Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in late February 2022 came as a shock not just to the world, but also to many Russians, despite the best efforts by state TV and propaganda channels to stoke anti-Ukrainian sentiment in the months and years prior.
The Kremlin was quick to clamp down on any anti-war rhetoric among the population, swiftly passing a number of laws that would introduce weighty fines and jail terms for “discrediting” the Russian military—an umbrella term that has been applied to anything from citing Ukrainian sources to simply stating one’s opposition to war.
But while these measures were effective in silencing the critics of Putin’s “Special Military Operation” initially, they did not destroy the resistance entirely.
As it became clear that the “operation” was not going to be a “three-day affair,” as Putin had planned, but instead became an increasingly costly and prolonged conflict with sanctions devastating the Russian economy, pockets of resistance began to emerge around the country.
Initially what was a trickle of disparate reports of fires, explosions or forced evacuations around the country soon turned into a flood. By May, Russian military bases, conscription centers, transportation hubs and factories (especially those aiding the war effort) were reported to be on fire or exploding almost on a daily basis.
Amid these developments an underground resistance to the war began to emerge, with several groups spearheading the movement by taking credit for individual incidents of sabotage.
The most prominent and vocal among these appeared to be the National Republican Army, an anti-war and anti-Kremlin group that vowed to “overthrow” and “destroy” Putin in its manifesto.
Though not confirmed by the group itself, sources in Russia suggested the group was behind the death of a prominent Russian state TV journalist and daughter of one of Putin’s closest allies, Darya Dugina. The daughter of Alexander Dugin, one of the masterminds behind the Kremlin’s “Russian World” narrative, was killed by what was reported to be a car bomb.
Though official investigation very quickly placed the blame on “Ukrainian operatives,” unconfirmed reports said Russian “partisans”—a clandestine group of guerrilla insurgents—was behind the bombing.
The NRA in its messaging, mostly via Telegram channels, also declared its readiness to attack military facilities in Russia, and called on Russia’s security forces and the military to lay down their arms and refuse to carry out criminal orders.
It was one of a number of resistance cells to emerge in the aftermath of Putin’s invasion. Rospartisan was another, as was “Stop The Trains,” a group sabotaging the transportation of military vehicles and personnel across the country’s railway networks, and “BOAK”—a self-described anarcho-communist combat organization.
“Our political stance is spelled out in the name of the organization—we are anarcho-communists,” a representative of BOAK told Newsweek in an email. The representative, who also runs the group’s Telegram channel, spoke to Newsweek on the condition of anonymity citing safety concerns.
While the members of the organization have come a long way in the evolution of their views, he said they “found common ground in the anarcho-communist ideals.”
“The issue of whether or not to oppose the war was not ever in question for us. When Russia launched this fratricidal war, with the purpose of strengthening the very dictatorship against which we stand, it only fueled our resistance to the regime and to this war,” the representative said.
The BOAK member said that while the group had formed several years ago, it was mobilized and consolidated by Putin’s invasion of the neighboring country.
He said the change came amid the “creeping realization among the people, who really want to change something in society, that there is no remaining pathway for peaceful social transformation and liberation of the country.”
The representative added: “It is impossible without a radical breakdown of the current order—a revolution, to put it bluntly. And, since the political opposition field has been entirely cleansed by the state, the transition to guerrilla activity was a natural shift, because no government would allow to foment revolution in the open.”
The movement takes inspiration from many similar organizations, both past and present, and not necessarily just those “ideologically compatible” with its own mission.
“In terms of our historical and ideological reference points, I would mention the Communist Movement of Aragón, the Free Territory of Huliaipole and the Rojava Project of the Kurds. But we also draw inspiration from such organizations and groups as Germany’s Red Army Faction, the French Action Directe, Italy’s Prima Linea and the Red Brigades, and the Kurdish insurgency,” he said.
Seeking to put Russia on a path to “direct grassroots democracy,” BOAK is willing to entertain a wide variety of strategies and methods to achieve its goals. These range from posting “dry powder explosives” recipes and instructions on how to hide car number plates, to collecting donations for members of BOAK charged by authorities or supporting other insurgent groups.
Despite having a clear ideological stance, BOAK is also not averse to joining efforts and collaborating with other resistance cells, the representative says, even as the nature of their actions requires a high degree of secrecy and decentralization.
The BOAK member said: “In our activities, we try to combine effective organizational coordination (ensuring the activities of the groups are interconnected enough for maximum impact) with leaving plenty of room for individual and grassroots initiative.
“There’s no centralization per se: we make decisions collectively, but only within the cell directly concerned or impacted by the decision. That way we also ensure that each group is protected from persecution and repressions by the state.”
Years of repression and persecution left Russia’s opposition movement in tatters, as most of its leaders have been jailed, killed or fled the country. But the scorched earth policy implemented by the Kremlin against dissenters, while initially effective, is beginning to show cracks, especially amid the worsening economic outlook.
Without any centralized and coordinating body for the opposing voices to anchor in, grassroots unrest is simmering ever closer to the surface. From the mothers of soldiers forcefully enlisted and taken to the Ukraine frontlines, to local politicians issuing orders to “arrest Putin for treason,” to businessmen and oligarchs complaining about the costs of “Putin’s war”—a still small but vocal opposition is taking shape.
While there are occasional reports of activists being caught and detained by the authorities, the BOAK member says the state’s efforts to crack down on guerrilla insurgents are undermined by its own incompetence.
“There is a general feeling of degradation and decay of the system, precipitating from the decades of total corruption and nepotism, and this rot appears to have spread to the investigative committee, along with other parts of the security establishment.
“Their main goal nowadays amounts to beating confessions out of those who they can get their hands on. That, of course, is no reason for the insurgents to become complacent—stupid mistakes can lead you right into the hands of a stupid enemy.”
BOAK admits that for now lone voices of dissent are still sparse, but as the anger and frustration in the population grows, it could become the basis for a broader revolutionary movement.
The representative said: “In recent months we have received many offers from the citizens who want to join our organization. While for security reasons the selection process is very rigorous and there is a high bar of entry, we are always open to engaging new and prospective members and groups who share our ideals.
“So in a broad sense, anyone who shares our views can become a member of the BOAK—you just need to get involved, even through individual initiatives. And in such cases we would help with advice, promotion and even, where possible, financial support—we have a fund called the Revolutionary Anarchy Foundation, designed to support resistance groups.”
Drawing parallels with the 1917 revolution, he notes that the very fact that the “anarchist idea is once again making waves in the public discourse,” is in itself a major achievement for the movement.
“This is thanks in no small part to the successful operations carried out by the resistance—dealing damage to the war mobilization efforts, slowing down the military machine of the Russian state, and showing the people that these methods are available to them even in these dark times.”
Looking ahead, the BOAK representative is wary of prognosticating—it is difficult to make forecasts for the next few months, let alone years, he admits.
“Still, we generally expect that this degradation of the political system will intensify. The deadlock in Ukraine and elsewhere, with no visible off-ramps, will sooner or later draw out a mistake from the regime that will trigger an avalanche-like escalation of protests.”
That, he claims, could come from announcing full mobilization or launching a violent clampdown on socio-economic protests that are “increasingly likely.”
“You can already spot the signs that these developments are inevitable, and could happen in the very near future. That will kickstart a wave of mass protests, which will allow for us and similar organizations to emerge from the underground—it will be nothing less than a fully-fledged revolt.”
If—or when—such a revolution does start, he says, its direction and outcome will be determined largely by the forces that formed and consolidated in anticipation of these events.
“Modern Russia has already been through a lot, from the pains of “wild capitalism” of the 90s, to the authoritarian swings in the Soviet and modern eras. We are convinced that the anarchist path can offer the third way forward.”