Why they won’t rebel against the war that kills their men.
January 20, 2024
By Anastasia Edel, a writer and social historian
Russian women have, shockingly, embraced the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine despite the heavy toll it exerts on their men.
Though Russia doesn’t disclose casualties, they are mounting. Scores of new graves housing the remains of “heroes” are popping up across the country as the labor ministry requests certificates for families of the deceased by the hundreds of thousands. While the state heaps praise on these men in death, in life it seems to view them as disposable. Russian officials have made this abundantly clear, repetitive to the point of cliché: “Women will give birth to more.”
Despite standing to lose so much, the wives, mothers, sisters, and girlfriends of Russian soldiers have largely nodded along with the Kremlin’s moribund determination to grind down their men. They weep at makeshift memorials to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the late chief of the paramilitary Wagner Group. They show little gender allegiance to the women of their former sister republic. Some are actually proud of their “defenders,” egging them on to rape Ukrainian women should they get the chance. In packed concert halls across the country, girls sing along ecstatically to “Ya Russky” (“I am Russian”), the country’s new patriotic anthem. Their faces soften the song’s promises to “fight to the end” and “spite the whole world.” That seems to be the point.
Russian womanhood, routinely held up in the country’s lore as a paragon of strength, patience, and sacrifice, is now functionally a cover-up for the crimes of Russia’s men. Two of Russia’s most notorious propagandists, Margarita Simonyan of Russia Today and Olga Skabeyeva of the Russia-1 television channel, are such women, as is Maria Zakharova, the boorish spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Beneath them lurk less prominent figures with important platforms. There’s Putin’s Brigades, a motley crew of activist grandmothers who have abandoned their communal yard benches to rally the masses for President Vladimir Putin and his war. They call on U.S. President Joe Biden to stop “NATO’s war against Russia” and on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to surrender. The Project in Red Dresses, which is supported by an organization run by one of Putin’s relatives, mobilizes women across Russian towns. Draped in red, they waltz through public spaces, seeking to both boost women’s confidence and unite Russians around their leader.
Women support the war effort in other ways, too. Back in my hometown, my mother’s acquaintances are knitting camouflaging nets for Russian troops and teaching children how to make trench candles to send to the battlefield. Schoolteachers—the majority of whom are women—are now responsible for children’s patriotic upbringing. In the state-mandated weekly class “Conversations about important things,” teachers disseminate Kremlin-approved talking
points and rally support for the war among children as young as kindergarteners—lining them in Z-formations, organizing visits and weapons demonstrations from “defenders of the motherland,” and even engaging children to help produce those weapons. Teachers who disagree with the war or try to get out of this duty are denounced—often by other women—and subsequently fired or forced to quit.
Women haven’t always been so compliant with the state’s agenda. In 1917, they famously took to the streets to protest food shortages and the monarchy, sparking the strike that eventually triggered the Russian Revolution. More recently, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia was instrumental in pressuring then-President Boris Yeltsin to end his war on Chechnya in 1996.
Nearly two years of Russian carnage in Ukraine, however, have produced mostly acts of individual heroism. For instance, Channel One Russia employee Marina Ovsyannikova made an on-air appeal to viewers not to believe the state’s lies about the war. The artist Sasha Skochilenko swapped supermarket labels with messages about Russia’s crimes in Ukraine. These acts did not go unpunished: The former has since fled the country, while the latter was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Subversive performance art, once a tool of female dissent, is no more. After serving prison terms for their anti-Putin anthems, members of the feminist band Pussy Riot are now in exile, raising money to support the Ukrainian military. These days, the mere suspicion of “radical feminism” can land one in prison. Playwright Svetlana Petriychuk and theater director Yevgenia Berkovich, the duo behind an award-winning play about Russian women who married Islamic State fighters, were accused of “justifying terrorism” and were jailed in May 2023.
Women are now more likely to spend their energy on procuring fake medical certificates to excuse their sons and husbands from war than on resistance of any kind. Those who privately disagree with the war—their number is anyone’s guess—keep the sentiment to themselves. But their personal hesitations have sparked nothing remotely political, let alone a challenge to Putin’s willingness to wage war.
It is hard to say how much of the population’s 70 percent approval rate for the war is driven by fear, propaganda, or ignorance, but one thing is clear: Since the start of the invasion, the already-malfunctioning Russian moral compass has broken irrevocably. Designated to reproduce life, women now must participate in Putin’s show of death.
Seeing their men off to some kind of calamity has long been considered part of the bargain of Russian womanhood. The movies of my adolescence, which coincided with the last decade of the Soviet Union, featured countless examples of men marching off to fight our enemies—World War II, World War I, the civil war, the Napoleonic wars, the Mongol invasion, the Viking raids. In literature class, I memorized the monologues of wounded heroes; during choir lessons, I sang sad ballads with titles like “Goodbye, Boys,” begging soldiers sent to war “to come back alive.” This proposition wasn’t theoretical: My male classmates faced a real prospect of being drafted into the Soviet-Afghan War upon graduation. After that war, there were others; even during the post-totalitarian 1990s, war was never absent from the public’s mind. Someone, somewhere, was
always waiting for “our boys”—the absolving way in which Russia routinely refers to its soldiers—to return.
While the boys were hailed as heroes, the options available for girls and women were less inspired. In a patriarchal society, like Russia and the Soviet Union before it, there are few acceptable female archetypes during times of war. Motherhood is one. In the Soviet era, it was epitomized in Mother Heroine, an honorary title awarded to women who bore and raised 10 or more children. Introduced under Joseph Stalin in 1944 to address the massive population loss during World War II, Mother Heroine codified the Soviet woman’s primary duty as the producer of manpower, a resource to be used at the state’s discretion.
After providing children for the state, the Soviet woman’s task was then to galvanize them into fighting for it. At the site of the Battle of Stalingrad, there is a colossal statue of a woman brandishing a sword, titled The Motherland Calls. At 279 feet, she is the tallest woman in the world, perpetually summoning her countrymen to battle. The Motherland Warrior, as we might call her, reminds citizens that their motherland is under threat and then assures them of the righteousness of any war fought in its defense.
Women under war were also encouraged to share its burden on the battlefield. In Soviet books and movies about World War II, women were often comrades-in-arms. Female sharpshooters killed Nazi officers, blew up German trains, and suffered Gestapo torture without shedding a tear. Though she fought alongside men, the Comrade-in-Arms still carried the emotional responsibilities of womanhood: She cared for the wounded and inspired them to commit more acts of heroism, just like their Mother Heroines did from the home front.
Between wars, women were equal partners in delivering on the state’s agenda, whether harvesting fields on collective farms or laying the bricks of the great construction projects of communism. In the iconic Moscow statue, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, a man and woman put this partnership on display, holding up a hammer and sickle triumphantly as they labor together toward the building of the socialist state. This gender equality, however, was less the product of idealism than economic necessity: Soviet leaders had to conscript every resource available to compensate for the flaws of their planned economy.
These archetypes, defined and promoted by the state, were meant to carve out and assign value to women’s roles in Soviet society. The reality behind them, however, was far less glorious.
The equal partner’s experience, for instance, did not feel very equal. Though women were emancipated by the revolution and encouraged to labor alongside men, their contributions were not rewarded with political power. Only four women ever breached the ranks of the Politburo, the highest communist body of political power; their prospects at the local level were similarly bleak. Beyond poster cases like sending a woman to space, an average Soviet woman’s celebrated equality mostly amounted to the double burden of work and household duties.
Nor could those state-imposed archetypes override the informal but pervasive attitude that women were the “weak sex”; this sealed their inferior position in society. From childhood, girls were groomed to compete for men by looking pretty, excelling at housework, and guarding their
fertility (“Don’t sit on cold surfaces—you’ll freeze your ovaries!” our mothers, schoolteachers, and concerned strangers instructed.). In the lighter Soviet movies, even imaginary women who held positions in high society pined for marriage and children. Female intelligence was viewed as a handicap. A smart woman was a woman who didn’t know her place, a criticism that dogged Mikhail Gorbachev’s obviously smart wife, Raisa Gorbacheva, throughout his political career. In marriage, patience and self-sacrifice were considered the highest virtues, as demonstrated by the wives of the Decembrists, the 19th-century aristocratic women who voluntarily followed their husbands to Siberian exile in the aftermath of the failed uprising.
In the provincial town where I grew up, little respect existed between genders. In divorce, which was common, men’s infidelities, drinking, and beatings were often sheltered under the legal euphemism of “irreconcilable differences.” In the street, catcalling women and grabbing their bodies were the norm. Three of my close friends had their first sexual encounter in the form of rape. All three assaulters were boys we knew: our boys. My friends never reported the crime, unwilling to add societal condemnation to the despair they suffered in private. There were only so many ways to be a woman in the Soviet Union, and a victim was not one of them.
Perestroika, the period of liberalization started by Gorbachev in the mid-1980s, brought real rather than proclaimed agency to Soviet women. Shaken by the unfolding collapse of the socialist economy, most women had to concentrate on pulling their families out of financial ruin and had little time to spare for politics. But not all. Though they were still exceptions in the male-dominated political scene, several female trailblazers rose up during this time. Political dissident Valeria Novodvorskaya, who lived through decades of arrests and forced psychiatric treatments for protesting the Soviet regime, created the country’s first non-communist party, Democratic Union, effectively breaking the one-party state system. Galina Starovoytova, a democratic politician and advocate of ethnic minorities’ right to independence, became one of the most recognizable faces of the Gorbachev-Yeltsin era, as did journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who rose to the top of the largely male profession with her human rights activism and fearless coverage of the Chechen wars.
The 1990s, a decade of relative freedom ushered in by perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union, proved insufficient to revert Russia’s bend toward patriarchy. Gender equality is an expression of freedom, and Putin liked control. It didn’t help that both Starovoytova and Politkovskaya were assassinated, or that Novodvorskaya, among the first to ring the alarm on Putin, was repeatedly labeled “dem-shiza,” or “democratic schizophrenic.”
As Putin gradually retooled the country into an autocracy, he hijacked the ever-present fear of war lingering in a nation that had seen its men mowed down by the millions and painted it not only as inevitable but honorable. In his endless military spectacles, women in period combat nurse costumes marched alongside Topol missiles, walking reincarnations of Soviet-era war film stereotypes. Their cheery presence lent an air of legitimacy to the state’s escalating violence.
Putin wrapped sexism in dated chivalry rituals, like flowers “for the beautiful sex” (as women are often referred to in Russia) sprung on female politicians. Crude sexual jokes and rape talk, previously taboo in public discourse, were now gamely dispensed by Russia’s man in charge,
met with laughter and applause in return. The international community may have been aghast in 2022 when Putin quoted an obscene Soviet-era punk rock lyric about raping a sleeping woman to explain his demands for Ukraine: “Whether you like it or not, bear with it, my beauty.” But in Russia, this phrase is familiar, quoted by men and women. In a society built on violence, revolutionary or otherwise, a woman always loses.
There is no obvious end in sight to this regression. The war in Ukraine has hastened the post-perestroika narrowing of paths available to Russian women, and their value is once again defined by their compliance with the war effort.
Today, even mothers and wives demanding the return of their sons mobilized to fight in Ukraine often start by avowing their support for Putin’s war; many simply insist on replacing their men, who paid their dues, with others. The promise of the equal partner is also fading: In wartime, putting their careers first is not a viable option for most women. The longer the war goes on, the less funding will be available to health care and education, sectors that traditionally employ women, as money is redirected to industries that more tangibly support the war effort. The GDP boost from increased military spending will be offset by Western economic sanctions, so women planning business careers may have to reconsider how they spend their time.
As abortion restrictions expand, there are now few legal offramps available from the path of motherhood, and aspiring career women will instead have to make do with the task of raising and educating future soldiers—an occupation they are encouraged to start shortly after completing their secondary education.
The resurgent Russian Orthodox Church, Putin’s main ally in turning Russia into a conservative bulwark, has expanded its mother-forward offerings to help women bear with this reality. New rituals and holidays were introduced to celebrate “traditional family” and “traditional values,” code words for LGBTQ denialism, and the woman’s role as the “keeper of the hearth.” In squares and plazas across Russian towns, Vladimir Lenin’s statues have begun sharing public space with those of previously unknown saints designated as the patrons of family and marriage.
The Mother Heroine, Motherland Warrior, and Comrade-in-Arms are alive and well in Putin’s Russia. Joining the ranks of these surprisingly durable Soviet archetypes is the soldier’s wife-in-waiting. She supports the war from the rear, infuses children with pride, and doesn’t ask questions if her man is reported dead or missing. This last attribute, not asking questions, seems to be the defining feature of acceptable Russian women today.
What, then, is the Russian woman’s reward for her compliance? The short answer is: not much. Russian oligarchs, the country’s proxy for economic power, are almost exclusively men. Women make up roughly 18.3 percent of the Russian parliament. In terms of pay equality, women earn about 70 percent of what men do in similar jobs. Culturally, misogyny and sexism flourish. Russian comedy shows often portray women as too dumb to tell the steering wheel from the shifting gear.
A deadlier plague is domestic violence, a problem recycled from Soviet times and the times before them. One-fifth of all Russian women have been physically abused by their partners.
Every year, some 14,000 women are killed by it—that’s nine times more than in the United States, which has twice the population. The actual number is likely much higher, since many women are afraid to report incidents of violence against them. In 2017, with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian Duma decriminalized domestic violence that doesn’t require a hospital stay. It is as if the state itself has embraced the worn Russian saying, “If he beats you, it means he loves you.” Given the toughness of this love, it’s possible that for some women, seeing their abusers off to war becomes a path to liberation.
It’s certainly a path to economic improvement. The $2,535 monthly starting wage offered to those enlisting to serve in Ukraine is nearly 14 times higher than the median salary in Russia’s economically depressed regions, which deliver a disproportionally large number of recruits. If they die in combat, oh well. Better to go out a hero than, as one Russian priest said, the usual “choking on their vomit.” The families of fallen soldiers can also receive lucrative “coffin money” payments for their troubles, a rare glimmer of economic opportunity for working- and lower-class Russians. In July 2022, Russia-1 aired a story advertising the riches of enlisting to fight: The family of one deceased soldier sorrowfully recounted how they bought a previously unaffordable Lada car with the payout for the death of their son who dreamed about having a white car—“just like this one”—then drove it to his grave.
For many women, the price of resistance may be higher than they’re willing to pay. But if they continue to go along with all this, they’ll be doing so under increasingly dangerous conditions. Already-rampant domestic violence will only get worse as the war goes on and civilian men are maimed by battle and replaced back home with traumatized veterans and pardoned convicts. In the past year or so, returning “heroes” have raped teenage girls and burned their sisters alive. One convict-turned-Wagnerite stabbed to death an 85-year-old woman after terrorizing others with an ax and pitchfork in truly Dostoyevskian fashion.
For crimes against women, however, there are few punishments so long as they are committed by those willing to sacrifice for the Kremlin. A lieutenant colonel from Kuzbass was detained for the murder of an 18-year-old girl nearly two months after Putin made him a “Hero of Russia.” Following the arrest, he was defended by his superiors for having “brought invaluable benefit to the motherland in the fight against the Ukronazis.” Another man was pardoned from an 11-year prison term for murdering his girlfriend and putting her corpse through a meat grinder, after enlisting to serve in Ukraine.
A nation can be judged by how it treats its women and its girls, to paraphrase former U.S. President Barack Obama. Russia’s abuse of women, plastered over at different points of its history by the rhetoric of equal rights and traditionalism, underwrites the brutality of its war on Ukraine. If men can pillage and plunder their own, nothing stops them from exercising that right in a foreign land with a gun and a hero’s medal. Having abdicated their collective responsibility to call their men to answer, Russian women find themselves in an increasingly dehumanized society, where support for the war is not a guarantee against becoming its victims.
Anastasia Edel is a Russian-born American writer and social historian. She is the author of Russia: Putin’s Playground, a concise guide to Russian history, politics, and culture. Her writing has appeared in the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Project Syndicate, Quartz, and World Literature Today. She teaches history at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at University of California, Berkeley. Twitter: @AEdelWriter