“If men knew how difficult it is to bring life into this world, they would never start wars.”
Within hours of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, on Feb. 24, 2022, women in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus posted their maternity photos with this tagline across social media. The grassroots group Souz Materei (Union of Mothers) launched and led the online anti-war campaign centered on women’s perspectives on peacebuilding and resistance.
During the first days of the war, Ukrainian mothers recorded videos pleading with Russian and Belarusian mothers not to send their sons to Ukraine and shared them on Telegram. Shortly after the invasion, mothers of conscripts in Russia found themselves unable to communicate with their sons. They later learned that while the unit commander told the conscripts that they would conduct exercises on the Russia-Ukraine border, the military instead took them into Ukraine to fight directly.
A few days after the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry launched the initiative Look For Your Own (Ishchi Svoikh), which provided information about fallen or captured Russian soldiers to their families. When the Russian government swiftly blocked access to the initiative’s website for people browsing in Russia, Souz Materei leveraged its grassroots connections. The network of women outside of Russia continued accessing the Ukrainian website. It provided information to mothers in Russia and Belarus who had lost contact with their family members in Ukraine.
Putin is well-known for his misogyny, and so the resistance movement connects women through their conviction against the war. Across these warring states, whether in Belarus, Ukraine, or Russia, women speak the same language of motherhood, and they know the value of bringing life into this world. They are not afraid to resist a senseless war that will deprive them of their children.
The Kremlin continues to call the war a “special operation.” Anyone using the word “war” in Russia faces 15 years in jail for spreading false information. Most of the population in Russia, who have very little to no access to independent news outlets, supports Putin’s special operation in Ukraine. And, of course, there are women — and mothers — in Russia who support the Kremlin’s offensive in Ukraine. Nevertheless, country-wide protests have continued. According to OVD-Info, an independent human rights media project about political persecution in Russia, over 15,000 anti-war protesters have been detained in Russia since Feb. 24. Most of the protestors in Russia and Belarus are women, and women are leading the anti-war effort.
When a group of Russian mothers and their young children went to the Ukrainian Embassy to lay flowers at the gate, they were detained with their children. Violence, especially against women, holds these regimes together.
Elena Kovalskaya, the director of the state-run Meyerhold theater in Moscow, was one of the first women who publicly condemned the war. Within hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she declared on her social media pages that she was resigning from her role. “You can’t work for a killer and get paid by him,” she declared. The Meyerhold theater shared similar anti-war sentiments in the official statement, “We cannot be silent about this. We only have this left to say: ‘No to war.’”
Marina Litvinovich, a well-known Russian human rights activist, was one of the first women who called for Russians to take to the streets to protest the war in Ukraine in a video she shared on social media. Soon after, she was detained by the Russian police as she exited her house on Feb. 24. She was later released and now continues her human rights work
Then-Russian state TV employee, Marina Ovsyannikova, disrupted a live broadcast by jumping onto the set behind the anchor with a handmade sign, “Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. You are being lied to here.” She was detained immediately and questioned by the police for nearly 14 hours without access to legal representation. After her release, she explained that most people in Russia, including her mother, supported the war because they didn’t see the complete picture of the war in Ukraine.
In Belarus, a group of mothers of soldiers gathered on Mar. 3, 2022, to pray for peace and the end of the war in Ukraine. There were about 100 of them at the Orthodox Holy Spirit Cathedral in Minsk. The OMON riot police detained four women as they were exiting the church. After holding and questioning them for four hours, they were released.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian democratic opposition leader in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania, ramped up her anti-war movement shortly after the beginning of the war. In her videos addressing the Belarusian women, she encouraged them to convince their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers not to go to war against Ukraine. She also provided several options for ways in which the Belarusians could provide help to the Ukrainian refugees. Her team also started combatting state-sponsored disinformation by printing leaflets and samizdat with information about what was happening on the ground in Ukraine.
GLOBAL MOVEMENTS AND HISTORICAL LESSONS
Women’s marches and other acts of resistance by women are usually perceived as non-violent or as less violent than actions led by men. Society tends to react differently to a group of women dressed in all white and with flowers in their hair marching in Minsk, Belarus, then to the large groups of angry men marching in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Yet, in Belarus and Russia, the police used excessive force to detain the protesters and later inflicted abuse, torture, and inhumane treatment on women in their custody. When a group of Russian mothers and their young children went to the Ukrainian Embassy to lay flowers at the gate, they were detained with their children. Violence, including against women, holds these regimes together.
Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian women’s solidarity against the war is not a new phenomenon. We have seen women succeed at advancing peace by joining forces across religious and territorial borders in recent history. In Argentina, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo movement began with just 14 mothers looking for their sons and daughters who were disappeared from the state during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1970s. While the movement grew, its leaders faced violence, and many of them are believed to have been killed by the regime. Despite the efforts of the regime to silence the dissidents with violence and intimidation, these women’s persistent activism — fueled by desperation, fear, and love — raised awareness and helped turn the public against the regime. While the war ended in 1983, mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared still seek justice and truth about their lost children.
Women from all walks of life and diverse religions joined forces for peace in Liberia, and before that, cross-cutting ties made inroads to peace during the Northern Ireland peace process. Through community dialogue, women made tangible breakthroughs for peace. These women, just like women in Russia and Belarus, faced threats to their lives and the safety of their families. Many are not written into history despite their perseverance and commitment to ending violence.
As we look at the history of women’s leadership in peacebuilding, it is crucial to remember how humble the beginnings were for those movements and how often men underestimated them. In Russia and Ukraine, history has once again become present, and we can learn lessons from the bravery of women past and present. In Poland, mothers left strollers at the train station in Przemysl Glowny as gifts for the mothers arriving from Ukraine with young children because they knew that those mothers would need the support after their long and arduous journeys. Leadership and resistance, therefore, comes in many forms.
Asmik Arutyunyan is a Senior Program Specialist at the Center for Russia & Europe at the US Institute of Peace. Her work focuses on the intersection of gender, international security, and development.