“Voices of (anti-war) feminists from Russia today”, Report of a dialogue with four women activists in Russia

Being a Russian feminist nowadays means not only oppression from the state but also isolation and discrimination from outside Russia. How do four different women activists that are against the war in Ukraine deal with this? This was the topic of our webinar on 21 June with four activists living in Russia. It shared their stories and provided answers to questions from the participants.

The event is part of WIDE+ new webseminar series: “Feminist reflections to promote peace in Ukraine and beyond”. War is the most extreme form of violent patriarchy and nationalism against which we as feminists struggle. In September and October, we will continue with this webinar series offering a range of webinars.

After introducing the webinar, the moderator stressed how courageous the women activists are to share their experiences despite risking imprisonment of up to 20 years. For this reason, video of the speakers and personal information was not shared.

When the Russian invasion in Ukraine started, anti-war women activists were faced with a triple silencing. People who are against the war -probably around one third of the population- cannot speak up inside Russia due the government’s repercussions. They feel or become excluded from dialogue with people and institutions outside Russia. And women activists challenge the norms of patriarchy, which creates for them an already exiting layer of discrimination. How can women activists withstand all these layers that create isolation?

Breaking of social ties

Each speaker experienced new kinds of isolation with the invasion of Ukraine. The first speaker described it as a destruction of social ties, including within families. For activists and academics, the institutional ties have almost completely disappeared, because organisations in many states decided to withdraw collaboration with those in Russia and because of increased resistance from the Russian government. It is also difficult to create understanding between Russians that have left and those that stayed.

Social ties make people strong and give us a common language that can be used to build towards protection of human rights for women and LGBTQI* people. How can we rebuild ties? Is solidarity possible if the language of communication is lost? Social institutions are collapsing, state violence is on the rise. What gets her through the difficult times is the remaining contact and communication she has with likeminded.

The second speaker spoke about her experience as activist in civic education across decennia. Over the years the scope of activities narrowed. Her civic activism decreased and has now halted completely. The government doesn’t want their civic activities but want them to teach nationalist values only. This means also that ties with partners are not kept up. She is part of a European network in which a Ukrainian partner decided to stop working with her, despite knowing she is against the war. It is just not possible. There is also an element of self-isolation as she does not know anymore what is acceptable in communication with foreign partners, as she feels looked upon for the choices from the Russian government. It feels currently she is in a mental prison, but she cannot leave behind people she is connected to in Russia.

The third speaker has experienced already war, racism, and threat of racist violence. She experienced the Chechen war and the manyfold of racist experiences as an outcast in Russia. Friends have lost family during this Chechen war. The war against Ukraine has brought back a lot of memories, reliving the war she experienced.

The fourth speaker is a strong believer and practitioner of informal grassroots education for civic values. As female facilitator she has overcome gender discrimination that in sum place women below the ‘intelligent male leaders’. Some of these discriminations are less pay or at regional level no pay compared to men given that the more relevant the event, the less likely it is that you as a women get invited. She needs a male colleague to accept her job or invitation as without such male approval you are not allowed as women to engage, and there is more distrust in the capabilities because of being a woman. She realizes she has been a pacifist all her life. The war has created a barrier of people avoiding her that she cannot cross. Colleagues now completely ignore her.

The question was asked what the material impact was in Russia from the war against Ukraine. One the one hand a speaker suggested life is the same for many people believing in the regime, another speaker suggested that the costs of living has hugely increased and there is less money for people.

The conversation also reflected on other mental impacts on activists, next to feeling isolated and depressed, there is also guilt. In sum one speaker suggested that Russian anti-war feminists are prisoners of war torture as there is a never-ending feeling of guilt towards people inside and outside Russia: you can’t be a good person to anyone as people fault you for your identity from whatever location.

Current movements for change in Russia

Will the youth stand up for democracy in Russia? The speakers shared their different perspectives from pessimistic to optimistic. In some bigger cities there seems to be currents for change; in rural areas this is not visible. State propaganda has had its effect on the population, but there is also more fear among youth of repercussions in small villages. One speaker doubted that she will experience a free and democratic Russia again in her lifetime.

And what about the mothers of soldiers? They were very visible in opposing other wars of Russia. After 20 years of total oppression, the people, especially in poor regions, have less hope for opportunities to freedom and a better life. Joining the army can give a poor family some perspective. This can be also a reason for the decreased visibility of soldier’s mothers.

Role of activists outside Russia

What can activists outside Russia do to support Russian feminist anti-war activists? Simply: don’t exclude Russian members and don’t forbid Russian culture. “Please don’t cut us from the world”, this was the answer from all four feminist activists.

COVID-19 taught the skills to communicate online. With the war, people are developing all kinds of online methods to find out if one can safely communicate with a new person. Through careful communication they are testing each other’s positions about the war. One speaker suggested it is like a new marker: is the person pro- or anti-war? It is important to know because just having a Ukrainian flag exposed in front of your house that could be read as supporting Ukraine. And that could be reported to the authorities by those passing by, leading to fines or worse.

This report is written by Gea Meijers, upon listening to the webinar.


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