Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, women have been at the forefront of Russia’s anti-war movement. Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR) has successfully rallied women across the country and declared itself a new political force. EUvsDisinfo spoke to FAR coordinator Liliia Vezhevatova about the role of feminism n times of war and how the group is working to break the “information blockade” in Russia. It’s clear that resistance won’t stop the war, but it can hasten its end by working with Russian citizens, including by providing them with information about what’s really happening.
Source — EUvsDiSiNFO — August 21, 2023 —
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The Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR) movement was established on 25 February, 2022, one day after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. How was the movement born?
Liliia Vezhevatova: The movement was indeed established the day after the full-scale invasion began. We sent out a call on our channels to other feminist organisations based across Russia. We understood that we needed to work, to somehow push back against what was happening. We were all shocked but we managed to quickly mobilise. We published our manifesto on 25 February, 2022, and within a month, it was translated into a number of foreign languages, including English and French.
How did we manage to mobilise so quickly? In reality, feminist self-organisation existed in Russia before the war. There were numerous small feminist organisations and individual activists in cities across Russia, and we closely worked together and discussed issues. However, we had never been taken seriously and this is why, by 2022, we had not been disbanded, imprisoned, or forced out of the country. Unlike many other opposition figures who were already abroad or imprisoned, we remained free, and we were able to very quickly unite and establish ourselves as a political force.
What does your manifesto contain, what are the main goals of your movement?
Liliia Vezhevatova: In the manifesto, we state that feminism always opposes militarism as one of the main manifestations of patriarchy. Feminists are against war, against militarism, because war — apart from being a great tragedy — hits the most vulnerable people, women, and children, regardless of which side of the front they are.
We write that we do not support Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, and we call on feminist organisations and groups to unite and oppose the war by all possible means.
The second important task, as described in the manifesto, is to break the information blockade. In Russia, sources of independent information are blocked, military censorship has been introduced, and propaganda is operating at full capacity. We needed to fight this, we saw it as one of our tasks.
It’s clear that resistance won’t stop the war, but it can hasten its end by working with Russian citizens, including by providing them with information about what’s really happening. The manifesto states that we hold anti-imperialist, anti-colonial positions and call on everyone who agrees with the main principles of our manifesto to join our work and our resistance.
How can feminism help Russians unite against the war, and what is the connection between feminism and war?
Liliia Vezhevatova: The connection is direct and immediate: women and children are the first to suffer from war. In wartime, all existing problems are exacerbated. Men returning from combat zones often arrive psychologically and physically traumatized, and all of this burden falls on women. It’s generally women, for instance, who take care of and support men who have become disabled. The mental traumas that men develop during combat often manifest themselves as crimes linked to domestic violence, primarily against women and children.
Poverty is already a problem chiefly affecting women and children. When a country is at war, as Russia is now, there is an economic downturn, the overall living conditions worsen, and those who were already impoverished become even poorer.
Feminists had been addressing all these issues long before the war. We were pushing for a law criminalising domestic violence. We also addressed issues related to children’s and women’s poverty, to reproductive justice and health for women. In Russia, the situation actually wasn’t too bad in this regard, but since 2022 we have seen that significant restrictions are slowly but surely being imposed. Russian authorities explain this by claiming that our population is small, that we need more people to combat, so let’s ban abortion and women will make more babies. This is another connection between feminism and war.
When, and in which circumstances, did you decide to join FAR?
Liliia Vezhevatova: I joined FAR early on, in March 2022, and I started speaking publicly on behalf of FAR when I moved to Armenia. I was living in St. Petersburg, and we started participating in protests as soon as 24-25 February, There were arrests, and at some point my lawyer advised me to either go to court with my stuff or take measures not to be sent there by force. Two days later, we were in Armenia. I also faced intersectional discrimination because I have a same-sex family, and we have a child. Against the backdrop of the laws that were passed in the first months of the war, all this prompted me to leave Russia and join FAR. Before FAR, I was involved in LGBT activism. I started activism when I was still living in Novosibirsk in 2012, and gradually my convictions brought me from LGBT activism to feminist activism. The next logical step was to join the Feminist Anti-War Resistance.
Concretely, what actions and support does FAR organise, and to what extent is activism still possible in Russia today?
Liliia Vezhevatova: FAR is currently engaged in various areas of work. One of our most sought-after activities in Russia is our psychological support service. We have qualified volunteer psychologists who provide free support to activists and people facing repression or persecution due to their anti-war stance.
We also publish a samizdat newspaper titled “Women’s Truth,” I’m its managing editor. The newspaper is aimed at older women. Its slogan is “an independent anti-war samizdat newspaper that you don’t feel ashamed showing mothers and grandmothers.” We work with those who are outside our bubble, those who might have been to some extent poisoned by propaganda. It’s an attempt to engage in dialogue without accusations or insults, to talk to people who make up a significant portion of the country’s population and a substantial support base of our government. Our newspaper is distributed guerrilla-style: it’s designed to be printable on a home printer, people print it out, place it in public areas, and share it with their mothers and grandmothers. The content is written in a way that makes it difficult to be targeted by certain laws. For instance, we don’t write about the fighting, so we’re not violating the law against discrediting the army. We primarily cover social topics, how the war affects the lives of ordinary middle-aged women and their families.
At this stage, we see our main goal as preparing a base that can be activated and that can act as a force when the time comes. We prevent people from falling into despair, from feeling alone and unable to change anything. We offer them various formats: gathering in small groups, with friends, discussing, taking action. We aim to gradually involve these people, to create small cells throughout the country, and to progressively build an anti-war community.
Another aspect of our work is raising awareness in the field of physical and cyber security. We constantly provide instructions on how to evade camera surveillance, what measures to take when distributing stickers or leaflets to avoid making it easier for authorities.
Another strand of FAR’s work is decolonisation. We support regional and national initiatives within the country, we collaborate with them, assist them in their work, provide contacts, support fundraising efforts, and highlight local and national agenda issues.
There is also the activity of our international cells in different countries. Abroad, we can express ourselves more openly and engage in actions. We aim for our cells to unite, conduct actions across Europe, and participate in all actions in support of Ukraine.
Let’s briefly return to the topic of war and propaganda. Various polls show that over 80% of Russians support the war. What do you think about these polls, what is the real level of war support in Russia today?
Liliia Vezhevatova: Well, let’s start with the polls saying 126% support Putin. No, these polls cannot be trusted. They couldn’t be trusted before the war, and with the onset of the war and the tightening of repressive legislation, they are even less trustworthy. When you are asked whether you support the war or want to spend 15 years in prison, the answer is obvious. There are independent teams of sociologists who try to gather alternative information, and according to their data, there is a growing weariness of the war among Russian people. This speaks less of support for the war than of the increasing number of people who want this war to end. These people can’t be said to hold explicitly anti-war or anti-regime positions, but they need to be encouraged to adopt such positions. The number of people who don’t support the war but who are not yet ready to identify as anti-war activists is growing.
Why is there still a relatively high number of people in Russia supporting the war? Because propaganda is effective, and while we may laugh at the absurd stories people are told, the problem is that it works. In people’s minds, Putin, the war with Ukraine, and patriotism have become associated. People believe these are inseparable, that you cannot be a patriot if you don’t support the war. But we believe you can’t be a patriot if you support the war, because this war is also destructive for Russia. Not to the same extent as for Ukraine, of course – Ukraine is the victim here, what’s happening to Ukrainians is horrific. But I’m a citizen of Russia, and I can’t ignore the destructive consequences for Russia, too. War is a disaster for everyone.
I wouldn’t say that a huge number of people in Russia support the bombing of cities or absolutely barbaric acts, including those targeting Ukraine’s cultural heritage. But people are told that these things aren’t happening, that the Russian military only targets military facilities, that our army is honourable and that civilians in Ukraine are not suffering. People in Russia who watch television are in an information blockade. Our task is to ensure that information reaches them.
In just 18 months, FAR has become one of Russia’s most active and visible anti-war movements. How did FAR achieve this in such a short amount of time?
Liliia Vezhevatova: The demand for unity has long existed. People already had their perception of those who were engaged in opposition and political activities in Russia, each of these actors already had their own audience. When we emerged and said that we are willing to unite with different people around a common cause, that it’s time to join forces and the rest can be figured out later, we met this demand for unity. After Navalny was imprisoned and his headquarters were disbanded, there was no major political force left in Russia that dared to speak out and oppose the regime. That’s when we emerged, very quickly, unexpectedly, and brightly.
Another reason is that we offer a wide range of support formats and when people accept our help, they become involved in our activities. We found the strength, the competencies, and enough people to create and quickly launch a great number of projects. We are bright, vibrant women who aren’t afraid to speak up. And we work a lot.
What does FAR’s success in Russia mean to you, and does this success give you hope for the future?
Liliia Vezhevatova: Since one of my main projects in FAR is “Women’s Truth,” a sign of success for me is the number of reports from activists in Russia who send photos of how they printed and distributed the newspaper. This tells me that my work isn’t done in vain and is bringing tangible benefits.
On Telegram, we have an anonymous bot where people write us all kinds of different messages, and we often see messages along these lines: “Thank you for existing, because you don’t let us lose hope in this life, in this world, it gives the feeling that someone else is still trying to resist.” For me, this is a significant indicator of the importance and need for our work.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Liliia Vezhevatova: I only wish to voice a plea to European audiences not to believe that there is no resistance in Russia, not to succumb to rhetoric that generalises and dehumanises Russians. To support organisations that help Ukrainians, but also those that help Russians fight against repression. To support political prisoners. We really need help, we really need people to believe in us.
Also see: « La résistance n’arrêtera pas la guerre, mais elle peut en accélérer la fin » (2023-0821)