Three women dressed in white and covered in fake blood stand in front of a tank as part of a 2023 protest organised by the Feminist Anti-War Resistance in Amsterdam
A 2023 protest organised by the Feminist Anti-War Resistance in Amsterdam. Credit: Alamy

Editor's note: This article was published in print the day before Alexei Navalny was pronounced dead, on 16th February 2024.

For Sasha Skochilenko, life in a Russian prison cell began with five small slips of paper. Each had been designed to mimic an ordinary shopping label – but instead of prices, they bore information on Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. One described the Russian bombardment of an art school in Mariupol, where 400 civilians had been seeking shelter. Another held a personal plea: “My great-grandfather didn’t fight in the Second World War for four years so that Russia could become a fascist state and attack Ukraine.” In March 2022, Sasha had carefully fixed these labels onto shelves in a St Petersburg supermarket. Her small act of protest did not go unnoticed. Other shoppers called the police, who placed Sasha at the scene using credit card data and CCTV. She was found guilty of “spreading false information” about the Russian army and sentenced to seven years in prison: roughly 16 months for each slip of paper. The judge who oversaw the case was later recommended for promotion.

“The price tags? They were so small. Nobody could believe where this all would end up,” says Alex Belozyorov, a close friend of Sasha’s who oversees the campaign for her release. “In other circumstances, it would be funny.” As he speaks, a heavy blanket of snow can be seen outside his apartment window, smothering St Petersburg’s streets. The prison where Sasha is now being held is old and damp, and the central heating is unpredictable, says Belozyorov. It will be a cold night.

Sasha’s arrest was unexpected. The 33-year-old had taken a step back from politics several years prior, pouring her heart instead into volunteer work. The invasion had awoken a new passion. But Sasha had also been inspired by a new kind of protest – one led by Russia’s feminists.

Coordinated via encrypted messaging apps, Russia’s Feminist Anti-War Resistance is distinctly different from the country’s traditional opposition. Founded after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the organisation has no central figurehead, but is made up of a global network of individual cells.

After the invasion, thousands of Russians left the country, some scared of persecution, some who wanted nothing to do with the war and the Putin regime. Alongside Russians who were already abroad, they make up the bulk of the foreign cells. There are also cells supported by local feminists around the world, especially in Eastern Europe where some speak Russian as a second language. These international groups work alongside those in Russia to promote the organisation’s central manifesto.

Simple and succinct, the manifesto condemns Russia’s full-scale invasion, as well as the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war in eastern Ukraine that began the same year. “Feminism as a political force cannot be on the side of a war of aggression and military occupation,” it says, urging feminists in Russia and around the world to “launch offline and online campaigns against the war in Ukraine and Putin’s dictatorship”.

The network’s campaigns are often quick, guerrilla actions like Sasha’s: eye-catching and creative to break through Russia’s carefully curated wartime normalcy. Activists have placed miniature crosses commemorating Ukraine’s war dead in the courtyards of Russian cities, or scribbled anti-war messages on hundreds of bank notes. In a country where street demonstrations are marred by police violence and opposition leaders are mercilessly persecuted, this guerrilla activism has allowed the network to thrive, taking on a unique role in Russia’s opposition. Although there is no official list of its supporters, they number well into the thousands.

The feminist movement in Russia

Russia’s current feminist movement took root in the 2010s, spurred on by a generation of young activists focused more on a European future than a looming Soviet past. Feminism was becoming a popular issue in liberal circles, but female activists still felt let down by the misogyny they encountered, says Inna Perheentupa, a researcher at the University of Turku and author of Feminist Politics in Neoconservative Russia. “They realised how conservative and male-led movements such as the anarchist or leftist movement were. Feminism was the language that they had to start speaking,” she says.

This feminist awakening was also sparked by Russia’s increasingly conservative outlook. In 2011, activists rallied against new laws limiting abortion rights. Two years later, feminist and queer campaigners joined forces to fight the Kremlin’s ban on “gay propaganda” for minors.

Ella Rossman, a Russian gender scholar and co-founder of the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, took to the streets for the first time in Moscow at a pro-LGBTQ+ rally in 2013. She remembers fighting for space and free discussion in Russia throughout the 2010s, throwing her strength behind queer film screenings, or finding places for mothers and babies to meet in public libraries.

“Lots of young people started to get involved in activism because of these conservative government policies. And I don’t think the government really expected that,” she says. “The Kremlin wanted us to become more ‘traditional’. Instead, it made people start to question what ‘tradition’ really meant.” But while activism was growing, Russia’s political arena was imploding. Street protests were sparking state violence and mass arrests. Funding also became tight, as the Kremlin put increasing pressure on civil society and NGOs. Russia’s feminists were forced to start thinking creatively. One-woman pickets would become impromptu street performances, broadcast on social media, says Perheentupa. A protester might lock herself in a cage, or shave her head on the cobbles of Red Square, before the police inevitably arrived to end proceedings. And even if these protests were small, they were spread by the power of the internet. “While the political sphere had become smaller, there was this space online. The activists I spoke to were really skilled in using social media,” says Perheentupa. “It gave rise to a new kind of activism.”

So in February 2022, when Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border and a new wave of legislation clamped down on Russian free speech, many feminists were already well versed in leaner, more agile forms of protest. They walked through the streets in black mourning clothes in a cat-and-mouse game with police, or laid piles of flowers en masse next to war memorials. “We had a whole range of different tools that we could draw on when the war’s current stage began,” says Rossman. “We were trained by the authoritarian state.”

A global, leaderless network

Today, as Russian violence against Ukraine grinds on in its third year of full-scale hostilities, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance are at the forefront of the fight against both the war itself and the gender inequality it inevitably heralds. As the network reminds us, conflict produces poverty and forced displacement, squeezing women out of education and employment, and putting them at increased risk of sexual exploitation. Maternal healthcare suffers, while widowed mothers must struggle to raise families alone.

The risk of sexual violence also increases exponentially. Charities and NGOs working in Ukraine have received hundreds of reports of sexual assault carried out by occupying troops: testimony provided to the United Nations in September 2023 found that in the Kherson region, Russian soldiers had raped and assaulted women aged between 19 and 83 years old, and that family members were often held in nearby rooms, forced to listen to the attacks.

The Feminist Anti-War Resistance network can focus on this diverse range of issues thanks to its flexibility. The organisation itself has a horizontal structure, both inside and outside of Russia. A network of encrypted group chats keeps different cells connected across borders, and allows individuals with a passion for particular subjects – such as reproductive rights, combating sexual violence or fighting for political refugees – to join with others. The Russian state has officially labelled the group, as well as some of its highest-profile members, as “foreign agents”: an emotionally loaded, Stalin-era term designed to discredit dissenters and pile on legal pressure. But there is no key leader or figurehead to ceremoniously throw behind bars following a lengthy show trial.

Yet there is still real danger for feminists working in Russia, as Sasha Skochilenko’s case proves. While many activists based abroad are public about their work, there are strict protocols in place to protect those active in Russia itself. Anna Hope, the group’s coordinator in Oxford, talks regularly with Russia-based activists, but her information is limited. “I haven’t seen a single face of an activist who works in Russia, and I am not allowed to. I’m not allowed to know their names,” she says. “And I can barely imagine what that feels like, to live under constant threat.”

This gulf in experience has the potential to cause divides in the organisation. Cells abroad focus on grabbing public attention: holding street rallies, raising money or reminding ordinary people of the war still raging in Europe. In Russia, activists must work differently: sharing information covertly, providing aid and performing “small” acts of resistance that are fraught with risk. “I don’t always understand what it’s like for activists in Russia,” Hope acknowledges. “There is a lot of work I don’t know about because we don’t write or talk about it publicly.”

Ultimately, it is the group’s ability to overcome such divides that will determine its future. Russia’s traditional opposition was crippled by infighting throughout the 2010s, a trend that has changed little since the start of the invasion. Supporters of jailed Russian politician Alexey Navalny and former oligarch and oppositionist Mikhail Khodorkovsky remain so divided that Navalny’s team refused to join a conference at the European Parliament last year, saying that they did not want to “be in the same boat” as activists that did not share their views – an apparent jab at Khodorkovsky’s team. An article covering the event for the Financial Times reported in turn that Khodorkovsky spent the bulk of his 50-minute interview with the paper criticising Navalny’s staff.

To succeed, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance will need to tread a different path and avoid the splits that have plagued Russia’s feminist movement in the past. Some of these issues are global, such as the split over trans rights, says Olga Sasunkevich, an associate professor in gender studies at the University of Gothenburg. Others are more specifically Russian, like the chasm in resources, funding and priorities that divide the country’s more marginalised regions from cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg.

“Throughout the 2010s, Russian feminism wasn’t a unified movement, even though it was still responding to the same general threat,” says Sasunkevich. “In Russia’s regions, activism was really a grassroots response to concerns in their daily lives. In Moscow and St Petersburg, the debate could become a lot more theoretical and academic. There was a struggle for resources and media visibility; arguments on who had the right to speak on whose behalf, which agendas were seen and who remained invisible.”

Confronting Putin's imperialism

The network’s horizontal structure can make overcoming these problems difficult. Although many feminist activists are experienced in using mediation to try and untangle grievances or ideological splits, resolving issues often demands lengthy and prolonged discussion. Members are still trying to iron out nuances as to how the structure will work long term. “We have a lot of calls where we discuss what being a ‘horizontal’ organisation actually means,” says Hope. “How do we make sure that everyone has a voice? We’re still figuring it out.”

However, the fluid structure also comes with benefits. A constant influx of new voices means a stream of fresh ideas, offering new visions that can help sweep away lingering feuds. Perhaps most crucially of all, this constant wave of converging perspectives allows activists to try and tackle some of the Russian opposition’s most controversial and deep-seated issues.

Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown the long-ignored legacy of Russia’s colonial past into sharp relief. Tsarist and Soviet control over countries in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia in the past forms the basis of the Kremlin’s claims over Ukraine today. But Russia’s opposition has repeatedly shied away from confronting this past, or recognising how it has shaped the present. In particular, opposition leader Alexey Navalny has been criticised for his previous association with Russia’s xenophobic far right, anti-immigrant statements and classing Ukrainian Crimea as a de facto part of Russia. (He has since publicly stated that his views have changed.)

Russia’s feminists have faced similar criticism. Many Ukrainian activists have condemned the wider movement for turning a blind eye to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Moscow’s later involvement in conflict in eastern Ukraine. Other critics disagree with the Feminist Anti-War Resistance’s decision to divide their focus by both supporting Ukrainians and continuing to tackle issues within Russia.

“I’ve seen work from researchers quoting Ukrainian feminists who say that in 2014, Russian feminists simply did not care [about Crimea or Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine],” says Sasunkevich. “I wouldn’t say that this is the entire truth, because in St Petersburg, for example, there were groups who were very pronounced in their anti-militarist stance. But at the same time, yes, Russian militarism wasn’t a kind of significant cause for organising.”

The Feminist Anti-War Resistance is attempting to right this legacy. The looseness and flexibility of its digital network encourage a greater diversity of voices. The movement has specific groups focusing on decolonisation and the voices of Russia’s millions of non-Slavic citizens, many of whom are disproportionately impacted by the war. Men from poorer regions across Siberia and Russia’s Far East, usually those from indigenous ethnic minorities, are pushed into the military, where they die at a higher rate than men from regions such as Moscow.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created a new willingness to talk about these topics, says Perheentupa. But these are hills still to climb. “The war is terrifying, but it’s created this kind of awareness. There’s definitely more decolonial work taking place. But it’s important to point out that feminism as a whole is a diverse movement encompassing many groups of many activists. They don’t all agree.”

Part of the Feminist Anti-War Resistance’s power is that even these world-shaping challenges can be broken down and shared – until they no longer seem insurmountable, says Hope. “Don’t get me wrong, we regularly do feel powerless. We all do. The war is so big and you don’t know what to do next,” she says. “But for us, feminism is an angle where we have a personal connection. It makes sense. You can’t fight everything at once. You can’t immediately stop the war. But you can focus on something – and that will become your fight.”

This article is from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.