They’ve noted that some twenty or more journalists were detained and that a few dozen women took part in a protest demanding that their men be brought back home from the front in Russian-occupied Ukraine.
The real story is not that journalists, some of whom were Western correspondents for Reuters, Der Spiegel, and Agence France Presse, were arrested, but that they were there.
Obviously, the women who organized the demonstration made a point of contacting the journalists and coordinating the exact time and place of the action. That takes some organizational savvy. It also means that the women knew full well how to get their message across to the world, and not just to Muscovites.
In effect, and possibly in intent, the women acted in the manner of Soviet dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s.
The second important point is the location—Red Square and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s campaign headquarters. That is, the women assembled in the belly of the beast, demonstrating that they have guts and that they know how to organize complex undertakings in heavily policed areas.
The fact that, as most press reports say, several dozen women actually showed up is thus remarkable, testifying to the potential strength of the movement and not its weakness.
The third thing to keep in mind is that the women’s demand was both political and revolutionary. Overtly, it was just about giving their menfolk a break from the war. But that the police broke up the demonstration in five minutes is testimony to the fact that the regime understands that the women’s demand, if universalized, would mean the end of the war and a humiliating defeat for Putin’s Russia. The women appear to have known that they were implicitly criticizing the war against Ukraine by calling their protest a “500 days of mobilization” rally—with the five hundred referring to the number of days on February 3, 2024 since the first mass mobilization of soldiers in late 2022.
Finally, the protest showed that the regime doesn’t quite know what to do with wives and mothers. Putin’s macho persona and his fascist regime’s patriarchal worldview reduce women either to passive observers without any minds of their own or to loud-mouthed propagandists known for their histrionics, such as Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the notorious Russia Today program, or the rabid television propagandist, Olga Skabeeyeva.
The women protestors, on the other hand, were smart, committed, and fearless. They also have a voice that they are determined should be heard. They are, in a word, just the kind of women that fascists detest. Unfortunately for Putin and his henchmen, their commitment to macho patriarchy also makes it extremely difficult for the regime to crack down on the women protestors.
But that means that, as the war continues, as it assuredly will, and as Russian soldiers are sent to their deaths at the rate of about 1,000 per day, the women’s protest movement will only snowball. Women have been protesting since soon after Putin launched his disastrous war. No less important, they’ve even managed to form grass-roots organizations, the Council of Mothers and Wives, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, and the Way Home. They have mobilized and they have shown they have staying power.
The women have much to protest in addition to the overextended tours of duty of their men. Official Ukrainian estimates place the number of Russian dead at close to 390,000. Recent Western estimates speak of 325,000 dead and wounded. These are fantastic numbers that testify to Putin’s complete indifference to the fate of his people. His attitude will not change, and the casualties will soon approach half a million.
The women know just how bad things are despite the regime’s attempt to put a rosy glow on matters. Late last year, Olga Tsukanova of the Council of Mothers and Wives released a video in which she openly questioned Putin’s hyper-masculine image, “Vladimir Vladimirovich, are you a man or what? Do you have enough courage to look into our eyes—openly, in a meeting with women who weren’t hand-picked for you? Women who aren’t in your pocket, but real mothers who have traveled here from different cities at their own expense to meet with you?” Said Tsukanova in another stab at his macho persona, “Are you going to keep hiding from us?”
The answer to the question is, of course, yes: Putin will keep hiding from the women. But neither will he dare to employ the same repressive methods he happily extends to men. The February 3rd rally is thus far more important than it may seem at first glance.
Willy-nilly, Russia’s women are displaying the civic courage and human decency that very well could, contrary to expectations, bring down the regime.
About the Author
Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”
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