Fishes, asterisks, blank messages, and the crossed out letter Z: they are all symbols of opposition to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. In a country where public criticism of the war carries the threat of imprisonment, protesters have taken to social media to remain anonymous and have adopted a secret language to convey their disagreement with the Kremlin.
Last year in St. Petersburg, an artist uploaded images of tiny clay figurines in a public space to Instagram on the account Malenkiy Picket, which stands for Little Protest. In another post, he invited others to join his silent demonstration.
Since that post, he has received nearly 2,000 images of homemade figurines, many of them holding protest posters with a curious symbology. Contributors can preserve their anonymity by sending, through the p, private messages to the artist, who then posts the artist’s images.
At its peak, the account received about sixty images a day, according to what the artist told The New York Times.
Sending these types of images, even in private, carries enormous risk: sharing anti-war messages can lead to jail time. Surveillance cameras can cture those who hide figurines in public spaces. Police used CCTV footage to track down and arrest a collaborator in 2022.
The use of strategic ambiguity to protest authoritarian rule is not unique to Russia: pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and China held up blank signs in protest, and Chinese social media users used the candle emoji to commemorate the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The artist told the Times that it is important that people see that the Russians are also opposed to the war. “Not everyone is with Putin. We know how the media ignores that, they remove everything that shows people who are against it.”
“These little men did what it was impossible for us to do openly. And I saw that there are people who, like me, are against this war,” said an activist who provided a thumbnail and lives in Russia.
He explained that he looks for a public place where there are no cameras and waits for the moment when no one is there. “I take a photo and quickly leave. Sometimes it’s like a game. And it would be fun if it weren’t for the context.”
Another contributor says that she was encouraged to send images to Malenkiy Picket because, according to her, their images can outlast street protests, broken up by the police long ago.
“It’s also important that people like me see that I’m not alone,” she explained.
In 2022, a woman was arrested after writing the words “нет в***e” on graffiti in a public square. Police believed she meant to write the word “война” for war, but the woman said she had written “вобла”, a fish native to the Caspian Sea that Russians traditionally eat with beer or vodka.
The story went viral, spawning loads of memes and even a song. The woman eventually had to pay a fine, but by then her story he had already turned the vobla fish and the asterisks into symbols of protest.
The blank banners highlight how Russia has criminalized free speech. During the first months of 2022, after Russia invaded Ukraine, many Russians took to the streets with blank banners and were detained by the police.
Flag and crossed out Z
Recognized as an anti-war symbol, the white flag with a blue stripe down the center was created by Russians who opposed the invasion of Ukraine and disproved of the government of President Vladimir Putin.
Members of the Russian army paint the letter Z on their tanks and trucks to distinguish themselves from the Ukrainians on the battlefield. Many of Malenkiy Picket’s images show the letter Z crossed out.
A hundred images shared by Malenkiy Picket show the peace signcreated in 1950 after World War II.
messages in russian
Most of the statuettes contain messages written in Russian. The artist said that most of the images he receives are from people living in Russia, but many are sent from Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.
International support Hundreds of images show the Ukrainian flag. Hundreds more have messages written in English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and other languages.
c.2023 The New York Times Company
Translation: Elisa Carnelli