Within the framework of political behavior, protests can be defined as a 'non-institutionalised mode of political engagement' (Kiase, 2017), serving as a testament to the political awakening of individuals sometimes not previously affiliated with any organized movement or institution.
In Russia, political involvement has always appeared low and the authoritarian regime has eliminated the possibility for independent civil society to make a real impact on the community.
The rallies that took place in the major Russian cities following the invasion of Ukraine in February and March 2022 showcase a remarkable departure from the norm, challenging preconceived notions about civic participation in Russia. Noteworthy was the substantial involvement of youth, a demographic often characterized by a perceived disinterest in political affairs. Researcher Mikhail Sokolov further underscores the shift, stating that “if you are younger than 30, live in a big city, have a higher education and do not watch television, the probability that you will not support the actions of the Russian army exceeds 80%”.
However, there are no longer reports of large crowds filling the streets of major Russian cities as happened between February and March, and in September 2022. As Open Democracy reports, people have been asking why Russians are not outside protesting against the ongoing war and the main reasons seem to be related to the fear of being arrested and that protesting would make no difference.
When observing this image, several questions emerge: what prompted young Russians to hit the streets in the aftermath of the invasion? How did their participation in resistance evolve in the following months? In what ways have they been channeling dissent? The stories of Irina, Natasha and Il'ya provide enlightening insights.
Irina and Natasha live in Moscow, are respectively 23 and 24 years old and grew up in different cities of Eastern European Russia. Il’ya, on the other hand, is a 23-year-old who moved to Italy to attend a master's degree after studying in St. Petersburg. What they have in common is that none of them has ever been a member of an association, group or movement in an official, formalised, systematic way. Before taking to the streets in the winter of 2022, Irina and Natasha previously rallied in solidarity with Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, while Il’ya was supporting NGOs such as OVD-info to provide legal assistance to people arrested during the protests.
As elaborated by German political scientist Albert Otto Hirschman, there are two possible responses individuals have when faced with declining quality or benefits in a political context: they can either exit or voice their concerns, communicating their complaints or proposals for change. Interestingly, the availability of exit options can reduce the likelihood of using our voice.
Past generations of Russians were prioritizing economic needs: the preference for "exit" rather than "voice" in post-Communist countries can be attributed to factors such as the Soviet legacy, political elites and institutions, and the rejection of alternatives to the status quo. But young Russians today express a desire for political change.
As tensions escalated along the Ukrainian border in the winter of 2021–2022, the looming threat of invasion became reality on February 24.
Il'ya explains how they were already well aware of living in an authoritarian regime, but at that point its “brutal side was evident”. Faced with this stark reality, the question lingered: what to do? In delving into the emotional underpinnings of protest participation, researcher Olena Nikolayenko states how 'the loss of fear is vital to large-scale mobilisation in a repressive political regime'. However, Irina, Natasha and Il'ya admit that they participated in street protests despite the fear of being arrested and despite the awareness that nothing would change.
“Political demonstration is maybe not the smartest way, that is going to change anything. But we don’t have many other ways to do something”, explains Irina.
Faced with a general disillusionment, other factors prevailed. For Irina, the propelling force was the necessity “to express my feelings in some way”, while Natasha explains how participating in the protests made it psychologically easier for her to look at images of the war. In the case of Il`ya, “moral values were stronger than fear” and the concrete possibility of arrest.
Il'ya was arrested on February 27, during a protest coordinated by the Youth Democratic Movement Vesna in St. Petersburg. His alleged transgression involved violating Covid protocols during a public assembly. Fortunately, after a night behind bars and a swift trial, he secured his freedom, aided by legal representation provided by the human rights organization OVD-info.
A similar fate befell Irina: on February 25, she was detained on the charge of not following the police order to stop. After spending a night in the police station and paying a fine of 10,000 roubles, she was released. This experience, the fear of serious consequences if stopped again by the police, and witnessing thousands of arrests and detentions prompted them to adopt a more discreet profile.
Under the dwindling wave of protests, Natasha and her partner persisted in their weekend pilgrimages to Moscow's center, looking for gatherings, but as April drew to a close, the protests had vanished and the State Duma passed laws prohibiting any type of public statements against the war. In response, the young protesters embraced what they termed as “quiet protest” [тихий протест] or “quiet picket” [тихий пикет], referring to a phenomena known as “silent protests”. Silent protests are generally individual, spontaneous, and unarmed small acts of dissent that take place in spaces of everyday socialization to demonstrate disagreement with power. In our case silent protests have been shaping a multifaceted anti-war activism that expresses political discontent and resilience.
For Natasha and Irina, the silent protest took the form of stickers portraying anti-war slogans affixed in the neighborhood during the night. Natasha views this as one of the safest methods of expressing dissent, as it allows to act at her convenience, avoiding the need for public transport and the potential scrutiny of surveillance cameras.
Natasha and her partner still nowadays actively contribute by crafting and displaying handmade stickers, like one that says “353 УК РФ”. The text is an abbreviation of "353 Уголовный Кодекс Российская Федерация" which stands for “Criminal Code of the Russian Federation" and refers to the article punishing “Planning, Preparing, Unleashing, or Waging on Aggressive War”.
“It’s one of my favorites, because it involves the viewer in action. He or she needs to google the article by its number in order to understand it”, Natasha explains.
Beyond the physical realm, Natasha and her partner exchange thoughts, perspectives, and emotions regarding the war in the context of online gaming chats. The choice of colors and other symbolic elements within their profile photos serve as a symbolic testament to their commitment to peace and solidarity. Their online presence transcends individuality and takes on a communal dimension. The encounter of like-minded individuals transforms their digital space into a spontaneous, unexpected bastion of resistance that becomes a catalyst for real-world change.
Despite the pervasive restrictions and the imperative for caution, Natasha and Irina are involved in grassroot efforts, which are fundamental in promoting promoting democracy, citizen participation, and social change. Their persistence instills hope about the resilience and future of Russian civil society. Natasha and her partner contribute to the cause by supporting NGOs like OVD-info and platforms such as Meduza through financial donations. At the same time Irina remains actively engaged in initiatives like the Peredači project: orchestrated by OVD-info, this initiative extends support by providing food and essential supplies to individuals detained in police stations due to their participation in acts of protest.
This multi-faceted strategy reflects their dedication to cultivating a spirit of unity and opposition amidst the prevailing circumstances. However, both Natasha and Irina highlight the challenge of finding a 'non-threatening' way to protest since new, ambiguous laws are enacted every month and repressions seem random: nobody knows, for example, how the new 'Foreign Agent' Law works, nor if they would be prosecuted for voicing opposition.
Moreover, the landscape of taking action is increasingly challenging. While some organizations manage to endure and coordinate their efforts, Irina stresses how sporadic police raids and arrests pose persistent threats.
In response to such pressures, some organizations opt for closure, navigating the intricate challenges of operating in an environment marked by dwindling funding and escalating complexity. Quiet protests, support for fellow protesters or refugees through donations serve as powerful means for participating in resistance, particularly for individuals like Irina and Natasha who are not formally recognized as part of the Russian civil society.
Il`ya, in Italy since September 2022, participated in events supporting Ukraine, although he lost touch with Russian anti-war activism. While some may accuse him for not engaging in visible forms of resistance, he asserts that his commitment lies in contributing through his studies and research as a political scientist. In this regard, Natasha’s words are particularly thought-provoking, urging everyone to recognize and feel part of the collective efforts made by a segment of Russian society that cannot be overlooked: “If you want to be part of resistance, you already are”.
As we see, Russian youth continues quietly to resist by displaying symbols and messages, supporting groups and organisations, donating basic necessities, or creating online communities. This is despite the general feeling of helplessness, and in the face of a civil society that seems to be further strained by poor funding and the critical domestic political situation.
In the course of the interviews, it was surprising to see how Natasha's position as someone "distant from politics" contrasts with her extensive involvement in the resistance. Almost as if this climate of oppression may serve as a catalyst, igniting the active participation of young Russians – those same young people who want political change in the country, as opposed to the general position of their parents' generation – in civil society, guaranteeing its survival. This newfound vigor in dissent suggests an evolving landscape in Russian political consciousness and involvement, defying expectations and prompting a reevaluation of the dynamics shaping public engagement.