Check facts

There Are No Protests in Russia? Yet Roskomnadzor Found Them!

IStories uncovered that Russia’s main censor Roskomnadzor monitors Russian protests every day: in which regions people are protesting, about what issues, and whether these scattered actions may turn into large-scale riots

22 Mar 2023
There Are No Protests in Russia? Yet Roskomnadzor Found Them!

Protests happen almost every day in Russia: against the closure of a public bath in Penza, against the development of the Volga bank in Zabrovye, against the closure of a school in the Yakut village of Chulman, in defense of a stadium in St. Petersburg and of course against the war. Although many remain invisible even to local residents,the country's main censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, is aware of them.

Thanks to the largest data leak in Roskomnadzor history (#RussianCensorFiles), IStories discovered that the Roskomnadzor subsidiary — the General Radio Frequency Center (GRFC) — monitors every step taken by Russians who aren’t afraid to take to the streets to express their views. Even the smallest gathering of dissatisfied citizens in Russia will end up in the “Reports on the presence of protest moods in social networks,” which are compiled by the employees of the GRFC, and sent to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the presidential administration, the FSB and the Prosecutor General’s Office, among other departments.

The GRFC describes in detail where and when actions took place, how many people participated, who the organizers were, and whether there were any arrests. Protests both large and small on a variety of topics are important to them: from anti-war actions to gatherings of villagers protesting the closure of the only grocery store in town.

IStories analyzed hundreds of available reports from 2022. We tell you in which regions and against what issues the Russians are ready to protest.

In which regions do Russians protest most often?

Khabarovsk Krai is apparently the region of Russia that experiences the most protests. It’s home to almost twice as many protests as St. Petersburg, which ranks second, and three times as many as in Moscow and Bashkortostan, which share third place.

The GRFC leak included data on activities that took place primarily over 116 days in 2022, from early March to late June. The lack of data for the rest of the year does not mean that the Russians did not take to the streets; most likely, these reports were not leaked.

All actions can be divided into “pro-government,” meaning support of the war and the policies of Vladimir Putin; “neutral,” for example, holiday rallies on May 1 and 9, gatherings on memorable dates; and “protest,” entailing speeches on environmental issues, infrastructure, human rights, high prices and other topics. 

The vast majority of the protests in Khabarovsk Krai were held in support of the former head of the region, Sergei Furgal, who was detained in 2020. According to investigators, in the early 2000s, Furgal was involved in two murders and one murder attempt. He pleaded not guilty. Locals don’t believe the investigators, and for more than two years now they have regularly attended protests to voice their support of Furgal and express their dissatisfaction with the policies of Vladimir Putin. In just 116 days in 2022, according to GRFC monitoring, Khabarovsk residents took to the streets 91 times to support the former governor. In early February 2023, Furgal was found guilty and sentenced to 22 years in a penal colony.

Khabarovsk journalist Sergei Mingazov in 2020 explained to IStories how, in the first few months of the protests, Khabarovsk residents grew into a real civil society: “The women sitting there [in the square] were supporters of Putin and Zhirinovsky yesterday. And today they are shaking the 31st article of the Constitution and quite sensibly discussing general political things. People of all ages and ideologies come with slogans for Belarus, about Navalny. In this regard, this is a powerful thing. People are learning right before our eyes.”

On March 13, 2023, the FSB announced that it had detained “an activist of the YaMiFurgal [I/We Are Furgal] movement” for treason — she allegedly provided financial support to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. YaMiFurgal’s official Telegram channel reported that no one knows the detainee, and the public arrest may be a continuation of the "methodical discrediting of Sergei Furgal's support." OVD-Info lawyer Daria Korolenko notes that such actions by the authorities prove that they consider civil society a threat and are seeking to suppress it.

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According to the GRFC, more than 90% of all Russian protests took place in the regional centers. “People always have more resources in the largest cities, and they’re less dependent on the government, so there are more civic connections. For example, in Khabarovsk, even before the protests for Furgal, resentment against the authorities — against Moscow — accumulated, so in fact, Furgal came to power as a result of a protest vote,” explained a well-known Russian sociologist who requested anonymity.

Outside the regional centers, people most often protested in the Krasnodar Krai and the Arkhangelsk oblast. The most frequently cited reasons were anti-war sentiments and environmental issues. In total, in 2022, GRFC employees listed 96 protest actions outside regional centers in their reports. The actual number may be higher; only those found in open sources were included in the reports. Information about protests that take place in small towns is more likely not to make it into social media or news coverage.

Almost half of the protest actions in Russia are solitary pickets. Just one in five events attracts more than 10 people. The largest protests outside the regional centers, as recorded by the GRFC, were a protest against the general development plan in Gelendzhik, and a strike in the Krasnoyarsk village of Yeruda, where people weren’t paid their salaries. About 300 people took part in each.

Propaganda instills a person with a sense of loneliness, says that others will not come out [to protest]. Western claims [by the media and experts] that Russians aren’t taking the streets work in exactly the same way as the attempts by Russian authorities to silence protest.
Alexandra Arkhipova, an anthropologist

If the protests were quiet and didn’t lead to arrests, there’s a high risk that no one will find out about them, notes Alexandra Arkhipova, an anthropologist and author of the Telegram channel “(Un)entertaining anthropology.” 

“Stigmatization is now happening both from the inside and outside. Propaganda instills a person with a sense of loneliness, says that others will not come out [to protest]. Western claims [by the media and experts] that Russians aren’t taking the streets work in exactly the same way as the attempts by Russian authorities to silence protest,” explained Arkhipova. “Opposition journalism writes mainly about detentions. Because leaving a picket [without trouble] isn’t an event, but a rough detainment is,” says the anthropologist. “And that only makes the situation worse. The more people say that Russians don’t take the streets, the more likely it is that Masha and Petya will not take the streets. And if people knew that in Yekaterinburg, citizens go out to solitary protests, then the likelihood that a particular opposition-minded person would go to a picket would be higher.”

This is why, according to Arkhipova, the “flower protests” were so noticeable: Russians in different cities brought flowers to places associated with Ukraine, as a sign of solidarity with the victims of a rocket attack on a residential building in Dnipro. “The flowers are laid quietly, secretly, alone. And then a mountain of flowers, candles, toys grows near the monument to Lesya Ukrainka. It looks like a lot of people have done it. People themselves aren’t seen, but traces of their activities are. This has a very strong effect: ‘I’m not alone, there are many people like me,’” explains Arkhipova.

Flower protests have a strong impact, because they show people that they’re not alone – that many stand in solidarity with them.
Flower protests have a strong impact, because they show people that they’re not alone – that many stand in solidarity with them.

Who organizes actions against the war, and in support of it

After Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, one of the most widely discussed questions is whether Russians really support the war. Monthly surveys on the topic have been conducted by the Levada Center. A well-known Russian sociologist, who asked for anonymity, commenting on polls by the Levada Center, explains that the war’s staunchest supporters comprise about one quarter of the population.

“High rates of support for the war are possible in conditions of non-participation of the majority of the population. Meaning, as long as people can fence themselves off: ‘This is happening somewhere over there, in Ukraine, in the Donbas …’” the sociologist explains. “The fall in support was at the time of the announcement of mobilization, because people got the impression that now this concerns everyone, anyone can be taken away. Then it turned out that in the end, it isn’t not any and far from all. And then the mobilization ‘ended.’ At the same time, the highest numbers of support for the war are among those who definitely will not be mobilized — older men [55 years and older].”

Total military censorship and repressions are being deployed against everyone who speaks out against the war: in 305 out of 365 days in 2022, across Russia, security forces detained people for taking anti-war stances, according to OVD-Info. But despite this, people continue to openly speak out against the war. Of the public actions recorded by the GRFC’s employees in 2022, one in five was anti-war in nature. It was anti-war protests that accounted for 70% of all arrests at protests. But still, more than a third of the anti-war actions ended without consequences for the participants. Among the leaders in terms of the number of simultaneously detained was a meeting of members of the furry community (fans of animation with anthropomorphic or otherwise humanoid animals.Editor’s note), at which 15 people were detained. It turned out that the police coincidentally found anti-war leaflets and green ribbons on one of the detainees (a symbol of peace and protest against the war in Ukraine.Editor’s note).

People were most active against the war in Moscow and St. Petersburg (exactly half of all protests in these cities were anti-war protests), and in population centers of the Siberian regions — Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk and several other large cities. And in Ulan-Ude, Sochi, Novorossiysk, Udmurt Glazov, according to leaked GRFC monitoring data for 116 days, anti-war sentiments were the only reason for protests.

You can take to the streets in support of the actions of the Russian armed forces without fear of consequences. However, according to Roskomnadzor statistics, these rallies made up only 14% of the total number of actions in 2022. This is four and a half times less than protests against the government and its policies. A well-known Russian sociologist, who asked for anonymity, explains this passivity, among other things, by the fact that Russian society is based on non-participation (whether the actions are against or for) and focus on one's personal life. “The population of the country is mostly low-income. Therefore, even to the open question, “You say that everything is going in the right direction. Why do you think so?” after the answer “We resist pressure and do the right thing,” the second most popular answer is “Well, we got some profit (meaning various payments and benefits that the families of the Russian military who participate in the invasion of Ukraine receive.Editor’s note),” explains the expert.

It is not uncommon for participants in pro-government rallies to be recruited via monetary compensation. For example, two weeks before the rally-concert in Luzhniki at which Vladimir Putin spoke, announcements appeared on social media about recruiting extras for payments ranging between 500 and 1,600 rubles [between $6 and $20], Meduza wrote. Tickets for the event were issued mainly to employees of state institutions and enterprises, students, members of youth cells of parties, and Nodists [members of the National Liberation Movement — NOD].

The NOD is an ultra-right political association whose main ideology can best be described by the phrase “the United States is to blame for all problems in Russia.” The movement positions itself as independent, but Transparency International Russia, an anti-corruption center, has found that it is funded through a network of non-public non-profit organizations, many of which receive presidential grants. According to the GRFC, one in three protests held in support of the war and the president in 2022 was organized by the Nodists. In addition to pro-war activities, they also regularly promoted such subjects as “united Fatherland,” “investigation of the 1991’s events,” “return to the borders of the USSR” and against “Amero-fascists.”

Essentially, representatives of political parties and government-adjacent organizations organize speeches and events in support of the war and the actions of the president. Meanwhile, nine in ten anti-war actions are grassroots initiatives led by citizens.

Despite the fact that GRFC employees didn’t find any organizers of anti-war protests, the authorities still want to see an “orchestrator” where there isn’t one. “We have read more than 5,000 decisions in cases of discrediting the army, and in many of them there is a reference to the “Vesna” movement (a youth democratic movement whose goal is “a free Russia where human rights will be respected.”Editor’s note) , although the person [involved in the case] has nothing to do with them at all,” says OVD-Info lawyer Daria Korolenko. “We see that most of the anti-war protests were rather spontaneous and not specially organized by anyone.”

More than anyone else in Russia, the consequences of the war were felt by citizens in the border regions, where dozens of people were killed, and more than one hundred injured. However, it was in the very border oblasts of Bryansk and Kursk that the employees of the GRFC didn’t record a single anti-war protest. Both of these regions are leaders in the number of activities in support of the war. Among the organizers of the pro-war actions are local activists and representatives of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, as well as some social movements. In another border region — Belgorod — only one anti-war action and one action in support of the war took place.

Against the closure of the only store in the village 

In 2022, Russians continued to take to the streets against corruption on a local or nationwide scale, and in support of political prisoners: Alexei Navalny, Ilya Yashin, Alexei Gorinov, and others, as well as against Vladimir Putin and his policies.

Mass protests related to environmental pollution haven’t slowed down in Russia for several years. They began in 2018 in the Moscow region and Yaroslavl, with protests against landfills where household waste was taken from Moscow, and continued in the Arkhangelsk oblast at the Shiyes station, where the authorities decided to place another landfill. They soon sprung up in dozens of cities. Thousands of people across Russia came out against the "garbage reform" that began in 2019 — its beneficiaries are people from the clans led by President Vladimir Putin's closest friends and associates. Security officials brutally dispersed many actions, detaining and beating their participants.

“Somewhere before 2020, sometimes it was possible to solve some social issues – the authorities made concessions,” recalls the Russian sociologist. “But after the introduction of COVID restrictions, many of which have yet to be lifted, there was a harsh reaction to any protests. And now, apparently, until the hostilities end, all protests will be perceived as the intrigues of the ‘fifth column.’”

The last mass protest against the construction of a landfill was held on March 4, 2023 in Novosibirsk — about 100 people attended the rally. In 2022, locals actively protested in Krasnodar Krai for the same reason.

In 2022 Russians also took to the streets in protest against the infringement of freedom of speech and assembly, against torture in colonies, in support of doctors or, conversely, with demands to bring them to justice, and against distance education and vaccination.

A particularly exciting topic that brings Russians to the streets is the issue of infrastructure. In St. Petersburg, people protested against the reclamation of the Dekabristov Island in the Vasileostrovsky district, or in defense of the building of the Institute of the Pulp and Paper Industry. In Moscow, there were rallies concerning the construction of the metro and for the preservation of the Mukhin State Hospital. 

In the Bashkir village of the Politotdel, local residents organized a gathering against the closure of a single grocery store: its owner was forced to close it due to the prohibitive cost of renting the land it stood on. No public transportation goes to Politotdel. The store had provided the inhabitants of the dying village with food for 20 years, and the owner often sold them to his fellow villagers on credit.

Could protests in Russia reach mass scale?

“Over the past year, the number of those who want to protest has dropped significantly for several reasons. In 2022, there was a consolidation [of society] and it affected people's moods. People have become more supportive of the authorities. The same thing happened in 2014 [in times of Crimea annexation], when the attitude toward the authorities improved. Problems fell back into the second or third level of concern — “Now isn’t the time to criticize. Now we need to unite, support Putin and the government” (this is what propaganda inspires Russians. Editor’s note). And this shouldn’t be denied or underestimated,” said a well-known Russian sociologist, who asked for anonymity. “Another reason is the attitude toward protest. Protest is considered dangerous, but more importantly, senseless. And this isn’t the result of 2022: protests in Russia fizzled out earlier. For example, people in our focus groups often say: ‘In the Far East, people protested for about a year. And what did you actually get? Nothing. They elected a governor who was sent from Moscow.’”

An organizer is needed for an all-Russian action. For example, if in 2018 the protests against the pension reform had some kind of organizer, then the actions would have been completely different in scale.
A sociologist

The sociologist also notes that people who attend various protests don't usually think they're going against the system. “They think like this: ‘Yes, there are all sorts of troublemakers, but it’s not us, it’s someone else. We’re doing everything right.’ They have confidence: ‘I’m going out [to protest] for a very good reason,’” explains the sociologist. “Therefore, when people are faced with the fact that pressure is put on them, to disperse them, for the majority it becomes a complete surprise. Very often, protests on some everyday issues are not initially against the authorities; on the contrary, they come out with the following thought: ‘I’ll tell the authorities now, then they’ll figure it out and solve the problem.’”

Nine in ten anti-war actions do not have an organizer. This is a grassroots initiative led by local residents
Nine in ten anti-war actions do not have an organizer. This is a grassroots initiative led by local residents

Lawyer Daria Korolenko confirms this on the basis of her experience in the OVD-Info human rights project: “We quite often receive such messages: ‘I want to come out with a poster, for example, against the war. What will happen to me?’ That is, a person, even knowing where to turn [for help], doesn’t know what threats exist for him [for picketing]. But I think that ignorance of the rule of law is not the main reason why the protests continue. As strange as it may sound, people in Russia know about freedom of assembly and human rights and that they may go out, for example, to proteston a public issue that worries them.”

“Another reason [that makes it harder for protests in Russia to escalate into larger ones] is the lack of organizers,” the sociologist continues. “An organizer is needed for an all-Russian action. Otherwise, protests can take place in many places, but not merge into one big action. For example, if in 2018 the protests against the pension reform had some kind of organizer, then the actions would have been completely different in scale.”

He believes that, over time, the protest activity of Russians may change, as it did after 2014. “Then, at first, they said: ‘What do you want, for it to be like in Ukraine? Euromaidan?’ and so on. It was on everyone's lips. Then after about two or three years that became irrelevant. Everyone again took up their problems, complaints [against the authorities] accumulated, and people began to protest,” says the sociologist.

Editor: Alesya Marokhovskaya