not know what to do, I was completely stunned,” he says.
Shuhrat is a Chinese scholar who has lived in Russia for seven years and is now writing a PhD thesis on Fyodor Dostoevsky. But his work on Dostoevsky over the years has him thinking the author was “a chauvinist who could have supported Putin”, and now it’s become almost unbearable for him to continue.
“As a Russia researcher, I felt like the things I do every day are brought to destruction,” Shuhrat explains, his voice tinged with a mixture of anger and resignation.
“For the next 10 years, when I say I’m a Russian literature scholar, people will think of Putin and people will think, ‘What is your connection to all the bloodshed?’
“Then, I felt like I had to do something, to cut ties with him, to take what I love back from him.”
Shuhrat is one of many Chinese who felt the urge to speak out against Russia’s attack on Ukraine and found creative ways to do so. They aim to spread the word, and seek comfort from each other without their views being captured and deleted by government censorship.
In Shuhrat’s case, he decided to translate Bethink Yourselves!, an anti-war declaration in the form of a short book, written by Leo Tolstoy but never formally translated into Chinese.
Shuhrat quickly assembled a team of six from his friendship circle, most of whom have lived in Ukraine or Russia. In just four days, the team completed the translation, editing and creating an online booklet for distribution through social media.
On the cover of the booklet is a black and white engraving of a soldier holding a gun, stepping over broken stems and leaves of sunflowers.
“In China, when you say you support Ukraine and you are anti-war, your voice is very lonely,” says Shuhrat. “It is hard to speak out without being censored. My Douban [a popular Chinese social media platform] has been censored because I posted things about anti-war marches.
“But I know that in China, there are many voices of conscience that oppose the war.”
The Chinese Government has maintained a ‘neutral’ stance on the Russian-Ukraine crisis in official discourse, refusing to condemn or sanction the Kremlin while also sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine. But posts that convey anti-Russia or pro-Ukraine messages are being censored on Chinese social media, although the censorship is not as strictly enforced as it as it normally is towards sensitive topics.
According to researchers from the George State University, China’s general “pro-Russia posturing” is more reflective of a deeper critique of American and western influence, rather than an endorsement of Russia’s invasion.
An analysis of a sample of half a million Weibo posts conducted by Stanford researchers reveals that around half attribute the cause of war to “western aggression”, such as NATO expansion.
Among the other half, around 10 per cent see Russia as the aggressor or blame Putin, 15-20 per cent express other opinions such as sympathy for Ukrainians, while the rest share information unrelated to either view.
Shuhrat says each social media platform has a different censorship standard, with some stricter than others.
“On Douban everything gets deleted, any sympathy towards Ukraine is killed. But on WeChat [a Chinese communication app similar to Facebook], content about Ukrainian civilians talking about their sufferings is usually allowed.
“We can pass on these voices in a form that would not be so easily deleted, such as Tolstoy. It is about relaying the message that we are not alone … from the dimension of the entire human history, as we have great people like Tolstoy to guide us,” he says.
Similar to Shuhrat, Ruoyun, a life coach living in a southern city in China, says she felt a “heavy stone” was pressing against her chest from the first day of the war.
“I felt very uncomfortable and sad. I feel physically aversive towards war.”
Ruoyun’s sadness turned to rage when she saw a series of misogynistic comments circulating on Chinese social media by users who said they would “take care of” beautiful Ukrainian refugees if they arrived in China.
“I was so angry that I felt like I had to do something … I thought about why these comments of hatred are spreading so quickly but why the voices of kindness that oppose the war cannot be heard?”
Ruoyun says people in her social network mostly hold an anti-war and “non-simplistic” perception of the Russian-Ukraine crisis and she wanted to start a platform for people to publicly express their opinions and sentiments.
“I used the most primitive way, the creation of a cloud document that can be publicly edited. I gave this initiative a very simple name, ‘Letters from Chinese’,” she says.
In order to share these voices with the wider international community, the letters are translated into English, Russian and Ukrainian with the help of Ruoyun’s friends as well as strangers.
“The war was brought very close to me in this way,” she says.
“I lost connections to one of our Ukrainian translators, whose whole family is from Kharkiv.”
The second largest city in Ukraine, Kharkiv has been a target since the war began. Russian military has denied attacking civilian targets, but reports have shown the shelling of residential buildings, schools and hospitals that has killed dozens of civilians, according to Ukrainian officials.
Despite wanting to gain more international attention for her initiative, Ruoyun says she is wary of being interpreted as “a voice that opposes the [Chinese] government’s position.”
“It is about having an alternative voice, not an opposite voice,” she says. “I feel like among overseas communities, there is a strong tendency to interpret such initiatives in this way [as an opposite voice] … I want to avoid such misunderstandings.
“When I’m calling for peace, it is not because of my political stance or opinions,” she says.
“It is about me as a human being who treasures life, who resists and feels disgusted about violence.”
When 24-year-old social worker Tuan Zi* first read Prayer, an anti-war poem written by the female Chinese poet Yu Xiuhua, she says an “unspeakable strength” emerged from her body, driving away the fear and sadness that the rolling war coverage had triggered.
“‘I beg that poetry can stop a tank, I beg that flowers can fight bullets’… this is a line that I remembered so clearly,” she says.
“Through that poem, I felt a sense of hope, a sense that there is immense power within the gentle and delicate things to resist violence. To resist the logic that military aggressions and nuclear weapons are the solutions to the problems, that oppressions and control are ways to demonstrate one’s own righteousness.”
Tuan arranged a poetry reading on the 14th day of the Russian-Ukraine war. Around 20 people – high school students, expats, office workers – gathered in a church-turned-gallery in a central Chinese city and each person shared a poem that they felt was a source of strength in a time of unrest.
“Everyone is glad that we can talk about this [the war] because in our daily lives, it is hard to initiate such conversations with friends and families. We talked about the sense of guilt that we are still enjoying happiness while there are sufferings afar.
“As a poem by Wislawa Szymborska that we shared said, ‘Forgive me, distant wars, for taking flowers home.’”