On the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, protests broke out across the world. Weeks later, thousands of people continue taking to the streets to demand Russian troops leave Ukrainian territory and stop the war. Many of them use a symbol that began appearing alongside traditional Ukrainian flags in late February: the white-blue-white flag, whose advocates say Russia’s traditional tricolor flag is tied to bloodshed. Meduza tells the story of this flag’s creation — and what its future might hold.
'We all agreed we needed a symbol'
Kai Katonina is a 31-year-old Russian UX designer from Berlin. They’ve been going to protest rallies against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since the war began in February. Initially, Kai protested with a sign that read “No to war,” but they quickly decided that Russians who opposed their state’s actions needed some kind of unifying symbol — otherwise it would seem like all Russians supported the war, and all the protesters were Ukrainian.
“I realized this when people I knew started writing on their signs that they’re Russian and they oppose the war. Journalists started eagerly going up to them and saying, ‘Wow, you’re Russian! You oppose the war and you’ve come out to protest!” said Kai. “They were surprised, even though Berlin’s entire Russian-speaking population was in that crowd — including Belarusians and a lot of Russians. It was clear we needed to mark ourselves as Russians against the war and not just some more people. There was a wide consensus that we need some kind of symbol.”
On February 28, Kai published their version of the Russian flag on Facebook: a flag “without the red, bloody stripe.” The symbol quickly spread through social media.
It turned out that other Russians, both in Russia and abroad, had come up with similar concepts for white and blue flags. The day before Kai posted their design, an art manager and PR specialist living in Russia suggested a white-blue-white flag on his Twitter account, Fish Sounds. (He asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.)
“Back in 2019, after getting into design and heraldry, I learned that the Russian flag violates the principles of vexillology and decided we needed a new one,” the Twitter user told Meduza. “I’ve been going to street protests since 2010 — and even back then, I could tell that Russian protesters lacked a common symbol. The current flag, the tricolor one, is used by both the Kremlin and the opposition, and after numerous wars, sports scandals, and multiple other unpleasant events, it’s lost its credibility. And the white ribbon (a symbol of Russia’s 2011-2012 protests) is long forgotten. So a new symbol, it seemed to me, was really needed.”
He then came up with the white-blue-white flag, talked to his friends about it, and posted it on Twitter. Not long after, he came across Kai’s post and realized activists in other cities had already begun using the exact same flag.
There haven’t been any disputes over who really created the flag — both Kai and the Fish Sounds owner agree that the flag is a “joint creation by the people.” “A truly collective protest. A lot has been done by different people, all independent of one another. [...] Mutual inspiration. And that’s the key to success,” said Kai, before noting that neither they nor Fish Sounds have any connection to the white-blue-white flag’s website, which contains a description of the new symbol in multiple languages.
“It doesn’t matter who the author is. I’m confident that we all came up with the flag simultaneously. The most important thing is that it takes root. It’s just incredible how many of us had the same idea with the same rationale,” agreed the Fish Sounds account owner.
“A rejection of authoritarianism and military expansion”
There are several reasons to get rid of the color red on Russia’s flag, the activists explained. The proposed new flag:
- references the former flag of Veliky Novgorod, a town known as the “the cradle of Russian democracy”;
- resembles the Belarusian white-red-white protest flag;
- brings to mind sky and snow
- isn’t already used by another country
The point about Novgorod is “ideologically important” right now, as the war with Ukraine rages on. “Part of the original idea was to reference Novgorod, the historical center of northern Rus, and there are several reasons for that,” the Fish Sounds account owner told Meduza. “First of all, it’s a symbolic rejection of the encroachment onto the territory of southern Rus — Kievan Rus — and of any claims to independent territories that were previously part of the Russian Empire with the tricolor flag. Secondly, it’s a symbolic tribute to the Novgorod Republic, which had the beginnings of decentralized public administration. Thirdly, it’s a rejection of the tsarist, autocratic state, and of authoritarianism and military expansion.”
Another ideological feature the flag’s ambassadors cited is the ability to “replicate it under any conditions.” Kai Katonina told Meduza that a flag should be simple enough for anyone to sew or make with paper; that’s why it doesn’t have a single official shade of blue.
People are making it across the globe, independently of one another. Trying to insist on a single version would be impossible,” said Kai. According to the Fish Sounds Twitter account owner, the symbol has taken on a life of its own, with many calling it the flag of the “beautiful Russia of the future.”
Since the beginning of March 2022, people have been waving the flag at protests as a new symbol of peace. Protesters have been spotted with it at protests in Tbilisi, Krakow, Toronto, Vilnius, and Cyprus.
The Free Russia Forum in Vilnius called the white-blue-white flag “the flag of peace and freedom.” “Why is the new symbol important? Because it frees Russians of their ties to the Kremlin. By showing this flag, we — Russians — can say no to the war, no to dictatorship, and no to censorship. This isn’t the symbol of a state, it’s a symbol of people joining together,” reads the website of the Forum, which organized an anti-war rally on Vilnius’s Boris Nemtsov Square.
“Symbols take on whatever meaning we give them”
Kai Katonina doesn’t think the new flag will become popular in Russia. “Pulling out an empty piece of paper is enough to get arrested there, so there’s no need [for people to protest with the flag],” they said. Indeed, the white-blue-white flag has already led to arrests in Moscow.
It’s already true that not everybody advocating against the war is a fan of the new flag. For some, the red stripe in the current Russian flag is an important symbol, too. “While some people see the red as something shameful, I see it as a symbol of the blood of all the revolutionaries and others who sacrificed themselves to build Russia’s civil society. And you have no right to take it away,” wrote activist Maria Motuznaya, for example.
The flag’s site explains what to do “if you like the classic Russian tricolor flag”: “Simply don’t use the white-blue-white flag. Or use it as an anti-war symbol. It’s not a design for a new state flag. It’s a symbol to unite people.”
“Symbols take on whatever meaning we give them,” said the creator of the flag’s website. “Tens of thousands of people from around the world have now imbued this flag with their hopes for peace and freedom.”
Translation by Sam Breazeale