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Russian anti-war feminists challenge Putin's regime by appealing specifically to women over 45. This underrepresented group are victims of propaganda, the feminists believe. By launching a non-radical newspaper campaign that shifts the debate from the ideological battlefield to the personal, the activists have begun to change these women's views.
- According to recent research from the Russian human rights project OVD-Info, more than half of the Russian protesters are women. How have the feminists, who have never been a leading public and social force in Russia, managed to rally against the war in Ukraine?
- In the last two decades, feminist organizations have grown in Russia. Activists have been engaged in internal and external discussions. However, we were not taken seriously in those years. That's why nobody cared about us when the war broke out, while prominent Russian political activists were either in prison or in exile.
We mobilized quickly at the right time – the movement was established on 25 February. We see that women from both sides of the conflict suffer the most during war. They lose their sons or have to seek refuge in another country. Since the men are either at war or absent, they also have to live in the occupied territories. The understanding of the war's horrific consequences for women united us, despite the theoretical disagreements between feminists from different wings.
- Your movement was established on the second day of the war. By the time we have this conversation, about six months have passed. What do you think about the perception that some have that anti-war activism in Russia is pointless?
- We are fully aware of the fact that we cannot stop the war, but we can push for it to end. We need to make passive opponents active and encourage our communities. Breaking through the information blockade is our primary goal right now.
"We have around 50 people following our anti-war publications on social media."
We have around 50 people following our anti-war publications on social media. The activists distribute our (self-published) newspaper for women over 000, Female Truth, in 45 Russian cities and towns. Russian authorities can hide data on Russian army casualties as much as they want, but they will not be able to hide cemeteries. The more soldiers who return to Russia in coffins, the more attitudes to the war will change. When that happens, we will be ready, and we will have people who know what to do next.
- Do you cooperate with Ukrainian activists and feminists?
- We interact with Ukrainian activists. We consulted with Ukrainian feminists and got their approval for the organization of our most famous action, Mariupol-5000: In memory of the war victims of Mariupol, our activists erected improvised graves and memorials around Russia.
"We interact with Ukrainian activists."
We supported the manifesto of the Ukrainian Feminist Initiative, entitled A Right to Resistance, and invited our supporters to sign it. As Russian feminists, we know that "the Russian world" brings with it domestic violence, sexualized violence, femicide, torture, homophobia and transphobia along with "traditional values". That is why we do not agree to fight for "peace" as Putin's Russia sees it.
Together with Ukrainian feminists, we stand for the peace that will come when Putin's army lays down its weapons, and a right to self-determination for all of Ukraine. At the 50th session of the UN Human Rights Council, I spoke about the extent of anti-war resistance in Russia and offered input on how the international community can contribute to bringing an immediate end to the war. Furthermore, we asked for the arming of Ukraine to strengthen its defense against aggression. We also called for an end to energy trade with Russia, as the revenue allows Putin and his cronies to stay in power and continue the war.
- More than two million Ukrainian refugees have already found themselves in Russia while the hostilities are ongoing, which makes Russia the country that has received the most displaced people from Ukraine. Can your organization help them?
- We work with Ukrainian refugees who were forcibly relocated to Russia from the occupied areas of Ukraine. Since our activists are convinced that they are in danger here, we help them travel to other countries. They volunteer at refugee receptions for Ukrainians in Russia. They cannot of course register as activists in Feminist Anti-War Resistance due to their own safety. These temporary receptions are well guarded. The activists go there together with other voluntary groups, establish credibility and distribute information. To some extent this is partisanship. We also support other similar Russian anti-war initiatives that help Ukrainian refugees to leave Russia, including by spreading information.
- Someone said that spreading objective information about the war in Russia is like asking the Soviet people to protest against the invasion of Finland in 1939. Your partisan newspaper, in the form of a women's newspaper, manages to bypass censorship and repression, as in the soviet era. But why is the target group women over 45, who statistically are more passive, or loyal to the authorities?
- In Russia, women in that age group make up a large part of the population. In fact, they are excluded from the flow of information and rely exclusively on Russian television. In the long run, however, we believe this group will become a force that turns public opinion about the war.
"Studying Modern Russian Imperialism, Questions of Colonialism and Decolonization."
They are our older relatives, mothers of the officers, of the Chechen war participants. We consider them victims of the current situation. By believing in the connection between the war in Ukraine and the war of 1941-45, they were deceived and lied to. We have the difficult task of detaching them from the narrative that we are fighting Nazis in Ukraine, that this war is not a crime and a genocide. We transfer the war from the ideological battlefield to their fridge, wallet and family and make it real and close as if it were fought on their doorstep.
We address them with universal topics of human interest that are of interest to this group. We are talking about increased prices, their favorite celebrities who dislike the war, and the promised compensations (which have not been paid) to the families of Russian soldiers who have lost their lives in Ukraine.
The newspaper has received very positive feedback. People tell us that after sending the newspaper to their elderly female relatives, they were able to have a conversation with them about the war. They managed this without accusing each other of being traitors – for the first time since the outbreak of war. The newspaper has achieved these results by choosing a non-radical tone and responding to the public's interests and concerns. Visually, it resembles the usual free Russian newspapers that are widely distributed to mailboxes before the election. Postmen and cleaners do not throw away the newspapers, they do not realize that these are anti-war publications, or, according to the new Russian legislation, extremist material.
"The 'Russian world' brings with it domestic violence, sexualized violence, femicide, torture, homophobia and transphobia."
- Some of the activists were prosecuted in Russia and had to leave the country. What happened?
- At the beginning of the war, many of us took part in street protests in various Russian cities, from Moscow and St. Petersburg to Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg. Criminal proceedings and administrative proceedings were therefore instituted against us. We were faced with a choice – either to stay in Russia as political prisoners or to emigrate and continue to work from abroad. I had to leave Russia myself. Now I live in Armenia. I coordinate the whole movement from here, help edit our newspaper and participate in the activities of the Yerevan branch of Feminist Anti-War Resistance.
- How have Russian feminists who left the country continued their anti-war activism?
- The possibilities for anti-war activism depend on the country they flee to. When we walked the streets of Yerevan protesting against the war in Ukraine, they said: "Where were you in 2020, when we were killed?"
Armenia is a small country, and the war two years ago affected almost every family. Ukraine supported the Azerbaijani side in the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Local-
the population does not understand why they should worry about Ukraine now, if no one worried about them two years ago.
With this in mind, we can't just take to the streets with pro-Ukrainian slogans, but must emphasize other aspects of our activism. We organize meetings with Armenian activists, both citizens, feminists and LGBTQ+ people – to study modern Russian imperialism, issues of colonialism and decolonization. A reading aloud of the letters of Ukrainian mothers collected by Russian bloggers was organized. This event was not considered a large-scale gathering, but it was emotional and was covered not only in the activists' social media, but by local journalists.
- How is the movement affected by the fact that the activists live in different countries?
- Those who remain in Russia work anonymously. We don't even collect them in group chat, as this is unsafe. They communicate with us via services such as Telegram and Instagram. Feminist AntiWar Resistance has a horizontal and decentralized structure. Should any activists be arrested or forced to flee Russia, the movement will not be stopped. Key coordinators in the movement are now in exile. We continuously update and distribute safety protocols among the activists. We do not want to be divided by the regime and do our best to ensure that our activists are well both physically and mentally.
- Activism is a very demanding job. How do you prepare to endure the long march before the end of the war?
- When you handle the refugees' needs with transport and clothing, you see the results of your daily efforts. However, it is quite the opposite with civic activism. You do your part of the job without the opportunity to see the whole picture, or even the result of the work we do. Russia only has grassroots anti-war movements. We are less visible than old men with dual citizenship in Europe who organize conferences for "good Russians". But we work hard. Our editors, reporters, interpreters, therapists and volunteers all work for free.
People engaged in activism become exhausted and burned out. We therefore teamed up with professional therapists and psychiatrists who voluntarily carry out several hundred free consultations for our activists. This is how we help both activists who run an anti-war campaign in Russia, and those who recently emigrated, so that they do not feel alone, but are reminded that we are many.
Translated by Iril Kolle.
Previously published in New Eastern Ecry, October 2022.