Inside the Russian anti-war movement: A civil activist’s perspective13 min read

 In Eastern Europe, Interview, Politics, Russia, War in Ukraine

In 2022, the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine left many, including myself, horrified. As someone born and raised in Russia but living in Europe, I felt disconnected from my homeland and its actions. To gain a more profound insight and hear first-hand accounts, I interviewed various civil activists in Russia in March 2022, including a particularly extensive interview that could not be released at the time.

Ann (name changed) is a Russian civil activist, who specialises in organising political events and is an active participant in the opposition and anti-war movement. In April 2023, one year after the original interview, I got a chance to get an update on their perspective and gain fresh insight on the current state of the Russian anti-war movement and the surrounding controversies. Together, we explored changes in perspective and the dynamics of the Russian anti-war community since the full-scale invasion.

2022: Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine initiated by Vladimir Putin, it seems like Russia has become the leader in the world in terms of repressive lawsuits. Under such political pressure, what challenges does the anti-war movement in Russia face? What should one understand about the realities of Russia to grasp how the anti-war movement operates?

Ann: It is worth starting with the fact that the interest in politics in Russia is generally low. According to surveys that sociologist Karina Pipia brought up in Meduza’s podcast, Russians’ interest in and sense of responsibility for what is happening in the country ends mainly in their own homes. There is still a little responsibility in the courtyard of the house, as the person feels involved and able to change something. But at the state level, respondents answered that they had the least sense of control and responsibility over it.

The low interest in politics has been artificially constructed by the authorities for a long time. The municipal deputy Alexander Zamyatin wrote about this depoliticisation of Russian citizens and described how it works. Firstly, the government constructs an image of a politician as some very complex, boring guy in a suit who promises and broadcasts uninteresting things. Secondly, people in Russia do not have a positive experience with participating in protests. You go out to protest, but the authorities either ignore you or beat you up. The lack of positive reinforcement for this action is very frustrating and, as a result, even more depoliticizing. This greatly minimises the number of those who want to participate in politics. Thirdly, people lack the ability to exert even the slightest influence over their surroundings, including urban planning, which is entirely imposed. Residents have no say in what type of shop they want to see near their house or what kind of statue will be put on the central square of their hometown, and so on. Piece by piece, this lack of control creates a larger pattern of depoliticisation. 

And when something horrible happens, for example, a war, it is already much more difficult for a person, who is not at the very heart of activism, to find reliable information. Politically inactive people mostly do not have a habit of reading news in independent media. And at the same time, they do not have a positive reinforcing incentive to try to change the situation somehow, because there is a constructed attitude that “everything has already been decided for us” and “this is big politics — it’s better not to go there, it’s scary.”

In general, the fact that Roskomnadzor blocks news resources is not so scary, and it can be bypassed. Politically active people, unlike the average conditional Russian citizen, know how to bypass blocking, know that it is necessary to subscribe to an anti-war mailing list, install a VPN, and so on. But I am sure that some of my neighbours may not know this and not understand how and where you can find reliable information.

And then there is government propaganda. For example, a person is in shock that a war has started, and he needs some explanation about what’s going on. And in search of it, they turn on the TV, and they are told : “Everything is fine. There is no war. This is a special operation.” And they think: “Well, if they officially declare that, then it’s all good and probably there is no war.”

2023: In your opinion, have these characteristics of Russian society shifted during the year of the war? Has interest in politics decreased or increased?

It is almost impossible to label the growth or decline in any way. The general situation of depoliticization remains the same, no matter how sure we were at first that when the war comes to everyone’s house then it will be impossible to remain outside of politics. As we can see, even after the beginning of the mobilisation, the Kremlin has not yet been demolished.

2022: What forms of activism are predominant in the anti-war movement now?

It is no longer about going out to rallies, as it was in 2021 when Navalny came back from the hospital in Germany. Now, because the risks have risen sharply, and in principle, activists are more afraid to exist, distributing anti-war information has taken over. But it is less open and direct on social media because you can go to jail for that. Now it’s done in a more anonymous way or in chats with people you trust. More mutable forms of activism appear. There are more people who go and glue anti-war posters, tie green ribbons (a symbol of being against war), sign open letters, create anonymous Telegram channels, and so on.  

My feeling is that almost every activist in Russia has now joined [the anti-war resistance], just in more anonymous and less visible ways than before. For example, the “Feminist Anti-War Resistance” had a brilliant idea — they came up with a WhatsApp mailing list for relatives like “spread this to 5–7 friends otherwise you will not be lucky” and there are facts about the war. In general, such new forms appear. 

2022: Given that Navalny’s team was a main coordinator of protests in Russia in the past, and now he is incarcerated, how are anti-war protests currently being organised? How do people still gather despite the obstacles? 

Because Navalny’ team wasn’t as active when it was needed the most, in the very first days of the full-scale invasion people tried to organise protests themselves. For example, on 24 February, people took to the streets without any external incentives from famous politicians.

In my city, for example, the protest wave grew out of a series of solitary pickets on the main square. People simply began joining the picketers. A human rights activist from Memorial was standing alongside protesters as well, and the cops decided that he was kind of controlling the main crowd. So they tried to negotiate with him: “Is there any way you can talk to the protesters to make them behave?” Well, of course, he had no such power. They did not understand that it was a horizontal protest. 

Right now, access to information is very limited, because people are threatened with criminal charges (new laws about treason, spreading fake information about the Russian army or extremism) for calling protests and are simply afraid to publish announcements. So it all happens under duress and when someone small like “Vesna” Youth Democratic Movement dares to organise a protest openly they get terrorised by the authorities. Now half of the activists have already emigrated, some have been imprisoned, and some may go to jail in future. Many activists, even those who left the movement a long time ago, are persecuted and subjected to spam attacks, getting thousands of calls and SMS-codes. Everything is disorganised and everyone is intimidated.

2023: How has the anti-war resistance in Russia changed in a year, and how does it work now?

I can outline several trends. Firstly, radicalization. Arson attacks on military recruitment centres or other state infrastructure and sabotage of railroads have emerged. Mediazone reports that at least 66 people have been detained for sabotage since the fall of 2022. But there is still a discussion about the acceptability of such actions or calls for them. This is an old conflict, since some members of the opposition community consider violence and violent protest unacceptable for pursuing good causes.

Another trend is the move towards more covert forms of resistance, such as withdrawing from pro-government lectures, ignoring army recruitment letters, evading taxes, refusing to compile lists of employees to vote in elections, and so on. We can’t register precisely how many such hotbeds are currently ignited across Russia. In the meantime, individual street protests, such as pickets, the posting of leaflets, and the creation of anti-war graffiti have replaced massive street protests.

Finally, there is the rise of aid organisations over political structures. There has been an increase in organisations that offer assistance with leaving Russia, including from pre-trial detention and after receiving an army recruitment letter, help with leaving war zones, and assistance to Ukrainian refugees (such as buying medicine, organising shelters, and job placement), as well as legal assistance. However, the space for legal public politics in Russia is practically shut down.

2023: How did the war affect the opposition and protest movement in Russia as a whole? Did it emphasise more similarities or differences between the different protest communities?

It varies. Field-specific and aid organisations mostly work together. All do different work, and if anything, they refer people to each other on more specific issues. For instance, cybersecurity organisations assist a wide variety of movements in setting up their security protocols. 

There are many attempts by organisations to get together physically: courses, congresses, and exchanges. For the most part, this is a non-public process. If we talk about political structures, of course, the ideological distance remains. Ideologically close ones have no problems with closer communication.

At the same time, polarisation persists. For example, polarisation between those who have left Russia and those who have chosen to stay and their mutual claims to each other, or disagreements about the acceptability of radical resistance, as previously mentioned.

2022: What do you mean by the term “horizontal protest” you mentioned earlier? How does it occur in Russia, such as in the city you mentioned?

It was a sort of general, conditional impulse that “it’s time to go out and protest,” because Navalny is in prison you can’t wait for the command “guys, it’s time to protest.” Most protest leaders are either in exile or intimidated. But people began to realise, through social media, that if they went out to protest, they would not be alone in the square. Many people just wrote like “guys, today we are going out into the streets” and these posts were gathering a lot of likes and reposts. This allowed people to feel more secure in joining the protests. This is a protest system when people gather purely on their own initiative and there is no one definite ideological leader among them. 

2023: After a wave of major anti-war protests in February and March 2022, laws were passed that effectively banned anti-war protests. Do the principles of horizontality and self-organisation now work in other forms of resistance? 

On a large scale: No. But it is important to note that different modes of organisation have always existed: hierarchies of various kinds, more networked forms, and attempts to base communications on the principles of horizontality.

It is important to understand that the infrastructure of political organisations is now destroyed. We see small self-organisations on the ground, acting either underground or in a conditionally safe way, either by organising readings, discussions, or communicating in Aesopian language. At the same time, the space for the creation of larger movements with the possibility of political action now seems rather impossible.

2022: What do you think the Russian anti-war resistance could learn from the European one, or what are some areas where it may be lacking? 

In my opinion, comparing our situation with that of Europe is challenging due to significant differences in who initiates protests and how they are carried out.

According to a great post by activist Polina Titova, expecting a unified nationwide ‘Russian’ resistance to the war is strange, because there aren’t that many “native Russians” in Russia. The country has many disparate ethnic republics (and not only republics), which were in a similar position in Russia as pre-war Ukraine, that is, under the imperialist influence of Moscow. They have a long history of their own protest against the Russian occupation, and just when they were able to defend their right to exist and start defending their native language and culture, they now have to express that they do not agree with the actions of the state, which in fact is not theirs. Given the large size and diverse ethnic groups of the country, it would be unwise to simply apply tactics that have been successful somewhere abroad.

What does the anti-war resistance lack? Ingenuity. That is, how to come up with a way to make the protest really work and what new forms can be invented that could be effective. We need some kind of intellectual exercise, some kind of attempt to act not only in small scattered activist groups but to learn to unite. Well, I think we need to learn how to unite from the guys abroad as well.

2023: I am curious about your experience as a multi-format anti-war activist who has chosen to stay in Russia all this time. What motivates you to stay despite the challenges and risks associated with your activism? 

There are several intrinsic motivations. At the forefront is often the thought: “Why should I leave?” I never had any illusions about life in Russia; if you haven’t noticed that life in Russia hasn’t been great and repressive before, then, as they say, check your privileges. All this time the background motivation: I am aware of myself as a political actor and I feel a responsibility to change something. After the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this has escalated. And the economic factor. Honestly, I am afraid to fantasise about what I will live on if a criminal case is brought against me and I have to leave.

2022: I frequently feel guilty about the ongoing war and wonder if I could have done more to stop it. Although I’m not currently in Russia, this feeling of not doing enough can be challenging to live with. I imagine activists in Russia may experience similar emotions. Can you share what it is like?

Well, yes, many activists that I know feel like they are not doing enough and are thinking to themselves “How so? So many days/months/years have passed, and we haven’t overthrown Putin yet?” Many activists now live with a sense of guilt that they did not stop this repressive machine alone. But at the same time, there are a lot of those who say that you should not blame yourself, you should do what is in your power. I sometimes feel that I need to do more, but usually, this feeling does not eat me up.

And I’m not offended by Ukrainians asking why Russians haven’t defeated Putin yet. I’m not trying to prove something to them, and they have every right to express their thoughts however they want due to the ongoing war in their country. They don’t have the time to ponder whether an ordinary Russian is responsible for Putin’s actions. They can release their emotions as they are, and it doesn’t bother me. Instead, it’s important to pause, breathe, and try to understand what is generally in your area of ​​​​responsibility, what you can get involved in, and what actions you see as not meaningless in this situation.

Feature Image: Canva
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