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Exodus: Russian Repression and Social “Movement”

In past research, we identified several broad trends in Russian civil society prior to the war, which we labeled enduring, evaporating, and adapting forms of activism. These terms captured, respectively,...

The Jordan Center stands with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine. See our statement here.

A version of this post originally appeared as a policy memo on PONARS Eurasia.

Laura A. Henry is a Professor of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College.

Valerie Sperling is a Professor of Political Science at Clark University.

Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom is a Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia.

What happens when a social movement that opposes government policies or the regime itself must physically relocate to continue its advocacy in the face of repression? This “movement” of movements has been underway since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Even as attention rightly focuses on assisting displaced Ukrainians at home and abroad, the unprecedented exodus of activists from Russia raises a host of issues for Russian social movements and those who support their diverse aims.

In past research, we identified several broad trends in Russian civil society prior to the war, which we labeled enduring, evaporating, and adapting forms of activism. These terms captured, respectively, organizational types that had persisted since the 1990s, those unable to survive, and those that adapted to Russia’s increasingly repressive environment. Here we examine a new trend in Russian civil society: escaping.

Russian movements on the move: Fleeing repression

Russia’s assault on Ukraine in February 2022 was accompanied by the further shrinkage of public space for political activism. New laws increased the penalties for anti-war protest, and between February and December 2022, more than 20,000 people were arrested for political reasons. The Russian government also stepped up its identification of so-called “foreign agents.” In July 2022, one of the original criteria—receiving foreign funding—was reduced to merely being under foreign “influence.”

Increased repression and the danger of military mobilization pushed hundreds of thousands of Russians to leave. A year after the war began, estimates of the number of Russians who had left ranged from 500,000 to almost four million. Some who left were civic activists, although many activists remained in Russia for reasons ranging from family obligations and economic constraints to moral conviction.

While the Russian regime may see activists’ exit as a “safety valve” (releasing oppositionists to a location where they will cause less harm), it may instead constitute a new opportunity for Russians to exercise “voice” and influence both in their new location and, indirectly, in Russia. However, the exodus also means that activist networks have been disrupted, many experience personal and professional dislocation, and conflicts may arise between activists who left and their counterparts in Russia. Moreover, leaving is no guarantee of avoiding repression .

Dilemmas of activism abroad

Research on social movements has demonstrated that several factors shape (but do not determine) activists’ ability to sustain themselves and achieve their goals. These include:

  • solving leadership challenges in a more fragmented movement;

  • articulating a narrative about the cause that attracts support from multiple audiences;

  • working transnationally to increase leverage on the target of activism—in this case, the Russian government;

  • coordinating digital and non-digital tactics; and

  • acquiring a resource base to support activism.

We review some of these challenges and Russian activists’ efforts to address them in the sections below.

Who leads? Who speaks? Dilemmas of legitimacy, narrative, and audience

When some activists are in exile, who leads, and who speaks legitimately for “the movement”?

One way to address this dilemma is to use a networked, nonhierarchical approach to activism. The Feminist Antiwar Resistance (FAR), for instance, is an international network of cells. Anyone can speak as FAR, and cells can even take somewhat divergent policy positions, but FAR moderates their Telegram channel and removes traceable metadata on photos of protest art and other activist actions. But having a nonhierarchical network does not entirely protect activists who remain in Russia. When FAR was labeled as a foreign agent in December 2022, three of its activists were singled out for inclusion on the registry, yet that does not mean that the network’s other activists are safe.

As movement actors disperse beyond Russia, activists need to rebuild networks and create new coalitions. Although people who have left may be physically safer than those who remain in Russia, they are often in precarious financial and professional positions. Can such grounds for potential rifts between “escapers” and “remainers” be overcome by building new transnational networks? The Ukraine War Environmental Consequences Work Group (UWEC) is a transnational collaboration (Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, and American) monitoring the environmental effects of Russia’s war. It brings together scientists, journalists, and activists with expertise on topics ranging from greenhouse gas emissions to biodiversity loss. Such collaborations may be fruitful, but activists may find they need to manage new dilemmas of leadership and legitimacy that they had not anticipated.

Who acts? The dilemma of tactics that bridge the digital divide

Long-distance activism (such as networked activism that includes people inside and outside Russia) is often digital—which has the advantages of enabling cooperation and lowering risks. But what are the challenges of connecting digital and non-digital activism? Activists in Russia are at risk if they undertake in-person, public actions in a way that those abroad are not, and may be at risk if they engage in digital activism in non-anonymous ways.

Some activist organizations straddle the digital/non-digital divide. FAR, for instance, publishes a print-it-yourself newspaper called Women’s Truth, which people can distribute anonymously in Russia (or share on social media and email), which aims to break through Russian state propaganda and spread accurate information about the war beyond the “activism bubble.” Likewise, the Russian Socioecological Union, a network of environmental activists with members inside Russia and abroad, monitors pressure on environmentalists in Russia, publicizing their plight to a broader audience. And the Ecological Crisis Group provides legal support to activists in Russia and offers practical advice on Telegram to activists under threat.

Who funds? Resource dilemmas

Since 2012, the Russian government has used both carrots and sticks to encourage certain forms of activism and discourage others. The “sticks” include Russia’s foreign agent laws and the law on “undesirable” organizations, while presidential grants and other state funding for socially oriented NGOs constitute the “carrots.”

Donor-recipient relations in Russia have been profoundly disrupted since the initial foreign agent laws were put in place. Because several of the major foundations that had funded Russian civil society in the 1990s turned their attention elsewhere once the 21st century began, many activists had long since given up the idea of having dedicated office space, and relied on volunteer labor rather than foreign-grant-funded positions. Although some activist groups continued to have ties to international donor-partners, by the time the war began in 2022, the trend away from “NGO-ization” in Russia was in full swing.

Activism, however, still requires resources. Ironically, some activists accused of being “foreign agents” while in Russia now may find themselves based in countries viewed with suspicion by the Russian government. Given that fear of the pejorative label “foreign agent” is no longer relevant, perhaps the outflow of activists will create a new opportunity to build connections between foreign donors and Russian recipients. If so, might that funding inadvertently recreate some of the same challenges for Russian civil society (e.g., competition for scarce resources preventing possible collaboration) that Russian activists faced in the 1990s?

In the interim, Russian activist networks like FAR are collaborating with other groups to raise funds to support antiwar activists who lose their jobs in Russia. Some organizations help Russian activists escape the country or help Ukrainians forcibly displaced to Russia to leave for other states. Such networks include activists in Russia as well as outside of it. Solidarus, a Berlin-based organization staffed in part by Russian activists who emigrated prior to the war, offers support to those who left more recently and monitors the legal situation for activists in Russia and for those seeking asylum in the EU. These collaborative activities are likely building the grassroots connections that serve as a foundation for civil society and that were not built in the 1990s.

Conclusion: The civil society of the future?

Hypothetically, participating in activism (whether abroad or at home) could help build “social capital”—a crucial element of civil society and democracy -- in the long run. Russian state repression over the past decade made it more challenging to support activists from abroad—hence the “adapting” activists had essentially stopped looking for foreign funding well before the invasion. “Escaping” activists, however, could perhaps be more easily funded, as international supporters who endorse the goals of these activists no longer need worry as much about activists being harmed by “foreign agent” labels or ”undesirable organization” laws. It may be possible to seize this opportunity to build transnational connections and keep the pro-democracy, human rights, and anti-colonial sectors of Russian civil society active.

However, it is crucial to support Ukrainian civil society and not to see activists of the region as competitors for the same “pie.” One important issue for funders of civil society is to recognize that Russia has for too long been the center of attention and that helping Russian activists must not be seen as part of a zero-sum strategy.

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