From Prague to Moscow, Meet the Feminists Opposing Russia’s War

For anti-war activists in the Russian diaspora, Putin’s aggression mirrors his chauvinism at home.

On a Saturday afternoon in December 2022, the foyer of a local Prague cinema is suddenly as full of stories as the screens inside. Vintage jackets are wheeled in on clothing racks. Piles of lightly-used books are crated in to invite flipping and perusing. A tarot reader shakes a velvety bag of rune stones onto her table — symbols of strength and motivation in tough times.

This pop-up market is pulled together by Czechia’s chapter of the Feminist Anti-War Resistance.

Photo by Alyona Sudakova on Dec. 10, 2022.

The Russian-born Feminist Anti-War Resistance was labeled a “foreign agent” by President Vladimir Putin’s Ministry of Justice on Dec. 23, 2022. It’s possibly best known for its work helping men escape the draft to countries like Georgia or Armenia. In Russia, the group also draws eyes with anti-war graffiti, secret consciousness-raising groups, and a disinformation-busting newspaper written for the everywoman, surreptitiously circulating like the samizdat of yore.

Today in Prague, things feel a little less “Mission Impossible.” The sun streams through the windows. Artisans use their family recipes and knitting needles to raise money for a nearby women’s project for Ukrainian arrivals called Cafe Zinka.

Photo by Alyona Sudakova on Dec. 10, 2022.

For market organizer Varvara, 28, being able to raise funds for something like Cafe Zinka outside the eye of the Russian state is both a possibility and a responsibility. While she moved to Prague from her hometown in Siberia more than a decade ago, she hasn’t let go of a sense of obligation over Russia’s direction today. “There were so many ways to help. I felt a little bit lost.” So when she heard about the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, she immediately signed up. It felt like both a way to process Putin’s war and to support some of its most vulnerable survivors.

Cafe Zinka founder Jana Hradlikova, a well-known feminist in Prague who established the city’s first gender studies center in the 1990s, appreciates the anti-war group for reaching out to offer money. However, she doesn’t know much about them. “I was surprised they found us as we are not an official organization nor are we doing any PR,” she says. “They are a little bit shy, and it was not easy to get information about their motivations and background.”

Currently operating out of a church, Cafe Zinka will put much of the cash toward groceries so Czechs and Ukrainians can use the basement kitchen to make meals together. Feminists know that the most intimate acts are often the most political.

SOLIDARITY IN ACTION

Just like the project they’re raising money for, this flea market also has a knack for bringing people together. A Ukrainian-Mongolian crafter and an artist from Russia’s north are both expected to be here promoting their wares. In addition, the organizers have invited the group “Moms from Ukraine” to lead a handmade Christmas decorations workshop that’s happening downstairs. A stone’s throw from the workshop, students from the Russian democracy movement “Vesna” sit under a stairwell, soliciting letters for political prisoners who opposed the war.

Currently operating out of a church, Cafe Zinka will put much of the cash toward groceries so Czechs and Ukrainians can use the basement kitchen to make meals together. Feminists know that the most intimate acts are often the most political.

Even the group’s structure questions the inevitability of Putin’s top-down regime. Each chapter of the organization, from Prague to Berlin to 45 cities within Russia, operates as an independent cell with its own personality and horizontal structure. Members of the group make decisions by a popular vote, and people are invited to jump in with their own skills in whatever way they think could help the effort, whether that’s legal advice or graphic design. Cells like this one in Prague take on work that might not so easily be done within Russia for security reasons. For example, a couple of weeks after the flea market, the group started fundraising for a hospital generator in Cherkasy, west of the fighting in Luhansk. To Putin’s regime, that could easily be seen as abetting the enemy.

Alyona Sudakova, a photographer capturing the event who says she’s the only Ukrainian organizer with the group, chooses to work with this group because she couldn’t find others in Prague looking at the war from a feminist lens. In the Russian-speaking diaspora in Czechia, she often built connections with Belarusians, Kazakhs, and Russians before the war, so it felt like a natural fit. “It depends on the people, not on the country where they are from,” she said. “The war is something that came from patriarchy.”

But just because she’s here doesn’t mean she thinks other Ukrainians need to be. Some in the Ukrainian diaspora now avoid speaking Russian at all; instead, the war has become a catalyst for lifting up their own language after so many years of Russian-language dominance over cultural and artistic spaces. Other Ukrainians, who, like Sudakova, do still speak Russian, may still feel uncomfortable around people from the country bombing theirs. “I do understand Ukrainians who don’t want to talk to Russians because they have some boundaries now,” she says. “It will take some time — and for the war to be over.”

It’s a tension Varvara has thought a lot about. “I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody would say that we’re just trying to wash our guilt off. Because that’s also a part of the conversation. For many of us, it’s a part of our motivation … Because we want to show that not all Russians are that bad, and we want to support you,” she says.

Since the war broke out, she says she’s experienced enormous empathy from Ukrainians and Czechs worrying about her family in Russia, asking if sanctions or the draft has impacted them. But she also understands when others may be suspicious of her motives, like when she and friends were protesting Russia’s war in March 2022, and a woman from Kharkiv came up to them, crying at them to get out of Ukraine.

“The point of what we are doing is not to get credit from Ukrainians for doing a ‘good job’ as ‘good Russians,’” she said. “If they come and they say, ‘you are doing bullshit, we don’t want to talk to you,’ it’s a legit reaction.”

CONNECTING THE IDEOLOGICAL DOTS

Varvara moved from her small town — she is keeping the exact city private to protect her family — to Prague after high school to study at Charles University, where she now works. As someone embedded in the education world, her understanding of feminism when she joined the group had been through the academic lens. “I was interested in seeing this activist side to the story,” she said. “Maybe soon, feminism will be banned in Russia.”

Feminism’s status under fire by the Russian state, Varvara believes, might afford her group more credibility with observers who might otherwise be skeptical. She says everyone knows feminists in Russia face a lot of disdain for their work. Nonetheless, feminists globally haven’t shied away from documenting the war’s impacts along gendered lines. The UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict has called rape a “military strategy” for Russian forces terrorizing Ukraine. Studies have suggested that relationship violence could be more intense after soldiers return home from combat. And women have made up the major contingent of Ukrainian refugees, while men of draft age are forbidden to leave.

Feminist Anti-War Resistance was forged almost immediately after the war broke out, and started making these connections. Shortly after Putin announced his invasion, a group of feminists across the country wrote a letter linking the violence abroad to the authoritarian machismo at home. Domestically, they noted, Putin’s regime continues to impose “gender inequality, exploitation of women, and state repression against those whose way of life, self-identification, and actions do not conform with narrow, patriarchal norms.”

For Vasilii, that last note is personal. “Obviously, Russia was never a paradise for queer people, but I do remember in the nineties, people were talking about sex and queer life and queer experiences on television pretty openly,” says the gay lawyer who left the Urals for Czechia five years ago. “It’s hard to remember, but it wasn’t always like this.”

Vasilii bobs and weaves through the market, checking in on how vendors are doing, taking a coffee, and holding court over the bake sale. There, cash rattles in a square tin, traded for buns, pastries, and syrniki (Russian pancakes), and Eastern Slavic patties made rich with cottage cheese. All around him, paper pride flags and rainbow Christmas lights dot the room.

Feminism is the ideal vehicle for discussing how authoritarianism and war are connected; it’s already discussing interconnections between things like race and gender roles.

From the day that Putin launched his so-called “special operation” against Ukraine, he personally connected the attack to LGBT tolerance in the west. “They sought to … force on us their false values that would erode us,” Putin said, with “attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature.” Some US viewers laughed off the tangent as incoherent or bizarre at the time. But to Vasilii, the Russian state’s approach to queerness and its colonial mindset are deeply entwined.

Vasilii was working at the state’s attorney’s office. Even before he started his job, he already knew prosecutors had cozy relationships with the courts — fewer than one percent of cases in the country are acquitted. But when other issues crossed his desk, he didn’t perceive them as tocsins of a democratic backslide. “Corruption, misappropriation of funds that were meant for underprivileged groups, domestic violence — these are the things that may be found in democratic countries too, so when I encountered that as a part of my job, I perceived it as not an indicator of the country in general, but just as a thing that happens in a society.”

By 2014, Vasilii got several signals his country wasn’t going to turn around.

Only eight months before Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists in Ukraine’s east, Putin had signed Russia’s 2013 law banning LGBTQ+ resources for youth. Then, weeks before troops marched onto the Crimean peninsula, British documentarians released footage of a St. Petersburg anti-gay crusader handing out rope at a Russian gay and lesbian event — he was sending a message to people to kill themselves.

Vasilii moved to the Czech Republic two years later, deciding that he would rather do activism somewhere safer than put himself at risk waiting for things in Russia to change. He returned to school for another graduate degree, making Prague his new home.

Now while his motherland engages in an invasive land war, he is watching from afar the trauma he fled on repeat: another foreign invasion and another squeeze on the LGBT community as part of Putin’s authoritarian grasp. In December 2022, Russia expanded its anti-gay law to include any discussion of LGBT issues, even among adults. Gay groups in Russia fear this expansion will start yet another epidemic of homophobic violence.

In Prague, even Russia’s anti-war opposition can be ill-equipped to confront these aspects of Russian society, Vasilii says. He doesn’t want to knock down anyone doing anti-war work, and he’s willing to work with traditionalists on things like gender roles as long as they oppose the war. But during an anti-Putin protest by the Russian diaspora, speeches included homophobic slurs at the political leaders who started the war, he remembers.

“Or, people would say, ‘Russia belongs to the West, we are Europeans,’” he says. “But … Russia is huge and so many people from different groups live there. ‘West is good, East is bad,’ this is not something that we stand by.”

FIGHTING TOGETHER

That intersectional approach is part of what made Varvara feel welcome in the fight. Men in communities like Varvara’s hometown in Siberia are significantly more likely to be drafted than men from Moscow or St. Petersburg. One of the group’s first protests — a small one — called for Russian decolonization. Varvara feels feminism is the ideal vehicle for discussing how authoritarianism and war are connected; it’s already discussing interconnections between things like race and gender roles.

“I want to believe that I’m trying to contribute as … as a woman of color? I don’t know how you say it in Russian because we even don’t have the name,” she said. “An Indigenous woman? I don’t know. I want to believe that this background of mine can help in some part of our movement.”

Her friends and family at home are critical of the war, particularly its impacts at home, although they don’t fully understand the extent of the brutalities abroad, she says. “When you are in Russia, it’s difficult sometimes for you to realize that citizens of your country are doing all these horrific things … but it’s part of what you have to do.”

Katie Toth is a journalist and Erasmus Mundus scholar based in Central Europe. She is also a producer of Inkstick Media’s Things That Go Boom. Listen and subscribe now on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Pocket Casts, or wherever you get your podcasts to receive a new episode every two weeks.