Aleksei Gorinov, a municipal councilor from one of Moscow’s districts charged with “knowingly” spreading false information, holds up a note in a Russian court stating: “Do you still need this war?” While the two antiwar movements have encountered quite different treatment, there seems little disparity when it comes to the question that’s really the crux of the matter: Did the demonstrations count for anything? Photo by Aleksandra Astakhova — Mediazona via Amnesty International.
Reflections on Russia’s antiwar protests and ours
by Tom Gallagher
Simultaneously, we find ourselves witnessing the playing out of the repression of dissent against the illegal and hugely unpopular 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, along with the repression of dissent against the illegal and hugely unpopular 2003 American invasion of Iraq. The arena for the latter has been the ongoing extradition campaign against Julian Assange for the 2010 Wikileaks release of “Collateral murder” a video of a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack killing several Iraqi civilians, including two journalists. The most noteworthy recent Russian event—in real time—came with a court sentencing Moscow district councilor Aleksei Gorinov to seven years in prison for breaking a recently adopted law against spreading “false information.” Gorinov’s crime was calling the Ukraine invasion a “war” and not a “special military operation.” A good moment, perhaps, to consider the respective fates of the two antiwar efforts—dramatically different in one aspect and depressingly similar in another.
While the particulars of the two wars greatly differ—as is always the case—what they do hold in common is being one of the two most-hated wars of our young third millennium. Hated because both were launched on the basis of fraudulent propaganda and jingoist nationalistic sentiment. (The Russian story is the matter of today’s news, The United States went to war against Iraq in retaliation for the September 11, 2001 attacks that country had nothing to do with, as well as for the possession of weapons it didn’t possess. And shortly thereafter, they were serving “Freedom fries” instead of French fries in the cafeterias on Capitol Hill.)
In the case of the Iraq War, government-level opposition was decidedly more modest; France, Germany, and Russia opposed the American invasion, but none went so far as to arm Iraqi opposition or impose sanctions on the United States. Popular opposition, on the other hand, was far broader. Demonstrations started well before the war itself, in the hope of staying the hand of President George W. Bush before he actually ordered the invasion. The October 2002 crowds, estimated at 100,000 in Washington, DC and 50,000 in San Francisco, were considered the largest such actions in those locations since the Vietnam War. The weekend of February 15 and 16 in 2003 saw an estimated six-to-ten million participating in upwards of 800 separate protests in sixty countries, with the events outside the USA generally larger than those within. The 2004 Guinness Book of World Records called the Rome crowd—perhaps three million—the largest anti-war rally in history. A Berlin demonstration of nearly half a million was called the city’s largest in decades; Madrid’s demonstration—variously estimated from 600,000 to 2 million—was perhaps the largest since the 1975 death of Francisco Franco; Oslo’s protest was larger than any in Norway since World War I. On March 20, 2003, the day after the invasion, 350,000 Americans took to the streets.
In the case of the Ukraine War, Russian antiwar demonstrators have come in for considerably harsher treatment than Americans did back then, with over 13,000 arrested in 147 cities by early March, and in demonstrations much more likely to be assaulted by police. While the total of American protest arrests in the Iraq war period is unclear, a significant number of them were actually sought out in acts of civil disobedience—including 2,200 attempting to shut downtown San Francisco streets on the morning after, while another 2,000-3,000 antiwar participants were not actually arrested.
The Iraq War officially ended eight years on, with most Americans having long since concluded that it actually had been a bad idea. And yet now eleven years after that, the US government still grinds it out in court. As anyone who’s followed the House January 6 hearings well knows, spreading false information is not treated as criminal activity by the US government. Spreading true information may be, however—should it be deemed the wrong kind of true information, as in the case of Assange. His attempted extradition from the United Kingdom is based upon alleged violation of the US Espionage Act, a law passed in 1917 during the First World War—another foreign intervention that engendered substantial domestic backlash. Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs famously conducted his 1920 campaign from the Atlanta federal penitentiary as a result of this law. Subsequent alleged violators have included whistleblowers Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden.
Assange faces 17 charges of violating the government ban on spreading the wrong true information, including the 2007 video whose soundtrack included US pilots commenting, “Look at those dead bastards” and after later wounding two children inside a van arriving to pick up the previously wounded, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” While Assange’s fate remains to be seen, the former US Army Private Chelsea Manning spent nearly seven years in jail for giving Wikileaks that material, and additional jail time for refusing to testify against Assange—a sentence essentially matching that given the Moscow lawmaker. In the meantime, it has been ten years since Assange, who is Australian, has walked as a free man, having spent the past three years in a British jail and the prior seven in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, under asylum protections.
Although the United States was clearly the senior partner in the effort, the Iraq War was a joint venture with the United Kingdom, whose government operates under much the same policy against the release of information that would make it look bad as the USA does. In the UK’s case, the inconvenient truth surfaced even before the war had begun, when British intelligence employee Katherine Gun found herself copied onto a US National Security Agency memo soliciting British assistance in monitoring UN delegates’ private communications for the purpose of uncovering blackmail-worthy information useful for persuading their support for the upcoming vote on the US/UK-led invasion.
Following her arrest for leaking the memo to The Observer, Gun succinctly stated her motive in a jailhouse interview with British Special Branch officers. When they reminded her that “You work for the British government,” she replied “I work for the British people. I do not gather intelligence so the government can lie to the British people.” The government subsequently dropped its prosecution of Gun under the UK’s Official Secrets Act, in order to forestall her lawyer’s plan to put the legal basis of the war itself on trial by the disclosure of official secrets in the course of the defense.
Gun would later express mixed feelings about the decision to drop her prosecution, on the one hand relieved at not having to go through the ordeal, but also thinking, “‘Damn—we could have put the war on trial.’ And the potential chink in the Official Secrets Act we had found, which could have become a defense for others, the ‘defense of necessity,’ it wasn’t tested in court.”
A relatively new wrinkle to appear with the Ukraine invasion has been the shunning of those who fail to protest, or who protest too little. The best known example of the censure that many Russian musicians have faced on that score is singer Anna Netrebko. Arguably opera’s biggest star worldwide, Netrebko has seen her performances canceled at the Metroplitan Opera and other major venues because, while she has said she opposes the war, she had declined to specifically denounce President Vladimir Putin.
In the case of Iraq, in contrast, not only were denunciations of George W. Bush or Tony Blair not required or expected of American or British performers, but no instance comes to mind of any artist of either country suffering for their failure to oppose their nation’s war of aggression. In fact, the most notable protest-related cultural incident related to that war came in the pre-war period when Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks told a London audience “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” For this comment the group found itself banned from the airwaves by numerous US country stations in a matter of days, despite their position at the top of the Billboard country charts. The group has re-emerged, as the Chicks, but has never regained their pre-war popularity. Meanwhile, Bush and Blair have largely been treated as honored elder statesmen. Bush has learned to paint, while Blair’s somewhat born-again turn proved notably successful, both politically and financially. And failing to oppose that war has been anything but crippling: An Iraq War supporter currently occupies the White House—one of three pro-Iraq War candidates the Democratic Party has nominated for that office since 2003—while numerous other war-backers have gone on to enjoy successful careers as respected commentators, scholars, and politicians.
Which is not to say that all things are equal. The Assange case in particular should remind us that there is real repression of certain kinds of antiwar activity in the US—perhaps of the kind deemed most effective. Which does not change the fact that Russia appears to have additional public figures in line for prosecution, while others have abandoned the country in anticipation of such, and the treatment of the rank-and-file protestor has in general been far harsher.
But while the two antiwar movements have encountered quite different treatment, there seems little disparity when it comes to the question that’s really the crux of the matter: Did the antiwar protests count for anything? Did they have any impact? So far as public opinion goes, no current polling of Russian public opinion on the Ukraine War is considered definitive, but results have ranged from 58 to 77 percent support. A Gallup poll taken the day after the US invasion of Iraq found 76% of Americans backing it. So far as government reaction goes, there would be very few, if any, who expect Russian protest to have any impact on Putin’s actions; most will be very pleasantly surprised if they ever do. And so far as the United States goes, the sad sobering fact is that the largest effort ever mounted to prevent a war from actually starting produced no discernable impact. Unfortunately, it’s even quite possible to interpret all of the antiwar activity of the day as having had a negative, depressive effect, in that it left behind a demoralized movement questioning whether there was really any point to protesting their government’s foreign policy—”repressive tolerance,” as Herbert Marcuse put it.
Now, if you’re actually going to be one of the people who sticks their neck out in protest activity, you’re probably going to prefer repressive tolerance to repressive intolerance. But clearly we have to come up with something that can overcome both. And if there is actually any hope of our finding our way to doing so, it lies in just how dire the necessity of doing so has become—and the concurrent mounting global awareness of the mounting planetary emergency. It has always been difficult to get too many people to really care about who’s killing whom in a land faraway, when it didn’t really affect them all that much back home.
Does the palpable Ukraine war food-energy–hunger-migration-environment global chain of impact represent a breakthrough in understanding? When do we convince the nation and the world that, in its consequences, all war is local?
Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of ‘The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.’ He lives in San Francisco.
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