“Even the smallest action counts”
On February 24, the day the Russian-Ukrainian war broke out, Lisa, a 32-year-old film industry worker from Moscow, set out for the city center. She hoped to see protests and anti-war speeches and was going to join them. According to her memoirs, there were very few people on the streets: “Someone will come out alone with a poster - five of them are immediately grabbed by the police and taken away.” Then Lisa realized that the "traditional" protest with rallies and posters had become useless. But at the same time, she was not ready to just “sit at home and be silent”:
“The next day, I saw beautiful anti-war leaflets on Instagram from a friend. She specifically posted them so that subscribers can print and use. These were black rectangles, and against their background were white inscriptions, for example, “no to war”. At the print shop closest to my house, I printed a stack of flyers and hung them in the stairwell, on mirrors in elevators, and on every mailbox. Flyers today are not the only form of communication, another time I just opened a story and wrote “no to war” in big letters. On the escalator, I began to show the screen to people who were driving towards me. This is a very small, everyday act. There is nothing heroic or complex about it. But in the conditions in which we live, such things are also important. Many tiny protests merge into one big one.”
There are thousands of such enterprising singles like Liza in Russia, but the media usually does not write about them, so you will not know about the actions of these people until you encounter them directly. But they also matter, because at their grassroots level they have a significant impact on public opinion.
New ways to resist
The usual forms of protests, such as rallies and pickets, have long been banned and are brutally suppressed even at the planning stage, and criminal cases are brought against those who nevertheless hold them. For an arrest, it is enough to simply speak out about the war: this is how Vladimir Kara-Murza, Ilya Yashin, Alexei Gorinov and others ended up behind bars. The actions of the security forces during the detention of a few protesters also became especially tough. So, in March 2022, the girls detained at the anti-war rally were brought to the Brateevo police department. Later, they said that the security forces did not allow lawyers to see them, they began to insult and beat them. “The policeman beat me and yelled that I was stupid. Then he started hitting me with a bottle of water – thank God it was half empty,” complained one of the activists. Other girls said that the same policeman kicked them, pulled out their hair and poured water down their collars.
Under these conditions, many activists are moving from rallies and processions in the streets to underground forms of protest. For example, someone rides in transport with posters telling about the war and the actions of the Russian authorities. This is part of the Quiet Picket, a movement that began back in 2016 with an action by artist and activist Daria Serenko. Every day she went down to the subway with posters on which there were inscriptions dedicated to important social and political events.
Other Russians write anti-war messages on banknotes: they are often passed from hand to hand, while the author of the messages remains anonymous.
On Fridays, girls dressed in mourning clothes take to the streets of some cities. This is also a protest action, a continuation of the Women in Black initiative, which was first held in Israel in 1988 in response to the actions of Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories.
The essence of most of these initiatives is the lack of organizers and clear time frames. You can participate in them alone and at any time, which makes them safer than organized rallies and marches. However, Daria Serenko notes that today there are no forms of protest that could be called completely safe. For example, in April, 31-year-old artist Sasha Skochilenko was detained in St. Petersburg for replacing price tags in one of the stores with pacifist messages - a pensioner who noticed this wrote a denunciation of the girl. Now Skochilenko is in a pre-trial detention center, a criminal case has been opened against her for discrediting the Russian army. “At first, the action with price tags seemed pretty safe to everyone,” says Serenko. “The repressive machine is constantly catching up, and we have to come up with new ways to protest. There are detainees for stickers, and even for black clothes.”
Protests are changing the city
The motivation of the "underground" is understandable: they have no doubt that they can contribute to the formation of public sentiment, and if there are enough of them, the result will be no less than from mass rallies. 20-year-old student K. from Moscow walks around the city with a self-made sticker “No to war” - she hopes that this inscription will make some of the passers-by think about what is happening, learn more about the military conflict, read independent sources. Or at least just to cheer up the opponents of the war, who feel as lonely and confused as she herself a couple of months ago.
Sergey, a 22-year-old programmer from Novosibirsk, says that he started his “underground” resistance on February 28: he made anti-war stickers at home, put spray cans in his bag, and at two in the morning went outside with his friends. In places without cameras, they stopped and painted graffiti or pasted stickers. Sergei continues to do this to this day and believes that street art is an important part of the resistance:
“There is such a “broken windows theory”. It is partly about the fact that the environment in which people live affects their behavior and way of thinking. Graffiti and stickers are changing the city. People see it and think. The space is imperceptibly filled with protest.”
Anna, a 29-year-old journalist from Moscow, read about the “women in black” action on the Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAS) channel, an idea that she found “pretty safe and also visually beautiful.” On March 19, she put on a black sheepskin coat, took two white roses and slowly walked through the streets of Moscow. “The purpose of the action is to remind that while our ordinary life continues, a tragedy occurs elsewhere,” explains Anna. - This action cannot stop missiles or bullets. But you can regain your self-respect. The feeling that I am not a victim, but a subject who has a position and can express it.
Another non-trivial form of resistance is the "anti-war sick leave". The participants of this protest are invited to take sick leave at work and thereby sabotage the Russian economy: “In essence, this is a strike,” the initiators of the “Anti-war Sick Leave” explain. - Only it does not require long preparation and the creation of a trade union. But the effect is the same. Yes, we do not completely paralyze the war machine. But who knows at what moment, thanks to the strike, the necessary projectile will not reach the front in time. How many people joined this form of protest is unknown, but the number does not seem to be large.
Household protests continue a long tradition
Historian Sergei Bondarenko says that "quiet", "domestic" protests existed at different times in many totalitarian societies:
“These forms of resistance appear in situations where large organized actions are impossible or dangerous. Unlike mass protests, they rarely go down in history. For example, it is commonly believed that there was no political protest in Soviet society during Stalin's time. In fact, he was quiet, but constant. Most often these were small spontaneous actions. In the train, in line, in the pub, someone suddenly began to sing ditties about Stalin or publicly tear down propaganda posters. The state monitored such actions very closely and severely punished them because they saw them as a real threat. But whether such forms of resistance can have a global impact on the situation is hard to say.”
Bondarenko recalls that such behavior was observed not only in the USSR, and cites the German Hampel family as an example. They were a married couple - simple workers, whose son died during the Second World War. Otto and Elisa Hampeli could not forgive Hitler for this loss and began to distribute postcards throughout Berlin urging people to refrain from collaborating with the Nazis. In 1943 they were arrested, tortured and executed. For a while their story was not widely known, but in 1947 the German writer Hans Fallada created a novel, Each Dies Alone, based on their story. The book later became popular around the world.
One of the most famous examples of underground resistance is the "White Rose" in Germany, which was active in 1942-1943. Participants distributed leaflets with anti-war appeals - they randomly left leaflets at different addresses and handed them out at the university. The founders of the movement were brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl.
One day, Sophie brought flyers to the university and threw some of them off the balcony of the students. The guard called the Gestapo. Hans, Sophie and their associate Christoph Probst were executed by guillotine.
Another notable “silent” action is “Women in Black”. Since 1988, it has taken place around the world as a response to human rights violations. For the first time, women dressed in black began to take to the streets in Israel to honor the memory of people who died from the actions of Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories. This initiative began to be repeated in other countries. For example, in the 1990s, in the former Yugoslavia, a movement of "women in black" appeared, who opposed the ethnic hatred and bloodshed that took place in those years. As in Russia, women's movements often took an anti-war position in different countries. For example, in the late 1960s in the United States there was an American section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, as well as "Women Fight for Peace", "Women's Voice". In addition to open resistance - for example, going to demonstrations - women raised money for medical care for the Vietnamese people who suffered from US actions. They also helped, financially and legally, young people who refused to go to war, distributed leaflets and information about what was happening.