By Phil Butland
Thanks for being here and talking to us. Could you start by introducing yourself. Who are you? What’s your background? What are you doing in Berlin-Brandenburg?
My name is Sasha. I was born in Ukraine, but I grew up and spent most of my life in Moscow. I’m a member of the Russian Socialist Movement and a number of other anti-war initiatives. In Berlin, I’m doing a PhD on the socialist women’s movement in the Soviet Union after the Second World War.
Could you say something about the Russian Socialist Movement? Who is it? How big is it and what are its general politics?
Our movement was founded in 2011 as a result of the unification of number of progressive left movements in Russia. We are progressive, left democratic socialists. We used to want a revolution, but now it’s become a bit more realistic. We keep taking part in grassroots activism and protests, but also during recent years, we decided to take part in the elections.
For example, at the last Parliament elections, we supported Mikhail Lobanov, a democratic socialist and trade union activist, who won the campaign on the ground. But then our elections were stolen via internet voting. We also had a number of other candidates in different regional elections.
In contemporary Russia, elections are not something that stabilised the system, quite the opposite, they normally cause protests and mass mobilization — first, through the movement of election observers, and later with mobilization of the electorate whose votes were stolen. After the last elections, there were some protests, but not as huge as we were expecting. But we believe that it is an important experience of politicization for many people.
So we are looking for new tactics in the current political situation in Russia. Our movement is involved in different anti-war initiatives. We are acting in these initiatives anonymously because it’s safer. Our movement had been open, but the current political situation in Russia does not allow us to be that open any more.
The Russian Socialist Movement, has issued several statements, we keep running our social media, but we focus more on the domestic situation in Russia. We are trying to cooperate more with trade unions, local student organisations and other grassroots organisations.
Could you say something about the recent anti-war protests in Russia? One or two weeks ago, the Western media was full of these protests. And now there’s very little coverage. Does this mean that the protests have stopped?
The truth is that such visible protest which is so common for liberal democracy is just not a good tactic for the Russian authoritarian state. The recent protests brought more demoralisation than inspiration to people. Around 15,000 were detained. Others have received fines. There was another attempt to organise these huge street protests on 2nd April, but it was unsuccessful.
The police have learned how to prevent crowds on the street from uniting. They blocked the major streets and the major squares. Although hundreds of people were coming from different directions, they were not able to meet each other and join their forces. This brought a lot of frustration and disappointment.
It is of course important for people to feel co-presence, but in regimes like Russia where the state has had so many years to perfect its mobilization against any type of street politics, we have to come up with different tactics. Activists are spreading leaflets and stickers, printing out prohibited media and putting them into post boxes in their neighbourhoods, etc. There has been already a catalogue of different anti-war activities developed.
Feminist Anti-war Resistance have called a Women in Black protest, which was started by Israeli women against the occupation of Palestine in 1988. The women* dressed in black stay in silence in crowded places. When people approach them, they start talking, they explain what’s going on. Since it has been announced, hundreds, if not thousands, of women from all over the country, including small villages took part part.
There are many creative actions, like commemoration of people killed by Russian army in Mariupol by putting up wooden crosses, as people in Mariupol have to. The goal was to gather 5000 crosses all over the country, as many as there are civilian victims in Mariupol — the action took place in at least 41 cities and towns. People made these crosses, attached information about Mariupol victims and put up the crosses in their yards, near their houses or on bus stops — wherever people can see them.
One more tactic, borrowed from Turkmenistan, is to write anti-war slogans like “No War” on banknotes. A growing number of people is not only making, but receiving these banknotes in the cafe or from the ATM.
The current anti-war movement is emphasizing the importance of security. We should not expose ourselves to police violence. There is still not the level of grassroots mobilisation against the war that would allow sacrificing yourself for the cause. People are still very atomised, very afraid.
So, the idea is just to spread information and show resistance and discontent on the everyday level while keeping those who do it hidden so that these people feel that they are not alone, and the level of mobilization will steadily grow. There are lots of people who are against the war, so might join some anti-war protest in the future.
Is the anti-war movement making any specific demands apart from Stop the War?
It partly depends on what part of the anti-war movement you’re talking about. The demands of the demonstration on April 2nd were withdrawal of Russian troops, but also the exchange of captured soldiers from both sides, and the announcement of real military losses on the Russian side.
Another demand is the cancellation of recent anti-constitutional laws, for example one that sentences you to up to 15 years in prison for publishing “fake information about activities of Russian military forces abroad”, which means any news about the situation in Ukraine.
Some are also demanding sanctions against Russian oligarchs and even Russian oil and gas. But these demands cannot be published in Russia because it’s a criminal offence.
When the war started, we were all just shocked and started doing whatever we can without actually thinking about strategy. Our only demand was the withdrawal of Russian troops. But now we see that we need different tactics, like demanding to know the real numbers of dead soldiers or the exchange of captured soldiers.
These are tactics suggested by the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which was established during that Afghan war and was very active during both Chechen wars. By bringing captured soldiers back, they are able to circulate the real information about what’s going on the battlefield.
This helps kill the spirit of the army because the only way to end this war is convince soldiers to stop fighting. But we have no access to the army, so the only way to circulate information in Russia is amongst their parents and colleagues, where we can promote the idea of not going to the war or leaving the battlefield and letting them know how bloody the war is.
On 1st April, regular spring conscription started in Russia – it is still compulsory. We are planning to circulate information about how to avoid conscription via websites that are popular amongst teenage boys or young adults like Twitch or 4chan. We are thinking about tactics which broaden our audience, and reach channels which are not part of feminist or Left-Wing discourse.
What can you say about the work done by anti-war activists outside Russia?
People abroad have opportunities, say, to administer Telegram channels and social media. They can post relatively safely on behalf of different types of initiatives. There are some editorial boards in exile. You can also register a fake account on a foreign phone number and spread news about what’s going on in Ukraine which is difficult for people in Russia to do via Russian social media Vk.com and Ok.ru.
We can also establish connections with different Western movements and do fundraising. For example, the Feminist anti-war resistance has launched a strike fund. They cannot crowdfund in Russia because people are already poor. But we can support those Russians who are planning to maybe go on strike and those who already were fired because of their anti-war position.
What links does the Russian anti-war movement have with activists in Ukraine?
There is an anti-imperialist struggle in Ukraine, and it’s important for the Russian anti-war movement to establish and maintain these connections. We try to support our Ukrainian comrades who are fighting to increase their visibility and support whatever demands they have.
A number of Russian anti-war initiatives are actively collaborating with Ukrainians, subsiding their social movement and offering solidarity. We normally try to support them and circulate information through our channels.
Our common ground is not what many left wing people would dream of, that we should take up guns against our own governments and capitalists on both sides because the Ukrainians, in my opinion and some of my comrades, are fighting an anti-imperialist war now in our common interest. It’s not time for them to go against their own government.
That’s very different from the Bolsheviks during the First World War, even though we do distribute Kollontai’s brochure “Who Needs the War?” from 1916, which ends with her call that our main enemy is in our country. We think that this is applicable for Russia, but we do not want argue with our Ukrainian comrades about their tactics now. We stand in full solidarity with them.
Recent polls have said that support for Putin in Russia is not just large, but it is growing. Do you think that these polls are reliable?
I’m personally very sceptical. Some agencies said the level of rejection is very high and people do not want to talk about Putin on the phone with an unknown person. Neither me, nor my friends in Russia would never pick up a phone when unknown numbers call them. None of us would discuss politics with this unknown person because the consequences are predictable and unnecessary. I don’t think in that sense we have a public sphere.
Also, there are questions like what you think about the prime minister, but the prime minister is not such a prominent public figure in Russia. It would be interesting if they did a poll and used the names of some politicians who exist and some who don’t exist. What would be support of the fake ones? This would inform us way more about public opinion (and limitations of knowledge about it) than these types of polls that just show the level of fear in society.
It’s clear that your main job as Russian socialists is to oppose Putin. There’s been a lot more debate on the international left about the role of NATO. How is NATO discussed in Russia?
We are aware that growing military spending in European countries is not something that should be supported. But for us, a very clear stance regarding Russian imperialism is of the first importance. We support military support of the Ukrainian resistance and write that Ukrainian people should have access to weapons that they need to fight Russian imperialism.
We believe that Russia should be defeated in this war and we have no illusions about any types of compromises and where they will take us. For us, right now, there is no ambivalence about Russia’s position in this war.
But as for debates in Russia, discussing NATO or sanctions in a negative way actually feeds Russian propaganda. And it’s difficult to do it in a nuanced way because that’s the main discourse of Russian public media — that we are just defending ourselves because NATO was preparing an attack on Russia. Despite the fact that NATO countries were actually providing weapons to Russia.
So, any type of engagement with criticism of NATO in Russia might be read as the opposite of a clear anti-war stance and as justification for the war. We try to avoid this topic in public discourse.
One final question. What can socialists and feminists in Germany and elsewhere do to support Russian socialists, feminists and the anti-war movement?
The best thing is to support Ukrainian comrades and their demands. We do not want our anti-war stance to be used against them. Above all, we want Ukrainian left wing and feminist activists to be heard.
Secondly, if you have any spare resources after supporting our Ukrainian comrades, you can donate to our strike fund. And circulate information about the Russian anti-war movement.