On a sunny morning in May 2022, a radio story caught my attention. Col. Roman Kostenko, veteran military defender of Donbas and current member of the Rada (Ukrainian parliament), his family home now stripped of precious belongings and occupied by Russian soldiers, had formed a military unit in Ukraine’s Kherson region. “Explosions are like music to me,” Kostenko told the reporter. He makes a hobby of blowing things up. “In wartime,” he added, “I blow up Russian soldiers.” His office was filled with weapons, but he wanted bigger and better ones. A typical war story, I thought, portraying the noble hero risking his life to save his country, with no concern for the people killed by his explosions. Enemy lives don’t matter.
But there’s a different kind of story emerging from this conflict as well. On the first day of the invasion, a Ukrainian woman angrily approached a heavily armed Russian soldier. Scolding him for being an occupier, she offered him a handful of sunflower seeds, saying “Take these seeds and put them in your pockets so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.” With this symbolic action
she challenged his presence in her country, while also acknowledging his humanity. She predicted his death in the struggle, but did not attempt to kill him. As he tried to get her to stay and talk to him, she walked away, and he let her go. She had verbally disarmed him; the rifle he carried was rendered useless by a handful of seeds. This was an act of symbolic nonviolent intervention.
Ukraine has never had a plan for all-out nonviolent civilian-based defense, nor has it been formally training its citizens to engage in unarmed struggle. No one could argue that the country was prepared to defend itself entirely without weapons. Nonetheless, Ukraine has been employing methods of nonviolent direct action alongside military defense throughout the invasion. As peace researchers and activists, we should be studying this conflict to learn more about the power of mass unarmed action in response to military invasion. Three factors have led me to this conclusion. First, the Ukrainian people have a great deal of prior experience with successful nonviolent action. Second, unarmed tactics are already being used in both Ukraine and Russia to resist this war. Third, use of these methods is being documented in both professional and social media as it happens.
As I consider recent events, the anonymous woman’s gift of sunflower seeds has become a metaphor for me. Sunflowers are a prolific crop in Ukraine, but as the national flower, their significance transcends mere economics. Since 1996, when government officials from Ukraine, the United States, and Russia planted sunflowers together at a Ukrainian missile base, the bright yellow blossoms have been a symbol of peace. As a peace researcher, I’ve started looking for the flowers now sprouting from the seeds of nonviolent action planted deep and wide throughout the last 30 years of Ukrainian resistance to both internal and external tyrannies.
From the start of the invasion, I have been collecting stories about civil resistance tactics being used in the current war. While such tales may surprise the general public, those of us who study nonviolence expected to see at least an occasional report of mass unarmed resistance against the Russian invaders. After all, the fall of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1991, the Orange Revolution of 2004-5, and the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests each gave ordinary Ukrainians practical training and experience with the power of civil resistance, as they successfully used unarmed tactics against highly-armed police and military forces.
During the Gorbachev era, the Ukrainian Student Union led a “Revolution on Granite” against the then Soviet Republic, originating the Maidan (Independence) Square tradition of mass protest via occupation. Other actions included a 300,000 strong human chain strung between L’viv and Kyiv, a draft resistance movement, and a 16-day hunger strike that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Vitaly Masol.
Mass demonstrations, along with sit-ins, civil disobedience actions, and strikes, reappeared in 2004 as central tools in the Orange Revolution, a successful unarmed effort to annul a corruption-marred election and launch a revote. Fighting a regime that had murdered and decapitated journalist Georgi Gongadze and poisoned presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian opposition used mass nonviolent action to ensure a democratic process. 500,000 activists dressed in orange paraded past the parliament building in Kyiv, Yushchenko swore a symbolic “oath of office”, and a national strike was declared. With seas of orange-clad demonstrators again occupying Maidan Square and appearing nightly on world news programs, we all got to watch this successful civil resistance movement unfold.
Ukrainians returned to a strategy of unarmed action in 2013-14 for the Euromaidan protests. This uprising began with students using civil resistance tactics, including strikes and another mass occupation of Maidan Square. The government cracked down, but video footage of police violently dispersing the students caused this brutal attempt at repression to backfire, as Ukrainians by the thousands took to the streets to protest. Scholars debate whether these mass nonviolent actions or the violent clashes of the Revolution of Dignity that followed were most responsible for President Yanukovych fleeing to exile in Russia, but flee he did. In any case, no one can deny that the Euromaidan added a great deal of experience with nonviolent action to the tactical repertoire of ordinary Ukrainian citizens.
As we have seen, this accumulated experience bore fruit in February 2022, when alternative media stories of unarmed individuals and mass resistance began to appear in the global press. On February 24, we learned about the woman with the sunflower seeds. Then, on February 28, following instructions from national transportation authorities, Ukrainian citizens began removing road signs in an effort to slow the advance of Russian tanks and troops into their territory. Other signs were defaced with the newly popularized slogan: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” Such stories of heroic, often humorous, and unarmed resistance emerged simultaneously with tales of armed revolt against one of the most powerful military forces on the planet.
One remarkable report tells how authorities in the village of Demydiv permitted the opening of a nearby dam, which flooded their town, along with all roads in the surrounding area. This tactic prevented Russian tanks from advancing toward Kyiv. Residents cleaning out their waterlogged homes told The New York Times they were quite proud of what they’d done to defend their capital, despite its obvious personal costs. Such sabotaging of infrastructure has become a common tactic of national defense, with more than 300 bridges around their country destroyed by Ukrainians since the start of the invasion.
Ukrainian resistance has also received nonviolent support from allies in Russia and around the world. As soldiers opposed to the war began going AWOL, the Rada (Ukrainian parliament) offered monetary rewards to Russian defectors. Young men inside Russia began fleeing the country to avoid conscription in a war they didn’t support, and 115 members of the Rosgvardia, also known as Putin’s Private Army, lost their jobs for refusing to participate in the war. Belorussian railroad workers prevented shipments of tanks and other military equipment to the invading troops. Dockworkers at ports around the world (Swedish, British, Dutch, and U.S. Americans among them) refused to handle Russian cargo. Hackers substituted anti-war for Victory Day messages on Russian television. Razom for Ukraine in New York organized a human chain across the Brooklyn Bridge. Russian celebrities began denouncing Putin’s war, while ordinary Russians began writing “нет войны” (No War) on circulating banknotes.
As of this writing, we’ve no way of knowing if Russia will succeed in its attempt at conquest or the Ukraine army will manage to repel the invaders. However, should Russia prevail, I would not be at all surprised to see full-scale unarmed civilian resistance to Russian occupation. Asked in 2015 about how they would want their country to respond to an armed invasion or occupation, 29% of Ukraines chose nonviolent resistance as their preferred option; just 24% chose military defense. Passionate national feeling, a strong commitment to self-determination, and the already successful use of nonviolent tactics against the Russian army in specific instances suggest that Ukraines would willingly engage in unarmed non-cooperation with an occupying force.
Like the sunflower, whose blossom follows the sun from dawn to dusk, Ukrainians appear to be singularly focused on maintaining control of their independence, despite the hardship and loss this entails. They’ve demonstrated a courage that seems to grow stronger under attack, even when they are unarmed. Given these conditions, should military victory not come their way, full-scale civilian non-cooperation with a Russian attempt to rule them would not be at all surprising. In any case, win or lose, ordinary Ukrainians are planting seeds that can be used for the future development of robust unarmed civilian-based defense for their country and for the world. We who study and practice nonviolence should collect and nurture these seeds as we wait for flowers to emerge.
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