A pregnant TikTok activist living in the United States fears she will never be able to return home to Russia and introduce her baby to its grandmother.
Having posted five videos about President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, 32-year-old Vlasta Pilot could face harsh fines or years in prison after new laws were introduced by the Kremlin.
She is just one of a growing number of young Russians bravely speaking out against the country's invasion of Ukraine.
With almost 500,000 followers on TikTok, Ms Pilot has a very real fear that Russian authorities are aware of her content which has praised protests against President Putin’s regime.
“I’m not going to risk going back with a child and then possibly getting arrested for what I said online,” she told Yahoo News Australia from her Los Angeles home.
“I have a lot of followers and unfortunately for me I have a big mouth.”
In one video Ms Pilot criticises police for arresting protesters who are underage, pregnant or elderly.
“It’s beyond me,” she exclaims, before calling Russia's response "a sh** show".
Another post highlights the plight of orphaned babies hidden in bomb shelters to avoid Russian missiles.
Despite knowing she’s put herself in a dangerous position, silence was never a choice for Ms Pilot.
“I wouldn't be able to stay silent because of how much I love my home and how much I love my people,” she said.
“That's why a lot of Russians are speaking up, a lot are going to protest… because we don't want to live in a country that is seen as an aggressor, that is isolated from everybody.”
‘Are they going to put us all in jail?’
The Kremlin has been tightening rules around social media use and free speech since it began a war with Ukraine, criminalising criticism of its invasion which has claimed hundreds of civilians and created over 1.5 million refugees.
More than 13,000 people have detained across Russia for protesting against the invasion, and there are unsubstantiated reports that online activists have been arrested for posting content the Kremlin considers “fake news”.
Penalties for speaking out against the war can include fines and up to fifteen years in prison.
Russia’s media is now largely state controlled and major international news networks including BBC, CBS, CNN and Bloomberg have suspended operations within the country.
While the Kremlin has restricted social media access within its borders, content is still available to those with Virtual Private Networks (VPN), which can hide the location of a user’s server.
“I don't know how they're going to track everybody, because at this point a lot of people are speaking up,” Ms Pilot said.
“So are they going to put all of us in jail?”
Why Russians are encrypting their online communication
Because of their growing distrust of authority, many Russian protesters use cryptic methods to organise demonstrations online.
One early example, which appears to be no longer in use, used emoticons to signal the location and time of a gathering.
According to Ms Pilot, the tactics are less about hiding from the Kremlin and more about avoiding being flagged by Instagram.
“It’s not really meant to hide from police, because that's kind of pointless,” she said.
“It's more meant for Instagram or whoever to not flag it as some kind of like terror speech or whatever.
“Because most people don't know how Instagram is handling the whole situation, they just try to hide away from obvious ways, but it’s no big secret at this point.”
Western sanctions could help Putin's popularity
Russia’s restrictions have been particularly effective in reducing the flow of information to those over 50 who are less likely to engage with social media and be more reliant on television news.
Many Russians who survived World War II, or the oppressive USSR regime have experienced relative stability for the first time under President Putin.
Ms Pilot believes many older Russians believe Putin's narrative that “the West is out to get us”, and that the rest of the world hates them.
“With companies withdrawing from Russia like Apple and IKEA, for Putin that's just better,” Ms Pilot said.
“For him it's like, see, I told you, they hate all of you, and I'm the only one who can protect you.
“It's kind of like this very abusive relationship that they're in, and I think they just don’t want to feel afraid again, so they just put their head in the sand and pretend nothing is happening.”
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