In Russia, it is all but impossible to criticize the war in Ukraine. After authorities quashed protests with violent force early on in the war, public demonstrations evaporated. Solitary picketers have been proven vulnerable, too, even when the signs people carry are blank. But in the face of these risks, stealthier, more dispersed modes of resistance have taken hold.

Zelenaya Lenta — Russian for “green ribbon” — is one such initiative. Their manifesto is simple. It calls for people to hang green ribbons in public places to signal their opposition to the war. People in more than 200 cities have taken part in the action, and ribbons flutter on crosswalks, handrails and even bathroom stalls, from densely trafficked Moscow neighborhoods to far-flung Siberian villages. “It’s safe when everything else is forbidden,” one organizer involved with the Green Ribbon campaign told Coda Story.

In the early days of the invasion, people tied green ribbons to their backpacks or wore them in their hair. Some posted pictures of the ribbons and other anti-war symbols on social media. At its peak, the campaign saw upwards of 500 photographs of green ribbons daily. But authorities caught on quickly. In March 2022, a lawyer from Chita received a $200 fine for “discrediting the Russian army” because she had a green ribbon tied to her bag. Activist Nikolai Rodkin was fined $400 on the same charge when he laid flowers and green ribbons at a vigil for fallen Ukrainian civilians in Omsk, in southwestern Siberia. 

As the dangers of speaking out against the war have become more and more apparent, the Green Ribbon movement has adapted. Organizers developed a Telegram bot where activists could share photographs of their work anonymously. Today, a group of five people, three of whom have left Russia, coordinate Green Ribbon’s digital presence. They repost submissions to Instagram, TikTok and a public Telegram channel.

Another primary objective of the campaign is to guide people to accurate information about the war, something that is difficult to come by for most Russians today. Activists scrawl hashtags on their green ribbons that lead to the campaign’s social media pages, where followers will find links to independent news outlets and images of the war’s destruction that are nowhere to be seen in Russian state media. One recent Instagram post featured videos of flattened cities in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. Another post offered details on the numbers of Russian soldiers injured during the war and plans to deploy hundreds of thousands more to Ukraine.

The campaign has seen steady participation from activists in Moscow and St. Petersburg — the traditional centers of protest in Russia — as well as Ekaterinburg, Kaliningrad and Sochi. Green Ribbon built a map to show how far the movement stretches. While the organizer couldn’t say precisely how many ribbons have been hung, they estimated it was at least 10,000. The organizer asked Coda not to use their name, for fear of reprisal by the state.

Beyond activist circles, do these efforts make a difference? It may be tempting to see the campaign’s geographic spread or follower counts as an indicator of how the Russian public thinks about the war. But the numbers are still relatively low, and the anonymous nature of the campaign makes it difficult to discern how many people are truly engaged. 

“There’s a very strong, unsubstantiated assumption that because the regime is repressive, the majority opposes the war but is just afraid to vocalize,” said Maria Popova, a professor of political science at McGill University. Journalists and researchers in both Russia and the West are skeptical of public polling, which often has low response rates and where social pressures to give certain answers can distort the numbers. And experts warn against taking reports of high support for Putin and the war at face value. 

The campaign can’t resolve the question of public opinion, but it does offer a view into the nature of Russian opposition and its patterns of protest. The organizer was clear that Green Ribbon is not really an organization but a structureless movement. “There’s no management or commands from above,” they said. Maria Sidorkina, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, likened Green Ribbon to the massive anti-regime demonstrations in Bolotnaya Square in 2011 and other leaderless protests that have been around in Russia for many years.

Opposition has been fragmented throughout the war, at times for tactical reasons. Groups like the Feminist Anti-War Collective and the Combat Organization of Anarcho-Communists are set up in individual cells as a way to limit damage to the broader organization. Working independently can leave anti-war activists feeling isolated. The Green Ribbon organizer said that green ribbons on the street help activists realize they are not alone. “There are a lot of us, and this sense of community has been an important outcome of Green Ribbon,” they said. 

For Popova, the emotional well-being of Russian opposition should not be the end goal of protest movements like Green Ribbon. Popova, who helped to draft the “Statement of concerned Canadian scholars on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” instead emphasized the importance of changing people’s minds. “I’m not judging them by whether they’re making a difference, but whether they’re trying to make a difference,” she said. “The goal should always be to try to reach more people and convince or convert them somehow.”

Media outlets in Kazan, Arkhangelsk and St. Petersburg have covered the appearance of green ribbons in their cities, and journalists with Radio Free Europe’s Siberian service interviewed a woman who hung ribbons all over Ekaterinburg. Even the U.S. Embassy picked up on the protest action and included an image of a green ribbon in an anti-war propaganda video.

Green ribbons have also garnered attention from audiences that are outright hostile. “We receive many threats and photographs of green ribbons that have been torn and burned,” said the organizer. But they see these responses as a sign of the movement’s effectiveness, so long as they can maintain participants’ anonymity. In short, they said, “if they fight us, then we are doing everything right.”