‘This war is taking place for the same reason as all of Moscow’s wars of colonisation — the former colony does not want to remain a colony’: An interview with Feminist Anti-War Resistance (Russian Federation)
The following interview with Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR) took place at the end of 2022 and beginning of 2023. The questions in the interview were formulated by Dick Nichols, who heads up the European Bureau of Green Left and Links—International Journal of Socialist Renewal and has been producing an English-language version of FAR’s Telegram channel.
The FAR activists who took part in the interview prefaced their answers with this comment:
Firstly, we would like to send our greetings to the readers of this interview. We are grateful that you are interested in anti-war resistance from Russia and Feminist Anti-War Resistance in particular. The interview questions were answered by several of our activists, who are immersed in the topics in different ways, so regard our answers as a chorus of anti-war voices.
In turn, the interviewer expresses his gratitude to the courageous women of FAR for having taken the time and care to explain their vital struggle to an English-speaking public.
The political context of resistance
What has been the social impact of the introduction of the “partial mobilisation” (military call-up) introduced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 21, 2022, and still not officially terminated? Has it led to increased questioning of his motivation for the war?
Whereas before the mobilisation the vast majority of voices against it were either anti-war activists or those with relatives in Ukraine, with the mobilisation the number of people for whom the war came home has increased. For many ethnic minorities (non-ethnic Russians, often non-Orthodox and/or non-Slavic) mobilisation day became a Saint Bartholomew's massacre — people were visited at night, grabbed and taken away. In some cities, the exits were blocked so that people could not leave the places from where they would be sent to war. Many, many people urgently left Russia, for example, to Mongolia and Kazakhstan. But even more people could not leave Russia for various reasons. The mobilisation has mainly affected the poorest regions, or regions that are exploited by the government as colonies because of their resources. Indeed, the people from these republics are just a resource in the eyes of Moscow authorities.
These people, now fighting for themselves, have started looking for ways not to go to war and not to send their relatives to war. Thus, in the days since the mobilisation, the number of people who were willing to volunteer and become activists against the war has grown.
So, I think we can say that unrest and discontent are growing: anti-war initiatives both regional and global have experienced a big influx of activists since the mobilisation started. This has been expressed in increased dissemination of information about how not to go to war as well as more radical actions. For example, the number of arson attacks on military recruitment centres across Russia has also grown tremendously since the mobilisation began.
An October 2022 Vertska article on the call by Moscow municipal deputies for Putin’s resignation said that, according to these deputies, their call represents what their electors want. On the other hand, official polling in Russia has Putin with over 80% support, and even independent polls like that of the Levada Centre still show large majority support for the president’s “special military operation”. Are these figures and the overwhelming vote for United Russia in the September 2022 local and regional elections an accurate gauge of Russian popular opinion?
Here is a very sad thing about dictatorships — under them polling simply does not work. If a “sociologist” calls you on the phone and asks for your opinion about the war, what would you do? The average Russian would hang up because they know that the poll could be rigged and that they might be prosecuted for their opinion. That, along with people not taking interest in politics at all, is a major problem. Our society is very atomised. Right now, the mission of anti-war organisations is to bring those atomised parts of the society together and show that in Russia there are people who actually do care about politics. In this context, concluding that Russians support or do not support the war can only be a subjective estimation. However, we do think that it is very concerning how a lot of people in Russia think that the war and politics in general just do not concern them.
The war has produced a big flow of Ukrainian migrants into the Russian Federation. How much of this is voluntary and how much is done under compulsion? What impact is it having inside Russia?
Human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina estimates that there are around two million Ukrainians in Russia right now. I am not sure how many refugees came to Russia voluntarily and how many did not. I can say that situations are always different and depend on many factors. I personally know people who came voluntarily, who have relatives in Russia and have a place to stay. And I also know situations when buses were hired and people were put before a “choice”: ”Either you put up with shelling and shooting or you go to Russia.”
In some cases, people are afraid of the language barrier, in others they see more obstacles to entering Europe and think, unwittingly, that Russia is more stable and the state will help, and in some cases Russia becomes a transit point for those who are going to travel further.
There is an opinion that after almost a year of the war, everyone who has wanted to leave Russia has already left, and that only collaborators with the Putin regime and traitors to Ukraine remain. But I completely disagree with this opinion, since a lot of people are simply not able to travel further: some only have money for food, some are too sick, some are old. Volunteers in Russia are doing everything they can, but their resources are not enough to get all the people to a safer place.
As for their influence inside Russia, I can only say that I saw a huge increase in support from Russian citizens for Ukrainian migrants. There are help groups and chats in almost every city, where people sometimes with opposing views on the war unite to help internally displaced people. Of course, in addition to humanitarian aid anti-war volunteers use other methods as well. They often warn Ukrainian citizens that they are not safe here and help them leave. On the contrary, volunteers who support the military help them to receive all sorts of papers for legalising their status and to get socially integrated in Russia. But it feels like there are far fewer pro-war volunteers in the total number, and volunteering remains almost the last legal avenue in Russia to support the citizens of Ukraine.
Many of the oligarchs who occupy the commanding heights of the Russian economy are suffering from the sanctions imposed by the Western governments, but they seem powerless to propose an alternative to Putin’s regime. What divisions, if any, does FAR see within Russia’s economic and political elite? Do they matter politically?
As of now, we really do not know much about the “split” in the elites. Russian independent media have reported that a lot of oligarchs do not support the war, but we really do not know anything more than that. Also, such people usually speak anonymously.
The Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy not only strongly supports the war, but it also acts to stifle any progressive initiative (such as for homosexual marriage). Yet FAR sought to appeal to believers, particularly last Easter, on the grounds that they should be supporting the values of peace and solidarity. Are divisions growing within the church over the war?
In Russia, the church is a state institution and is deployed by the state. The highest ranks of the church are supported by the regime and receive bribes and continue to generate corruption. On behalf of the church, they block the law criminalising domestic violence and try to ban abortion. But at the same time, many believers share the faith and respect the church. Therefore, we will try to reach out to people who, because of their religious beliefs, think that murder is a terrible sin.
It is also important to note that in addition to the church in Russia, there are both mosques and Buddhist temples. If the religious elites support the war, then the lower ranks often oppose it, eventually being defrocked as priests and leaving the country due to pressure. For example, the honorary representative of the Dalai Lama in Russia, Erdni Ombadykov (who openly supports Ukraine), was included in the list of foreign agents. He also had to step down as a Lama of the Republic of Kalmykia. Patriarch Kirill recently fired a priest who prayed for “peace” instead of “victory”.
It is hard to avoid comparisons with other periods in Russian history when war gave rise to revolution or radical change, as with the Crimean, Russo-Japanese and First World Wars: an increasingly authoritarian and seemingly immovable regime has nowhere to retreat, and then gets overthrown. Does FAR think that such a scenario can be repeated as a result of the invasion of Ukraine?
We are absolutely sure that Putin’s regime will fall soon. Regardless of historical analogies, it is only a matter of time before people start protesting. When that happens, Putin will be unable to simultaneously fight the war and against his own citizens.
However, we have reasonable doubts that violent revolution is even possible in the modern age. For a violent revolution to happen, several conditions must be met.
First, there must be a big proportion of young men within the population. This is not the case for Russia. It was not the case even before the war (young men are actually the smallest population group in Russia), but right now young men are actively dying because of the war and mobilisation. Many young men have fled from the country for the same reasons.
Second, violent revolutions are done by people who went through military training. Again, this is not the case for Russia. Men tend to avoid serving in the army, and even those who serve in the army have little or no military training. The same goes for the mobilisation: people are thrown into the fight with almost no training and an immense proportion of mobilised men just die in the first encounter. So even if we consider the scenario of military men returning from the war disillusioned with their government, the sad truth is that not very many of them will actually return. I draw your attention to the research done by journalists from Mediazona: they counted dead Russian soldiers using public sources only. They counted more than 12,500 dead on the Russian side. And these are deaths that we know of: the real number is probably at least five times greater.
Third, people in Russia do not have experience of participating in politics. Remember that something that can be called a democracy existed in Russia for just a couple of years. After that, all we saw were stolen elections and repression. So, people in Russia are taught to not care about politics: “What is the point, if Putin will win anyway?” “If there is no way to influence political processes, why should I even try?” Those are very common thoughts among Russians. So, it is highly unlikely that Russians will jump from barely voting in elections to arming themselves to fight the dictatorship.
To summarise: we strongly believe that Putin’s regime will fall soon, one way or another. We have doubts about the scenario of violent revolution for multiple reasons. We think that massive peaceful protest is much more likely, and we know that whatever violence occurs will be done to protesters by the police.
Protesting the invasion
What space is left for protest in Russia today? The picture we get from outside is of continually intensifying repression, but with some parts of the legal system still not doing the bidding of the repressive agencies. Putin’s repression seems to have driven the anti-war movement including FAR into a “battle for hearts and minds” in social media via the Telegram channel, the anti-war consciousness-raising groups (GRAS), chat groups, the distribution of Women’s Truth etc. Do you have a sense of what influence all this work is having?
The situation with protests in Russia is still very difficult. Since the war began, new repressive laws have been imposed in our jurisdiction — and they are adding new ones all the time. A lot of people who went out to protest the war and the mobilisation have left the country because of persecution and security concerns. The prominent forms of every-day protest that we see now is something that James C. Scott called “weapons of the weak”. Amid the repression, people mostly protest in hiding — and a lot of the “protest” comes in small things. Of course, the government does not and cannot repress every single person with an anti-war position — the arrests and abuse are demonstrative and performative. That is not to say that they are not real: they are, and they hurt people and ruin their lives. But what the regime is trying to tell you is: “Hey — look, someone got prison time for anti-war stickers. This could happen to you!” It manipulates Russians by spreading fear. Whether that fear is justified is a very difficult moral dilemma — there is no quick answer to it.
Nonetheless, we do see the impact of what we are doing as an anti-war organisation. We do all kinds of projects, from direct help to Ukraine (we have recently delivered a powerful generator to a hospital in Cherkassy) to cyber-activism. We try to speak to different audiences — for example, our monthly newspaper Women’s Truth is targeted towards the older population that is often isolated from the world and that does not always have access to non-governmental media. The newspaper even has a crossword and anecdotes section, along with recipes — it appeals to older women. We cannot reveal how, but we are planning to spread Women’s Truth more and on a larger scale. We also have a mothers' group inside FAR. We keep in touch with these women and help them as much as we can. A lot of them do not have much literacy in legal matters. One of the women we talked to could not find any information about her husband, and yet the information was literally one filled-out form away, but people do not always know that.
Of course, we try to battle the Kremlin’s propaganda, but another mission of ours is to unite people who already oppose the government. Our activists do all sorts of things, from putting up anti-war propaganda around the town to taking part in cyber protests. We have recently started a campaign against militarist propaganda: activists put up on Google Maps posts with anti-war slogans and photos of tanks covered in blood. The Kremlin uses a lot of the old Soviet tanks as a propaganda tool, making the whole concept of war sacred. It functions as a public political religion.
Another line of our work is to support activists and people who oppose the war. It is vital that people feel that what they are doing and saying is important and it has an actual effect. A lot of people get disappointed and lose all motivation. So, we create space for them, so they are surrounded by supportive, like-minded, people. We also provide free psychological support groups for those who need it.
Protests against the introduction of the partial mobilisation have been mostly concentrated in the non-Russian republics, oblasts and krais. Does FAR have a sense of how deep disaffection with the regime has become in areas like Dagestan, Buryatia, Tyva, etc?
I think, to understand people’s state of mind, that I need to tell you a little about the “regions”—that is the name of the republics and territories that are not Moscow. To understand how great the difference is between people from the capital and the regions, it is important to grasp that the expansion of Moscow and conquest of the regions began from 1490. It was often accompanied by the genocide of the local population and the destruction of the centres of learning and local traditions of the indigenous peoples. Enforced Christianisation went along with colonisation and slavery. Uprisings were suppressed in the harshest possible way. In the 20th century, we saw the first attempts to eliminate entire republics from the Russian empire. The proto-democratic parliamentary republics were suppressed. Then repression of activists began, accompanied by mass executions and deportations of peoples in which 50% to 90% of the deported peoples died due to government-created famine. Local republican elites were murdered on account of their pan-Mongolism, while native Arabic languages were first Latinised and then made Cyrillic. Many local scientists and creative artists were sent to concentration camps and died there.
The Soviet Union used the propaganda of a multinational people, "brothers" in a large family, while reproducing the same empire and repressing its colonies. We can hear the same propaganda today.
Modern Russia has not changed at all. When the Soviet Union collapsed, many republics declared independence and asserted their sovereignty. However, Moscow was not ready to let go of the important resources it had stolen for centuries. This is how the mass bombing of peaceful cities in Chechnya and the genocide of Chechens who wanted independence happened. People are still tortured and killed there, and money from the centre goes to maintain this oppressive regime. It is why uncontrolled and unrepressed internal banditry appeared in other republics.
Systemic racism grew every year, and in the 2000s a lot of activists from the oppressed nations were killed. Ecosystems were destroyed and indigenous activists who opposed the ecocide of their lands were either killed or forced out of the country through the destruction of their villages and threats to kill their children.
“We only rent apartments for Slavs”, “Go back to your native republic, migrants”: such humiliation and the creation of conditions so that people either cannot speak their native language or are made to feel that using it is humiliating — these are things with which we live all the time.
The regions have been deprived of autonomy. Tatarstan was deprived of its sovereignty this year. Imagine an independent parliament depriving itself of its own independence! Because of the terror in the 2000s, the republics were deprived of elections and, after that, all protest was severely suppressed.
In the republics, the vast majority of people survive on the minimum wage. It happens for a lot of reasons, including the fact that there is often no industrial development. Sometimes you only have enough for food and utility bills.
So now, once you understand that many are raised in fear, violence and without money, and the opportunity arises to see that this is not so all over the world and a new war begins, accompanied by constant propaganda, people volunteer to enlist.
We are the main "cannon fodder" used by the Kremlin — a resource, not a people. And the war is again taking place for the same reason as all of Moscow’s wars of colonisation — the former colony does not want to remain a colony. Not in the least. As a result, many activists from the regions are fully aware of what Russia is trying to do to Ukraine, and are on its side.
Orientation and initiatives of FAR
Putin successfully taps into an intense and broadly felt resentment that the “collective West” has never really treated Russia as an equal partner, but as an adversary that was defeated with the “end of communism”. How does FAR try to counter this resentment-based Russian patriotism?
Present-day Russia is a direct successor of the Soviet regime. The Kremlin’s national idea is based on the past — Russian propaganda tries to unite the people around the holiday of “Victory Day”, May 9. Using the narrative of victory instead of grief and remembrance eliminates the possibility of any adequate policy of historical memory. As a result, a counter-memory appears. And here, saying anything against the government’s memorial policy is regarded as a moral сrime. Opposing its propaganda means profaning a past that is considered sacred and untouchable. Basing the Russian national idea on it is worse than absurd. Moreover, the regime uses the memory of World War II to justify new wars! This militaristic propaganda is closely tied to what is happening right now.
Our recent anti-militarism campaign, “Tanks in blood”, is meant to confront this patriotic propaganda. Russian towns are literally flooded with old Soviet military equipment — in parks, squares, and avenues. Our idea was to show the real face of this equipment — as steeped in blood. We uploaded posts and photos of tanks with blood photoshopped on them to Google Maps. Of course, it is important that we do not actually defile the memory of World War II, so we accompany those posts with texts like these: “Our warriors fought for peace in 1941-1945. Now Russia is sending its people to death and murder! Stop war against Ukraine!”
FAR has given a voice to women from non-Russian regions and sought to support their demands and aspirations against Russian chauvinism, paternalism, and Russification. Does FAR seek to create cells in non-Russian territories, or does it look to link up with indigenous anti-war movements there?
Are you talking about non-Russian territories in the context of ethnicity? Then it is important to pay attention to the distinction between “Russians” as citizens of Russia and Russians as an ethnic group and remember that imperialism and monolithism get reinforced by all the major world languages. It is also important to note that we do not exist as separate categories: we are regional activists, and we are also FAR. We, as queer, indigenous activists, struggle to be heard. Despite all the repression, our experience is unique, and yet we are not heard enough. The voices of the capitals are still heard more than us.
Therefore, as FAR we also support other regional initiatives — the Free Buryatia Foundation, Free Kalmykia, Novaya Tuva and many others. Get acquainted with them and learn more about their resistance and what the real Russia is like. I think it is important to hear this message, so you begin to understand why we support Ukraine and how important that is.
Do you think your work, including in the Temporary Accommodation Centres (TACs) and helping Ukrainian women and families leave Russia, is helping change the perception common in Ukraine that “all Russians support Putin”?
Our mission is not to change the perception that all Russians support Putin, especially if it is a perception coming from Ukrainians. That is simply not our goal. As we said, there are no real poll results or statistics we could trust right now. We try to focus on helping people instead of proving to them that we are not as bad as they think we are.
FAR activists promptly signed the declaration of Ukrainian feminists supporting Ukraine’s right to self-defence and opposing a purely pacifist response to Putin’s invasion. FAR was also inspired by the role of women in the Belarusian protests of 2020-2021. How is FAR looking to strengthen collaboration and solidarity with Belorussian and Ukrainian feminists?
We do not want to force any cooperation with Ukrainian feminists — that would be violent and insensitive in a time of war. However, we do follow their activities attentively via social media, try to support their demands in the international arena whenever we can, amplify their voices by translating their manifestos and posts for our Russian-language channels, and think of other ways that we can be useful without being intrusive, like fundraising or sharing posts on social media.
We try to be proactive but not violent. We are also very cautious about public events which include activists from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus together. We have a rule to write to participants from Ukraine and Belarus before an event to make sure they feel comfortable with sharing space with Russians, and we offer to withdraw our participation if they are not OK with it. Unfortunately, not all event organisers show this sensitivity: that is why we developed that rule.
Vika Kas, the FAR delegate to the very male August 31-September 2 Free Russia congress in Vilnius, conveyed quite a negative impression in her report on the event (see FAR Telegram channel for September 13, 2022). What possibilities for collaboration with the Russian Action Committee, organisers of the congress and “big names” like Gary Kasparov, do you see? How can the segments of the anti-Putin opposition come together?
We do not need to “come together”. There are dozens of grassroot anti-war initiatives in Russia. Some are radical, some are moderate. Some are anonymous, others operate openly. All those initiatives have different target audiences and different channels to access those audiences. We at FAR strongly believe in diversity. Diversity is better than uniformity. Uniformity leads to exclusion and therefore it is limited in its viewpoints and methods. So, Gary Kasparov can do whatever he thinks is right and maybe get some attention. But we strongly doubt that young anti-war women will listen to him, and we strongly doubt that Kasparov even has anything to say to them. Not to mention the Russian LGBTI+ community and national minorities.
What we do need is open dialogue about strategies and methods: not to come to a unified “standard”, but to share best practices and help each other to create best strategies for each and every one of us. And this is exactly what we do and how we build our communication with other anti-war initiatives.
FAR is striving to build a coalition of all the victims of Putin’s regime of great Russian chauvinism—women, LGBTI+ communities, non-Russian nationalities within the Russian Federation, and democratic-minded people in general. How does FAR see this coalition emerging? Is the perspective for it to eventually have a party-political expression? Might that mean that FAR might eventually be part of an initiative at the level of representative politics?
Yes, it could be so. We do not know for sure what we will be in the future and what the future will look like. We have to take into account that we live in a situation of permanent ambiguity. But yes, we want to be representatives of different discriminated groups and promote progressive politics in Russia.