Russians have long suffered under Putin’s authoritarian, neoliberal regime with heavy surveillance and harsh penalties for dissent. On September 21st 2022, Putin announced a draft that could sweep 300,000 civilians into military service, bringing the war in Ukraine home to all Russians who are eligible, or know someone who is eligible, for military conscription. That is almost everyone.
And like all other ills under capitalism, the draft falls hardest on the poor, the working class, and on marginalized communities who have little money or power to evade it.
Commentators have expressed a wide spectrum of thought on what this will mean for Russians, Putin, and the Russian Left. Some herald the draft as the straw that will soon break the camel’s back, igniting revolution and the overthrow of Putin. Others see it as a move to further entrench and escalate both Putin’s power and Russia’s lurch towards right-wing nationalism. While no one can predict outcomes with total certainty, not even Russian activists still inside Russia, it is important that the global Left not germinate yet more useless silos of opinion. Instead, with both ears and both eyes open, we need to prioritize solidarity with the Russian left, seeking out their experiences, understanding their struggle, and supporting their self-determination.
The international Left claims that we celebrate and support Russian people’s refusal to fight in wars and that we support the Russian people’s political struggle against authoritarianism, oligarchy, and neoliberalism. We should therefore make it a priority to elevate the voices of these people in a direct way, and to let them help guide us in our solidarity.
Voices of resistance
Voices of Resistance is a collection of interviews conducted between October-December 2022 with young activists inside Russia who give their impressions and observations about resistance to authoritarianism & conscription, about the state of Left movements in Russia, and about what has changed over the course of this year.
Seven questions were proposed to each respondent, and their answers have been translated and lightly edited for clarity. All names have been changed and political affiliations have been kept vague to preserve anonymity. Each respondent is politically engaged and navigating tumultuous circumstances as they struggle to both survive and to build a better world.
All of the respondents are eligible for conscription.
Interview with Ivan, recently fled to Kazakhstan
How would you describe your political involvement? Why did you agree to this interview?
I agreed to this interview because I cannot stay away from all the horror that is happening in my country, and what an atrocity my country is doing in a neighboring state. When dissent is punished with prison terms and persecution, and people in the neighboring country are dying and suffering from the hardships associated with the war, there is a terrible lack of justice in relation to ordinary people who can just live, all while a group of super-rich people easily sign decrees that plunge our world into chaos, death and famine.
And I also want to show that not all Russian citizens support this lawlessness, that we are not animals and not orcs, but the same people as in any other country.
I am speaking up for my political and personal values.
- On the ground in Russia:
What would you like people across the globe to understand about what is going on in Russia today? What are the conditions that you and others experience?
To answer this question, we need to start with the events that occurred 30 years ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed. At that time there were elections to preserve the USSR or its collapse, the overwhelming majority of citizens voted for preservation, but the voice of the people was not heard, the country was destroyed, people were deceived.
Then came the events of the collapse, and the looting of everything that was built, factories were closed, people were left with nothing. Vouchers were distributed to people, but since people lived in a socialist system, no one knew what it was and why it was needed, so they sold incomprehensible pieces of paper for a bottle of vodka or a loaf of bread. People had to learn how to survive in the new capitalist system, knowing nothing about it except Soviet exaggerated propaganda about the horrors of capitalism. As a result, the deepest depression of the entire people, who were robbed and humiliated, while instilling in everyone, on the one hand, the former greatness of Russia, and on the other hand, the stupidity and criminality of the past rulers.
The establishment has also been telling us for 30 years about the greatness of the Russian army and Russian weapons, since our people heroically defeated Nazi Germany, yet leaving out what price had to be paid for this victory. And the past slogans “never again” changed to “we can repeat”.
After that, the strengthening of the totalitarian regime, oppositionists were imprisoned or killed, dissent was persecuted, and ordinary people came to the conclusion that it was necessary to remain silent and stay away from politics for their own safety. Because for a clear position, they could be fired from work, and children in schools could be bullied. At the same time, many were sick and disgusted by this, but fearing that it would also happen to them, they themselves poisoned others so as not to stand out. Plus, every election in the country was rigged, and the people learned that no matter how they acted, the elites would do it their own way.
As a result, now the situation in the country is like this: the working class thinks that if you don’t stick out and just sit quietly, then you can somehow live. It’s bad, but not as bad as it could be, our ancestors lived even worse. Businessmen live by the principle that it is better to support the war in order to somehow earn money, or at least not to speak out and lose everything.
Many people now live with a contradiction in their heads: war is bad, but ‘they are smart’ (the rulers and bosses) and must know what they are doing.
- The Russian Left today:
Describe the state of the Left movement in Russia. What has changed over the course of this year? Has conscription had significant impact and if so, how?
The left movement in Russia is very weak and fragmented. It is mired in disputes between Trotsky or Lenin, and not solutions to social problems. This is partly due to the repression in the country, while they are arguing among themselves, they are not touched. Plus, the problem of demonizing the USSR is very much a hinderance. Ordinary people think that if you are a leftist, then you want to return to the Soviet Union. And often the supporters of the left movement are educated and well-read and do not understand how to convey their ideas to people in simple words without jargon so that they are understood. Many people are left-wing in their views, and they want social benefits for the people, but they are ready to be called liberals or anyone other than the ‘Left’.
Conscription greatly influenced the opinion of people. While everything was happening far away and it did not concern people, they did not care so much, since all thoughts were of how to live until the next salary and get the child to school. But then the situation became such that it began to affect almost everyone, and discontent has grown greatly, the percentage of people who are against the war has grown.
The situation is similar to the Vietnam war and the United States, while everything was going well, people were calm, and when more and more corpses and cripples returned, discontent grew.
- Resistance to authoritarianism and to war:
What are your current thoughts about resistance to authoritarianism & to conscription? What has resistance meant for you and for others around you?
The authorities are fighting the resistance by all means. Repressive laws are being passed every day against criticism of their actions. Now a different way of protest is growing – sabotaging processes. People are not doing something, or they are doing it, but very slowly and not effectively, or even deliberately badly. As a result, many people do not appear on the official agendas and lists, they hide, they dissuade their friends and relatives from appearing at military enlistment offices, change houses and apartments, go to dachas, villages or hide in forests, or for those who have the opportunity, they go abroad.
For me, resistance is to dissuade as many people as possible from going to the military enlistment office, to persuade them to leave the country, and to explain to people who support the war that they are wrong, that it will not end well for them, that there is no personal benefit from the conflict, but only loss.
- What Russian Leftists are trying to build and to do:
Are leftist and/or mutual aid organizations growing in ranks and commitment? If so, what are some notable examples?
The Russian left is trying to unite now, the process is going on, but very slowly. They are very used to arguing with each other, plus they do not have strong support from the people, since they have little understanding of how to interact with them. There are organizations that try to help people and create trade unions, but they try not to be called leftists.
- National consciousness:
Has there been any shift in national popular sentiment towards the war, towards Putin, and towards the hegemonic establishment over the course of this year? And even in these last weeks since the draft was announced? What sort of, if any, conversations are happening among people that question official narratives and institutions?
After the announcement of the partial mobilization (conscription), the number of dissatisfied people in relation to Putin and the war increased, as it began to affect almost everyone. But all the same, Putin’s support is high, since he created the impression that no one but him can govern the country, since his rivals looked weak in the elections, and sometimes like clowns. There is talk in our country that people don’t like Putin, but who, if not him, and then suddenly even worse people will come. They say that Putin is his own thief and bastard, but he is understandable and known.
A lot of people began to be disappointed in the Russian army, because there were failures on the fronts, there were no successes. Officials said that Ukraine would be captured in a couple of weeks, and they promised that there would be no mobilization. But there is still a very strong opinion that if we had not attacked Ukraine, NATO would have attacked us, and we have been told about the fact that NATO would attack Russia for the last 30 years.
Those people who watch little TV and have a critical analysis, understand perfectly well that all this is not so. They talk about the horrors that are happening, and they are very ashamed of what our country is doing. Other people are in a state of terrible contradictions, on the one hand, war is bad, on the other, it was necessary to somehow defend against NATO, and they are doing everything right.
- The view from Russia:
How are the actions of the West perceived by you and by other Russians?
The actions of some of the Baltic countries cause indignation when people who did not want to fight were not allowed to go abroad, and sometimes even handed over to the Russian authorities. Many sanctions imposed by the West eventually hit the people who do not have a golden cushion, medicines have gone up in price, or completely disappeared, many vital products have left the market. Meanwhile, people from the authorities have not suffered much, as they have stolen a lot of money, and they can afford to get sanctioned goods through their channels, yes, it is more expensive, but everything is still open to them. Even while in Kazakhstan, the consequences of sanctions are visible, since many goods went through Russia, and now the trade turnover has been preserved only with China. And other problem with sanctions is that they fall on the shoulders of ordinary citizens, prices are rising, wages are falling.
- Internationalism and solidarity:
What would solidarity mean to you from both within Russia and from the global Left? How can fellow activists support your efforts and become advocates within their own countries?
For me, solidarity would mean rallying the people and recreating civil society in my country. There is very little mutual assistance between people in Russia, everyone in Russia is alone. In the best case, there are family and friends you can rely on. In other problems you are alone, down to the simplest things, such as help on the road if the car breaks down, or help a woman lift a stroller with a child up the stairs if there is no ramp.
It seems to me that in Russia it is necessary to develop easily accessible psychological help, since so many are in a state of depression. As an example, many people who went to war are deeply unhappy, and went there to run away from their problems or to find their death.
Direct confrontation with the authorities has not been washed away now, it is necessary to develop educational circles and employment centers.
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