November 19, 2022
For several days this month, about a dozen women gathered outside the headquarters of the Western Military District in St. Petersburg to urge the Russian military to live up to the government’s promise not to send draftees to the combat zone in Ukraine and in the Russian regions bordering Ukraine.
Each day, they waited five hours, but no one opened the doors to meet with the women or to receive their written appeal.
“No one is listening to us,” said Viktoria Sannikova, who traveled from the Siberian city of Tomsk to participate in the protest. “Our problems don’t interest them. We have been knocking on their doors for two months. This protest is an act of despair.”
Finally, on November 15, the doors of the headquarters swung open, and the women were ushered inside. They presented officials with nearly 100 letters and a collective appeal from the relatives of about 400 draftees who are currently serving in the western Belgorod region that says the men come under fire from Ukraine regularly and have suffered casualties.
Ever since Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, women have played leading rolls in the small anti-war movement that has emerged in Russia. After President Vladimir Putin decreed a military mobilization on September 21, public discontent with the war grew. However, men were less willing to protest publicly amid fears and reports that police were sending male detainees directly to the army. Women have increasingly come to dominate the protest movement, in part also because many men have fled the country or gone into hiding to avoid mobilization.
According to OVD-Info, a nongovernmental organization that monitors political repression in Russia, just over half of the 1,383 people detained at anti-mobilization protests nationally on September 21 were women. Of the 848 people detained at such protests on September 24, 71 percent were women. Protests in Daghestan, Tyva, Bashkortostan, and other regions were spearheaded by women.
A Reuters analysis published in October found that in the early weeks after the February invasion, at least 30 percent of those charged with protesting the war were women, compared to 11 percent of those facing political-protest charges in 2021 and 6 percent in 2019.
‘No Military Training At All’
In the Volga region city of Ulyanovsk, a group of women — the wives of men called up during the mobilization, which was declared completed on November 1 — gathered in front of a military building on November 11 to demand their husbands be withdrawn from the combat zone. The men, they say, have been given almost no relevant training and their preexisting health problems have been exacerbated since their call-up.
“People are afraid of letting their loved ones down,” said Tatyana, the wife of a mobilized man from Ulyanovsk who asked that her identity be concealed for fear of repercussions. “I didn’t participate in [the November 11] protest myself…. I was organizing written appeals.
“But we got a response from the Ulyanovsk military prosecutor’s office,” she added. “I got the impression they hadn’t even read our appeals. They wrote that there have been no complaints — apparently my husband is in the hospital for no reason.”
Her husband, Tatyana said, was willing to be mobilized and even appeared before the recruiting commission voluntarily, but he requested a deferral because he was being treated for complex dental problems.
“There was no military training at all,” she said. “They didn’t even go to the firing range here in Ulyanovsk once. They spent a week doing drill training, and then he spent a week in the hospital.”
“He filed a request for a medical deferral,” she told RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities. “In the request, he explained that he was in the hospital — and he wasn’t alone there…. He filed the request repeatedly — on October 8, 10, and 12…. But the prosecutor says there have been no complaints.”
Demanding Peace Talks
Olga Tsukanova is the mother of a 20-year-old draftee from the Astrakhan region who participated in the St. Petersburg protests. She said officials have twice tried to send her son to Ukraine and have pressured him repeatedly to sign a volunteer contract, but they have successfully resisted these efforts so far.
“He is an ordinary civilian,” Tsukanova said. “I understood that if I don’t do something quickly, he would be transformed from a draftee into a contract soldier in order to participate in the ‘special military operation.’ … They are constantly pushing him, pressuring him. Every day a colonel or some other officer comes and pressures them to sign contracts.”
She said that in September her son was out of contact for a number of days. When she called his unit, she was told he was undergoing “psychological testing.”
“When I understood that something was up, I began calling and they told me that my son was on the list to be deployed,” she said. “I told them that he was a draftee, and they said he would sign a contract voluntarily and join the ‘special operation.’ So I began sending appeals everywhere, including the Defense Ministry. And it must have had some effect because they didn’t send him.”
Tsukanova added that she believes none of the soldiers in her son’s unit have been sent to the combat zone, possibly out of desire to avoid “scandals” because of the growing protests against the deployment of draftees.
“But I don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” she concluded, adding that she worries that as soon as his conscription period expires, he will immediately be mobilized for additional service. “I only have one son. What else do I have to lose?”
Tsukanova’s experience with her own son led her to become a co-founder of an informal Council of Soldiers’ Mothers and Wives, which regularly sends appeals to Putin and military officials.
“We demand that councils of mothers and wives in every city be allowed to inspect military units where mobilization is being implemented to find out if they are being trained properly and if medical commissions have been established,” she said. “We are also demanding the beginning of peace talks. Or at least that the president moves in that direction instead of threatening the whole world with the use of dirty bombs.”
She added that her organization had conducted online meetings with participants from every region of Russia. They communicate through closed social-media groups, primarily on Telegram. Since the mobilization decree was signed, she said the group had stepped up its campaign of protests and appeals, which are generally ignored by the authorities.
“I don’t have any hopes regarding officials,” she said. “My only hope is the people — that they will organize themselves and achieve some result…. Our appeals are necessary to force officials to do something and to prove to them that people are watching them. I am convinced we will achieve something.”
In Ulyanovsk, Tatyana said her efforts to protest her husband’s treatment had left her “disenchanted with our country.”
“We have no laws — rather, they don’t work,” she said. “I have the feeling that we don’t live in a modern society, but in the Middle Ages. All of my appeals are ignored. When I ask for help, I’m told to keep quiet and wait for everything to pass.”
“I have the feeling that the world is falling apart, and I have no idea what will happen next,” she said.