Russia: Academic freedom violation – late 2022 – first half of 2023
Monitoring methodology – violation of the rights of students and teachers VS violation of academic rights and freedoms.
Research project in progress
The war started by Russia in Ukraine has shocked the world. But even more surprising was the support of the war by the Russian population. Opinion polls demonstrate that over 50% of the population approve the “military operation” providing evidence for the efficacy of the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts.
One of the arguments explaining why the propaganda was so successful is the weakness of civil society. Institutionalized civil society in Russia has been systematically undermined even prior to the war as it was perceived as a threat to the regime’s stability. Following the war, the situation has worsened. Independent civil society organizations and free media have been labeled foreign agents or extremists, making their work infinitely harder if not impossible. Leading civil activists are forced to choose between jail or immigration.
On the one hand, there is a perception that civil society in Russia is weak and has grown weaker in recent years. On the other hand, academic scholarship has challenged this conventional view demonstrating recent growth in grass-roots activism in big cities, high level of civil engagement among Russian youth at the local level including the growing culture of volunteerism. While the grass-roots activism has often been at the local level and depoliticized by nature, it has also demonstrated its potential to make political impact.
The war in Ukraine has deepened the gap between institutionalized and grass-roots civic society in Russia. Parallel to the processes of continuing destruction of institutionalized civil society, there is evidence of growing grass-roots anti-war mobilization.
The purpose of the study is to explore the response of Russian civil society to the war in Ukraine with special focus on anti-war activism at the grass-roots level.
- Map post-war civil society in Russia
- Track activities of the online anti-war groups and communities
- Track and analyze new laws and regulations that target civil society
- Monitor attacks on civil society organizations and activists through media
- 30+ in-depth interviews with civic activists and other participants of the anti-war grassroots civic initiatives.
- Case study of a volunteer group helping Ukrainian families who found themselves on Russian territory while escaping the war but wanted to get asylum in Europe.
Project duration: August 1, 2022 – August 31, 2024
Photo by Tina Hartung on Unsplash
Our research finds evidence of Russian ‘stealth resistance’ to the war in Ukraine — including acts of sabotage, resistance art and other forms of activism
Does the limited scale of antiwar protests in Russia mean that Russian society is either unwilling or unable to challenge Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? Research on resistance to autocratic governments suggests that it may take a deeper look to reveal evidence of opposition. In countries with a long authoritarian history, a repressive regime and lack of protest culture, street protests make up only a fraction of societal resistance.
Our research suggests an antiwar movement exists in Russia, despite weak street-level resistance. To understand how Russian society has opposed the war, one needs to look beyond protests, to identify acts of stealth resistance. Stealth resistance can take different shapes as it adapts to new political realities.
Since February, here are some of its manifestations in Russia: collection and dissemination of true information about the war, acts of sabotage, individual acts of violence, resistance art and activism to support Ukrainian refugees. More recently, the resistance has started to include efforts to help Russians avoid conscription, and efforts to sabotage the government’s mobilization plans.
Why so few protests in Russia?
Russian resistance takes the shape of stealth resistance rather than public protest for several reasons. First, Russians who oppose the war feel isolated. This is not only because the official government surveys report that the majority of Russians support the war, but also because the pro-war agenda and its symbolism dominate virtually all media, official rhetoric and even city spaces and online discussions.
Second, the Kremlin has ensured that protesting the war carries incredibly high risks. Detainees in previous and more recent antiwar protests reportedly faced numerous human rights violations. Men detained during a protest action can now find themselves conscripted to join the war in Ukraine. And police fired warning shots during protests in Dagestan, a republic in the North Caucasus with some of the highest war casualties among Russia’s regions.
And there’s a third reason. Our ongoing research on antiwar resistance in Russia tracks activities of the online antiwar groups and communities, and includes interviews with antiwar volunteers and activists. We find that many Russians who want to resist the war find protests not only dangerous but also futile. Antiwar-minded Russians turn to other means of resistance that they consider more effective.
What do we know about Russia’s stealth resistance?
Today, political organizations do not constitute the bulk of the antiwar movement. This might change now that Russia’s most prominent opposition movement — created by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is in jail — has announced plans to return as an “underground guerrilla group.” The Kremlin effectively outlawed Navalny’s movement in 2021, when it labeled the groups and regional network he founded as extremist.
Youth, feminist and human rights organizations, along with volunteer and charity networks, have emerged as the core of Russia’s antiwar movement. This effort includes hundreds of online communities and projects that have sprung up overnight to resist specific war-related government initiatives.
One example of this activity is the liberal democratic youth movement Vesna, recently labeled as extremist by the Kremlin. Among its many projects, Vesna announced a campaign to turn Russia’s Victory Day celebrations, commemorating victory in World War II, into a protest action against the war in Ukraine. Vesna’s online community has more than 100,000 members.
Another group, Feminist Anti-War Resistance, emerged following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The group has initiated multiple resistance art projects, and is reportedly working to spread antiwar messages online and in city neighborhoods.
There’s evidence of more radical resistance to the war, including reports of individual Russians setting fire to administrative buildings and conscription offices. And Russian anarchists have reportedly sabotaged railways to undermine the Kremlin’s ability to carry out its military goals in Ukraine.
These networks and organizations were among the first to stand against the military conscription recently announced in Russia by Putin. They have been urging Russians to avoid conscription, calling it a “mo-killi-zation,” and providing practical information about how to do it. The apparent goal is to sabotage the regime’s war efforts — and save lives on both sides.
Numerous online communities and projects have sprung up to help Russians who refuse to take part in the war and are either moving abroad or hiding from authorities within the country. The assistance these groups offer ranges from legal and logistical advice to financial assistance and provision of safe housing.
Our research finds that Russians have pursued another form of antiwar resistance by helping Ukrainian refugees. Our interviews found that people who wish to actively express antiwar sentiment — but see demonstrating as futile — turn to volunteerism as an alternative to street protests.
Dozens of organizations, involving thousands of people across Russia, are assisting Ukrainian refugees by providing food, clothes, shelter, health care and financial assistance. The efforts also provide legal help and psychological counseling. Importantly, these groups assist Ukrainians who want to leave Russia for Europe.
Yet even such initiatives are often stealthy in nature, out of fear that the government might crack down on their efforts. These are not idle fears. The Kremlin is known to be paranoid about grass-roots initiatives, believing that hostile political forces stand behind them. Last month, for instance, authorities reportedly interrogated and tortured an activist, on the suspicion that the work she did for Ukrainian refugees had a political agenda.
Why stealth resistance matters
Understanding that these wider forms of antiwar resistance exist in Russia is important for several reasons.
First, Western observers tend to view Russia as a social and political monolith, buying into the facade of unity and social compliance the Kremlin projects. Just like the belief in the unity of Russia’s elite, the uniform compliance of Russian society is also a myth.
Second, the creation and expansion of such organizations and networks may well help other antiwar Russians feel less isolated and more effective.
And third, as the response to the mobilization efforts has demonstrated, it’s these acts of stealth resistance, rather than street protests, that are likely to grow.
Evgenia Olimpieva is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago. Her research revolves around authoritarian politics with a focus on the personnel politics in the bureaucracies.
Irina Olimpieva is the founder and executive director of the Center for Independent Social Research-USA, and a research professor at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.
Masha Galenko is a freelance journalist interested in Russian activism.