The women who could save Russia

The biggest threat to Vladimir Putin’s strongman rule may just come from women – especially when they base their activism on the very ‘traditional values’ he purports to venerate

07.03.2024. Russia. Moscow. A woman with a bouquet of mimosa at the Riga market on the eve of International Women’s Day on March 8.
Image by picture alliance / | Bulkin Sergey

Vladimir Putin carefully selected his competition for Russia’s presidential election this month: three compliant men in grey suits who pose no threat to his power. Women are completely absent from the ballot. But when it comes to genuine opposition, Russian women are becoming a force to be reckoned with.

This phenomenon plays out at both the grassroots and elite levels. The late opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s arrest in 2021 saw mass protests erupt across Russia, with women constituting almost half the demonstrators – a significant increase from the previous wave of anti-Kremlin protests in 2019. Since the all-out invasion of Ukraine, women have accounted for up to 70 per cent of protesters in major cities, especially since Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilisation in 2022. Indeed, the wives and mothers of mobilised men are becoming a prominent movement in the country.

Women have also taken on high-profile roles in the anti-Putin and anti-war opposition. Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, has declared she will continue her husband’s work following his death in a Siberian penal colony last month. And Ekaterina Duntsova, a journalist and former small-town councillor, has become the face of Russia’s anti-war political mobilisation – even attempting to run for president.

This trend towards the feminisation of politics could pose new risks for the Kremlin. Putin increasingly emphasises patriarchal and conservative ‘values’ as part of his domestic agenda, limiting the scope for severe repression against opposition women – especially when they base their political actions on family values. The Kremlin may struggle to simultaneously put ‘traditional family values’ at the centre of its political ideology, with macho Putin as the ‘father of the nation’, while at the same time brutally suppressing the political movements of ‘protective mothers’, ‘faithful wives’, and ‘hardworking country folk’. And, in spite of the Kremlin’s patriarchy, over the past 15 years 60-70 per cent of Russians have consistently supported an increased role for women in politics and public service.

All of this means that the impact of three new female political agents in Russia could merge into a full-fledged threat to the Putin regime.

Women who don’t want to be widows

Over the past year, a new movement has emerged in Russia that comprises the wives, mothers, and sisters of mobilised men. This grassroots “Way Home” movement, which began in online chatrooms, aims to secure the return of loved ones from war and seeks legal protections for the soldiers. The women have adopted white headscarves as a symbol of their cause, reminiscent of the mothers of Argentina’s ‘disappeared’ during the military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s.

The “Way Home” currently boasts around 50,000 members. Political scientist Grigory Yudin noted in December that the movement could not be deemed not fully political, because its “claims are not a claim for power, but requests from power.” That is, the women do not want to challenge the Putin regime, but be heard by it. The movement’s appeals to the authorities, however, have not yielded any results – and its leaders are becoming more politically conscious. Their growing radicalism has included direct calls for Putin to end the war.

“Way Home” members are fighting the state for their families, for their children to have fathers. This is especially sensitive given that Putin has declared 2024 the “year of the family” and made support for family values one of the pillars of his election campaign. Even so, transitioning to a more structured political entity poses considerable risks to “Way Home” members, especially given the government’s history of repressing similar movements. A previous attempt to unite relatives of mobilised men for collective action in Russia – the Council of Wives and Mothers, established in 2022 – expired after the Ministry of Justice placed its head, Olga Tsukanova, on the register of foreign agents, and other activists were summoned by the police and accused of distributing extremist materials.

The women of the “Way Home” are already subject to surveillance, legal persecution, and efforts at public discreditation – particularly from state media. Given the growing popularity and radicalism of the “Way Home” and its leaders, things may soon take an even harsher turn. This raises questions about the feasibility of substantial political transformation in Russia given the current climate of repression.

Yulia Navalnaya has vowed to continue her husband’s mission to bring about a “normal European Russia”

A widow who unites

Yulia Navalnaya has vowed to continue her husband’s mission to bring about a “normal European Russia”. Since his death, she has appealed to the international community, urging non-recognition of this month’s election, advocating continued economic sanctions against the Putin regime, and arguing that the West should do more to support anti-war Russians. Her powerful speeches received ovations at both the Munich Security Conference and in the European Parliament.

Within Russia too, Navalnaya has garnered substantial emotional and political support, tapping into cultural narratives reminiscent of historical figures such as Olga – a medieval saint princess, who avenged her husband’s murderers and then enjoyed a long and noble reign over Russia. Navalnaya has called for Russians to protest the election by gathering en masse on 17 March at polling stations to spoil their ballots, or just stand silently outside at noon.

And therein lies a potential problem: Navalnaya is forced to live in exile outside Russia, so she cannot participate in this demonstration herself. Neither she nor her children were present at her husband’s funeral. Moreover, her position looks less sustainable than that of, for example, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – who first won the 2020 election after the arrest of her husband and then fled Belarus.

Navalnaya as a representative of the united Russian opposition may thus have a serious problem with legitimacy. So far, Navalnaya’s legitimacy derives from trust her husband built, but this resource can quickly dry up. Russian propaganda media has begun a misogynistic disinformation campaign against her, accusing her of adultery and abortion – that is, attempting to discredit her as a woman. As Navalnaya navigates her role within the opposition, she will need to go beyond her husband’s anti-corruption work and engage with the broader dynamics of Russian politics. This will involve establishing a connection with the domestic audience as well as anti-Putin Russians in exile – despite her adversities and the smear campaign against her.

A mum from the provinces

The key advantage for the journalist from Rzhev, Ekaterina Duntsova, is that she engages in political activities while remaining in Russia. Late last year, she announced her intention to run for president as an anti-war candidate, receiving widespread support. Predictably enough, Russia’s Central Election Commission swiftly drummed up enough technicalities to reject her registration.

This has not stopped Duntsova: she continues to campaign across Russia’s regions and meet with supporters, thereby forming her own political infrastructure of local offices and meetings as Navalny did during his 2018 campaign.

Formally, regional meetings are dedicated to registering Duntsova’s political party “Rassvet” (Dawn). It is of course unlikely that the Kremlin will register this party, as it previously did with Navalny’s project. But this will not prevent the regional offices from engaging in political activities within the ever-shrinking confines of the Russian legal framework.

Duntsova’s experience in municipal-level politics will help her create local projects and develop these regional offices. Navalny’s local projects simplified the process of complaining to local authorities about issues such as potholes through automated requests to regulatory bodies. Although Duntsova’s political trajectory is so far remarkably similar to that of Navalny, she is a woman of humble origins, so it is possible that the Kremlin may underestimate her and the danger of her initiatives (as the Lukashenka regime did with Tsikhanouskaya).

Among the public, Duntsova gains widespread support precisely because of her background: a mother of three on a low income, who understands and articulates the social agenda well, combining it with a careful anti-war message and demands for democratic reforms. It is difficult for the Kremlin to discredit this image, so its propaganda attacks Duntsova for her alleged connections with the exiled opposition businessman – or, as the Kremlin likes to phrase it, “fugitive oligarch” – Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Duntsova’s biggest vulnerability right now is her almost complete defencelessness against repression. Her base of supporters is still small; she lacks international recognition; and she has not developed connections among other Russian opposition figures. Nevertheless, the Kremlin might overlook the moment when Duntsova acquires all these resources – and becomes a figure reminiscent of Navalnaya but inside Russia.

Female threat

So, women may just be the biggest threat to Putin’s regime as he begins his fifth term as president.

The leaders of the “Way Home” movement are creating a horizontal and potentially massive political force, one that any Russian woman who has a son or husband can align with. Navalnaya instils hope in democratically oriented Russians whom the Kremlin has intimidated, repressed, and forced into exile – despite her challenges to gain legitimacy at home. Duntsova, meanwhile, is quietly and determinedly establishing a base in Russia’s provinces, and with her persistence expanding the possibilities for legal yet oppositional political action with an anti-war message. Effectively, she is continuing to engage with the voter group that supported another banned anti-war presidential candidate, Boris Nadezhdin.

And these are just the three most significant examples. Russia has a large feminist community that has now split into two parts: activists in exile who are playing an increasingly prominent role in the Russian political opposition, and those who have remained in Russia and continue to support women’s solidarity at the risk of their lives. The Kremlin will find it difficult to deal with all these threats simultaneously without undermining Putin’s hypermasculine image and the ultraconservative, patriarchal values he and his entourage promote.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Visiting Fellow
Visiting Fellow

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