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The female face of resistance to Putin

Police officers detain a woman during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Moscow. Credit: Getty

May 25, 2022 - 5:41pm

Resistance to Putin’s war has come in many forms. But one of the lesser-known forms of resistance has come from women, ranging from feminist activists to mothers, inside Russia.

Spearheaded by the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, a domestic Russian protest network of feminists, the group is seeking to halt Russia’s military by destroying pro-government newspapers, encouraging homemade memorials to civilians killed in Ukraine or distributing anti-war postcards. In small gatherings across Russia, they hold silent ‘Women in Black’ peace protests in public spaces, clasping white roses in honour of German anti-Fascists.

Other methods seek to directly hinder Russia’s effectiveness in Ukraine, such as providing conscripts with legal advice to avoid military service, organising strikes to hamper the war effort and searching for Ukrainians deported to Russia.

As an anti-war group consciously inspired by feminist beliefs, the organisation is highly unusual in Russia. However, much of resistance to the war in Ukraine has been female. In March, performance artist Yevgenia Isayeva doused herself in fake blood to chant “My heart bleeds” before a St Petersburg municipal assembly in protest against the conflict, while in the same month television producer Marina Ovsyannikova brought the Channel One evening news to a halt when she crashed the set brandishing a “Stop the War” sign.

Russian women have also been experiencing the war in a different capacity, namely as mothers. Historically a formidable organising force and loud voice in Russian public life, the anti-war campaigns of bereaved mothers proved instrumental in ending the conflict in Chechnya, not least through the efforts of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, who bombarded the Kremlin with petitions to bargain for their captured sons. The Committee is now once again fielding calls from concerned relatives seeking the return of their sons from the frontline, whether they be dead or alive.

Indeed, both sides recognise the important symbolism of mothers. In March, President Zelenskyy urged Russian mothers to “act immediately” if they suspected their sons may be sent to war. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Defence Ministry has offered mothers of captured Russian soldiers the opportunity to come and pick them up directly from Kyiv. For his part, during his March 8th International Women’s Day address, Putin urged soldiers’ mothers to be “proud of them”, claiming that no conscripts would be sent to the frontline.

If heartrending images of mothers mourning young, inexperienced and poorly trained conscripts proved a thorn in the Kremlin’s side twenty-five years ago, now they can, in an age of mass social media, go viral in seconds. In March, footage shared online showed the Governor of the Kuzbass region being shouted down by furious mothers after he referred to their sons being “used” in Ukraine, drawing cries of “They used our children.”

The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers states that approximately 11,000 Russian servicemen died in the Chechen Wars. With the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence claiming that the Russian military has suffered the loss of 23,500 personnel in Ukraine as of 1st May, Putin is facing more grieving mothers than even the bloody years of Chechnya brought on to the streets.

Yet all forms of protest and rebellion, no matter how deeply felt, carry the risk of brutal suppression. Feminist activist Sasha Skochilenko is facing up to 10 years imprisonment for “sharing misinformation about the special military operation in Ukraine” after she changed price tags to anti-war slogans in a St Petersburg supermarket. Russia-based coordinators in the Feminist Anti-War Resistance are forced to remain anonymous for their own safety and only engage volunteers known personally to them or whose identity can be guaranteed by another member.

While organising under such a banner may constitute a relatively new phenomenon in Russia, Russian women are experiencing the war as feminists, mothers and activists. The war in Ukraine has added new urgency to their agitation, giving the opposition to Putin a female, furious face.

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Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

Putin urged soldiers’ mothers to be “proud of them”, claiming that no conscripts would be sent to the frontline.

Interesting. I was just an hour ago reading a letter from a Russian, in of all places Bristish Archaeology magazine, in which he says that conscripts are being sent to Ukraine. Is it possible that Mr Putin is not being completely truthful here?

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
1 year ago

Just waiting for the first comment about how the tyrannical West is no different to Russia or China…

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
1 year ago

These feminists are indeed performing a valuable service as mothers. Men cannot oppose conscription without being punished severely by the state, after all, for desertion or cowardice.
But this essay should do more more than praise mothers; it was an opportunity missed. The author could have performed an equally valuable service by acknowledging, as a woman or even a feminist, that women have not been the only people to experience oppression. Conscripts, almost always male, are routinely dehumanized, turned into weapons, used and then discarded as expendable resources. If women have a right to “choose” what they do with their own bodies, moreover, why not men?
Also, what about the Ukrainian women who, as refugees in neighboring countries, have abandoned their men? Could they not have found ways to fight for their country? Women have done so in the past, why not now? Consider the women of Britain, including the queen, who stayed in London (often with their children) during the blitz. They kept calm and carried on for eight months of chaos and destruction. Apart from any practical tasks that they performed–and there were many–they sent a powerful message to the nation of solidarity that transcended any divisions by sex, race, class or religion.

Neven Curlin
Neven Curlin
1 year ago

How about the mothers and children of Donbass? Did these feminist identity heroes organise any protest for them, or were they happy for corrupt Ukrainian oligarchs and neonaughties to bombard them?