“Everything is just like in the 1940s, but this time we’re the fascists.” How Russians answer to war propaganda with street art
Алла Константинова
“Everything is just like in the 1940s, but this time we’re the fascists.” How Russians answer to war propaganda with street art
31 October 2023, 16:41

“COMPUTER REPAIR TECHNICIAN is not coming, he's been taken away for military exercises. Believing there is no war.” Saint Petersburg. Photo: nowobble.net

In March of 2022, two weeks after the start of the full-scale Russian invasion in Ukraine, anthropologist Alexandra Archipova asked her Telegram channel subscribers to photograph and share examples of anti-war statements on the streets of Russia. It could be absolutely anything, from a sticker to wall posters, graffiti, tags, etc. After a year and a half, a collection formed—nearly 500 pieces from over 50 different cities in Russia. ‘Ukraine is not the enemy,’ ‘I’m scared, too,’ ‘Puck Futin’—this is how Russians that oppose the war decide to make their voices heard and support each other with the help of street art.

After the full scale invasion of Ukraine up until October of this year, at least 8055 cases of ‘discreditation’ of the Russian army have been reviewed by judges all over the country, according to the data gathered by Mediazona. 8046 of those were reported to regular judges, and 9—to judges operating in active war zones. 

All of that said, the exact definition of ‘discreditation’ of the Russian army remains ambiguous, covering a range of activities, such as piquets, advice on how to avoid being drafted, and any disrespect shown towards the letter Z, that became the unofficial symbol of the invasion of Ukraine.

‘She doesn't call.’ Activists stand on the the slope of Mamayev Kurgan view of the famous WW2 memorial monument Motherland Calls (to military service). Volgograd. Photo: nowobble.net

According to the data from the Judicial Department at the Supreme Court, in the first half of 2023, 21 people were convicted under the criminal article related to ‘fake news’ concerning the Russian army. Among them, eight were sentenced to actual prison terms, and three received suspended sentences. In the entire year of 2022, 14 individuals were convicted for the same crime, and two of them received actual prison sentences. 

Additionally, in 2023, 15 people were convicted under the criminal article concerning repeated ‘discrediting’ of the army. Two of them were sentenced to prison terms. Thus, the number of individuals convicted under this article is increasing: there were only three such convictions in the entirety of last year.

“I want to live, not to shiver.” Who are the semiotic partisans?

In order to avoid persecution for anti-war sayings, Russians have begun using different masking techniques, tells us Alexandra Archipova. Since March of 2022 she and her team of volunteering colleagues gathered and sorted all the different kinds of anti-war street art.

The phrase ‘Two words’ is used as a stand-in to ‘No war.’ Photo: nowobble.net

‘Deprived of a public voice, Russians create anonymous messages in urban space: on the walls of houses, fences, poles, at bus stops and on the pavement’—reads the description of the art exhibit named ‘No wobble.’ The name in itself is an homage to the case Alisa Klimentova, from the city of Tyumen, who was arrested in September of last year for writing ‘No to W**’ with chalk pens, accompanied by a drawing of the peace sign, in the city’s central square. The accused insisted, that her saying was meant as ‘No to Wobble.’ The judge was not moved by the explanation, and the Tyumenian received a 30 thousand Rouble fine for ‘discreditation’ of the Russian army.

“Peace is missing! He was handsome, kind, cheerful, loved all people, did not act outrageously. He played only on his territory and did not go to someone else's. Peace gave calm and hope. Help bring Peace back!” Yaroslavl. Photo: nowobble.net

“To slightly paraphrase Umberto Eco, we call anonymous authors who use such techniques ‘semiotic guerrillas,’” continue the exhibition’s organisers. “Like real train-breaking guerrillas, anonymous creators of stickers, posters, instagrams, and nano-figures are trying to undermine the information blockade around Russians: to talk about what the Russian government is hiding; to show that support for war is by no means the lot of the majority; and to pull depoliticised Russians out of their comfort zone.”

‘Bucha is our pain.’ Yekaterinburg. Photo: nowobble.net

Authors of a few pieces agreed to anonymously explain what moved them to do what they did. 

“I want my neighbour to, say, go out to the grocery store, and as she enters the lift, have to read what I wrote, and that should serve as a reminder: we began this war and we should be ashamed of ourselves.” 

A 37 year old woman from St. Petersburg puts out toy figurines of Ukrainian women and children out on the streets. She told the anthropologists that this is her way of evoking empathy towards the people being bombed and attacked in Ukraine. 

“I try making them cute, so that people want to pick those dolls up, maybe, take them home, maybe give them to their children, maybe just put them on their kitchen table. Then, maybe, just maybe, they will notice the blue-and-yellow hairband on the doll, and maybe that will tug on their heartstrings a bit, make them think.”

“Caution! Danger zone. It's everywhere now.” Saint Petersburg: nowobble.net

According to Alexandra Arkhipova, among the authors of protest graffiti in Russian cities, there are both teenagers and ‘very elderly people.’ Some of them were interested in politics and attended protest rallies before the war started, while others did not. What unites them is that most of them are loners.

“Some address Putin, some address Russian soldiers, but most often they address the Russian people, both those who support the war by their silence, and those who think like them,” note the creators of the collection

“Economy. Culture. Relationship. Peace.” Words printed on four communal trash can lids. Photo: nowobble.net

“Putin killed Russia.” How the anti-war statements work

Anti-war messages on the streets of cities in Russia can be divided into a few categories, says Arkhipova. The first consists of direct messages that do not require concealment. ‘No to war’ is the most common among them. In these graffiti, Putin’s name is often left out, but that doesn’t interfere with the reader’s ability to place it there: ‘Go away’ ‘You’ve made a fucking mess!’ ‘You’re dragging us to hell.’

Direct accusations, usually directed at fellow citizens supporting the war, make up the second category of anti-war street art. ‘People are dying in Ukraine, and Russia is dying with you,’ someone wrote on a fusion box in St. Petersburg in April 2022. After the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russians recall lines from the Bible, quote poets Osip Mandelstam and Bulat Okudzhava, and also camouflage anti-war appeals as leaflets.

“The price of foreign land is paid from your wallet.” Saint Petersburg. Photo: nowobble.net

“Propaganda makes people lonely: it tries to convince every single person that everyone around them supports the war. This is why lone protesters often want to tell what they feel and thus make an emotional connection: ‘you are not alone in feeling this horror,’ ‘there are many of us like you.’ We categorise such graffiti as emotional sharing,” tell us the collection curators.

People often publicly voice their empathy towards the casualties of war, mentioning specific locations: for example, they will write about bombed Mariupol and the massacre in Bucha. Or they might use a counter-message: “A certain supporter of the war in Vologda in May 2022 put a Russian flag in the window (apparently for Victory Day, May, 9th), and an anonymous semiotic guerrilla wrote under the window ‘Everything is just like in the 1940s, but this time we’re the fascists.’”

“Everything is just like in the 1940s, but this time we’re the fascists.” Vologda. Photo: nowobble.net

Familiar with the political and cultural context, passersby might perceive support in such graffiti and realise that somewhere there are ‘invisible allies,’ believes Alexandra Arkhipova. “But that’s not all. In rare cases, graffiti artists take the game with censorship to the extreme. They don’t write anything about the war, neither directly nor indirectly. The graffiti ‘An inscription that is going to put me in jail for 15 years’ encompasses any anti-war statement that the reader can substitute in its place and face imprisonment. This is a meta-message.’”

In their report, the authors conclude their classification of messages with the rarest type of works — the ‘paradoxical message.’ As an example, they mention a stencil graffiti in Perm where Putin is depicted with Hitler's mustache. ‘Erase me,’ is written below.

Editor: Dmitry Treshchanin

Translator: Anna-Maria Tesfaye

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