Protest is often studied in its visible and public manifestations, such as street actions, large-scale campaigns on social media, and open political contestation. However, when opportunities for public civic resistance are significantly reduced, protest moves into the realm of underground actions and dispersed anonymous activities.
“Safe harbors” of family homes, beloved urban spaces, and seminar rooms are becoming increasingly unsafe. In the climate of escalating repressions, unsafe spaces dominate. Hostile and dangerous conditions have forced dissidents, protesters, and activists to adapt their contentious repertoire and create new (or reinterpret old) self-organization, solidarity, and communication practices. Social networks have assumed organizational functions to maintain fragile connections between isolated individuals.
At the same time, many problems remain unresolved.
Online discussions of Russian anti-war protests often end in disputes between irreconcilable sides. Some consider protests insufficiently effective, while others defend any efforts by protesters as an essential act of resistance. Issues of representation and equality, access to resources, physical and emotional burn-out, the “unification” of the opposition, and the problematic nature of relations between grassroots initiatives and the older political opposition larger permeate the milieu. As a result, the discussion comes down to evaluative judgments and irreconcilable differences while the outcomes remain the same. This article is based on an analysis of the following materials: Telegram channels Media Partizani, Anarchija+, Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR), #Ochnis'!, the resource Teplitsa. Technologies for Social Good—as it offers a closer look at the transformations of civil protest in contemporary Russia, focusing on how practices of conflict expression and acts of resistance adapt to repressive conditions and what spaces they create to maintain a fragile sense of belonging.
Connective Logic of Protest
Significant changes introduced by online platforms in the organizational structure of protests have led sociologists to ask: what happens to a collective when it is formed not only through direct connections among protesters on the streets but also by social media affordances? Sociologists Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg developed "the logic of connective action", which was not previously inherent in social movements. In its classical form, social movements give participants a sense of belonging to a collective, as they share established political aspirations, values, informal rules, and ideologies that form a collective identity. For example, before their disbanding in April 2021, Navalny’s political offices could be classified as classical social movements. The members could identify themselves with the movement’s actions and perceive themselves as part of the collective.
Building on the work of Bennett and Segerberg, researcher Anastasia Kavada identifies so-called “crowds” that are based on connective logic. They represent formations without any collective identity. Instead, groups with different political beliefs or even apolitical individuals gather around a specific contested issue. They spontaneously form outside the boundaries of organizations and scale up through digital technologies, enabling the formation of various types of communities and organizations with diverse actions that do not necessarily adhere to specific internal group agreements. For example, Telegram groups formed after announcing the “partial” mobilization are based on the connective logic of action. Such activism, like assisting conscripts—whether through spreading legal information, facilitating emergency relocation, or sabotaging structures responsible for conscription—is self-sufficient and self-explanatory without it having to articulate political or ideological ideas behind it explicitly. In the case of the September 2022 mobilization, these “crowds” were formed independently of existing organizations. The dynamics of such groups were determined not by specific ideas but by the communication tools they relied on. They enabled human rights organizations and lawyers to disseminate helpful information. Moreover, chats and channels with real-time updates from users about locations where summons were being issued were created alongside with Telegram bots with the most essential information regarding conscripts’ rights. Thanks to digital technologies, such initiatives can resemble social movements, be quite productive, and expand their audience relatively quickly due to their vague self-definition and the absence of a strongly articulated political stance. For instance, most groups dedicated to the mobilization questions did not even explicitly state their anti-war position. As Kavada points out, such spontaneous expressions of discontent are often short-lived. As we can observe, some of the mobilization-related groups became inactive after the announcement of the campaign’s end. Nevertheless, “crowds” are strategically important for social movements: together with their specific agenda, more comprehensive ones can also be advanced. For example, several anti-war movements addressed concerned citizens with leaflets dedicated to the general topic of mobilization, simultaneously promoting the anti-war stance.
Bennett and Segerberg note that social networks have assumed the organizational and representative functions of political parties. Digital platforms facilitate more ephemeral and dynamic interactions between participants. People no longer need to share the same physical space (whether the Navalny offices or Lenin Square in Khabarovsk) to realize they belong to a movement. High levels of social atomization and the corrupt nature of the punitive apparatus have made active and mass direct action impossible. This is why even more organized expressions of protest that could fit the definition of classical social movements have acquired the characteristics of “crowds.” For example, despite the presence of a coordinational activist core, initiatives like Vesna, Feminist Anti-War Resistance, and Media Partizani prefer more flexible approaches to self-definition that are not based on collective political identity. These groups do not require a shared physical space, membership structure, or a common ideology to gather people under the “No to War” slogan. For instance, anyone can utilize FAR materials—leaflets, stickers, Telegram bots, guides—without a formal membership or proof of allegiance to feminist ideas. Such flexibility in categories and forms of collectivity helps to counteract the feeling of loneliness and powerlessness often mentioned in protest circles and lowers the threshold for engaging in activism.
These cases demonstrate how affective collectivity is developed through the use of media platforms. Various media channels become archives of everyday acts of resistance maintaining visibility of protest actions, even if those are intended to be visible only to a small audience. The media infrastructure of personalized interaction shapes everyday protest practices. These practices aim to document, preserve, and exchange evidence of protest activities, promoting a sense of collectivity. However, this is also where the potential vulnerability of connective forms of organization lies. Digital platforms, with their algorithmic logic and monetization of user engagement and attention, can contribute to exaggeration and overamplification of the impact of such actions. Group administrators, realizing that all information posted on Telegram channels is open and accessible to everyone, must make strategic decisions about what content will be presented and how. As a result, priority may be given to maintaining affective collectivity, while stories of failures and critical voices get lost in the flow of information. Moreover, media exaggeration can manifest itself in the phenomenon of slacktivism. Slacktivism is a term that combines the words “slacker” and “activism.” It refers to social media users that appear to be participating in a problem or supporting a specific political or social campaign, but whole actions often lack significant impact or deep engagement with the issue. On the other hand, in repressive conditions, even small acts of consuming information become politically significant.
Infrapolitics and Visibility
The classic dilemma of balancing contributing to the common cause and staying safe between overt and covert protest actions remains unresolved. In the case of contemporary anti-war protests in Russia, this tension can be examined through deliberately kept hidden practices.
In his work Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts American anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott argues that in limiting the idea of what can constitute protest to solely openly declared activities, one overlooks just as equally significant practices of “hidden” resistance, such as masking, deception, evasion, mockery, and disobedience. Tactics that unfold outside traditional spheres of politics and are used to protect one's interests and rights in conditions of limited opportunities for formal political participation are called “infrapolitics” by analogy with infrared radiation, which is invisible to the human eye.
Building on Scott's work, recent studies on protests in Russia have shifted the focus to examining masked and hidden resistance, which constitutes the realm of infrapolitics. Using the examples of “monstrations”, Fröhlich and Jacobsson describe the realm of “gray zones” as the real protest opportunities. Gray zones allow for practicing resistance, avoiding state retaliation through covert forms of protest expression that primarily entail tactical choices resulting from a cautious approach to the punitive mechanisms of the repressive state.
The connective process of experience sharing compels movements to seek new forms of self-organization, leading to the transformation of visibility criteria. For example, new metrics, ways of documentation, and visualizations of the scale of protest activities, such as maps, digests, as well as pictures of green ribbons in the Vidimyj protest (Visible Protest) channel, are created within the dissident online networks. They create fleeting opportunities for collective action by exploiting gaps in the surveillance system and its discursive contradictions. Anonymous activists leave transient traces yet visible to a specific circle of like-minded individuals. These traces can take both symbolic and material forms. From headquarters to encrypted messaging group chats, from coordinating the flow of protesters to guerrilla tactics targeting infrastructure, from media coverage to photographs of green ribbons, stickers, and autumn leaves with anti-war slogans. Infrapolitical resistance practices of grassroots initiatives have reshaped conventional repertoires of action in contemporary Russia.
Citizen DIY and Self-Organization
Under the relative protection of anonymity, cybersecurity protocols, and encrypted messaging apps, “crowds” and movements began exchanging ideas about different resistance practices, offering coordinating advice, and sharing links to tips and resources. Over time, the notion of what constitutes a protest expression has transformed. Economic crisis and demonstrative impunity of repressive institutions limit possibilities and reduce available resources. Under the pressure of safety concerns, protesters must demonstrate resourcefulness, manifested in a phenomenon known as “DIY” or “do-it-yourself.” In this context, DIY refers to creating objects such as banners, scripts, Telegram bots, stickers, and more. It provides accessible ways for self-expression with a low entry bar. People share skills and experiences, offering each other ideas on making the best use of the limited resources at hand. In dissident Telegram groups, instructions and recommendations circulate on various topics: from printing samizdat to setting up personal VPNs, from guides on how to talk to family members about the war to Telegram bots providing legal information about detentions and trials.
In this lane, one can observe how the “menu” of protest practices becomes much more diverse. Accessible and easily personalizable forms of protest, new types of engagement in collective endeavors, group belonging, and participation strive to ensure the longevity of spontaneously gathered dissident groups. As a result, the ability to choose one's form of contribution transforms protest action into an act of self-expression. The scale or impact of personal involvement ceases to be significant. While remaining an integral part of the long-term agenda, a fixation on the scale or conventional visibility of protests can also act as a restraining factor, raising the entry bar into activism. Lowering this bar becomes a mechanism for gradually achieving mass protest mobilization.
However, not all grassroots initiatives are actively interested in mass participation and engaging with the undecided parts of the population. Partisan movements and radical forms of resistance have taken root within the anti-war movement. Discussions about the acceptability of direct action such as arson of draft offices or sabotage focus not only on the normative and moral aspects but also on the “image” of anti-war initiatives in the eyes of the Russian population. More liberal initiatives are concerned that radical measures may alienate potential supporters among the undecided. At the same time, partisan groups believe that anti-war resistance has a chance of succeeding only through direct action.
Citizen DIY during the protests is also a mean of self-expression to create their institutions and forms of citizenship, which opens up space for criticism, such as various forms of inequality. One classic example is the Occupy Wall Street movement, during which protesters created their own media, food, medical, and housing committees to support and give visibility to groups most affected by the corporate culture of economic inequality. In contemporary Russian protests, we can see examples of such initiatives as Antifond, Studencheskoe antivoennoe dvizhenie (Student Anti-War Movement), Free Buryatia, and Free Kalmykia, which focus on assisting specific groups (workers, students, ethnic communities) and thus attempting to create analogs of civil structures. In this process, there is an opportunity not only to re-create familiar support structures in a compensatory manner but also to critically examine their foundational principles, as it is currently happening in ethnic decolonial movements.
DIY, besides its obvious socio-political benefits, also brings about a subtle reorientation and enhancement of civic self-awareness. Numerous guides dedicated to safety rules and behavior in stressful situations express responsibility for oneself and others. These artifacts are attempts to increase the sense of citizenship and instill self-organizational skills at an individual level. By familiarizing themselves with civil rights and the ability to exert bureaucratic pressure on the system, individuals learn to defend themselves and others. Thus, DIY simultaneously cultivates a culture of knowledge and competence exchange and establishes self-education as one of the fundamental dissident skills. The pool of links, guides, and Telegram bots collectively forms the “Bible of an exemplary protester.” They instill responsibility, inspire confidence, and teach self-organization. In spatial and temporal dispersion conditions without the possibility of direct and mass coordination, infrapolitical action boils down to the ability to engage in individual self-organization, autonomy, and self-reflection. The fragility of such a form of action requires personal responsibility for its maintenance. Dissidents must be self-reliant in seeking ways of contentious expression and participation. Their task is to stay informed, explore their boundaries, and find means of protest action and self-expression.
This is where the critical potential of the “amateur expert” lies—it breaks the vicious cycle of learned helplessness, dispelling the belief that there is no point in trying to change anything and that all attempts at resistance aimed at transformation are futile. In other words, citizen DIY is a path toward realizing one's agency.
Self-organization is a challenging skill. In the current conditions, the absence of coordination centers or recognizable leaders exacerbates the spatial-temporal fragmentation of the dissidence. Desynchronization occurs across time zones and in terms of goals, means, and ideologies of protest, splintering the temporary structures of fragile collectivity. Sustaining the ephemeral sense of fragmented collectivity is challenging for infrapolitical organizations under repressive conditions. This task is further complicated by conflicts within the protest movement, as well as emotional and physical burnout, mental health issues, and occasional fundamental disagreements. Although the connective structure of social media theoretically promises polyphony rather than a uniform set of voices, some still resonate louder than others.
Summary: Small-scale and Anonymity
While acknowledging the widespread problem of indifference and apathy among the population, it is fair to note that criticisms of these movements — whether for their perceived ineffectiveness or the insignificance of their contribution to regime change, overlook their democratic potential. Inclusivity, achieved through expanding forms of participation, helps anti-war movements broaden their participant base because the sense of belonging is no longer dependent on the magnitude of the effort invested. With the ability to make a small contribution, a protest-minded individual is more likely to adhere to the principle of “better to try it out than do nothing at all.” The range of options and the absence of centralized structures allow for integrating protest activities into everyday life, aligning them with the available resources and opportunities.
Civil movements and activists deliberately shifted their focus from actions that would attract mass media attention (if this was theoretically possible in Russia) to small-scale and anonymous actions. In the current situation, we can observe how the idea of a “hero” intentionally putting their life on the line becomes impractical. In nonviolent, liberal forms of resistance, individuals who lose their freedom also lose the opportunity to engage in even small but significant infrapolitical acts of resistance.
Enlightenment and advocacy practices aim for internal positive transformations, such as the ability to self-organize and assume responsibility. These skills should serve as a foundation for more radical changes from the grassroots level, driven by self-motivation. This is a long and painstaking process of transforming civil society that cannot be measured or quantified.
Russian activist initiatives, deprived of the ability to influence political decisions directly and openly express their opinions, demonstrate inventiveness, and collectively find new safe protest tactics. This adaptability, associated with passive compliance, reveals its critical and productive potential in anti-government networks of civic consciousness, where survival coexists with breaking out of a state of helplessness, and indifference coexists with an awareness of one's involvement in resistance forces.
Furthermore, the collective experience of anonymity, secrecy, and confidentiality becomes a shared experience within the dissident community, expressed through the joy of successful subversive actions and the small triumphs of localized interventions that go unpunished or unnoticed (during their execution). Secrecy and anonymity thus form affective connections of collective experience, even in the dispersion and fragmentation of individual dissidents.
Despite repression and organizational challenges resulting from the absence of leaders and the inability to rely on institutions, parties, and organizations, dissenters expand the repertoire of actions, and coordinate goals and means of protest while maintaining a fragile balance between visibility and security. As a result, neither standard quantitative indicators based on specific metrics and conventional forms of documentation can only capture these complex transformative processes. Perhaps it is necessary to shift the focus away from legitimacy, as legitimacy is always associated with some form of statehood, to a more intuitively understandable sense of trust. The trust in anti-war initiatives of Russians who suffer from a sense of isolation and loneliness and face pressure from the security forces becomes the most significant confirmation of the importance of the goals outlined by various anti-war initiatives.