‘Send back our husbands’ – Russian women in rare protest

Wives of reservists say their husbands have done their fair share of the fighting and want them back home.

In a function room on the edge of Moscow, something unusual is happening.

A group of women are publicly criticising the Russian authorities. Their husbands are among the 300,000 reservists mobilised by Russian President Vladimir Putin for the war in Ukraine in autumn 2022.

And they want them home.

“When will our husbands be considered to have discharged their military duty?” asks Maria. “When they’re brought back with no arms and legs? When they can’t do anything at all because they’re just vegetables? Or do we have to wait for them to be sent back in zinc coffins?”

The women met via social media and have formed a group called The Way Home. They have differing views on the war. Some claim to support it. Others are sceptical about the Kremlin’s “special military operation”. What seems to unite them is the belief that the mobilised men have done their fair share of the fighting and should be back home with their families.

It is an opinion the authorities do not share.

In Russia public criticism of anything related to the war comes with a risk. Most of the speakers choose their words very carefully. They know there’s a string of laws in place now in Russia for punishing dissent. Their frustration, though, is palpable.

“To begin with we trusted our government,” Antonina says. “But should we trust them now? I don’t trust anyone.”

Members of the group are here to share their stories with a local councillor, Boris Nadezhdin. He has been critical of the “special military operation” from the outset.

Curiously Mr Nadezhdin is one of the few government critics who has been allowed onto national television since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He’s an occasional guest on TV talk shows.

Right now, the politician is trying to get on the ballot for the presidential election. He maintains that the war has damaged Vladimir Putin’s domestic popularity.

“Putin was very popular in Russia because after the 1990s he brought stability and security,” Mr Nadezhdin tells me. “Stability and security were the main reason for supporting Putin. Now more and more people have already understood that stability and security are finished.”

Russian women campaigning for the return of their mobilised husbands, sons or brothers have come in for criticism from different quarters. Opponents of the war have little sympathy. They condemn the men for obeying the mobilisation order and for taking part in the war.

Women sit on sofas listening to presidential hopeful Boris Nadezhdin stand up and speak
Image caption, Boris Nadezhdin, a presidential hopeful, is one of the few government critics still allowed on national TV in Russia

Supporters of the Kremlin portray the women as Western stooges.

In a recent interview with the Fontanka news site, Russian MP Andrei Kartapolov, who heads the Russian Duma’s defence committee, claimed that the call for demobilisation was the work of “[Russia’s] enemies”. He appeared to suggest that the Ukrainian military or the CIA was behind it.

Mr Kartapolov also invoked World War Two.

“Can you imagine a delegation of wives coming to the Kremlin in autumn 1942 and telling Stalin: ‘Let those men who were called up in 1941 go home. They’ve been fighting for a year already.’ No-one would ever have thought of doing that.”

Maria Andreeva, whose husband and cousin have been drafted and despatched to Ukraine, finds Mr Kartapolov’s comments insulting.

“He dares to liken the special military operation to the Second World War,” Maria tells me. “Back then Russia’s aim was survival. We’d been attacked. There was full mobilisation and martial law. It’s the total opposite of what is happening now.”

Maria says that she is not only campaigning to bring back her family members. She wants to prevent more Russians being called up and sent to the front line.

“We do not want a second wave of mobilisation,” she says. “We’re against civilians being used in a military conflict. And we want all Russian citizens to understand this could affect them, too.

“Some people act like ostriches. They stick their heads in the sand and try not to think about what’s happening. I can understand them. It’s hard to accept that, in your country, the state doesn’t need you to be happy – it just treats you as biological material. But if people want to survive, sooner or later they need to recognise this and say that they don’t agree.”

Maria Andreeva sits in chair during interview
Image caption, Maria Andreeva is campaigning to prevent more Russians from being conscripted and sent to the front line

How likely is a “second wave” of mobilisation in Russia? Last December President Putin appeared to rule it out – for now. Live on Russian TV the Kremlin leader claimed that in 2023 the Russian authorities had managed to recruit nearly half a million volunteers to fight in Ukraine.

“Why do we need mobilisation? As things stand there is no need,” the Kremlin leader concluded.

Of course, “as things stand” doesn’t mean “never going to happen”. Situations can change.

For example, in March 2022 President Putin declared: “Conscripted soldiers are not participating and will not participate in the fighting. There will not be an additional call-up of reservists, either. Only professional soldiers are taking part.”

“Partial mobilisation” was announced six months later.

To raise awareness Maria and other wives of mobilised reservists have started a new tradition. Every Saturday they don white headscarves and travel into the centre of Moscow. Near the Kremlin walls they lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Red carnations are placed by the Eternal Flame. It is their form of peaceful protest.

On its Telegram channel The Way Forward explains that these flowers are for honouring “the lives of loved ones. To honour the memory of those killed in all wars. To honour the memory of our guys.”

The group also believes that flower-laying is a way of saying “never again”.

Two women lay flowers at the wall of the Kremlin
Image caption, Wives of reservists gather outside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, near the Kremlin, each week as a form of protest

But how aware is Russian society? How much interest is there from the public in what the families of mobilised reservists are saying? Antonina says that since her partner was drafted, she hasn’t felt much support from those around her. When he received his call-up papers in October 2022, he’d asked friends to keep an eye out for Antonina.

“They invited me to celebrate new year with them a year ago,” she says. “But all evening they kept telling me that my husband was a total mug for going there [to Ukraine].”

Antonina claims that, despite being diagnosed with stomach ulcers, her partner was deployed to an assault unit in Ukraine. She says that he telephoned her on 4 December.

“He was crying. He was frightened. It sounded like he was saying goodbye.”

She says he called again on 13 December. That was the last time she heard from him. Antonina says she’s since been told that her partner was wounded in action.

“There are some people who want to fight. Who volunteer for it and sign contracts,” Antonina says. “Let them fight. But send us back our husbands who don’t want to be there. They’ve done their duty to the motherland. Send them home.

“I used to have enormous respect for Vladimir Putin. Now I’m more neutral. I still find it hard to believe that he knows this kind of thing is happening. But if he really does see us as traitors and outcasts for wanting our husbands back, I don’t understand why he’d have this attitude towards citizens who once voted for him.”

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