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International Women’s Day is widely celebrated in Russia. But amid the bouquets of flowers and stilted speeches of congratulations made by Vladimir Putin, the state-controlled media will be doing its best to ignore one group of Russia’s women. These are the wives of some of its soldiers fighting in Ukraine, who have embarked on a series of regular, public demonstrations that challenge the state and its narratives of societal unity around the war.

When Russia began its mass invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it was widely expected that soldiers’ mothers would participate in public protests against the war and demand the return of their sons, as they did in Russia’s war in Chechnya in the mid-1990s. But these mothers have all but disappeared from view under increasingly harsh crackdowns on opposition to the war.

Instead, it is soldiers’ wives who have emerged as one of the few sources of open criticism of the state’s handling of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The prominence of wives rather than mothers of soldiers reflects the fact the war is not being fought by conscripts in their late teens and early twenties. Instead, many of the soldiers are married men in their 30s, 40s and even 50s. These men were mobilized, as reservists, on Putin’s order in September 2022, and are serving open-ended deployments to Ukraine. These are men who previously served in the army as conscripts, aged up to about 60.

These mobilized soldiers, along with those recruited from prisons, are regarded as expendable by their military commanders. They are sent into the most dangerous combat missions, and are more likely to be injured and killed than professional soldiers, according to a BBC-Mediazona project that is attempting to track Russian casualties.

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Our ongoing research suggests the main strategy that women in Russia’s military families have adopted in dealing with the state is “patriotic dissent.” Avoiding direct criticism of the war, they emphasize they are the loyal wives of men who are doing their duty for their country. They focus on trying to gain specific concessions from the state, such as periods of leave for their husbands or more extensive welfare support for military families. They also use social media, and especially Telegram, to share information including strategies for lobbying Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

But among the many Telegram channels set up by wives of mobilized soldiers, one called The Way Home has become the focus of more confrontational forms of protest. Angered by the announcement in the autumn of 2023 that mobilized soldiers would be deployed to Ukraine indefinitely, the women behind the channel decided to go beyond pleading with the state.

In November 2023, The Way Home wives issued a manifesto calling for an end to the mobilization of civilians to fight in the “special military operation.” They also started taking their complaints beyond social media.

Some actions are relatively modest, such as putting stickers on cars calling for the return of their husbands. Others are much more difficult for the state to ignore.

Since January, small groups have gathered every Saturday to lay flowers at eternal flames around Russia, including at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall in Moscow. Wearing white headscarves and holding signs calling for an end to mobilization, the wives have also urged widows of soldiers who have been killed in the war to join them.

So far, the state has ignored these demands for an end to mobilization, and is attempting to placate the wives by expanding benefits for military families — including changing the rules to permit payments to be made to the unmarried partners of soldiers; a blatant contradiction of Putin’s emphasis on marriage and traditional family values.

Protests are broken up but when the wives are detained, they are released with a warning. However, the women are clearly coming under pressure. Some have reported police visiting their homes to warn them against protesting. They have been verbally attacked by Russian media personality Vladimir Solovyov, and Telegram has inserted a “fake” label on The Way Home channel.

Although The Way Home wives have demonstrated they are capable of holding public demonstrations that are critical of the state’s handling of the war, Russia’s political opposition has so far dismissed their potential to become a political force. Instead, the wives are described as naive for failing to oppose the war itself, and complicit because they accept — and seek — money from the state in the form of welfare benefits.

Long History of Activism

This dismissive attitude towards the activism of women in military families has a long history in Russia. In 1917, women — known as soldatki (soldiers’ wives and other female family members) — played an important role in the social unrest that overturned the monarchy and paved the way for the Bolshevik revolution.

But the soldatki were patronized by both Tsarist and Soviet political leaders. Described as ignorant because they couched their demands in terms of the welfare of their families rather than in the language of political ideology, they have also been left out of most historical accounts of the revolutions in 1917.

It is important to maintain a sense of perspective about these protests. The Way Home wives represent a small subsection of the hundreds of thousands of wives and mothers of Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine. They express strongly nationalistic views v their manifesto explicitly distances them from “migrants” and other non-Russian soldiers deployed to fight in Ukraine, as well as from prisoners. They have not voiced sorrow or regret for the thousands of Ukrainians killed and injured by Russia’s attacks.

But it would also be a mistake to overlook the significance and the political nature of these soldiers’ wives’ actions. By calling for an end to mobilization, The Way Home wives are challenging Putin’s strategy of waging “forever war” until Moscow achieves its aims.

These women are also exercising the fundamental right of citizens to hold their government accountable for its policies — there is no more political act than this. Ultimately, women’s “patriotic dissent” is a powerful form of resistance and it must be taken seriously.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Jennifer Mathers is a senior lecturer in international politics at Aberystwyth University.

Natasha Danilova is a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at University of Aberdeen.

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