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.