On Wednesday of last week, the pensioner activist Yelena Osipova, daughter to a Leningrad besieged by Nazi Germany, was dragged away by police as she joined antiwar protests. Hers was the most emblematic of over thirteen thousand arrests (according to OVD-Info’s tally) of Russians who have bravely denounced Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.
The repression of the initial rallies following the February 24 invasion saw thousands handed prison sentences of a few days. But measures on Friday bringing Russia to the brink of martial law have set a far higher price for speaking out. A crackdown on liberal media like Dozhd and Novaya Gazeta, as well as foreign outlets, is now coupled with jail sentences of up to fifteen years for “fake news” critical of the war effort.
Despite the announcements, Sunday saw fresh demonstrations — with over four thousand arrests yesterday alone. Actions are also planned for International Women’s Day on March 8 — in 1917 famously the occasion of antiwar protests by the women of Petrograd. Ahead of this weekend’s rallies, I asked Russian socialists about the makeup of the protests, popular attitudes toward the war, and the prospects of dissent spreading despite the harsh repression.
Rooting Out Dissent
Right from the start of the war, V. — a socialist involved in protests in Moscow — tells me, the mood on the protests was “tense.” The biggest demonstration in the capital was on February 24, the day of the invasion, while in subsequent days “police arrested everyone on the streets who looked ‘suspicious’ so the crowds wouldn’t even get a chance to assemble.” She notes the effect of previous waves of repression in thinning out previous generations of oppositionists, like those involved in marches demanding the release of jailed dissident Alexei Navalny. This has had the effect that younger Russians are playing a bigger role in today’s movement:
The main difference is how young the crowd is. Almost everyone is under thirty-five, it’s mostly young adults and even minors (who are also getting arrested and brutalized by police). There are almost no older intelligentsia types, who represented a significant part of opposition protests in the previous years. There are many women, more than usual, I would say.
The Putin government has launched a major crackdown on activist networks and their media. So, how aware is the general population that street protests are even taking place? V. tells me that in Moscow:
Almost everyone knows — it’s impossible not to notice the increase of heavy policing, brutal arrests, and occasional jamming of stations if you visit the city center. But I came under the impression that “ordinary” people mostly see the protests as useless at bringing you anything except for heavy beating by police and quick arrest with a prospect to spend a night (or ten, or fifteen, or, hell, maybe even fifteen years) in prison.
She characterizes the initial popular reaction to the invasion in terms of surprise and incomprehension:
In the first day or two, people outside of the activist community barely discussed the war. Official Russian media were hardly saying anything about it, too. Some people were shocked (as I was), some didn’t understand what was going on or didn’t (yet) care. It seemed that even official media were taken by surprise by Putin’s decision, and didn’t expect it.
The harsh punishment of those who do protest is surely designed to reinforce passive resignation among the general population. But it seems that pro-Putin media are also now making a more coherent effort to mobilize a confected “public opinion.” V. tells me:
The media received their instructions and started beating the drums of war (though they call it a “special operation” to “de-Nazify Ukraine” from Banderites at fault for “genocide” in the Donbas, and a measure against NATO expansion (we had no choice, etc.). Some people accepted that line. When I was at the market, I witnessed a father telling his daughter (who was around eight years old), “You know when someone keeps insulting you, at some point you just have to punch them.” Maybe this is how some people read it. But now, there is hardly anything people can talk about except for the war. At work, in the metro — everyone is anxious and glued to their phones.
This element of surprise was also mentioned by M., a member of the Russian Socialist Movement in Yekaterinburg, the country’s fourth largest city. She told me:
On the first day, when Putin had just declared war, my boyfriend from Donbas was sleeping sweetly next to me, I was very scared to wake him up with the words: “The war has begun.” Then I felt that I could not help but go outside now. Other people in the city felt the same: “It’s time,” and we went out without a single center of coordination, it was a common impulse. It all started with single pickets under the statue of Lenin, and then people simply did not leave from there and remained standing, gradually completely filling the square. The police simply did not know what to do with us, they did not expect it. And we had the advantage — until they received a single order.
In this city in the Urals, on the first day of the war, the police imagined that Anatoly Svechnikov — local executive of Memorial, a recently closed-down NGO that investigates state repression and human rights abuses — must be behind the protest.
The policeman approached him and, apparently thinking that Anatoly was in charge here and could give orders, tried to argue: “Well, you can ask the protesters to behave calmly.” But the problem is that we no longer have main figures — all the strong oppositionists are persecuted by the state.
M. agrees with V. that the protesters are mainly young:
The square was full of very young people, I have never seen so many people in their twenties at a protest. We shouted “no to war” and “Putin resign” until a crowd of helmeted police officers broke us into small groups. We then went on a procession through the city. Wherever we appeared, sooner or later police cars arrived and then the silent procession immediately began to aggressively shout: “No to war” or “Shame” in their direction and immediately leave. And the cops stayed where they were because they couldn’t keep following us without orders.
That day, the procession was finally broken when a crowd of policemen in helmets and full uniforms herded us down a huge slippery staircase. We ran two hundred to three hundred meters in a straight line, and they were behind us with incredible speed. We dispersed and did not gather again.
But repression has already had its effect on protest numbers:
On, March 1, lawyer Aleksey Bushmakov said that the protesters completely filled all the special detention centers of the city and some of the detainees had to be taken to the neighboring city of Sysert. Every day fewer people came out, there were more and more policemen on the street…
M. insists that this crackdown isn’t the end of the antiwar movement. Yet, the need for the protests to constantly mutate, rather than rely on existing activist networks, has also made it necessary to rely on horizontal forms of organization that can operate without a single leadership. This has also heightened reliance on distributing simple antiwar messages via messaging apps, simply to break through the veil of depoliticization:
Feminist Anti-War Resistance has done a brilliant thing. If the non-opposition part of society and I are in different bubbles, we need to reduce this distance. They wrote a mailing list for WhatsApp, with a call: “If you don’t send this letter to 7 friends, happiness and a peaceful life will not shine for you in the coming years !!!!” So, in that style, in which our older relatives usually spread conspiracy theories to each other at the speed of light, we spread a letter with the truth about the war. Some say they’ve already received the letter from their own relatives, which means it’s working.
Such a focus on decentralized, pop-up actions is also a natural by-product of the lack of real opposition parties and the Communist Party (KPRF)’s subordinate role within the dominant power structure. Its leadership generally sticks close to Putin’s line; the KPRF tabled the parliamentary motion for the recognition of the self-styled Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, which provided the initial pretext to send tanks across the border. This past Friday, forty of its fifty-seven MPs voted for the “fifteen years law” imposing lengthy jail sentences for “fake news”; none voted against, though eight abstained despite being present in parliament.
The reasons for these abstentions remain unclear — and are, in any case, hardly inspiring signs of rebellion. Yet, as the only thing approximating a mass party, the KPRF does in some limited measure reflect — and channel — pressures in wider society. Its role as one of few tolerated repositories for dissent also partly explains its high vote in September’s election, in which it was attributed 19 percent in official results. This is also a curiously composite force: the sometimes weak central control over local organizations has allowed even social democrats and Trotskyists to stand as KPRF candidates, and parts of its base are involved in anything from strikes to anti-vaxx protests. V. tells me that is reflected in differing stances toward the war:
My source in the KPRF says the membership is split 75 percent for the war versus 25 percent against. As for the social base, after the last couple of years that saw people who are not happy with the regime increasingly voting for KPRF (mostly for pragmatic reasons), I think it would be safe to say that there is a great number of people who are against the war.
The KPRF is constantly under pressure from the Kremlin to defend the official line. But another member of the Russian Socialist Movement, O., tells me that some figures in the KPRF have openly denounced the war, including Mikhail Matveev, Oleg Smolin, and Vyacheslav Markhaev — three KPRF MPs who had earlier backed the initial motion to recognize the Donbas separatist republics:
The Kremlin has put the Communist Party into a very difficult — or, to be more exact, very simple — situation: either to resist Putin’s rule or to disappear from political life forever. … Matveev, Smolin, and one of the brightest young leaders of the Communist Party, Yevgeny Stupin, openly opposed the war. Stupin, together with the Russian Socialist Movement, organized a meeting of the Russian Left, where an antiwar resolution was adopted and an antiwar coalition of Russian independent, democratic leftists was organized.
Some local-level legislators, in some cases nonparty figures elected on KPRF lists, have taken similar stances, as has the committee of the KPRF’s Moscow youth organization. While justifying the initial vote in recognition of the Donbas republics, it denounced the “fratricidal war,” driven by “Vladimir Putin’s unhealthy geopolitical ambitions” and providing only a “source of income for the ruling elites.” Conversely, KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov has meekly submitted to the Putin government’s war to “decommunize” Ukraine. O. points out the likely dismal effects of this alignment, and not just for the KPRF itself:
Many left-wingers in Russia have never stopped saying that the death of the Communist Party will allow the “real” left-wing movement to flourish. We must definitively admit that this is not the case. If the KPRF cowardly renounced its positions today, it could bury the leftist movement and the leftist legacy as a whole under its own rubble. Not forever, of course, but for a while. Therefore, the members of the KPRF must try by all means to change the situation in the party, initiate internal discussions, convince comrades that the situation is critical: freedom or death.
Some statements by KPRF dissidents have noted that such an antiwar stance was in fact at the origin of Europe’s Communist Parties. As yet, there is no specific news that the dissidents within the KPRF and its parliamentary group have been expelled from its ranks. That said, the looming threat of martial law (despite current denials), and Kremlin pressure to eradicate all expressions of dissent, appear likely to force the situation to a head.
For now, it would be over-hasty to predict that ordinary Russians will play a decisive role in ending this war. Anecdotal evidence of soldiers surprised by the stiff Ukrainian resistance, or of Belarusian officers warning that their troops would revolt if called into combat, are probably the main reason to hope that pressure from below could make the war hard to continue. What can be said is that those calling for an end to the bloodshed offer Russian society a way out of the darkness — a small beacon of light, shining toward a Russia different from this one.