What happened to Russia’s anti-war movement?

Thousands have been arrested on charges related to demonstrating, forcing many to find new ways to protest.

Police officers detain a demonstrator in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Hundreds of people gathered in the centers of Moscow and St.Petersburg on Thursday, protesting against Russia's attack on Ukraine. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
Police officers detain a demonstrator in St. Petersburg on February 24, the first day of Russia's war on Ukraine [File: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP]

On the first night of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, protesters in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Saratov and other major Russian cities protested and chanted “No to war!”.

By the following evening, about 1,900 people had been detained across the country.

Amid the crackdown, large-scale protests fizzled out after the first few weeks of the war, while pro-government Russians rallied behind President Vladimir Putin’s “special operation”, as the invasion is euphemistically known.

“The start of war typically produces the rally-around-the-flag patriotic consolidation effect,” Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko told Al Jazeera.

“For massive protests against Putin to emerge in the near future, some dramatic changes should happen, [such as] a major defeat in Ukraine with a massive retreat of the Russian army, or some catastrophic developments in the Russian economy as a result of the sanctions.”

In cities such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg, life goes on as usual: bars and music festivals, for instance, are packed.

Russians are getting used to living under sanctions and new restrictions set by their own government, such as losing access to social media.

The economy has stayed stable so far, disappointing those who may have hoped growing discomfort would lead to angry masses rising up and overthrowing Putin.

Ischenko, who has studied political upheaval in post-Soviet nations, explained that there are significant differences between Ukraine in 2014, when the pro-Kremlin government was toppled, and present-day Russia.

The Ukrainians had a strong voice in the media, as well as backing from Western governments and factions within the elite.

“Even much larger anti-Putin protests won’t be successful if Russian elites and coercive institutions remain consolidated around Putin,” he said.

Protests are tightly restricted in Russia and demonstrators must seek the approval of authorities before holding an event. Russia’s potential to punish protesters should also be considered.

In the past 20 years, members and leaders of Russian dissident movements have been jailed, exiled or in certain cases, assassinated.

Since February, the few independent TV channels, radio stations and newspapers were either forced to close down or move their operations abroad.

“The repression now is the most serious in the entire post-Soviet period, and the most absurd,” Kirill Medvedev, a musician and left-wing activist from Moscow, told Al Jazeera.

Kirill is currently facing two charges, one over a picket and another for holding an anti-war concert near Moscow’s Trinity Forest.

“You can’t call the war a war, you have to call it a ‘special operation’, and so on. The repression isn’t total but it’s taking the [government’s] earlier logic to an extreme: targeting random people so that everyone is afraid, and of course, well-known and influential oppositionists.”

According to the Russian human rights monitor OVD-Info, more than 16,000 Russians have been arrested for anti-war actions since February.

Under a new law, spreading “fake news” about the invasion is punishable by 15 years but in practice most of those who have been charged have so far have been fined or received a suspended sentence.

On July 8, 60-year-old Moscow councillor Alexei Gorinov became the first to be imprisoned for seven years after calling for a moment’s silence to remember the victims of the Ukraine war at a meeting in April.

In court, Gorinov held up a handwritten sign reading: “Do you still need this war?”

And his colleague and opposition figure Ilya Yashin was recently charged with “discrediting” the armed forces when discussing the alleged Bucha killings on YouTube.

Peace activists have also been arrested for holding up blank, slogan-free pieces of paper.

But activists have already changed tactics, such as replacing supermarket price tags with information about the destruction of Ukraine’s Mariupol.

A young Moscovite, Alexandra Skochilenko, faces 10 years in prison for spreading “disinformation” after being reported by another shopper. Her price-tag campaign was organised by Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR).

“The Feminist Anti-War Resistance is made up of many groups and has no hierarchy,” said a representative of the group, who requested anonymity.

“Each subject of the Federation, and sometimes each city, has its own local group. There are even local groups in some cities outside Russia. Each group comes up with its own promotions, performances, workshops and more.”

In June, FAR activists in the Netherlands smeared themselves in fake blood and lay outside the Russian embassy in the Hague in a Z-shape, the pro-war symbol adopted by Moscow and its supporters.

“In Russia, activists act more like partisans: at night, they distribute leaflets with anti-war propaganda or sabotage the regime from within,” said the spokesperson.

Other anti-war groups include Russia’s ethnic minorities, particularly the native peoples of Siberia, the Caucasus and the Far East.

These areas are poorer, underdeveloped and and have fewer opportunities which mean young men are less likely to escape the army draft.

Buryats, from the Far East near Mongolia, are particularly overrepresented among Russian casualties.

This has led groups such as the Free Buryatia Foundation to question why their young men are sent thousands of miles away to die on behalf of Russian-speaking Ukrainians suffering alleged discrimination, when they have been colonised and had the Russian language imposed on them.

As well as sharing anti-war videos, the group provides legal assistance for would-be conscripts avoiding the draft and conducts research into Russian casualties in Ukraine.

“Anti-war [groups] are looking for new forms of expression,” said Kirill. “First, there was an attempt to resolve the issue with street rallies, which were expectedly suppressed, then the spectrum expanded – from quiet sabotage and barely noticeable inscriptions, to the arson of military registration and enlistment offices.”

At least 14 military recruitment offices have been set on fire since the war began.

In February, a 21-year-old man hurled Molotov cocktails at one centre and spray-painted its gates in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. He is now facing a three-year sentence for vandalism.

In late June, the Trans-Siberian railway was reportedly shut down by a group named Stop the Trains, whose members said their goal was to disrupt Russian military supplies.

Railroad saboteurs in neighbouring Belarus, which is being used as a waypoint by the Russian invasion force, successfully thwarted Russian logistics in April.

“I have no illusions that the regime will be quickly overthrown, but at some point, the question of what to do with at least half of the society which is opposed to the war will come to a head,” said Kirill. “And this half will have to ask what to do with the government that unleashed the war.”

Source: Al Jazeera