Anti-war protests began in Russia as soon as the invasion of Ukraine started – but repression and censorship quickly followed. Putin’s repressive and propaganda apparatuses have successfully combined to stop protest numbers becoming overwhelming. The protests remain important for communicating to the outside world that many Russians don’t support Putin’s aggression. But if political change comes as a consequence of war, it will likely emerge from the mobilisation of large numbers of people in response to the impact of war on their livelihoods, and of the families who will come to realise the connection between propaganda, repression and the death of their offspring in a senseless war.

No sooner had Vladimir Putin started his unprovoked war on Ukraine than the anti-war protests began. Repression quickly followed. As soon as the first people took to the streets on 24 February in protest at the invasion, Putin’s extensive despotic machinery was set in motion. So was his propaganda apparatus, bent on presenting an alternate reality in which there was no war to protest against.

As human rights group OVD-Info reported, people protested in at least 24 cities when they woke up to the news that the invasion had begun. By the evening of the first day there had been demonstrations – and mass arrests – in 53 cities. Three days into the invasion, 2,692 people had been detained, at least 1,370 of them in Moscow.

On 2 March, opposition leader Alexi Navalny tweeted out a call for daily protests and acts of resistance against the war, both in Russia and around the world. From the jail cell that has been his home since he returned to Russia after surviving a Kremlin-ordered assassination attempt, he warned that it was not enough to be against the war – people must fight against it.

In another round of protests on 6 March, over 4,300 people were arrested in over 50 cities. Around 2,000 also took part in an anti-war protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan – one of Putin’s authoritarian allies. Anti-war protests had also previously taken place in Russia’s client state of Belarus.

Protests have now been held in over 130 Russian towns and cities. Many had been met with violence and over 15,000 protesters – ranging from children as young as seven to people in their 70s and 80s – had been arbitrarily arrested by either the police or the National Guard. Their crimes consisted of shouting slogans, holding protest signs, laying flowers to pay their respects to the dead and sporting anti-war badges on bags or coats. Countless detainees have been mistreated in custody through denial of medical assistance and legal help.

It is not easy to organise in such an environment. Any tactic that protesters and independent CSOs use today will likely be banned by law over the following days and declared a crime.


The Investigative Committee, a government body whose job is to probe major crimes, has warned people against joining ‘mass riots’ – code name for unsanctioned gatherings – and threatened ‘harsh punishment’ for those organising them.

Dozens of journalists have been harassed, assaulted and detained when covering anti-war protests, even when clearly identified as press. This is part of a wider assault on media freedoms.

Truth a major victim

In an information war, truth is the first casualty. On the day of the invasion, Roskomnadzor – the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media – warned news outlets against using non-Kremlin sources, publishing ‘false’ or ‘unverified’ information and describing the events as an ‘invasion’, ‘attack’ or ‘war’. The only acceptable terminology is that of a ‘special operation’ or ‘military operation’ undertaken to ‘demilitarise and de-Nazify’ Ukraine.

The media regulator went on to threaten to block a media outlet for covering the shelling of Ukrainian cities. It announced it was opening investigations into media ‘falsely’ reporting on civilian deaths and the capture or killing of Russian soldiers. The ‘investigations’ were evidently done quickly, because the Current Time media website was blocked on those grounds as early as 26 February. The authorities even threatened to block Wikipedia over ‘illegally disseminated information’ after an entry was published about the invasion.

After Facebook’s parent company Meta blocked four Russian state media accounts, the government announced it would partly restrict Facebook access in Russia. It also ordered Facebook to stop fact-checking and labelling misleading content.

This was key because it enabled the deployment of a disinformation tactic that seeks to undermine the very notion of truth. The plan seems to be to sow so much confusion that people can no longer tell truths from lies. Fake fact-checks spread lies while pretending to debunk them. Conspiracy theories position civilian victims of air strikes as ‘crisis actors’ in attacks that never happened. Ukraine is accused of ‘false flag’ attacks – staging events and blaming Russia.

Reports of the bombing of a maternity hospital in Ukraine were dismissed as ‘information terrorism’. By then, barely any legitimate press was left in Russia that might bring some order into the chaos. Soon after, access to Facebook and Twitter was fully blocked.

Telling the truth has become a crime. On 4 March, a law was passed making it a criminal offence – punishable with up to 15 years in prison – to spread ‘fake’ or ‘unreliable’ information casting the armed forces in a bad light or disrespecting the authorities. In a tactic that could not hide its Trumpian inspiration, actual journalistic reporting has been labelled ‘fake news’.

The impact of the new legislation has been brutal, with news outlets resorting to self-censorship to protect their journalists. Novaya Gazeta – a highly respected newspaper run by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, which took a stand by publishing jointly in Russian and Ukrainian – immediately announced it would remove war coverage from its website, focusing further reporting exclusively on Russia’s internal affairs.

On 1 March, the General Prosecutor’s office demanded the closure of two key independent sources, Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station and Dozhd (TV Rain), over their war coverage. Ekho closed two days later in response to increasing pressures, while Dozhd soon followed as its directors received death threats and went into exile. Both their websites were blocked.

On 4 March, Russia’s communications agency restricted access to foreign news websites – including BBC, DW, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America – on the grounds that they were spreading ‘fake news’. They didn’t go down quietly though: the BBC, for instance, made its Ukrainian and Russian services available via the dark web and launched a shortwave radio service to continue to reach its audience.

The outward flow of information was obstructed too. To protect their journalists from falling foul of the new law, several international media suspended their reporting from Russia. Sky News evacuated their team after they were ambushed and shot at despite clearly identifying themselves as media.

What was overwhelmingly left was state media peddling the official narrative. But unexpectedly, some dissenting voices emerged there too. Journalists from state media were among around 300 in the media who signed an open letter condemning the invasion. In mid-March, Channel One TV editor Marina Ovsyannikova went viral – even on Russia’s restricted internet – after taking to the studio holding an anti-war placard and telling viewers, ‘You’re being lied to here’. Marina’s Facebook page exploded with positive comments, some in Russian. Her stunt threw the spotlight on a long list of resignations by journalists working for state media that had so far been kept under wraps.

An opaque state of public opinion

For many Russians the invasion was a line crossed. This was reflected in calls to end the war voiced by media, sports and arts figures – even talk show hosts and influencers with no track record of political engagement and people who had previously supported Putin – and by the millions of social media likes and followers these attracted. Within a day of the invasion, an anti-war petition gathered half a million signatures. Defections from the pro-Putin camp have continued, exemplified by the decision of Bolshoi prima ballerina Olga Smirnova, one of the country’s biggest dance stars, to leave the ballet company in protest.

The mood seems quite different from that which greeted the annexation of Crimea back in 2014, which brought widespread public shows of support. There still seems to be majority support for the invasion: according to an independent survey conducted in early March, support stood at about 58 per cent, with approximately 23 per cent opposed. However, despite Putin’s claims to the contrary, there have been no large-scale spontaneous displays of active support.

So when Putin wanted to show support, he faked it. A pro-Russian symbol – the letter ‘Z’ – suddenly showed up all over the place, first painted on military vehicles clustered at the border with Ukraine, then spray-painted on city walls, plastered on billboards and printed on T-shirts. This bears all the hallmarks of a state-directed attempt to create the illusion of broad public support for the regime and its military adventure.

More than three weeks passed before Putin decided to make his first public appearance – and he did so in a carefully staged event officially dedicated to the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, meant as a show of massive support and national unity. In another echo of Trump, in Moscow’s largest stadium, covered in posters that read ‘For a world without Nazism’, Putin addressed a cheering crowd of tens of thousands. But these were mostly state-linked workers who had been bussed in or pressured to attend.

Voices from the frontline

Nelya Rakhimova is coordinator of the Coalition for Sustainable Development of Russia, a coalition of Russian civil society organisations (CSOs), research institutions, experts and activists that advocates for and monitors the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in Russia.


Although there have been protests all over the place, the number of people protesting is not that big. Many people who are against the so-called ‘military operation’ are scared to take part in protests because they have seen how police treat protesters. In addition, many people choose not to protest because they believe it won’t make a difference.

A look back at previous protests and in Russia and the government’s reaction to them makes it clear why many people are reluctant to participate in the anti-war movement. People are aware of the gruesome acts perpetrated in prisons and police stations. Civic freedoms are so restricted that people are not able to freely express themselves. Having your own views can get you into trouble. We have seen too many human rights violations over the past weeks and we are afraid the situation will only get worse due to the reduced international visibility of Russia’s internal situation.

I want to believe that the situation can and will change. And I think if there are massive protests the situation might really change. But it will take time for that to happen.

Unfortunately, there are large numbers of people who continue to support the Russian government. This is the result of the intensive internal propaganda the government has disseminated for years. People have been brainwashed and are convinced that what Russia is doing is for the good of both Russia and Ukraine. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to have massive protests.

The international community can support Russian civil society by sharing accurate information about what is happening in the country. A majority of CSOs and activists from neighbouring countries as well as international CSOs are focused on trying to help Ukrainian people, both refugees and those left in Ukraine. This is completely understandable, but I think they shouldn’t forget the people in Russia who continue to advocate for peace and human rights. The least they can do is shine the spotlight on the situation in their national and international media outlets so people abroad are aware of what is going on and are able to offer their help.


This is an edited extract of our interview with Nelya Rakhimova. Read the full interview here.

It’s still hard to know what the real state of Russian public opinion is. What does ‘public opinion’ mean when people are not allowed to form an opinion freely? Under democratic regimes, periodic elections are the most basic indicator of public opinion, but that doesn’t work when elections are empty rituals with meaningless results due to the elimination of competition and outright fraud.

In conditions of relatively open civic space, the fluctuating public mood between elections is monitored by opinion polls – but how reliable are pollsters’ figures when conditions for the expression of opinion are so tightly constrained? Protests can offer another early warning signal of shifts in the public mood – but not when the punishments are so great that many may be scared of taking part.

Incessant propaganda feeding Russians the lie that the military is undertaking a legitimate operation against evil Nazis may be a reason why the government maintains substantial rates of passive support – but it may also be a tool used to hide a lack of support.

According to state pollsters, Putin’s approval rating increased by six or seven points in the week of the invasion, up to roughly 70 per cent. But polling questions may be very misleading when pollsters are not even allowed to use the word ‘war’ to refer to the events they are asking about. And survey respondents cannot be expected to be very honest when those asking the questions come from the same source as those warning them that people sympathetic to ‘the west’ will be considered a ‘fifth column’ of ‘national traitors’ and punished accordingly.

To believe or not to believe: a generational divide

On the streets and on social media, Russians seem to be torn by a deep generational divide that has cut across families, with older people more often supporting the war and younger people more often against. This split appears to reflect a reliance on distinct sources of information: while older Russians tend to watch more television and are therefore caught up in the state media propaganda bubble, younger, digitally savvy Russians have long been getting their information from multiple domestic and international sources and have managed to continue receiving reliable news through messaging apps and by navigating the web through virtual private networks (VPNs) to elude blocks and censorship.

Younger and older Russians also tend to have different relationships with the online world. The propaganda apparatus has actively used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even TikTok as vectors of disinformation, but younger people broadly seem better equipped with the tools required to discern truth from lie, dismantle conspiracy theories and respond with their own digital activism; many older people are more likely to take propaganda at face value.

A twenty-something Muscovite, currently in Germany, said about her parents: ‘I can’t even really tell why they believe what they believe. It could be their Soviet past, or the government propaganda that has been poured out for so many years, or just that there is too much fear and anxiety to actually allow the thought that the world is different from what they expect. […] Sometimes I can’t help but try to convince them, which obviously doesn’t work. For the record, they don’t support the war in general, they do want it to stop; however, they can justify it in their heads somehow’.


Many young Russians have seized every chance they’ve had to express their shame and anger, emphasising that they have more in common with their Ukrainian counterparts than pro-Putin Russians, and challenging their government on behalf of Ukrainian ‘relatives, colleagues and friends’. When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to the Russian people, he was speaking to them, and they acknowledged receipt of this message.

So they tried to do what their Ukrainian peers are doing: to take the narrative away from Putin’s formidable propaganda apparatus by flooding social media with their own first-hand accounts of events, debunking conspiracy theories and producing consistent factual messaging to drown out the lies.

But when it comes to protest, it still looks like a David versus Goliath struggle. Internet restrictions limit communication among activists and organisations, making it harder to organise mass protests. This seems a vicious circle: repression that has been practised for years, intensified since the start of the war, has likely discouraged many potential protesters, preventing protests from becoming massive, which has in turn left those brave enough to take to the streets exposed to arrests without the defences that come with big numbers.

As an alternative, spontaneous individual acts of defiance have mushroomed – but these are also being repressed. Solo protesters have even been arrested for holding up blank signs, signs reading ‘two words’ instead of ‘no war’ and signs containing only asterisks. A girl was detained outside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow for holding a poster that read ‘6th commandment. Don’t kill’. People have also been detained for speaking to journalists, even when trying to voice pro-war opinions. The state is simply fearful of freely formed opinions: people who think for themselves are dangerous.

When is enough enough?

Anti-war protests have persisted despite the fact that detention is pretty much guaranteed. But repression has so far ensured that protests in different cities have not been connected and coordinated, to the point where it may be misleading to characterise them as part of an ‘anti-war movement’.

Crucially, restrictions mean that protests have remained too small to disrupt the status quo and force the government to react to their demands. Media censorship has contained the inspiration effect by ensuring that millions of people do not know their fellow Russians are protesting. Protests speak more to an international audience than a domestic one, crucially communicating to the outside world that Russia is more than Putin but prevented from building momentum within Russia.

Protesters’ demands to end the war are simultaneously, of course, demands to overthrow Putin. Because one is impossible without the other.


At this point, it seems that challenges to Putin’s power might come from three sources: oligarchs, who may be hurt by economic and financial sanctions; the military, which has historically stayed out of politics, and within which Putin has promoted loyalists; and the Russian people, most of whom so far seem to be passively going along with the war.

The unprecedented economic sanctions the west has unleashed could tilt the balance. In any country, economic meltdown brings protests, largely comprised of people who normally have no interest in protesting. In country after country, large-scale economic protests have quickly come to articulate mass demands for fundamental political change. Putin’s almost certainly unfulfillable pledge to increase public sector salaries, state payments, pensions and the minimum wage to mitigate the impacts of sanctions looks like an attempt to head off this potential source of pressure.

Voices from the frontline

 Maria Kuznetsova is spokesperson for OVD-Info, an independent CSO that aims to promote and protect human rights – and specifically the freedom of peaceful assembly – in Russia.


The international community should be more careful with sanctions, which should be targeted. I think that the idea of collective responsibility is wrong. In Russia, it is a concept reminiscent of Stalin’s mass deportations of whole peoples, such as the Crimean Tatars, to pay for some individuals’ cooperation with the Third Reich.

From a pragmatic rather than an ethical point of view, it must be noted that many sanctions that have been imposed are having negative side effects. They are harming the most progressive part of society that opposes the war, preventing it from receiving information and obstructing the work of the remaining independent media. For example, Mailchimp – a USA-based platform and email marketing service that is used to create and distribute email marketing campaigns – has blocked all its clients from Russia.

It is also essential to understand that the Russians and Belarusians that are now leaving their countries and arriving in Armenia, Georgia, Turkey and other parts of Europe are mostly opposition activists and independent journalists who face jail time in their homeland. But because they are Russians and Belarusians, they are facing massive discrimination. However, these activists and journalists are not responsible for their government’s actions. They are in fact the only hope that their countries will change, so it is essential to help them instead of discriminating against them as if they were the aggressors. It is necessary to understand that not all Russians and Belarusians support the war in Ukraine


This is an edited extract of our interview with Maria Kuznetsova. Read the full interview here.

Mass protests that attract support beyond the ranks of those who have opposed Putin for years could change the calculation within Kremlin circles. But Putin has done his best to isolate himself from all but a handful of sycophants, making it harder for moderate positions to prevail.

Another source of potential pressure for Putin could come from the families of soldiers who are never coming back from Ukraine. The invasion, met with dogged Ukrainian resistance, has clearly not been the quick win Putin was in for. Young and ill-prepared conscripts are dying in a war that was mis-sold to them as a heroic act of liberation. Anger from their families will sooner or later become a thorn in Putin’s side.

For change to come, more people need to see the reality that the propaganda apparatus has successfully concealed so far: that what is happening is really a war of aggression rather than a liberation, Ukrainians are not welcoming Russian soldiers with open arms but resisting fiercely and Russian soldiers who were sent on what they thought was a righteous mission are committing unspeakable acts of barbarism. Will Russian soldiers turn their guns on the mothers of their dead comrades-in-arms if they protest at the needless slaughter and demand that those responsible be held to account? Or will a major military setback, not for the first time, mark the end of an authoritarian era?


  • International civil society should provide as much support as it can to its Russian counterparts, amplifying their voices and easing the conditions in which they work.
  • Global media and tech companies should support independent Russian media, both within Russia and in exile, including through tools that bypass censorship and keep information flowing.
  • Civil society in the host countries of exiled Russian activists and journalists should help them continue to do their work, including by protecting them against the discrimination they are being subjected to by those identifying Russians with the policies of their government.

Russia is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.

Cover photo by Avtozak LIVE/Telegram