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“Quiet” protests: how those who aren't ready to set fire to military recruitment centers are fighting back

After the war began, organizing and holding protests in Russia became almost impossible: police brutally detained the participants, often before they even left their homes; some faced heavy fines; others faced arrests and criminal charges which could land them huge prison terms. In addition, one can also be prosecuted for posts on social media and for a careless phrase in a telegram chat room. But in spite of everything, there is still resistance in Russia. There are people who derail trains and set fire to military registration and enlistment offices, and also those who are not prepared to risk so much but cannot remain silent – they are engaged in “quiet” single-point resistance on the ground. But even in this form, barely noticeable to an outside observer, such resistance can have a serious impact on public opinion.

  • “Even the tiniest protest matters”

  • New Ways of Resistance

  • Protests are changing the city

  • Routine protests – a continuation of an old tradition

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“Even the tiniest protest matters”

On February 24, the day Russia's war with Ukraine began, Liza, a 32-year-old film industry worker from Moscow, went downtown. She hoped to see protests and anti-war rallies, and she intended to join them. According to her recollections, there were very few people on the streets: “If someone goes out alone with a poster, they are immediately grabbed by five policemen and taken away.” Then Liza realized that “traditional” protests with rallies and posters were 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. An acquaintance of mine had deliberately posted them so her followers could print them out and use them. They were black rectangles with white letters in the background, like “no to war”. I printed a stack of flyers at a print shop near my house and hung them in the entryway, on the mirrors in the elevators, and on every mailbox. Leaflets are not the only form of communication today; on another occasion I just created an Instagram story and typed “no to war” in big letters. While on an escalator, I started showing my screen to people who were moving in the opposite direction. It's a very small, mundane act. There is nothing heroic or complicated about it. But in the circumstances in which we live, it's a thing that matters. A lot of tiny protests merge into a big one.”

There are thousands of self-motivated loners like Liza in Russia, but the media usually don't write about them, so you won't know how those people protest until you encounter them directly. But they also matter, because on the ground, they have a significant impact on public opinion.

New Ways of Resistance

Ordinary forms of protests like rallies and pickets have long been banned and brutally suppressed even at the planning stage; those who do hold them are criminally prosecuted. It is enough to say something about the war - that’s exactly how Vladimir Kara-Murza, Ilya Yashin, Alexei Gorinov, and others have ended up in jail. The way law enforcement officers act while detaining rare protesters has also become particularly harsh. Thus, in March 2022 the girls detained at an anti-war rally were brought to the Brateevo police station. They later said that the law enforcement officers did not allow them to see their attorneys and started insulting and beating them. “A policeman was beating me and calling me stupid. Then he started hitting me with a bottle of water - thank God it was half-empty,” one of the activists complained. Other girls said the policeman kicked them, pulled their hair, and poured water down their necks.

Under these conditions, many activists have been turning from street rallies and marches to underground forms of protest. For example, some ride around in public transport with posters about the war and the actions of the Russian authorities. It’s part of the Quiet Picket, a movement that began back in 2016 with a performance by the artist and activist Daria Serenko. She rode the subway every day with posters informing of important social and political events.

Darya Serenko, a social activist, feminist, and one of the inventors of the Silent Picket
Darya Serenko, a social activist, feminist, and one of the inventors of the Silent Picket

Other Russians write anti-war messages on banknotes which are then passed from hand to hand, while the author remains anonymous.

Anti-war slogans on banknotes
Anti-war slogans on banknotes

On Fridays, girls dressed as mourners come out on the streets of certain cities. This too is a protest action, a continuation of the “Women in Black” initiative, which was invented in Israel in 1988 in response to the actions of Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories.

 A “Girls in Black” protest in St. Petersburg
A “Girls in Black” protest in St. Petersburg

The essential feature of most of those initiatives is the absence of organizers and well-defined timeframes. You can take part in them alone and at any time, which makes them safer than organized rallies and marches. However, Daria Serenko says that today there are no forms of protest that can be called completely safe. For example, in April a 31-year-old artist Sasha Skochilenko was detained in St. Petersburg for replacing price tags in a store with pacifist messages - a pensioner denounced her to the police. Now Skochilenko is in pre-trial detention, and a criminal case has been opened against her for discrediting the Russian army. “At first the price tag protest seemed quite safe to everyone,” says Serenko. “The repressive machine keeps catching up, and we have to come up with new ways to protest. People are being detained for stickers and even for wearing black.”

Protests are changing the city

The motivation of the “underground protesters” is clear: they have no doubt they can make a difference in shaping the public mood, and if their number is large enough, their influence will be no less than that of mass rallies. K., a 20-year-old student from Moscow, walks around the city with a homemade sticker “No to War” - she hopes that this phrase will make passers-by think about what’s happening, learn more about the military conflict, read independent sources. Or it will at least cheer up the opponents of the war, who feel as lonely and confused as she did a couple of months ago.

Sergei, a 22-year-old computer programmer from Novosibirsk, says he began his “underground” resistance on February 28: he made his own anti-war stickers at home, put cans of spray paint in his bag, and went out at 2:00 am with friends. In places without surveillance cameras they stopped and drew graffiti or pasted stickers. Sergei continues doing it to this day and believes that street art is an important part of the resistance:

“There's this “broken window theory”. It says that the environment in which people live affects their behavior and way of thinking. Graffiti and stickers change the city. People see them and think about them. The space is quietly swelling with protest.”

Anna, a 29-year-old journalist from Moscow, read about the “Women in Black” protest on the Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR) channel - she thought the idea was “quite safe and also visually beautiful.” On March 19, she put on a black sheepskin coat, took two white roses, and slowly walked down the streets of Moscow. “The point of the protest is to remind people that while our ordinary lives go on, tragedy happens elsewhere,” Anna explains. “You can't stop rockets or bullets with this kind of protest. But you can regain your self-respect. The feeling that you’re not a victim, but a person with an opinion that you can express.”

Another non-trivial form of resistance is the “anti-war sick leave”. Protesters are invited to take a sick leave at work, thus sabotaging the Russian economy: “It is essentially a strike,” the anti-war sick leave initiators explain. “Only it does not require long preparations or the formation of a trade union. But the effect is similar. Yes, we do not completely paralyze the military machine. But who knows at what point, thanks to the strike, a shell will fail to reach the front in time.” It is unknown how many people have joined this form of protest, but it does not seem there’s a lot of them.

Routine protests – a continuation of an old tradition

Historian Sergei Bondarenko says that “quiet”, “routine” protests existed in the past in many totalitarian societies:

“Such forms of resistance appear in situations where large organized rallies are impossible or dangerous. In contrast to mass protests, they rarely remain in history. For example, it is commonly believed that there was no political protest in Soviet society during Stalin's time. In fact, there was one - quiet, but constant. Most often they were small spontaneous actions. In a train, in a queue, in a beer hall, someone would suddenly start singing ditties about Stalin or publicly tear down propaganda posters. The state monitored such actions very closely and punished them severely, because it saw them as a real threat. But whether such forms of resistance could have a global impact on the situation is hard to say.”

Bondarenko recalls that such behavior was not limited to the Soviet Union and cites the example of the Hampel family in Germany. They were a married couple of simple workers whose son was killed during World War II. Otto and Elise Hampel could not forgive Hitler for their loss and began distributing postcards throughout Berlin urging people to refrain from cooperating 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 wrote the novel “Everyone 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 operated during 1942-1943. Its members distributed leaflets with anti-war appeals by randomly leaving them at various addresses and handing them out at the university. Brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl were the founders of the movement.

One day Sophie brought leaflets to the university and threw several of them down from the balcony to the students. The guard called the Gestapo. Hans, Sophie, and their associate Christoph Probst were executed by guillotine.

Another notable example of “quiet” protest is Women in Black. Since 1988, it has spread 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 those killed by Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories. The initiative was copied in other countries. For example, in the 1990s, the “Women in Black” movement emerged in the former Yugoslavia, speaking out against the ethnic strife and bloodshed of those years. As in Russia, women's movements often took an anti-war stance in different countries. For example, in the late 1960s in the United States there was the American section of the International League of Women for Peace and Freedom, as well as Women’s Fight for Peace and the Voice of Women. In addition to open resistance - such as demonstrating - women raised money for medical care for the Vietnamese people who suffered from the actions by the U.S. military. They also provided financial and legal aid to young people who refused to go to war by distributing leaflets and information about what was going on.

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