Peace Movement The Feminist Anti-War Movement in Russia and Around the World

Several people, some wearing helmets, apparently policemen lead away a young woman; it is snowing
Detention of people at a peaceful anti-war rally in Zaryadye Park | Photo (detail): © Aleksey Dushutin

Immediately after the beginning of the war in Ukraine, some sections of Russian society sharply criticised the acts of war. An organised, resolute anti-war movement with clearly-defined goals and principles has been set up inside Russia by women, to be more precise, by feminists.

Two days after the beginning of what is referred to in Russia as the “special operation,”* the establishment of Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR) was announced. The movement has flat organisational structures with very little hierarchy and organises itself using a Telegram channel of the same name. Two months on, it is still attracting an increasing number of followers.

What does FAR stand for?

FAR represents dozens of feminist groups in Russia; its Telegram channel has more than 30,000 followers. According to the poet Darja Serenko, one of its founders, FAR has set up a foundation to support protesters, takes part in street protests, organises art events, including the “Quiet Picket” initiated by Serenko, and disseminates anti-war information material via the Internet. Its largest campaign so far was on 8 March, when women from 80 Russian cities laid flowers on World War II monuments as a sign of protest, often with anti-war mottoes attached.

Other well-known campaigns include “Mariupol 5000”, in which movement activists called for home-made crosses to be placed in the inner courtyards of residential buildings to commemorate the victims of Mariupol (recalling the way that the dead of that city were buried in courtyards during the occupation), and the campaign in which supermarket price tags were replaced by anti-war messages.

A living structure which does not collapse the moment its head is cut off – because it does not have a head.

Ella Rossmann, who also holds a leading position in FAR, is a gender researcher and co-founder of “the Anti-University” an independent educational project. She sees the key role of feminists in building anti-war protest in Russia in the political campaigning skills they have acquired in recent decades. Feminism has changed female subjectivity and women feel empowered and entitled to change things. Moreover, representatives of the women’s movement have experience in public activism and are used to working in small, self-organised groups.

Apart from that, the structure of the FAS itself is based on feminist principles. There are no strict hierarchies or authorities and it is grounded in decentralisation. Thus, its resistance is like a kind of fungal network, with representatives scattered apparently randomly but fairly evenly within Russia and abroad. A living structure which does not collapse the moment its head is cut off – because it does not have a head. What it does have is steadfast values linking all involved.

Women and wars

Wars are definitely destructive for everyone. As far as women are concerned, however, the everyday discrimination and problems they contend with in any case, issues taken up by feminism, are dramatic, particularly with regard to violence and poverty.

According to UN surveys, women under war conditions become the victims of rape and human trafficking, committed not only by their compatriots, but also and primarily by the enemy army. This is particularly the case when the mass rape of women by the opposing side is used a tactic of war, as was the case not so long ago in the war in Bosnia. Moreover, there is also a surge in the number of cases of domestic violence following the return of mentally and physically traumatised front-line soldiers.

Women’s economic vulnerability means that they in particular – the least protected group – are the first to lose their jobs and income as a result of the onset of an economic crisis or the need to emigrate.

Significantly, Russian feminists see the root of this systemic problem of violence (both in relation to families and to the whole country) in a single underlying basic structure, namely patriarchal society.

Domestic violence is the issue that has topped Russian feminists’ agenda in recent years. Most of its victims are women and children suffering the aggression of men and fathers. This problem has not been taken seriously by the Russian authorities. Russian feminists have felt alienated by Vladimir Putin’s political regime for a long time. Not so very long ago, he announced that they, that is to say, “those who cannot make do without gender freedom”, could be considered “national traitors”.

Has the female anti-war movement always been feminist?

The female anti-war protest movement emerged in the context of the suffragette movement at the beginning of World War I. Both individual feminists (Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and Emma Goldman in the USA) and women’s organisations took an anti-war stance. In 1915, women’s rights activists established the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace (ICWPP) at the International Congress of Women at The Hague, from which the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom emerged four years later, which still exists under the auspices of the UN today. Shortly before that, in the same year, Jane Addams and Carrie Chapman Catt had set up a women’s peace party in the USA. In both cases, the feminists not only called for an immediate end to the war, but also for female intervention in settling conflicts.

In time, the movement became international, opposing militarism and imperialism that result from general patriarchal attitudes.

During the Cold War, women once again became involved in anti-war activism. In 1961, approximately 50,000 women took to the streets in 100 US cities. Their protest against nuclear weapons testing marked the inauguration of Women Strike for Peace, led by Bella Abzug and Dagmar Wilson. In 1981, the group Women for Life on Earth started a protest camp outside the Greenham Common Air Force Base in England, where nuclear warheads were stationed, remaining there for nearly 20 years. The female-led anti-war movement grew and intensified in connection with wars – in Vietnam, on the Persian Gulf, in Afghanistan, Bosnia and elsewhere. In time, the movement became international, opposing militarism and imperialism that result from general patriarchal attitudes.

In the Soviet Union, the anti-war rhetoric had no connection with gender, but did overlap with ideas of female emancipation and internationalism. In view of the political situation, however, the conditions that would have been required for protest to form did not exist. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia emerged in the Soviet Union in 1989. However, it represented an attitude towards wars deriving mainly from the traditional mother’s role.

A warless society

Today, the female-led anti-war movement consists not only of the organisations listed and their history but also of a large number of feminist groups and activities from around the world that organise protests outside Russian diplomatic representations, collect money, provide rape kits for victims and support Ukrainian refugees in Europe. As well as providing this practical help, they also call for an end to the arms race and thus for an end to the war in Ukraine.

The female-led anti-war movement has always been international and visionary. Its aim is to create a society where no-one is excluded and wars are impossible in principle. To achieve this, it is essential to bring about a transformation of the current dominant patriarchal structure of society, which is based on ideals of masculinity that support violence, militarism and discriminatory practices.

Thus, the current feminist anti-war protest is on the one hand an entirely new phenomenon for Russia, because there have not previously been any openly anti-war women’s movements. On the other hand, this protest fits into the centuries-old history of global, female anti-war protest. This protest is by its very nature feminist. It sees the problem of war not primarily in states’ unwillingness to share their resources, but rather - in very general terms - in the way a state functions.

* ”Special operation“ is the term determined by the Russian authorities to refer to the war in Ukraine.