The birth of a civil society? Women and Youth Resistance
December 9, 2022
  • Andrei Kolesnikov

    Senior fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Andrei Kolesnikov writes about a spontaneous association of mothers and wives of mobilized men in Russia. Are they just petitioners demanding that the state not treat their loved ones like cannon fodder? Or are we witnessing the birth of an anti-war protest in Russian society?
In 2020, residents of Khabarovsk took to the streets to defend regional governor Sergei Furgal, who was arrested on allegations of being involved in contract murders. Source: Wiki Commons
Anxiety across Russian society jumped to unprecedented levels (70%, according to the research center FOM) during the partial mobilization. It began to decline after mobilization was officially stopped. (In early December Putin said there was no need for "additional mobilization measures", but he still would not issue a decree that would formally end the mobilization). By mid-November, anxiety had normalized (to around 50%), seemingly demonstrating Russians’ extremely high adaptability to extraordinary, external events. However, in recent weeks anxiety levels have started to rise again: the scope for such feelings is wide, which could drag down attitudes toward the government if it continues to involve ordinary citizens in its military initiatives, saber-rattle nuclear weapons and endlessly extend the special operation. Meanwhile, an increasing number of people are starting to get tired of the special operation, even those who initially supported it.

The government itself is also anxious: dissatisfaction with the mobilization is shared not only by civil society activists, who have been driven into the catacombs, but importantly also by the most ordinary citizens from different social strata for whom opposition is not the norm at all. That is why Putin decided to meet with the mothers and wives of servicemen, thus demonstrating his awareness of the problem and solidarity with his social base, the “ordinary people.” True, he didn’t meet with the newly established Committee of Wives and Mothers who have united on their own initiative, but with screened ones – an imitation.

The Committee of Wives and Mothers was founded by relatives of draftees and conscript soldiers. It would seem to be an obvious attempt to institutionalize the grassroots demand for order. But what is this demand centered around? Ending the “special operation” or optimizing the mobilization and material support for draftees and conscripts?

Atypical protest

Several organizations operate in the niche of protecting the rights of servicemembers. Take the semi-official Union for the Support of Wives and Mothers of Servicemen, part of the Union of Women of Russia. Even the name itself is evasive – it’s not about supporting servicemembers but assisting the women themselves. There is a Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, as well as about 200 organizations that are members of the Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia (some of them have been labeled foreign agents), where the key figure is the Russian human rights veteran Valentina Melnikova.

The women who organized the Wives and Mothers Committee are likely so far from human rights issues and such novices in the field that they might not have known about Melnikova's widespread and very effective network, which has been operating since the late 1980s.

At first, it was feared that their inexperience would make them easy prey for the authorities if the latter wanted to incorporate them into the civil society that the Kremlin controls and has been putting together for years. That includes public chambers of different levels, public committees and other organizations created on the initiative of the authorities; recently, this Kremlin-controlled civil society finally got rid of the real democratic-minded human rights activists who had been on the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights.

But Putin met with completely different “mothers,” including United Russia deputy Olga Beltseva, head of the All-Russia People’s Front Executive Committee in Moscow Region Yulia Belekhova and Orekhovo-Zuyevo Public Chamber member Marina Migunova. Meanwhile, the fact that the VK accounts of the new Committee were swiftly taken down, while its leader Olga Tsukanova was put under surveillance, indicates that imitation is too subtle a game for the current Kremlin and that it is not going to talk to anyone from the real world.
"The spontaneously formed Committee of Wives and Mothers is a sign of new processes that the Kremlin may have to deal with."
This is an atypical protest against the Kremlin in which there are by no means liberals and democrats on the other side of the median separating society from the state, but the social base of the regime with previously indifferent and depoliticized citizens. These are the very people who did not care that they were ruled by an authoritarian president and for whom the main thing is consumerist norms and consumption, not the guarantee of rights and freedoms. By that logic, if the situation with consumption is generally satisfactory, then democracy and the rotation of political leaders aren’t needed. The Russian consumer society has for the most part failed to evolve into a civil society.

Society was once, for a short period, free, including politically. But no civil society emerged, and people readily accepted authoritarianism without considering that it could interfere with the development of consumerism. Many of them didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand the essence of political and civil freedoms, which guard against excesses on the part of the state, like turning men into cannon fodder.

Such behavior is a rejection of taxpayer democracy: citizens don’t think about where the taxes they pay are going; moreover, the state is now sending men to die on their own dime. These people needed to experience a real humiliation inflicted by the authorities just to grasp that there is a direct threat emanating from the state (much less awake a civic sense and the self-consciousness of taxpayers).

However, this is how civil society is born: defending your courtyard against potential urban infill, your surroundings against a planned landfill, your vote against attacks by the state – this is the kind of protest that the authorities faced particularly in 2020. At that time, Khabarovsk residents took to the streets to defend regional governor Sergei Furgal, who was arrested on accusations of being involved in contract murders. Their logic was: he’s not an angel, but he’s our choice, and the theft of our vote is an abasement of our dignity, which must be restored. The “mothers and wives,” having realized that their rights had been violated, are following the same logic, though in a country where no one wants to talk to them, it is impossible to restore their rights without collective action.

Anti-war means anti-Putin

Do the activities of the Committee make it a prototypical anti-war movement? On the one hand, women are demanding better support, be it material, financial, educational (how to kill and not get killed); on the other, among their demands is a ban on the use of nuclear weapons, as well as peace talks. That is already the first step toward the understanding that any war – especially one that, contrary to propaganda, is neither defensive nor for national liberation – is evil, while the ultimate sacrifice called for by officials and bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church is a totally wild archaism in a post-industrial society.

Nevertheless, it is not yet a complete anti-war movement. One of the main goals of the Committee is to solve the problems with their sons and husbands without quarreling with the state. However, it was the state that decided to quarrel with the protesting women. The Kremlin will create obstacles even for organizations such as the Committee of Wives and Mothers (who are more like petitioners than protesters) – if, having managed to attract public attention and expand their ranks, the Committee is not destroyed swiftly before that. The fact is that
"Anti-war positions are shared by a considerable number of individuals and small groups today, but they are atomized."
In response to the public anxiety triggered by the mobilization, Putin held a meeting with women — not with the mothers and wives of servicemen who had formed an association on their own, but instead with trusted female public figures. Source: VK
An anti-war movement is possible only as an anti-Putin movement. That’s because the “special operation” is his initiative, his life's work, which is perceived as an ideological mission – the restoration of the unrestorable, of empire. Recall that in 2020, Khabarovsk underwent a very rapid evolution from a local and anti-Moscow protest to an anti-Putin one. The fact that power no longer changes hands at the federal and now regional levels is a core problem that the most ordinary people – not just supporters of Alexei Navalny and civic and human rights activists – are gradually beginning to understand. This is an important precedent as we consider the potential trajectories for dissatisfaction with the regime.

And that is why the phenomenon of the Committee of Wives and Mothers is still very important. The main allies of the Putin regime are mass political ignorance and mass indifference. The Committee is a rejection of indifference and a manifestation of, albeit minimal, reflection. This is what can gradually undermine the very foundations of Putin’s system, the preexisting obedience of the majority, combined with its boundless adaptability and indifference to state adventurism and violence, which in recent months has begun to be outsourced to very dubious personalities, such as Yevgeny Prigozhin.

New discontent

The emergence of the Committee of Wives and Mothers can be seen as a women’s protest. Yet Putin's "special operation" became possible, among other things, because in recent years the older generations – many of whom are filled with resentment and imperial feelings – decided how the younger generations should live. Now they, seventy-year-old political leaders and voters, are deciding where, how and most importantly for what the younger and even the middle generations should die.

On the first day of the mobilization, very young people took to the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg. They didn’t look like members of the Committee of Wives and Mothers, but rather like brothers and sisters, and they perfectly understood the political nature of what was happening. It was an anti-war protest, and it was generational, not gender-based, in nature. In the 1960s, student activism in the US began with the slogan “don’t trust anybody over 30" (Berkeley, 1964) before gaining a pronounced anti-war flavor after 1965.

Women’s and generational protests are something that from time to time appear in Russia but haven’t yet been seriously formalized – due to the harshness of potential repression – or spread to the masses – due to indifference and adaptability of the majority of the population. However, perhaps such manifestations of opposition views are more important than potential socio-economic discontent (over a worsening economy and labor market), which generally is not visible at this stage. Moreover, it is not only duped supporters of Putin and advocates of the submission of Ukraine who will come back from the trenches of the "special operation,” but also offended, frustrated, disappointed people who even at the present time are daring to rebel because they don’t want to become cannon fodder.

For now, the Kremlin is preparing for the war against its own citizens drawing on the the same tools it used before: repression (on December 8 several members of the Committee of Mothers and Wives were detained and threatened with prosecution), labeling disloyal citizens "foreign agents" and "national traitors," and bitter pro-war propaganda that threatens nuclear war. However, new centers of discontent and resistance definitely won’t emerge where officials, deputies and church bishops – motivated by supposed foreign interference, liberal intrigues and a phantom LGBT threat – expect them. We are witnessing a fundamentally new social stratification based on dissatisfaction with the authorities and the formation of a repertoire of potential opposition that is not very understood by the Kremlin. It is still in its formative stages, but the Kremlin and the FSB, obsessed with conspiracy theories, risk overlooking something important: the underground fires seem to be gathering momentum in society. These fires might surface in unexpected places at unexpected times.
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