Strategies of anti-war movements in Russia

Masha Ivasenko

The start of the war in Ukraine on February 24th was shocking to many people – this is why quick and productive self-organization, understanding of what to do, and the development of effective strategies seemed unlikely. Nevertheless, on February 24th, in many cities of Russia, people went out to the streets with only one clear and simple demand: “No to war.” Protests, although suppressed, continued in the cities until the passage of a repressive law on 4th of March. The Law on Fakes, also known as the Law on Military Censorship, has paralyzed spontaneous rallies and independent media, almost eliminating the space for free public speech. I noted that many friends and acquaintances wrote the following phrases on social media: “My words are in prison”, “my speech was canceled”, “I can no longer speak and I am suffocating”, and “they took away my language”.

But under the conditions of such oppressive mutism, caused by repressions and reinforced by fear, it is impossible to exist for a long time, so it is necessary to look for and invent new forms of speech, to carve out a new space for the language. In this article, I want to talk about the groups that keep fighting for a place to protest and protest against the war, despite the repressive law and the general fear, which has Russian society struck deaf at the moment.

The brightest and the most active, as I see it, is the Feminist Anti-War Resistance. It arose on the second day of the war and became active very quickly because the feminist community in Russia was already quite strong and resourceful: it had accumulated connections and support because for the last 8 years Russian feminists have been fighting various forms of violence carried out in Russia, such as domestic violence, sexualized violence, police violence, oppression of LGBT rights. The general tactics of the fight used by the Feminist Anti-War Resistance are directed toward breaking through the information blockade and creating a field for expression. The Feminist Anti-War Resistance today is a decentralized and horizontal association, the members of which are dispersed not only in many cities of Russia but also abroad.

One of the first actions at the beginning of March was the “White Rose” action. The participants immediately explained that the “White Rose” was a reference to the student resistance movement that existed in Nazi Germany. Feminist Anti-War Resistance offered to go out on the streets with a white rose in hand and stand silently. But the symbol of the white rose as resistance to fascism was practically not read by the public. In general, only the participants knew about the reference to the “White Rose” as an anti-fascist resistance movement. Therefore, the feminists immediately connected this action with the Women in Black action and made references to the international anti-war movement with the same title.

They offered to go out to the streets in black clothes and stand with flowers in hands. The black color was unequivocally read by the public as mourning sign, which have caused resonant reactions from the society and the police, although the action itself continued to be relatively safe as no serious protocols were drawn up by the police against the Women in Black participants (most of the prosecutions resulted in paying fines).

At the end of March, when the number of civilians killed in the occupied Mariupol was growing every day, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance announced a new action called Mariupol 5000. According to reports and photographs from Mariupol, the murdered civilians were buried in the yards and on playgrounds because of the incessant bombing. So the activists proposed to install crosses with inscriptions about the victims of Mariupol in the city spaces.

These installations usually stood for a short time, a day or two,  and were liquidated by public utilities and the police. However, according to the authors of the protest, this visually strong image made people think.

In early April, the whole world was shocked by the evidence of the brutal killing of civilians in Bucha in the Kyiv region. Another anti-war movement Vesna, created by supporters of Alexei Navalny, has adopted the strategy of the Feminist Anti-War Resistance and announced a new perpetual protest action called “Bucha – remember, do not forgive.” Vesna proposes to install improvised “monuments” with the inscriptions “Bucha” and information about the killed civilians.

In those days, the theme of memory and witnessing opened up to me from an unexpected side in one very personal gesture. In my Facebook feed, I saw my friend posting a profile photo of his arm with the word Bucha cut out on it with the blade. In the comments to his post two more girls attached photos with the same gesture. At first, I thought of it as an act of self-harm made as an attempt by a person to cope with emotional pain through physical pain. However, I asked my friend about his gesture. “It is more like a way for me to remember what is going on (to get away from the feeling that what is happening is far away and does not concern me),” he replied.

The reference to this idea, as my friend told me, was the work of the Kyiv artist Valya Petrova, who, in memory of the execution of workers in Kazakhstan, in the city of Zhanaozen, tattooed the name of the place on her back via the scarification method using the Braille alphabet. (In 2011, in Zhanaozen, 15 protesting workers were shot in the back). The work was presented at the “Yes, I remember” exhibition in St. Petersburg in 2015. The artist stood behind a screen, through which the visitors were offered to feel the inscription on her back.

In the interview conducted for the book The Right to Truth: Conversations on Art and Feminism (2019), Valya Petrova said: “In a nutshell: why the scar? A scar is always with you, and you do not think about it all the time, but if you see it on someone, you ask: “Oh, what is it?” And it pulls some history out of the past. (…) In addition, the holes on the scar resemble the bullet marks on the back. Because that is exactly how these protestors were shot – from behind.” Even without being a direct witness to the tragedy, my friend literally “imprinted” this testimony on his skin so that he would not forget it.

Today the topic of memory and witnessing sounds especially relevant because the war has been going on for more than three months, and the first shock has passed. That is how the protective mechanisms of the human psyche operate: we gradually start perceiving the events that are taking place as ordinary. In Europe, news channels are less and less covering the movement of troops and information about the victims in Ukraine, switching to general political global topics – the energy crisis, etc. Therefore, one of the key rhetorics of both the Feminist Anti-War Resistance and Vesna is to prevent the war from becoming the norm, to forget about it and to remind us that it happens every day. Activists print and deliver leaflets to mailboxes – for example, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance publishes the newspaper Zhenskaya Pravda, where, in addition to information about the war, it gives legal advice on how to avoid being drafted into the army. They leave this newspaper in the subway and the stores. On top of that, there are stickers with anti-war content and green ribbons (a symbol of anti-war protest proposed by the Vesna movement) appearing in the cities on the pillars and building walls, as well as the memorial signs on the flowerbeds reminding of Ukrainian civilians killed in the war.

To influence a wider public, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance suggested changing the price tags in stores and grocery shops to similar price tags with the information about the war. Unfortunately, it was for changing the price tag in a store in St. Petersburg that the artist Sasha Skochilenko was arrested and placed in a pre-trial detention center, known in Russia as SIZO. Sasha is accused of “discrediting the Russian army,” and due to the new law, she could face 3 to 15 years in prison. This event shocked all participants in the movement. It is clear that the authorities decided to arrange a “show trial” to intimidate the rest. Therefore, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance began to actively remind all the participants about security measures, such as avoiding surveillance cameras and not using a personal cell phone during the action, and about possible risks. Although the movement cannot ensure the safety of its members, it informs them about the existence of the Anti-War Foundation, which employs lawyers to help people who have faced prosecutions or were fired illegally from their job.

The main problem of breaking through the information blockade is not only the practical elimination of free media (the Internet still works, and by installing a VPN, you can access sites blocked in Russia and access the information) but the inertia and conformity of Russian society as a whole.

The members of Feminist Anti-War Resistance have developed a series of viral “postcards” that disguise themselves as regular postcards sent by users in chats. Activists hope that with the help of such “common” postcards, one can “get through” to the most inert layers of society, who do not have their own opinions and are subject to propaganda from TV. For example, Easter postcards that usually are being shared in messenger as greeting postcards, this time have appeared on the network with the inscription “ХВ”, which usually means “Христос Воскресе” (Christ is resurrected) but this time the phrase was replaced by the author with “Хватит Войне” (Enough with the war). On May 1st, the classic slogan  “Peace. Labor. May” has appeared on the postcards with the inscription “War. Labor. May”.

Special training of resistance participants was carried out for the holiday of May 9th (known in Russia as the Victory Day). In Russia this holiday has been used by the government for militaristic and imperialist state rhetoric. Such an initiative related to memory and personal history as the “Immortal Regiment”, where participants were supposed to parade the streets carrying portraits of their veteran relatives, was completely taken under the control of the authorities. For example, often before the parade, the participants’ ready-made portraits of “relatives” unknown to them were issued, and after the parade these portraits could be found thrown into the nearest trash can). In general, the very idea of ​​organizing a “victory” parade while the country is waging a bloody war looks absurd in the eyes of any sane person. The “Vesna” movement announced the action “They did not fight for this” and invited the participants to join the “Immortal Regiment” carrying portraits of their veteran relatives with the sign or writing “he did not fight for this” or “he fought for peace”. In general, this action took place quietly, without serious prosecutions, since in Russia, everything connected with the Great Patriotic War is usually associated with the idea of “sanctity”.

Since the idea of “fighting Nazism in Ukraine” is actively used by Russian propaganda to justify the invasion, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance movement decided to turn this rhetoric around and call for the “denazification” of Russia itself, based on evidence of domestic Russian nationalism, which undoubtedly exists. In the Telegram channel they launched a permanent column based on evidence of Nazism-like behavior towards national minorities in Russia, which can be found under the hashtag #голоса_нац_менок. People from all over Russia – Buryats, Altaians, Ossetians, Tatars – send their stories to the channel. They talk about numerous cases of racism towards them by Russians, about the monopoly on the language imposed by the authorities (this is exactly what Russia accuses Ukraine of, of “banning” the Russian language).  In addition to these strategies, there are more “radical” forms – from time to time appears the information about the arson of military registration and enlistment offices in different cities, as well as information about the activities of “rail partisans”.  Since now Belarus is a transit hub for Russian military weapons and equipment supply to Ukraine, the Belarussians are navigating the sabotage on the railway tracks, disabling equipment, breaking railway signs, and blocking the railway tracks.  Of course, their activities are not as radical as during the Second World War since they don’t blow up bridges and roads. However, the blockade they organized has already caused vital damage to logistics, which is why  Lukashenko took extreme measures. To intimidate the activists, he signed amendments to the Criminal Code, so now pulling any sort of “attempted acts of terrorism,” by law is leading to the death penalty.  

All the strategies of resistance I have described are decentralized; all the movements have no leaders, which, according to the participants’ opinion, is the sign of strength that gives them the ability to slip away and create new cells. At a time when open protest is impossible due to the repressive actions of the Russian authorities – micro-resistance, “small” but tireless work –  is what helps many people to hold on and not fall into despair. In addition to two large organizations such as Feminist Anti-War Resistance and Vesna, there are many other small associations. For example, “Media Partizans” who spread information about the war on social networks from fake accounts and cut the wires of telecommunications antennas. Another organisation is “Safe Repost” – a group of people who are not in Russia and thus can safely share the important information via Internet.  

And finally, in addition to resistance movements, there is a strong group of volunteers known as “Helping to leave” who help Ukrainian refugees to get out of the Ukraine. Also the volunteers are helping Ukrainians who were taken from Ukraine to Russia to safely leave the country and get to Europe.  

All this gives hope that the Russian society will be able to unite and survive in the conditions of a severe crisis and a dictatorial regime.

Other essays