Living Their Best Lives

“People have been sending [me] this from Paris all morning.”

Source: Darja Serenko, Facebook, 25 October 2022


The movement was born underground, on February 25, the day after Russian troops entered Ukrainian territory, but as its co-founder, Darja Serenko, immediately clarifies, “We were not starting from scratch.” Feminist Anti-War Resistance (Feministskoe antivoennoe soprotivlenie, or FAS) unites 45 organizations that already existed in different sectors, to which dozens of anonymous activists in sixty cities in Russia have been added, not counting those who had to go into exile. It is a network that is increasingly determined to take action and make itself heard.

Her hair short and asymmetric, her gaze direct, Serenko, who was in Paris in early October, is categorical: the violence in Ukraine fuels domestic violence, and vice versa. “War and women’s rights are closely linked,” she explains, “because on the one hand, men, who come back with their traumas, constitute a real danger to them. On the other hand, those who commit the worst crimes [on the battlefield] are often the same ones who are the most brutal at home.” The 29-year-old activist, one of the movement’s few public figures, does not forget to mention the driving force behind the violence — the regime. “Vladimir Putin is the stupidest representation of Russian masculinity,” she says. “He serves, alas, as a model for some Russian men, but he does not represent us. We laugh about it, even if it’s hard to laugh under a dictatorship.”

A poet and literature teacher who had been “fired from everywhere,” the young woman fled Russia to take refuge in Georgia two weeks after the FAS’s creation and her last stint in jail, from February 7 to 23, just before the start of the war. Prosecuted for “extremism” — the presence of the logo of opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation on her Instagram account was enough to merit that charge — she was arrested at the same time as her friend Maria Alyokhina, a member of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot. Placed under house arrest, the latter managed to escape in April, disguised as a food delivery courier.

“The time for peaceful resistance is over”

In Russia, the feminist movement has continued to grow as the crackdown on society has expanded, especially in the wake of a law decriminalizing domestic violence, adopted in 2017, with the strong support of the Orthodox Church. But it was indeed the war that united their efforts. Born in Siberia and transplanted to Moscow, Serenko, who is also an LGBT activist, committed herself in 2014, after Russia’s first aggression against Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and the start of the armed conflict in Donbas. “War is a backlash, a crucible of conservatism,” she emphasizes. “During the Second World War, women took the place of men in the rear, before being again excluded from important positions. And voila! They were then sent back to the reproductive front.”

On October 7, in Paris, the activist, invited to testify at a forum organized by Russie-Libertés, bluntly outlined her vision of things today: “The time for peaceful resistance is over. I’ve always been in favor of peaceful protests, but now I’m not.” In fact, FAS activists, linked by a permanently powered Telegram channel that keeps “beeping,” have gone on the offensive with the meager means at their disposal.

In Russia, they produce Zhenskaia Pravda (“Women’s Truth”), an underground newspaper printed on personal printers and distributed surreptitiously, like the samizdat of the Soviet dissidents, in order to “break the information blockade.” They organize, at their own peril, commando operations [sic] such as the one that consisted in installing, overnight, 2,000 memorials in Russia in tribute to the dead of the martyred Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Crosses, sometimes even bearing names, were planted in courtyards “in the same way as Ukrainians were forced to bury their loved ones at the foot of their residential buildings.” They are also involved in the sabotage actions of Russian “partisans” against strategic sites.

More than 200 activists are currently being prosecuted [sic]. On October 21, a court in St. Petersburg sentenced Alisa Druzhina to five days in prison for putting up a banner in the city that read, “The zinc coffin on wheels is already on your street.” According to the prosecution, the young woman is part of the Feminist Anti-War Resistance and her banner must have been posted on their Telegram channel to be taken up by others. This channel, which has 42,000 subscribers, is chockablock with drawings, stickers, and slogans ready to be disseminated. One of them shows Vladimir Putin immersed in a bathtub of blood filled by defense minister Sergei Shoigu.

The “partial” mobilization has increased determination tenfold

Most of the arrested feminists have been sentenced to administrative penalties, but several are still in detention. This is the case, in particular, of Alexandra Skochilenko. Incarcerated since her arrest on March 31, the 32-year-old musician, accused of being part of a “radical feminist group,” faces ten years in prison under a law, adopted at the beginning of the war, on “fake news,” for having switched price tags in a supermarket with anti-war slogans. “By replacing something quite mundane with something different, something unusual, we are showing that there is not a single place in our country that is not affected by the war, and we are not letting people just turn a blind eye to what is happening,” the FAS channel recommends. “We document the war with quotes from Ukrainian women,” says Serenko.

The “partial” mobilization, decreed at the end of September by Vladimir Putin, has increased the determination of feminists tenfold. The volunteers, who are already helping deported Ukrainians seeking to leave Russia, as well as opposition activists facing threats of prosecution, have also mobilized on behalf of men threatened with being drafted. “Women in Dagestan came out to protest against the mobilization, but also in Chechnya where, for the first time in a long time, one hundred and twenty [women[ dared to demonstrate. [Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadyrov brought their husbands [to the protest], telling them, ‘Either you beat them, or we’ll take care of it,'” reports Serenko.

“We also take care of homosexuals and trans people who have not had time to change their papers and have been mobilized,” she adds. (Although often attacked, registering gender change as part of one’s civil status is still possible in Russia.) From their countries of asylum, the activists, who have regrouped abroad, act as relays, “even if it has become more and more difficult with the closing of the borders.” Several of them, lawyers or psychologists by training, offer their services online under the guise of anonymity on both sides. The introduction of martial law in the border regions, on October 19, has caused additional concern. And it’s not a question of generations. “Recently, a babushka threw a Molotov cocktail into a branch of Sberbank in Moscow shouting ‘No war!'” laughs Serenko.

The latter highlights a completely different phenomenon likely to increase the number of women mobilized in the ranks of the FAS. “A lot of ‘cargo 200s’ have been arriving,” she says, thus using the code word, well known in Russia since the Soviet war against Afghanistan, denoting dead soldiers evacuated from the battlefield. For the feminist leader, “war has entered [people’s] homes,” and it is no coincidence, she says, that the most vehement reactions have come from areas such as Dagestan, from which part of the troops sent to the front have left and which have paid a heavy price in terms of casualties. “Many women also understand that there is discrimination. The anti-war movement,” continues Serenko, enthusiastic, “will play an important role because the state is trying to silence the bereaved families, but women, partisans, and minorities have formed a collective that is growing rapidly.”

However, the activist remains lucid: “We have studied several wars, such as Yugoslavia, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, and, on average, anti-war campaigns do not make a name for themselves for three years… This was the case with the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers for Chechnya.” Emerging in 1989 in response to the treatment of conscripts in the Russian army, this human rights organization did indeed grown to more than 200 active committees throughout Russia in 1997, three years after the start of the first Russian-Chechen War (1994–1999). In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky, who never ceases to appeal to the mothers and wives of Russian soldiers, often invokes this memory.

Source: Isabelle Mandraud, “En Russie, les féministes contre la guerre,” Le Monde, 25 October 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader


In March, Iraq War veteran Carl Larson took a leave from his digital marketing job in the Puget Sound region to join in the Ukrainian struggle against the Russian invasion of their country.

He spent his toughest weeks in the front-line trenches of northeast Ukraine.

Artillery fire kept him awake through most of the nights, and it was easy to confuse stray dogs walking nearby with Russian soldiers who might be scouting the position of his unit of the International Legion of the Defense of Ukraine.

The risks of exiting the trenches were brutally demonstrated on the afternoon of May 31. Larson and several other soldiers gathered by a command post in a nearby house. A Russian shell hit a tree, then shrapnel fragments struck the head and groin of German legionnaire Bjorn Clavis.

The soldiers lacked a generator to charge their radio, and also a vehicle. So they had to use a runner to summon medics.

Some 40 minutes later, this aid arrived. But Clavis died in an ambulance.

“He lost too much blood,” Larson said.

Larson is convinced Clavis could have been saved if the unit had been able to charge their radios. And since his July return to his home in Snohomish County, he has been raising money to buy generators and other supplies for the legion soldiers, who amid the fall chill have shifted from defensive positions in trenches to joining Ukraine’s fast-moving offensive to reclaim territory held by Russians.

On Thursdays, Larson gathers with a group of legion supporters in a banquet room at European Foods, a grocery and restaurant in north Seattle. Over bowls of borscht and plates of cutlets they share news about the legion and what equipment is needed.

Larson says Ukrainian as well as legion units suffer from supply shortages despite international aid that includes more than $18.2 billion in U.S. government security assistance since 2021.

The legion’s current list of needs includes more cold-weather equipment, drones, communications and vehicles. And some who have served in the legion say that their units, when compared with other front-line forces, have had more serious shortfalls.

“We’re a great PR stunt because ‘Wow, look at all these foreign soldiers who are willing to put their lives on the line for Ukraine,’ ” said Stuart Burnside, a British veteran from Yorkshire who has been in Ukraine since February. “But we’re fed on scraps — to be fair.”

Others say shortages are a shared hardship.

“Unfortunately, right now, the reality is there’s not enough supplies,” said Evelyn Aschenbrenner, an American who left a teaching job in Poland to staff an International Legion administrative job.

Ukraine ‘way more stressful’

The legion was formed by the Ukrainian government to organize combat units of foreigners to fight in the war. The Russian government declared that they would be seen as mercenaries — and if captured, lack the standing of regular-duty troops. But that did not deter a surge of people, many from North America, Great Britain and Europe, but also some from Latin America and the former Soviet Republic, from making their way to Ukraine, where they receive training and are paid for their service.

Larson, 48, had joined the U.S. Army four months after 9/11 and worked as a combat engineer in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As he settled into middle age, he was inspired to take up arms again by what he viewed as the moral imperative of preventing the slaughter of civilians and thwarting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of military conquest.

He said his experiences in Ukraine where “way more stressful and frustrating” than his service in Iraq.

Early on, Larson was dismayed by some of the would-be recruits who had no military experience, or appeared unstable. And Larson initially balked at joining the International Legion, concerned by where he might be sent, what he would be tasked to do and whom he might serve with.

But after discussions with Ukrainian officials, he took a job helping to screen new recruits to the legion and prepare them for service. Then, he joined a legion battalion and spent five weeks in training, much of it as a platoon leader, before deploying to the front.

Larson said his unit took up position in zigzagged trenches, some of which were initially made by German soldiers during World II then reoccupied some eight decades later.

“We just dug them out. They were quite well made,” Larson said.

In the hours before dawn, he sometimes had to deal with business back home — calling contractors to fix a house that he and his wife had purchased in Snohomish County.

Some of the legion soldiers Larson encountered served for a few months and left, others had been in Ukraine since late winter. Most get a code name that can be easily remembered and spoken over the radio. Larson was told his would be Grinch.

Through the course of his service, Larson said the legion evolved, emerging as a more cohesive, fighting force composed largely of a more professional mix of hundreds of military veterans. (Detailed legion troop numbers are not publicly released.)

Larson concluded his military career in Ukraine had dead-ended after clashes with a Ukrainian officer whom he alleged stole money from the unit. The officer was reprimanded but stayed in command, and Larson was assigned a new job digging ditches.

A legion spokeswoman said she could not comment on “individual allegations and individual situations. But she said that “we have firsthand experience standing up against corruption and problematic people. It can be done, and it is done.”

With his wife eager for his return, Larson decided to fly back home to Washington a few weeks earlier than he had planned.

Return to Washington

Back in Washington, Larson has stayed in touch with some of the legion soldiers as they have advanced to towns once held by the Russians. The legion casualty count has climbed.

“Now, we have soldiers who engage in combat, and they are more direct targets for tanks and grenades,” Aschenbrenner said.

Source: Hal Bernton, “Washington vet returns from harrowing Ukraine front-line duty,” Seattle Times, 25 October 2022

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