Activism under oppression: three student-written stories from the streets

How do ordinary people attempt to have an impact on society in authoritarian regimes? Can they bring about real changes, and do they put themselves in harm’s way in the process?

Three articles written by students at the University of Helsinki give a glimpse in ways citizen have taken initiative in urban spaces in Armenia, Belarus and Russia, respectively.

The three students, Jalmari Sarla, Elisa Zamolo and Giulia Panfilo, received an assignment to write about political behavior in the post-communist space in their master’s course “Political Behavior Across Eurasia”. The teachers initially intended to reward the best article with publication on the Aleksanteri Institute’s website, but choosing only one proved an unreasonable task.

While these selected articles share similar themes, each possesses different strengths. Panfilo’s piece on Armenian women in the Velvet Revolution, for instance, presents a notably fresh approach to a recent political phenomenon, explains Elena Gorbacheva, one of the course’s teachers. In her article, Panfilo argues that women who took to the streets for political change should not automatically be interpreted as feminist movements for a good reason.

What was notable about Jalmari Sarla’s article was the mastery of feature journalism genre and the impact of the interview with activist-turned-researcher Andrei Vazyanau had on the writer himself. Sarla believes he has now found a thesis and, possibly, even a dissertation topic inmicrodistricts and political activism.

The third chosen article by Elisa Zamolo receives thanks not only for its insightfulness but also for the courage of the interviewees: The text centers around three young activists from Russia who openly discuss their actions against Putin’s regime and war in Ukraine.  

Giulia Panfilo: Women in Armenia’s Velvet Revolution

Women's "unprecedented" participation marked the intensive two-month protests in Armenia, etching their bravery into the nation’s collective memory. Three female leaders, Maria Karapetyan, Lena Nazaryan, and Zaruhi Batoyan, were particularly influential in talking to the crowds.

They played a massive role as supporters in the group and as leading figures for speech. They even pushed further in calling for more people to join the protests. All three of them produced a toolkit, either leveraging on traditional family values and kinship bounds (Karapetyan), making noise with kitchen utensils (Batoyan), or, on the contrary, not leveraging on gender at all (Nazaryan).

This article sheds light on how Velvet Revolution affected gender perspectives. It draws from a critical approach presented by an Armenian feminist scholar, Anna Nikoghosyan. It goes to show that while media reportedly stated that the Revolution finally allowed women to be on the front line of change, in reality the changes was not quite as it seems. 

Jalmari Sarla: Building sustainability under repression in Minsk

Like all aspects of Belarusian society, Minsk Urban Platform finds itself in an increasingly difficult spot amidst the political repression exerted by Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime. Learning about the difficulties of this activist community, which I have come to revere so much over the years, sadly does not surprise me.

While this account may not offer the most cheerful depiction of civil society activism within an oppressive context, it is noteworthy how a dedicated group of urbanists successfully established a network of like-minded individuals in Minsk, collaborating to enhance their city environment and create knowledge on urban matters.

Their work, characterised by its insightfulness and impact, extends beyond local relevance, making them significant to a broader audience beyond their native communities.

Their story deserves to be told.

Elisa Zamolo: The loud voices and silent protests

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.