Why is there no antiwar mobilization in Russia?
September 6, 2022
  • Andrei Semenov
    Senior researcher at the Center for Comparative History and Politics, Perm 
In addition to government repression and the lack of organizational resources in society, Andrei Semenov writes that there is another factor that may explain the lack a public antiwar movement in Russia – the divide between two cultures of protest.
A demonstration on January 23, 2021 in St. Petersburg. Source: Wiki Commons
After the invasion of Ukraine, experts and policymakers wondered if Russians would rise up against the war. On the eve of February 24th, thousands went on the streets of major Russian cities to protest the "special military operation" only to be met by riot police. Despite detentions, mobilization continued in the following week, though it was on a substantially smaller scale than the January 2021 protests against the arrest of Alexei Navalny. In Perm, where occasionally 3,000-4,000 gathered the year before, only 150-200 took part in the first anti-war rally and the number dropped to 30-40 in the ensuing week.

Why didn’t Russians, even in the most advanced cities and regions, mobilize in large numbers in what might be a major threat to their prosperity? Severe government repression and the lack of organizational resources in the society are the most obvious explanations, but I would add another: the divide between two cultures of protest, distinct frameworks consisting of norms and repertoires of action that guide collective movements. One culture resembles classic social movements in democracies and consists of large-scale coordinated actions by various groups with a political agenda. The other focuses on particularistic, "bread-and-butter" and "not-in-my-backyard" issues – usually local, limited in scope and consciously framed as “apolitical.” This division, combined with the above-mentioned rising repression and the lack of organizational resources, t reduces society’s capacity to wage mass campaigns and resist the destructive policy choices made by the regime.


The scope and scale of politically motivated state coercion have changed considerably over Vladimir Putin's tenure. In 2000s, the coercive apparatus targeted opposition activists on the fringes of politics (mostly left- and right-wing radical groups). Despite the assassination of high-profile independent journalists like Anna Politkovskaya and human rights advocates like Natalia Estmirova, most media and civil society organizations could operate relatively free of pressure. The 2011-12 For Fair Elections! campaign marked a change of approach: with Putin back in the Kremlin, repression spread to the protest rank-and-file and even bystanders at rallies.

The watershed moment was the Bolotnaya Square Case, criminal proceedings against ordinary attendees of the “March of the Millions” on May 6, 2012, in Moscow, who were accused of assaulting police during the demonstration. Over 200 investigators worked on the case, and more than 30 citizens were prosecuted and nine received real jail sentences. Although some were activists of various political organizations spanning the ideological spectrum (including the Left Front, the liberal movement Solidarity and the nationalist organization Russkiye), the majority of the defendants were nonpartisan. The Bolotnaya case served as an example for later criminal proceedings against the opposition like the Moscow Case in 2019 or Putin’s Palace Case in 2021, and further reduced society’s mobilization capacity.
"Still, prosecuting even dozens of protest attendees wasn’t enough to deter tens of thousands of discontented citizens."
From 2012 to 2022, the regime tightened the screws in multiple areas, introducing additional restrictions on public assembly, passing laws on "foreign agents" and "undesirable organizations,” and increasing control over the public expression of discontent. Public assembly has been a matter of concern for the Kremlin for a long time. Despite Article 31 of the Constitution, which grants Russians the right to gather peacefully to express their grievances, public meetings have been difficult to organize. In 2012, the fines for violating application procedures (the organizers must notify local authorities to hold a public event) were dramatically hiked, while repeated violation of rally conduct was criminalized in 2014 (the so-called Dadin Article named after the first victim of the legislation). Even solo pickets – the only form of public protest that doesn’t require sanction by the authorities – became the target of repression, especially during the pandemic, when additional restrictions on public assembly were enacted. Attending unauthorized rallies has been punished by police detention followed by administrative or criminal prosecution.

The so-called "foreign agents" law undermined the organizational basis for mobilization, stigmatizing organizations that challenge the status quo. It expanded rapidly in 2020-21 and by August 2022 the "foreign agents registers" encompass over 480 individuals and organizations (additions appear almost every week). In December 2021, Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most respected human rights organizations, was closed due to repeated violations of the "foreign agents" law; meanwhile, other civic organizations limited their activities or disbanded voluntarily. The most recent amendments to the legislation aggravate the situation further by making the grounds for inclusion in the register even vaguer.

Lastly, the regime’s tight control over the media and public expression has severely undermined the capacity for coordination, which is necessary for mobilization. The instruments of control include a package passed on March 4 that criminalized the distribution of "false information about Russian military forces" or information that discredits them. By mid-June, there were at least 59 cases opened for distributing fakes, including a seven-year sentence for Moscow municipal councilor Alexei Gorinov and the arrest of Ilya Yashin, a well-known opposition activist from Moscow. In addition, Roskomnadzor has blocked hundreds of independent media and websites on the pretext of spreading disinformation about the "special military operation" (many, like TV Rain and Echo of Moscow were shut down at the very start of the war).

Overall, since 2012 the frequency and scope of repression has dramatically increased. The force used against anti-war protesters is done with existing tools: nobody can get permission to hold an authorized rally, which serves as the basis for detentions and prosecution. OVD-Info (an unregistered nonprofit organization that monitors political persecution in Russia and provides legal help) counts over 16,000 detentions since the start of the war. The recent detention of Yevgeny Roizman, Yekaterinburg's former mayor and an outspoken critic of the regime, is another signal to Russians that the government won’t tolerate any public stand against the war.
Valery Rashkin's parliamentary mandate was revoked after he protested the results of the Moscow city council elections, 2015. Source: Wiki Commons
Organizational Capacity

In the past decade, the regime has radically undermined the organizational capacity of civil society and the political opposition.

The Communist Party (KPRF), though routinely described as systemic – "tamed" –
opposition, has remained a vocal critic of the regime. Despite the Kremlin's effort to reduce its mobilization capacity through a combination of carrots and sticks, the KPRF has regularly organized large-scale political campaigns and, according to some estimates, during in 2012-16 it was behind every tenth protest in Russia. The carrots included sharing lucrative posts in regional legislatures in exchange for reduced dissent. For those who refused to comply with the Kremlin’s guidelines, administrative and criminal charges were used to make clear their place in the power vertical. A recent illustration is the case of Valery Rashkin, whose parliamentary mandate was revoked on dubious grounds after he actively protested the results of the Moscow city council elections. Unlike the KPRF, other opposition parties (LDPR, Just Russia and Yabloko) were active in just a handful of regions where their local organizations were particularly strong, meaning they couldn’t launch any meaningful nationwide mobilization.

During the years preceding his poisoning and arrest, Alexei Navalny clearly recognized the challenges of running a mass opposition campaign without organizational support. His 2017-18 presidential bid included the establishment of a nationwide network of regional “headquarters” (shtaby Naval'nogo) as a key tool to engage the electorate. The network continued to organize protests after Navalny had been denied registration. In April 2021, however, Navalny’s offices were listed as "extremist and terrorist organizations,” while many of their former staffers left the country amid threats of jail and prosecution.

With most of the opposition forces and civil society organizations subdued, destroyed or pushed into exile, it has become impossible to mobilize large numbers of supporters. Of course, there remain professional networks (immediately after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, many signed open letters condemning the invasion), as well as organizations like Feminist Antiwar Resistance and the Vesna movement, but their members are under severe pressure.
"Since organized antiwar protests are prohibited, resistance increasingly takes more subtle forms, like graffiti, performances and public art."
These actions show that many Russians are resolute in their antiwar position and undermines the regime's attempt to project uniform support for the Kremlin. But even these mild forms of dissent have been persecuted.

Two cultures of protest

Further hindering social mobilization is the deep divide between the two above-mentioned protest cultures. The culture of large-scale movement-like protests defending civil liberties and political rights is characterized by WUNC (worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment), which Charles Tilly famously attributed to modern social movements. The 2011-12 For Fair Elections! movement, rallies following the death of Boris Nemtsov in 2015, Alexei Navalny's 2017-18 presidential campaign and the January 2021 protests against Navalny's arrest fit into this category. This "civic" culture of dissent is directly targeted by the regime for repression.

The second culture, which may be less visible for the media and analysts, manifests itself in sporadic local collective actions over issues such as wage arrears, infill construction, the destruction of parks and other recreational areas and environmental problems caused by the government or private companies. Protests of this kind have a narrow base made up of those directly (even physically) affected by the perceived offence, a very particular set of demands and targets, and a repertoire that relies heavily on direct rather than symbolic actions, such as road blockades or hunger strikes. This protest culture lacks a conventional organizational basis. What is even more specific about it is that it pretends to be “apolitical:” the organizers eschew any ties with the opposition (even parliamentary opposition), avoid holding higher authorities responsible for their misfortunes and emphasize that they don’t seek to challenge the political status quo. In many ways, these collective actions remain NIMBY-like with limited scope and public outreach, though sometimes they serve as a breeding ground for political activism as well.

These two cultures coexist but rarely interact with each other. However, successful mass campaigns in similar authoritarian settings (in Egypt during the Arab Spring or in Iran during the Green Revolution) have featured active (though temporary) cooperation between grassroots and national political movements. This dynamic mirrors the social movement formation in autocracies when at the height of protest cycles multiple strands of discontent come together to generate a momentum of mobilization, which is essential to elite defections and splits. At times, the divide between the two protest cultures may become blurred as political activists and previously apolitical nonpartisans come together. In Russia, the 2018-19 Shiyes case is an example: local residents and environmental activists successfully opposed the construction of a landfill in Arkhangelsk Region. Another example is the mobilization against the construction of a church in Yekaterinburg in May 2019. But repression and selective targeting of organizations keep the divide wide and prevent the establishment of lasting ties and bridges.
Novosibirsk city council deputy Helga Pirogova protests against Russian invasion of Ukraine, March 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
The future of dissent in Russia

Like in many other consolidated autocracies, Russian protesters have to confront a strong coercive apparatus, and no one daring to challenge the regime can expect to get away with it. In addition, for over two decades the Kremlin has squeezed the resources (funding, political representation, media access) of the opposition and remaining civil society organizations, projecting the idea that a political fight against status quo is futile and will wind up bitterly for the protesters. Russian dissenters responded with new methods of coordination and building resources, only to face another set of repressive tactics. The civic culture of dissent has now moved off the radar of the increasingly repressive state to avoid direct confrontation with the regime. The “bread-and-butter” culture of protest engages the state but refrains from using rhetoric and making claims that risk displeasing the authorities. This culture even encourages cooperation with the regime.

The wedge between the two cultures breeds polarization, which helps to maintain the authoritarian equilibrium. However, as the civic culture of contention has been destroyed, it is the parochial strand that can get the regime in trouble. In Chelyabinsk, home to heavy industry, local residents organized a protest camp against the construction of an ice rink in a city park and didn’t face any repercussions. They also recorded a video appeal to Putin and offered to name this park after him. In other parts of the country, since February 2022 citizens have mobilized against failures in waste management, urban development and environmental protection. The regime tolerates this discontent, but if and when such initiatives gather momentum due to the deepening economic crisis and bad governance, they will be harder to control with the means developed to constrain civic protests.
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