Staunton, May 3 – Russians recognize that collective protest is not only dangerous but almost impossible now, but at the same time, they feel they need to do something to show how angry they are. In the words of one, “I cannot protest because I have children” who would suffer if I did, “but I cannot remain silent because of who I am.”
As a result, anthropologist Aleksandr Arkhipova says, ever more of them are choosing forms of protest which the authorities don’t immediately recognize as such and have great difficulty in stopping, such as putting flowers in public places associated with Ukraine (holod.media/2023/05/03/obstrel-v-umani/).
That allows those who do so to feel they have at least spoken out and shown others that many Russians don’t approve of Putin’s aggressive war in Ukraine. Initially, the authorities didn’t respond, but more recently they have sought to detain, arrest or even charge those involved and quickly remove the flowers lest others see them.
The high point of this form of protest was in the first quarter of this year when literally hundreds of people chose to protest against Russian attacks on apartment blocks in Ukraine. Then the authorities began to crack down and hand out real sentences. But this effort has not been entirely successful, Arkhipova says.
According to the anthropologist, there are three reasons why this “weapon of the weak” in an authoritarian country is hard to counter: flower protests have no leader, they involve many different kinds of people, and those involved can quickly shift from one location to another, including to those like rivers without any association with Ukraine.
As a result, Arkhipova says, “this ‘weapon of the weak’ is getting ever more effective. Dissenters in Russia are constantly told ‘you are in the minority’ and ‘everyone else is for the war.’ But the resulting sense of loneliness is not necessarily demoralizing: it is in fact what unites Russians opposed to the war.”
“Yes, it is difficult to achieve the ‘we are together’ effect. Everyone has long learned that a collective protest in Russia is impossible, but there are still loners par excellence. They cannot go out with posters together lest they be detained. But everyone on their own can bring a flower to a monument.”
And after doing so, “they can then sit on a nearby bench and watch how the mountain of flowers grows and feel strength from the understanding that there are others just like them who are probably sitting on other benches and watching. And they too are also waiting” for a time when other forms of protest will be possible.