Dissent in the ranks. Why has Russia’s highly influential demobilisation movement fractured? — Novaya Gazeta Europe
StoriesSociety

Dissent in the ranks

Why has Russia’s highly influential demobilisation movement fractured?

Dissent in the ranks

A rally organised by wives of mobilised Russian soldiers on 3 June. Photo: PauliaMobility / Telegram

Groups campaigning for demobilisation have increasingly been finding themselves in the crosshairs of the Russian authorities. On 31 May, The Way Home, the best known organisation campaigning to bring Russia's mobilised reservists home, was branded a “foreign agent” by the Justice Ministry, as was one of its most prominent organisers. What’s next for the increasingly disparate grassroots movement?

On 3 June, a rally organised by the wives of mobilised Russian soldiers took place outside the Defence Ministry in Moscow. A dozen women with their children in tow stood in front of the building holding up signs demanding a meeting with new Defence Minister Andrey Belousov. While Belousov did not meet their demands, a senior ministry official, Colonel-General Alexander Borisenko, was sent out to speak to them, though he ended up accusing them of “rocking the boat” and telling them their protest meant that they no longer had the right to call themselves Russian citizens.

A police van arrived at the scene and officers reminded the protesters that their actions were illegal and threatened to arrest them. Protesters stood their ground and refused to leave, however, and, rather surprisingly, the police eventually left without arresting anyone. One protester, Maria Semyonova, later described the incident as “spontaneous and intuitive action” on her Telegram channel.

Pressure from the authorities is not the only problem faced by the wider Russian demobilisation movement, though — a once cohesive and united group is increasingly being fractured by internal disputes.

Emergence

In the months that followed Putin’s “partial” mobilisation order in September 2022, the wives of the almost 300,000 Russian reservists who were drafted to serve in Ukraine began to form communities and support networks all over Russia. While many people initially believed that the Russian military would quickly triumph and those who were called up would soon be able to return home, it’s now abundantly clear that demobilisation is nowhere in sight.

The initial optimism many Russians felt about the war was soon overshadowed by the horror stories many people had to tell about the mobilisation process. Many of those who were sent to fight in Ukraine were effectively press ganged into service, with medical and professional exemptions disregarded by recruiters and many conscripts being deployed to the frontline without the necessary equipment and training.

Having in many cases lost their primary breadwinner, many families have been forced to take out loans or sell possessions to survive financially. But while a minority of soldiers’ wives and mothers were openly critical of mobilisation and lodged appeals or complaints with the authorities, the default position for the majority of those left behind was a pro-war one, with many even collecting supplies and equipment for the front.

Relatives of mobilised soldiers near a draft office in Moscow in September 2022. Photo: Yuri Kochetkov / EPA-EFE

Relatives of mobilised soldiers near a draft office in Moscow in September 2022. Photo: Yuri Kochetkov / EPA-EFE

However, within a year the outlook was very different once it became clear that none of the mobilised would be returning anytime soon and soldiers’ wives were for the first time referred to as an opposition force. By this point, many women had attempted to fight for their husbands and sons through the legal system, and had realised that this would achieve nothing.

In November about 30 demobilisation activists hijacked a Communist party rally in Moscow, the first public demonstration demanding demobilisation. Elsewhere, attempts to coordinate rallies were thwarted by authorities as applications to rally were rejected.

In December, The Way Home published its manifesto, in which it called mobilisation a “terrible mistake”.

But despite the best attempts of the authorities to hobble the organisation, it began to gain real traction in Russian society once The Way Home Telegram channel was set up. Over time, the channel gained a huge following and its administrators began to openly call for an end to the war. In December, The Way Home published its manifesto, in which it called mobilisation a “terrible mistake” and described Putin’s previous assurances that conscripts doing their obligatory year of military service would not be sent to fight in Ukraine as “empty promises”.

Divergence 

At the same time, less radical groups were developing, including the Vernyom Rebyat Telegram channel, created by activist Olga Katz. The channel maintained blind loyalty to the Kremlin and Katz avoided any hint of anti-war sentiment in her posts, while also urging her supporters not to speak to foreign media.

When the channel collected more than 100,000 signatures for a petition demanding the return of those who had been mobilised, the Defence Ministry and Presidential Administration responded by dismissing the group’s concerns and promising respite for the mobilised only “in accordance with the established procedure”.

A week later, Katz’s brother, who had been mobilised, died and Katz stopped organising and running the movement. As a result, the channel and movement dissolved and people dispersed to other channels or continued to organise independently.

By summer 2023, the two ideologically opposed camps, one moderate, loyal and uncontroversial, the other staunchly anti-war, had become too divided to be able to work together to achieve their shared main aim. 

The mantle of Katz’s Kremlin loyalty was quickly picked up by the spontaneously formed Women’s Front, which condemned the stance and methods of The Way Home channel. By summer 2023, the two ideologically opposed camps, one moderate, loyal and uncontroversial, the other staunchly anti-war, had become too divided to be able to work together to achieve their shared main aim.

Despite the collapse of Katz’s group, the Women’s Front continued to insist that petitions were the only way to achieve justice, advising channel members not to rock the boat by giving interviews, and not to insult government officials.

The Way Home soon became infamous for its very different approach, namely its lack of structural hierarchy and absence of links to other opposition groups.

Accepting reality

Paulina Safronova has always rejected her label as one of The Way Home movement’s leaders. Just 20 years old, Safronova has a nearly two-year-old daughter Aurora, whose father, an IT specialist from Moscow, is mobilised in Ukraine.

Safronova’s husband was mobilised while he looked for a new job following the withdrawal of his former employer from Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Safronova said that upon receiving his summons, her husband went to the military recruitment office expecting to be exempted. However, not only was he not given a dispensation, he wasn’t even allowed to return home, meaning that Safronova, aged 18 at the time, was literally left holding the baby. When Safronova appealed to the military prosecutor’s office she was simply told that there was nothing that could be done.

Safronova with her husband and child. Photo:  PauliaMobility  / Telegram

Safronova with her husband and child. Photo: PauliaMobility / Telegram

Initially Safronova busied herself with collecting and organising aid for the mobilised as, she says, providing much needed items such as food, generators, spare parts and tools was one of the best ways to keep your loved one alive.

By her own admission, Safronova had never been interested in politics and chose to believe the war would end quickly, given the narrative’s constant repetition by Russian state media. But after the first year of war, she began to accept reality and decided to get involved in activism.

Safronova’s first contact with the demobilisation movement happened when an acquaintance invited her to join Katz’s Vernyom Rebyat Telegram channel. When Safronova joined the channel, signatures were being collected for its petition which sought to establish specific terms of service for the mobilised. Safronova said that she actively collected signatures but the organisers were ultimately in control with the process and that everything was very strict.

According to Safronova, after Katz stopped leading the group, the movement quickly split between those who continued to follow the group’s strict rules banning communication with the press and holding demonstrations,and those who joined more liberal and open movements such as The Way Home.

Safronova at a demobilisation rally in front of the Defence Ministry in Moscow, 6 January. Photo: Olga Maltseva / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Safronova at a demobilisation rally in front of the Defence Ministry in Moscow, 6 January. Photo: Olga Maltseva / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Safronova is quite critical of the Women’s Front, which according to her, comprises solely mobilised wives. She criticised Women’s Front’s chat moderators who attempt to steer agendas and denigrate other groups. Safronova also said that the Women’s Front stated that protests and rallies disgraced mobilised husbands, and that the mobilised would die because of the actions of those who protested.

Breaking away

In autumn 2023, Safronova joined the Way Home and became a prominent figure within the group, making public statements at protests and starting her own Telegram channel. Safronova said that while she did not personally organise or run The Way Home, she did know who was behind the channel.

According to Safronova, the group’s founders include lawyers, PR gurus and marketing managers, who have developed a professional and polished media strategy for The Way Home, which has in turn led to frequent criticism of the group by Kremlin propagandists such as Vladimir Solovyov for being “too professional”.

In February, Safronova unexpectedly announced her decision to break from the Way Home movement following what she described as its recent radicalisation. By Safronova’s own admission, since her decision to leave the group relationships with its founders have become strained, especially with Andreyeva, who has apparently called Safronova out for being a phoney.

Unlike The Way Home group itself, Safronova has never come out expressly against the war and has instead insisted that the situation was not a clear cut one. She says that the final straw for Andreyeva was when arch conservative Russian filmmaker and propagandist Nikita Mikhalkov praised Safronova, after which Andreyeva believed her to be in the pay of the Russian security forces.

Maria Andreyeva declined Novaya Gazeta Baltic’s request for comment.

pdfshareprint
Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.