Aleksandr Podrabinek on the future of protest: Winning without violence 

22 October 2022

By Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda

More and more people in Russian society, are asking themselves the sacred question: “What is to be done?” What is to be done about the dictatorship, the organs of power, the war and mobilization, the destruction of the economy? For a great many people, any peaceful life is in the past. People are finding different solutions, and provisionally these people can be divided into two groups. Some are quickly solving the problems of personal survival; others are trying to change the situation in the country. The remaining majority simply have no idea what to do and in response to criticism of the regime more and more often ask, “But what specifically do you propose?”

As a rule, this question is addressed to opposition politicians, independent journalists, public figures, and political scientists—that is, those public opinion leaders who engage in politics competently or even professionally. The bitter irony is that the absolute majority of those leaders have left Russia, thereby solving the problems of their own safety. Naturally, they are ready to discuss at length and intelligently what those who have stayed should do, but advice from abroad isn’t worth a pin. That kind of advice is more likely to arouse irritation, not engaged attention. Especially touching are the calls to go out and protest, as are the regrets that this isn’t happening or is happening but not widely and energetically enough. I feel like saying: “Friends, come back and do the work, offer your personal example!”

Even a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step

Meanwhile, however bitter it is for supporters of the idea of innate Russian slavery to recognize, civil protests in Russia are not dying down. On the contrary, they’re intensifying. Lately, especially since the war against Ukraine began, Molotov cocktails have become popular. Military commissariats and municipal administrations have gone up in flames. Despite harsh laws, citizens are going out on solitary antiwar pickets. There have been more and more instances of direct disobedience to the police helping the military commissariats in the mobilization. Drawn into the protests are residents of various Russian regions and various social groups: high school students and teachers, university students, programmers, doctors, businessmen. Not everyone protests openly; many take measures to safeguard themselves against possible repressions.

On 24 February, Putin let the violence genie out of the bottle, a genie which, by Kremlin calculations, was supposed to crush Ukraine. However, they’re hardly going to be able to limit themselves to war against Ukraine. There’s no driving the genie back into the bottle once it has  successfully legitimized in the public awareness the legitimacy of violent resistance to the regime. Unfortunately, this is a nearly hopeless path. Violence truly could sweep aside the current authoritarian regime, but it is highly likely to bring to power other lovers of violence. Once again, between two devils, it’s not worth choosing. Russia has already taken that path. Do we have to fall into that trap again?

Only a conscious civil society can ensure reliable changes. Russians still have an effective instrument of nonviolent resistance: civil disobedience. Don’t participate in the regime’s deceitful affairs. Don’t work for the defence industry. Refuse to do research that might be used for military purposes. Don’t recognize laws that violate human rights. Don’t pay fines on politically motivated court decisions.

Civil disobedience is first and foremost each individual’s personal decision. If the cowardly Russian elite is capable of protesting only with a pretty visa in their foreign passport, that means there’s no point waiting for a standard bearer. We have to start doing everything ourselves. Without a doubt, this will be hard, and we’ll have a long wait for victory, but, as one wise Chinese man said, even a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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