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Russia’s anti-war opposition: a thing of the past?

The first days and weeks of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine saw western media place great emphasis on internal protests in Russia. However, this factor has seemingly disappeared from reporting in recent months. A nuanced understanding of today’s internal opposition is crucial to combatting images of a population fully supportive of the Kremlin.

July 26, 2022 - Joshua Kroeker - Articles and Commentary

Police detain people protesting against the "special military operation" in Ukraine at a rally in St. Petersburg in March 2022. Photo: Konstantin Lenkov / Shutterstock

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, the western narrative surrounding Russia has drastically evolved. At the beginning, the war was labelled “Putin’s war”. This rhetoric was backed up by many western leaders, such as Germany’s Olaf Scholz or US President Joe Biden. Indeed, western media even went as far as placing protest actions inside Russia at the centre of the debate. For Europeans, the matter was clear: this is not a war Russians started, nor is it a war that Russians want. It was Putin’s war.

Five months into this war, however, the tone has very much changed. Russians and Russian speakers have been lumped into the war narrative. It is seldom the case that western leaders or journalists make an effort to highlight the divide between the Russian political elite and the people of the country. Support for the Russian opposition has disappeared from western media. The narrative in Europe has changed.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is dividing society and causing fears in Europe around inflation, energy and prosperity. It is also reviving old political debates; is NATO the right direction for Europe, do sanctions against Russia work, and does Europe want closer cooperation with the United States? It is understandable that western reporting is no longer focusing on Russian dissent. The question that remains unanswered, however, is whether the Russian opposition is still active or are Russians truly moving closer to the narrative of Putin’s regime. What is happening in Russia’s anti-war movement?

An emotional response

From the beginning, western leaders and media made great efforts to support Russians that were against the war. Hundreds of articles were written about the protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, whilst even more documented the Russian government’s oftentimes brutal repression of the public opposition. For example, the New York Times published an article on February 24th titled “Thousands of Russians protest President Vladimir V. Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Some chant: ‘No to war!’” Western media was full of similar headlines that promoted the idea that the Russian opposition was actively fighting against Putin. Photos of Russian protesters being carried away by the OMON, the equivalent of Russia’s riot police, flooded the internet in the first weeks of the war. The scale of the nationwide demonstrations was overwhelming. They were some of the biggest since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The opposition in the first weeks of the war was loud. They were voicing their discontent with a regime against whom they had long fought, condemning military actions taken against their western neighbour in the name of all Russians. The opposition was strong, but ultimately it was the shock of the first weeks of the war that facilitated their anti-war – even anti-Putin – character.

Statistically, at the beginning of the war, the vast majority of Russians supported both Putin and the military intervention in Ukraine. Levada Centre polls undertaken in March and April show that 81 per cent of the Russian population supported the actions of the government, whilst only 14 per cent did not support them. Nevertheless, 14 per cent of a state with a population of over 140 million citizens is no small number. Put into perspective, nearly 20 million residents of the Russian Federation opposed the war at this stage.

It did not take long for the Russian government to make similar calculations. Within only the first days and weeks of the war, the Kremlin moved to ban all and any dissent. On March 4th, the Russian government passed a number of laws that were intended to supress protest and force the population to at least publicly follow the party line. The new laws prohibit the spreading of “fake news”, which means that the government now has a monopoly over what can and cannot be said amongst the Russian public. One of the most well-known outcomes of the laws is the ban on calling the war a “war”. Those prosecuted for this, or for criticising the Russian armed forces, may face up to 15 years in prison. The NGO Human Rights Watch reported in March that at least 66 cases had been brought against Russian citizens, mostly anti-war protestors, by the Russian prosecutor’s office.

Draconian laws were not the only issue that appeared at the beginning of the protest movement. Many of the young, urban anti-war protestors faced dismissal from their universities. A number of students in St. Petersburg detained at anti-war protests were reportedly expelled from the country’s elite St. Petersburg State University. The fear of being sent to prison, expelled from university, or losing one’s job forced many to stay home and keep their mouths shut. Russia’s protest movement was snuffed out as quickly as it emerged. Yet that is not the only factor drawing Russians away from the anti-war narrative.

A downturn in public opposition

The anti-war discourse in Russia has visibly subsided. That does not necessarily mean that the 14 per cent of Russians opposed to the war mentioned above have changed their minds. However, some of them may have for a number of reasons. Here I intend to consider some of the factors that have affected the public activities of the protest movement.

Firstly, the shock of the war is no longer as strong as it once was. This is also the case in the West. Russians are becoming more used to the images of war and death, at least when they are able to see them in western media. It is no longer novel to log into Instagram and see headlines about the war.

Second, Russian propaganda has been incredibly successful. Many Russians simply believe the Kremlin’s narrative. Levada Centre polls report that 43 per cent of respondents believe that Russia invaded Ukraine to “protect Russian people in Ukraine” and the Donbas. Another 21 per cent see it as a campaign to “de-nazify” Ukraine. The Russian regime continues to spin the story that Moscow is preventing a genocide and a possible attack on the country itself. Without a free press and opposition media, vast swathes of the population cannot verify this information. Oftentimes, for example, photos of a completely intact Mariupol circulate throughout Russian media.

Third, western sanctions have backfired to a large extent. Sanctions are not only intended to hit the government where it hurts (state coffers, for example), but also mobilise the people against the government. The thinking goes that if people suffer enough, they may eventually rise up and condemn the government for having caused such a state of affairs. Discontent is slowly appearing in the state over time. Russians are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their inability to travel, purchase western goods and enjoy the same quality of life as before. However, this has caused a “rally-around-the-flag” effect, in which those who traditionally supported the regime now actively push the Kremlin’s anti-western narrative. Those who are against the war and are working for a better future for Russia are also feeling the effects of the sanctions. In turn, the government is feeding this experience into its propaganda machine.

Fourth, hundreds of thousands of Russians have left the country. They have mostly gone to Georgia and Armenia, but also Turkey. For those who had valid visas before the war started, many have successfully relocated to the EU or other countries. Those in self-imposed exile are, for the most part, the young, educated, liberal middle class of Russia’s larger cities. With them they have taken their art, alternative culture and opposition. Some of Russia’s best are no longer in the country. Instead, they are living out the war abroad knowing that their futures have been stolen from them.

Fifth, and finally, we are currently witnessing a consolidation of state support. This is more psychological than anything. Russians who have for years passively benefitted from the regime, or who remained for the most part apolitical, are now being forced to face the fact that their government is alienating them from the rest of the world. It is easier for many to just go with the flow and believe what the government says than to face the hard truth: the regime itself is in many ways the cause of the discomfort that millions are now facing.

Protest, it seems, has disappeared from Russia. That does not mean, however, that the opposition no longer exists.

The state of the opposition now

 Russian society is currently divided. The most recent polls published in June show that 81 per cent of the population “strongly” or “rather” support the military invasion of Ukraine. Only 17 per cent currently oppose this action. Whilst this represents a three per cent increase in anti-war sentiment compared to earlier polls, it is becoming ever more difficult to be against the war.

The anti-war and anti-regime opposition have effectively been pushed underground. Nevertheless, it does continue to exist. Protest has become private, with individuals working against the war behind closed doors. Protest actions such as anti-war graffiti, well-placed anti-war messages, or green ribbons tied to lampposts are becoming more common sights. They may not have the impact of a mass demonstration rolling down the streets of Moscow or St. Petersburg, but they are a welcome reminder that millions of people in the country continue to oppose the war.

A number of courageous individuals have taken it upon themselves to denounce the war and the government. Over the past two weeks, two Russian politicians – Alexei Gorinov and Ilya Yashin – have spoken out publicly against the war. For example, Gorinov criticised the government during a work meeting, having called the war a war rather than a “special military operation”. He was sentenced to seven years in prison for his protest.

The government’s crackdown on dissent is making it more difficult, and definitely more dangerous, to voice opposition. The case of Gorinov shows that a clear message is being sent to the opposition: if you resist, you will be punished. Many Russians are afraid to take to the streets and denounce Putin and his regime for what is happening. It is understandable why.

The divide between the opposition and those who support the government’s actions is growing. The length of the war and the factors mentioned above are only making it more difficult to reconcile such differences in outlook. Those who support the regime are now doing so with more conviction, lashing out at the West as the root cause of all of Russia’s suffering. Those who are against it are looking for outlets, settings and places where they can voice their opposition, be it in private or on the streets in Georgia and Armenia. Standing up against a repressive machine officially supported by 81 per cent of the population is no easy task. Rather, it is dangerous. Yet against the odds, opposition and protest continue to exist. Russia is not one pro-war entity. In the West, it is in everyone’s best interests to remember this.

Joshua Kroeker is a historian and political scientist, holding degrees from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Heidelberg University in Germany and St Petersburg State University, Russia. He is currently undertaking his doctoral study at Heidelberg University. He specialises in modern Russian and Ukrainian history and politics.

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