Heroic actions and massive protests of the Russian invasion have gone viral. But it’s not citizens’ responsibility to fix this.
On Friday afternoon, a source in Moscow sent me a tip.
Lisa Peskova, the daughter of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, had just posted “No to war” in Russian on her Instagram Story. I checked the story and the account, and sure enough, there it was.
Peskova was not the only child of a well-connected member of the Russian elite to express her disapproval: Sofia Abramovich, daughter of Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, had earlier posted that “Putin (not Russia) wants a war in Ukraine.” (Abramovic ended up ceding “stewardship” of the team over the weekend.)
Not long after coming out against a war started by her father’s boss, Peskova, who lives and works in France, deleted the story. But this brief act of individual public resistance was treated as if it really might shift the situation one way or another.
Among the macabre jokes about how she was going to fall out of a window or be sent to Siberia, there was a stream of tweets hailing Peskova as a hero who could contribute to the ending of the war. Such individual gestures are not entirely insignificant, but the idea that a deleted Instagram post might have some wider impact seemed like wishful thinking, to say the least.
The transfer of the burden of the war onto the shoulders of ordinary people, though — and the related fantasy that someone might, as if by magic, bring it to an end — has been a feature of the crisis since the start.
Just hours after Russian tanks rolled west, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged all citizens of his country to fight, vowing to provide them weapons if they were willing to stand in defense. Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 didn’t even have a choice: They were banned from leaving the country. Other individual acts of heroism have been celebrated and encouraged.
Acts of genuine bravery are one thing, but on social media the idea that people far away from eastern Europe might provide the key difference reached absurd levels. The official Twitter account of Ukraine asked the world to “Tag @Russia and tell them what you think about them.” The tweet, which has since been repeated, initially appeared above a call for donations to the Ukrainian army.
In Russia, the eyes of the world are on anti-war protesters, who face enormous risks in taking to the streets. Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, dissidents have been known to be jailed, killed, or simply disappeared.
To speak out against him and the war in public is to take on a very real danger; hundreds of protesters were arrested within hours. One activist in Moscow told me she and her comrades were constantly on the move as they sought to escape the attention of the OMON special police units.
“The protests were a bit ‘teethless’, as we say in Russia,” she told me. “I think there are several reasons for that: People are fucking scared. My girlfriends who have kids didn’t go. A couple of friends got arrested and we had to call to the jail to get them out. The protests are illegal and society is split — most of my friends are heartbroken and horrified, but the coping mechanisms are different for different people. Some are in denial, trying to focus on work and not read the news.”
Yet beyond the borders of the federation, it is hoped that the bravery of many ordinary Russians might bring about a change in strategy from the Kremlin. Some have written that the protests are possibly one of the only ways to get the violence to end, if Putin is sufficiently threatened by the lack of public support. Even Zelensky, in a direct plea to Russians, said, “Who can prevent all this from happening? The people.”
This is partly a product of the traditional media’s longstanding tendency to tell stories through individuals. Complex situations are often better understood when filtered through the eyes of a person or family. What those stories tend to tell us, though, is that the great mass of people caught up in war are almost totally helpless, blown about by gale force winds they have no hope of controlling.
Then there is social media, with its tendency toward main character syndrome, its rendering of all events as content and its lionizing of empty gestures. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram encourage us to think we can #influence powerful forces into changing their ways. If you post the right photograph or the right hashtag, then maybe you’ll bring the system to its senses. This tendency is of course cynically manipulated by those with actual power: British government ministers and departments, including the spy service MI6, have been displaying Ukrainian flags wherever possible, while at the same time stopping Ukrainian refugees from coming to the U.K.
And then, of course, there is Putin. The Russian leader has for years been the subject of intense study, his every move analysed and debated. For much of the past two years, the man known for his bare-chested PR photos has, because of his fear of COVID, been kept in a biosecurity bubble, with people scheduled to meet with him spending a fortnight in isolation first. This is surely having some impact on Putin himself, who is talking to fewer people and whose threats now include regular references to Russia’s nuclear capability.
When power is held by so few, fantasies of influence — as well as of escape — will come to the fore.
If anyone could end this nightmare tomorrow, it’s Putin. But over his two decades in power, Putin has become less an individual and more an institution — the “tree trunk,” as BBC journalist Gabriel Gatehouse put it, “that holds all the branches of the greater Kremlin in place.” This is a man, then, who has become a structure.
On top of that, the war can be connected not only to the unchecked rise of a dangerous and possibly deranged leader in Moscow, but to centuries of Eurasian history, including that of the Tsarist empire, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the expansion of Nato, and much more besides. Amidst all this, even Putin begins to look small.
At the same time, though, the hope for salvation in the form of some brave, ordinary person reveals a deep helplessness about a world in which influence is concentrated in the hands of a collection of elites. When power is held by so few, fantasies of influence — as well as of escape — will come to the fore. The idea that some ordinary act of defiance can put an end to something so vast will look particularly appealing.
But in Russia, the weight of the state — its security forces, army, police and the media it controls directly or indirectly — is brought to bear on opposition activists and ordinary people every day. Even the young Russians I know, who never voted for Putin and whose futures are being obliterated by this invasion, are thinking very carefully about whether they can protest or not.
This war may end up being resolved by a handful of people. But it won’t be an ordinary Russian or Ukrainian citizen, no matter how brave, and it won’t be anyone on social media. The people who could end this are the same people who could make it worse. They are sitting in the halls of power. They are in Washington and Moscow.