Cyberactivism “You Need to be Seen by the Real World”

Arshak Makichyan holding a burning cardboard sign which says “You are building the roads to climate collapse”
During one of his single person protests, Arshak Makichyan is holding a burning cardboard sign which says “You are building the roads to climate collapse” | Photo (detail): © Yakov Koleichuk

Protesting in person is not always an option for activists in countries where protests are heavily restricted. How can activists bring attention to issues in other spaces, such as online? Arshak Makichyan, a climate activist from Moscow, discusses his experiences with protesting in Russia both on- and offline.

Mr. Makichyan, how often do you protest in person?

I was striking every Friday for 110 weeks. Then I decided to change my strategy. Now I strike every second week because in Russia, it’s more dangerous to do so every Friday.  It takes a lot of emotional resources – and sometimes you get detained.

What does protesting in-person look like in Russia?

The protests, they’re single-person strikes, because then you don’t need permission. It means that you’re standing somewhere alone with a poster. If there is a second person joining you, then it’s illegal and you can be arrested. But the thing is, it’s problematic to do even a single-person strike these days. Officials use the pandemic as an excuse to stop even those.

Fridays for Future in Russia is kind of quite different from other countries. People cannot protest before they turn 18, because it’s illegal in Russia.  So they cannot do the school strikes like elsewhere. There are a lot of different laws that they government put in place, a lot of different restrictions on any kind of protest in Russia. That’s why I'm doing single-person strikes and pickets and then work on social media.

How do you approach the climate crisis in Russia?

Next to climate, I’m also doing political activism, because it's all connected. During the first years of my activism, I was doing mostly climate activism. And then, the political situation was getting worse and worse, especially during these pandemic times.

Especially in the last few years, I’ve been trying to find topics connected to the climate crisis that I can use in my protests. Not just for that, but also using those for content for different social media like for TikTok, Instagram and so on.

What does online-activism look like for you?

We’re trying to use every tool that we can: I’m using Instagram, and Twitter, and Russian social media like VK. But we also do petitions on and even use Facebook – even though it's not that popular in Russia. Last year I started trying to do more stuff on TikTok, because it’s easier to get a wider audience on TikTok than on other social media.

You’re trying to do different things, like posting funny pictures, playing games, but also serious and educational content on activism, climate or environmental issues.

What are the problems with protesting online?

I think that people are afraid and feel alone, and they don’t feel the support of the public opinion when they speak up. There are a lot of bots in Russia. And it can happen that a lot of bots are attracted to your account and write terrible things about you.

I’m trying to combine online and offline activism, because when you cannot strike in person, it’s very important to be active online. But after some time, people start to be tired from the internet, because they cannot strike offline. But if you don’t have the opportunity to do something offline, it’s not that effective because you are in your bubble. You would need to do something on the streets as well.

In which ways do you try to reach people outside that bubble?

There are a lot of different ways. There are a lot of environmental catastrophes happening in Russia. For example, in 2020 there was a catastrophe in Norilsk, where thousands of tons of diesel fuel seeped into the soil and water. And a lot of people were talking about it in the field. We organised a campaign about this catastrophe and we started a petition and organised digital strikes.

When a catastrophe is happening and you’re addressing that topic in your activism and connecting the dots between climate and these environmental problems, then your audience is getting bigger. It’s easier to raise awareness.

I’m also trying to combine local activism and global activism and internet activism. I connected some different local events and people in Moscow to the climate.

What are the benefits of online activism?

You can reach out to other people online. Social media are quite a useful tool for that. It’s helping to build this community. When I was arrested for six days in 2019, a lot of people were supporting me on the internet and they were even organising protests in my support in other countries.

So we’re using internet as a tool to talk about topics that are important to us to raise awareness. It’s great that we have these tools. But, like I mentioned, when you cannot do stuff like marches, you’re not that effective because you also need to be seen by the real world.

What are the risks involved with online activism in Russia and how do you approach these?

There are a lot of risks in Russia. There are a lot of people arrested for years for writing something “wrong” in a feed or on their social media.

I really think about what I’m writing. Of course, there are always risks. But they cannot arrest everyone. I’m not that dangerous for now. Also, it’s not good for them to arrest me at this time, I think, because I have a lot of international support. So I have some safety that other people don’t.

What does freedom mean to you in relation to your activism?

Freedom is quite complicated. If you cannot do strikes and you’re thinking “okay, I will continue my life without protests and activism”, then the government can take something else from you. You’re usually using freedom of speech or freedom of protest to defend basic rights. But if you give that up, they can ever take everything from you. So freedom for me is everything, because without freedom you cannot defend yourself from this terrible regime.

The interview was conducted by Juliane Glahn, online editor trainee of the Zeitgeister magazine.