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 Shamil in Dagestan
How would you describe your political involvement? Why did you agree to this interview?
I come from an area and a community that suffers under the authoritarianism of Putin’s regime, and that has also long suffered under imperial style rule as far back as the Persian Empire, to Imperial Russia, to the USSR, and now to the Russian Federation. When I was younger, I had a different more reactionary view of politics, use of violence, and what it means to struggle for self-determination, equity, dignity, and peace – but now I am committed to non-violent action and I try to focus on building what I want, instead of only tearing down what I don’t want. I’m not so old that I became less of a radical, but I discovered this was the way to gather people and help people, and I don’t betray my values in the process. Either way, it is dangerous to be considered an activist, so we can’t avoid confrontation sometimes. I oppose this war and all wars. In my community, we are not so much part of the hegemonic culture of Russia, so perhaps it’s easier for us to reject the lies that have been fed to everyone. We are used to being ‘marginals’ and we are used to living in a very heterogeneous mix.
- 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?
I can say that life is hard both economically and politically, harder since the start of the war in Ukraine – but that is true in most of the world. In terms of political struggle, in Dagestan we have some benefits of our traditional structures and communities here that have not yet been totally wiped out, like culture, family and social groups. In general, we are less atomized than people in most other regions. We have our culture to sustain us, in a way, but even culture is not without problems. For example, our long developed culture of defiance is a support in opposing the war and authoritarian rule, we have this much more than many other areas inside Russia. But we have serious problems with old patriarchal and newer capitalist forces that both erode our community solidarity and derail emancipatory movements. A lot of people have an obsession with the US or a western macho bling bling lifestyle, which to me is just the same like what Putin represents anyways. I’m not saying we should become completely traditional, but we are losing the value of community to a capitalist fantasy world that isn’t actually liberating people and makes everyone only concerned with themselves and their survival. Again, this is also probably true of most places in the world. So maybe we are like everyone else, struggling to survive and if we are political, trying to identify our opportunities and strengths.
- 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 in Russia is very scattered and divided both because of state and oligarchic repression from above and because of a lack of meaningful social fabric from below. In my region, yes we have stood up more to the Federal State, to Putin – but I wouldn’t call it a Left movement. A lot of people have Leftist values and goals, like basic needs and social services that should be accessible for all and not for profit, or also against war and imperialism, but they would not call themselves leftists for the most part. The story of what is a leftist is not effectively told in a way that people understand it or relate to it. Most people are sick of bullshit from authorities and want to have more say in their lives, but there isn’t a broad understanding that this could be achieved under a leftist vision.
Here, conscription has had a big impact and created mass outrage – though again, the resistance is not tied to a leftist vision. It is a reactionary anti-authoritarian (or even just anti-Putin) movement, also anti-racist since minorities are sent to the front more than ethnic Russians. This resistance is good, but the mass consciousness needs to be more developed toward what we really want. For example, we want more self-determination, but most people tie this to national or cultural identity rather than to self-determination and internationalism as goals in and of themselves.
- 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?
If you are anti-war and anti-imperialist, you must resist conscription however you can. If you are still human enough to not want to kill or be killed, you must resist conscription. This can mean participating in protests (as I have done), acts of sabotage (no comment), to evade, or even to flee, if you can. Some people falsely say that to flee is a coward’s move, but it is not true. To refuse to fight or participate in injustice is never cowardice, it is bravery, especially if it is against the social current. Here, we had a wide social consensus to refuse conscription, so I have had support and did not have to lose friends and family connections by protesting and dodging lists.
I would like to find ways to support those who refuse fighting in other places where the social pressure is against them. Maybe the fact that we are standing up and saying no to conscription can be a support. If Russians or military objectors in other countries read this, know you have my respect.
I have heard about mutinies, but not directly. While I know they have happened, I don’t want to spread false hope or put people in danger by relaying second-hand information, so I won’t discuss that.
The same for authoritarianism – here, I feel supported in opposing authoritarian rule from Russia, but it is harder to look at our own local politics and say we want true self-determination for all. I can generally speak against a far away leader that no one here likes and feel safer than if I speak against the local bosses.
- 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?
I can speak to what happens where I live, but I don’t have much contact with wider Russian movements. Here, as I already said, we don’t have a big movement that one could call Leftist. But we do have a culture of defiance and mutual aid, especially among women. In my group, we try to connect issues and talk to people to build a wider understanding of power and politics. I guess it is called organizing but it’s also learning. No one has all the answers but we try to ask the right questions to help others ask questions.
It seems to me that in Dagestan, we don’t have so much of a contradiction to overcome as do many other regions in Russia. We have always been marginalized and so mobilizing people against the oppressor is not new and doesn’t make people conflicted. It is part of who we are. But, now we need to go beyond opposing the oppressor and to develop an understanding for how we really want to organize our society. Otherwise, we continue to have local oppressors who look and speak more like us but act more like Putin and like the NATO and business bosses.
- 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?
Yes, the war and conscription were catalysts here to make people speak out and protest against Putin and generally against racist and authoritarian policies. It was both the fact that he took it too far and also that he has shown weakness by not gaining a swift victory, as he boasted he would from the beginning. We were angry and took courage from perceiving such a weakness.
This is the factor that has a bigger effect even than the mobilization (conscription). People see that Putin and his backers were wrong about their strength. People are also suffering more from a lack of goods and medicines. And a partial mobilization leads one to consider, what if next there could be full mobilization? The fear and the effects keep getting closer and people feel cornered. So, if one was already thinking that we need a new system or at least that we should get rid of the oppressors in power, this dynamic creates both a desire and an opening to become more bold and open in dissent. Most people are not talking openly about system change or even regime change, but there is more possibility to start these conversations than before.
- The view from Russia:
How are the actions of the West perceived by you and by other Russians?
We have to be wary of the false choice between Putin and the US, which is a trap of swapping one oppressor for another. Both are imperialist powers waging war on other people’s bodies and homes on behalf of capital and power. This is not a perspective that is widely shared in Russia or even within Dagestan unfortunately, though most people do understand that rich bosses under any flag are still rich bosses. Though again, this perspective seems mirrored in the West by most westerners.
I feel solidarity with the Ukrainian people, especially since my home was also invaded and ruled by Russia with many bloody wars and a long history of rule and oppression. There are more developed leftist movements in Ukraine (I have friends in an anarchist collective there) than there are here. I hope they remain strong against both war and the neoliberal forces that will continue to subjugate the people of Ukraine once the bombs stop.
It is impossible to know if it is true that Putin really felt so threatened by NATO that Russia was pushed into the invasion, or if this claim was an instrument to facilitate Putin’s imperial aims and his hold on domestic power. If we disagree about which factor is most important or even most true, should we then forget to oppose the war in solidarity and continue to divide further? What use is that? To be more correct in your analysis about facts you can’t yet or possibly ever be sure of? This is a waste of time for people who lost sight of the real goal, to build peace.
I am able to read in 5 languages and over this past year have read much analysis from around the world and locally. I fear that both the Westerners and Russians are largely just shouting claims to further their own narratives. This makes people follow who they are conditioned to follow, which is what has happened. I have been ashamed but not surprised that the global left has also been guilty of splitting into warring camps. In fact, one of the reasons I began speaking with you and agreed to this interview was because I read and greatly respected an article you co-authored with Michael Albert in March 2022, shortly after the invasion, which addressed this issue, War & Warring Thoughts: Reasons to Rebel.
This is not a widely articulated message in Russia, but it is my message for both Russians and the West: War will continue forever unless we (those who say we oppose war) all care more about actually ending war and building better societies than we do about being right or pure in our analyses.
- 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?
Inside Russia it is difficult to organize widely because of surveillance combined with lack of trust and connections within communities, people are more and more atomized. There are some efforts online that help, but it’s also not always easy to trust. I would say to others in Russia to build local networks of mutual aid, not just now and in terms of resistance to war, but everyday for as much as possible. We need to build back our connections with each other and help each other survive and then we can discuss the future and our resistance in solidarity.
Outside of Russia, it is important not to give in to the divisiveness that tears the global Left apart. This is also why I want to publicly answer these questions – to show that Russia is a diverse place of people, not a monolith or a government. For Russian people refusing conscription or becoming politically active, it will often mean extreme danger and sometimes will mean needing to escape. I would like to see comrades internationally organizing for rights of asylum seekers and refugees (from all countries) and developing their own mutual aid networks that could help support those displaced by political persecution and war. It’s up to each person to take whatever actions and risks they determine is right for themselves, but then it’s up to all of us to stand with them and be part of a community that practices solidarity.