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A Different View

Protest, Persecution, and Prison: Women’s Anti-War Resistance in Putin’s Russia

By February 9, 2023February 20th, 2023No Comments

Author: Tatiana Krivobokova
ADV Editor: Paul N. Möller

Introduction

In Russia’s deeply patriarchal political system, based on the hyper-masculine image of Vladimir Putin as the father of the nation, women were the first to form a consistent anti-war movement after the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Female activists were extremely quick in staging protests and performances, distributing leaflets, and sharing anti-war information. Although critics of Putin’s regime in Russia often face repression, intimidation, and violence from the government and its supporters, and may experience severe consequences for their activism, women continue to resist. The authorities’ disproportionately brutal response to peaceful protests suggests that women’s opposition hit an especially sore point in Moscow’s traditionalist and reactionist regime which can hardly tolerate women’s solidarity and political empowerment.

Sociological theory emphasizes that patriarchal cultures impose strict social roles on women and constrain their career opportunities, which inhibits women from taking leading roles in politics (Conway, 2001). That patriarchal social structure that excludes women from active political life and positions them as caretakers and givers while protecting men who are entitled to political and economic power, has been thoroughly studied (Manne, 2019). Women’s participation in political social movements and protests, especially in South and North American nations, has attracted extensive scientific interest (Jaquette, 1994; Jelin, 1994; Goss & Heaney, 2010). Scholars have researched Soviet women’s participation in society (Lapidus, 1978; Ashwin, 2000; Popkova, 2003), but their political empowerment in particular has not received enough attention. The current lack of in-depth analysis and evaluation of modern Russian women’s participation in politics is particularly noteworthy.

Dynamics of Women’s Political Empowerment in Russia

Despite prevailing myths within patriarchal societies about women’s noninvolvement in the decision-making process and their general indifference toward politics, Russian women have been gradually increasing their presence in both institutional and anti-government activism in recent years. Female representation in Russia’s institutional politics in 2021 was fairly small – with 15.8% in parliament and only 9.8% in ministerial positions (World Economic Forum, 2021). In addition,  those women don’t always advocate for feminism or fight explicitly for women’s rights. They are frequently regarded as members of the ruling class, loyal to the regime. This low percentage of (oppositional) women in institutional politics is more than compensated by the numbers of women actively resisting the Kremlin.

In 2012, during one of the largest anti-Putin rallies, female protesters made up a share of only  27%, while in 2019, their presence in street anti-governmental activism increased to 44% (Barysheva, 2019). Today, amid the cruelest crackdown on opposition and freedom in Russia, women are not only attending anti-war actions but they are targeted by the police to an unprecedented extent. According to the OVD-Info, one of the last outposts of civil society in Russia and a prominent protest monitor, up to 51% of detainees protesting against the war are women (OVD-Legal, 2022). That is twice as many women as a year ago, when Putin’s main opponent Aleksey Navalny was arrested after his return to Moscow amid the scandal over his alleged poisoning by Kremlin security services. 

Feminist Anti-War Resistance

Amid the chaos, disbelief, and shock of Russian society over the start of the war in Ukraine, Russian feminists turned out to be the first and for a long time the only force that managed to organize themselves and voice resistance to the government. On February 25, 2022, one day after the invasion, they published the manifesto of Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR), uniting dozens of feminist organizations and thousands of individual activists in Russia and abroad.

“We are the opposition to the war, to patriarchy, to authoritarianism and militarism. We are the future and we will win” (FAR, 2022), claimed their manifesto. Even before the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, feminist NGOs and women’s rights groups were forced to close down, repressed, and declared ‘foreign agents’ by the Kremlin in its quest to impose ultra-conservative values. Any demonstrations of progress in civil society and strengthening of solidarity were viewed as a major concern to Putin’s individual rule. As an underground movement, FAR is horizontal, decentralized, grassroots-based, egalitarian, and scattered across Russia and abroad among the Russian-speaking community. There is no recognized leader, whose imprisonment or death would demoralize the movement – it consists of thousands of individuals and small groups that act without a coordinated plan or instructions. Precisely this circumstance makes it so hard for the Kremlin to cope with the FAR.

There is a growing cohort of women confronting Putin’s repressive regime, even beyond feminist activists and opposition leaders. Average women with no political affiliation, who never went to the streets before, who lived their quiet lives, are now part of the anti-war resistance.

Non-violent, grassroots, and omnipresent – the nature of Russia’s women’s resistance

Before the 2022 protests, it was believed that the police are rarely violent toward women and normally don’t detain them because they could be mothers. In Russia, it is illegal to detain a mother of a child under 14 years old for over three hours. However, during peaceful protests after the invasion of Ukraine, these legislations did not stop the police. On March 1, 2022,  mothers together with their children, aged seven to eleven, were detained for bringing flowers and anti-war signs to the embassy of Ukraine (Badshah, 2022). On a single day (March 6, 2022) at least 113 minors were arrested (Human Rights Watch, 2022). A regime that targets children, obviously, has no mercy for women either, but, paradoxically, this does not seem to intimidate the women. Quite the opposite is the case, they, who see how their loved ones are treated, can no longer ignore politics.

The myth about patriarchal advantages for women and their immunity to physical violence was completely shattered in Russia. Now, women represent over half of those arrested for anti-war activism, facing appalling violence in custody. Anastasia Kotliar was detained in the first days of protests in Vladivostok, as she was trying to shield her friend who was thrown to the ground by the police (OVD-Legal, 2022). Although Anastasia suffered from a concussion, she was refused any medical assistance. It is quite remarkable that the police demonstrated such a level of violence toward very peaceful protest.

Many of the arrested women were detained for art performances, stickers, drawings, blog posts, and solo picketing. Alexandra Skochilenko, an artist and musician, is facing ten years in prison for swapping price tags with anti-war slogans under the  new draconian anti-opposition law. According to a new article in Russia’s Criminal Code, her replacing grocery store price labels with messages about the horrors of the war in Ukraine is considered ‘discrediting for the Russian army’ (Amnesty International, 2022). Aleksandra suffers from severe coeliac disease and needs medication for her bipolar disorder but the authorities refused to take this into consideration. People are aware of how brutal the crackdown against even small acts of rebellion is. Thus, many women protest covertly.

One of the most eye-catching forms of protest is setting up crosses and ‘graves’ in public places as a memorial for civilians who lost their lives in the war. Artistic infiltration tactics gained popularity, with activists creating posters that mimic official municipal announcements or missing person posters, placing installations in the form of blood-stained toys or baby crawlers in the memory of children victims (Current Time, 2022). Performance is another popular form of protest. Women across the globe have organized ‘women in black’ pickets and marches, dressing as widows with white flowers and pacifist messages in public spaces (Women in Black, 2022).

Although peaceful forms of demonstration are prevailing among women, they were also the first to resort to violence, which traditionally is seen as a rather male form of protest. A 22-year-old Moscow student, Anastasia Levashova, was sentenced to two years of prison after she threw a Molotov cocktail toward police officers at an anti-war rally the day Putin announced the invasion. Women intensified their protest activities after the mobilization was declared in Russia, and wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters resorted to clashes with the police in non-Christian regions (e.g. Dagestan, Chechnya), which are often seen as more traditionalist. Overall, women in Russia gain space in all spheres and aspects of opposition activism – from anonymous art installations to physical confrontations with the police.

Conclusion: “The personal is political”.

Why is the feminist movement in particular on the rise against Putin’s regime and how did it manage to mobilize so many women? For years, the Kremlin has been successful in exploiting the apathy of the population and its distrust toward any collective solidarity movement, which was perceived as a negative Communist legacy. Any form of solidarity, civil society institutions, grassroots organizations, and trade unions have been dismantled and declared ‘foreign agents’ under the poisonous influence of the West. But the feminist agenda, be it a fight to end gender-based violence or to challenge societal norms and stereotypes, turned out to be a powerful instrument to involve women in politics. “The personal is political”, a famous feminist rallying cry, became a formula for Russia’s female empowerment. As a result of the connection between their individual oppression and more significant political and social issues, they are inspired to fight against the system that uphold prejudice and injustice. In order to fight for systemic change, Russian feminists can relate their individual experiences to the larger political environment. Therefore, united in their struggle against domestic violence, sexual harassment, and discrimination, women are building networks and connections, which are indispensable for political activism. Those feminist activists whose shelters for victims of sexual assaults were searched by the police, whose NGOs for women’s rights were disbanded as ‘undesired organizations’, and who had to go through endless court trials over child custody did not silence their voices against the war. Russian women found solidarity in protecting each other against men’s violence or the unjust judicial system and translated it into political activism. The patriarchal culture entrenched in Russian politics proves to be outdated and archaic as Russian anti-war opposition definitely has a female face. A new chapter in the Russian (women’s) dissident movement has started.

References

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Tatiana is a researcher with a passion for exploring the intersections of gender, politics, and democratization. Her work is centered around the study of women’s political empowerment and the role that gender plays in democratization processes.