Russia: Students against the war (Part One)
June 14, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Posle — Student protest is one of the most visible forms of opposition to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Now when public protests are banned, activists are forced to create new modes of resistance and organization. We publish a conversation between activists about their protest activities, tactical challenges, and future plans.
Posle: Here we have members of the Student Anti-War Movement, SAD* (All-Russia Initiative), PhysTech Against War (Moscow), Vyatka State University group Viatka Whispers (Kirov), Groza Media (Kazan, Novosibirsk), and the Tyumen State University Initiative Group (Tyumen). Thank you for joining us today. First, each group has the floor, and then we move to a general discussion.
Sophia (SAD): A couple of opening remarks on the student initiatives in today’s Russia, the country that is waging war in Ukraine. On February 24, we all faced a catastrophe. Why do students seem particularly important for the anti-war resistance? Why do we see them as a vital protest force?
First of all, students have a great resource in terms of age. When people in Russia are asked about protest activity, they often say that they fear not only for themselves but also for the loved ones who depend on them: children, older parents, and other relatives in need of care and support. In most cases, students, unlike people who are older, are not responsible for the well-being of their families.
Second, the student movement works not only for its own reproduction or the visibility of protest activity for other citizens who disagree with the war. Students are part of educational institutions directly related to the state. It is through these institutions that the state ideological apparatus functions and that certain values are transmitted. The student movement is therefore aimed at interacting with educational institutions or opposing them.
Third, the university has advantages for creating collectivity in an extremely atomized Russian society. Typically, universities occupy large buildings and even compounds, with lots of people interacting in such public spaces as classrooms, canteens, or dormitories. Whereas company employees, for example, often have different functions, stick to their workplaces in small, disparate offices, and occupy clearly defined areas, students constantly pass through the common and public spaces. Universities, therefore, provide a special environment that helps people meet each other, talk, discuss, and consequently, prompt their engagement.
Another peculiarity of student resistance is the richness of its history which can serve as a reference and a source of inspiration. Student activism in many countries has contributed enormously to political and cultural change, at times, becoming a driving force behind it. This is why in our Telegram channel we try to publish materials about the history of student and anti-war movements. This protest does not need to be completely reinvented, it can draw from examples, images, models, and strategies that can be researched, analyzed, and adapted to this concrete situation.
Student protest, of course, has its weaknesses. Stopping or sabotaging a university could not decisively affect the course of events — education is simply not this kind of industry that vitally depends on such a strike. Besides, student organizations often remain formal, weak and loyal to the institution. And, of course, there is a certain level of passivity and fear, even though it is not a distinctive feature of the student community but rather a characteristic of Russian society as a whole.
Now about how the student resistance has developed over these three long months. At first, we saw a surge of protest activity, but now that the first shock and enthusiasm has passed, it is becoming harder and harder to sustain and develop it. Many of those involved in anti-war activism experience burnout, fatigue, and despair, constantly seeing pictures of death and destruction in Ukraine as well as the insanity and brutality of repression in Russia. Unfortunately, today’s protests do not produce quick and visible change, so we see our mission as preparing the infrastructure, making connections, and exploring ways and possibilities for further transformation. In other words, we need to create communities that could potentially form the basis for a future society — a more proactive one, consisting of those who are more aware of what kind of state they would like to live in and what kind of things they would like to happen in their country. A society where there would not be the numbness and passivity that made such terrible events as the war in Ukraine possible. This is also why we have gathered here today, to take a step in this direction.
Mark (PhysTech against War): When the war started, we — a few students of the Physics Department — decided to get together and discuss what we could do. We co-operated through various student subgroups and arranged a meeting. About 15-20 people showed up. At first, we had the idea (and we still share it today) that we should work on making our anti-war stance visible through, for instance, giving people green ribbons, leaving anti-war inscriptions on the boards in classrooms, and pasting anti-war stickers. Some of these initiatives were carried out, while others, such as the idea of green ribbons, met with little support.
Our activities have now been transformed: we meet regularly to discuss issues related to the war, whether historical or socio-political. These meetings are open, and new people come regularly, with 1-2 newcomers at each meeting. There are several dozen people in the community of meeting participants. We have a channel on Telegram with a little less than 700 subscribers. I suspect that this is not a huge part of all the students at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, with its 7,000 students or so.
Another focus of our work is to support comrades who find themselves in a difficult situation because of their individual protest actions. For example, if they were detained at rallies, but not only that. We supported them in court, made care packages for those in jail, and called police offices when the detained people were not released.
We decided that we would not act anonymously, and that we should act publicly. We speak about who we are, we speak about our positions and methods. Granted, not everyone in our community reveals his or her identity and name, but some people act publicly in the face of the administration. On that score, we are lucky compared to other universities: the administration did not support us, of course, but it was lenient. Initially, we were told not to cross the red line, otherwise, we would be in trouble. This line was not clearly marked, but as far as I understand, at this stage, our work does not cross it, and we do not face much resistance.
I would say that, as of today, our main problem is the very narrow range of actions that can be taken so that they do not lead to problems if carried out publicly and openly. To be honest, there are almost no such options right now, and the activity that we do cannot really be called anti-war. It’s more about supporting people with anti-war views, maintaining and strengthening horizontal connections until such time as there is an opportunity for change.
We find ourselves in this difficult situation: if we don’t take action, the community will stagnate; if there is too much activity, there is a risk of persecution and, again, stagnation. We have to walk between these two extremes to be able to influence the situation.
Anna (Tyumen State University): I represent the TyumSU initiative group that was created this year. We literally just started our thing, we have not yet had time to do anything in particular, but we have already gained experience that we can share. First of all, while participation in a registered student association could grant one certain benefits and appreciation, participation in an independent initiative, on the contrary, leads to higher requirements and pressures. One should be ready for this, and there should be structures ready to stand up for students. These could be conventional structures taken over: student councils, trade unions, etc. Alternatively, you can get organized into small alternative groups depending on the issue and the people who have the ability to resolve it, and afterward keep such a group as a permanently functioning organization.
Secondly, it is a shame that we are unable to draw on the experience of previous generations: because the advent of the Internet age has radically changed student life and we are now forced to look for new forms of self-organization and activism. It is not enough to just run a Telegram channel or distribute leaflets, we have to do all sorts of things. And, both offline and online activities will be followed by counterreaction of the University administration. Oh, and congratulations are in order — they have just expelled me! [note: Anna has been recently expelled from Tyumen State University for creating and promoting the initiative group].
Aleksey (Viatka Whispers): In my first year, I had the idea to develop a meme platform. It was a small thing that started it all. Over time, I made connections with other people who ran similar informal blogs and meme communities. For a long time, we used the Telegram channel for memes and messages that could not be published on Vkontakte [popular Russian social media], for example, a story about the managers from the Dean’s office who went to Navalny’s rallies to check up on students.
In February, when the war started, I realized that we had to change the content and bond even more strongly. We were afraid less than others because in Kirov young people who form the opposition are all connected and know each other. You may have heard about the Youth Parliaments in the regional legislative assemblies. Students from various universities and parties participated in these parliamentary elections in order to get into legislative work even though this parliament was an advisory body. For many opposition members turned out to be in the parliament, their statements and conflicts with pro-government members eventually led to its forced dissolution. This is what brought those young people involved even closer to each other.
Now I will tell you about the micro-actions organized via our Telegram channel. We decided that we would support those who were charged under the articles 20.2 and 20.3.3 of the Russian Code of Administrative Offences [note: mass action carried out in violation of the established order and defamation of the Russian army respectively]. There are those, for instance, who were charged simply for reposting a message. We encourage people to come to a certain hearing, we make a video recording of it, and we try to argue that these are activists who are punished without reason and that they need support. At first, only a few people came; but at the last court session which took place in mid-May we filled almost the entire courtroom and a representative of the press also showed up.
As for offline events, we organized a workshop, inviting people who could sew, draw, or customize clothes. When the protest wave was ebbing, we began making protest visuals so that those who do not know how to do it or simply lack the materials would find it easier to get involved.
In March, we published an open anti-war letter, just like other universities. After its publication, those students who signed it were summoned to the Dean’s office for a talk. For some of them, it went smoothly, while others experienced a lot of pressure. Then we teamed up with people from other cities, who also have Telegram channels or are able to collect and spread the word, and created a manual [note: the manual on how to act during a conversation at the Dean’s office]. If I’m not mistaken, no other students were invited after this manual became available.
Now the only way now to prompt student awareness and provide students we do not know personally with relevant information is cross-posting and cross-sharing with other activists and similar Telegram channels: this is how information circulates and we all get connected.
Leonid (Groza): Groza** is a network of independent student publications operating in various regions of the country. Two years ago we launched an independent student media in Kazan, and it was successful, so now we can try to do it in other cities. For about a month we have already been working in Novosibirsk, in the next few days we will launch a publication in Yekaterinburg, and the fourth city on our list is St. Petersburg.
I will tell you about the attitudes of the two cities, in which we are active. In Kazan, the students are generally rather passive. Something is still going on, but no one speaks publicly anymore, no one goes picketing. Initially, there the vast majority was prone to the protest sentiment but then the latter declined. People are getting used to war, and this is very bad. Against this background, propaganda is on the rise.
In Tatarstan, the University administration is aware that if they put extra pressure on young people in dissent, their dissent will only get stronger. For example, students of Kazan State University of Architecture and Engineering are scared into expulsion, everyone is gnawing at each other and ready to report on each other, and there is even a Z-sign on the rector’s door. But at the same time, there is a brave student picketing [note: the student’s name is Denis Mokrushin]: the more pressure, the greater the backlash.
University propaganda began about a month later after the war began, that is with a long delay. At first, it was of very low quality, and we covered it all in detail, but having observed. In this reaction, those doing propaganda work began to introduce more sophisticated methods. They invited Marat Bashirov to Kazan KFU, a political scientist who is smart and able to convince a person without a stable stance. In general, the University started talking to students and answering their difficult questions. This is very unfortunate because war is not a matter of debate, there is nothing to discuss, really.
As for Novosibirsk, the pressure at the universities is not that strong and sophisticated. When we visited Novosibirsk State University, we have not noticed any ultra-patriotic slogans or Z-signs. Smaller universities have their pro-state propaganda but it is shallow and cringey, performed rather formally than aimed at being efficient unlike in Kazan. In Novosibirsk, there was an anti-war initiative signed by 1400 people or so only from NSU, that is, compared to Kazan, a very large number of students.
Sofia (SAD): We used to name ourselves Students Against the War, but now we have changed our name to the Student Anti-War Movement. We see ourselves as a grassroots, horizontal movement connecting students and building on various University initiatives. We operate anonymously, primarily because we aim at creating an infrastructure for connecting communities and introducing ideas of protest activism. In other words, our main task goes beyond speaking out against the war, and we want to do it before we face pressure.
First, we organized education strike Books Instead of Bombs. The idea behind it was to form student groups through self-education, such as discussion clubs and groups of interest. These clubs could serve as laboratories of sorts, where students learn to communicate, express their desires and anxieties, try to make sense of the situation, and discuss how they could make a difference.
Second, we organized the Coalition of Teachers Against the War. This involved having face-to-face meetings, contacting professors, writing instructions and suggestions on how they could participate in the anti-war resistance, teach in the new circumstances, and support their students.
Third, we launched the campaign Rector, Withdraw Your Signature!, and we recently summarized its interim results. Unfortunately, the campaign has not achieved its initial goal. And yet, the campaign hopefully prompted student engagement and facilitated connections within the University.
The second part of this discussion will be published shortly
*SAD is the abbreviation of the Student Anti-war Movement (Studencheskoe Anti Voyennoye Dvizheniye in Russian), with sad also meaning garden, hence the wordplay.
**Groza means thunderstorm in Russian.