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In Russia, the new year began with a plea. A group of war widows appealed directly to President Vladimir Putin, asking him to close the borders and send millions of Russian men to fight in Ukraine. “We are the ones who didn’t hide our husbands under our skirts,” the group wrote on Telegram in a Jan. 2 post.
The little-known collective was ridiculed on social media by Ukrainians and Russia-watchers for asking for something that would undoubtedly result in more soldiers’ wives suffering their own widowed, terrible fate. The end of the message invoked Josef Stalin’s 1942 “Not a Step Back” order, which decreed that soldiers who retreated be shot on the spot. A World War II poster accompanies the widows’ Telegram post, showing a young mother reprimanding a soldier, presumably her husband.
And so the war in Ukraine entered a new calendar year, with women where they have often been in this conflict: at its center.
Amid the hypermasculinity and extreme levels of violence of the Russian war machine, gender has loomed large in Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, where the war is largely being fought along traditional divides. Russia’s combat forces appear to be all men, and while around 15% of Ukraine’s armed forces are female, martial law forbids only men of “fighting age” from leaving the country, meaning men should face the invader on home turf while women are largely expected to look after children and the elderly (they have also formed the bulk of the country’s 7.5 million refugees). The war has also challenged the gender status quo, at least in Ukraine, where millions of Ukrainian women have mobilized, providing vital logistics and non-combat support, describing themselves as the “rear front line.” Women across the country are becoming heads of households, often overnight, as men leave to fight. Perhaps this is part of the reason why Ukraine’s Parliament last year finally ratified the Istanbul Convention, the international treaty addressing violence against women.
The genderization of the conflict extends to Russia’s treatment of Ukraine as a whole, whereby Moscow paints itself as male and therefore superior to and dominant of Kyiv, which is female, subservient and without agency; a damsel in distress who needs rescuing. Indeed, much of the rhetoric coming out of Russian officialdom has centered around the need to “save” its smaller, fellow Slav nation.
“Putin is making use of common understandings and assumptions about gender to establish a sharp contrast between Russian strength and Ukrainian weakness,” Jenny Mathers, a researcher on security and women at Aberystwyth University in Wales, told New Lines. “And the ultimate weakness for someone like Putin, who prides himself on exemplifying masculinity, is to be a woman or [behave] like a woman.”
As Russians sat down to enjoy the much-watched New Year’s Eve show on state television a few weeks ago, a male presenter smugly told viewers that Russia is going to further expand in 2023, “whether you like it or not.” The catchy phrase, which rhymes in Russian, was a variation of the obscene ditty about rape that Putin quoted to French President Emmanuel Macron shortly before his army invaded in early 2022. Putin took the line, “Like it or not, it’s your duty, my beauty,” from a Soviet-era punk song.
This behavior has translated into brutality against Ukrainian women on the battlefield, which amounts to war crimes. Russian troops have been systematically seizing Ukrainian women and children and deporting them to Russia, where, the thinking goes, they will eventually marry Russian men and either have new, Russian children or bring up their own as Russians. According to Ukrainian officials, almost 3 million people have been stolen by Moscow in this way, the majority of them women and children.
The rape by Russian armed forces of Ukrainians, mostly women and children but also men, has been widely documented by Ukrainian and international officials and investigators. There have even been incidents of Russian women commending the sexual violence in leaked telephone conversations with their partners. An investigative body mandated by the United Nations said Ukrainian victims have ranged in age from 4 to over 80.
Since the invasion, a Russian parliamentarian has referred to Ukraine as an “AIDS-infected prostitute” and Putin has described President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a kept woman for his reliance on foreign military aid. This is a continuation of the narrative promoted by Russia in the wake of the pro-European Maidan uprising in Ukraine in 2014, when a stream of anti-Ukrainian propaganda on Russian social media depicted male Ukrainian politicians being raped and Ukraine as the wayward, sexually promiscuous sister of Russia.
In Russia, Zelenskyy is often painted as a rape victim, hapless and unable to avoid being violated by both Russia and the West. At the end of last year, Donald Trump Jr. came under fire for reposting a Russian meme on Instagram showing a small image of the Ukrainian leader cowering beneath an underwear-clad woman whose head had been superimposed with that of then-Speaker of the U.S. House Nancy Pelosi. “See that wasn’t so bad. Now let’s get you that $47 billion,” the caption reads.
Even so, Putin — somewhat counterintuitively — has relied on women’s support throughout his 22 years in power and has, albeit selectively, listened to them in the past. In this sense, the war widows’ message was particularly curious. In previous conflicts, the mothers of conscripted Russians have played an instrumental role in how their sons have been treated. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia became one of the country’s most-respected civil society organizations, providing a base to oppose Moscow’s wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan. Today, Russian mothers and wives are also looking for their men who have been killed in Ukraine, and some have even taken to the streets in protest at their mobilization. They were not, until this mysterious, ultra-patriotic group appeared at the end of 2022, asking for more men to go fight.
Despite having a heavily male-dominated government, openly insulting women for menstruating and decriminalizing domestic violence, Putin remains popular with women, especially those who are older. Russia has the largest life-expectancy gender gap in the world, meaning by the time women reach retirement age in their mid-60s, their husbands have often died. Putin, who is depicted as virile but with a soft spot for puppies and young children, has been a welcome mainstay in many of their lives. He now needs their support perhaps more than ever. On International Women’s Day last year, a month after the invasion of Ukraine, Putin, invoking Catherine the Great, told the women of Russia to be proud of their soldiers fighting in Ukraine.
But as the war rages, and with a Russian spring offensive expected — and with it more mobilized Russian men — how long will he be able to keep his country’s women on board?
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