29.11.23 Analytics

Anti-War Patriotizm: how the protest movement of the families of mobilised people is developing and why it is important

Against the background of waning anti-war protests in Russia, November became a month marked by the intensification of the movement of mothers and wives of mobilised people demanding the return home of those who were drafted in the autumn of 2022. In November, activists took part in 'October' rallies of the Communist Party, attempted to organise their own rallies, launched a flash mob of car stickers using the letters V and Z, and finally issued a sharply worded manifesto accusing Putin of failing to keep his promises and creating an 'illusion of stability' at the expense of the lives and health of their sons and husbands. The movement of female relatives of the mobilised has existed for a year and has taken on more active forms since the spring of 2023, but has predominantly maintained a loyalist form and adhered to corresponding loyalist rhetoric throughout this period, directing its criticism, in extreme cases, against the military command. The current upsurge of activity by relatives of the mobilised, spurred by the anniversary of the start of partial mobilisation, has been accompanied by a radicalisation of public rhetoric: demands for a fair rotation of soldiers have been joined by veiled criticism of the war and reminders of constitutional freedoms. The movement does not yet appear to be a mass movement, with loyalist and more radicalised groups still competing. However, the new anti-war narrative emerging from within, which operates with values of justice and patriotism and distances itself from traditional liberal rhetoric, may be in demand against the backdrop of war fatigue and the erosion of the pro-war core of the loyalist consensus in Russia.

While traditional forms of anti-war protest in Russia have been largely suppressed by state repression, November became the first month of widespread public attention to a new protest phenomenon—the movement of mothers and wives of those mobilised in September-October 2022. The prospects for this social phenomenon are not entirely clear at the moment, but it is already evident that the movement, which initially had only loyalist goals of achieving a fair rotation and limiting the length of service of the mobilised, is forming a new anti-war narrative that differs significantly from the opposition-liberal anti-war rhetoric. This narrative still distances itself from traditional liberal arguments, but at the same time has significantly 'outgrown' the original 'women's' agendas of the relatives of the mobilised and has accumulated political motives and demands.

Mothers and wives as foreign agents

The families of the mobilised have been protesting for over a year. Immediately after the announcement of 'partial' mobilisation, the organisation 'Council of Mothers and Wives' appeared. Its activists wrote appeals demanding that the mobilised should be provided with equipment and training, normal food and medical care. In November 2022, some relatives of those mobilised and conscripts started picketing, demanding a start of negotiations with Ukraine, to put an end to nuclear weapons (which were constantly threatened on TV at the time), to withdraw conscripts from Belgorod region and to deal with cases of illegal conscription and sending conscripts to the combat zone (as reported by the publication 'Bumaga' in the first detailed report about the 'Council' in November 2022).

Pickets and attempts to deliver hundreds of appeals from relatives of the mobilised to various authorities has led to the repression of the 'Council of Wives and Mothers' - its founder Olga Tsukanova has been detained several times and the associated group on VKontakte was blocked at the request of Roskomnadzor. In July 2023, the Council was declared a 'foreign agent', after which it announced that it would stop working.

In the spring of 2023, six months after the announcement of mobilisation, groups spring up on Telegram, VKontakte and Dzen calling for the rotation of mobilised people, demobilisation, limitation of the mobilisation period, etc. (in the summer, they were blocked on VKontakte and Dzen at the request of Roskomnadzor). The Telegram group 'Let's Bring Back the Guys' (which currently has over 30,000 members) collected 100,000 online signatures between April and September on a petition to limit the mobilisation period to six months, while the Telegram channel 'It's Time for the Mobilised to Go Home' (over 10,000 subscribers) collected over 6,000 'live' signatures on a similar petition. Both appeals received vague replies from the presidential administration, confirming that the mobilised would remain at war until its end.

Time of loyalty: Deputy romance and the shadow of Prigozhin

At the end of August, the Telegram channel 'The Way Home' (25,000 subscribers) organised a campaign to send mass appeals about the fate of the mobilised to State Duma deputies (mostly to those from the specialised defence committee). With demands to return the mobilised home, these demands were voiced on the social media pages of Russian governors. In mid-June, the issue of the length of the mobilisation period was raised by Alexander Sladkov, a 'war correspondent,' at a meeting with the president, and in September the issue of rotation was discussed on Channel One. It seemed that the topic had found official recognition in the official discourse.

At the same time, four State Duma deputies — Dmitry Kuznetsov (Just Russia), Vasily Vlasov (LDPR), Denis Parfenov and Anastasia Udaltsova (both CPRF) — reached out to the relatives; deputy Sardana Avksentyeva (New People) also supported their demands. In November, the idea of limiting the length of the service of mobilised people was endorsed by Alexei Zhuravlev (LDPR), First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Defence Committee. However, in response to the expanded activism of the mobilised relatives in the parliamentary corridors, the chairman of the Duma Defence Committee, Andrei Kartapolov, announced on 15 September that the mobilised would remain at the front until the end of the 'special operation'. In October, Kartapolov blocked the creation of a working group aimed at working with the relatives of the mobilised. Moreover, at the end of October, the LDPR deputy Vasily Vlasova, who has worked with these relatives, was stripped of his mandate for an apparently formal reason (skipping commission meetings).

Throughout this time, the movement of relatives of the mobilised has remained not only emphatically law-abiding, but also within the realm of complete loyalty to the 'special military operation'. Despite the fact that, as the publication 'Verstka' notes, its chat rooms are attended by people with different political opinions, the common position of the movement has remained emphatically loyalist and has been marked by depoliticised demands for justice for their relatives — limiting the period of their stay in the war.

In July, Kuznetsov said that the condition for demobilisation could be the successful recruitment of contract workers. Therefore, in autumn, the relatives of the mobilised appealed to Putin's September statement that 300,000 volunteers had already been recruited, which roughly corresponds to the announced number of mobilised servicemen to be recruited in autumn 2022. Now the relatives are focused on Shoigu's statement about plans to 'raise the number of contract servicemen, taking into account the replacement of mobilised citizens in troop groups and the recruitment of new formations, to 521,000 people by the end of the year'. In connection with this, the channel 'It's Time for the Mobilised to Go Home' has stated the need to 'raise the prestige' of military service and came up with the idea of supplementing the army with migrants, i.e. the relatives of the mobilised began to look for alternatives to military recruitment that would be acceptable to the authorities.

At the same time, the group 'Let's Bring Back the Guys' and the channel 'It's Time for the Mobilised to Go Home' strongly opposed the organisation of rallies throughout the year and warned their activists against communicating with 'foreign agent'-branded media. At the same time, some representatives of the movement sought to focus their criticism on the military leadership, expressing solidarity with the position of Yevgeny Prigozhin. In May 2023, shortly before being recognised as a 'foreign agent', Olga Tsukanova, head of the 'Council of Mothers and Wives', called for Prigozhin's demands to be met and for the PMC 'Wagner' to be provided with more equipment. Among their main allies in the State Duma, the movement's representatives specifically mentioned Deputy Vlasov, who set up a recruitment centre for 'Wagner' in his reception room, and one of the activists of the movement was opera singer Sergei Moskalkov, who participated in the recording of viral tracks of the 'Wagner Orchestra'. In other words, at that moment, the Council of Mothers and Wives sought support more from the ranks of 'turbo-patriots' who were inclined to criticise Putin's under-mobilised and patriotic military bureaucracy and its blunders.

Time of radicalisation: War has f*%!ed us over

The radicalisation and expansion of the movement has been facilitated by ‘calendar logic’ - autumn marked the one-year anniversary of the beginning of 'partial' mobilisation of the majority of the mobilised in the army. Since August, there has been a sharp increase in Yandex queries on the topic of 'return of the mobilised', apparently reflecting the growing expectation that they would be released after a year of service. However, since the end of October, the number of queries began to decline — people were clearly losing faith in a 'miracle from their superiors'.

On 7 November, several dozen relatives of mobilised men associated with the 'Way Home' channel came out to the 'October' rally of the CPRF in Moscow, with placards stating 'It's time for the mobilised to go home' and 'No to indefinite mobilisation'. Police officers demanded that the posters be removed, but did not detain those participating in the protest. Subsequently, activists in several cities applied for a permit for a rally on 19 November, but everywhere they were denied permission citing covid restrictions. Only in Novosibirsk did the city administration invite the relatives of the mobilised to a closed meeting with representatives of the administration. In Kemerovo Region and Krasnoyarsk Krai, on the other hand, the women were pressured by the police, who threatened them with prosecution for extremism. The local Telegram chats of 'The Way Home' were deleted as a result.

However, even today, in the activities of the mothers' and wives' movement one can observe the coexistence of two strategies. Olga Katz, the moderator of the 'Let's Bring Back the Boys' chat room, continues to adhere to an emphatically loyalist rhetoric, and considers the 'Navalnists', Shulman and Maxim Katz, to be her enemies. She makes no secret of the fact that she censors community discussion and bans participants with 'wrong' political views, hopes for the implementation of the 'Shoigu plan' and expects to attend a direct conversation with Putin on 14 December to publicly ask him questions about the fate of the mobilised. Meanwhile, the female members of the 'Way Home' group are filing new applications for rallies, fighting against Vladimir Solovyov's propaganda, and taking a much more determined and confrontational stance against the authorities.

On 27 November, 'Way Home' published a rather radical 'Appeal to the People'. This time, as its title suggests, they addressed not the Russian authorities, but the population. The appeal attempts to overcome the key contradiction that has limited the potential of the movement over the past six months. While sympathetic to those who have been called up to fight the war, a significant part of the population was happy with the situation where those mobilised in the autumn of 2022 remained at the front, and this allowed the authorities not to carry out new waves of mobilisation. The appeal calls for 'justice' and 'solidarity': 'People are tired, it is important to SHOW that their ordinary lives are not threatened. And we will tell you. Yes, it is, mates. We've been f*?%ed and you'll be f*?%ed,' the relatives wrote in a key passage that has already become a meme. — Here and now we are building a foundation of solidarity against indefinite mobilisation.

The appeal directly attacks President Putin for creating an illusion of 'stability' at the expense of the mobilised and for breaking his earlier promises. At the same time, it uses the language of loyalty ('we hope that the president will hear our aspirations') and patriotism ('It will not be an evasion of duty to defend the Motherland, it will protect people from arbitrariness and injustice'). Simultaneously, a petition was launched ('Manifesto of relatives and friends of the mobilised'), which includes not only a clause on 'full demobilisation', but also a number of political statements and demands (in particular, respect for the 'constitutionally guaranteed rights to social protest and public assembly'), as well as statements subtly criticising the war in Ukraine and its propagandistic explanations ('We are against... dehumanisation. There are no orcs and elves, there is propaganda and hate speech. There is politics, and there are ordinary people in the hands of politicians'). At the same time, the authors of the appeal stipulate that they are 'not interested in rocking the boat and destabilising the political situation' and appeal to 'justice' and 'commitment to the ideas of the rule of law'.

These contrasting meanings are also reflected in the flash mob launched by activists, calling for people to stick slogans on cars such as 'Turn your husband away, I'm f*?%ed' (‘Vernite muzhe, ya z*?%alas’’) and 'Mobilised men need demobilisation' (‘MobiliZiroVannim nuzhen dembel’’). Anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova calls this type of resistance the 'weapon of the weak' (referring to anthropologist James Scott's concept of non-conflictual resistance to the state in traditional societies) and explains the use of the military symbols Z and V as an attempt to beat the enemy at his own game — through the expression of protest using loyalist symbols.

In the near future, the Russian authorities will direct their efforts toward containment, division, and suppression of the movement. 'Verstka' and The Insider have reported that the Kremlin has realised the danger posed by the movement in the pre-election period and has instructed governors to 'buy off external protest at any cost. Persuade, promise, pay. Anything to keep it on the street, in any number, even 50 people' (The Insider quotes an employee of one regional administration as saying this). However, applying straightforward forms of pressure on the relatives of the mobilised are fraught with an increase in dissatisfaction within the military, where the mobilised, exhausted by a year of service, constitute a significant part of the fighting force.

It is most likely that, at this stage, the Russian authorities will succeed in dealing with the organisational core of the radical wing of the movement. The published manifestos seem extremely unprofessional and activist-driven, and the group promoting them, ‘The Way Home’, is insignificant in size. It has recently grown from 14,000 to 25,000, but these are still extremely insignificant numbers. However, the movement's manifestos are a remarkable attempt to create an anti-war language that differs from that of the liberal opposition and appeals to the values of 'patriotism,' 'justice,' and 'solidarity’. Such attempts seem very promising against the background of war fatigue and the erosion of the 'pro-war' core of the loyalist Russian 'majority'.