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The anti-war movement in Russia

Jaqueline Singh, Fight! Revolutionary Women's Newspaper 11, March 2023

One year after Russia’s war of aggression began, Putin’s regime does not seem to be crumbling, or even showing small cracks. But this façade is deceptive because the pressure to win the war is growing steadily. At the beginning of the year, not only Putin but many in the international community said that sanctions were not hitting the nation as hard as some had hoped.

Nevertheless, the hole in the Russian budget is not small. Russia is already selling foreign currency worth 8.9 billion roubles (a good 112 million euros) a day to cover the deficit. Gold reserves are also being sold. The central bank has recently warned that a high deficit could fuel inflation. This would force it to raise interest rates, which in turn would weigh on the economy. So it can’t stay like this forever. But how can the war be ended? And what significant resistance is there that might help bring this about ?

A brief overview

Russian critics of the war come from right across the political spectrum since very few actually benefit from Putin’s „special military operation“. Thus, immediately after the invasion, there were petitions and declarations against the war from well-known figures in Russian society But there were also open letters from the wider population, such as one from the IT sector, which was signed by around 30,000 employees.

This was followed by actions by artists such as the collective Nevoina (No to war) from Samara or the anonymous movement „Sick Leave Against the War“. The largest coordinated activities were the days of action on 6 and 13 March 2022 and in September. Despite these undertakings, however, it has not yet been possible to build a broad anti-war movement. The reasons for this are numerous.

Chronicle of repression

The activists themselves have suffered massive repression from the Russian state since the first day of the war. The right to assemble had already been drastically curtailed before the war. In 2021 Amnesty International reported that, since the wavy of mass protests 1n 2011-13, the Russian authorities had passed 13 pieces of legislation that “make the right to freedom of peaceful assembly devoid of any genuine meaning”. Thus the response of the state to the first anti-war protest was no surprise. In addition to massive police violence, there were 14,000 arrests by 13 March. These detentions often lasted only 10-15 days, but there were also isolated reports of detainees being tortured. From the beginning, the aim was to nip the protests in the bud.

Thus, for the whole of 2022, according to OVD info, an independent Russian human rights media group, there were more than 21,000 arrests, as well as at least 370 defendants in criminal cases for anti-war statements and speech. More than 200,000 internet resources have been blocked and 11 sentences handed down for treason. In addition, authorities have confirmed that 141 people have so far been investigated for taking part in anti-war protests using facial recognition systems, for example, on the Moscow metro.

So far, the regime’s massive repression has proved successful. Protests have been kept small, large parts of the population have been intimidated and important resistance activists have faced repression or been forced to flee the country. In this situation, opposition groups have stopped calling public rallies because, given the current balance of power, they would only lead to a burn out of the activists.

Other reasons

It is not only he repression that makes it difficult to build an anti-war movement. There are two other reasons, which we can only touch on briefly:

a) Lack of programme and clarity.

In its evaluation of the day of action on 13 March 2022, the rather autonomist group „Alt-Left“ assumed that the leadership of the movement had a liberal character and that there was majority support among the population for the „special operation“ and a strong increase in nationalism. Of course, Putin’s propaganda supremacy plays a major role in this but that is not all.

The historical defeat that accompanied the restoration of capitalism and the collapse of Stalinism had a major impact on the Left which has not yet been able to reorganise itself and the working class and become an alternative social pole against Putin. Parts of the „left“, especially the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) under Gennady Zyuganov and the official trade unions (FNPR) fully support Putin’s war. Others do not take a clear position, do not recognise Ukraine’s right to self-determination in principle or do not see Russia as an imperialist power. All this has prevented any clear anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist pole from forming in the movement.

b) Lack of roots

Furthermore, the radical, anti-regime left lacks roots within the working class, organised mainly in the 28-30 million strong Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia and controlled by it. As a result, the current small scale protests only represent the merest germ of a mass anti-war movement. They are far from being able to stop the war. The left is marginalised and the working class does not appear as an independent force.

Role of women

Everything is not hopeless, however. From the beginning, women have been a driving force in the anti-war movement. OVD-Info recorded that between 24 February and 12 December there were at least 8,500 administrative arrests of women for expressing anti-war positions in various forms, that is about 45% of all known detainees.

In recent years, the proportion of women arrested at rallies has increased significantly: in 2021 it was 25-31% at protests against the attempted poisoning of Alexei Navalny and, in 2022, it was 51% and 71% respectively after the calls forthe mobilisation on 21 and 24 September.

In the book „Special Operation and Peace – The Russian Left Against the War“, author and editor Yevgeny Kazakov concludes that the feminist spectrum is the best organised in the current situation. In his estimation, this is because, unlike the rest of the left, it was the least divided on the question of Ukraine. Secondly, it was the fastest to form „horizontal structures“ and was thus able to produce agitation materials and organise solidarity campaigns on different issues. The Feminist Anti-War Resistance Network is the largest force that can be traced and currently seems to be the strongest in the struggle against war.

For example, on 8 March 2022, there were silent protests in over 90 cities, with flowers being laid in front of monuments such as a mural in the Kiev metro station in Moscow, which stands for Russian-Ukrainian friendship. That might sound like a small thing, but it led to the arrest of 90 people in Moscow alone and shows how little room there is for protests.

It is all the more encouraging to follow the activities of the FAS over the last few months: In addition to collecting donations for Ukrainian refugees and supporting those deported to Russia, it has published more than 10 issues of the newspaper Zhenskaya Pravda (Women’s Truth), with which it guarantees information about the war that is independent of the state.

It also publishes articles on how to protect sons from the army and how the war affects family budgets and the Russian economy. On Teletype, a kind of teleprinter, it regularly publishes interim reports on its work as well as speeches by individual coordinators of the network. In this way, it makes an important contribution to the agitation against the war and demonstrates flexible use of online activism and illegal work, which cannot be based on online media alone.


It should be clear that the network does not embody a totally homogeneous structure acting on the basis of a deeper, unified programme. It serves as a rallying point for both left and liberal activists in Russia and internationally, who also have different views on Russia’s character in the world. Nevertheless, on 25 February, it published a manifesto that is now available in over 20 languages.

There it takes a clear position on the war and writes:

„Russia has declared war on its neighbour. It has granted Ukraine neither the right to self-determination nor any hope for a peaceful life. We declare – and not for the first time – that the war has been waged on the initiative of the Russian government for the last eight years. The war in the Donbas is a consequence of the illegal annexation of Crimea. We believe that Russia and its president do not care and have not cared about the fate of the people of Luhansk and Donetsk and that the recognition of the republics after eight years was only a pretext for invading Ukraine under the guise of liberation.“

In view of the Russian war of aggression, the clear positioning of the FAS is essential and well worthy of support. Later on was added whom the FAS helps, what support can look like. Furthermore, more concrete demands on the war were adopted. Here, too, we consider the majority of them to be sensible, such as the rejection of simple pacifism, the call for impeachment of Putin and all officials involved in the war.

But we also see things differently, such as in the first demand: „For the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine and the return of all occupied territories to Ukraine (restoration within the borders by 2014)“.

Whilst we support the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops, we advocate that the people of Crimea as well as those in the “people’s republics” themselves organise referendums, independently of the Ukrainian as well as the Russian state, to decide on which territory they want to join, with the right, whatever the decision, to protect the languages and culture of the respective minorities.

Change is possible

In a blog post, the FAS describes the different stages of anti-war campaigns, raising the question: „In your opinion, in which phase are we? How can we accelerate the start of the third, fourth and fifth stages?“ These are:

3. the „growth of support“ stage, where support increases beyond the core of active groups and,

4. the „opinion building“ stage develops, in which the anti-war position is discussed in broad sections of the population, and then,

5. the „political strength“ stage, where, for example, the start or active resumption of negotiations is pending as well as small concessions to the anti-war movement.

Some readers may find this puzzling, particularly the reference to „political strength“. This is based on the following statement:

„Almost all researchers agree that the anti-war campaign cannot itself end war: Wars end for other reasons, which include economic exhaustion as well as society’s unpopularity and non-support for war. It is campaigns that can change the level of that support by constantly expanding the base of opponents of war and bringing new people into the movement.“

It may be true that campaigns do not end wars. Yet they can generate mass political forces that form organisations or parties that can do just that. Especially if one of the goals is to remove Putin from office, there needs to be a force that can clearly present itself as an alternative to him or his class of oligarchs and “silovki”, the chiefs of the security apparatus.

So, back to the real question: how can the anti-war campaign be expanded? This is closely linked to who is seen as the agency of change. In this regard, we believe that the term „civil society“ does not help, as it paints the picture that, on the one hand, the many parts of the population are all equal and, on the other, makes no real distinction between NGOs, initiatives and individuals. „Civil society“ as a whole is made up of layers that may ultimately have opposing class interests – making it difficult to develop clear demands and necessarily limiting the common struggle to a reform of the bourgeois system.

As Marxists, we assume that the working class is the central agency of social change. In doing so, we assume that the image of the workers‘ movement as a representation of white men in blue coats does not do justice to reality. If we look at the working class internationally, it is multi-ethnic and diverse in its gender identities. So it is not a question of ignoring social oppression, but of linking struggles.

The working class as such is relevant because of its key role in the production process. Through its ability to strike, that is, to paralyse production, it has an effective lever to cut off both the money and the practical means of war. A look back at Russian history, above all to 1917, shows the decisive role that the working class, and women in particular, can play in ending wars, for example in the February Revolution.

For us, the key question of how to expand the anti-war campaign is: how can the workers be won over to an anti-war policy? And what political goals are linked to this? If the struggle against the war is to grow into the overthrow of Russian imperialism, it must be waged for the establishment of a revolutionary workers‘ government.

How can it continue?

The FAS does not have such a perspective. Of course, our criticism does not mean that we do not support them in their struggle against the war. On the contrary, we seek discussion with their activists and comrades. In addition, it should also be recognised that the FAS does indeed raise important class political demands. For example, it states:

„We fight for decent working conditions for all and for the respect of citizens‘ labour rights. With the beginning of the war, the number of dismissed and unemployed people is increasing. Employers are using their power and pressure to punish workers for their anti-war stance. The first to suffer from the cuts in labour laws are women and the so-called national minorities, migrants. We support the work of independent trade unions and strikes.“

We think this position makes sense because, as the FAS notes, the war is causing a deterioration in the living conditions of many. In order to win more elements for an anti-war position, current problems such as wage cuts as well as non-payment of wages and rising living costs must be directly addressed and linked to demands for concrete improvements.

In doing so, it makes sense to call on even the trade unions loyal to the regime to become active around these issues, instead of pursuing the politics of a social truce. This serves above all to break away both those who indulge in illusions that this union and its leaders will do something significant for them, and to show those who see it as a mere cultural institution that it must become a place of common struggle.

This should be combined with activities in workplaces where the calls can be discussed. The current repression makes it difficult to link this openly and publicly to the question of war or to quickly turn it into mobilisations. However, the aim must be to stir up discontent in order to eventually use it productively.

The aim could be to organise a joint, cross-sectoral day of action, for example under the slogan „Against the crisis!“ for better working conditions and higher wages, which a) can serve as a check on how many are ready to take to the streets and b) can be used to link struggles together.

We should be aware that chauvinism towards Ukrainians, sexism and LGBTIA+ discrimination will not disappear in the general population just because the situation is getting worse due to the war. In fact, there is an immediate threat these ideas will increase. The key, however, is neither to ignore the issue nor to make total solidarity a precondition of common struggle.

Rather, struggles for improvement must show that there are common interests while, at the same time, proposing structures to protect the socially oppressed, such as caucuses. Similarly, the work is currently made more difficult by the fact that the trade unions are quite passive towards the war. Precisely because of this, it is important to challenge them, this is not counterposed to the existing work that the FAS is doing, as this also creates the basis for being heard.

International solidarity instead of isolation

The activists of the Russian anti-war movement can play a key role in ending the war. In other countries, we should work to ensure that, a) Nato’s own warmongering does not paint a picture of a Russian population that completely supports Putin. Those who see it this way not only deny reality and support further warmongering but miss the chance to strengthen the resistance to Putin. We should b) support progressive forces like the FAS in their opposition work, c) take to the streets against the sanctions against the Russian population, as these primarily worsen their living conditions, while at the same time recognising the right of self-defence of the Ukrainians.

Furthermore, there is a need for a strategic debate that must be conducted internationally. On the one hand, this means learning from activists in Russia, especially how political work is possible in the current situation. On the other hand, there is also a need for substantive debates on the questions of the character of the Russian regime in the imperialist world system, the character of the war and the strategy for ending it.


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