Wednesday, 17 April 2024
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The women who demand that Putin return their children and husbands from Ukraine: “We are tired of being good girls”

Against the backdrop of snow-covered birch trees, a group of women wearing white headscarves blend into the Russian winter landscape. In a country where public dissent is rare, his message to Vladimir Putin is strong: bring back our men sent to Ukraine.

“We want complete demobilization. They should not recruit civilians for the fight,” one of the women says at the beginning of a nine-minute speech. “There are many of us and we will continue to grow.”

The woman is Maria Andriva, she is 34 years old and is one of the unofficial leaders of an emerging citizen movement that has been gaining momentum in Russia in recent weeks. They are the wives and mothers of some of the 300,000 Russian men recruited in September 2022, during a critical time for the Kremlin, when it needed to reinforce its troops after Ukraine regained ground in the south and north of the country.

More than a year later, with loved ones still on the battlefield, many women are staging public protests and writing open letters to confront the official narrative about the need to mobilize soldiers for the Russian war against Ukraine.

“Why do our men have to go to Ukraine when they were leading a peaceful life?” says Adriva, who lives in Moscow. “If our Government decided to attack a smaller country, let the Army fight, but leave our men alone.”

The memory of the Chechen war

Andriva says the movement emerged in September, after Andrei Kartapolov, the chairman of parliament’s defense committee, told reporters that there would be no rotation of troops in Ukraine and that they would return home after the so-called operation was completed. special military

Russia has already experienced women-led protest movements during wartime in the past. Wives and mothers led an anti-war movement during the first Chechen war in 1994, helped turn public opinion against the conflict and played some role in the Kremlin’s decision to end the fighting. Women were organized into well-run groups, such as the Committee of Russian Soldiers’ Mothers, which had hundreds of regional headquarters throughout the country and achieved something crucial: having its message broadcast on Russian television at a time when Media were not completely subordinated to the State.

But since Putin came to power in 1999, Russian authorities have systematically taken steps to dismantle citizen movements while taking control of independent media that could give them a voice.

Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin went further by criminalizing de facto against all anti-war voices and by applying strict punishments to ordinary Russians for even small acts of civil protest against the invasion.

Organized by Telegram

Andriva communicates with other wives, sisters and mothers of soldiers on Telegram, one of the latest platforms that welcomes independent voices. Most of its work is coordinated through the Put Domoy channel, which has amassed more than 35,000 members since it was founded in September. She says that she is not afraid, because she is fed up.

“The canal is the place where we meet and talk about our next steps,” says Natalia, a nurse in a small town near Saratov in southern Russia. “You realize that there are many more like you, who want this war to end.”

It is a delicate matter for the Kremlin to combat this movement, says Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior researcher at the Moscow headquarters of the Carnegie Center on Russia and Eurasia. “These wives and mothers are not part of the traditional liberal and urban anti-Kremlin movement. Many of them come from the core of support for Putin.”

Kolesnikov says the Kremlin may fear that if it takes too drastic measures against the group, it could provoke a larger outcry from society.

Tepid response from the Kremlin

So far the authorities have chosen not to imprison or harass these women. Instead, they have ordered state media to ignore their requests, while rejecting their requests for permits to hold rallies across the country.

In an attempt to address the brewing anger, Putin previously spoke to the mothers of soldiers fighting in Ukraine. He did so during a meticulously orchestrated encounter. An investigation of Guardian showed that the women who sat with Putin were part of a carefully selected panel of soldiers’ mothers who had ties to the authorities.

Andriva, who calls the meeting with Putin a “political spectacle,” says that some of the most vocal voices in his group have received financial offers in exchange for their silence. “There is no amount of rubles that will bring your husband back,” she says.

The Kremlin’s relatively lukewarm response is, in part, explained by how the women themselves initially positioned themselves. At first, there were members of The Road Home who said they were not opposed to the war and did not criticize Putin. “We are not interested in destabilizing the ship or the political situation,” read the group’s manifesto.

But as their requests have been ignored, their discourse has hardened. “Our own people are betraying and destroying us,” a recent letter from the group said.

In the same statement, the women question the Kremlin’s policy of releasing convicted murderers and rapists from prison after fighting for six months in Ukraine. “It is clear that our president has a sense of humor,” the group says ironically.

And when Putin did not mention the possibility of demobilization during his televised year-end speech, the women of Put Domoy wrote that he was acting according to “his usual style: theatrical, petty and cowardly.”

Andriva says that within the movement there were many different views on the struggle in Ukraine, but after the authorities ignored their requests, some changed their perception of the conflict. “Some still believe the state propaganda. But many are changing their minds about our special military operation,” he says, adding that he will not vote for Putin in the 2024 presidential election.

Natalia says her husband’s treatment has led her to question the Kremlin’s official narrative about the war in Ukraine. “First Putin lied to us by saying that civilians wouldn’t have to fight,” she says. “Then you start thinking: Is he also lying about why we are in Ukraine?”

“We live in hell”

For Andriva and other wives and mothers, another complaint was about the inequality in distributing the burden in war. Many said they felt ignored, not only by the Kremlin, but also by society in general.

Many Russians have adopted a form of avoidance since the conflict began, with surveys showing that most people prefer not to think about it or follow events on the battlefield.

Kristina from Vladivostok says: “The country is preparing for the holidays. “Everyone goes out to buy gifts and eat caviar while we live through hell worrying about our husbands.”

The group’s desperation reveals some of the difficult choices facing the Russian leadership as the second anniversary of the war approaches. A new mobilization would allow a rotation of troops that could bring many men home, but polls have consistently shown that the measure would prove deeply unpopular, and could trigger a wave of concern and unrest similar to that of last year, when the The call-up led to the biggest drop in Putin’s rating since he came to power.

“During the last mobilization, the Kremlin broke an unwritten social contract with the Russians: you allow us to fight in Ukraine in exchange for us not interfering in your private lives,” says Kolesnikov.

Analysts say it is too early to measure the impact of the Russian women’s movement on a regime that has a long track record of successfully silencing dissenting voices.

But their outrage highlights some of the unease some people in the country feel about the conflict, and dents Putin’s image of a society united in the war effort.

Andriva is determined to continue with her protests, even if they take her to jail: “We are tired of being good girls. She has gotten us nowhere.”

Translation by Maria Torrens Tillack.

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