Women Are Leading Russia’s Antiwar Protests — and They’re in Putin’s Crosshairs

As thousands of antiwar Russians fled their country or are trapped there by devastating economic sanctions, President Vladimir Putin gave a chilling video address Thursday to the Russian people in an attempt to justify his terrible war in Ukraine. He urged a “self-cleansing of society” to rid it of unpatriotic “scum and traitors.”

Putin is using nationalist vitriol to attack an antiwar movement that bravely defied both state censorship, and a violent police clampdown to protest the war against Ukraine. The autocrat appeared to conflate antiwar resistance with support for Russia’s perceived enemies in the West as he seeks to paint the conflict as a clash of civilizations that threatens Russia’s very existence.

While antiwar Russians can come from all walks, activists claim many organizers and protesters in Russia are women. Thousands of antiwar feminists, mothers or grandmothers across Russia are now under the sway of pro-Putin vigilantes.

“They say antiwar protests, they have a woman’s face in Russia,” said Asya Maruket, a Russian antiwar and women’s rights activist during a Zoom call with fellow activists across central and Eastern Europe this week. In 2014, when war between Russia, Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas regions first broke out, antiwar protests in Russia were also led by women, Maruket said.

Maruket, like many others who fled Russia to speak freely on the war, showed a recent photo of a young woman holding up a protest sign, and being led away from police. The sign reads “peace to the world” in Russian.

“This woman was arrested for the words, ‘peace to the world,’” Maruket said.

Putin’s government has effectively criminalized antiwar activism with a law that punishes Russians for statements that challenge the Russian military and the Kremlin’s narratives about the war, which it still calls a “special military operation” despite the escalating bloodshed and attacks on civilians. Activists who infringe the law could spend up to 15 years prison for treason.

“The voices of antiwar activists are not heard, we cannot even say it is a war, because according to the new law, we can only name it as a ‘special operation,’” Maruket said.

Still, Maruket said millions of Russians do not support the so-called “special operation” in Ukraine, and activists are getting “creative” to avoid punishment under the harsh dissent law.

Women have been leading silent pickets to avoid arrest and holding signs calling for peace instead of an end to “war.” Activists offer emotional, psychological and legal support to those who are detained by police, and organize “peace-building” actions for women in Ukraine by sharing contacts and linking activists and refugees from both countries.

The distribution of leaflets, antiwar publications and reliable independent media challenge the Kremlin’s propaganda.

Maruket is a member the Russian Feminist Antiwar Resistance,She said that the initiative has attracted 20,000 participants and has been organized in 190 cities around the globe.

Maruket, who is a psychologist, stressed that the antiwar movement must be international, and all wars waged across the world — not just the war in Ukraine — are reason for global solidarity.

“Any war affects all of us and our psychological conditions, and threatens the health of our planet,” Maruket said.

Russian intellectuals, activists and members of civil societies are also helping one another evacuate the country to avoid repression or arrest. Maruket said this has been made more difficult by the US and its allies’ crushing economic sanctions against Russia. People are unable to access the money required to flee because of the falling value of the ruble. More than 3.1 million people fled violence in Ukraine to safer countries. accordingTo the United Nations

“All these people said that they are refugees from their country too, because it’s not safe for them to stay in Russia,” Maruket said.

Internationally, the most infamous challenge to the war and anti-dissent laws has come from Marina OvsyannikovaA journalist interrupted a news broadcast on a state-run television channel this week with an antiwar sign warning Russians they were being lied about the conflict.

“Come out and protest. Don’t be afraid. They can’t jail us all,” Ovsyannikova said in a video statementBefore her protest, recordings were made. Ovsyannikova was quickly taken into custody and interrogated for 14 hour before being fined $280. Ovsyannikova does not stop speaking out. includingWestern media outlets, putting it at risk of further prosecution.

According to OVD Info, close to 15,000 Russians were held or detained for protesting the war. This includes lawyers and children as well as journalists. Many of those who’ve been arrested are women, including two women who recently leaked recordings of violent interrogations by police in Moscow to independent media outlets. OVD-Info reportsSeveral criminal trials against antiwar activists were ongoing this week. Several activists were arrested, fined, or sentenced to mandatory labor.

Iva, a resident from Nizhny Novgorod which is the sixth-largest town in Russia, is pictured here told OVD-Info that a group of people arrested during an antiwar action on March 6 were jailed in a “special detention center” and “were forced to squat naked and were not allowed to sleep.” The group included eight women, Iva said. The activists were taken to court the next day and released from there.

“We were cold and sleepy. They started and one by one, forced us to strip naked and squat,” Iva said in a translated statement, adding “what else can be expected from Russia?”

The Russian government has responded to antiwar protests and efforts to raise money for Ukrainians suffering under Putin’s invasion with “new repressions” and “tightening censorship,” accordingOVD Info. People who signed petitions against the war “faced dismissals or expulsions from universities, threats and other types of persecution for expressing their antiwar position.”

According to activists, most Russian news outlets have stopped covering war because of the antidissent law. Social media is also censored. This leaves millions of Russians dependent on state-run media.

Markut and other activists emphasize that the Russian people are not the Russian government, and anti-Russian sentiment, or Russophobia, in the United States and across Europe — exacerbated by the war — is also a problem for antiwar movements. Russian expats and refugees face judgement in other countries, and when people abroad assume that all Russians support Putin’s aggression, “it’s additional pain for us,” Maruket said.

“Millions of people who are not seen and not heard want to stop this war,” Maruket said.

Maruket stated that cutting off all connections between Russians, the rest of the world, and the rest is not a solution to the conflict. In fact, antiwar organizers from countries across the world are trying to do the opposite, creating new political formations to support antiwar protests in Russia as well as the people of Ukraine while demanding that all parties of the war — including Ukraine’s allies in the U.S., which is supplying the country with weapons — deescalate the conflict, end international sanctions and negotiate an immediate ceasefire.

“We need to build new ways of connection and build something beautiful and strong and healing,” Maruket said. “We need to build something new.”