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In conditions of military censorship, when people are detained, tried, and imprisoned for taking part in peaceful protests, posting on social media, or having slogans on their clothing, anonymous street agitation becomes almost the only relatively safe way to express oneself. This can be graffiti, leaflets, stickers, posters, banners or even a “toy picket” (what that is, you will find out below).
We write “relatively”, because of course the authors of all these statements are also subject to persecution – and this happens quite chaotically. The case of the St. Petersburg artist Sasha Skochilenko, who changed price tags in a store for anti-war leaflets, became widely known – and now she faces up to ten years in prison. And Moscow artist Danila Tkachenko was forced to emigrate urgently when he became a suspect in a criminal case: his action with yellow-blue smoke bombs on Red Square was intercepted by FSB officers.
There are many more stories like these than we have just listed. Nonetheless, on city streets, anti-war statements still “sound”, both direct and covert – anthropologists call this a “semiotic war.” It involves not only artists but also people who have always been distant from both art and activism. Our letter today is about them and their “invisible protest” that takes over the streets of Russian cities.
This material describes protest methods that create serious legal risks for those who use them. Currently, this applies to all manifestations of dissent in Russia; people are being detained and arrested, tried and fined, and face real prison sentences. The editorial team does not encourage readers who are in the country to use the methods described in the text. Ultimately, whether to express their anti-war position or not is a decision that everyone must make for themselves. Take care of yourself.
It was in the seventies, in August, at night.
Two Soviet artists, Yuli Rybakov and Oleg Volkov, went to the walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress, where they had recently tried to organize an outdoor exhibition of their works. The exhibition was dispersed, and in response, the artists declared a hunger strike, but the authorities reacted indifferently (“Soon I heard a voice on the phone: ‘Are you hungry? Well, starve – starve, it will only make it easier for us if you die!’ ” – Rybakov later recalled). So, that August night, the artists decided to express their protest against the persecution of art in the USSR in a different way.
On the Sovereign’s Bastion of the Peter and Paul Fortress, they left a message: “You crucify freedom, but the soul of man knows no shackles.” The text turned out to be really large, 42 meters in length, and was perfectly visible. The KGB employees who were sent to remove the message had to paddle to the bastion on rubber boats: the Neva river rose too high, so it was impossible to get there on foot.
But what to cover with? The coffin workshop, which was located in the same place in the Peter and Paul Fortress, helped. To hide the text, the Chekists put coffin lids against the wall – which drew even more attention to the inscription. For this (but not only – Rybakov and Volkov were active participants in many non-conformist actions), the Soviet authorities sent the artists to a colony. Rybakov received six years, Volkov – seven.
Exactly forty years after these events, on August 3, 2016, the inscription “You crucify freedom, but the soul of a person does not know shackles” appeared again in this place – thanks to the modern street artist Timofey Rade. Yuliy Rybakov then wrote: “Well, I can only say – it (the inscription – Ed. Note) has not lost its relevance. To the new authors – respect.” And one of the commentators of this post noted: “Here this slogan … will still be relevant for a very long time, alas.”
Six more years passed – and in 2022, when against the background of the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin suppresses any protest moods within the country, graffiti on city walls, as well as leaflets and posters printed in secret, became for the Russians, in essence, the only way to express their anti-war position.
Such statements can be found all over the country, from Kaliningrad to Anadyr. One of the creators of the Telegram channel “Visible Protest” and an activist of the “Spring” movement, Timofey Martynenko, tells that he receives photos of anti-war messages even from tiny Siberian villages. And over the past four months, the channel team has received photos of anti-war art protests from nine thousand people from 130 settlements in Russia.
The walls are screaming
How city streets started speaking in Aesop’s language
When on the morning of February 24th the participants of the Moscow project Partisan Press came to the workshop, they immediately started to print posters with the inscription “No to war”.
Anyone could come into the workshop and take such a poster for themselves, and it was free of charge. And for residents of other cities, a digital copy was made available to the public. The printing process was recorded on video and posted on Instagram*. The video quickly became popular – in the first day alone it was viewed over a million times.
A few days later, another post appeared on the project’s account – under the photo of a poster that read “We all need peace,” the caption read: “The police came and closed the workshop.” “The police took two assistants to the station and tried to draw up a protocol for” participating in a rally by distributing posters, “remembers the workshop owner Sergey Besov in conversation. – During the hearing, the judge returned the protocol for revision, as it made no sense. The literal predicate was not related to the subject at all. “Besov says the protocol was returned for revision four times in total, and the court decision has still not been made.
After the police visited, the workshop employees, frightened, closed the premises for several days. “It was worrisome, but I understood that we had to continue doing something,” Besov said. Therefore, Partisan Press reopened: they began printing posters “Fear is not a reason not to do anything”, “Make your own conclusions”, “The main thing is not to lose yourself”. They stick them on the streets, hang them in apartments and offices. And photos of posters are posted on social networks with anti-war hashtags.
“I don’t see any practical use in what we’re doing,” Besov admits. “I don’t believe we can dramatically change the situation. But continuing to work now is about survival, preserving ourselves, supporting other people, showing ourselves and the world that we understand everything and won’t forget what’s happening under any circumstances. It’s important to show that we’re doing something, not staying silent.”
A young artist from Volgograd, who performs under the pseudonym Philippenzo (his real name is unknown), believes that “the walls scream” with the help of anti-war graffiti, posters, and leaflets. “From the first days of the war, an alternative front unfolded on the walls of many Russian cities. Anti-war inscriptions, graffiti, and drawings appear everywhere but inevitably get painted over. However, they appear again and again, taking protest beyond the traditional rallies and pickets, which are actively suppressed by the authorities. Today, the whole country is a big square. Today, every brave and caring person is a rally.”
Thus, Russian artists are waging a parallel, semiotic war with the Kremlin, says anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova. In her Telegram channel, she collects examples of street art statements (and by the way, asks people to send them to her). As a scientist, Arkhipova not only documents these statements, but also classifies them into three main types.
The first type of anthropologist refers to them as “absurd messages“. These are standard protest statements that use non-standard (“absurd”) props. This includes solitary pickets with a “Miratorg” brand piglet, a “MIR” bank card or a blank sheet of paper.
The second type, “counter-messages,” includes all anonymous statements that are embedded in some official message to completely change its meaning, according to Archipova. These are anti-war slogans on banknotes, as well as price tag substitutions in supermarkets and stickers in trains (“Seats for passengers returning from Ukraine and mothers giving birth again”).
Finally, the third type, the most complex and artistic of the three, is the “Aesopian language“. This is when a person creates street art with a hidden meaning, and the viewer has to decipher the meaning for themselves. Many well-known anti-war graffiti “speak” to passers-by in Aesopian language. For example, the work of St. Petersburg artist Vladimir Abikh, “It will be visible” (the trees hide part of the word “visible” – resulting in “It will be bottom”). Or the graffiti of artist Philippenzo with the inscription “Our Zinc!”, which is applied over schematically drawn graves.
However, it is possible to express oneself in Aesopian language not only through graffiti. Another recent example is paper pseudo-ads in St. Petersburg with the text “The computer master will not come, he was taken for training.”
“When double meaning is implied in a statement, we make our brain do double the work while reading it: we first scan the writing, then receive a discharge and feel pleasure upon understanding the meaning embedded in the statement. The likelihood of it being remembered better and us wanting to spread it is higher,” commented Archipova.
Through garbage cans and poles
How not only artists got involved in the “semiotic war”
On the next day after the beginning of the invasion, February 25th, Alina, a native of St. Petersburg, was in a hurry. Sitting in her apartment, she hastily drew anti-war leaflets. To do this, she took ordinary paints that were at home: before the war, the girl was fond of coloring by numbers.
It took a long time to paint: Alina doesn’t have a printer, and she was afraid to go to the printing house. “At that time, I didn’t care much about what anti-war posts people were writing on the internet. What was written on the fence became important,” the girl recalls. She is in her early twenties and is involved in photography – Alina has never been an activist or an artist.
Since that day, the girl has been consistently posting her homemade leaflets on the streets of St. Petersburg. All she needs for this is paint, paper, double-sided tape, and a little free time. To do it quickly and unnoticed, Alina prepares herself before going out: for example, she pre-sticks the leaflets on the inside of a regular woman’s bag. Then at the location, she can instantly remove the leaflet and attach it to the wall, without dealing with tape.
“Not only artists are waging the ‘semiotic war’ on city walls – so-called ‘ordinary citizens’ have also joined in. A Russian researcher of street art, who prefers not to be named, says that there are more of these people in St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod. It’s impossible to draw a single portrait of them – they are very different people: men and women, retirees and teenagers, teachers and doctors, IT specialists and journalists.”
There are thousands of them across the country, journalist Roman Super emphasizes. In his Telegram channel, created shortly after the start of the war, he publishes photos of anti-war street statements – and tells that during this time he has received “more than 10 thousand photo evidences.” Super adds that he receives messages from people “from all over Russia: from Moscow to Borovsk, from Kaliningrad to Teriberka.”
For those who want to join them, activists of the movement “Spring” have even written a special guide. It lists twenty ways to express your anti-war position under conditions where it is officially prohibited – most of the ways are “street” in nature. Aspiring activists are not only encouraged to post leaflets and graffiti, but also to organize “toy pickets” (i.e. leaving children’s toys with anti-war messages in public places) or carve anti-war slogans on tree bark.
There, in the guide, are gathered the basic safety rules, which, when followed, can reduce the risk of catching the eye of law enforcement. “Urban partisans” are advised not to engage in agitation near their homes, to cover their faces, avoid people and street cameras, plan their route in advance, choose inconspicuous clothing, and “work” only at night, under the cover of darkness.
That’s exactly what a mother of two children does, whose story was told by us to the anthropologist Arkhipova. At night, when the children are asleep, this woman walks around the city and leaves small clay figures on the streets depicting children. “A person will take this figure in their hands and think: children are being killed now,” explains the meaning of Arkhipova’s action.
Another mother of two children, a resident of the Moscow region named Alena, tells that she uses a garbage dump as a platform for street expression. “I regularly go around sticking leaflets on garbage dumps and poles about how war kills more often than cigarettes and alcohol. That a person is created to love, not to kill. I try to write something ironic so that people don’t get even angrier,” she says.
In the spring, the woman recalls, she even had a “fight” with one of the local janitors: Alena was putting up leaflets, and the man would tear them down every morning. But then, for some reason, he stopped: “Either he got tired of tearing them down, or he got tired of the war. Or maybe he started to think. I don’t know what exactly, but the leaflets have been hanging for a month and a half now.”
Cities covered in anti-war slogans
Why is all this necessary (after all, graffiti won’t stop the war)?
In May, the project “Greenhouse of Social Technologies” published an interview with Croatian-Bosnian human rights advocate Igor Blažević. In 1992, when the war began in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he lived in Prague while his parents and sister were in besieged Sarajevo. Blažević lost contact with them for six months and to help not only his family but also people affected by the conflict, he organized the collection and delivery of humanitarian aid from the Czech Republic to Bosnia. This initiative gave rise to the charitable organization “A person in distress“.
Later, Blazhevich organized missions to Chechnya, Burma, Cambodia, and East Timor. Drawing on his rich humanitarian experience, he emphasizes that no anti-war campaign can end a war. “None of the wars… ended thanks to the anti-war movement. Wars end for other reasons: either a significant military defeat of the aggressor country, or too many casualties among the personnel. Or, if the opponents’ forces are comparable, the war may enter a stalemate that will last for years until both sides exhaust their resources. That’s how wars end,” he says.
The question arises: why then do the residents of the country draw graffiti, distribute flyers and stick stickers, risking being crushed by the Russian justice system? Blazhevich explains that in reality all these actions have a completely different goal. More precisely, there are several goals, and it is very important to realize them in order “not to face a cruel disappointment when it becomes clear that you are unable to stop the war”.
- First of all, all these scattered statements create “space for expressing an alternative point of view” – so that people who are against the war can speak and act in it. This space is created with an eye to the future, Blazhevich is confident, so that when people’s moods change, they can join the anti-war movement: “If there is no movement and everyone is silent, there will be no one to join.”
- Secondly, street expressions create communities, however small or even tiny. This is important because “everyone who experiences war as a tragedy feels completely isolated” and “in such a state, it is very important to find your own people.”
- Thirdly, having formed, all these small communities get the opportunity to influence public opinion. Yes, this influence is quite limited, but still not zero. It is important to simply understand how public opinion is structured regarding the war. Here Blazhevich divides all people into four conditional categories: active supporters of the war and its passive supporters, as well as passive and active opponents. By influencing, anti-war communities are able to “move” people from one category to another, but only to the adjacent one. For example, a passive supporter of the war may become a passive opponent at a certain stage, and already in the next – an active opponent. However, the more legal risks, the more difficult the transition, admits Blazhevich.
Russia seems to still be somewhere between the first and second stages – when the space for expression is still being created, but communities are already beginning to form (in support chats, human rights groups, through new online mutual aid services, and so on). And for many of those who paste leaflets at night, the main thing now is to make anti-war statements visible. Artist Katya Muromtseva – using watercolor, she documents the action “Women in Black” organized by the “Feminist Anti-War Movement” – believes that spreading such statements is as important as “talking to your relatives who support the war or who have no clear position.”
This has a powerful therapeutic component, added by the activist of “Spring” Timofey Martynenko: “People have had their voices and identities taken away, they are being told that they are crazy and everything around them is for war. Propaganda is aimed at convincing us that we are lonely freaks, insignificant and small, unable to change anything or influence anything. This is not true.”
Regardless of each other, all interlocutors express this thesis in different words. For example, anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova emphasizes that “the goal of today’s repression is not to stop the anti-war protest, but to scare people, make them feel like a minority.” And Alina from St. Petersburg – acknowledging that street anti-war statements help her herself – says: “We live in a country where every stranger is a potential threat, the level of trust in each other is zero. In the midst of the Z crowd on the street, you feel like a stranger and unnecessary. Anti-war attributes are exactly what grounds you.”
In turn, journalist Roman Super, analyzing what is happening, says that the people have “fallen into a stupor” and are “scared to death”, but “there is no mass desire to stick semi-swastikas on their foreheads or on their cars.”
“In reality, these are cities filled with anti-war slogans. Turn off the propaganda – and everyone will understand it,” he concludes.
Croatian-Bosnian human rights activist Igor Blazevic identifies one more – the fourth and final – goal of the anti-war movement. Ultimately, he says, the global goal of all these statements is to form a pool of people “who will one day be able to lead the country into the future.”
“Now in Serbia and Croatia, every public figure is asked this question: ‘What did you do during the war? Are your hands stained with blood or not?’ This question will remain important for many years, not only for politicians. In all institutions and spheres of life, in culture, in the media, in education, there will be a need for people who have the moral right to say, ‘Let’s take responsibility for what happened and start building a new state where criminals are not in power’,” he explains.
When the war in Ukraine will end, few people will dare to predict now, but interlocutors still timidly try to look into the future. For example, Roman Super, discussing current anti-war statements, calls them “crumbs of openness with which a new Russia once began”: “And from these crumbs something else will start – lively and real. About the future, not about the gloomy Middle Ages into which this war has driven us.”