Russia: 'We were born in an arse-on-fire situation’

Language
English
Date
November 3, 2022
Author
Greenhouse
Tags
RU feminist
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How the Feminist Anti-War Resistance works

November 3--From the inside, FAS has four "helping" directing bodies: legal support on labour issues ("Anti-Foundation"), a psychological help unit, a unit for assisting Ukrainian refugees (deported and voluntary migrants), a unit for evacuation from the country, and an anti-war media and community unit. The media part of FAS, however, is also divided into units: decolonisation, propaganda and anti-war social networks, and the newspaper.

How does this complex system, built on sheer enthusiasm and hatred of violence, work?

Decolonisation--Sandyr

In the summer, 24-year-old Sandyr finished her studies in Moscow and took her first permanent job as a designer. Sandyr spent the first five days in her office living a “normal life”, but on Saturday she was searched, detained for two days and placed in solitary confinement. In her cell, Sandir cried for hours from exhaustion - it was the fourth time since the war began that she had been detained for 48 hours because of the “telephone terrorism” case. Her employer understood and asked Sandyr to leave the country, to become self-employed and to work remotely...

Sandyr joined FAS even before its public launch, when the movement was first conceived by the activists. She was first in charge of design and then in charge of the decolonisation agenda. The decolonisation agenda is one of the main ones, on a par with the anti-war agenda. FAS is against "discrimination against all nationalities and peoples of Russia on Russian territory, against forced Russification and disregard for local history and contexts.

Sandyr collected statements from Natsmen [abbreviation for “national minorities”] from all over the country through a bot - using the tag #voices_natsmen_ok. These emails were posted anonymously on FAS social media every day. For Sandyr, the topic of national identity is personal and important; she says that the Natsmen_ok letters often resonated with her history and feelings. “I was born in Udmurtia and started thinking a lot about my national and regional identity when I was 18. I didn't understand why I was labeled 'Russian' even though I have literally no Russian blood in me,” says Sandyr.

Together with another minority coordinator, Sandyr wrote the FAS "Natsmen_ok Manifesto". After all four detentions, Sandyr had to stop her referral work. "You come back from the detention centre and see that you have been removed from all chats. And so on, for several times. It's hard to fit back in," Sandyr recalls.

After the last search, she decided to leave Russia and is dealing with her relocation. "I never wanted to leave the country - and I don't want to now. I persuade and force myself. To leave Russia even for a year is impossible for me. What is it like to live without the possibility of flying North to my parents or to Udmurtia at any time?!"

The Anti-war community: inside and outside the country

It is easy enough to become part of FAS, just write to the bot and tell it what you want to help. FAS currently has 20 coordinators and several dozens of volunteers. Each "position" is clearly described:

  • Volunteer/ska - shares the values of FAS, helps the movement with professional skills;
  • activist/facilitator - deals with anti-war actions;
  • cell activist/facilitator - builds the work of the cell in her city;
  • coordinator/she supervises the work of a particular area.

Over time, roles can change, e.g. a volunteer/s can become a coordinator/s. This was the story of Anna.

Local organisation, Russian and abroad--Anna

Anna came to activism with the outbreak of war. On 6 March she was detained at a rally and given 13 days in jail. While sitting in a special detention centre, Anna decided that she would leave the country to speak out publicly against the war. “I wish I had the strength and courage to resist from Russia, but I am not a person who can be a partisan, hide in different flats and run from city to city. I left with the idea that I was doing it in order to do what I believe in,” Anna says.

In Yerevan, she joined the FAS cell and immersed herself in activism, organising rallies and events and getting to know activists from Armenia and other countries. The Yerevan chapter acts, among other things, as a self-help group for people who have emigrated. Anna and the other participants would meet once a week to discuss their worries and pain and to learn how to cope with the unexpected results of the move.

Anna then left Yerevan for Tbilisi and went from activist of the regional cell to coordinator of the whole international movement, which had recently spun off into a separate structure. Each cell is supported externally--Anna and the other coordinators/chairs help with networking, suggest meeting formats and pass on action proposals.

The FAS cells are active in Russia and abroad and work autonomously - the activists set the tasks themselves. Therefore, different cells work in very different ways - somewhere they are self-support groups like in Yerevan, elsewhere they are action teams and so on.

One of the main tasks of foreign cells is to carry out actions that cannot be done in Russia for security reasons. “It is important for us to connect the cells abroad with Russian activists who have ideas for actions and an understanding of the domestic Russian context,” explains Anna. Activists abroad do not just speak publicly on behalf of the emigrant community in a particular country but become the mouthpiece of the anti-war movement from Russia.

“In some countries, public actions either should not be held at all or should be held very carefully, taking into account the local context. For example, Armenia has its own war now, and actions that would be appropriate in many other countries are inappropriate there. Bloody art can retraumatise local residents who have been affected by the war,” Anna believes.

FAS has plans for its international branch to develop links with activists on the ground, to establish cooperation with Ukrainian and Belarusian feminist organisations and to strengthen their voices.

Russian cells operate according to their own security protocols and act anonymously: they post leaflets on how to avoid mobilisation, distribute the movement's newspaper Women's Truth and carry out guerrilla actions. The activists share their results via chat rooms or bots, like this: "This evening I distributed the sixth issue of your newspaper - I left it in various places in my town, mostly in courtyards, in little-visible nooks and crannies. This is not the first time I've done it, and it went much easier than the previous ones.”

In Russia, the cell format is not safe for budding activists. Over the summer, FAS launched a new format - the anti-war consciousness raising group, GRAS. “As activists we are well aware that the recommendation to ‘start an anti-war cell’ from scratch in conditions of fear, pressure, dictatorship is bad advice, it won't work that easily,” the movement's coordinators/speakers write in their methodology book.

The aim of such groups is to bring together people with anti-war views who cannot express themselves freely. The idea arose from requests from people in the bot - many wrote that they wanted to be helpful but had no experience of activism. “GRAS is only in Russia because there is an easier entry threshold than for a cell. It's not activism yet, but a kind of gathering of interests, where people, let's say in the kitchen, talk about what's happening in the country. This is how people find a foothold and support to become anti-war activists.  Many people only got into activism when the war started and do not know the safety rules, such as how the police work. GRAS groups can be seen as a stage on the way to the anti-war movement,” says FAS coordinator and activist Dasha Serenko.

There can be several such groups in one city and they won't know about each other's existence because each one unites only close acquaintances. For example, one of the groups grew out of a team of guys who got together to play board games and then learned about the GRAS format and started discussing anti-war topics and immersing themselves in activism.

Overall coordination--Yulia

Whereas in February FAS originated in a single chat room, by half a year of operation dozens of conversations and groups had emerged. The lack of structure not only complicated the work and confused the members of the movement but could also lead to information leaks. Julia, one of the coordinators, therefore set out to systematise the activities, describe and implement decision-making protocols.

In a few months Yulia, together with her colleagues, figured out all the subtleties of communication in each area and fixed the rules of work. Normally she works as a product manager in IT, but she joined FAS in March after seeing Dasha Serenko's post about recruiting people for the movement's team. “FAS is an organisation that was born in an arse-on-fire situation. For a very long time we worked spontaneously and on an adrenaline charge. Then it became clear that it was difficult without rules and regulations, and because of the high tempo, it's not easy for new people to get involved,” Yulia argues.

FAS positions itself as a decentralised horizontal movement. This means that all departments work autonomously, make decisions themselves and do not influence each other's work. The work of the directions is not coordinated “from above”, and transparency is achieved through open information and communication to all. Each line of business determines the frequency and timing of meetings - the date and time are entered into a shared calendar. Any call can be attended by participants from other strands and departments.

Now FAS has regulations: security, making meaningful decisions and new people, onboarding, communication in chats and on calls, interaction with volunteers inside Russia. In addition to the safety regulations, there are step-by-step instructions for participants on how to follow these recommendations, plus there are mandatory online safety training sessions. And the documents specify in which messaging programs it is possible to discuss issues. The most commonly used messenger in the movement is the anonymous messenger Element, with special instructions. Some topics can only be discussed in Element.

Every week, the coordinators have a general meeting, in which decisions are made about the work of the movement, such as strategy, and not a specific direction. For example, such a meeting was used to systematise the work and to set semi-annual goals for the movement. The work of the strands is not discussed without the request of a representative from the team.

All important decisions are made by consensus during the call, and if opinions are divided, a vote is taken in the coordination chat (necessarily with a deadline for voting). Decisions made are published in a special chat room - with a deadline before which the decision can be challenged. Decisions are also recorded in Trello and the general coordinator tasks for the week are also published there.

Beyond the activist bubble—Lena and Women’s Truth

“Only four people know that I make the paper,” says Lena, the editor of Zhenshaya Pravda (Women’s Truth). “I have closed social media, I do not write anything about the war publicly, but I contribute anonymously.”

One of FAS's main objectives is to expand its audience and reach beyond the activist bubble. And both informally and with anti-war campaigning. In May, FAS launched Women's Truth, the first issue was dedicated to May 9 and consisted of three pages. In addition to thematic stories, the issue included astrological forecasts, scandals and pop news. The issue continued with recipes, anecdotes, and interviews with “celebrities”. The number of pages increased with each issue.

Women's Truth appeared as a response to the blocking of independent media. While young people using a VPN could continue to read whatever they wanted, older people were cut off from the agenda. The design of the newspaper was deliberately made so that the layout would not be conspicuous and would not differ from district newspapers.

Women's Truth tries to write more simply, use humour and not be overly serious when talking about war. The materials do not try to forcibly change the reader's position - the authors write with respect for people, who are usually treated by the media with vulgarity and sloppiness. The jokes are reminiscent of the older generation's Odnoklassniki jokes.

“Women are shutting down, they don't want to hear anything about the war because there is less money and goods are getting more expensive. They are tired. So we talk about the war without talking about the war,” says editor Lena [name changed].

The newspaper, like the rest of the FAS team, is managed horizontally: there is no chief editor, and all decisions are taken collectively by the three co-editors. The layout is also decided collectively. The topics are distributed among the editorial staff and volunteer contributors.

“Colleagues from opposition media often wonder why we do not have an editor-in-chief. But the experience of working in a regular editorial office is very traumatic. Horizontal newsrooms are something new, we are just getting on this path. Maybe in the future this is the only way journalists will work. We have not had any conflicts during our work,"”says Yelena.

Once the newspaper is published, the most dangerous stage begins: FAS activists all over Russia print and distribute the newspaper to shops, letterboxes in doorways, clinics and playgrounds. Other campaign materials such as leaflets and stickers are also distributed in cities in the same way.

In addition, since the beginning of the war, FAS designers have been drawing anti-war postcards for Odnoklassniki and WhatsApp, and activists have been sending them out to older people.

Sasha—‘Thank you, you've helped keep me alive’

In mid-summer, Sasha Old Age, psycho-activist and creator of the Psychoactive project, found it hard to work and live. Sasha realised that she was burned out and contacted a psychological service, which she herself coordinated, at FAS. After seven sessions Sasha felt better and was able to continue her work with FAS.

With the outbreak of war psychological help became particularly important. Requests peaked in the first weeks after the announcement of the “special operation” and the publication of photos and videos from Bucha, as well as during the “partial mobilisation” period. The FAS psychology department appeared in early April - just after the world was shaken by the evidence of Russian military crimes in the Kyiv region.

The service initially existed in the form of face-to-face sessions with a psychologist, followed by support groups. In October, the area expanded to launch new support groups - for women whose loved ones have been taken away to war.

So far, the first trial group has been running. “Now that there is a mobilisation that everyone is subjected to, people come with anxiety and pain. It used to be a specific group - parents and wives of contract soldiers - who have little overlap with our audience. Now it's any mother, partner, wife,” says Sasha Old Age.

"A support group is not a weeping club. The purpose of such support is for people to feel unity with each other, to feel that they are not alone and can do something, to regain control of the situation,” continues the activist.

Now there are 10 volunteers on the bot and more than 40 psychologists working in the area. If you can find volunteers for psychological services quickly, then it is more difficult to find specialists--there is a constant shortage of them. There is a special bot to search for psychologists and volunteers in the field: @psy_far_bot.

“As we provide crisis assistance, we call on psychologists who are graduates of psychology departments and psychotherapists who are graduates of medical schools, with at least a year's experience. One day, a man came to us in a state of delirium, and if we didn't have a psychiatrist on the team who knew immediately what was wrong, we wouldn't have been able to deal with it,” explains Sasha Starost.

In order to cope with the flow of requests, the team began to follow schedules within the team to handle all requests. People in crisis are helped first, but others are helped as well. On average, everyone receives three psychological sessions each, but people with difficult circumstances or conditions are allowed to receive more sessions. The plan is to run lectures and produce more material on how to support themselves and their loved ones.

Unique

“FAS is a pretty unique thing,” said historian Sofia Shirogorova in an interview with Teplice.  “Because of the scorched political field, you can see that it is specifically a women's movement. During the Vietnam War, something similar appeared, American feminists were demonstrating, writing, but even then it wasn't as if their movements were the most visible [of the anti-war] movements.”

Despite this uniqueness, the founding activists are not keen on publicity and boasting about their achievements - on the contrary, they prefer to emphasise the anti-hierarchical nature of FAS. It remains to be seen how effective their methods of resistance will ultimately prove to be, but the style of interaction and mutual assistance itself is already an achievement and a model to follow in Russia, where violence pervades all collectives, from kindergartens to funeral parlours.

Edited DeepL translation from Greenhouse, journal of the Greenhouse of Social Technologies