Given the Russian government’s brutal repression of dissent, the level of Russian resistance to the Putin regime’s war on Ukraine is quite remarkable.
Beginning on the evening of February 24, 2022, the date of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many thousands of Russians, defying threats from the authorities, staged nonviolent antiwar demonstrations across their nation. On the first night alone, police made 1,820 arrests of peace demonstrators in 58 Russian cities. Over the ensuing weeks, the mass protests continued, with the intrepid demonstrators chanting or holding up signs reading “No to War.” As the authorities viewed any mention of “war” as a crime, even elementary school children were arrested when they said the forbidden slogan. Some peace demonstrators took to holding up blank signs, but they, too, were arrested. By March 13, according to OVD-Info, a Russian human rights group, the police had made at least 14,906 arrests of these and other Russian peace demonstrators.
Russian war resisters also engaged in numerous other activities. Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor at Channel One Russia, disrupted the station’s main news program by holding up a sign reading: “NO WAR. Stop the war. Do not believe the propaganda.” Prominent cultural figures and politicians spoke out publicly against the war. By March 1, an online petition protesting the invasion had drawn a million supporters. Signers of open letters that called for stopping the war included 30,000 technology workers, 6,000 medical workers, 3,400 architects, more than 4,300 teachers, more than 17,000 artists, 500 scientists, and 2,000 actors and other creative figures. Other activists posted antiwar stickers in neighborhoods, replaced supermarket labels with protest statements, and even wrote peace messages on currency. Most startlingly, Russian soldiers began refusing to fight in Ukraine.
Naturally, the authorities were infuriated by this resistance and determined to crush it. Demonstrations were brutally suppressed through arrests, huge fines, and violence against activists. To bolster the legal basis for repression, the Russian parliament passed laws that provided 10 years imprisonment for spreading “fake” news about the armed forces and 5 years imprisonment for “discrediting the army.” In mid-March, Vladimir Putin publicly denounced “the scum and the traitors” who opposed his war policy and promised that the Russian people would “spit them out” like insects who had flown into their mouths. This “necessary self-cleansing of society will only strengthen our country,” he promised.
Indeed, the intense repression―coupled with a massive government pro-war propaganda campaign and a gathering sense of futility on the part of activists―did have a damaging effect on Russian war resistance. About 300,000 Russians, many of them well educated and leading figures in the arts and sciences, fled the country rather than remain under these circumstances. Dozens of independent communications media were banned, while others announced that they would cease reporting on the war. Although daring individual and small-scale resistance continued, the movement declined in the late spring and summer of 2022.
But Putin’s announcement, on September 21, of a draft call-up of 300,000 young men for the Ukraine war provided the movement with new momentum. Despite the banning of unsanctioned rallies, protest demonstrations erupted in dozens of cities across the nation, with more than a thousand demonstrators arrested in the first few days. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, protest was especially strong, organized by Feminist Anti-War Resistance and Spring, an antiwar group popular among students. Dispatched to suppress the activism, Russian police responded with great brutality and, also, arrested more than 700 demonstrators.
More spontaneous protests, led by people new to political activism, also broke out far from the main centers of Russian life, especially in the North Caucasus. Opposed to the war and determined to stop the conscription of their men, angry local residents resorted to beating up Russian officials delivering draft notices. In Dagestan, one of Russia’s poorest republics, crowds of local people tried to demonstrate against Putin’s mobilization but, as elsewhere, their protests were smashed by the police and the military. Similar protests erupted in Siberia, including Yakutsk, where hundreds of women engaged in an impressive demonstration against the war and conscription.
The most dramatic response to Putin’s military mobilization was the sudden, massive exodus of young men, sometimes accompanied by family members, from Russia. Leaving their homeland behind, hundreds of thousands of these war resisters surged toward the safety of neighboring nations like Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. At the border of Georgia, the line of Russian cars awaiting entry stretched 18 miles. An observer explained: “People don’t want to go to war.” According to one detailed analysis, nearly 700,000 Russians fled their country between late September and early November 2022.
In some ways, of course, this mass exodus, like the one immediately after the beginning of the 2022 invasion, did not endanger Putin’s grip on power. Like the departure of dissidents during Russia’s authoritarian regimes of the past, it significantly reduced opposition on the home front. Coupled with nearly 20,000 arrests of antiwar activists, it also left Russia’s remaining war resisters feeling isolated and dispirited.
Even so, the struggle continues. Ilya Yashin, a prominent politician and opposition figure refused to back off from his criticism of Russian war crimes in Bucha and, as a result, in December, received an 8-1/2-year prison sentence. In his final remarks, he stated: “It’s better to sit behind bars . . . and remain an honest person than silently feel shame for the blood spilled by your government.” Mikhail Lobanov, a leader of the University Solidarity labor union and democratic socialist politician, was repeatedly arrested, imprisoned, and sometimes badly beaten during 2022 for such crimes as displaying a “No to War” banner on his balcony and “discrediting the army.” But he, too, remained defiant.
The example of these and other courageous war resisters should remind us that, despite the violence of the Putin regime, a better Russia is possible.
Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).