The backlash in Russia to Putin’s war is now visibly getting underway. For the first time, the President risks becoming a disappointment to all sides of the political spectrum. Those who advocate for war see his military efforts in Ukraine as flaky and inadequate. Those who oppose it see those same actions as war crimes – both against Ukraine and Russia, their homeland.
Waging war is a costly business. In April alone, Russia received 133 billion roubles less in oil and gas revenues than expected, and a fall in the standard of living is inevitable. Previously all dissent against the regime was neutralised by cash inflows and Putin’s pact with his people: ‘Accept my lasting rule, and in return you’ll get pension increases, bonuses and permitted travel abroad.’ Now this is in tatters and the only justification for his regime is ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ and ‘You shouldn’t change horses mid-stream.’
This doesn’t mean that a Maidan Revolution is afoot in Russia. Different social groups have differing reasons to protest. Much of the dissent comes from the extreme right, nursing resentment against ‘corrupt elites’ who have ‘betrayed the army again’ – the time-honoured stab-in-the-back theory, where a failing military shifts responsibility onto the politicians assigning them.
But unrest is also coming from other quarters. In the Tula region, a mother destroyed the Z-signs (symbols of Putin’s war) on the windows of her child’s kindergarten. Told by the school administration it was ‘defilement of state symbols’, she snapped back it was ‘state propaganda defiling the kindergarten’ (a fine of 48,000 roubles - about £500 – was imposed on her). Among the wider public, there are very few signs of people actively supporting the war agenda. One rarely sees ‘Z’ t-shirts, or Z-signs on citizens’ cars. Indeed, there have been numerous reports of such cars being vandalised.
With open demonstration not just ineffective but dangerous, other more radical forms of protest have started to sprout. A series of arson attacks has been directed against conscription offices around Russia (at least twelve confirmed cases), intended to destroy the only, hard copy databases of potential conscripts.
The media too is hitting back in various ways. A major Russia news-site, Lenta.ru, recently published harsh criticisms of Putin and his war (the posts were quickly taken down, but remain in the internet archives). First attributed to hackers, two of Lenta’s employees then claimed responsibility, saying their aim had been to unite all who oppose the war, regardless of their political views.
Then there is the provincial media, off the radar of the federal authorities yet who claim to reflect the feelings of grassroots Russia. On a Volgograd news site, an article was published about a pro-war rally organised by local civil servants. ‘All those who gathered at the rally radiated confidence in the future’ said one caption, accompanying a photo of a supremely boot-faced and joyless-looking woman.
Many news sites have a comments section for readers, and content related to the war usually draws contributions from dozens, and even hundreds, of citizens. ‘We are not North Korea,’ ran one comment, ‘there, everyone loves their leader, but in our country, on the contrary, 80 per cent hate him'. Of the invasion, another reader writes: ‘It’s a strange way of defending yourself. It’s as if, protecting your house, you broke your neighbour’s window, saying he looked at you in a funny way or was sharpening a knife in the kitchen.’
Alongside this, new types of graffiti are appearing. One stencil of Putin, sprayed onto buildings in Novosibirsk, looks innocuous enough before you realise he has a hangman’s noose for a necktie. In St. Petersburg, a kids’ playground was ‘decorated’ with a painting of a masked soldier in khaki hugging a little girl. Under it someone else had added: ‘I murdered your mother’. Social media provides daily evidence that, unlike street protests, such resistance is gaining momentum.
At first, the pattern of these protests may seem illogical: in Moscow and St. Petersburg, areas with some of the highest protest levels in the country, casualties from the war are strikingly low - 26 and 12 confirmed deaths respectively. The areas with the highest casualty rates not only are less rebellious, but also among the most deprived parts of Russia. Among these are Dagestan (146 confirmed casualties) and Buryatia (105), fast showing that this war is essentially a colonial one fought largely by colonial troops. To adapt a well-known phrase, it’s clear that the Russians are ready to fight for Ukraine right down to the very last Buryat.
However, these regions are often the most ardently pro-war too: they have already invested the most. This explains why people are likely to continue hurling human capital into Putin’s war long after pulling out completely seemed the more rational option.
And yet the protests are growing. Since February, at least 2000 cases have been brought throughout Russia against people accused of ‘discrediting’ the Russian army under new laws on fake news. The punishment for most first-time offenders is a fine averaging 34,000 roubles (approximately half the average monthly salary), though repeat offenders may receive jail time. Of the 85 regions in Russia, only three – Tuva, Chechnya and Magadan – have no registered criminal cases.
Will these protests produce radical change? Perhaps not, but they certainly demonstrate a desire to resist and voice one’s point of view regardless of the consequences. Anti-war protests may not stop the war, but they should bring Russia closer to the day when a critical majority of citizens realise how senseless it is and spur them to action. They are also a beacon for the many Russians who detest Putin but are not ready to take concrete action with so slim a chance of success.
As for understanding that ‘critical majority’, comments attributed to composer Dmitri Shostakovich explaining the Russian Revolution may be of use: ‘The people stopped believing in the Tsar. The Russian people are always like that. They believe and they believe and then suddenly it all stops. And the ones the people no longer believe in come to a bad end.’
A thought perhaps for Vladimir Putin to ponder, as he begins his long hot summer on the Ukrainian Black Sea Coast.