Russia: a natural experiment in the limits of decentralized resistance and activism

Moscow, October 2022. Graffiti on fence reads: 'There is always a choice'.

Moscow, October 2022. Graffiti on fence reads: ‘There is always a choice’.

A curious fact: the most demotivated and depressed of all those opposed to Putin’s regime are among the formerly most politically-engaged activists. These are the people who devoted their lives to causes like labour rights, environmentalism, and socialist alternatives. The people I talk to for my latest book project.

I talk to them, in person, or now more likely on Telegram and they say things like: ‘Russia is now a fascist, or proto-fascist state. The only option is emigration. We lost the country.’ Most of all they fear not mobilization, although there is evidence forced mobilization is happening of oppositionists and that it has a high chance of resulting in death. They most of all fear the long prison sentences for anti-war speech and see no point in sacrificing their lives futilely.

Why are they so pessimistic? They believe public space is completely closed off. They feel risks now are too high ‘we are being hunted’, one said, and deleted me from their contact list. Perhaps most significantly, they believe they lost their networks – built up over decades of nomadic opposition. So much has been written about the potential of internet and smart-phone technology to facilitate social movements and change, but with the fast learning of the Russian techno-security apparatus (partly thanks to Covid – Galina Orlova and I wrote about it here), activists are often so paranoid they break all electronic contact with each other.

Delicate webs? Easily broken? But until the invasion of Ukraine they had survived the depredations of Putin’s securitizing efforts to break them. The open war against activists can be traced back to the authorities’ abuse of Article 228 of Russia’s Criminal Code to imprison journalists and activists. This anti-narcotics law was an undisguised weapon to imprison opponents. It is even known as ‘the people’s article’ because so many young people are imprisoned under it. Some examples here. But before the war, threats like arrest on planted drugs charges did not break activists. In my experience is was only after repeated arrests for protests that some activists stepped back, but even then they carried on in other ways.

So people are scared and demotivated. But broken networks are actually a sign of the relative success previously of decentralized and horizontal connections between people opposed to Putin; people who maybe met in person once a year could successful collaborate in opposition despite being thousands of kilometres from each other in Nizhnii and Piter, for example. I write about one case like this in a forthcoming book on activism, co-edited with my colleagues Andrei Semenov and Regina Smyth. Also, ‘weak’ netness, but strong ‘catness’ (strongly shared opposition) can mean that, like in the brain after damage, connections can spontaneously repair and reform. Everyone strongly anti-regime knows the half-dozen activists who were active in the places I did my research. They can find each other again – if they didn’t leave Russia. If they can come back. If they won’t be sent to prison. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world right now, than the end of Putinism. But we have to try. These are some of the questions my book project on micropolitics engages with – what happens when everything except the most micro of politics is impossible? How does netness sustain itself? How and why are Russian activists ‘nomadic’? Yes the nod to Deleuze is intentional.

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