Russia: Students against the war (Part Two)

Russian students against war graphic

By Posle

June 17, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Posle — On plans for the future

Sophia (SAD): The first thing on our agenda is the communication among students within cities and universities and between them. This is necessary in order to establish connections and share experiences between initiatives, as well as to ensure that people who feel lonely could become part of the teams which already exist. At first we were afraid that this might not be safe for students, so we didn’t pay much attention to this work. Now we are thinking about an application form for new-comers and some kind of verification technique.

The second important issue is cooperation with trade unions and student organizations. We think about ways to infiltrate existing official trade unions and student councils, as well as about strategies for creating new ones. At this point we are cooperating with Antijob [a website for blacklisting employers] and the Anti-War Foundation [a Telegram channel helping people fired because of their anti-war stance], who provide advice and help with self-organization. Yet these two initiatives are more relevant for teachers, especially those who get fired for their anti-war position.

Thirdly, we are now actively developing the idea of ​​“Drifts”. Most people who put up leaflets, draw graffiti or make memorials do it alone and in the process they aggregate knowledge on how to do it safely. They note the most suitable places, look at the location of cameras. Currently this knowledge is not recorded anywhere, and the idea behind “Drifts” is to produce a map of the city enabling individual activists to transmit and prolong the protest. If a person wants to get into [activism] for the first time, using this tool would enable them to connect to an already existing route or initiative instead of starting from scratch.

Lilia (SAD): Yes, “Drift” is primarily about the decentralization of the protest and its sustainability. We know that centralized protests don’t work. The last wave was April 2. Then people simply did not reach the protest event, being rapidly caught and pushed into police wagons. Often these centralized protests are organized by people who have already left [Russia] and do not understand very well what is happening here and now. That is why we would like to make street protests more fragmented and elusive, so that protest activity could take place not only in the city center but in more remote residential areas as well.

We also need to create local and translocal alliances to bring universality into protest. Such univerality takes multiplicity into account and does not try to force everyone to participate in a single unified type of protest. We are currently developing various strategies of action on the ground and we really want to bring together as many regions as possible. It seems to me that this is in tune with the recent surge of decolonial initiatives [note: various anti-war petitions and open letters have been signed by representatives of non-russian nationalities]. In addition, in order for the protest not to fizzle out and become depressing, you need to bring something fun into it. “Drift” is both a walk and a research into the urban space.

Mark (PhysTech against War): Soon there will be multiple-level elections in many regions, in Moscow, in particular, there will be elections into municipal councils. Candidates [from the opposition] will one way or another, maybe in a disguised manner, introduce the anti-war agenda. We are planning to participate in election campaigns of these candidates and help them to convey their anti-war message to voters.

Aleksey (Viatka Whispers): We also have an idea that we might implement. My friend suggested that we could create a list of employees who actively disseminate pro-war propaganda at the university. Unfortunately, there are such teachers. Now it is difficult to somehow influence them, but in the future such a list will help to understand who is worthy of cooperation and who should be avoided.

On protest dynamics and protest experience

Aleksey (Viatka Whispers): When the war started everyone was constantly checking their phones to see what was happening. There appeared to be some people who actively supported the invasion. Then they started to understand the consequences: someone had relatives sent to war, someone’s financial situation worsened, so the number of war supporters declined.

It seems to me that many students have an anti-war position, but in order to preserve their mental health they either isolate themselves from the war or discuss it, but only in

conversations with friends if something strikes their nerves. On the other hand, there are new

activists and new media projects. There seem to be more active people anyway.

Leonid (Groza): In general, since the beginning of the war, those who are against it have radicalized. Those who are for it did not speak out then, and they are still not vocal about it, yet there seems to be more neutrality. It is expressed in the fact that people are no longer so touched by what’s going on. We publish news about all the people [recruited to the Russian army] from Tatarstan. If at first it caused sadness, now it starts to infuriate people, they go like: “Why are you publishing this at all?” But we will publish this information because war is war, and even if you don’t want to know about it, you have to know. Everyone gets enraged that there are such aggravating issues in the newsfeed, instead of being outraged by the war itself., Some people are upset to hear about the war and they don’t want it to be discussed. Also no one really wants to do anything. There was an anti-war letter followed by police searching people’s homes and now students of the Kazan Federal University, for instance, no longer go out with pickets. There is a group called Resonance, they put up flyers anonymously and their activities are more guerilla-like. Unfortunately, overall the activity is on the decline.

Vasilisa (SAD): It seems to me that there is a decline because people are tired — we constantly do something, but nothing changes. Now the question is about transformation. I think that this summer should be used for preparation. For example, this time could be used to change the student councils of your universities. We can prepare a program we will propose to student councils in order to expand student self-government. Administrations supported the war, and the student councils as the lower level of the administration did not resist, they remained silent, pretending that nothing had changed. Perhaps this lower level which is between the administration and the students, is a good target to transform the movement.

Nestor (SAD): Of course, we have some legal and publicity issues, but they no longer have the same importance that the liberal opposition, for example, used to attach to them. The war put us in such conditions that we can’t just go out to the squares [to participate in protest rallies], there are not enough people for that, and the event itself is already perceived differently. At the same time, the protest mood varies from rejection, bargaining, attempts to protect oneself from [information about the war] to sublimation and sometimes — productive actions. It is very important for us to track the variations of the protest, to find resonances. We see that there are people who are ready to paste leaflets, practice what is referred to as vandalism, arrange sabotage, even use some kind of violence. We need to understand how to respond to this and get involved at the level of association and solidarity. We all have a different political background and it will not be possible to create some kind of a common anti-war movement without being guided by the logic of plurality. We need to diversify, focus on local and regional initiatives, on gathering people in specific places, in specific cities, in specific universities. At the media level as well. For example, our channel is sometimes sluggish, and this should be compensated by other associated resources. Even if it is journalism which should maintain neutrality and objectivity, posting news [about the war] in our situation is already a gesture. It would be great if we managed to make all those things converge. It’s an interesting time we live in, we have few hopes, but, on the other hand, many prospects. We would like to make this soil fertile, so that new people could come and help those who are already involved, give them a little break. 

Mark (PhysTech against the War): It seems to me that we tend to underestimate the negative consequences, which consist in participants’ demotivation when events planned as massive ones fail to attract many people.It is necessary to act responsibly when calling on people to take part in protest activities. For example, we called people to wear green ribbons on campus, and this did not happen. I believe that it is necessary to look realistically at whether the protests can be organized on a mass scale, so as not to demotivate those who decide to participate in them.

On education and politics

Anna (Tyumen State University): In Tyumen State University, the head of the youth policy department bad-mouthed PhysTech against the War. He claimed that the main goal of the university was to provide a quality education, with the rest not being beyond its concern. What can you say about this?

Mark (PhysTech): Education is not an end in itself, as any activity should have human [development] for its objective. Knowledge of the world is necessary so that people could live well, live longer and better, and war is the moment when you can’t just go about your business and education, because they no longer make sense.

Petr (PhysTech): The connection between education and the political agenda is very simple. For example, there are foreign courses that have revoked their licenses and now, because of the war, they cannot work with Russian universities. I took a course on Coursera and I can’t finish it because they cut off contacts with PhysTech.

Mikhail (PhysTech against the War): For as long as I studied at the university and worked in the laboratory, all the equipment was foreign, and now I have lost access to it. As far as I can tell, it will be possible to work with what is left in stock for another year or two, but then everything will start to break down. For example, in physics: atomic force microscopes, photomultipliers, vacuum pumps, cryogenic equipment, stable power sources — all of those are made abroad. The same goes for computer technologies and equipment for supercomputers. There is nothing like that in Russia. There will be a failure on all fronts, a rollback for 20-30 years, to the level of the 1970s-80s. Something can be replaced, but given the current state of the industry, it will be at the level of the end of the 20th century. Therefore, it is pointless to talk about the future of Russian science, in my opinion.

Leonid (Groza): If we talk about the main changes in higher education, three things can be pointed out:

1. Russia leaves the Bologna process and higher education will become further isolated. I am not a great expert, but we are writing a text about this right now, so here is a quote: “The day the Bologna system is abolished will be the “Victory Day” of the command-administrative regime”. Russian science will be called the insulting word “primitive”. There is nothing much for me to add here.

2. Since February 24, it has become obvious that the TV would not remain the only propaganda weapon,witht all state-run institutions, including schools, kindergartens and universities mobilized to spread it. This will intensify. For example, the head of the Ministry of Education and Science, Valery Falkov, says that they want to introduce 144 hours of unified study of history in universities. It’s clear why this is needed. I have never seen universities being so involved in public policy. The situation will not get any better given this trend, because universities will be even more tied to the state.

3. Universities will start working for the military-industrial complex. We are practically in a state of war, the economy is being reconfigured, which means that universities should too. Now universities will focus on applied research to ensure import substitution. There are also some rumors about graduate placement programs [note: in the Soviet Union university graduates were offered to work in some remote region or at a strategic facility in exchange for an apartment and social benefits]. You need to understand that war is a form of life the state will adjust to, it will remake everything, including universities. For example, a representative of the Ministry of Defense has already visited one of the Siberian universities [to check if their research labs could address military needs].

It will get much worse. Here is my pessimistic view…

Nestor (SAD): I would like to support [what you say], but from an optimistic side. Indeed, we failed to turn universities into a structure against this machine that has fused the state, war, and society, despite the values ​​that education stands for. On the other hand, what gives me hope is the idea of ​​exodus from universities to new systems of knowledge and communities that lie outside universities, but promote the same values ​​that the university was supposed to foster. Because even if a person, for example, in accordance with the target placement [of students after they finish their studies], goes to write software for homing missiles, you can still rely on this person as on a virus in this system. Right now in our system, we are a minority of viruses that seek to infect knowledge and the public field. We see that we manage to still do something, maybe not as much as we would like, but still… Still, we have gathered here today, and having a long experience of activism I see this as a good sign. For many years there was no basis for students from different cities to find common ground, to concentrate political efforts in the same vein, and this is at least a positive factor.

Alexei Borovoy, an anarchist theorist and renowned teacher at the Moscow University in the 1920s, when the October Revolution happened said that the only way to save the university was to leave it. We can offer some forms of association outside the university at the level of media, online communication, and in the long term — at the level of meeting in person. All this is quite possible in the face of a deteriorating situation, because it offers us new tools for analysis and action.

Vasilisa (SAD): We are facing a pressing question about the meaning of education in general. Now education is when you are made into a professional who takes some kind of job or masters a number of skills, and then performs a number of functions related to it. In this sense, education is a kind of economic investment. At the same time, it is not assumed that you will actively manage something in the country in which you live. Therefore, when initiatives appear at the university that do something for political education, in order to activate and organize people, they take a hit, because “in general, the university is not for that”. The current task is, and it has been for a long time, to redefine the university. Perhaps it is necessary to reorient the university from training professionals to training qualified people capable of changing the conditions of their lives in the broadest sense. Of course, you can decide to leave and do all these things outside the university, but it seems to me that in that case you might lose a lot. The university has some power, even if it is only the power of authority, it can still be used.

Lilia (SAD): I believe we have already begun thinking about the place of the university as an institution and the question of whether to leave it or stay within it, when writing a text on strategy and tactics for the Coalition of Educators. There we were talking about uniting, jointly defending our rights and resisting pressure. This activity takes place within the university, but on the basis of self-organized groups and with the support of various organizations, such as the Anti-War Foundation. Also, the authority mentioned earlier, especially teaching authority, can be used to form student or academic teams. Well, the main goal is to create connections and exchange experience between teachers from different cities and universities. In short, it is proposed to use connections that already exist within the university and to remake them for the anti-war movement. It is not only about walking away from the university, but taking what we find valuable there with us.