Profile: Russian painter and activist Elena Andreyevna Osipova

By Ekaterina Danilova

An elderly woman, standing silently erect with hand-painted, striking banners is a common sight at pro-democracy and human rights rally in St. Petersburg, Russia. Some activists call her “the grandmother of the opposition.”

Elena Andreyevna Osipova, 69, began her opposition actions in October 2002, in the wake of the Nord-Ost attack in which Chechen terrorists occupied a Moscow theater during a performance, taking hundreds of people hostage. Over 100 people died in a botched gas attack by security forces. Elena Andreyevna puts at least part of the blame for the tragedy on Putin.

“I didn’t understand why everybody was silent. It was as if the whole country was frozen. And I went with a simple printed banner I didn’t understand then that it’s possible to paint, to express in your own way,” Elena Andreyevna said of that first protest action. She stood with her sign near the city parliament building, which said, “Mister President! Urgently, urgently change your way! Let Chechnya go!”

She continued her activism after that first protest. In March 2007, the opposition group Another Russia organized a major rally called “The Dissenters’ March.” The slogans were: “Russia without Putin, we need another Russia, free the political prisoners, and no to the police state.” It was at that rally that Osipova was detained for the first time and received her first fine.

She says she has been detained about five times since then. The most recent arrest was in February at an unsanctioned protest in support of freedom of speech. She was initially fined 10,000 rubles, or $280, but the appeals court reduced the amount to 5,000 rubles, or $140. She refuses to pay the fine on principle and says she prefers for the government to take the money from her pension, which is 8,000 rubles, or $230 per month. Activists collected money to pay for her fine but she refuses to take it, asking them instead to send it to political prisoners.

One way to avoid arrest for public protest in Russia is to engage in what’s known as single-picket protest. In one such action in 2012, Osipova joined a handful of others standing apart from each other with banners opposing the inauguration of Vladimir Putin to his third term as president. The opposition claimed the elections were fraudulent and the country had seen a wave of protests against Putin’s return to the presidency.

Beyond the risks of arrest, Elena Andreyevna also faces threats from troublemakers or provocateurs at the rallies who often ask her how much money she gets paid for standing with a banner or speak to her rudely. At one recent rally where she protested Russian involvement in Ukraine and war, the pro-war demonstrators threw liquified feces on her.

Although she has health problems and was recently diagnosed with diabetes, she continues to paint and prepare for upcoming rallies.

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