Interview with the Russian Socialist Movement: The Revolutionary Left in Russia on the Resistance behind Putin's Front


RSD João Woyzeck

June 2, 2022

The brutal war of aggression against Ukraine also changes Russian society permanently. Western media report the Russian media law, which successfully establishes the official narratives about the war as the only public discourse position. But how should we interpret the censorship and the blocking of media formats critical of the government, as well as the imprisonment and partial sentencing of anti-war activists? Where does the repression affect the resistance? Is it an expression of an overall transformation process in Russian society? What perspectives arise from this? We spoke with members of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSM) and asked them how the revolutionary left in Russia assesses the current crisis and deals with it in activist terms.

The RSM is committed to a democratic revolutionary socialism and represents ecosocialist positions. Its goal is a broad class-solidarity mass movement by bringing together left-wing, trade-union, feminist and ecological activists to fight for a livable alternative to the Putin system, which will then bring freedom on the basis of public ownership and political self-management. To this end, the RSM works closely with new unions, engages in media activism, and also engages in protests and cultural and educational projects. [1]

The changed situation for government-critical activism

On March 4, 2022, the Duma and Russian President Vladimir Putin waved through a momentous change in the Russian Criminal Code (Art. 207.3) and the Administrative Offenses Code (Art. 20.3.3). Thus, the public spread of statements that the regime considers to be false information about the so-called “special military operation” (including only words such as war, invasion, attack), the alleged public discrediting of the Russian armed forces (including by means of uncoordinated public protests), and the demand for sanctions against Russia were now punishable. The penalty can range from 700,000 rubles to 3 years in prison. If the same acts were committed by means of one’s official position or out of ideological enmity, whatever the regime may count among them, even 10 years of imprisonment or a 3 million ruble fine are possible. [2]

The state service for the supervision of media and communications, Roskomandzor, threatens media outlets with blocking or legal prosecution for reporting that contradicts state doctrine. Media that refuse to be intimidated are unceremoniously blocked. On February 27, a veritable wave of blockings (Current Time, Krym.Realii, The New Times, the online student:inside magazine DOXA, Taiga.Info, etc.) was unleashed. The Russian regime also took the opportunity to block the major independent media, Radio Moskvi and the TV station Doshd. They were spreading calls from extremist groups, it was said! [3] After repeated state intimidation, the 19-year-old Novaya Gazeta also suspended its publication until further notice. [4] In the meantime, more than 1,500 websites or links have been blocked. [5]

The totalitarian domination of public discourse does not stop at education: 7th-11th grade schools received manuals to hold social science lessons on the “special military operation” on March 1, [6] and university and college institutions repeatedly hold presentations on the geopolitical “orientation” of young adults. [7]

Anti-government Telegram channels such as OVD-Info - the last independent Russian news sources after the blocking of anti-government media and social media such as Instagram - report unannounced house searches (whether to intimidate or to secure information), arrests, and in some cases charges for participation in protests, loss of employment, or expulsion from university for anti-war activism. In addition, the list of alleged foreign agents - public figures disliked by the state, such as journalists and historians - continues to grow. [8] As of May 27, OVD-Info already records 15,445 arrests in connection with antiwar actions since the beginning of the war. [9]

Gleichschaltung and violent dispersal of the anti-war protests by on-call guards or the OMON special unit, which is directly subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior, practically make mass gatherings impossible. Despite all this, hundreds of pictures of so-called lonely pickets, i.e. of courageous activists who display a placard or poster with slogans such as “Putin must resign” in public places in a media-effective manner before they are taken away by the security authorities and thrown into the van, are circulating on dissident telegram channels every week.

Special attention should be paid to the Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR), which had women lay flowers with blue-yellow or green (symbol of anti-war protest) ribbons at war memorials in several Russian cities on March 8 [10] or put up more than 250 crosses in memory of the 5,000 murdered civilians in Mariupol (Ukraine) on April 3. The FAR is thus a successful example of breaking through the imposed isolation to compensate for the lack of a gathered mass by coordinating visual protest actions! [11]

Since people in Russia can no longer gather together, they consider various creative ways to keep anti-war and anti-government positions present in the public space:

Some people place their own price tags in supermarkets, on which information about the war is written instead of the price. The feminist anti-war resistance, for example, inscribes banknotes, which pass through everyone’s hand, with slogans critical of war or information about the war of aggression. Green ribbons hang from all sorts of places, from tree branches to bars. Attaching or wearing green ribbons became a real flash mob, spontaneously this trend spread and appears independently again and again.

Such and similar protest actions are already seen as discrediting the Russian army and can lead to arrests or charges. [12]

Such decentralized, uncoordinated, and silent protest actions do not have a presence that physically fills the space. Yet they capture public space for discourse positions critical of the government.

We wanted to know how life as a progressive and anti-government activist has changed since February 24 and what perspectives an analysis of the situation within Putin’s autocratic grip allows. The interview with the RSM is an attempt to gain insight into the resistance behind Putin’s front.

Interview with the RSM

Development of society

João Woyzeck (BFS Zürich): How realistic is the possibility that the Putin regime has simply overestimated itself this time and will perhaps really pass?

RSM: The overestimation is obvious and yet it doesn’t necessarily lead to the collapse of regime. It’s fair to point to the similarity of Navalny failed assassination attempt and the protracted operation in Ukraine. In both cases we see how state institutions that are essential to Putin, responsible for “national security” in the former case and for the foreign intelligence in the latter, fail. Vladimir Gelman, prominent political scientist from Russia, attributes this overestimation, the obvious misinformation from the intelligence simply to the authoritarianism, where no one likes to disappoint superiors. That is why Putin expected that in Ukraine there are indeed nazists, unsupported by the population, that the society is divided to the extent that no serious resistance is possible and so on. Another feature common to all state structures in Russia is corruption, the other one is sabotage and imitation. These are the weaknesses of the regime and the obstacles in a way towards fascization, for sure. The lack of ideology and resources is another chance for not becoming a fascist state. But will regime really pass due these weaknesses? We think that it will rather strive to “correct deficiencies”, by refreshing the ruling elite to more competent people.

João Woyzeck (BFS Zürich): What do the people critical of the Putin regime expect of a withdrawal or a defeat in the war against Ukraine: Is there a (newly) awakened spirit of optimism or thaw for a different future?

RSM: I see no optimism around possible withdrawal or defeat. Quite the opposite, the prevailing mood is quite negative, even though possible defeat or withdrawal can challenge the regime. It is true that authoritarian regimes tend to collapse after serious military defeats. However, in order to use the opportunities created by military failures, there should be some oppositional organisational structures and resources at home. In addition, authoritarian regimes tend to get particularly violent when they face challenges or are at the verge of collapse. Russia has been experiencing a wave of spiralling repressions. If the regime is defeated in the war or forced to withdraw, these challenges are likely to increase its perception of threat at home and intensify repressions. At the same, organised opposition which could turn this crisis to its advantage has been systematically devastated for years. The combined effect of military defeat, sanctions, elite tensions, and pressure from the opposition could generate some political instability leading to regime change. But even if this happens, it is likely to be followed by even more brutal repressions in response. In addition, whatever happens as a result of withdrawal, people understand that the regime has already inflicted an enormous damage on Ukraine and Russia itself. This damage has already been done, and potential regime change, even if possible, cannot undo it.

Some anti-government observers in Russia, including the RSD, fear that Russia could sink into a sort of fascism. Can you describe what you do mean by fascist?

In our opinion, Russia is just now entering a phase of fascization.

Fort current reasons, it must be said that the war crimes [13] that came to light with the pushing back of Russian troops from Butcha may have to be viewed in a new, more sinister light. In the Russian magazine RIA Novosti [14], which is part of the state-owned RossiyaSevodnyaging, Timofey Sergeyev, a Russian political strategist and columnist, went a step further in shaping the discourse on the war of aggression against Ukraine. Sergeyev did not merely offer an alternative narrative to justify the attack as a liberation of Ukraine, but justified war crimes against Ukraine. Concretely, it was expressed that the majority of Ukraine and its population was nazistic. Therefore it was no longer a matter of liberating the Ukrainian population from its nazi oppressors. Because real “denazification will inevitably also be a de-Ukrainization”. Thus, the narrative of denazification is no longer used to justify a military attack, but to dehumanize the Ukrainian population.

To return to the actual question: When talking about fascization of Russia, it is important not to think too much of the classical fascism of the 1920s and 1930s in Germany and Italy. It is helpful to understand the current developments of the government from the concept of post-fascism, as it is defined by Enzo Traverso. [15] It is therefore not a mass movement from below and from outside institutionalized politics that seeks to capture and topple the state. Post-fascism does not have a significant mass base and it also lacks the disruptive moment. It is fascization from above and from within institutionalized politics.

In fact, the Russian regime is detached from self-organized movements in the population.

One can actually observe how the regime suppresses even extreme right-wing extra-parliamentary organizations that support the war of aggression against Ukraine, because it fears that these could slip out of its control.

You say that this is not the return of classical fascism. Why don’t you just speak of authoritarianism? In other words, what is specific about the post-fascist development in Russia that distinguishes it from other authoritarian regimes?

We certainly find characteristics such as those described by Enzo Traverso: The defense of imagined traditional values, the reversion to a protectionist nation-state against globalism, a kind of free-market social Darwinism.

At the same time, however, the same regime is ideologically very eclectic, and offers no structured ideology. The intellectual roots of the current regime are an important and complicated question that needs a detailed answer.

However, Karl Polanyi’s definition [16] of classical fascism can also help us understand the post-fascism of the Putin regime. It is, in a sense, a reflex of threatened capitalism. Polanyi described capitalism as latently fascist. It has an inherent contradiction in that the egalitarian promise of equal political rights is in tension with class privileges associated with a system of personal profit.

Against this background, the fascization of the Russian regime also appears not as a sudden rupture, but as the dramatic culmination of the existence of a political system that has dominated Russia since the mid-1990s. Because of the regime’s social isolation both within Russia and internationally, as well as because of failure ofthe conquest through war of lightning failing the regime was put on the defensive, which again reinforced the reactionary disposition of the system. Likewise, the war itself in part grew out of the fact that post-Soviet Russia’s transition to a free market and the social atomization that accompanied it led to internal crises, and the regime had to turn this social conflict outward through military aggression. [17]

It is important to say that the regime has a strong reactionary and anti-revolutionary flavor. The regime is currently transforming itself into a system that aims at the complete repression of society, linking the destruction of all forms of social self-organization in Russia (trade unions, grassroots movements, left-wing organizations, etc.) with military aggression towards the outside.

Culturally, it can also be observed that a new phase or intensity has been reached. Until now, it has always been the case that there were, so to speak, controlled and delimited spaces within Putin’s controlled “democracy”. There were bloc parties in the Duma that did not have to agree with Putin or the political party YedinayaRossiya (United Russia) on all issues. There were also circumscribed spheres of society for civilians to freely articulate themselves. What we see now is the transition from an authoritarian form of rule to a totalitarian form of rule: any opinion that deviates from the official propaganda is criminalized.

You speak with Polanyi and Traverso of the reactionary response from above to a system that is failing. To what extent does this fascization also affect other areas of Russian society?

In classical political theory, especially in the work of Hannah Arendt, there is an interesting account of the characteristics of totalitarianism, which may be interesting for contemporary Russia. Arendt points out that totalitarianism is not only about the politicization of society, that is, turning everyone into loyal Nazis or such, but above all about the depoliticization of society. And if we look at contemporary Russia, it is striking that more and more Russian citizens want to avoid debates about the war, to suppress their own concerns, to stay out of serious, deep or potentially controversial conversations with work colleagues or neighbors. Thus, the regime’s propaganda does not aim to provoke people to political engagement, but to make them afraid of deep discussions.

Russian propaganda is the media buzzword right now. How does this Russian propaganda work?

To understand the Kremlin’s propaganda, one must see that it is not only about direct persuasion. Direct persuasion is possibly the least effective and least important aspect of Russian propaganda. This is because the adoption of content requires active cognitive engagement. In autocracies, however, the impulse to actively engage is immensely smaller. This is because the fundamental experience in autocracies is that political engagement has no impact on life anyway and brings no change. Propaganda produces political non-participation – but also lives from political non-participation. Propaganda thus not only persuades, but also generates political cynicism. Since political participation brings nothing anyway and politics is perceived as manipulative, people become depoliticized. This passivity on the part of Russian citizens is also reflected in the way the government acts. The state is more interested in demobilization than mobilization. In some cases, even self-organized grassroots movements that support the official narrative are not appreciated. This is because they are difficult to control. With its propaganda, the regime seeks not so much to anchor its own views in the minds of its citizens, but rather to deter the population from becoming politically active and, if necessary, to show what the state is capable of in terms of repression.

Actual persuasion isn’t so much aimed at ordinary people. The regime rather seeks to reinforce the views of activists who act as supporters of the state or are close to state doctrine.The state acts here by supporting activists who are already critical of NATO or the West, for example, with coherent schemas, i.e., completing diffuse resentments or semi-formulated ideas with concrete narratives and providing the rhetorical tools to be able to argue.

The prevailing social consensus is particularly important in opinion formation in Russia. That is, one constructs the boundaries of what is socially sayable, of what is socially a desirable opinion very much in interaction with other positions and the conventionality suggested by them. The opinion polls that are repeatedly published to demonstrate Putin’s popularity or the general support for the war of aggression, for example, indicate that one stands alone with one’s view and discourage opinion holders who are critical of the government from expressing themselves openly, or move wavering persons into a certain tendency.

If one looks at the means of communication of the Kremlin propaganda, one notices that it is a hybrid propaganda conduit: Modern Internet-based social media and traditional news formats such as newspapers and television interact.

The aforementioned indirect effects of propaganda can also be seen on the Internet. Internet bots are not used for direct persuasion, because they are relatively easy to identify as bots anyway, but they improve the ranking of certain discourse positions in search engines, for example. They ensure that the state-sanctioned narrative is more quickly accessible.

Trolls also do not pursue the primary goal of convincing people of their views on social media. They are there, first of all, to provide positive comments on official narratives. But trolls have the effect of discouraging other people from expressing their own opinions; they discourage criticism of the official narrative.

The search engine Yandex, which is widely used in Russia, also joins in this manipulation. Yandex systematically downgrades certain results, making it significantly less likely than on Google, for example, to quickly find information about protests or criticism of the state.

The engineered prominence of certain narratives in online media coincides with representations in traditional media coincides with the representations in traditional media. Another important aspect of Russian propaganda is a kind of synchronization effect. News aggregates, i.e., different media (social media, newspapers, TV shows, etc.) promote (seemingly independently) the same narrative. This seemingly random coincidence on different channels confirms for many people the credibility of the official opinion. In psychology, one would speak of “consistency as a heuristic”: if it is asserted on all channels, there must be something to it! Especially people who do not critically scrutinize media content or do not really know where to find alternative information measure credibility by how standard certain discourse positions or narratives are.

Organization and activism

As for the practical activism of the RSM (or other groups), what has changed after February 24 and why? How do you organise and mobilise now?

Our current goal is to get in touch with the labor and student unions, as well as human rights organization. We believe that this kind of decentralization will increase the safety for RSM and at the same time help our activists in doing real organizational things.

There are more and more lonly pickets where people in very small groups hold up posters but less and less mass protests, as far as we follow the news reports. Is that a sign of an atomisation of the antiwar movement?

Well, answering to your question — we would not confuse atomization and decentralization as the former has some negative connotations. There are less meetings indeed and no organization that is eager to coordinate the anti-war movement. And yet, we have tons of news everyday from any Russian region, many universities and companies and individual stories of resistance. Most important — everything becomes public nowadays, and to foster the publicity our activists created a socialist channel in Telegram called “NOTWAR” (НЕВОЙНА) that assembles these decentralized actions. Therefore, even if actions remain uncoordinated, the feeling of connection, of massive nature of the resistance is here. Look, for instance, how people reacted to the 1st Channel journalist antiwar performance. She did it on her own and yet sparked a feeling of solidarity in millions.

Are there any sorts of activist solidarity or cooperation with progressive groups or people in Ukraine right now?

We are constantly in touch with our Ukrainian comrades from «SotsialnyyRukh» (“Social Movement”), working on joint statements and events. Some of our comrades located in Europe helped to fundraise to Ukrainian left. We are also widely sharing their writings in Facebooks as it is crucial for them and for the world.

How else should the Ukrainian’s be helped?

Unlike in 2014 far rights does not play that prominent role in today’s war, which turned into a people’s war–and our comrades from the anti-authoritarian left from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are fighting together against imperialism.

Aside donations, one should work to increase the visibility of those anti-aothoritarian leftists from Ukraine and Belarus who fight right now with arms in their hands. It is advised to take interviews with them as they struggle to be listened to. For foreign leftists, we suggest voicing the following demands – support for all refugees in Europe regardless of citizenship, the cancellation of Ukraine’s foreign debt, sanctions against Russian oligarchs.

In the western and middle parts of Europe you hear only about Nawalny and Chodorchovsky when it comes to Russian opposition.What role do progressive and leftist or even marxist ideas and organisations/ platforms play? Where can leftist groups find their specific place within the opposition, what distinguishes the left?

Marxist ideas have a historical chance for revival in Russia. We see that prices are growing, the lay-offs are leaving hundreds of thousand people without means of survival. The actual warfare could be understood from a classical perspective as well: a considerable part of Russian solders is from poor regions for where army serves as the only social lift.

The role of Marxists is to work with trade unions and to agitate widely. RSD wants to show that this war will be paid for by the poorest people, as always. We are publishing widely on our “NOTWAR” (НЕВОЙНА)channel in telegram and develop tactics for the visual agitation everywhere.

At the same time, we see our role on establishing connections with leftists worldwide, including Ukraine, USA, Spain, UK. We see these connections crucial now, since the overwhelming majority of global war blame Putin for the aggression. This is a good shift and a good chance for Russian leftists to press upon the government. We should not forget that foreign capitalist elite was cooperating with Putin for 20 years and this is the responsibility of global left to push governments everywhere. Practically, leftists should press governments for arresting the accounts of 20,000 Russian billionaires, as Thomas Piketty recently suggested.

Finally, Left should come up with their own vision of international relations and architecture of international security which may include multilateral nuclear disarmament (which will be binding for all nuclear powers) and institutionalization of international economic responses to any imperialist aggression in the world.

International Politics

Is there a RE-valuation of the geopolitical role of the Putin-government (as independent perpetrator) and the NATO(-member states) among you as a leftist group?

We have seen Putin’s imperialism in action. During the 2000s and 2010s, the actions of the Russian state on the world stage were guided by two different vectors. On the one hand, Putin institutionalized and consolidated the inclusion of the Russian business elite in the world economy. On the other hand, the Russian leadership sought to play the role of a regional imperial center that controls the former Soviet republics, including through the creation of economic and political unions and alliances, such as the Eurasian Economic Union. Finally, Putin tried to destabilize the world order through hacker attacks, bribing ultra-right parties in Europe, etc. Today we see that the first and third trends have prevailed over the second. By 2024, when the presidential elections are scheduled, Putin decided by all means, at any cost, to tie such countries as Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus, Ukraine to the Russian Federation or, at least, neutralize the possibility of their joining the Western military-political international structures. After the issues of Armenia, Kazakhstan and Belarus were resolved, armed with a nationalist-imperial ideology, the Russian leadership launched a war against Ukraine.

At the same time, it does not yet appear that Putin has achieved all of his goals with these actions. Western countries and NATO did not split, but rallied against Putin, unprecedented sanctions fell on Russia. At the same time, the West did not provide Ukraine with the assistance it was counting on. In a sense, we saw a change in the strategies of the two imperialisms. Russian imperialism started a war of conquest, while NATO, without arguing against the non-bloc status of Ukraine, continued the previous line of weakening Russia without open military intervention: sanctions, arms supplies, total ideological war against the Russian leadership.

Today it is important to re-evaluate the old stereotypes, largely shared by the left, that any dictatorship that opposes itself to NATO deserves, if not support, then at least is the “lesser evil.” The Putin regime, even though it is globally much weaker than the United States and NATO and does not strictly meet all five of Lenin’s definitions of imperialism, is a primary threat - to its neighbors at least [18]. He became such a threat in an attempt to enter the first rank of the world imperialists. This race, which has brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, must be stopped. The Ukrainian adventure was a huge mistake by the Russian regime, and the “multipolar world” project, which was largely associated with the rise of Putin’s Russia, is failing. But this does not mean that we should return to the former “unipolar” world led by NATO or be satisfied with the parity of the US and China as the two strongest powers at the moment. The result of this war should be a course towards a radical reduction in the role of any military blocs, the renewal and democratization of international structures like the UN, a new security system that would work in the interests of all countries, and would not force them to join one or another center of power.

How can Western progressives and leftists help you? How can the Russians critical of the Russian government be helped?

1. Financial support

The Western left can support those of the Russian left who had to flee from Russia for fear of being persecuted. More often then not, they are without means of support.

2. Assistance in information campaigns

Western left can pressurise left press who do not give voice to Russian and Ukrainian left who do not adopt neutral position in relation to conflict rejecting to call it “inter-imperialist conflict” and who urge for more active support of Ukraine. Although the Western left do not have to necessarily agree with such a viewpoint, silencing Russian and Ukrainian left and trusting only the overseas expertise concerning the war has a colonialist tinge.

3. Mentoring

We have to acknowledge that the Russian left are not experienced enough in political struggle and they are in need of practical advice from more mature activists on how to organise a powerful trade union or student union, how to agitate among the working class and students, how to maintain security of the movement and etc. The Russian left may benefit from free of Charge online workshops and trainings where the participants can share their experience.

Thank you very much for this very informative interview! We wish you and the Russian opposition against the war and against Putin a lot of strength and endurance. Every day anew we are deeply impressed by the unbroken will to resist and hope that more leftists worldwide will show themselves open to the wealth of experience of the Russian anti-war movement.

In solidarity with the RSM and the other progressive anti-government and anti-war groups, the Movement for Socialism (MPS/ BFS).