Mobilized Soldiers’ Wives Against Putin
December 1, 2023
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Visiting researcher, German Institute for International and Security Affairs
    (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik)
Political scientist Nikolai Petrov looks at the protest movement of women demanding that their husbands who were mobilized in September 2022 be brought home. Ahead of the presidential elections, the Kremlin appears to have no easy way out of the situation.
The wife of a mobilized soldier in Moscow picketing alone, November 2023. The poster says: “Give children back their fathers!” Source: VK
It looks like Putin has a serious problem ahead of his reelection next year. While the Ministry of Justice is fighting the fictitious “international LGBT social movement,” a real movement, made up of mobilized soldiers’ wives, has formed and is growing in Russia, representing the main risk for the regime today.

Wives as a political force

A year after the partial mobilization was announced on September 22, 2022, and six months before the 2024 presidential elections, a wave of appeals and protests by the wives of mobilized soldiers to bring their husbands home has swept across the country. The women believe that their husbands have “repaid their debt to the Motherland” in full. “They have already given so much to the Motherland that it will never be able to repay [them],” as they write on their Telegram channel Put’ domoi (“the way home”). They say, have others go to Ukraine: the siloviki, migrants who have taken Russian citizenship, other men liable for service – who number, according to Shoigu, almost 25 million.

A sense of injustice also fuels their indignation: after spending six months at the front, criminals recruited in prisons come back, sometimes as heroes, and are legally “rehabilitated,” while the one-year term of service for conscripts has not changed, and the men who were mobilized in September last year remain at the front.

The movement arose spontaneously and lacks structure. It is based on local chat groups that arose during the mobilization, when the wives discussed problems with equipment, etc.

Since the spring of 2023, relatives of soldiers from the Bring the Boys Home (Vernyom rebyat) association, worried about their physical and mental state, began to contact the authorities with requests to grant the men leave or have them replaced. In response, they got the runaround. Then, members of the association began to create their own small groups. Currently, the Put’ domoi Telegram channel has published links to chats in 29 cities, though not all of them are active.

The authorities tried to nip in the bud attempts by mobilized soldiers’ mothers and wives to join forces. In January 2023, Olga Tsukanova, the founder of the Council of Mothers and Wives, which included relatives of mobilized men and conscripts, was detained at the airport when she was going to submit complaints from 700 mothers of captured and missing Russian soldiers to the prosecutor’s office. In July, Tsukanova, along with the Council of Mothers and Wives, was put on the “foreign agents” register, and the organization now ceases to exist.

In September, requests to bring mobilized soldiers home visibly spread, as seen in videos with the leaders of Rostov, Belgorod, Leningrad, Kaliningrad and Saratov regions on social media.
“The governors were bombarded with demands for the demobilization of soldiers who had been at the front for almost a year already.”
In November, pickets were held in a number of regions, including the city of Moscow. (The protesters tried to organize rallies, but they were banned everywhere: in Moscow, St Petersburg, Krasnoyarsk and elsewhere.) In Moscow, “wives” joined a KPRF rally on November 7. In Novosibirsk on November 19, officials, having banned a rally, held a closed meeting with mobilized soldiers’ wives.

After this, similar protests began to be organized throughout the country.

‘They screwed us and they will screw you too’

From petitions the spontaneous movement began to quickly morph into a more radical and politicized protest. Many protest movements went through the same evolution in previous years – for example, the environmental protest to save the Khimki Forest from developers in 2011 and the movement against landfills – but now everything is happening much faster.

At first, the appeals were addressed to President Putin, the Ministry of Defense, Duma deputies, Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova and regional leaders. Then more and more to the Kremlin and Putin. But the appeal issued on November 12, entitled “Our Manifesto,” is now addressed to the “multinational people of Russia.” With this manifesto, the most radical in the movement of mobilized soldiers’ wives became openly anti-regime and essentially anti-war.

The formulation from the manifesto that “a country is, first of all, people, and not abstract interests used by officials to hide behind” represents a fundamental ideological divergence with the regime. The individual is declared the main goal, while for the Kremlin the individual is a resource that is to be supported by the state to achieve geopolitical aims. In this sense, the movement of mobilized soldiers’ wives is also a threat to the ideological foundations of the regime.

The manifesto is written politically astutely and emotionally. The phrase “they screwed us and they will screw you too” was bound to attract attention.

The wives are not going to the president with a humble request; they are issuing an appeal to their fellow citizens: “here and now we are laying the foundation of social solidarity against indefinite mobilization. And we are appealing to everyone for help.” The women are asking people to support their just demands, appealing to both emotions and common interests: “we not only long to free our loved ones, but also want to carve out minimum legal guarantees for EVERYONE.” Indeed, some observers have noted the professional style of the appeal.

The manifesto ends with the phrase, “we hope the President will hear our concerns,” but before that the authors sarcastically recall the Kursk tragedy and Putin’s infamous “it sank” remark, the callousness of which offended many, as well as his promise given in the first days after the invasion of Ukraine that reservists would not be sent to fight in the special operation, which turned out to be a lie.

“The President declared 2024 the year of the family,” the manifesto says, “which is ironic, considering that wives are weeping without their husbands, children are growing up without their fathers, and many are already orphans.”
The bitter criticism is reserved not only for Putin, but the entire regime: the state has turned its back on those who were the first to heed its call for help.
United Russia Deputy Mikhail Stelmakh meeting with the mother of a serviceman. Lobnya, Moscow Region, November 2023. Source: VK
The manifesto talks about the duty of citizens to defend their Motherland; however, something else is more important: “we are offering the Russian world [russkii mir], but what did it turn out to be? It seems that we took a wrong turn somewhere. The question is: can we still get off the road?”

The Kremlin’s reaction

This looks like a no-win situation for the Kremlin both in substance and in form.

Offers of new benefits, money (there have been reports in the Russian media that the Kremlin is suggesting that governors “pay off” the protesting relatives of mobilized soldiers) and help with getting children education are not working very well – women are demanding that their husbands be brought back, having realized that every additional day at the front is another risk that their husbands will come back as “Cargo 200.”

The authorities cannot use harsh police measures against the wives of combatants – they cannot disperse them with batons. And the police are unlikely to do that even if they received the order. Just recall the protests by mothers in Dagestan during the mobilization last year, when the police failed to intimidate them.

Though currently citizens look at the protesting women with silent sympathy, in the event of attempts at harsh suppression, will indifference be replaced by solidarity – as was the case in December 2013 on the Maidan in Kyiv, where harsh measures were used against protesting young people?

The usual methods for the Kremlin – persuasion, “muzzling,” intimidation – do not work against mobilized soldiers’ wives, because it is the lives of husbands and sons at stake, and the women who have decided to speak out openly are ready to go to the end.

Appeals and protests from wives and mothers are spontaneous and happening in many cities: Moscow, St Petersburg, Voronezh, Kemerovo, Krasnoyarsk, across Leningrad region, Nalchik, Novokuznetsk, Novosibirsk, Rostov-on-Don, Cheboksary and Chelyabinsk, among others. Of course, they are more visible in big cities, where the number of participants is obviously larger.

No one is organizing the protests “from above;” they do not have any headquarters making decisions, which makes it difficult for the authorities to deal with them. So far, the Kremlin is being helped by the fact that the mobilization announced last September affected major cities to a lesser extent, and the provinces to a much greater extent. Back then, the authorities were seeking to minimize resistance to and the costs of mobilization.

It’s as if gunpowder has been scattered across the country. And everything can go up like a forest fire.

The authorities cannot make individual concessions by bringing certain people home – this would only strengthen the resolve of other women. They cannot let everyone go either, as this would require a new mass mobilization, which, for political reasons, is impossible before the elections.

In September, Duma Defense Committee Chair Andrei Kartapolov did not leave mobilized soldiers’ relatives hope for their imminent return: “they will come home after the completion of the special military operation. No rotation is envisaged.”

Meanwhile, the General Staff, after a request by Children’s Rights Ombudsman Maria Lvova-Belova, explained that it is impossible to set a term of service for mobilized soldiers owing to the stretched resources of the Ministry of Defense, along with concern for mobilized soldiers’ families themselves. “If the term of service of those called up under the mobilization is restricted, a radical change in the training system for military personnel will be needed, requiring significant time and effort, which the Russian Armed Forces do not have in the context of the special military operation.” The General Staff’s response also states that if a term of service is set for mobilized soldiers, their status will change, meaning they will receive a salary of only R 2,000 a month. “This will lead to a catastrophic drop in the income of families of called-up military personnel and increased social tension.”
The Kremlin needs the mobilized soldiers at the front to keep fighting, and it does not want them back in Russia.
Local administration head Olga Khaeva visiting the family of a mobilized soldier. Magadan Region, November 2023. Source: VK
Today, a large part of Russian society is trying to go on without noticing the war, but demobilized soldiers would inevitably bring back a real picture of what is happening at the front. Moreover, the prospect of the practices and psychology developed during the bloody conflict taking root in Russia is fraught with serious problems.

This already-challenging situation for the Kremlin is exacerbated by the elections. Preparations for them are in full swing; the slogans and programs are already ready. Though Putin’s reelection bid has not been officially announced, he has already begun campaign-style performances – the meeting of the World Russian People’s Council on November 28 was a striking example – and mobilized soldiers’ wives are ruining it. The fact that the protesters are not part of the liberal opposition, are not enemies of the regime, but flesh and blood of Putin’s electorate, makes the situation even tougher.

Talking with the disaffected, especially with desperate women who have lost loved ones, is a task that the authorities cannot cope with. The most striking example was, of course, the mothers of Beslan, who could not be appeased, deceived or intimidated, and who even today, almost 20 years later, continue to seek a fair investigation into the tragedy.

And what can officials talk about with women who demand that their relatives be brought home? A year ago, while meeting with the mothers of soldiers, Putin once again showed his inability to empathize with them, one of whom had just lost a son: “some people live and some do not – we do not know [why]; and how they go, because of vodka or something else – we do not know… your son had a life, you know? He achieved a goal. This means that he did not leave this world in vain… his life turned out important, he achieved something in life, moreover something that he had strived for.”

The Kremlin in zugzwang

Until recently, the “purchase” of cannon fodder – with generous compensation for going to Ukraine and big payments to the families of victims – allowed the authorities to ensure relative social stability, despite the massive losses, though this deal has gradually broken down. In their manifesto, the mobilized soldiers’ wives declare: “they are trying to shut us up with payments and benefits... But when it comes to putting a price on the life of a loved one, I want to tear apart anyone who dares to make such a disgusting offer.”

The characteristics of the protests – women-led, widespread, spontaneous, without a hierarchical organization but with numerous horizontal structures – puts the Kremlin in zugzwang. Any move will lead to a bad outcome for the authorities, and it is impossible to play for time because of the elections.

We will see whether the Kremlin can find the least bad way out of this situation during Putin’s yearly call-in show on December 14.
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