The Russian Left Is Standing Against Putin’s War on Ukraine

The mass media, both inside Russia and beyond its borders, hasn't much noticed — but young Russian leftists have been at the forefront of opposing Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Police detain a young antiwar protester in Saint Petersburg, Russia, March 13, 2022. (AFP via Getty Images)

Only the blind can claim that Vladimir Putin wants to revive the Soviet Union. On the contrary, he has built one of the most Darwinian and irresponsible capitalist systems on the planet. Only its imperial ambitions and the normalization of permanent theft bear any relation to the late Soviet state. Only the fear of the return of a totalitarian regime, which struck several generations in Russia, has delayed a left turn among the young. But the war has finally started it.

After February 24, the protest against the Putin regime, amplified by antiwar sentiment, was embodied in a digital resistance movement. The global media has been largely silent about this fact, but military commissariats in Russia burn down every few days, freight trains with weapons or raw materials for military factories derail, and the walls of houses and fences are covered with huge pro-Ukrainian graffiti at night. Volunteers take care of Ukrainians forcibly displaced to Russia and help them flow to Europe. This resistance is horizontal and egalitarian, and it is mainly engaged in by twenty- to thirty-year-olds. What values drive them?

If you look at the decade leading up to the war, it becomes clear that Putin himself provoked the left turn among the youth. Businesses in Russia had fantastically low tax rates and a staggeringly inefficient system of control over entrepreneurs that fed on bribes, allowing employers to do whatever they wanted with their staff. That is why the view of the Russian economy as state capitalist is deeply erroneous. Yes, in recent years, state-owned enterprises have begun to absorb private companies, but before that, for twenty years, business developed in conditions close to the libertarian utopias of Ayn Rand novels.

Based on growing oil and gas prices, this predatory freedom of business led to a consumer boom. The middle class quickly got used to buying cars on credit, to cafés and bars on every corner, and to fast delivery of goods at any time of the day. Because this came after the hungry 1990s, with its poverty and humiliation, Russians did not pay attention to such monstrous problems as the deterioration in the quality of medical care, the violation of human rights, and corruption, which even engulfed the judicial branch of power. The fact that the consumer boom was provided by the labor resources of illegal migrants from Central Asian countries colonized by the Russian Empire and the USSR has not been reflected on.

This tacit collusion between the Kremlin and citizens who have embraced capitalist values was attacked by their kids, who do not remember anything Soviet. These generations posed direct questions: Why should I make friends with the children of Federal Security Service generals and high-level bureaucrats in order to gain access to a career in politics or state service? Why should I have to be afraid that any policeman could torture or even kill me with impunity? Why is no one doing anything about the massive domestic violence against women? Why are there no free elections and why is no one allowed into politics except for parties approved by the authorities? Why doesn’t anyone care about the pollution of nature and the development of skyscraper cities for the sake of the profits of real estate tycoons? Why, above all, are adults so atomized and unable to unite in collective action?

The search for answers to these questions led youngsters to understand that the Putin regime is not just kleptocratic. Authoritarian capitalism is used as an agent of the depoliticization and the moral suppression of citizens. The main koan of this system sounds like this: Earn without rules for new villas and cars and travel around the world, but do not try to change anything in your country.

Young Russians were sick of such an ethical position, and the first military clash with Ukraine, in 2014, paradoxically helped them to generate a politics of reduced aggression, careful communication, care, and other forms of horizontal interaction. As Mark Lipovetsky, a professor at Columbia University in New York, put it, “any protest movement in Russia today must be primarily an ethical movement, otherwise it will be corroded by the same force of cynicism that unites the Russian government with Russian society.”

Even some new entrepreneurs manifested new goals: instead of making huge profits, they wanted to solve social problems and create communities of people with similar values. Several activists embodied their ambitions in the creation of NGOs. Feminism has finally gone mainstream. Many students and university graduates supported Alexei Navalny, the only consensus leader of the opposition.

When the invasion of Ukraine began, members of this new generation, without waiting for the end of the war, asked their parents the same questions that the German children of the war asked their fathers: Why were you silent amid the strengthening of fascism, busy acquiring more and more luxury?

Of course, not all young people in Russia have become leftists — only an active part of them. For jaded teenagers from metropolitan areas, buying a bag of chips with delivery is considered entertainment, nicknamed “chasing a slave.” Migrants from the former Soviet republics work in delivery services, and Russians feel, in relation to them as residents of the metropolis, like the inhabitants of a colony.

After February 24, the grassroots began to organize themselves using secure chats, mainly on Telegram and Signal. On the second day after the start of the war, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance (or FAS, with thirty-five thousand followers on Telegram) was founded, appealing to the widest range of apolitical Russians whose children and relatives could be sent to the war zone. FAS draws, prints, and sends out postcards that are very similar to ordinary greeting cards but with texts that open your eyes to what is happening in Ukraine. Their other action is the replacement of price tags in stores with copies bearing antiwar slogans. Another example of content that mimics media for apathetic ordinary people is the Zhenskaya Pravda (Women’s Truth) newspaper, which is laid out as a traditional local newspaper. Every week, FAS activists hold new actions in dozens of Russian cities, despite facing fines and imprisonment.

Another active antiwar group is students. They campaign in the institutes against armed aggression and their supporters (as in the Students Against War chat on Telegram). The anonymous group Stop the Carriages distributes instructions on how to sabotage the railroad to derail freight trains on strategically important routes. City activists paint graffiti and post flyers on trees and bulletin boards, risking criminal charges for “spreading fake news about the Special Military Operation.” In addition, there are closed associations of programmers and ultraleft and anarchist groups, and volunteer lawyers helping those fired from their jobs for antiwar statements.

Curiously, very few in the famous Russian intelligentsia are among the activists. Many heirs of Soviet dissidents have become bourgeois, wealthy, and, unwilling to risk their wealth, do not participate in antiwar activism. Moreover, left-wing values, feminism, and the cultures of consent and abolition seem to the intelligentsia to be a return to the communist values they hate. It is difficult for these bourgeois Russians to part with their social status and privilege to join an anti-hierarchical resistance movement.

The range of the views of this new left is wide — from anarcho-federalism to social liberalism — but at its heart is a clear demand for equality and a restart of the state with an economy focused on personal self-realization, the satisfaction of basic needs, and the protection of rights. As Russians come to accept responsibility for the terror inflicted on Ukraine, we can expect turbulence to last for decades. But one reason for optimism is the likely fact that any new Russia — or several Russias — will be leftist.