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ON MARCH 5TH, a solitary picketer stood in a public plaza in Ivanovo, a small city northeast of Moscow, with a homemade sign stating: “*** *****”. The eight asterisks stood in for the Russian words for “no war,” alluding to a new wave of censorship that has rendered it a punishable offense to refer to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a war, and has forced the last vestiges of Russia’s independent media off the air. The previous day, a new law that bans “discrediting the Russian army,” carrying a maximum sentence of three years, had been rushed through the Duma—and when police arrested the protester, it was on those grounds. In the days since, the same law has been used to arrest other demonstrators holding up signs bearing only asterisks, or carrying blank pieces of paper. Since the beginning of the war three weeks ago, the Russian human rights media group OVD-Info reports that at least 14,906 people have been arrested for protesting the invasion.
Despite worsening government repression, there is visible, decentralized resistance to the war across Russia. Demonstrators have staged protests in at least 150 cities. They have scrawled anti-war graffiti in public spaces, staked out solitary pickets (until recently, a safe way for a single individual to express dissent when the government withheld permits for large protests), and taken part in un-permitted marches that have drawn thousands of attendees. “You can’t say this is a protest movement limited to capital cities,” a member of Autonomous Action (AD)—a movement of anarchists and libertarian communists in the former Soviet Union—wrote to us via an encrypted email service, adding that people had taken to the streets “from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok”—in other words, from the furthest western edge of Russia to the furthest eastern border. They wrote: “People came into the street motivated by a shared opposition to the unfolding horror. Most of the [street] protesters don’t have shared political beliefs . . . beyond ‘The war must stop and Putin must leave.’” (The activists we spoke to in Russia all requested anonymity because of the threat of jail time for voicing anti-war views.)
Though the anti-war protests have turned out a multigenerational cross-section of the Russian public, according to the AD member, including elderly survivors of the Nazi blockade of Leningrad and parents with young children, the majority of the protesters are under 30, with significant participation by teens and even preteens. A young organizer with Food Not Bombs—a vegan and anti-war group that began 40 years ago in the Boston area and has sprouted independent chapters throughout Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia—told us that, in the major Russian city where they live, “many adults either don’t care or have been brainwashed by propaganda,” while younger people were more likely—though far from guaranteed—to seek news from non-state-controlled sources before the current crackdown.
These protests are largely spontaneous and decentralized, though they have drawn on established activist networks. “There are no political leaders who are ready to stand up and say ‘we are organizing a rally tomorrow,’” Anastasia Kalk, a Russian political theorist and activist and a doctoral student at the New School in New York, told us on a Zoom call. At the same time, some participants are members of longstanding groups—such as the St. Petersburg-based feminist collective Eighth Initiative Group (EIG) or the socialist feminist SocFem Alternative—whose communication channels have been leveraged locally to get flyers posted or to turn out demonstrators. In a text message, an EIG member observed that tightly-knit feminist affinity groups have “formed communities and well-established ties” that can be “activated in the face of a new threat.” The first coordinated call for resistance came from Feminist Anti-War Resistance, a nascent movement of feminist affinity groups within Russia and the Russian diaspora that is attempting to bring a level of organization to the protests. In the movement’s manifesto, which Kalk helped translate, they call for “offline and online campaigns against the war in Ukraine and Putin’s dictatorship.”
The protests are taking place in a context of repression that has been building for over a decade. After a major wave of anti-government protests sparked by fraudulent parliamentary election results in 2011 and 2012, Putin solidified his hold on power by passing two repressive new laws in 2013. One law made it illegal to publicly discuss gay rights or the existence of gay relationships. The other made “offenses against religious feelings” punishable by up to three years in prison in the wake of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot’s anti-Putin protest performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Both laws solidified the union between the Putin administration and the Russian Orthodox Church, providing moral cover for the state’s violence against women and LGBTQ+ people. Lyosha Gorshkov, an exiled Russian activist and scholar and the co-president of RUSA LGBT (the Russian-Speaking American LGBTIQA+ Association)., pointed out that the anti-gay laws helped lay the groundwork for the current wave of repression: The government “tested the waters” by targeting marginalized communities first.
While “there wasn’t an exact moment when things got really bad,” Kalk said, after 2011, “every single year, it got worse and worse.” Within five or six years, she said, “we reached the point where no one really remembered that it was possible to organize a huge demonstration.” In our reporting, we heard multiple expressions of regret and anger from older generations of Russian activists, who felt that they had not done enough to stop the Putin regime as it solidified power and legalized violence against marginalized people. “Many in my generation lost hope for any positive political change,” wrote Sonya, a 30-something from Moscow who participated in protests in 2012 and 2013.
The crackdown on protest—including the show trials of well-known activists such as Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich—was accompanied by the closure and censorship of media companies and civil society groups. Independent television networks, such as TV Rain, were forced off the air and onto the internet. At the same time, Russian leftist groups adjusted their organizing and information dissemination strategies. AD, for example, “was transformed from a network of organizations (with membership, regional branches, etc.) into a media group with a website, social networks, and podcasts,” the member wrote. But with the growth of independent online media, the state targeted bloggers and YouTubers, as well as Russian telecom providers that hosted independent media websites and social media platforms such as Twitter. By late 2021, in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine, only a few independent outlets—such as Echo of Moscow, a beloved radio station which had been broadcasting since the 1990s—remained, and even these had made significant compromises with the government to stay on the air.
Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, protesters have continued to use online networks to circulate petitions and digital flyers, but have also returned to the streets. “Street agitation, leaflets, and stickers are gaining momentum,” noted the organizer from EIG. The FNB organizer echoed this sentiment: “We go out to actions, and we agitate people to oppose the war, with the help of graffiti, leaflets, and stickers.”
But even as organizers seek to bring people together to resist, they are also attempting to avoid putting demonstrators at risk. Though unpermitted street protests like the ones that swept dozens of Russian cities on March 6th and March 13th continue to occur, feminist organizers have called for safer types of actions. For example, Feminist Anti-War Resistance called for the reappropriation of International Women’s Day on their public channel on Telegram, a free messaging app: On March 8th, solitary protesters across Russia (and in places with post-Soviet immigrant communities) quietly laid flowers at World War II memorials as an expression of resistance against the war. Some left blue and yellow flowers representing the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and others affixed anti-war messages to their bouquets. The organizers hoped that police would overlook the solitary actions, or construe them as patriotism. On the group’s Telegram channel, participants shared pictures and described feeling less isolated when they arrived at memorials to find other bouquets there.
No matter how protesters make their views known, imprisonment is a very real risk for anyone who resists the war. While protesters could always be arrested for “hooliganism” or “unauthorized street actions,” under the new law that criminalizes “discrediting the peacekeeping efforts of the Russian Army,” a first arrest is punishable by fine, and a second arrest “can lead to a criminal punishment of three years, simply for taking two strolls in the city,” the AD member said. Kalk emphasizes the arbitrary way such laws are enforced: “A street protest arrest can get you nothing, or 15 days, or two years. A lot of the time, cops are picking up everyone, capturing random people who are not seasoned activists in their dragnet.”
In addition to these sporadic street-level arrests, the government has been systematically targeting organizers. Officers from the militarized federal police unit—known by its acronym, OMON—broke into the homes of known activists, including feminists from EIG, the day before the March 6th marches. “What happens after an arrest depends on which department is detaining you,” the AD member explained. “One can politely interrogate you, collect passport data, and release you.” Or interrogators can employ the tactics used against the protester Aleksandra Kaluzhskikh and other women who were beaten and drenched in water at the Brateevo police precinct in southwest Moscow after being detained at the March 6th protest. A transcript of a smuggled recording of Kaluzhskikh’s torture was published in Novoya Gazeta—one of the few surviving independent print outlets in Russia—and translated by the US magazine n+1. During the recording, interrogators can be heard striking Kaluzhskikh on the face and head. “They don’t care who they beat, who they detain,” the FNB member wrote. “Recently I heard that they even detained a pregnant woman.” The FNB member was driven around the outskirts of the city after one of the protests because all the precincts were already full of demonstrators who had been arrested. “Harassing and abusing unarmed people,” the FNB member wrote, “that’s their whole job.”
In addition to the threat of arrest and physical abuse in custody, there are other pressures the government can apply. One of the organizers we spoke to lost their job after a recent arrest because their boss was afraid of police attention. According to the Feminist Antiwar Resistance’s Telegram channel, the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation has been leaning on directors of various cultural institutions, demanding lists of employees who signed petitions against the war. Layoffs have already started. Flyers about what to do if you are targeted for expressing anti-war opinions at work have been circulating on feminist and anarchist channels on Telegram—but even circulating these flyers is extremely dangerous. A few days into the war, Russia’s communications regulator blocked Echo of Moscow and TVRain for using the word “war” in their broadcasts. Another new law against publishing “fake news” about the Russian military carries a potential 15-year sentence. The government has also announced the resurrection of a dormant law that makes it possible to imprison anyone for up to 20 years for high treason if they provide assistance to a foreign organization—which independent journalists believe could be used to target them. These laws essentially roll back the clock to Soviet-era restrictions on free speech, giving even anti-war social media posts the status of dissident samizdat. “It’s scary,” says the FNB member, “to get a sentence just for reposting something.”
The repression has brought many activists to a breaking point. Feminist activists who stayed in Russia after the post-2011 crackdowns “were forced to flee the country within the past few days,” Kalk said on March 1st. Practically, she said, this exodus means that much anti-war organizing is happening abroad, in the Russian diaspora—where many of the experienced activists have gone, and where speaking out is relatively safe. Still, anti-war protesters have staged actions in Russia every weekend since the invasion. They do so “bravely,” writes the AD member, “despite the draconian repressions.”
We were in contact with a young organizer in Russia who had vocally opposed the war on social media. On March 3rd, they messaged us that they would respond to our questions once they were in a “safe space.” Then they fell out of contact. After a couple of days offline, they resurfaced on Instagram to write that they were now in exile. “I never thought that I would have to leave my homeland, friends, and family because of fear for my safety,” they posted, “because I disagree with the barbaric war that Vladimir Putin unleashed.”
This article has been updated.
Ben Nadler is the author of The Sea Beach Line: A Novel and Punk in NYC’s Lower East Side, 1981 – 1991. He teaches developmental English in the City University of New York’s community college system.