Skip to main content

Jacobin - March 7, 2022

On Wednesday of last week, the pensioner activist Yelena Osipova, daughter to a Leningrad besieged by Nazi Germany, was dragged away by police as she joined antiwar protests. Hers was the most emblematic of over thirteen thousand arrests (according to OVD-Info’s tally) of Russians who have bravely denounced Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.

The repression of the initial rallies following the February 24 invasion saw thousands handed prison sentences of a few days. But measures on Friday bringing Russia to the brink of martial law have set a far higher price for speaking out. A crackdown on liberal media like Dozhd and Novaya Gazeta, as well as foreign outlets, is now coupled with jail sentences of up to fifteen years for “fake news” critical of the war effort.

Despite the announcements, Sunday saw fresh demonstrations — with over four thousand arrests yesterday alone. Actions are also planned for International Women’s Day on March 8 — in 1917 famously the occasion of antiwar protests by the women of Petrograd. Ahead of this weekend’s rallies, I asked Russian socialists about the makeup of the protests, popular attitudes toward the war, and the prospects of dissent spreading despite the harsh repression. 

Rooting Out Dissent

Right from the start of the war, V. — a socialist involved in protests in Moscow — tells me, the mood on the protests was “tense.” The biggest demonstration in the capital was on February 24, the day of the invasion, while in subsequent days “police arrested everyone on the streets who looked ‘suspicious’ so the crowds wouldn’t even get a chance to assemble.” She notes the effect of previous waves of repression in thinning out previous generations of oppositionists, like those involved in marches demanding the release of jailed dissident Alexei Navalny. This has had the effect that younger Russians are playing a bigger role in today’s movement:

The main difference is how young the crowd is. Almost everyone is under thirty-five, it’s mostly young adults and even minors (who are also getting arrested and brutalized by police). There are almost no older intelligentsia types, who represented a significant part of opposition protests in the previous years. There are many women, more than usual, I would say.

The Putin government has launched a major crackdown on activist networks and their media. So, how aware is the general population that street protests are even taking place? V. tells me that in Moscow:

Almost everyone knows — it’s impossible not to notice the increase of heavy policing, brutal arrests, and occasional jamming of stations if you visit the city center. But I came under the impression that “ordinary” people mostly see the protests as useless at bringing you anything except for heavy beating by police and quick arrest with a prospect to spend a night (or ten, or fifteen, or, hell, maybe even fifteen years) in prison.

She characterizes the initial popular reaction to the invasion in terms of surprise and incomprehension:

In the first day or two, people outside of the activist community barely discussed the war. Official Russian media were hardly saying anything about it, too. Some people were shocked (as I was), some didn’t understand what was going on or didn’t (yet) care. It seemed that even official media were taken by surprise by Putin’s decision, and didn’t expect it.

The harsh punishment of those who do protest is surely designed to reinforce passive resignation among the general population. But it seems that pro-Putin media are also now making a more coherent effort to mobilize a confected “public opinion.” V. tells me:

The media received their instructions and started beating the drums of war (though they call it a “special operation” to “de-Nazify Ukraine” from Banderites at fault for “genocide” in the Donbas, and a measure against NATO expansion (we had no choice, etc.). Some people accepted that line. When I was at the market, I witnessed a father telling his daughter (who was around eight years old), “You know when someone keeps insulting you, at some point you just have to punch them.” Maybe this is how some people read it. But now, there is hardly anything people can talk about except for the war. At work, in the metro — everyone is anxious and glued to their phones.

Read full report at Jacobin