The mothers and wives of Russian soldiers demand their return from Ukraine: ‘I do not wish the terror I feel on anyone’

Some of these women have started a channel on Telegram to call for the demobilization of their soldiers. Two months before the elections, this display of discontent is a headache for the Kremlin

guerra ucrania
Scores of Russian recruits board a train in Prudboi, Volgograd region, in October 2022, just weeks after Putin decreed a partial mobilization.AP
Javier G. Cuesta

In the third year of his war against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin decreed that this would be the year of the family in Russia. But now, two months before the presidential elections, some of those families are starting to become a headache for the government. Late last summer, a small group of mothers, wives and girlfriends of civilians, whom the Kremlin forced into military service in the Ukraine war in autumn 2022, started a Telegram channel to call for the soldiers’ return. The ‘Road Home’ platform — Put Domói, in Russian — now has over 30,000 followers. They are a minority, largely out of fear, but a growing group of women are calling for measures to bring their relatives home from the front. They are expressing their discomfort on the channel, have addressed deputies and held protests.

“I don’t wish the terror I feel on any other woman,” one of the channel’s administrators tells this newspaper; as she does so, she is always uneasy at the prospect of a notification from the Ministry of Defense. During her pauses, her son can be heard shouting for her on the other end of the phone. “I have my husband, my brother and some friends on the front,” she laments. Nevertheless, she assures us that those affected have no choice but to show their discontent; she requests anonymity for security reasons. “We all say the same thing to each other, why be afraid? I’m more afraid of losing him and blaming myself if I don’t do anything at all.”

Enternal Flame
This Thursday, a group of women lay flowers in memory of those who died in the plane crash on Wednesday in Belgorod. AP

“There are also many girls who stress that they don’t want to send anyone to the front,” she notes. Her initiative calls for total demobilization, not just the replacement of some soldiers with others, so that only those who want to serve in the army by contract would serve. “We would like a ceasefire, but we don’t know how much strength we have to achieve that,” she adds, before repeating that their main goal is a demobilization.

“We think that if the special military operation [that’s what Putin calls the offensive on Ukraine] ends, our men will be back home, but we need a demobilization decree because it is possible that they will be left there or moved elsewhere,” the channel administrator explains. In addition, her group calls for greater control by prosecutors and human rights ombudsmen at recruitment points and for compulsory military service to be replaced by social services away from the frontlines.

Putin ordered the first mobilization on September 21, 2022, despite the fact that, weeks earlier, the Kremlin itself denied that it had planned to take such a step. According to the Defense Ministry, the goal was to recruit 300,000 civilians, but the decree did not include a figure. The Kremlin called a halt to the mobilization in early 2023, but never issued another decree or document confirming the end of the process. The Russian government assured then that the president’s word was enough.

“We formed our platform in the summer [of 2023]. Several girls were in different groups and realized that this would not help. Before, we were all fighting alone and we decided to get together,” says the ‘Road Home’ administrator. However, they have faced a slew of problems and silence from the regime.

Rusia ejércitos
A poster advertising enrollment in the Armed Forces on a street in St. Petersburg on January 11. ANATOLY MALTSEV (EFE)

“At first no one wanted to bring our subject to light; it seemed like a secret under lock and key. If we wrote to some governor when he spoke on a live program, he answered the most banal questions and ignored the hundreds of messages about the return of the mobilized,” she recalls.

After appealing “en masse” to the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian legislature, these women managed to meet with some deputies. “They often told us that we could solve this problem with vacations, and that was it,” she recalls. “There are no rotations there. Those who are lucky go on vacation and those who are not, tough luck. It’s been over a year and some of the conscripts have not come home,” she complains.

The pressure on ‘Road Home’ began to grow after some women and mothers of soldiers conveyed their problem to the Communist Party in November. “They put propagandists and bots [on social media] to speak against us, and so on, until today: [they say] that we are from the CIA or people from abroad are paying us,” the administrator decries. In addition, Telegram labeled the channel “fake” after receiving complaints of allegedly usurping the identity of some women. “We asked for a verification request immediately and there was no response. Several journalists also tried to contact Pavel Durov — Telegram’s founder — but there was no official response either.”

On January 17, the pressure on these women intensified. Some laid flowers and individually picketed with signs at the places where the Eternal Flame commemorates Russian soldiers. As reported by ‘On the Way Home,’ some balaclava-wearing members of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Center for Combating Extremism approached the woman on the subway to identify them. However, these efforts did not frighten them, and the women continued their initiative in the days that followed.

“The act of laying flowers is different for everyone. Anyone can put two carnations here for his truth. For his freedom. For his life. For the life of their loved ones (...). Honor the memory of our boys or laying flowers for “never again,” the group said last weekend.

In another of its posts, the channel noted that Putin had declared January 23 as the beginning of the year of the family. “We don’t want to answer a child’s question that is like a stab in the heart every time they ask it: ‘When is daddy coming?’ We don’t know the answer. For some reason no one does, and, apparently, neither does the president. The all-knowing, all-powerful president doesn’t know.”

Some group members’ views on the war differ, but all the platform’s participants share the desire for it to end now. “We also sympathize with the other side,” this channel administrator says of the suffering of Ukrainians. “Those women are also suffering mothers; they’re brought the same coffins as we are. There are also ordinary people there, like our people, who were simply steamrolled by this [war] machine.”

Political demonstrations have been banned de facto in Russia since the pandemic, although the repression has undergone several twists and turns with the invasion of Ukraine. According to the website OVD-Info, which specializes in political persecution, some 19,850 people have been arrested for protesting since February 24, 2022. For this reason, the Kremlin is suspicious of the demands of the female relatives of conscripts.

Political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the R. Politik think tank, says that Putin may perceive these women’s activities as a betrayal: “The authorities take seriously the protests they consider legitimate, such as demonstrations over the lack of heating, illegal construction or even radically anti-Semitic speeches, but they see protests by the wives of mobilized people, those in Bashkiria - over the conviction of a local ethnic defender - and harmless individual pickets in support of political prisoners as illegitimate and should therefore be harshly repressed.”

The Kremlin is confronting a sensitive issue because the protesting women are the wives of the very people on whom the future of the Ukrainian war depends. Shortly after the mobilization, Putin staged a meeting with several wives and mothers of servicemen who support his cause in Ukraine, although it later emerged that many of them had some connection with the government.

However, the fear and pain of many households threatens to open a rift between the people and the Kremlin. This week, ‘Road Home’ posted a video on its channel in which an alleged Russian soldier confronted policemen for trying to prevent the women from laying flowers. “We will come back and ask each of you why you confronted our women while we confronted the Khojli (the derogatory term by which Russians refer to Ukrainians for the traditional Cossack lock of hair, the oseledets),” the soldier, his face covered by a balaclava, told the officers, encouraging them to go to the front instead of pressuring soldiers’ wives.

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