Russia: Mobilization and Resistance


Can the Russian Anti-War Movement Rise to the Challenge?


On September 21, following the Ukrainian counteroffensive of early September, Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of the Russian population to support the “special operation” that the Russian military has been carrying out in Ukraine since last February. In the following analysis, written in collaboration with Russian anarchists and including translated material from the Russian anarchist project, we examine the response from the Russian anti-war movement and the potential of unrest in Russian society at large.

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At the end of March 2022, we wrote that the first phase of the Russian anti-war movement had reached its limits, suppressed chiefly by brute force. We anticipated that the next phase would not get underway until economic sanctions and casualty reports began to take their toll on ordinary Russians. Contrary to expectations, however, the Russian economy has not collapsed—due in part to Western capitalists’ loyalty to Russian oil—and Putin has succeeded in minimizing blowback in Moscow and St. Petersburg by drawing recruits disproportionately from smaller towns.

The other development that could exert a strain on Russian society is the mobilization of those who have been conscripted for military service—for in Russia, all men 18 and older are subject to conscription. After sustaining casualties well into the five-figure range, Putin has finally opted for this approach. Already, we are hearing stories about people being forcibly enlisted in the Russian military. Will this mean that the war grinds on indefinitely—or could it open a new era of political instability in Russia?

In our view, a combative anti-war movement in Russia remains the only hope for peace in the entire former Soviet region. As we argued in March,

“The only way this war could have been averted—and likely the only way it can be stopped now without tremendous loss of life on both sides—would be if a powerful and internationalist anti-war movement broke out in Russia, destabilizing Putin’s government, hopefully followed by something similar in Ukraine and elsewhere around the world. If the war drags on indefinitely, or is concluded by the brute force of nationalist militarism, that will drive people on all sides of the conflict into nationalist and militarist camps for decades to come.

But if the war in Ukraine comes to an end as a result of the rebellion and solidarity of ordinary people, that could set a precedent for more rebellion, more mutiny, more solidarity, and those could spread from Russia to Ukraine, Western Europe, and the United States.

The problem is that over the past decade and a half, Putin has systematically crushed all movements in Russia as well as the surrounding nations. Countless Russians who might otherwise form the backbone of a Russian anti-war movement are already in prison or exile. As anarchists from Irkutsk observed on Telegram the day after Putin announced the “partial mobilization”:

Summer was a period of recession. No one protested, and if they protested, then they protested in an individual form, and it was more like everyday activism.

Yesterday, the situation changed again. And as someone wrote at the end of February—congratulations, we have a revolutionary situation, but we hasten to add that we have no revolutionary force in our country.

How do you create a revolutionary movement under conditions of extreme repression? This is more or less the same question that people have been struggling with in Iran over the past decade, though with greater volatility.

The announcement of the “partial mobilization” prompted a new wave of emigrations. Long lines appeared at the borders, even the border with Mongolia. Ironically, if Russia successfully secures its borders against defectors in order to make conscription effective, that might also close the pressure valve that has made the Russian autocracy sustainable up to now.

Immediately after Putin announced the “partial mobilization,” protesters took the streets around the country. As in February and March, feminists helped organize many of the demonstrations. The protests of September 21 and this past weekend were not quite as large as the demonstrations at the high point of the first wave of protest. But considering that the penalties have been increased to the point that one can spend years in prison now for holding a sign, it is impressive that they occurred at all. (As enthusiasts of the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky, we would like to send a warm greeting to the protesters detained for attempting to read anti-war poetry at the monument to him on Triumfalnaya Square.)

The police responded to all of these demonstrations with brutal force, as usual. In addition, the military mobilization itself is being used punitively: many arrestees were served notice to mobilize at the police stations to which they were taken. Of course, such practices will contribute to the disquieting impression that the mobilization is a partisan maneuver on the part of Putin’s government, targeting sectors of the population rather than advancing a patriotic goal—and could result in the troops at the front being less reliable, as well.

The most interesting protests occurred in smaller towns around the periphery of Russia, where demonstrators have begun to attempt to defend themselves. In the village of Endirei, in Dagestan, for example, police were compelled to shoot over protesters’ heads to regain control. In Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, protesters attempted to block a road and clashed with police. If the Russian net of control begins to fray, it will start by fraying around the edges, not in the center of the metropolis.

With conventional protest so costly, the chief form of protest that has gained momentum over the past seven months has been clandestine attacks, notably arsons targeting recruitment centers and railroad sabotage. Before the announcement of the “partial mobilization,” there had been at least 37 arson attacks against military enlistment offices and administrative buildings since the invasion of Ukraine; by the morning of September 25, at least 17 more such attacks were reported after Putin announced the mobilization. Another one occurred as we were completing this report, bringing the grand total to 55 altogether.

Some of these attacks may well be the work of organized anarchists such as those associated with the clandestine Anarcho-Communist Combat Organization, which has been receiving considerable publicity since we interviewed them last month. Others are simply acts of desperation. In the past 24 hours, a man protesting against the mobilization set himself on fire at the Ryazan bus station. Another shot the head of the recruitment commission in the city of Ust-Ilimsk, Irkutsk. Reportedly, when the military commissar was instructing recruits, the attacker declared “No one is going anywhere!” and felled him with a bullet. As in Kazakhstan, the fact that protest is so difficult means that the line between going out into the streets with a hand-drawn sign and going out alone with a can of gasoline or an improvised firearm is narrower than it is in Western Europe and the United States.

Although it is finally becoming thinkable that, backed into a corner, Putin might one day lose his grip on power, it is by no means guaranteed that what will come next will be better. Frustrated nationalism is the classic breeding ground for fascism, and many of those who have dared to criticize Putin’s foreign policy are hawks who have been demanding a more aggressive policy towards Ukraine and its allies. Putin has cultivated loyal nationalist and fascist movements while crushing autonomous and anti-authoritarian movements and subcultures, and the legacy of the Soviet Union has discredited leftist and communist proposals in the minds of millions of Russians.

It is crucial that we direct resources and support towards Russian anarchists and anti-war protesters, so that they will have the means they need at their disposal to make their case to other Russians—not just for the end of the war in Ukraine, but also for a new model of society to follow Putin’s regime, more participatory and egalitarian. The capitalist feeding frenzy that took place upon the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a disaster of catastrophic proportions; it is understandable that many Russians consequently fear change, and it is up to anarchists to show that social transformation could have different results.

As we argued in The Uprising in Kazakhstan,

“Real social change—in the Rusosphere as in the West—will require a protracted struggle. Overthrowing the government is necessary, but not sufficient: in order to defend themselves against future political and economic impositions, ordinary people will have to develop collective power on a horizontal, decentralized basis. This is not the work of a day or a year, but of a generation.”

Russian police struggle to maintain control over protesters in Endirei, Dagestan.

We have long emphasized that the situation in Russia does not warrant our attention because it represents an egregious and exceptional case of state oppression, but rather because it is a varient on the same situation that all of us face all around the world. Totalitarian autocracy has lost no ground in the 21st century as a template for state power. It is gaining ground in Europe—witness this week’s electoral victory for the extreme right in Italy—as well as the United States.

As conflicts over resources intensify, exacerbated by ecological crises, we will probably see more wars like the one in Ukraine. Indeed, this is already occurring elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, as hostilities intensify between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Those fighting against authoritarianism and militarism in Russia today are fighting the same things that we must fight elsewhere across the world, and we should be learning from them and supporting them.

In a totalitarian regime, sometimes the freest place you can be is the back of an arrest vehicle.

Night of the Deserter

What follows is a translation of the September 25 episode of the weekly podcast of the Russian anarchist network and media platform,

Sabotage the Mobilization

The main news of the week is the so-called “partial mobilization” announced by the so-called President Putin. In fact, there is nothing “partial” in it: the population of Russia is simply given to the Ministry of Defense to feed on: the ministry will take as many people as they want for cannon fodder. First, they will take away the jingoistic patriots, then the apolitical townsfolk, and then they will come for the remaining intellectuals, even if those are of limited use.

This is a gesture of desperation on Putin’s part: it shows that the strategy of carrying out a quick conventional war in Ukraine has definitively failed, that Russia has run out of its more or less professional army, that it has no air supremacy, the modern weapons are running out, and all that remains is to fill up the front line with the corpses of random men from around the country. And of course, this mobilization will not strategically change anything in the war (unless it brings the end of Putin closer). On the one hand, this is good: if the Russian empire began to win, in the long run it would be much worse for everyone who lives in Ukraine (and in Russia too). But in the short term, the mobilization will only bring great suffering to the Russians who end up crushed by the regime’s measures—like those caught in any senseless imperial meat grinder.

Let’s start with the fact that those who are mobilized will lose their jobs (employment contracts, it seems, are simply suspended for those who are mobilized, but it is clear that in reality, no boss will wait for potential 200s to return [“200” is a Russian expression for a soldier killed in action]), and we will conclude with the obvious risks of cannon fodder on the front line. You can return from the army fighting in Ukraine either in a coffin, or hospitalized with a serious wound, or as a deserter, which in this case is a criminal offense involving a real prison sentence. In other words, even from a purely pragmatic point of view, it is smarter to avoid the army and the mobilization even after you have received the summons, and in the worst case, receive a fine or a suspended sentence.

However, for now, queues of either volunteers or fearless idiots are still lining up. The behavior of those who are now ready to dutifully go to the draft board, although so far there is only an administrative punishment for not appearing (and many guides have come out about this), reminds us of the old Soviet joke, in which they announced at the factory: “Tomorrow we will hang everyone on the grounds of the plant! Do you have any questions?” and in response, a timid voice pipes up from the audience: “Do we have to bring a rope and soap with us, or will those be given out in the trade union?” [In Russian, “a rope and soap” is an expression for what one needs to hang oneself; the soap is to keep the rope from slipping.] It is especially amusing in this regard that in Moscow, one of the mobilization points was set up in the Darwin Museum—apparently in order to immediately present the Darwin Prize to those who show up. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “these people were not villains, perverts, or sadists: no, the worst thing is that they were and remain terribly, terribly normal.”

We have no doubt that our readers do not aspire to Putin’s imperialist war of conquest. What are they supposed to do, if they face the threat of being mobilized? [There is a pun in the original Russian here: mobilizatsiya, the Russian for “mobilization,” is adjusted to “moGilizatsiya,” because mogila is Russian for “grave.”] There is only one answer: sabotage it in every possible way. Now, in September 2022, the real “Day of the Deserter” is coming. [In Russia, February 23 is observed as the Day of Defender of the Fatherland, honoring all who served in the military. Traditionally, anarchists organize anti-militarist events on that day, calling it “Day of the Deserter.”]

Do not go to military enlistment offices, do not accept subpoenas, do not stay at the address where you are registered. Do not tell any authorities where you are: let them try to find you. You can apply for alternative civil service regardless of your real beliefs. Don’t go to work, take sick leave. In general, feel free to break their laws: your life is more important.

Another option is to flee the country. For example, Germany seems to be ready to accept deserters from the Russian army. Here, everyone should decide for himself or herself, but it is clear that not everyone has the resources to leave Russia, nor the desire to. In addition, there is the possibility that you will be detained when crossing the border.

Finally, remember: solidarity, mutual assistance and collective activity. If everyone just sits in the cellar alone or leaves for Georgia, Putin will rule forever [in the Russian, this is phrased “the collective Putin,” as in, the generalized mindset of resignation and obedience]. Participate in actions against the mobilization. The anti-war street protests around the country on September 24 did not draw particularly large numbers of people. But there seems to be some radicalization—in Moscow, demonstrators snatched detainees back from the police. In any case, it is better to be jailed for 15 days or even 10 years than to be torn to shreds by a HIMARS [a US-made light rocket launcher] shell or shot by bandits from Kadyrov’s detachments somewhere near Bakhmut [Ramzan Kadyrov is head of the Chechen Republic and a lieutenant general in the Russian military; Bakhmut is a city in the Donetsk Oblast].

It is collective action that can change the situation in the country—not individuals trying to save themselves. Action by all available means. If we sit on the sidelines now, few will get away. On the day the mobilization was announced, military registration and enlistment offices began to catch fire more often, and the more of them burn down, the more slowly the mobilization will proceed. The night of the deserter begins. But be careful: it is important that at least some anarchists are still in Russia and at large when the protests start to attract large numbers of people.

Either way: sabotage the mobilization, throw sand in the gears of the death machine. Even if you just convince a couple of acquaintances not to take subpoenas, this is already an important act.

Anti-war demonstrators in Makhachkala respond to police brutality.

It’s Going to Get Worse

Russia is losing the ongoing conventional (non-nuclear) war. Yes, and a backward half-de-industrialized country cannot fight against almost the whole world, even if it has a very large territory (if anything, that represents an additional vulnerability). Therefore, if everything continues the way it is going now, then the future of Russia is: capitulation, reparations, poverty, and quite likely disintegration (voluntarily or not). It will be hard for people on the territory of the current Russian Federation, but at least they will have a chance to rebuild their societies from scratch. Anti-authoritarian forces can also play a significant role in this, and it does not matter whether they are called “anarchists” or some kind of “vague democrats.”

There is another outcome: frightened by the prospect of repeating the fate of Gaddafi, Putin launches nuclear weapons (provided that those have not already rusted completely). It is difficult to predict the further development of events, but this threat is clearly not limited to the territory of Ukraine. So this possibility is much worse than the previous one. How to prevent it—and whether grassroots political movements can somehow influence this—is an open question. In any case, nuclear weapons are not a very good idea in principle, and nuclear weapons in the hands of a senile old man in the Kremlin are worse.

The War Spreads

As always happens, under the cover of the war in Ukraine, neighboring countries are also beginning to solve their problems by military force. Here, Tajikistan is exchanging fire with Kyrgyzstan on the border; there, Azerbaijan crosses the border with Armenia and occupies new territories, and all this involves corpses and wounded. The attention of the world is riveted on Ukraine—so why not take advantage of that? This is how the world wars started.

We must not forget about this; we should at least pay attention to petty imperialists like Azerbaijan. After all, everything is learned through comparison: Russia, compared to the United States, is also a small-scale imperialist, but nevertheless, this does not mean that we should turn a blind eye to its misdeeds (even if we are told to do so by Noam Chomsky and Roger Waters, who are reliably protected from the electrodes of the FSB [the Russian secret police] by American and British passports).

Russian police attacking protesters in St. Petersburg—will they suppress the last vestiges of dissent in Russia, or make it into a pressure cooker?

Further Reading