For Russians living abroad and denouncing Ukraine's invasion, a new flag symbolizes opposition to Putin

Screenshot from Ghost Countries’  YouTube channel showing the official flag of Russia on the left and the alternative anti-war one on the right.

A white-blue-white flag is often displayed prominently in anti-Putin demonstrations and online protest events taking place outside of Russia. What is the significance of this alternative flag to the official white-blue-red one?

Known as the бело-сине-белый флаг (or the BSB flag in reference, to the Russian initials for white-blue-white) in Russian, it stands for opposition to Russia's invasion to Ukraine, though its history predates the events of February 24. 

Popularized by Russian designer Kai Kaytonina and art manager “Fish Sounds” (Звуки Рыб), it makes references to the Novgorod Republic, a medieval state that developed in Western Russian from the 12th to the 15th centuries. It is a rare example of limited democracy in Russian history, and well known, as it is taught in the school curriculum.

The rationale behind the BSB flag is that it removes the lower red strip that symbolizes blood, violence or, for some, Communism, and offers a peaceful, non-imperialistic symbol for Russians denouncing Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, and wanting to build a democratic, non-colonial Russian society and state.

Historically, the white-blue-red flag was used since the late 17th century by Tsarist Russia until it was banned in the Soviet Union after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, but was still used by Russian emigres who rejected the revolution. The tricolor was reinstated as the national flag of Russia in 1991.

Anton Litvin, a Russian activist based in the Czech Republic has played a key role in popularizing the BSB flag in street demonstrations in Prague. He is one of the cofounders of the Prague Anti-war Committee (Пражский антивоенный комитет) and told Global Voices why it is important for Russians living abroad and opposed to Putin to have their own flag:

Не воспринимают, видимо те, кто не выходит в Европе и других странах на акции протеста. Мы же не можем выходить с тем же флагом, который висит над зданиями посольств РФ и над Kремлём.

Those [Russians] who do not recognize the BSB flag are obviously those who do not take part in demonstrations in Europe and elsewhere. We clearly cannot be going to demonstrations with the same flag that hangs above the buildings of Russian embassies and in the Kremlin

Alexey Sidorenko, head of the non-governmental organization Teplitsa that supports civic activism in Russia, shares Litvin's views in an interview with Global Voices:

Я в 2014-м году почувствовал просто физическую невозможность выходить в Европе под триколором. Уже с оккупации Донбаса и Крыма российский флаг стал плотно ассоциироваться с империализмом, милитаризмом и насилием. Думаю, что такой запрос разделяли многие. Антон Литвин раньше других начал высказывать идею о необходимости нового флага, но тогда его предложения казались слишком радикальными. В 2022-м, на мой взгляд, многое поменялось.

In 2014 [the year of Russia's occupation of Crimea] I felt that it became physically impossible to march in demonstrations in Europe under the tricolor flag. From the time of the occupation of Donbass and Crimea, the Russian flag became closely associated with imperialism, militarism and violence. I think many shared that view. Anton Litvin started talking about the need to have a new flag before everyone else, but back then his idea seemed too radical. Things have changed in 2022, in my opinion.

Sidorenko concludes that, while some see the BSB flag as an easy denial of responsibility — “we just washed away the blood, so our job is done here” (“стёрли кровь и все”) — he believes that the new flag is designed not to ignore the blood that was already spilled, but rather speaks to the refusal to spill more blood, or to accept violence as a value for Russia.


Image courtesy of Giovana Fleck.

For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.

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