Act: Inspiration

How Russians, Indigenous people and Belarusians are uniting to resist the war in Ukraine

February 28, 2023

Antiwar activists in Russia are finding support and solidarity in a growing resistance network comprised of Russian diaspora, Indigenous and ethnic minorities and Belarusians.

Anastasia Witts, a U.K.-based arts producer, wasn’t yet out of bed on the morning of Feb. 24 when her phone buzzed with news notifications of Ukraine being invaded. Despite the shock, the first thing she did was post on Facebook: “This war is not in my name.” Looking back, she said she felt “compelled to react immediately, to show I understand what is going on, and I am not part of it.”

Witts left Russia years ago, after Putin became president, knowing what an ex-KGB officer in power meant for the future of the country. In the U.K., she found herself straying from the everyday politics of her homeland. “Half of my life is in Britain, I don’t ‘feel’ Russian on a daily basis. I am only reminded if someone asks where my accent is from.”

This understanding quickly eroded as bombs fell over Ukrainian cities. Witts soon became entangled in a situation where her identity as a Russian carried a different weight now, and she decided to act. Within a month of the war, Witts had set up The Voice Of Russia, or TVOR — a nonprofit comprised of Russian creatives around the world, standing united against the war in Ukraine.  Witts also volunteers with Ukrainian refugees in the U.K. with the “Homes for Ukraine” project.

Witts is hardly the exception among Russian expats scattered around the world. Even as diaspora Russians often find themselves on the receiving end of scornful sentiments, many are joining with antiwar activists in Russia and neighboring Belarus to form a growing global network of resistance that’s gone largely overlooked. Despite the intense repression — where even a city council official can receive a 7-year prison sentence for criticizing the war —  antiwar Russians and Belarusians can be found everywhere, engaging in resistance activities under the unifying phrase of “Free Russia, victory to Ukraine, justice for Belarus.” It’s these demands and a strong belief in people power that keep the movement alive despite adversity.

Polling dissidence 

With Russia’s best weapon being its control over the narrative, activists gather evidence to counter disinformation. Alexey Minyaylo is an opposition politician who has been detained for his activism in the past, but that hasn’t slowed him down. On the day the war started, Minyaylo called friends and colleagues to make plans. “People wanted to rally in Moscow,” he explained. “I persuaded them not to go because it was dangerous. We took the responsibility to do something more than going to street protests.”

Ever since, Minyaylo and his colleagues have been collecting statistics and scoping public opinion for the Chronicles project they founded. The idea was conceived out of the need to address Putin’s propaganda and weaponization of false polls, which has led to the Kremlin falsely citing that 70 percent of Russians support the war. According to Minyaylo, this number is significantly inflated due to the inclusion of troops sent to the frontline and those who fear the consequences of saying otherwise. “Dictatorships rely on the ‘illusion of majorities,’ and people think the majority shares the goals of the state, approving its actions,” said Minyaylo, whose project has enabled antiwar Russians to address the Kremlin’s false consensus.

Since February, the Chronicles team has conducted seven polls, with findings that paint a very different picture. The data was collected by questioning a representative sample of 1,800 people each time. In the Chronicle polls, when those who said they support the war were asked “should the special operation end as soon as possible without reaching military goals or should the Russian army fight until Ukraine is defeated,” only 36 percent said that the “special operation” should continue. “After multiple experiments, we found the real level of support being somewhere around 25-35 percent, which is a more realistic level of declared support for the war,” Minyaylo said.

Crucially, since March, Chronicles has noted a turnaround in people’s attitudes towards the war. “Support is dropping, and we don’t see any factors that would change this,” Minyaylo said, noting that supporters have indicated prolongation of the war or incompetence might change their attitude. “Every day the war gets longer, and people see the incompetence, if not crimes.” This is also corroborated by recently-leaked Kremlin documents showing that support for the war is fading.

While Chronicles sparked discussions domestically and abroad — receiving quite a bit of publicity as a result — Russians, in particular, have shown their support. “It’s heartening for people to know they’re not alone,” Minyaylo said, recognizing that amid the propaganda, it is hard to know what the next person is thinking.

Diaspora at the front lines of dissent 

Diaspora groups are essential in coordinating antiwar action. Among them is the young activist Vladislava Petrova. Although her family left Russia in the 1990s for Italy, she was always connected to Russia, being vocal on issues such as LGBT discrimination. It was when the war started that Petrova became an “all-out activist.” As she explained, “Everyone with a glimpse of consciousness couldn’t just stay silent. So many of us started organizing without prior knowledge of how to do so.” She is now co-organizing the activities of the Russian Democratic Society, which — since February — has led protests, supported fundraisers and facilitated a global network of antiwar Russian groups “from New York to Seoul,” as Petrova described it.

Initially, Russian activists were joining protests organized by Ukrainian diaspora groups, but eventually they decided to conduct their activities separately — in part because, as Petrova explained, “We understood it might be painful for Ukrainian people to see us there.” These diaspora groups are able to connect to each other and pursue action away from the suppression they’d be facing inside Russia. Petrova said this is unprecedented because Russian emigrants don’t have a culture of “sticking together” and lack strong community structures abroad. Given that the war came as a shock to many, they had to mobilize quickly to create these networks from scratch. “We’re more united than ever,” she said. “It makes me sad this had to happen as a result of war, but I hope it means change is coming.”

These networks are important for providing a much-needed common space. Petrova shared her experience of attending antiwar meetings in Italy where Belarusian, Ukrainian, Russian and local groups came together under one roof, which left her with a feeling of empowerment. Similarly, Witts also found a way to help amplify the voices of Ukrainian artists by helping with the publication of a special issue for a Belgian magazine dedicated to Ukrainian artists. “We don’t leave our footprint on this project,” Witts said.

In these spaces, Russian Indigenous and ethnic minority groups have a strong presence. Tuyara is an ethnic Sakha from Yakutia, Siberia. [Her real name has been withheld for safety reasons.] While studying in Moscow, the racism and discrimination Tuyara faced, played a part in her decision to leave the country. She initially joined the protests of other Russian groups, but after seeing the devastating impact of  Putin’s mobilization on minorities, she decided ethnic people should organize separately to bring attention to their cause.

The Free Buryatia Foundation found that ethnic Buryats are eight times more likely to be killed in the war — and Tuva people 10 times more likely — than Slavic Russians.“ Seeing other ethnic minorities face the same problem means we must be united,” said Tuyara, who set up the London branch of Indigenous Minorities of Russia Against the War along with other minority individuals living in exile. “A lot of ethnic women went to protest because if we don’t speak out the Russian army will take our men. We go by the saying ‘It’s 10 or 10.’ Either 10 years in prison or 10 minutes in the war,” Tuyara said. For some, cooperating with other Russian antiwar groups is important to their cause. “The relationship between us is great, and when we organized our first protest, the other groups supported us a lot.” They spread the word, brought microphones and speakers, took photos and provided a steward to ensure everyone kept safe.

Indigenous people in exile — apart from protesting outside Russian embassies — also organized various international actions such as “Salam of Peace and Friendship.” Inspired by ancient Indigenous traditions, they tied multicolored ribbons on a rope with the word “peace” in the different languages of the peoples of Russia. Recently, Indigenous groups sent an appeal to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, bringing attention to the threats facing Indigenous antiwar activists.

Antiwar Belarusians are facing a similar situation, as the country’s dictator Aleksander Lukashenko is supporting Putin while intensifying opposition crackdowns within Belarus. Many activists have been forced out of the country and are now compelled to operate from exile. One such person is Vera Horton, a U.K.-based Belarusian actress, who, like Witts, had left much of her homeland life behind. Horton’s life as an activist started two years earlier when Belarus was shaken by anti-regime protests. They were a culmination of the very reasons she left in the early 2000s: fizzled out post-90s reforms, crushing authoritarianism, dependence on Russia and no real hope for change. “In 2020 my belief that Lukashenko will remain in power forever ended as Belarusians fought for freedom,” Horton said. “A new generation has grown wanting change, including the diaspora. My idea ‘we shouldn’t worry about it’ completely transformed into me becoming an activist.”

Since then, Horton has gotten involved with opposition groups in exile, such as Our House, a collective of Belarusian civil rights defenders campaigning against Belarus’s involvement in the war, while also supporting Ukraine. “Russian aggression in Ukraine opened the eyes of many because we suddenly realized we are already occupied and our establishment is dominated by Russia.” Belarusians have been attending marches and protests organized by Ukrainians and helping with other cultural actions, such as readings, theatrical performances and exhibitions. Moreover, Belarusian activists in exile — including those in Ukraine — also preoccupied themselves with fundraising or volunteering. “Belarusians help Ukrainians despite their government’s stance,” Horton said. “We’re united in how we see the situation.”

Supporting resistance inside Russia and Belarus

In order to circumvent online repression, activists like Minyaylo and his team have leaned on tactics that allow Russians to take a stand without opening themselves up to prosecution and detention, such as sending antiwar appeals to local deputies. The first such appeal was launched in April 2022, urging deputies to accept a law that conscripts won’t be sent to the “special operation.” The second appeal, launched in July, was about helping refugees. They created a database of 6,000 regional deputies and more than 45,000 letters were sent through this platform. “We formulated the appeals in a way the police could not use them to start a criminal case,” Minyaylo said.

Similarly, Witts’s TVOR project also aims to maintain the links of communication with Russians inside the country. “We received massive support from Russian people, who were delighted that we talk with the rest of the world on their behalf and kept this thread of communication for them,” Witts explained. She added that there are many artists who sent TVOR work to publish because they couldn’t do so back home, or many who approached them just to help with the project. “I want to hear from everyday people living with the shame of the war and need to protest. It’s important to support them and show them they’re not alone. I am proud of what we’ve done because someone somewhere will be able to say ‘When I felt forgotten I had this channel.’”

Meanwhile, Indigenous groups protesting within Russia have created a network of support with minority groups in exile. These organizations are a lifeline for Indigenous people at risk. Their activities involve educating people about their rights, spreading real time information about the war and mobilization for military conscription — such as how to avoid it or how to convince their close ones not to enlist. Some groups also help evacuate people in risk of conscription by providing logistical and financial support.

Spreading this information has been challenging due to media censorship, making it almost impossible for people in the Indigenous regions — known as the Republics — to read anything other than Kremlin-controlled news. Still, some use VPNs to access social media, which is one place where activists can try to get their attention. “Our priority is to inform as many people as possible. We circulate these materials not only because they can help someone in need but also to ring the alarm for those who avoid reality, thinking the war won’t affect them,” Tuyara said.

In Belarus, even Lukashenko supporters acknowledge the risks of sending their kids to war — and war, according to Horton, is one thing most Belarusians agree they don’t want. However, with Russian recruiters overpromising lucrative salaries or easy pathways to Russian citizenship, many were tempted to enlist. “For us, this situation is a new Afghanistan,” Horton explained. “The ‘80s Afghan war hit Belarus severely. I remember coffins coming in the neighborhood blocks and cemeteries filled with the bodies of young boys.” As a result, many Belarusian groups are waging an effort to prevent others from going to war, such as Our House, which started a campaign around denying forcible conscription called No Means No. There are also groups that help deserters or conscripts run away. “We do anything possible to make sure people who don’t want to go to war won’t go to war,” Horton said.

Another sustaining component of the antiwar movement in Russia and Belarus is the effort to support political prisoners. Both Horton and Tuyara gave accounts of Putin and Lukashenko going not only after activists but also their families, with the prison complex and judiciary being weaponized to suppress the movement. Groups such as the Yakutia Foundation and OVD-Info are invaluable resources for those detained due to their participation in antiwar activities. Russian Democratic Society also regularly fundraises for these groups, organizing letter-writing sessions for political prisoners in Russia and helping to raise awareness of their condition. At the same time, Horton and her community also organize public protests demanding freedom for political prisoners.

What is standing in the way?

Amid this oppressive reality, morale is low. According to Minyaylo, “The main problem is not that Russians are ‘blood-thirsty’ but that Russians do not believe they can change anything.” Witts also sees these tendencies in many Russians, even those who oppose the regime and the war. “They feel that nothing depends on them, and they succumb to this sentiment.”

While Horton also acknowledged this trend, she was quick to point out that “Belarusians were in a similar situation prior to 2020, so Russians might also wake up.”

One thing that isn’t helping is the loss of experienced activists — via imprisonment and exodus — who can guide younger activists within Russia and Belarus. Communication links are thinning out, leaving those inside the country with slimmer resources to pursue antiwar activities. Symbolically, one of the last major actions the Kremlin took before the war to was shut down Memorial, a prominent human rights organization that kept inquiring about Russia’s conduct during military operations abroad. Reflecting on the situation, Petrova said, “The generation born in the 2000s never knew anyone in power other than Putin or what it is like to live without a dictator.” Petrova, for example, was four when Putin was elected, and now she is 28. “It’s a really long time, and now young people don’t have anyone to guide them because everybody who was experienced is in jail or in exile.”

Similarly, polarization obstructs activists trying to concentrate their efforts as a group. Witts says she is pessimistic about the unification of the antiwar movement. “Russians have a lot to learn from the Belarusian and Ukrainian opposition managing to drop their differences for the sake of a united action.” She traces this issue to the lack of national unity, a byproduct of deep divisions within Russian society, embedded in social, economic, political and historical structures.

“To put it crudely, half of the country’s ancestors were gulag prisoners and the other half’s ancestors were the ones guarding them,” said Witts, who added that there has never been consensus on how to act even among democratic forces. Beyond activism, divisions are exacerbated by the people who are “inbetween,” as outside hostility has given Putin an opportunity to swing them to his side by instilling in them the notion that the West hates them.

Things are slowly changing thanks to efforts to bring people under one umbrella. “Younger generations start from grassroots movements, uniting on the basis of feminism, LGBTQ rights or democracy,” Witts said. “I think younger Russians show more ability to self-organize and come to terms with their differences. I hope they will push things further than my generation of the ‘90s did.”

Still, structural issues are enormous barriers to movement-builders operating from within Russia or Belarus. Petrova explained that while a lot of organizations have horizontal structures — meaning if one person gets detained the whole organization won’t cease to exist — the main problem is the need to be secretive because the Federal Security Service has insiders everywhere. “You can only achieve things when there is trust,” she said. “Those who were trustworthy have mostly left Russia. The ones left behind can’t be sure about the next person. It’s hard to organize on a mass-scale when much energy and resources are spent on verifying those around you aren’t spying.”

In Belarus, activists also face structural paralysis over how to proceed in an environment of uncertainty. According to Horton, Lukashenko’s stance on the war is inconsistent and while he doesn’t want to be part of it, he is subservient to Putin and relies on him to stay in power. “We try to go toward elections even from exile, so we can form a group of elected reps,” Horton said. “We can’t make Lukashenko step down without having someone to replace him.” The uprising of 2020 continues despite repression, but according to Horton, Belarusians don’t communicate as much as they should — meaning those who move in political circles make different kinds of friends, and the movement remains divided with multiple different actions happening simultaneously.

Broken glass too sharp to pick up

The war has tremendous consequences on how activist communities interact. People inside Russia have no contacts with the Ukrainian side because it is dangerous, according to Minyaylo. Many Ukrainian activists also consciously decided not to engage with Russians. Though understandable, Horton said, “It is difficult to get across the notion that there are people in Russia who oppose the war and stand with Ukraine.”

Outside of Russia, Witts said her community does experience examples of solidarity with some groups of the Belarusian and Ukrainian diaspora, which is surprising to them. “It is necessary to continue trying to approach Ukrainian people, carefully and with honesty,” she explained. “One must be prepared to hear certain unpleasant things or walk away when they’re asked to.”

As for Belarusians, dealing with Russians is complicated. “I’m personally happy they’re there despite how things stand at the moment,” Horton said, explaining that while many Belarusians disagree with Russian politics, they do think that somebody needs to influence the situation. “I believe we should encourage antiwar forces in Russia. We can teach them, because Russian activism, in terms of organizing, is two years behind us.”

However, like Ukrainians, Horton believes Belarusians will also go their separate way, and working with the Russian opposition will remain an undercover activity only few will be willing to do. “The war has awakened in us a ‘genetic memory,’” she said. “We’re uniting against Russia as our ancestors did. Russians — activists included — don’t understand why they’re treated as an ‘enemy’ because they don’t consider themselves one. They believe Putin is the enemy of the Russian people as well. They have a long way to go.”

Relations among Russian people aren’t much better than those described above. Petrova observed how the war has only widened gaps. “My friends hold the same views,” she said. “Yet, we had to cut ties with a part of my family in Russia because they believe in Kremlin propaganda, and we couldn’t convince them otherwise.” With many activists having similar experiences to share, Witts noted that Russians who condemn the war often do not want to even acknowledge those who support it. However, she explains for Russia to move on from these atrocities they should be considered. “Without understanding and working with these complexities we won’t find a way out.”

Minority groups within Russia also saw relations altered in various ways. According to Tuyara, minorities see Russia as a multicultural state — even though many don’t share this view because they have never been in the Republics. “I believe the war started because of the Russian imperialist mindset,” she said. “Russia has a long history of colonization, but no one talks about it or knows the facts.” As a result, Indigenous groups must battle erroneous narratives about why Russia is fighting in Ukraine, with some seeking to blame ethnic minorities for war crimes committed. “They’re saying that we’re ‘uncivilized village-dwellers.’ They’re once again throwing our people under the bus.”

Yet, the war has also strengthened solidarity among Indigenous people and their sister nations in the post-Soviet bloc. “We believe in the values of community and helping each other,” Tuyara said. She acknowledged that Central Asian and Caucasus countries help Russians escaping conscription, even though in these countries there are still people who have memories of Russian repression. Nevertheless, they understand the position Russian minorities are in and unite across borders to support them.

Petrova also reiterated that there needs to be big structural change on how Russia deals with its colonial legacy. “Russia needs to acknowledge its mistakes,” she said. “Countries like Kazakhstan support us by letting in Russian people escaping conscription or persecution, and I am sad Russians haven’t returned this kindness. Decolonization is a generational project.”

The way ahead  

The legacy of this war will be a hefty burden, and with no end in sight, activists prepare for any scenario. According to Horton, many people are waking up from Russian propaganda, and the war reminded them why they must fight to break free. “This is a new beginning because the generations before us didn’t think that way. Belarusians needed time to recognize themselves as occupied people because if you have handcuffs on and you don’t move your hands, you don’t realize they’re there.”

This also means that Belarusians can flip the narrative against Russian propaganda. As Horton noted, there needs to be more discussions initiated by antiwar forces and communities of the post-USSR bloc since Putin has already gone to extraordinary lengths to set up his propaganda machine. “He has created this Russian narrative that completely overtook anything else. We should talk about how everyone in the Eastern bloc is now helping Ukraine.”

Many antiwar Russians themselves count on a Ukrainian victory. For Petrova, it’s the only way she can return to her home country “without risking detention.” Meanwhile, as Witts explained, “A Ukrainian victory is necessary for Ukraine and for Russia. Russia needs to go through that pain to be reborn and, believe me, I do not wish this lightly: Reparations must be paid.”

Despite oppressive pessimism, in a plea to people still in Russia, Horton urges them not to give up. “Despite the pressure, I hope none of the people I care for will have to compromise their conscience to stay alive and out of prison.” Importantly, Minyaylo believes that supporting the democratic forces of Russia is the only hope for peace. “People will fight harder for democracy if they see support,” he said. “Saying ‘all Russians are Putin’s accomplices’ slows down the efforts of those risking their freedom and lives to stop Putin. Any democratization efforts should happen from the inside, and this isn’t possible without constructive dialogue with Western and Ukrainian leaders.”

For Indigenous and ethnic minorities like Tuyara, supporting antiwar voices in Russia also becomes a matter of survival. “Ethnic minorities don’t have a voice, and no one is going to fight for justice on our behalf,” she explained. “Our local governments support Putin, contributing not only to the genocide of Ukrainians but also to the ethnic cleansing of native populations in Russia. If this doesn’t change, Russia will remain a threat for the world.”

Ultimately, in terms of ending the war, Witts concluded that “it’ll take years of selfless and methodical work,” and they will succeed only if “the antiwar forces can unite.” Along the way, people will also need to realize that small actions performed by many will make a difference. “It’ll mean we’ll have preserved our ability to resist and created a society that cares. Preserving humanity is the most important action one can take in impossible situations like this.”

Teaser photo credit: Russian artist Alexandra Skochilenko was arrested for replacing price tags in supermarkets with anti-war messages. By Алексей Белозёров – Прислан лично, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Eleftheria Kousta

Eleftheria Kousta is a freelance journalist and researcher with an MSc in Security Studies from UCL. Having worked and volunteered in the advocacy space, she is interested in covering movements, civilians in conflict and refugees.

Tags: antiwar activism, Russia-Ukrainian crisis