Russia: Combative sisterhood

More than half of all those detained at anti-mobilisation rallies in September were women, according to OVD-Info data. In recent years, the proportion of women detained at protests has steadily increased: at rallies in support of Alexei Navalny in 2021 they were 25-30%, and at anti-war rallies in February-March - up to 44%. Ella Rossman, a gender historian at University College London and co-founder of Feminist Anti-War Resistance, explains why women's active participation in the protests should not come as a surprise, and describes how Russian feminists fought against the wars of the twentieth century.

The female face of the Russian anti-war protest is attracting increasing interest from journalists and analysts around the world: I have been asked to comment on this phenomenon almost every day in recent weeks. It is often seen as something unique, unusual for Russia and the world, but there are many examples in history of women uniting against wars and dictatorships and doing so successfully. Unfortunately, the specifics of history teaching in Russia - the focus on the state and statesmen and ignoring public life and grassroots political movements - make this part of the past virtually unknown, even to the educated Russian-speaking reader. Women's history comes to the rescue, the main task of which is to introduce women into textbooks, research and popular texts.

The First World War and the women's movement in the Russian Empire

From the second half of the 1850s the women's movement in the Russian Empire was on the rise. Individual representatives - for example the "feminist triumvirate" of Maria Trubnikova, Nadezhda Stasova and Anna Filosofova - are more or less well known, but in essence the phenomenon is insufficiently discussed in the public sphere and in education, including higher education. You'd be hard pressed to find a course on Russian history that devotes dedicated time to women's movements.

The few researchers who study the women's movement focus on the country's two largest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. The activism of Tatar women supporters of Jadism (a modernised version of Islam) is little studied. Although they were as active as the above mentioned Trubnikova, Stasova and Filosofova in promoting women's education and organizing the All-Russian Congress of Muslim Women in April 1917, dedicated to a new view of women in Islam. The original Tatar version of Islamic feminism, which began to develop in the Russian Empire in the early 20th century, was destroyed by the Bolsheviks and has remained largely forgotten ever since.

Another topic that historians have neglected is the anti-war struggle of women. Yes, Russian feminists of the first wave were mainly concerned with issues of education, suffrage, and the position of mothers and illegitimate children. But they also reflected on the events occurring in Europe, including in the pages of their journals.

In the feminist magazines, of which there were many in the 1914s and 1918s, the impact of the war on women's rights was discussed. The Women's Bulletin (1905-1918) of the well-known activist and doctoral student Maria Pokrovskaya proclaimed the "annihilation of war" as one of the aims of the feminist movement. Within the publication there was a separate section, "Women and War", dedicated to the real-life stories of women whose lives were irrevocably changed by the First World War. Not only mothers and wives who lost sons and husbands, but also, for example, those who were raped and became pregnant as a result. Their situation was particularly difficult in countries where children born out of wedlock had a lower social status than those born into a family. In 1915, a separate magazine of the same name, Woman and War, was created, though only one issue was published.

War is a tragedy for women and children. It is known how rampant the Austrians and Germans are in the enemy areas they have captured. The women and girls are not treated lightly and are brutally raped. The consequences of this violence remain. In Echo de Paris, Maurice Barres examines what to do with illegitimate children who have been given life by such violence. Under French law, the child born of these crimes will take its place at the hearth and receive its share of the inheritance. And even in the event that the conscripted head of the family is able to take legal action against the child (a slow and costly procedure), the child is not deprived of the mother's legal rights. In the part of Lorraine that belongs to us, says Barres, the people firmly believe that the government will put these "unwanted aliens" to death, and the women are warning the mayors of their villages that they will take the case into their own hands. Will there be a jury to convict them? Yet suppose they keep these children and raise them, what kind of existence are the children doomed to?

From "Tragedy of War," The Women's Herald, April 1915 issue. The excerpt is given in modern spelling.

The Women's Herald told frontline stories: of paramedics and nurses, for example. In No 4 of 1915 one finds the story of a girl who went to the front in the guise of a man, pretending to be the brother of her husband, also conscripted. She fought in the rank of company paramedic and her husband in the rank of warrant officer, and none of her fellow soldiers knew the truth about them. Both were wounded and ended up in the infirmary. The same issue also published the story of Kira Bashkirova, a student who volunteered for one of the Siberian Rifle Regiments, naming herself Nikolai Popov, and was assigned to a team of mounted scouts. According to the article, the girl managed to take part in several daring operations and was awarded the Order of Saint George, 4th class, before being unmasked. The division commander, finding out that it was not a brave soldier but a maiden in front of him, sent Kira home, but on the way she joined another military unit and went back to the front. It would be interesting to verify these stories: I have not been able to find resources for the research, despite attempting to do so.

Russian women's activists were discussing the connection between wars and the system of male domination even 100 years ago. Many saw women as a force for peace in the world, and called for them to intervene. Some feminists, however, saw war as a source of women's liberation: the best time for women's activism and autonomy and for gaining economic independence. Contemporary Russian feminists have told me the same thing, citing the fall in men in the labour market, but I think that is a big mistake: the negative effects of war on women, on vulnerable groups, on the whole of society, outweigh any occasional "positives". This is why for me feminism, queer activism, the struggle for the rights of particular groups and for human rights in general always go hand in hand with anti-war views: only in a peaceful society can this struggle be successful.

Perhaps the most striking anti-war feminist text from the First World War is Who needs war? By Alexandra Kollontai, published in 1916. Kollontai reflects on the soldiers who would return home from the war (most likely disabled), see their native villages starved and ruined, and not be able to explain to themselves why they had fought and were now suffering: "For the Serbs, against the Germans who are attacking Russia?" Many passages from this text sound so timely today that in March 2022, activists from the Feminist Anti-War Resistance called on everyone who wished to do so to print it out and distribute it in public spaces as an anti-war propaganda tool.

Activists in the early twentieth century were not only opposed to the war in words. Like today, women and women's organizations were involved in all kinds of volunteer work, helping refugees, collecting humanitarian aid and setting up infirmaries for the wounded. They also took to the streets to protest against the war. As we know today, one of the women's demonstrations in Petrograd, which included anti-war slogans, was the beginning of the February Revolution.

Women against fascism

The end of the First World War brought a brief respite: soon fascism began to rise in Europe. In 1934, the World Congress of Women against War and Fascism was held in Paris, which brought together more than 1200 delegates. It was organized by the World Committee of Women, which, in turn, was associated with the World Committee against War and Fascism, brainchild of the Comintern. Its women's wing united not only women communists, but also activists of other political views: for example, the famous British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst supported it. In addition to the struggle against Fascism and Hitler's terror, the Women's World Committee supported the struggle against imperialism and colonialism by European powers, uniting with the Anti-Imperialist League and organisations and trade unions from African colonies.

Unfortunately, by the time the women's anti-fascist movement began to take shape in Europe, grassroots feminism in the USSR had been defeated. Even the branches of the Zhenotdel , which, although they were party organisations, still possessed a certain independence, were disbanded "out of necessity". In 1930, Stalin announced that in the USSR "the women's question was completely and finally solved".

The women's issue did not disappear from Soviet political reality, but feminism was for the most part "privatised" by the state. The Anti-Fascist Committee of Soviet Women, established in 1941 to participate in the international struggle against Hitlerism, was a department within the Soviet Information Bureau of the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR. Women activists in the Committee had very little freedom of action during and after the war, subject to the party leadership. Modern historians, however, attempt to show that even within these state structures there was some hard work on behalf of women. For example, already after the Second World War, Soviet female delegates actively participated in the international dialogue on nuclear disarmament.

Returning to the military history of the 1940s, it is worth noting the women who fought against fascism and National Socialism not at conventions and meetings, but on the battlefield. According to various estimates, from half a million to 800 thousand women were in the Red Army throughout the war, not counting partisan women and civilians who were "attached" to units (their numbers are difficult to estimate even approximately). In the active army women served in various specialties: most of all in the air defence and communications forces, there were also female tank commanders and pilots, and there was a separate female sniper school. There were many women in medicine, and for me this side of the Second World War is also a part of my family's past: my great-grandmother Elizabeth Feinstein was trained as a surgeon in the 1930s in the Soviet Ukraine and spent almost the whole war at the front, where she saved the wounded.

The fate of my great-grandmother is very similar to the fate of another girl, a front-line medic, Elena Deichman, whose personal archive I was lucky enough to work with as a historian. Deichman was a 20-year-old student of history at the Institute of Philology of Moscow State University when the war broke out. Although she was not bound to the military as a historian, she left for the front in 1942, having first taken a nursing course and worked in a hospital. Deichman participated in battles, receiving the Medal of Valour. In 1943 she was heavily wounded while crossing the Dnieper, and in 1945, apparently, was killed at the front - where and how exactly, we do not know. During the whole war Elena was sending her family food from her ration and letters full of tenderness, which have been preserved in the private archive of the Deichmans. In 2010, a part of these letters was collected and published in the form of a book by her younger sister Galina Deichman.

Mummy, my dearest! S.S. Ozadovskaya forwarded me your letter. Even now, knowing that I am almost healthy, you are so worried, my darling. What would happen if you knew I was lying wounded in hospital, unable to turn on my side or lift my head? Of course, I didn't write to you about my injury at the time; it's better to learn about such events in the past. I continued to write you letters from the hospital as if from my unit, giving you its former number so that you would not be worried. <...> By now you should know more about my injury: spinal appendages might be broken, the shrapnel was not taken out - it does not bother me at all, the wound has healed very well, although the scars are not small. The second wound on my left scapula is still festering as it is big (4cm x 10cm) and has keloid scarring but it does not hurt a bit. I now work at the RMP [Regimental Medical Station, author’s note]. When the commander goes to the OP (observation post), I go with him. There is not much work, the conditions are good, in fact I am resting, now I am getting better and getting better every day, because our regiment has a good manager and therefore the food is excellent, and life is more or less peaceful. When I am completely cured and my wound has healed, I think I will ask to join a battery or a rifle battalion, as I'm already bored without work.

Letter of Elena Deichman of January 18, 1944. From the book One hundred letters from the front, 1942-1944, compiled by Galina Deichman.

Unfortunately, after the war, many Soviet women who had fought for victory faced a stigma: because they had been in the army and partisan units among men for so long, they were considered by the people to be "spoiled". Women concealed their military past and hid their medals. Researcher Oleg Budnitsky in one of his articles cited the story of military doctor Vera Malakhova. Already after the Victory, when Malakhova found herself in her native Tomsk, her husband persuaded her to wear her military awards to the May Day parade. A passer-by in the street immediately called her a "frontline whore". This is an illustrative and not an isolated case. I assume that this attitude towards women who had fought was caused not only by the fact that they "lived with soldiers", but also by the spectacular role they played in the fight against National Socialism: their unexpected courage, determination, and unwillingness to hide behind others and wait to be rescued. All of this shattered the usual view of masculinity and femininity, of the hierarchy of the sexes - something that I think men simply could not forgive.

Women against the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya

In the late Soviet Union, independent feminism developed within the dissident movement. In 1979, representatives of the Leningrad underground published an almanac called Zhenschina i Rossiya (Woman and Russia). It made a lot of noise, but repeated the fate of its predecessor from 1915, stopping at number one. Its three publishers - Tatiana Mamonova, Natalya Malakhovskaya and Tatiana Goricheva - were persecuted by the KGB and forced to leave the country as early as 1980. However, the other authors who remained in the USSR continued their work and founded the Women's Club and the magazine Maria, which existed until 1982. The fate of Maria's founders was even more tragic: they too faced persecution, and one of their editors was arrested and sentenced to four years imprisonment in a Mordovian labour camp. Discussing women's rights in a state of "solved women's issues" proved a highly undesirable exercise.

As soon as the war in Afghanistan started, we immediately posted a protest against this war and an appeal to mothers not to send their sons to the front. But, as I said, the hunt for us began much earlier, in September 1979. And in January 1980 the first issue of Maria was confiscated in mock-up during a search and we had to make it anew. On March 1, 1980, the first conference of the Maria Club was held and on May 5, 1980, the first issue of the magazine was published. By May, the harassment by the authorities had reached an unprecedented scale. I don't want to talk about all the details now, but it was about our lives and the lives of our children. On July 9, I was told to leave the country or I would be arrested the next morning. I refused to leave without Goricheva, and she got the same offer, as did Mamonov. So in July 1980, the first editorial staff of the magazine found themselves in the West. Before I left, I managed to finish reprinting the second issue of the magazine and managed to prepare the second editorial board, our deputies. Here I must mention the names of Tatiana Belyaeva and Elena Doron (Shanygin). After we left, the authors of our magazine and women sympathizers gathered around these women. In 1981, these women were also brutally persecuted by the authorities and many had to leave the country, while others were expelled from their jobs, lost their livelihood, and some were driven by threats and torture to "repent" for what they had done. Natasha Lazareva was arrested twice and spent many years in prison".

Natalia Malakhovskaya, from a speech at the conference "The Woman as Object and Subject in Art", 1990 (quoted from Feminf magazine)

Maria's first document was an anti-war appeal to Soviet women entitled "Appeal to Mothers". In it, its members described the horrors and crimes of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan and urged mothers not to let their sons go there, stressing that three years' imprisonment for refusing military service was better than a shameful death. The Maria participants then published a short appeal "Stop the bloodshed!", demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops and a halt to the "abuse of civilians in a foreign country". They also spoke out against the false Soviet propaganda about military operations in Afghanistan.

Maria was not the only women's anti-war initiative of the late Soviet Union. In 1988, began the work of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, which is a human rights organization that still exists today (it is true that later on there was a split in it, but that is a separate story, which I hope that journalists and historians will tell in more detail in due course). The work of the Committee began with an attempt to protect full-time Soviet university students from conscription into the Red Army, which could have ended with them being sent to Afghanistan. Later, the movement's agenda expanded to defending the rights of all conscripts and military personnel, and during the First Chechen War, “soldiers' mothers" spoke out against violence and war crimes by the Russian army.

The march of the "Committee of Soldiers' Mothers" in 1995 was probably the brightest event of the "Committee of Soldiers' Mothers". The multi-day procession set off for Grozny on International Women's Day on March 8, starting at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow. The march was not only attended by female activists of the Committee, it was joined by monks of the Buddhist order Nipponzan Mehodzi, Quakers, peacemakers and those who simply wanted to support the protest. "We went to the Chechen people to show them: ordinary Russian people are against a war that only benefits those in power. We were going to Russian soldiers to demand a ceasefire on Chechen villages", was how one of the protesters, Felix Shvedovsky, a Buddhist monk, described the action in 2010. The organisers of the action faced pressure and provocations from the Russian authorities and the military: they were detained, searched and obstructed in all manner of ways. When they were in Chechnya some of the participants were kidnapped by OMON and deceived and sent back to Moscow. And yet, in spite of all the obstacles, the rally did take place.

War in Ukraine. Feminism as a hidden political force

Since the fall of the Soviet regime, the feminist movement in the former Soviet Union and in particular in Russia has continued to develop. For a long time it did so within small groups who published their own press and scholarly journals, established NGOs and centres for gender studies, and organized events, such as the two independent Women's Forums in Dubna in 1991 and 1992, which were important milestones in the development of feminism. It was difficult for the activists of that time to get into the media and to make feminism widely discussed; journalists tended to ignore this topic. In the late 2000s, when activism entered the social media, the situation began to change. First feminism entered Livejournal, later, in the 2010s, into Facebook, Instagram and other platforms. Vanya Solovey, a researcher of contemporary Russian feminism, has established that the first feminist blog in LiveJournal (and most probably in Russian in general) was feminism_ua, which began its work in 2004. Interestingly, it was actually bilingual and united feminists from Ukraine and Russia - our digital feminism grew out of collaboration with Ukrainian activists.

The 2010s were a time when the grassroots movement was actively developing and at the same time when feminism moved beyond activist circles and migrated from social media to media, museums and cultural venues. Feminism has become not only a political current but also a fashion and a trend. This is not a unique situation; at the same time, "pop feminism" was also developing in other countries, causing much criticism due to the glamourization of the feminist agenda.

In the Russian context, the criticism of "lipstick feminism" also exists (here it is more commonly referred to as "media feminism"). In my view, its blind translation into Russian completely ignores the local conditions in which the movement has developed. Feminism in Russia grew up against a background of increasing authoritarianism and pressure on the opposition and decreasing freedom of speech. In these circumstances, the fusion of feminism with lifestyle and the mimicry of the subculture gave the political movement a chance of survival. Unlike other political organisations and networks that have been purged in recent years, feminism has survived, simply because it has not looked like a real threat to the authorities for a long time. At the same time, the feminist movement has constantly expanded its audience by actively politicising young women, a group that most politicians simply do not know how to work with.

By February 24, 2022, Russian feminists had something that many other political movements did not have: a large and active audience and an established decentralized network of grassroots organizations with a great deal of experience of cooperation and organization. In November 2021, by my count, there were at least 45 feminist grassroots organizations active in Russia, many of them collaborating with each other. Other political forces underestimated feminists, except that they discussed a "new ethic", a concept which, in my opinion, was completely far-fetched and lacking in analytical potential.

So it came as a surprise to many when feminists established one of the first organisations against the war on Ukraine and women began to take to the streets en masse and unite, using existing networks. But, if you think about it, this is a logical development of many years of trends and a tradition that is more than 100 years old. Today, there are several Russian women's and feminist organizations that have become an important part of the antiwar protest: "Soft Power", "Union of Mothers", the already mentioned "Feminist Anti-War Resistance" (I was lucky enough to be a member of the latter).

Although the end of this war and the fall of Putin's regime is still a long way off, it is already important to think about what lessons we shall learn from this tragedy. I am convinced that one of these lessons is the importance of understanding women's political and protesting power. Throughout the twentieth century, women engaged in informal and political networks, helped the vulnerable, organized mass anti-war demonstrations and were not afraid to speak out about their governments' crimes. It is time to stop seeing women as those who compensate for dysfunctional social institutions and lack of social support with their free labour and help bailing out in any crisis. Women want peace, but they also want to be heard, to have full political representation and to take control of their own destinies.