Between ‘Rebelling’ and ‘Conforming’: The Gendered Paradox of the Put’ Domoi Movement in Russia

The leader and participants of the grassroots protest Put’ Domoi (The Way Home) have been labelled as ‘foreign agents’ by the Russia’s Ministry of Justice.

The leader and participants of the grassroots protest Put’ Domoi (The Way Home) have been labelled as ‘foreign agents’ by the Russia’s Ministry of Justice; a recent effort by the government to silence them. While anti-war movements – and the government’s repression towards them – are omnipresent in Russia, Put’ Domoi has particularly captivated the public attention as the movement simultaneously disrupts and conforms to the conventional stigma of women in the war context. Furthermore, while Put’ Domoi is likely to be bestowed with distinctive opportunities due to the way participating women represent themselves, that same representation could also be seen as a constraint to gender equality.

               Through Put’ Domoi, the mothers and wives of the men who have been called up to fight in the Russo-Ukrainian War under the partial mobilisation policy are protesting against Putin’s regime, demanding their sons and husbands to be returned. The symbolic acts of wearing white scarfs and laying flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers monument in Moscow are how Put’ Domoi has been organised. It is also supported by a large online base on Telegram with followers exceeding 65,000. As voiced by its leader Maria Andreyeva, the women of Put’ Domoi call for demobilisation as the lives of their sons and husbands are too precious to be risked for a country that would not protect them in return. Similar to other anti-war movements, Put’ Domoi is also risky; as the risks of incarceration always await those who vocally oppose Putin’s war policies. Nevertheless, Put’ Domoi presents unique challenges for the regime – not solely because it is led and joined by women, but because they are the spouses and mothers, speaking out on behalf of these traditional roles, for the men on the frontlines.

Put’ Domoi and the gendered stereotypes of women in war

               Put’ Domoi can be perceived as a disruption towards the gendered stereotypes which place women as innocent, vulnerable, and pacifist actors in war as illustrated by the ‘beautiful souls’ narrative which corroborates women as peaceful and innocent beings different from men; as a group prevalently belonging to the private sphere instead of war landscapes; and as the justification basis of war. The narrative also underscores how ‘beautiful souls’ are embodied in motherhood with mothers morally and logistically supporting their children to fight on the battlefield.

               Put’ Domoi is a deviation from the ‘beautiful souls’ narrative. Maria Andreyeva and her fellow protesters are neither ‘innocent’ nor ‘peaceful’. They are angry and fully aware of the perilous Russo-Ukrainian war situation, they boldly challenge Putin’s partial mobilisation policy, they share their concerns and collectively formulate strategies online and step out to the public to unequivocally channel their protests; and they gradually grow to be who the Kremlin should be fighting against instead of fighting for. The motherhood aspect within Put’ Domoi also diverges from the ‘beautiful souls’ stereotypes; instead of providing support, the mothers of Put’ Domoi oppose the military drafting of their children and demand their demobilisation.

               Nevertheless, it is also interesting to pay attention to another prominent element of the news that is the excerpts from the ABC’s interview with Maria Andreyeva. As the wife of a mobilised zapaniski or former military personnel, Maria stated that she decided to start protesting because she does not want her spouse to “give precious years of his life” for the state and she further emphasised that “Any normal person is scared, but I understand that my husband’s life is much more important to me”. In regards to the participating mothers, Maria used the analogy of “everything is taken away and flushed down the toilet” to portray their emotions upon seeing their children being put in a dangerous war. Maria also underlined how those mothers once endured the painful pregnancy and childbirth, only for their children to be risking their lives on the battlefield as commanded by the state.

               Maria’s statements imply the centrality of the relational aspect of the women of Put’ Domoi and the men they are protesting for. Put’ Domoi emerged because the wives and mothers are trying to protect their husbands and sons from the risks of war. Representing themselves as loyal wives and nurturing mothers, the women adhere to conventional gendered roles and capitalise them in enacting Put’ Domoi, exclaiming that they want their husbands and sons to be returned home and reunite with them. The demands of the Put’ Domoi women thus not only exhibit an anti-war attitude, but also imply their personal desires to maintain their status as a wife or a mother and to preserve their family compositions where their husbands or sons are present and safe.

               The women’s strong yearnings for the return of their husbands and sons are foreseeable, considering how the conflict and post-conflict settings exacerbate the vulnerabilities and insecurities of women. The conformity of the women of Put’ Domoi towards the conventional gendered stereotypes of women as wives and mothers in war reflect the gendered reality in Russia. For example, another report covering Put’ Domoi from NBC News includes an interview with Asya, one of the participants, which spoke about her struggles to single handedly take care of her daughter while her husband is away and that she “needs a husband at home”.

Put’ Domoi as a social movement: opportunities or constraints?

               Compared to the social movements which deviate from ascribed social norms and rules regarding femininity, the movements where the actions of women comply with them arguably have higher chances to gather support and validation – Put’ Domoi falls under the latter type. Moreover, the emergence of Put’ Domoi in around November 2023 drew its inspiration from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo which also appeared as a ‘conforming’ motherhood-based social movement.

               The argument is evident in the case of Put’ Domoi. Ekaterina Schulmann suggested that as the women of Put’ Domoi embody traditional family values in their actions, they own “a certain moral capital” which is not found in other anti-war movements in Russia and allows the women to be more safe from authorities’ repression because, quoting Schulmann, “You can’t beat up a group of women, especially women whose husbands are on the front line”.

               The political motives behind the provision of ‘opportunities’ given to Put’ Domoi is also apparent under Putin’s regime. Since 2012 the regime has been ambitious in reimposing ‘traditional family values’ with its emphasis on the patriarchal ‘division of labour’ between men and women in heterosexual marriages. Moreover, Putin also attempted to appeal to the mothers of soldiers by inviting them for a televised tea talk session, where he reassured a grieving mother that her deceased son “didn’t die in vain”.

               The conformity of Put’ Domoi towards traditional family values hence put the regime in a dilemmatic position. To eradicate Put’ Domoi means to get rid of one of the vocal opponents of Putin’s war policy, but it also means taking an inconsistent stance of the regime’s inclination towards the preservation of traditional, gendered family values as exercised by the wives and mothers of Put’ Domoi. Hence, women of Put’ Domoi are being put in a ‘middle’ position – they remain subjected to risks of threats from the government, but it is easier for them to be released or evade the detainment from the authorities compared to other movements such as those mobilised by students or opposition parties.

               Put’ Domoi might in a way be given more ‘supportive’ opportunities to operate despite its ‘rebellious’ stance, however the way the women represent themselves as wives and mothers who desperately need their husbands and sons might come under criticisms if examined by radical feminists who underlined that the formation of a heteropatriarchy foundation is the aim of the existence of a marriage, therefore the withdrawal from marriage is a necessary step in abolishing male dominance. Furthermore, the radical feminist perspective has also criticised the notion of motherhood as it is argued to be the cornerstone of oppression against women. Jeffner Allen, one of the eminent second-wave radical feminist, combined the patriarchal conception of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ as she argued that “If woman, in patriarchy, is she who exists as the womb and wife of man, every woman is by definition a mother: she who produces for the sake of men”. Hence, the Put’ Domoi’s emphasis on the traditional, gendered identities of struggling wives and women who are left by their husbands and sons can be seen as perpetuating patriarchy and imposing constraints to the progress of gender equality according to the radical feminist.

               The recent development of Russia’s blacklisting attempts towards Put’ Domoi by the attribution of ‘foreign agents’ label thus generates questions. When the traditional gendered roles as mothers and wives are not giving them ‘privileges’ anymore, should the women of Put’ Domoi re-strategise their movement? Or should they continue and simultaneously resist the ‘beautiful souls’ narrative, persisting on their gendered paradox to ultimately show that women can be mothers, wives, and activists all at once?

Maurizka Callista Chairunnisa
Maurizka Callista Chairunnisa
A Bachelor of International Relations concentrating in Peace and Conflict Studies from Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia. Currently works as an Undergraduate Program Assistant and a Teaching Assistant in the Department of International Relations Universitas Gadjah Mada.