Undertones: Anti-war activity is not over in Russia, says Russian researcher

The sign says: “We have to STOP!” Photo: Archive/Used with permission

This interview is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory's newsletter. Find out more about our missionmethodology, and publicly available dataSubscribe to Undertones.

Civic Media Observatory researchers* comb the internet in search of media items that they can highlight, record and analyze. It is a stimulating process to document overarching narratives of what people are saying. Yet, nearly six months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian media ecosystem seems to have turned stale. Items and narratives are repeating themselves, as in a carousel. Once teeming with life, the anti-war voices have quietened.

To speak about this phenomenon, one of our analysts, who is Russian, agreed to speak with Melissa Vida about their latest finds in the sphere of anti-war activity, both online and offline. We have kept the researcher's anonymity for their safety and edited the interview for length and clarity.

Melissa Vida (MV): What does the anti-war movement look like now?

Researcher (R): Well, firstly there is no movement. I would not say that there is a movement like the revolutionary movement in Ukraine in Maidan. There are decentralized activities that pop up here and there, inside and outside of Russia. Sometimes they are connected to each other, but most often they are not. There is not much attempt to centralize these actions, because it is impossible to centralize. Leaders are either in jail or in exile, all the pre-war movements were destroyed by the state right after the invasion.

For example, there is the feminist anti-war resistance, a decentralized organization of women who act independently. Artists [like film director Yekaterina Selenkina] have done performances, like when she was carrying a baby doll covered in blood to remind people of the war in the Moscow metro station. There are others who do art installations to represent the victims of bombings. Then, there are unrelated initiatives, like the guerilla actions of those who destroyed railroads that deliver weapons to Ukraine. Many people act secretly, however.

MV: What are the anti-war narratives in online spaces like these days?

R: There are fewer new narratives going public online. There are some older narratives, like the ones stating that “war is bad” and sharing horror stories. Narratives criticizing the Western role in the war are also still alive. Russian celebrities who have stayed in Russia continue to ignore the war altogether and post photos of travel and parties. We are not able to pick up on a lot of new narratives.

Perhaps there is less information because it’s summer, but mainly people are [sigh]. I am part of this universal exhaustion. The human psyche cannot absorb this much and still be stable and remain emotionally involved. I think this is what is happening with people who are terrified and disgusted; they are exhausted.

Also, people inside Russia speak out less because, well, some of them are in jail or facing court processes, so obviously they can’t produce things. Though actually, many of those under arrest write antiwar statetments on posters while in court, even though they are being sentenced to years in prison.

People in Russia are also more fearful about expressing themselves about the war because there are fewer voices than before. So there is more risk of being caught and put in jail.

MV: What are the repercussions anti-war demonstrators face?

R: Some people get fined, others go straight to jail, it’s pretty random. But it’s not only about speaking out. There was a philosophy professor who was recently fined the equivalent of a monthly salary for putting the “sad emoji” on an anti-war post. It’s a representative case of what is going on. There are groups of pro-government activists who monitor “smiles” and “likes” and report them to the authorities. 

In another case, there was a schoolteacher who tried to take the “Z” word off the wall. Her school kids and parents reported her to the police and she was fined. Speaking against the war can be punished by your coworkers or your family.

A lot of the people put in jail were not activists; some were marketing managers, and others were business owners. It’s very random. I think it’s safer to be a big figure when speaking against the war, as they are more likely to get support. But often it is those who are very unprotected who are targeted; they don’t have as much media attention.

MV: Is it possible to know what anti-war actions are underway?

R: Apart from the public work of guerrillas and feminist women, or the anti-war statements of people in court, it's hard to know all that is being done, because journalism is nearly dead, even though there is still a lot going on in spite of circumstances. It's hard to understand the scale of anti-war actions. There are no people to cover it, because it’s punishable to even cover it. 

But still, there is some news here and there. There are some initiatives that try to compile a list of activist movements. And there are some activities and small acts of rebellion, like taking out the “Z” symbols from walls and institutions or posting anti-war statements in the form of graffiti. This is ongoing. For example, there was a poem stating how everything is forbidden in Russia and is anti-war, and it was painted over in a day. There are still actions, it is not dead land. 

MV: What are the hopes and expectations now?

R: [Sigh]. No one has hopes or expectations, people just survive and pull through. They do what they can afford to do. Everyone is realistic. We cannot stop the war with anti-war activities, except perhaps for these guerrillas that destroy the railroads. It’s more something that people feel like they have to do because they do not support the war. In my perception, they do it out of moral obligation. Some people might have some hope that they can change something, but it’s not publicly discussed.

Many people in Russia support the war. The feminist anti-war resistance puts a lot of effort into trying to open the eyes of pro-war people to what is happening. Their hope is to change common attitudes, bit by bit, inside Russia.

*The Civic Media Observatory currently hires 15 researchers who analyze the media ecosystems of seven countries. These researchers have been selected for their linguistic, cultural, and professional knowledge of their country's contexts and subtextual messaging in narratives.

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