oDR: Interview

Why aren’t more Russians protesting war in Ukraine? We asked an expert

Anti-war activist Sergei Davidis on why Russian society is reluctant to condemn the threat of war – despite largely disagreeing with it

Natalia Shkurenok
24 January 2022, 4.16pm
A monument to Georgy Zhukov, a Second World War Soviet military commander, in Moscow
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(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

For eight years now, there have been hostilities in Ukraine’s Donbas – and today, tensions are high as Russia mobilises troops near its neighbour’s border.

Yet Russian authorities call the war in Donbas a ‘Ukrainian internal affair’ and refuse to admit their involvement, despite the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe documenting the participation of Russian military units and the supply of weapons from Russia.

Unfortunately, Russian civil society barely reacts to these events. While in 2014, the start of the conflict, Russians across the country organised demonstrations against the armed conflict, the topic of Russia’s participation in the Donbas has disappeared from the public agenda in recent years.

Why is there no anti-war movement in Russia? Why don’t Russians take to the streets with anti-war slogans? openDemocracy spoke to Sergei Davidis, a sociologist and lawyer and member of the board of the Memorial Human Rights Society, about Russian society’s reluctance to engage over the war in Ukraine.

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davidis.jpg
Сергей Давидис. | Фото из личного архива.

Sergei, how would you assess the current state of Russian society? Since 2014 there have been hostilities in Ukraine’s Donbas, and now almost all Russian politicians and media are talking about a possible full-scale war with Ukraine. Yet pacifist and anti-militarist sentiments are practically absent in society. Why?

The situation today, compared with 2014, has changed markedly.

First, Russia’s repressive apparatus has tightened the screws on society even further. Both the scale and cruelty of repressions against protesters and activists have grown.

Second, of course, anti-COVID restrictions [on public gatherings] have played a role. All this has led to the fact that it has become more difficult for people to go to public actions that put forward any demands.

And then there is another serious reason. In my opinion, people have started treating public protests as a place to clear their conscience even more than before. That is, people go to the streets [only] because they don’t want to feel ashamed, not because they expect that the authorities will listen to them! More Russians no longer see any opportunity to exert real influence on the authorities and therefore do not take to the streets.

Moreover, even minimal communication over the organisation [of a protest] has become difficult. I myself served ten days in administrative detention in May last year for retweeting a post about a planned [unsanctioned] peaceful protest. Not a single person in Russia can write ‘let’s hold a protest at this place at this time’ without risking their freedom today.

"War is still an abstract thought for the majority of people, especially until it starts"

Even before a protest itself, you risk paying a fine or getting arrested for several days if you don’t follow the rules. And if you break the rules of organising a protest on several occasions, you can face criminal prosecution. Vyacheslav Egorov, the last person convicted under this provision [in 2019], did just that: when he invited people to come to court to support [opposition politician] Dmitry Gudkov, this was considered another episode of violating the rules. Egorov was sent to a prison colony for more than a year. So even if people are against the war, they don’t protest publicly.

How do you know that people are against the war?

First of all, from social networks. The anti-government and pro-liberal section of Russian society openly speaks out against war.

According to recent surveys by the Levada Center, the majority of respondents in Russia are afraid of war and do not want it. Although, as recent polls show, only 4% of Russians believe that the Russian authorities are to blame for escalating the threat of war. [Some 50% of respondents believed that the US and NATO member states were responsible.]

But it is clear that a very large proportion of respondents simply refuse to answer questions about a possible war. In our situation, there is no reason to believe that their opinions are distributed in the same way as the opinions of those who agreed to answer.

We are talking on the anniversary of Alexey Navalny’s return to Russia and subsequent arrest. Waves of mass protests swept across the country. People came out, despite the danger of going out to protest or the risk of COVID. Since then, there’s been silence.

Navalny’s return in January 2021 was perhaps the last big surge of public protest, which ended with 150 criminal cases and 17,000 people detained in three days.

In Moscow alone, the number of arrests in the ten days after the January protest turned out to be, according to OVD-Info, three times more than in the 15 previous years. The state reacted very aggressively, and when new protests were called in April 2021, far fewer people took to the streets. In addition, the authorities began to arrest even people who spread information. But you have to admit, Alexey Navalny is a unique figure, he is a person whom people pinned their hopes on, especially in our culture of leadership, where there is no hope that institutions can deliver, but there is hope that an individual will. Together with the whole fantastic story of the assassination attempt against him, the poisoning and his return.

War, meanwhile, is still an abstract thought for the majority of people, especially until it starts.

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October 2015: Protest against Russian involvement in Syria and Ukraine, Moscow

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(c) Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Until it starts? And what has been happening since 2014 in the Donbas? And the current situation, when Russian troops are gathering around Ukraine, both from the Donetsk region, and now from the Belarusian border. Does Russian society really not understand that war is not an abstraction?

It depends what part of society you’re talking about. Most of society, of course, does not accept this fact. Most people are generally accustomed to turning a blind eye to what is unpleasant for them. Although many understand that the separatist regions of Ukraine are financially supported by Russia, that tanks and rocket launchers get there from Russia. But in the minds of the majority, this is an acceptable trick. Moreover, the Kremlin constantly repeats that everyone does this, it’s a normal practice.

So the situation suits Russian society?

The majority in Russia are satisfied, a minority are not. But after all, almost every week the authorities introduce various restrictions, so that no one hears those who are not satisfied. Sociologists cannot even calculate how realistically satisfied or dissatisfied Russian society is with the situation and the threat of a possible war. Respondents either refuse to answer direct questions or give answers they heard from television.

Why is there practically no anti-war agenda coming from Russian opposition parties and opposition politicians?

I would not say that the Russian opposition is not active on the anti-war agenda. The opposition talks about the long-standing war with Ukraine as a kind of given. For the same reasons I mentioned above – Russian society and its individual representatives believe that it is impossible to influence these events. And the military rhetoric of recent months is generally perceived by many as a bluff on the part of the Kremlin, as something frivolous. This is if we talk about the threat of a full-scale war.

But the slow-burning war that has been going on since 2014 is already perceived as a background, as something familiar, distant. Representatives of Yabloko [liberal opposition political party] also regularly speak about the war; [opposition activist] Ilya Yashin periodically speaks about this; Vladimir Milov, a Navalny supporter, often speaks on this topic.

But these are separate, sporadic statements, there is no organised, large-scale campaign. And it’s understandable why: everyone understands that it is, unfortunately, impossible to organise a campaign that would force the Kremlin to abandon its rhetoric and its attack on Ukraine because of harsh repressions against everyone who disagrees with the Kremlin. Moreover, there are so many problems inside the country related to violations of rights and freedoms, with repressions against opposition activists, that the threat of war is perceived as ephemeral.

"If a war starts, people will take to the streets in some quantities, but they will be quickly dispersed and the protests will end there"

It seems that seven years of war in Donbas have already become a backdrop for many?

Unfortunately. And not only in Russia, but also in other countries that are not responsible for this aggression. Abroad, it’s a local war that has lasted for many years and is now perceived as something normal

In my opinion, a similar, non-existent level of anti-militarist sentiment also existed in the Soviet Union. I was a student when the war in Afghanistan began, and I remember how my classmates wanted to go to war. Even when coffins began to arrive from Afghanistan, people only discussed it at home and remained silent in public.

Yes, I also remember the dissatisfaction with the war in Afghanistan as part of the Soviet intelligentsia’s general dissatisfaction with the government. No one openly expressed an anti-war position.

The question of solidarity – the ability to take responsibility for something more than one’s own interests – is also important here. But in recent decades, we have become so accustomed to believing that something is bad only if it’s bad for us ourselves. We do not want to think about others, to sympathise with others. This was very clear in Russia’s involvement in Syria and in the wars in Chechnya, too, unfortunately. Yes, there was a movement against the war in Chechnya, but it was connected, first of all, with Russian losses, and not with the huge losses of the Chechens.

I think that if a war leads to significant losses on the Russian side, an anti-war movement will emerge.

In your opinion, when discussing what is happening in Ukraine do so few people in Russia call it a war? They talk about certain actions, but they don’t call them a war.

It all depends, of course, on who your circles are. If I remember accurately, in 2014 only around 5% of Russians were against the annexation of Crimea. These people called and continue to call the events in Ukraine a war, and take a stand against Russian aggression. But a significant number of these people have already left Russia.

It turns out that the Russians do not care about someone else’s grief?

That’s not necessarily the case. Repressions within Russia against, for example, Alexander Gabyshev, the shaman who attempted a protest march from Siberia to Moscow, or Alexey Navalny evoke a much greater response and desire to unite than the loss of people in other countries or remote regions. Repressions against Russian Muslims or Jehovah’s Witnesses provoke less desire to come out in solidarity.

In general, this is a big problem – Russia does not even have a mass movement for the release of political prisoners, although they are our citizens, and not foreign residents! I think that if a war starts, people will take to the streets in some quantities, but they will be quickly dispersed and the protests will end there. Unless, of course, the war takes on such a scale that it affects the broader population.

Do you have any hope for young people in Russia?

Of course, it is the young who are [politically] active. But it’s also young people who end up in police stations, in the dock, in prison colonies, on the lists of foreign agents and ‘extremists’. And so a huge number of young people who are active with the Navalny network or Russia’s Libertarian Party have already been forced to leave [the country].

Is there a way out of this vicious circle?

I believe in our country and our future. All this darkness will somehow lead to a collapse, this unnatural vector of development cannot determine the direction of our country for a long time. This, among other things, is what my hope is based on.

And yet Russian civil society is still changing, just as it was before 2011-12. Back then, all kinds of non-political associations gained strength, and then switched to political activities. Now similar processes are underway again, though the state understands this and is trying to build barriers, destroying any possibility of self-government. The authorities need to raise all activity to the ground so that nothing moves without its control.

This makes political activity difficult, but life cannot be stopped completely – and this is also the basis of my hope.

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