Both supporters and opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war against Ukraine all too often rely on two primary factors to determine the amount of public opposition to his policies among the Russian population. Many assume that protests are the best measure, concluding that when they are many in number and quite large, domestic opposition is high; and when they are few and sparse, opposition is negligible, forgetting that Putin’s police powers are sufficiently great to repress those who do take part in such demonstrations and keep others from taking the risk of participating. At the same time, many choose to rely on polls from Russian agencies, which routinely show overwhelming support for Putin and his war, forgetting that both the pollsters and those polled have learned from bitter experience just what the “right” answers are and how dangerous the “wrong” answers might be.
That is not to say that these measures are irrelevant. Obviously, massive protests do say a great deal about how angry the Russian people are and how willing they are to risk taking to the streets. Indeed, in that sense, these indicators may be even better measures of the intensity of opposition to Putin’s war in Russia than they would be in a democratic country. As no one should forget, protests broke out throughout the country both after February 24, when the Russian president announced his expanded invasion of Ukraine, and after September 21, when he declared the “partial mobilization” order. Equally obvious, as Moscow polls show, many Russians do in fact support Putin and his war, either out of traditional deference to those in power, misplaced patriotism or—and this may be the most consequential—the impact of his widespread control over most of the Russian media. Even so, other factors reveal that there is far more domestic opposition to Putin and his war than either the absence of mass protests or poll results appear to suggest.
As the editors of an important new book produced by the Tatar-Bashkir Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty put it: “In the first days and weeks of the war, protests did take place on the streets of Russian cities, perhaps not as large as many would have liked, but mass protests all the same” (The book, Saying No to War, contains the testimonies of 40 persons who have protested individual and collectively in the days since the start of the war.) But Putin’s siloviki quickly moved in and the protest wave appeared to have been squashed.
In fact, however, as written in the book: “This protest was not broken, it was dispersed; and its seeds spread from the central squares of the capital to the streets and kitchens of the entire country. It became quieter but even larger.” One measure of this is the appearance of anti-war and anti-Kremlin anecdotes, the traditional weapon the Russian population uses against the powers that be and one that history suggests the Russian authorities can ignore only at their own peril (Publizist.ru, November 10). But a number of other, and likely more significant, acts of protests have been carried out in recent weeks.
As the editors of Say No to War, and many others, have noted, since the start of Russia’s expanded war against Ukraine, several hundred thousand Russians have fled the country—“separating themselves from their homeland forever or at least WPL [While Putin Lives]”—which is clearly a more dramatic form of protest than even demonstrating in the streets. Equally important, many of those who remain in Russia, but are not marching in mass demonstrations, are still in fact taking action, resisting the draft, staging individual pickets, posting anti-war comments on social media, talking with family and friends and even launching new media to fight the Kremlin’s war propaganda (Novayagazeta.eu, November 11; Meduza, November 14). Now, many are being subjected to repression even for these quieter actions. “They fill the lists of those arrested; they are the ones whose faces are pushed into the pavement; they are the ones threatened; and they and their families are the ones frightened,” as stipulated by the editors.
Meanwhile, some in Russia are taking even more dramatic actions than even those described in Say No to War. Since February 2022, no fewer than 70 military commissariats and government offices have been firebombed or otherwise attacked in at least half of the country’s federal subjects, actions that the police seem almost powerless to prevent (Kasparov.ru, November 9). Feminist, non-Russian and regionalist movements are feeding on these anti-war feelings, helping their ranks and influence to swell (Reforum.io, August 25; Sakhalife.ru, September 23; Zapravakbr.ru, October 15). Most recently, earlier this week, St. Petersburg residents demonstrated their opposition to the war and Putin by seeking to shut down the Wagner Group office there opened by Putin’s favorite “chef,” Yevgeny Prigozhin (Stoletie.ru, November 15).
But perhaps the best measure of the true amount of domestic opposition to Putin and his war are not these actions or even the polls showing that support for him and his war is slipping (Rusmonitor.com, November 11). Rather, it is the increasingly repressive actions taken by the Kremlin to try to stamp out any opposition, an indication of Putin’s own assessment of the situation and a move that history suggests may prove to be more like throwing water on a grease fire, spreading the flames rather than putting them out (Meduza, October 17; Novayagazeta.eu, November 16).
In choosing to protest in these various ways despite the risks, the editors of Say No to War continue, the peoples of Russia are “making a conscious choice, moving toward active opposition. … They are fighting to show others who feel as they do that they are not alone. … But most of all they are fighting to overcome fear and impotence, their own and that of others. And in this, they are succeeding.” While some of the protest actions may be as dramatic as mass demonstrations, open conflicts with the police or the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens, these quieter actions, although attracting less media attention, are likely doing more to undermine Putin and his war far more effectively than anything else—and their impact may not be felt until it is too late for Putin and his regime to do anything about it.