Couple Who Wed the Day Their Country Invaded Ukraine Will Continue to Protest: 'Moral Obligation'

Polina Oleinikova and Arshak Makiychan, who were later arrested for protesting on their wedding day, say they won’t stop speaking out: “We don’t have anything to lose,” she says

Moscow-based activists Polina Oleinikova and Arshak Makiychan woke on their wedding day, Feb. 24, to startling news — their president, Vladimir Putin, had begun a war in Ukraine.

"We were shocked," Makiychan told Al Jazeera earlier this month. "We were planning this wedding for a month, because you should send the application a month before your wedding."

The couple, who met six months prior, nearly called off their nuptials, according to The Economist, which interviewed the newlyweds in a recent feature. But there were other reasons — besides romance — for them to tie the knot.

Both the bride, 18, and groom, 27, had reportedly been arrested before in Russia, where according to law married couples can't testify against one another and are allowed conjugal visits if one of them ends up jailed.

Makiychan told The Economist that marriage was a "safety measure."

So Oleinikova wore a blue dress that matched the Ukrainian flag for their ceremony. Though she'd picked it out before their wedding day, Makiychan gave her yellow flowers to complete the symbolism of her bridal look.

On the back of his white button-up shirt, he wrote, "F--- the war."

Russia has made it illegal to publicly oppose the country's invasion of Ukraine under laws that prohibit "actions aimed at discrediting the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation" and carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

But the seasoned advocates say they were undeterred and remain defiant.

Makiychan earned the nickname "Moscow's Lone Climate Protestor" for his persistent efforts to draw Russians' attention to the global warming crisis.

Like her husband, Oleinikova has stood alone in Moscow's Pushkin Square to stage a single-person protest — the only kind allowed in Russia without a hard-to-get permit, according to The Economist.

Shortly after she and Makiychan first made contact over Instagram, now banned in Russia, she was reportedly detained for holding a sign asking authorities what was being done to address increased cases of rape in Moscow.

When Makiychan saw on social media that she'd been detained, he showed up with tea and cookies and met his future wife in person. Once she was released, the pair spent time at his apartment talking "about activist things," they told The Economist.

Their first real date happened in December — but their rush to wed made sense to the couple.

"We decided to get married because it's a kind of security for us," Makiychan said, according to Al Jazeera.

Oleinikova and Makiychan told guests not to come to their wedding because they didn't want it to be a celebration, which they thought would be inappropriate, they said in the interview with The Economist. Their only witness was a photographer.

After the ceremony, they participated in an anti-war demonstration in Moscow.

War protest Moscow
Police officers detain a man holding a placard reading "No to war" during a protest against Russian military action in Ukraine, in Manezhnaya Square in central Moscow on March 13. AFP via Getty

Two days later, The Economist reports, they were picked up, taken to a police station, charged with organizing a mass rally and then released.

With a court date pending, the couple canceled a honeymoon in Armenia, Makiychan's native country. "When the plane took off, we were at a rally screaming 'No to war! Putin to prison!'" Oleinikova said.

"We do not want to give up and leave this country even though we had tickets to Armenia already," Makiychan's told Al Jazeera, suggesting they could have fled the country and left their legal troubles behind. "We decided to stay in Russia to fight this insanity because people need hope. If activists are leaving the country, then people will grow more frustrated."

A judge ruled in their case that the couple were guilty as charged and order them each to pay a $150 fine. They told The Economist they will appeal but have no plans to pay regardless of the outcome of their case.

"It was always dangerous to be an activist in Russia," Makiychan said in an interview with GB News this month. "Now it's like terrible," he added, alleging authorities have been searching, arresting and torturing people in Moscow.

"It's not a question of safety. It's not a question of fear, because right now it feels like we don't have anything to lose," Oleinikova, by her husband's side, said. "If we do not speak up right now … if we are just silent, then we are part of the situation, then we support what is happening in Ukraine and [that] is not true, absolutely. I just think that it's our moral obligation to speak up."

Russia's attack on Ukraine continues one month after their forces launched their large-scale invasion on Feb. 24 — the first major land conflict in Europe in decades.

Russian invasion of Ukraine. Andrew Marienko/AP/Shutterstock

Details of the fighting change by the day, but hundreds of civilians have already been reported dead or wounded, including children. More than 3.5 million Ukrainians have also fled, the United Nations says.

"You don't know where to go, where to run, who you have to call. This is just panic," Liliya Marynchak, a 45-year-old teacher in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, told PEOPLE of the moment her city was bombed — one of numerous accounts of bombardment by the Russians.

The invasion, ordered by Putin, has drawn condemnation around the world and increasingly severe economic sanctions against Russia.

With NATO forces amassed in the region around Ukraine, various countries have also offered aid or military support to the resistance. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for peace talks — so far unsuccessful — while urging his country to fight back.

Putin insists Ukraine has historic ties to Russia and he is acting in the best security interests of his country. Zelenskyy vowed not to bend.

"Nobody is going to break us, we're strong, we're Ukrainians," he told the European Union in a speech in the early days of the fighting, adding, "Life will win over death. And light will win over darkness."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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