06.04.23 Review

Anti-war Archipelago: how Russians are resisting the war that the Russian government is waging in Ukraine

Despite the large number of civil activists facing repression and who have left the country, 2022 saw the emergence of many grassroots anti-war initiatives in Russia. These initiatives have tried to keep a low profile in the Russian media space in order to avoid persecution. Their activities and goals are diverse: some help the Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee to Russia, some have implemented grassroots media projects to combat propaganda and censorship, while others promote decolonisation in the ethnic republics. Projects have also been founded to provide psychological and legal support to Russians who have been subject to repression for their political beliefs and opinions, as well as projects engaged in anti-war art and the distribution of anti-war materials. These initiatives are highly diverse, and despite the Kremlin’s efforts to suppress them, they are numerous and have taken on various forms and structures.

A team of independent researchers have reconstructed a picture of the ‘invisible’ anti-war protest landscape in Russia through extensive interviews with the coordinators and participants of these various anti-war initiatives. The researchers defined the concept of ‘anti-war initiative’ broadly, encompassing not only those initiatives whose work is directly targeted at ending the war and achieving justice, but also the various civil organisations that address the humanitarian or political consequences of the war. Some of these organisations continue to operate physically within Russia, while the employees of others were forced to leave the country, with their projects implemented in Russia remotely. To protect participants from potential persecution, the report does not disclose the names of the individuals involved in these projects or even the names of those organisations that have a relatively public profile. Instead, it presents only anonymised data on each initiative's field of activity, length of service, and geographic location.

Russia’s anti-war initiatives have a range of organisational structures. Some operate through the efforts of a single person: for instance, in one theatrical project, the artist works with non-professionals to create his anti-war works. Another organisation, which provides financial assistance to Ukrainians forced to reside in Russia, was founded by a single individual, passionate about this issue. However, many initiatives are organised around the so-called ‘core and volunteers’ model. At the centre of many of these projects is a stable, permanent group of individuals who take part in anti-war activities during their working hours. This ‘core’ may have a prominent leader who serves as the public face of the initiative. A group of volunteers is formed around this individual, and these people generally devote less time to the project than he or she does, and they also participate on an irregular basis. Volunteers can come and go, performing tasks assigned by the ‘core’. The role of volunteers varies across different initiatives as well: in some, they take on just a small part of the work, while in others, they become the main driving force behind the organisation.

Another frequently seen project structure is the so-called ‘organisers and experts’ model. The organisers are responsible for the infrastructural work of the initiative. They oversee all the processes, gather necessary resources, facilitate access to the target audience, and recruit participants. The experts, on the other hand, work directly with the beneficiaries.

The size of initiatives varies significantly. While artistic anti-war projects may involve only a few participants, their work may be seen by a large audience. The ‘core and volunteer’ initiatives typically have around 10 to 15 participants who form the core group, but can attract hundreds or even thousands of volunteers. One new project, created in the summer of 2022, has approximately 300 participants working for free, while another initiative, first formed in the early 2010s, added an anti-war agenda to its existing activities and now has several thousand volunteers at its disposal. The anti-war agenda is often integrated into activities that were not originally related to the war.

The scope of their work varies significantly across the different initiatives. For instance, one organisation helped 3,500 people to avoid mobilisation during its peak, while another managed to relocate over 10,000 Ukrainian families from Russia to Europe. However, some initiatives that undertake activities in many areas at once, such as campaigning, education, and humanitarian aid, find it difficult to measure the impact of their work.

While some initiatives hope to reach a wide audience, such as Russians from major cities, or all those in need of help, others have a more defined target audience, such as the female relatives of those who were mobilised (‘doubting women’) or LGBT individuals who are actively targeted by the state's repressive apparatus. Some initiatives concentrate on working exclusively within their own region. In the national republics, initiatives typically work with the local ethnic groups. These initiatives were established to protect the rights and interests of the ethnic groups, which now includes assisting them to avoid mobilisation and conscription, which is perceived as a ‘genocide’ against Russia’s ethnic minorities.

The geographic location of people working for these initiatives is only partially connected to the nature of their work. In numerous cases, projects are managed by groups of people spread across both sides of the border. Many have one reason or another for staying in Russia and carrying out their activities from there. Some activists have a firm position on this matter. During interviews, representatives of certain initiatives noted a severe shortage of individuals who are willing to work from inside Russia. Additionally, almost everyone lacks financial resources.

Anti-war initiatives can generally be categorised into two groups: those with a humanitarian focus, and those with an agitational purpose. The activities of the first category are aimed at helping a specific group of people. Initiatives from the second category seek to bring an end to the war. The former are more prevalent in Russia, whereas the latter tend to be composed of teams working on media projects, political campaigns, and organisations which advise on various issues, all of which are mostly located outside of the country. Some of these organisations have legal entities and offices abroad. The majority exist solely online.