On the anti-war movement in Russia: from street protests to guerrilla activism

Maria Gunko

Following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, daily anti-war protests have broken out across Russia. From single-person pickets in small cities, to thousands in the streets of Moscow, Russia’s residents have been expressing their opposition to the war. However, the international blogosphere does not seem to regard these as sufficient, with various commentators suggesting that it is difficult to call the on-going protests “mass demonstrations in any real sense”. The text of this blog is my humble attempt to make sense of the current anti-war movement in Russia and its disguises, as well as to contextualize (non)protests in the country. It draws evidence from various media accounts and ongoing observations made in publicly open Telegram channels. Writing this blog has been an overwhelmingly difficult experience due to my positionality as a Russian national who has had little engagement in Russian protest movements before the war. The current situation has pushed me to actively rethink and constantly reflect on my own attitudes, overcome previous prejudice, deal with imposter syndrome and the trauma of “not doing enough”. It has also led me to find my own path toward anti-war resistance, thus overcoming the sense of helplessness.

I would like to start by returning to the events that took place in Russia 11 years before the war. In 2011–2013, Russia saw the biggest mass demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The object of protest was fraudulent elections to the State Duma place on 4 December 2011. Protests that took shape under the slogan “For Fair Elections” targeted the ruling party, United Russia, and its then leader Vladimir Putin, who announced his intention to run again for President in 2012. Unlike the protests of late 1980s and early 1990s that were caused by economic hardship, protests of early 2010s were clearly political protests that brought out the displeased well-off people onto the streets of Russia’s major cities. Most prominent among these were the demonstrations on the Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on 10 December 2011 with 25 to 60 thousand participants according to different accounts; the rally at the Academician Sakharov Avenue in Moscow with 28 to over 100 thousand people; and the “March of the Millions” taking place on the Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on 6 May 2012, the day before Putin’s inauguration as President for his third term with around 20 thousand participants.

These protests were met with a reactionary response from the Russian government. This included, first, the “demonstrative” “Bolotnaya Square case” with 37 people being accused of “mass riots” and “violence against the police”. Second, the government tightened control over “mass events”. Prior to 2012, according to the Federal Law of the Russian Federation No.54-FZ “On Meetings, Rallies, Demonstrations, Marches and Pickets,” organizers of “mass events” that were expected to involve over one participant were only obliged to notify the authorities of the upcoming event a few days beforehand in writing. In June 2012, the Russian Duma voted on legislation that significantly raised fixed fines for holding unsanctioned demonstrations and a number of limitations, such as a prohibition on wearing masks or carrying objects that can be used as weapons. Since 2014, organization of “mass events” without the permission of respective authorities has been punishable by a fine or up to 15 days of detention. Three such breaches could result in imprisonment for up to 3 years. Single-person pickets remained legal without prior notification, with the exception to of those that involved using “prefabricated collapsible constructions”.

Since 2011, the scale and cruelty of repressions against protesters and activists has grown significantly with numerous cases of police brutality at “mass events” and during detentions. Along with a seeming lack of protests’ positive outcomes, the above has left many Russian residents, me included, frustrated, increasingly depoliticized, and often scared of going onto the streets.

“Do you dare to go to the square?”

The first anti-war demonstrations in Russia took place already on 24 February with around 2 thousand participants in Moscow and 1 thousand in Saint-Petersburg. Protests also occurred in other large Russian cities, such as Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, and Perm. By the end of the evening of that day, according to the OVD-Info (Independent human rights media project), there were 1,800 arrests in 58 cities, of which around 1,000 were carried out in Moscow. Protests continued the following days bringing the total number of arrests to 3,000 people throughout the country by 26 February. On 27 February, anti-war protests coincided with the anniversary of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov’s murder 7 years earlier, with protesters gathering near the improvised memorial constructed where Nemtsov was shot. In Saint-Petersburg, a spontaneous rally took place in the center of the city near the Great Gostinniy Dvor. According to OVD-Info, by the end of that day, the number of arrests throughout Russia amounted to over 2,500 (with over 5,500 arrested since the beginning of the war), the majority in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg.

Street protests continued during the first week of March, though less prominent. However, several noteworthy incidents happened, suggesting state’s absolute intolerance to anti-war resistance. On 1 March photographs featuring children of school age behind bars appeared in the media. The children were arrested in Moscow together with their parents for laying flowers at the Ukrainian embassy and holding signs stating “No to war”. The next day a 77-year-old artist, the so-called “grandma of Russian protests” Elena Osipova, was amongst those arrested at an anti-war protest in Saint Petersburg. Videos of her arrest were widely circulated in the blogosphere and met with a shock.

On 4 March, the State Duma passed new legislation that punishes with up to 15 years in jail for spreading “fake information” about the Russian military and its operations, as well as actions of state agencies abroad. “Fake information” is regarded anything that does not comply with the official version of events. This criminalizes public opposition to or independent news reporting about the war in Ukraine. It is regarded a crime to simply call the war a “war”, since the state refers to it as “special military operation”. Also, providing help to Ukraine and its citizens during war could be considered as state treason punishable from 12 to 20 years of prison. These legal developments seem to have significantly curtailed space for resistance in Russia, making it increasingly dangerous to voice oppositional views.

As of the time of writing, the last mass Russia-wide ant-war street protest took place on 6 March. One day ahead of it, there were reports of police raids and detentions of numerous Russian journalists, politicians, and activists. The protest was met with unprecedented police violence. According to OVD-Info around 5,000 people were detained by the police in at least 69 cities. Detainees were beaten, harassed, doused with water and antiseptic, and Tasers were used against them. A viral audio recording from 6 March documented the cruel beating and verbal abuse of an artist and femactivist, Alexandra Kaluzhskikh, who managed to smuggle an actively recording phone into the interrogation room:

[Translated excerpt] Police officer: “That’s it. Putin is on our side. You are enemies of Russia. You are f***g enemies of the people. Now we’ll f*** you here and that’s it. It’s in the hat. We will also get a bonus for this.”

Two weeks into the war, it became evident that any open anti-war protest activity, including individual performances and even single-person pickets with a blank piece of paper or pack of Miratorg sausages (the first part of the brand title “Mir” – peace in Russian) could lead to detention. The latest counts of OVD-Info suggest over 15,000 arrests throughout the country for protesting the state’s military actions in Ukraine. Following these developments, Russia’s anti-war movement has started to gain a “quiet” and guerrilla nature with several prominent grassroots initiatives becoming the leading sites of resistance. Their structure is horizontal, with various independent “cells” and anonymous individual participants which makes it hard to trace the geography and number of those who are involved in one way, or another.

“Quiet” and guerrilla anti-war activism

Anti-war statements handwritten on banknotes: “No to war”, “Media lies to us, open your eyes”, “We pay for war with our future”. Image courtesy of a FAR activist.

The development and evolution of guerrilla anti-war movement in Russia and on-going bottom-up resistance requites a separate thorough overview. However, bringing this information to light might endanger activists. Here I will briefly outline some trends focusing on the publicly vocal Feminist Anti-war Resistance (FAR) [Feministskoe Antiviennoe soprotivlenie] that was consolidated already on 25 February uniting long-standing femactivists and persons who have never in their own words been engaged in activist or political actions before the war. Yet, the feelings of grief and rising opposition towards injustice, the need for solidarity and striving for empowerment have drawn very different women (majority of the Telegram channel followers seem to identify themselves as women) together. FAR’s manifesto states that the aim of the initiative is to “fill in cities not only with [anti-war] agitation… but to invade the cityscapes, filled with [state] propaganda in various ways: from public anti-war mourning initiatives to anti-war street art”. Though the scope of action is much wider.

The most circulated in the media and blogosphere action of FAR is the support of “Women in Black” for justice and against war movement. Weekly, on Fridays, women dressed in black often with white flowers walk through the streets of Russian cities and towns as a manifestation of grief over the dead. Mariupol5000 initiative is an installation of DIY wooden grave crosses with anti-war statements in Russian courtyards in memory of civilian casualties in Ukraine. Besides these uniting initiatives, FAR activists use various ways for spreading alternative to the state media information through art and guerrilla actions. These include pasting leaflets in the streets, public spaces, and apartment buildings; anti-war texts on banknotes and price tags in stores. Another strategy is “quiet picket” which implies going around with anti-war inscriptions on attire or carrying DIY posters pinned to bags, backpacks, face masks, or clothing.

FAR invites activists to share their initiatives and publishes them in its Telegram channel. Unlike the independent Russian media that often problematizes protest focusing only on the police violence and detentions, FAR’s channel showcases and praising successful initiatives that serve as inspiration to others. It also acts as a safe space to share stories of own path to anti-war activism. In coalition with other anti-war initiatives FAR offers support for those who have faced prosecution due to protest actions. Constructive and compassionate approach, focus on positive outcomes, and attempts toward solidarization makes FAR a unique resistance initiative uniting resident of Russia, as well as Russians abroad.

Concluding this text, I feel it is justified to say that the international calls for occupying the streets of Russian cities when activists risk imprisonment and serious physical violence seem ethically questionable. Moreover, will this even be effective, given how well authoritarian regimes deal with mass protests, as the recent events in Belarus have shown? The current lack of anti-war spectacular gatherings and vocal statements in Russia should not be interpreted as silence or passivity. Resistance is adapting to circumstances and changes before our eyes. By turning into a dispersed, horizontal guerrilla movement that utilizes the “weapons of the weak”, it becomes a safer, as well as more sustainable way of joining protests in the current repressive landscape. Small scale everyday actions are easily overlooked and underestimated, yet they should by no means be regarded as irrelevant.

 

About the author: Maria Gunko is a DPhil candidate in Migration Studies at COMPAS. Her research interests include urban and planning studies, as well as theory of the state with a geographical focus on Central and Eastern Europe. Maria’s doctoral research and fieldwork is a part of this ERC-funded EMPTINESS project lead by Dr. Dace Dzenovska.

This blog is part of the forum: Making sense of the war in Ukraine