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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Two of the regular protesters stand outside the embassy gates on Orwell Road
on orwell road

Meet the protesters who've been demonstrating regularly at the Russian embassy for over a year

A group of about 50 regular protesters, mostly retirees, are still coming to Orwell Road.

IT’S A BRIGHT, crisp spring afternoon outside the Russian embassy on Orwell Road in Dublin, where a small group of protesters are holding up signs and Ukrainian flags as cars drive past giving the occasional supportive beep.

It’s been over 400 days since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and these demonstrators are still making the trip to the leafy southside suburb in order to demonstrate against the war, which according to the UN human rights office has now claimed over 8,000 civilian lives.

According to these protesters, most of them retired Irish people, there is a group of around 50 regular demonstrators who have been coming over the course of the past year. They do so on an informal basis and not as part of any organisation.

Over the last number of weeks, they have been telling The Journal why they’re here and what motivates them to keep showing up. 

IMG_20230326_165200 A sign reading 'Stop This War' hangs on the wall opposite the Russian embassy on Orwell Road

Tending the liberty tree

“We’re tending the liberty tree here,” says Mícheál, a bus driver and landscape gardener from Donnybrook in South Dublin, who can be found on the footpath opposite the embassy compound every night between 6 and 9pm.

“I’m out here seven days a week. The only thing that stopped me was I got an auld dose of Covid back in September.”

Despite not being a part of any formal activist group, this collection of demonstrators have come to know each other and have even met for drinks on occasion.

“We have said that if and when the day comes that this war is over, we will probably never meet again. We’re joined together by a common aim. We have gone for a drink at Christmas but generally people come and people go,” one regular protester said.

“It’s not an organised group,” says retired teacher Peter Lynch, “but there are about 50 people who are here maybe once a week, once a fortnight. There are some people who are here every day, or every second day. There seems to be someone here from about 10 in the morning until about 5 in the evening.”

“And it tends to be older people. Most people here would be retired or semi-retired. But we’re actually proud of the fact that we’ve kept it going.

“I live on the far side of the city so I have to travel over by bus and there’s days I don’t feel like doing it and then there are days when I see something on the news and I just have to keep going.”

Never too late to start

Some of the protesters have previous experience with political activism while for others it’s their first time taking up a cause like this.

One of the more experienced regulars is Christy Lynch from Kilmainham in Dublin, who is also retired. Christy stands out from the other demonstrators in his Grim Reaper costume with a Scream mask to match.

“I would have been here actually in 2014 at the time of Maidan,” he says with his mask now removed for a cigarette break. “I have lots of Ukrainian friends so I’ve kind of followed Ukraine right back from, say, the Orange Revolution.”

The Maidan Revolution refers to a series of demonstrations that brought down the previous pro-Russian Ukrainian government in 2014 and the Orange Revolution was another series of political protests in Ukraine in 2004.

Christy has been a part of numerous other protests and political causes over the years, including civil rights marches in the 60s, fundraising for the families of victims of Bloody Sunday and protesting against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“So, generally, I’m an activist. I’ve always been an activist and this is my thing now. I know there are people who drive by and shout out the window, ‘why aren’t you down at the American embassy and why aren’t you doing this,’ but the harvest is plentiful, the labourers are few. We all pick our cause and that’s it.”

He says the protesters come for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s the war exclusively, for others it’s the presence of so many staff members in the embassy itself, and for him it’s about keeping public awareness of the war alive.

“We all have different reasons for standing out here. Of course, we want to protest against the war, and some of us want to protest against the existence of such a massive compound in suburban Dublin.

“The other thing is that wars, when they start, people are very animated, very involved, but life goes on for us all.

The idea in me being here and protesting is to try and keep the war in people’s minds.

He also has a feeling that many people just needed to find some purpose after suffering through long and lonely Covid lockdowns.

“I know for two years, I felt very lost and questioned, ‘what’s my existence, what am I about now?’

“I’m just wondering, were there some people who came out of Covid who wanted to get a passion about something again and maybe that’s part of the reason why this group of people continually come here?”

When asked if he always dresses up to demonstrate, he says he doesn’t but admits that his costume has received some criticism.

“I’ll be honest with you, there are a few people who’ve passed by and who’ve criticised me. They feel I’m demeaning what’s going on in Ukraine but my purpose is not to demean, it’s just to attract attention and keep it alive.”

Christy Grim Reaper Christy's controversial outfit

Michelle from Dublin is one of the newcomers who has chosen to spend a couple of hours outside the gates to show her support for the Ukrainian cause. For her, it was a choice between watching TV and doing something meaningful. 

“My daughter has a medical appointment and instead of spending two hours watching Netflix, I decided to do something important with the two hours,” she says.

Although she’s not one of the regulars, she was here during the first week that followed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I came here on day five but I haven’t been back since, just beeped as I’ve gone past.”

Many of the regulars are also new to this kind of activism, having not taken part in protests before, or at least not for a long time.

“No, I’ve never done this before,” says Brendan, a retired engineer who lives locally and sees this as a particularly alarming situation compared to other conflicts around the world. 

Why this war?

As many of these demonstrators have no prior experience protesting against conflict, it begs the question: why this war?

“I think this seemed a bit different,” says Brendan. “I’m not old enough to remember 1939 but I know enough about history to know what happens when evil tyranny runs riot and gets its way. 

“And the consequences were just so incredibly disastrous back then and I think this has all the hallmarks of a similar type of regime, which could lead to similar consequences.

“So, for me, this is actually a war against democracy and a war against Europe and a war against The West. And I think right now, really, what’s happening is that Ukraine are the front line of the defence.”

Some of the protesters have been challenged by passers-by for their choice of this conflict over others, to which Brendan has a simple reply.

“People come by here and say, ‘what about Syria, what about Palestine, what about the United States?’ And I say, what about them? Do you know where the US embassy is? You go down there and you carry your flag. I’ll just do what I can do.”

Brendan’s views on the significance of this conflict compared to others are largely shared by the other protesters, many of whom are quick to draw comparisons between Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine and that of Germany against its neighbours in the first and second World Wars.

Russian president Vladimir Putin, in particular, is often compared to Adolf Hitler. In fact, Eugene’s sign actually depicts the Russian leader with Hitler’s signature slim moustache painted onto his face. Additionally, swastikas are commonplace on signs and banners.

Maarten, a retired professor from The Netherlands and another regular, makes similar comparisons between this war and the beginning of World War II.

“It reminds me of the second World War,” he says. “Well, at least the stories of my parents anyway.”

He too compares Hitler to Putin, who he says has a similarly “strange idea of world empire.”

In Eugene’s opinion, Putin wants to “re-establish the USSR” while for Brendan, it’s the possibility of escalation that makes things so dangerous.

“The potential for it. You’ve got a regional conflict somewhere in the world and it’s going to be terrible there, but the potential for this to grow and have an impact on a global scale.

“You would hate to think that you would have a conflict that would involve Russia and allies like China aligning themselves against NATO and its allies. I mean where does that end?”

Not just about Ukraine

Another concern for some of the demonstrators is the scale of the Russian diplomatic mission itself, as well as the presence of 26 officials at the embassy, which underwent substantial construction work several years ago that involved new buildings, gates and fences.

Mark, a former British diplomat who now lives in Ranelagh, is one of those who questions the nature of the compound and its employees.

As The Journal reported in the week the war began, Moscow is using the Irish embassy as communications base employing intelligence operatives to process information for European agents. A spokesperson for the embassy told this website at the time that they could neither confirm nor deny if that was the case. 

“I’m outraged that they still have this bloody great embassy in Dublin with 26 so-called diplomats. There’s no trade, there’s no investment. There is no excuse for them having this bloated embassy,” he says.

He compares the Orwell Road compound to the Irish embassy in Moscow, which is significantly smaller, and wonders why Russia has so many diplomatic staff members in Ireland. Their goal, he says, is to disrupt civil society.

“What are these people doing here? They are doing nothing except undermining this country and its neighbours.”

The number of officials has been a cause for concern for some Irish politicians as well. Last November Labour TD Brendan Howlin called for some of them to be expelled after Russia announced it had banned a number of prominent Irish political figures from entering the country.

Howlin reiterated a call for Russian ambassador Yury Filatov to be expelled too, something the protesters would also like to see.

“I’m shocked at the Irish government,” says Christy. “I know we have to keep diplomatic lines open but we have four diplomats in Russia.” 

“Now, they’re not all making brown bread in there and they’re not all learning Irish or whatever. I’m shocked that this is allowed to continue.”

A different scene last year

The atmosphere outside the gates these days is much more subdued than it was a year ago, when hundreds of people thronged Orwell Road, chanting, giving speeches over megaphones, throwing red paint on the ground and spraying swastikas on the embassy walls.

On one occasion a man even rammed a lorry into the front gate, which is why the embassy now has Gardaí posted in front of it and steel fortifications running the length of the roadside wall.

Eugene from South County Dublin, who used to work in the aviation industry, was one of the protesters who was there when it happened.  

“I was here the day the man reversed through the gates,” he says. “He just pulled up in a truck here and he was obviously very distraught looking.

“He shouted out the window at me and he said, ‘I’m sick and tired of this, you know I couldn’t sleep last night.” He said, ‘stand back! I don’t want to hurt anybody.’ So we stood back and then he just went straight through the gates.”

Since those more tumultuous early days things have calmed down considerably but there is still tension between regulars and embassy staff. 

Tensions with embassy staff

The protesters have been accused of being paid to stand outside the embassy by staff as they come and go. 

The complaint that the embassy staff suspect them of being paid provocateurs is a common one among the demonstrators, who have developed a familiar but hostile relationship with those coming and going through the front gate on a daily basis.

“They laugh at us when they come out the gates,” say John and Valerie, two locals who are regular features outside the embassy.

“They’re actively trying to undermine what we’re doing here,” says Eugene. “’Who’s paying you?’ They shout at us from their cars.” 

It is a two-way street though and the protesters shout things like “shame on you!” whenever a car or minivan goes through the front gate. Some of them also shout things in Russian but they decline to say exactly what the expressions mean. 

There have been some incidents in which protesters have been cautioned by the gardaí because of their use of foul language directed at Russian staff. The gardaí on some occasions have also asked protesters to remove signs or banners with particularly gruesome imagery.

Retired professor Maarten is one of those who received a warning for shouting obscenities.

“We have to be careful what we say.”

Asked for a statement on the ongoing protests, the Russian embassy said:

“The Embassy respects the right for the peaceful protest as long as it does not break public order and existing laws.”

The statement claimed that in some instances in recent months protesters had violated both, adding that visitors to the embassy’s consular section were sometimes “victims of such indecent behaviour”.

“All these issues are referred by the Embassy to the Irish law enforcement authorities to be dealt with under the established legal procedures.”

Issues with the neighbours 

In addition to these exchanges between protesters and the embassy, there have also been some issues with the local residents, who have erected signs asking motorists not to beep as they drive past.

IMG_20230326_165349 One of the signs asking drivers not to use their horns on Orwell Road

The signs are largely ignored though as by the protesters’ estimation about 50% of the passing drivers beep to show their support.

Aside from cars making noise, there was also an incident several weeks ago in which a flagpole hole, which was installed by Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, was mysteriously filled in with cement overnight.

IMG_20230327_192635 The foundation for the planned flagpole, filled in with cement.

In another incident during the winter a firework was thrown at one of the protesters – but not from the embassy’s direction, according to the intended target.

Mícheál had been doing his night shift opposite the embassy when he heard a loud bang just beside him.

“The guards got an awful fright and called for another squad car,” he says, but the culprit “stole away in the darkness.”

In the end Mícheál did not press charges or make a formal complaint despite claiming to know who it was, something he says he regrets.

In a statement, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council told The Journal that they had not heard about the incident involving the flagpole but would investigate. The Council also said that they had not received any complaints from residents about the protests. 

As the demonstrations continue, night-time regular Mícheál describes what he and his fellow demonstrators are doing as “tending the liberty tree”. 

When asked if he could do with a few more gardeners, he responded: “We definitely do need many, many more gardeners, even if they don’t have any gardening skills.”

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