Anti-war Movement in Russia may be ‘Wishful Thinking’ According to HSOC Professor

Posted March 8, 2022

Media outlets report that thousands of anti-war activists have been arrested in Russia as the Ukraine conflict continues. Whether these protests will grow into a movement powerful enough to influence the Russian government to end the war remains to be seen, but this hope may be “wishful thinking,” according to political sociologist Kate Pride Brown. 

Brown, an assistant professor in the School of History and Sociology, studies the conditions of activism in Russia and authored a book about environmental activism at Lake Baikal. She explains that activism relies on social trust, of which people living under authoritarian regimes tend to have little. 

"There are high levels of distrust amongst the public in general, so activism itself has been a fairly rare thing in Russia," Brown says. Russian citizens endure high levels of instability, corruption, and media censorship, all of which stack the odds against action. Additionally, Russian legislation such as the 2012 Foreign Agent Law has shut down many groups whose messages were threatening to the state. Some of the groups that have ceased operation, like Memorial and the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, might otherwise have been key opponents to the present conflict, Brown speculates.

"To expect a large anti-war movement to blossom immediately in response to this invasion is wishful thinking on the part of Western countries, but I don't think that it's impossible. It's just that there's a habit of the heart, a habit of mind that works against activism in Russia," Brown says.

Another factor quelling anti-war activism in Russia is the Kremlin itself. The Russian government sees civil society as a threat to its power and thus seeks to suppress it in order to contain public opinion and control the war's narrative. 

"The truth is that the Russian people are not clamoring for this war and don't see Ukrainians as enemies. So, the government has to maintain the state's narrative that this is a small action, that they will be welcomed by Ukrainians, that the fight is about de-Nazification, and that the West is the aggressor. But all of that is daily harder to prove," Brown says. "Activists on the ground in Russia are spreading an alternative narrative that absolutely would undermine the war effort. So to continue their actions in Ukraine, the Kremlin needs to contain that narrative."

This is important because activism relies on people taking action simply because they believe it's the right thing to do — and that's pretty powerful, says Brown. Authoritarian regimes cannot assume they have public support. Since social movement activism presents an alternative power source, they use the power of law to contain it.

Political openings, such as another member of the Russian elite standing up to Putin, could mobilize people to protest en masse, says Brown. So might "moral shocks," such as videos of the bombings that are spreading online or the increasing number of Russian casualties that result from a prolonged military engagement. However, “there is always a level of unpredictability to it,” she continues. “What is going to spur people to come out?”

More experts from Georgia Tech and the Ivan Allen College weigh in on Understanding the Russia/Ukraine Conflict.

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