Society
Petitioning war: How Russians speak up collectively about the invasion of Ukraine
September 29, 2022
  • Guillaume Sauvé
    Visiting Scholar, Centre d’études et de recherches internationales de l’Université de Montréal
  • Maxime Duchâteau
    Ph.D. Student in Political Science, Université de Montréal
Based on their study of war-related public petition signatories in Russia, Guillaume Sauvé and Maxime Duchâteau conclude that the perception of the war in Ukraine is much more nuanced than a simple dichotomy of supporters and opponents.  
Petition against the war in Ukraine in social networks. Source: VK
Despite its reputation for ineffectiveness, petition-writing is one of the most frequent forms of collective action throughout the world, which owes to the small investment it requires. In Russia, the practice – usually referred to as “collective letters” or “open letters” – builds on a long tradition of deferential claims and “constructive” dissent that was once encouraged by the Soviet authorities. It remains widespread to this day, routinely made use of by different categories of people to voice their position, from liberals to nationalists, from diehard oppositionists to loyal patriots. Hence, petitions can be considered a useful indicator of public debate in nondemocratic settings. This is the hypothesis guiding our ongoing research project on petition-writing in contemporary Russia.

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine launched by Vladimir Putin in 2022 is a case in point. On the one hand, petitions are mentioned first among the diverse forms of protest in reports on the Russian antiwar movement; on the other hand, petitions in support of the war, such as the one authored by the organization of rectors from major Russian universities spurred an outcry worldwide. To shed light on these developments, we combed the internet and East View databases for all references to petitions related to the war in Ukraine published in Russia since February 24.

We identified 142 items, most of which were published on social networks, but also on dedicated platforms and more rarely in media outlets. We managed to retrieve the full text and publication details (signatories weren’t considered for security purposes) of 121 petitions, which stemmed from diverse social and ideological backgrounds. This corpus of “war petitions,” though not reflective of Russian public opinion at large, provides interesting insights about the communities speaking up about the war, the moment they chose to do so, the changing social and legal rules governing public expression and finally the various positions expressed toward the war itself.
Russian human-rights activist Lev Ponomarev launched the petition “Net voine!” (No to war!) on February 24 on the Change.org platform. Source: Wiki Commons
Who speaks up

In contrast to public declarations authored by individuals or institutions – not considered in our study – petitions are intrinsically and unambiguously collective. Like all collective actions, they rely on established communities, but they are also conducive to expanding those communities or creating new ones, bringing together previously unacquainted people. Among the “war petitions” we identified, there are a few mass petitions that aimed at gathering the largest number of signatories possible by addressing a very loosely defined community. This is the case, most famously, of the petition Net voine! (“No to war!”) launched by the human-rights activist Lev Ponomarev on February 24 on the Change.org platform. Speaking in the name of all “supporters of peace,” it has been signed at the time of this writing (September 19) by 1,277,588 people, most of whom are Russians. 
“The majority of petitions in our corpus, however, speak in the name of established communities, generally defined by profession."
No less than 89 petitions (73.5% of the total) speak in the name of a professional group and explain its specific values and interests, to which the authors relate their position toward the war. In current-day Russia, where political organizations are subjected to increasing control, professional networks might be the most convenient basis for circulating ideas and mobilizing protest, notably through nominally apolitical specialized online media and social network pages.

The “professional” petitions themselves vary widely in terms of the size and consistency of the communities to which they appeal. Some gather tens of thousands of signatories by reaching out to vast networks, such as Russian culture and art workers or collectives from academic, expert and educational organizations. Others, by contrast, appeal to sometimes very narrowly defined communities, such as Russian specialists of Shakespeare, music journalists, “players of intellectual games,” movie animators, climbers or chess players.

A few points can be made regarding the social background of the signatories. One can note the relative absence of the working class and the predominance – both among supporters and opponents of the war – of intellectual professions, such as writers, artists in general (notably in cinema), translators, medical workers, teachers and academics. This should not come as a surprise, considering the role traditionally reserved for the intelligentsia in Russia as a moral guide for society and an enlightened adviser to the authorities.

Beyond intellectual professions, war petitions have come from a wide array of fields that share an apprehension for Russia’s growing isolation from the world economy: IT, video games, fashion, dining and hospitality, tourism and aviation. In the end, however, by far the most substantial “professional” group speaking up collectively about the war, with 24 petitions identified (19.8% of the total), is that of university students, who took up the pen in various cities, from Moscow to Kazan and Tyumen. As we will see below, universities seem to be one of the most active, but also most perilous milieus for mobilization.

A very short time frame

Russian petitions about the war in Ukraine began with a bang but faded almost as spectacularly. In our corpus, 102 petitions (84.3% of the total) were published from February 24 to March 4, that is in the first week following the invasion. This condensed time frame can partly be explained by the specific function and temporality of petitions as a form of collective action. Contrary to the widely held view, the main function of petitions is not only to demand but to express. As a matter of fact, not all petitions in our corpus formulate a demand. When they do, it is usually quite broad – for example “end the war” or “support the president” – while the addressee can be defined as vaguely as “everyone on which something depends.” What all petitions, without exception, did is to express a given community’s position regarding the war, with such key verbs as “we consider” (chitaem) or “we stand for” (vystupaem). Because of this self-expressive function, petitions draw their public influence not from reiteration – like demonstrations – but from the accumulated weight of signatories joining in over time.

In the case of the current war in Ukraine, an external circumstance also played a decisive role in shortening the time frame in which the petitions were published. On March 4, the Duma adopted a package of laws criminalizing the “discrediting” of the Russian military forces and the distribution of "false information” about them. These severe legal restrictions profoundly transformed the explicit and implicit rules governing tolerable public protest in Russia.
“The abrupt and almost total drying up of petitions about the war as of March 4 is reflective of a wider transformation of Russia’s political 'rules of the game' by which the hybrid regime became a consolidated authoritarian one."
The changing rules of the Russian public sphere

In contrast to demonstrations or strikes, which faced increasing legal controls and persecution in the last 10 years in Russia, petitions had been generally tolerated by the authorities, and even encouraged with the creation of a specially devoted state-sponsored platform called roi.ru. The times of such “permissiveness” seem to be behind us.

The invasion brought devastation upon Ukraine, but it also changed Russia – within about one week. The transformation of the Russian public sphere can be observed in the evolving perception of danger expressed in petitions about the war. Prior to March 4, expectations of repression were only mentioned in general terms, regarding civil society at large and not specifically against petition signatories. One important exception was that of students, professors and other members of the academic community, who already seemed aware of their vulnerability to disciplinary measures, which had been applied on multiple occasions in recent years.
Students, alumni and teachers from St.Petersburg say it is currently impossible to express oneself freely in the street. Source: VK
A group of “students, alumni, and teachers from art schools” (kreativnye vuzy) wrote in their petition on March 2: “It is currently impossible to express oneself freely in art or in the street. We understand that even because of this letter there will be attempts at creating trouble for us. But we, the undersigned, cannot stay silent.” In a petition published the following day, students and employees of St Petersburg State University warned about the expected threats: “We condemn all attempts at intimidating students, alumni and employees of SPbGU on the part of the university, as well as the Russian state. To guarantee the security of the signatories, the list of their names will not be disclosed.” In taking this measure, the authors were unknowingly anticipating a practice that would soon become widespread.

The adoption of the law “against fakes” on March 4 provoked a wave of self-withdrawals on an unprecedented scale in the history of petition-writing in Russia: 56 petitions from our corpus (46.3% of the total) were closed by decision of their authors and the list of their signatories removed from the original location online (usually Google Docs). The text of the petition itself was also removed in 42 other instances (34.7% of the total). From that moment onward, the original link was either broken or led to an explanatory note justifying the removal of the petition in terms of the fear that it might serve as a basis for persecution of the signatories. In sum, most of the Russian petitions about the war in Ukraine disappeared as of March 4 and could only be retrieved from the ephemeral traces they had left on social networks during their bright but short existence.

These precautions turned out to be fully justified. Along with other forms of protest previously considered benign – such as individual posts on social networks – petition-writing began to be persecuted in the midst of a zealous campaign aimed at cleansing Russia of “scum and traitors,” to be “spit out like an insect in the mouths,” to quote Vladimir Putin’s speech from March 16.

Human rights activists and independent journalists have documented instances where Russians were expelled from university, fired from their work and even faced criminal charges for having initiated, signed or forwarded a petition. In this dire context, it is striking why some petitions were not removed by their authors, such as a petition from economics scholars published on February 25 unambiguously condemning the Russian aggression, or one against the war published on March 1 by priests and deacons of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is still online and even has its own Wikipedia page.

Polarization?

Different strategies can be observed in the mode of framing one’s political position toward the war in Ukraine. Overall, it should not come as a surprise that most petitions in our corpus oppose the war (106 petitions, 88% of the total), while only 15 petitions stood in support. Such a gap is evidently not reflective of Russian public opinion. Rather it comes logically from the very purpose of petitioning, which is not only to demand but (mainly) to express a position in society by contesting others' positions. One doesn’t feel the impulse to put together or sign a petition if she agrees with the current course of events, unless she wants to contest… those who protest. As a matter of fact, this is one of the main purposes of the petitions supporting the war. In addition to pledging loyalty to the authorities, the prowar petitions endeavour – with varying and indeterminate degrees of spontaneity and state pressure – to answer the “pacifists,” to discredit their claims and refute their arguments.

Thus, our corpus is broadly composed of two divergent perspectives on the war. The differences are so striking that one can get the impression that the petitions aren’t dealing with the same event. In the antiwar petitions, the conflict in Ukraine is considered a full-scale war – with many insisting that it should be called a war and not otherwise – that began in February 2022. The prowar petitions, in accordance with the official discourse, call the conflict a “special military operation,” meant to put an end to the real war – the one that had been waged for eight years by the “fascist” rulers of Ukraine against their Russian-speaking population with the complicity of Western countries.

Incidentally, we haven’t found any prowar petition that explicitly supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine as such, as it would later be articulated in an oft-quoted inflammatory anti-Ukrainian article. Quite the opposite: the authors of the prowar petitions take great pains to describe the sorrow caused to them by the war, while arguing that the “special operation” launched by Putin was the only way to halt the march of fascism.

Overall, both the antiwar and prowar activists converge in condemning the war between Russia and Ukraine – which both sides consider 'fratricidal' – though they hold opposite positions inspired by their contrasted vision of the events, as if they were looking at two different conflicts."
The impression of the polarization of Russian society is reinforced by the contrasting values claimed by both sides, as well as their different perceptions of the polemics in which they were taking part inside Russia. The antiwar petitions, on the one hand, present their position as one inspired by “universal values,” “humanism” and the “supreme value of human life.” Speaking up publicly against the war, from this perspective, is a matter of preserving one’s conscience. Their designated antagonist is not warmongers, but the attitude of conformism and silence, which is repeatedly designated as “morally unacceptable.” When it comes to the future of Russia, the antiwar petitioners are worried about its “isolation,” which would turn the country into a “pariah” and lead to its “degradation.” 

The prowar petitioners, on the other hand, consider their public stance as a salvo in the “information war” being waged by Western countries to undermine Russia’s proper values and interests. The antagonists are clearly designated as the “pacifists,” who are betraying their homeland. Moral imperatives are also frequently mentioned, but this time in favor of patriotism and loyalty to one’s state and army.

This dichotomous vision of Russian society is nevertheless nuanced if one takes into consideration not only the attitude toward the war, but also that toward the Russian leadership. While the prowar petitions are unvarying in their support of Putin, the antiwar petitions can be divided into two subgroups: those opposing the war and unequivocally blaming Putin for it (34 petitions, 28.1% of the total) and those condemning the war while refraining from opposing Putin or cautiously placing the blame on both the Russian and Ukrainian authorities (72 petitions, 59.5% of the total). The petitions striving for neutrality are the most numerous in our corpus, but also the most diverse. They include critical supporters of Putin, such as nationalist writers concerned for the future of the russkii mir, and defenders of pluralism of opinions, such as students who avoid taking a side themselves but are against the above-mentioned rectors’ letter. Other categories include representatives of self-styled “apolitical” institutions, such as priests and deacons of the Russian Orthodox Church, and simply professionals, such as a group of restaurant owners and chefs who don’t want to get involved in polemics (a vain hope). The diversity of rhetorical strategies that can be observed in our corpus – beyond the divide of against or for the war – is in line with the findings of recent studies on the division of Russian elites and public opinion, affirming the heuristic value of petitions as an indicator of public debate in Russia.
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