On a recent snowy day in Moscow, a figure held a poster of a peace sign across the river from the Kremlin. Unlike other protesters, this one was not arrested, because it stood only a few inches tall and was made of plasticine clay.
Similar figurines in a rainbow of colors have appeared on fences and pipes, atop tree branches and railings, and in the balconies of the Bolshoi Theatre and the crevices of statues. Some of them carry blank banners, while others display phrases in Russian like “Don’t Stay Silent” and “No War,” as well as euphemisms for the latter, such as “two words” (“net voine” in Russian) or eight stars to signify the letters. They vanish whenever a passerby sees fit to remove them, which rarely takes long.
The Instagram account Malenkiy_piket, or Little Picket, currently has around 5,700 followers. The rules are simple: Create a small figure with a banner, put it in a public place, and upload a photo with the proper hashtag (or submit it to the account holder). Many submissions are from Moscow and St. Petersburg, but some originate farther afield. A regular contributor in Cheboksary, a city in the Chuvashia region, discreetly places paper figures in a local grocery store. “Make salo [a Ukrainian dish of cured pork fat], not war,” one of them proclaimed from inside an egg carton.
With most open opponents of the Kremlin in jail or exile and “discrediting the Russian armed forces” (broadly interpreted) a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison, some Russians have been expressing their dissent through more subtle tactics, like drawing peace signs in public spaces. But according to the independent Russian media project OVD-Info, people around the country are being arrested and charged for even the mildest displays of anti-war sentiment, like wearing blue-and-yellow ribbons and jackets with anti-war symbols or writing “No to War” in a pile of snow. Several demonstrators have been detained for carrying signs that say nothing at all.
Last week I spoke with Little Picket’s creator, an artist in St. Petersburg who asked to remain anonymous and whom I’ll call “Dima.” Two cats wandered across the table behind him as we talked on Zoom. Dima said that in the past he sculpted clay figures as a personal stress-relief technique, but after Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine he saw the opportunity for a “collective project.” He said the impulse came from his fear of living in a society whose members are alienated from the outside world as well from as each other. He laughed nervously when he said that his neighbor across the wall might be listening to our conversation, but he wasn’t exactly kidding. “I start to think that maybe someone will inform on me, and the fact that these thoughts are in my head scares me most of all,” he said.
The white letter Z, the symbol emblazoned on tanks occupying Ukraine that has become a kind of logo for the invaders, has been blown up to a massive scale on billboards and building façades across Russia. The Little Picketers, in contrast, are small, pliable, and decidedly nonthreatening. A recent blue-and-yellow figurine, carrying a sign with a crossed-out letter Z, sat atop the elevator door on the 16th floor of an apartment building. The creator messaged Dima that it only survived for an hour before disappearing, “but more friends are coming.”
They have allies. Katia, a videographer in St. Petersburg, has been creating miniature cutouts based on the Moomins, popular Finnish cartoon characters, and posting them social media. Among her recent creations is a Moomin in a top hat with a sign saying “Stop the War,” which she taped on a lamppost by the Admiralty, a building in the center of St. Petersburg that houses the Russian navy. She also places anti-war posters drawn with colored markers in the stairwell of her apartment building, and makes new ones every time they are torn down. Even if they don’t change anyone’s mind, she said, she hopes that when other people against the war see her handiwork, they will feel that they are “not alone.”
In his 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless, Czech dissident Vaclav Havel created the parable of a greengrocer who puts a “Workers of the World, Unite!” sign next to his vegetables in order to avoid conflict with an authoritarian regime. Not putting up the sign, according to Havel, would be the first step toward “living in truth.” Although Havel called for change among the masses, he became associated abroad with the image of the noble individual martyr. According to Jonathan Bolton’s Worlds of Dissent, foreign media coverage of the Soviet bloc lionized a few prominent intellectuals while overlooking the diverse range of people and practices that express nonconformism in daily life. (Havel himself was an absurdist playwright before he became president in 1989 and was less sanctimonious than his image in the West would suggest.) In Czechoslovakia, this included artists such as the psychedelic music group Plastic People of the Universe, whose arrest served as a catalyst for Charter 77, a human rights manifesto.
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In the early 1980s, when communist Poland was under martial law aimed at stamping out the Solidarity trade union movement, the country faced Western sanctions, severe food shortages, and mass emigration. At the time, Waldemar Fydrych, nicknamed the Major, was an art history student in Wrocław. He and his friends began drawing dwarves wearing orange caps on Solidarity graffiti that had been painted over by the government. The gnomes evolved into Orange Alternative, a movement that staged carnivalesque happenings in the mid- to late-’80s including “the Revolution of Dwarves,” when thousands of people marched in orange hats. Such events countered hopelessness and self-seriousness with a playful sense of possibility. Authorities could not make arrests without sounding ridiculous. The Major once noted, “Can you treat a police officer seriously when he is asking you: ‘Why did you participate in an illegal meeting of dwarves?’”
Soviet-style jokes have been making a comeback in Russia as a way of navigating the cognitive dissonance between state messaging and popular knowledge. (“Where did the letter Z come from?” one of them asks. “It’s a swastika, but half of it was stolen.”) Yet ironic resignation is mixed with fear and panic, especially among younger Russians who came of age in a relatively open and prosperous society only to witness its rising isolation and impoverishment. For them, official lies are not something to wink at (and thereby enable) but a problem to confront, however minor the means. According to Dima, the “humor and cuteness” of figures like the Little Picketers can help defuse the fear that accompanies any kind of subversion. “In a situation where everything is suppressed, even a small action becomes important,” Dima said. While famous figures like imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny matter, dissent, he told me, is “not about heroic, one-time deeds. It’s a slow process that must become part of people’s everyday routine.”
Today’s protesters, like Soviet-era artists and dissidents, are savvy about mobilizing Western attention in their conflicts with the authorities. Dima said that one contributor messaged him to say that they are posting figurines to show the outside world that not all Russians support the war. After Little Picket began receiving foreign media coverage, a growing number of submissions have been sent in solidarity from other countries. But publicity brings risks. Dima recently decided to share the account details with several other people in case something happens to him. If he is arrested, he said, he is mostly afraid for his cats: “Who will take care of them?”
It’s tempting to either dismiss the Little Picketers as cowardly and insignificant or idealize them as brave and consequential. Reached at home in Poland, the Major offered an interpretation in between. The clay figures are “a light in a dark tunnel,” he said. “The more the better.”