Mass anti-war demonstrations spread across cities in Russia over the weekend. From the capital of Moscow to smaller cities in Siberia, thousands of people took to the streets in a rare demonstration of opposition against the government on Feb. 26 and 27.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine has provoked a backlash among ordinary Russian citizens, as well as popular cultural figures. In many places, peaceful protesters chanted and held signs with phrases like “No to War!” and “Enough.” Russian soccer player Fyodor Smolov publically criticized the war on his Instagram page, and rapper Oxxxymiron spoke out against it on social media, canceling upcoming shows and calling for an anti-war movement.
Protesters came out in defiance of violent government crackdowns that have crushed previous protests, such as demonstrations against last year’s reportedly fraudulent elections that cemented the hold of Putin’s United Russia party over the country. ”I am embarrassed for my country,” Nikita Golubev, a teacher in Moscow told The Guardian. “We don’t want this. Why are we doing this?”
During demonstrations in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, police in riot gear quickly moved and arrested protestors, and even some foreign journalists covering the demonstrations. Similar arrests have been made in at least 60 other cities around the country. According to the Russian human rights group OVD-Info, as of Feb. 28, more than 5,900 people have been detained by police since the anti-war protests began four days earlier. For those who have been detained, ODV-Info has shared information on how to immediately appeal an arrest.
The perils of protest in Russia
Public protest is a fraught activity in Russia. Officially, the right to peaceful protest is protected in Russia’s constitution, but authorities have gradually eroded these rights with a series of laws and decrees passed over the past two decades, cracking down on anti-government protests in particular.
Today, nearly any form of public protest in Russia must receive advance authorization from authorities. People can be fined and sent to jail for up to five years if found to violate assembly laws. A 2021 Amnesty International report (pdf) on Russia’s freedom of assembly laws found Russia’s current set of laws is a “legal minefield for anyone trying to hold or take part in a protest” that “effectively systematically violates the right to freedom of assembly at every level.”
Despite Russian state media’s insistence that there is popular support for the government’s actions in Ukraine, independent polling shows that there isn’t a consensus among Russian people. A recent poll showed that only about half of people supported Putin’s recognition of the separatist regions in Ukraine. So far, there is no new data on support for war since the invasion has taken place.