Mikhail Romanov is a father, husband, and a 31-year-old Russian Army soldier. This Spring he broke into a residential house near Kyiv, killed the owner and raped his wife. According to investigators, committing the crime took several hours. The son of the owners, apparently of similar age as Romanov’s child, was crying in another room.
At the end of May, Romanov was charged with rape and murder in absentia. It was the first such case in Ukraine and the investigations of Russian atrocities are only just beginning. The Russian soldiers invading Ukraine have systemically committed sexual crimes against Ukrainian civilians regardless of their age and gender.
Independent observers and investigators have said that the evidence that they have collected is so deeply disturbing that it exceeds what the world witnessed during the wars in Bosnia and Rwanda. In many cases, the perpetrators committed their crimes in public places – in the streets and in other cases they forced community members to watch as they committed their crimes. Parents had to watch their children violated, while children witnessed the molestation of their parents. Some victims were literally raped to death.
The first reports about the Russian war crimes shocked the world. Many asked what kind of people the Russians really were. One of my Twitter followers wrote: “I don’t understand why Russia is bombing maternity hospitals, why they’re raping civilians in Ukraine. Why are they doing it? Can anyone understand it?”
The answer to the question is simple: the Russian Army lacks professional combat skills. A non-moving target is easy to attack: committing rape needs no ammunition, no fighting techniques. However, the fact that a soldier is capable of such atrocities reflects much more than just that. There’s a whole ecosystem of violence behind such act. Genocides are not carried out by accident. Systematic sexual violence is not included in all play books of war. Russia instead has a long history soaked with the stains of war crimes and it is that history that enables repetition of the history. What seems illogical, irrational, stupid, simply beyond comprehension for the hearts and minds in the Western world, to Moscow, is rational and a testament to indubitable continuity of the Russian government, and those essential factors will be my main focus in this presentation.
Eroding moral resources
The British philosopher and historian Jonathan Glover analyzes in his book Humanity the mechanisms that create the conditions for acts of violence. Strangely enough, those mechanisms are the same, regardless of who is using them: Mao, Hitler or Putin. In both the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, people who were designated for extermination were first dehumanized by being compared to animals and cast as races and groups without any human value. At the same time, our own capabilities and moral characteristics related to empathy and human respect, which Glover refers to as moral resources, were being eroded. The erosion of these human characteristics begins well before these countries set themselves on a path towards war crimes and are still living in peace. The moral restraints to kill another human being are removed by creating an image of an enemy in which the human being is turned into an abstract. Killing civilians is easy when there is no longer an obligation to treat them as human beings. This is exactly how the Russian inner propaganda has worked for decades. The main objective of the narrative is to dehumanize the other side, whoever the other side is – Ukrainians or the West in general, which is portrayed as a dangerous source of degenerate chaotic moral downfall. This way, Russia ensures its people that they don’t need to care about Western moral judgment about what their own government is doing. It simply doesn’t matter, because the Kremlin has made sure that we, the degenerate West, have no moral authority on the matter, no moral leverage.
Before this February, many people did not believe that Russia would dare to begin a full-scale attack on Ukraine, because almost every Russian knows someone living in Ukraine, and every Ukrainian knows someone in Russia. 11 Million Russians have relatives in Ukraine. But we know from Russian history that Moscow always looks out for ethnic Russians first, and prefers using other ethnic groups as cannon fodder. For instance, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers were sent to fight in Finland during the Winter War, in which the Soviet Union suffered great losses. In terms of Soviet casualties in WWII, it’s often overlooked that the war was deadliest to none other then Ukraine, because so many Ukrainians fought Germany in the Soviet ranks. It’s no wonder that in 2022, Russia has sourced most the troops it’s sent to Ukraine from ethnic minorities and poorer parts of the country. This has helped Russia reduce the likelihood of falling morale as they’ve sent to Ukraine troops that have no blood ties to Ukraine.
Among Russians the differences in income levels are significant. It’s therefore no wonder that many Russian soldiers were surprised by the presence of street lights in Ukraine, its paved roads and the fact that many of the residents have their own laptops. In Europe, Ukraine is considered among the poorest European countries, but it is rich in the eyes of the soldiers who are presently attacking it. It incites class hatred and envy. Class hatred and envy are in fact what were exploited to fuel the Soviet army.
When they occupied the Baltic States, Soviet soldiers were shocked at the living standard there. The older generation still remembers how the wives of the Soviet officers would wear Estonian women’s slips as evening gowns and walk the streets of the city so proudly, so cocky about their victory. To some of the occupying soldiers, even forks and knives were a novelty.
However, envy and class hatred are not what turn soldiers into rapists. Evidence from investigations in to earlier genocides indicates that weaponizing rape is far more successful in regions where misogyny is more common, and violence is generally more accepted. Weaponizing rape is more likely in conflicts where the aggressor comes from a country where the level of gender equality is very low or non-existent. The absence of gender equality in Russia and the crimes of the Russian Army in Ukraine are therefor intertwined. In Russia, both the rights of the sexual minorities and women have been notably eroded over the last few years. The less rights sexual minorities have, the less rights women have as well; and the less rights women have, the easier it is to justify the violence against them. I am almost positive: if the West would have reacted as sharply to the misogyny of the Russian leaders as, for instance, to Donald Trump’s talks or this year’s abortion laws in the United States, people might not be as shocked by the nature of the Russian actions in Ukraine. You might remember Pussy Riot, the Russian activist group. A decade ago the Western media covered their activity almost on the daily basis and the imprisonment of their members was global headline news, which indeed peaked Western interest in Russians’ feminist ideas – for a brief moment. However, in Russia the wide audience condemned the group and its actions. Those women were heroes in the West, but not in Russia.
Putin’s war against gender equality, women and homosexuals increased step by step as he gradually took control of the media and put more pressure on his critics and opposition. The hostility reached universities, information and research. Previously, the Russian government’s position on gender studies was mostly indifferent but in 2012 the situation changed. That was when Vladimir Putin started promoting values that he characterized as traditional and committed the government to this cause. In the center of the new vision emerged a heterosexual family of several generations, raising at least three children. Of course, by implementing this ideal, the country’s problems of housing and care for the elderly could be solved, which suggests that Putin’s aggressive promotion of traditional values is well thought out and not random. Resisting gender equality and eroding women’s rights became synonymous with protecting traditional values, and protecting them. According to Putin’s government, this cause was just as important as protecting the country’s borders. This is how seriously they are committed to resisting gender equality.
In 2017, the situation for Russian women worsened significantly when punishment for domestic violence was reduced so much it was essentially legalized. A key supporter of this policy change was Konstantin Malofeev, an oligarch inside Putin’s circles, who funded ad campaigns related to this decision. Here it is worth noting about the period when the amendments were being prepared: in 2017, the Crimean peninsula had been occupied three years earlier – marking the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine. The anti-gender movement in Russia became more active at the same time. We know from intercepted phone calls and emails that Malofeev organized destabilizing activities in Europe and Ukraine in close collaboration with the Kremlin. In 2014, Ukraine charged Malofeev and announced that he is funding illegal military groups in Eastern Ukraine. Malofeev was also funding conservative ultranationalist and populist movements in the West and ran international events declaring hostility towards sexual minorities. It means that the same person of significant means, considered all of these seemingly different areas of Russian interest worth investing in: reducing punishments for domestic violence in Russia, destabilization of Eastern Ukraine and the radicalization of Western populists and extremists.
Eroding women’s rights in Russia has financial connections with the undermine of democratic societies in Ukraine and the West. Eroding women’s rights in Russia is an intentional and determined activity run by the Kremlin.
Misogyny is also supported by the Orthodox Church, which has become a tool of the Kremlin in its own right. Patriarch Kiril claimed that criminalizing domestic violence is a foreign fancy and that Russian laws must protect the people from such foreign influences. Many women’s organizations have been listed as foreign agents by the Putin regime. When organizations assisting victims of gendered violence are seen as traitors of your fatherland, the message is clear: beating women is a just and manly thing to do, perhaps even a patriotic duty. As one activist, Alena Popova said, “the government has once again stated that fighting violence in our country is illegal.”
However, the real history of Russia has better things to offer for women, which could’ve provided a totally different path for Russia. In fact, Russia has a long tradition of criminalizing domestic violence and defending women’s rights. In 1721, Russian law defined two possible grounds for a divorce. One was adultery, and the other was domestic violence, or rather, attempted murder of a spouse. Half of the divorce applications were based on the latter reason, and the Orthodox Church approved divorce under such grounds. Which means that once upon a time, Russia was indeed the location of the first European court criminalizing domestic violence. In 1845, the Russian Penal Code also criminalized violence against a spouse and defined it as a crime two degrees worse that hurting a stranger. Criminalizing domestic violence represents a significant part of Russian legal history, and Russian researches have focusing precisely on that. Over the past few years, those researchers raised from the depths of history many significant women from Russia and the Soviet Union. These Russian women studied the same issues that the gender scholars in the study and put forward exactly same kind of incentives for gender equality as in the West. This is why Putin’s government tries to make the work of these activists and scholars so difficult. Listing women’s organizations as foreign agents essentially meant that they have to continue their work without the support of official organizations. However, once the police started raiding private apartments, in addition to public spaces, it became more difficult to organize book clubs and meetings at home, especially since also private persons could be listed as foreign agents. Feminist activity in Russia was forced underground, and the activists fighting for equality had to take up forms of action from the times of the Czars or live in exile in the West.
The factual history of the legal proceedings of domestic violence and divorce in Russia indicates that the country could have chosen a different developmental direction, that its history provided grounds for equality. Gender scholars were using examples from their own country’s history in order to legitimize and establish gender studies in Russia, and maybe this strategy could have helped create a different future, had the Kremlin chosen the path of democracy. The Soviet Union was, after all, the third country in the world to give its women the right to vote, and other possibilities like the right to abortion, which had once been progressive. At first, women were active participants in the construction of socialism, and Zhenotdel – the women’s chapter of the Communist Party – founded in 1919, encouraged women to create a different society outside the home. Thanks to women the Soviet Union featured a broad system of kindergartens, although this progressiveness was later overshadowed by Soviet misogyny.
The women’s chapter was shut down in 1930 as Stalin could not tolerate the successful women’s struggle for gender equality. As female activities entered the public sphere, birth rate dropped, and this Stalin could not afford: the country needed a large army and the population had to grow because industrialization and forced collectivization required a large work force. Stalin resolved the issue by declaring that all the citizens in the Soviet Union are equal. Therefore protections for family related issues, including the ones related to domestic violence, were deleted from the penal law as unnecessary. Stalin said that women’s struggle for equality is a product of the degenerate bourgeois, something that may be needed in capitalist countries, but not in the Soviet Union. Of course, people in the Soviet Union did not became equal just because this statement was included in the Soviet constitution. Instead, women were obliged to give birth, for instance, by using queues for apartments as manipulative incentive, because large families could move ahead the fastest and receive the best lodgings. Abortion became a family planning tool, because there was a great shortage of contraception in the Soviet Union, and the termination of pregnancy was a legal procedure. I think that the abortion law was not fixed, because it would have been viewed abroad as abandoning Soviet equality, but accessibility of contraceptive measures was not prioritized in fear of reduced birth rate. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Secretary General of the Communist Party, might’ve been touted by the West for perestroika, but his understanding of the role of women was not any better than his predecessor’s. Gorbachev also supported so-called traditional values. In 1987, the year of the perestroika, he said: “A lot of the behavioral, moral, cultural and productivity problems of our children and youth are partly caused by the weakened family ties and a negligent attitude to the family. It is a paradoxical effect of our sincere and politically motivated desire to make women equal to men in every sense. Today, under perestroika, we are already trying to overcome this deficiency. Therefore now we are preparing discussions about how we might return the woman to the most important task of her life.” It means that neither Russia nor The Soviet Union ever had a leader who really aspired to strengthen the equality between women and men.
As Putin became the leader of the country, he inherited its demographic problems; especially concerning was the average life expectancy of men, and the birth rate was at a historical low. Like Stalin, Putin needed to raise the number of births, so he learned from Stalin and started solving the problem by limiting the rights of women. The status of Russia as a great state is based on its huge army, and that will not be the case if there a no new children from which to mobilize new troops. This project also includes public support to families with children. It’s also worth mentioning that the Duma has also discussed prohibiting university studies for childless women. So far, this hasn’t yet become illegal. Not yet.
Sexual violence is an old weapon of war, and its victims rarely see justice. The weapon is as old as time because it is cheap, and because it’s so effective. It has a future tense. Its range cannot be measured in miles, but in generations. It traumatizes the victim and her loved ones for years and decades.
There is one essential difference between Russia and the Soviet Union: the population of the latter seemed so large because it included the residents of the occupied territories. For the same reason the present-day Russian Army is smaller than the Soviet one. So just limiting the rights of Russian women will not solve Putin’s demographic problems. Especially since they are made worse by the huge mortality of COVID-19 and HIV. There are more than 1 million HIV carriers in Russia today and the number is not at all falling.
In solving demographic problems, Stalin cared about much more than limiting gender equality. He also exploited the opportunities that arose through genocide, although that does not sound sensible: how can destroying people improve the demographic situation of the state? However, it made sense to Stalin: the leader of the Soviet Union started talking about inner colonization of the state and said that it is necessary for the development of the great country. Stalin’s concept of inner colonization included the idea that certain groups of people and territories must serve a superior group or territory. The default citizen in the Soviet Union was the Russian. So other ethnic groups had to serve the interests of the Russians and the central government. Soviet Ukraine was turned into an inner colony serving Moscow. The Baltic States along with Ukraine became Moscow’s food pantry. Essentially that was the cause of Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine – politically motivated, artificially induced famine which killed Ukrainians whose grains Stalin used to pay foreign countries for products necessary for developing Soviet industrialization. Eventually the bread basket countries had to become used to the fact that they do not produce enough of food or agricultural products for themselves. In this way, inner colonization became one of the pillars of the Soviet government. Today Putin is repeating his mentor’s actions in Ukraine in this sense as well. I have not yet heard anything about applying the model of inner colonization to the women in the Soviet Union and Russia, because how else would you call the harnessing of the woman’s body to solve demographic problems by limiting the rights of the women themselves? What else would you call the systemic encouragement of female submission and misogyny, while also strengthening the male hold on power and finance? In Putin’s and Stalin’s world every manifestation and value that threatens the inner colonization of the whole country is eliminated, including equality and women’s rights.
Putin’s main task is maintaining power in the Kremlin. His main goal is ensuring that power and finances remain in the hands of middle-aged men, because such men presently hold the power and money in Russia. By strangling the Russian opposition along with the equality movement, Putin’s collective prevents younger generations and women from making any claim to power. Hatred of women and misogyny are mobilized to support the central government and therefore the war in Ukraine is also a war between generations, and also between gender roles.
The revolution of equality
At the same time as Russia sabotaged its development of gender equality, the opposite was happening in the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Block. Although, for instance, Poland still has unsolved issues regarding abortion, these countries have made a huge advances if we consider the gender equality situation as it was before the fall of the wall, and now I must warn my audience that I am going to read a very long list.
In 1990, the first female prime minister of Lithuania, Kazimira Danutė Prunskienė took office. In 1990, the first female President of Latvia became Vaira Vīke-Freiberga, who was re-elected in 2003. The first female prime minister of Ukraine Yulya Tymoshenko held the office twice – in 2005 and in 2007-10. In 2009, Lithuania was first led by a woman, Dalia Grybauskaitė, who was re-elected for a second term. In 2010, Iveta Radičová became the first female prime minister of Kosovo, and Atifete Jahjaga was elected the first female president of the Republic of Kosovo. In 2013, the Slovenian government was first led by a woman, Alena Bratušek, and in 2014 the same office was held in Latvia by Laimdota Straujuma. In 2014, Ewa Kopacz became the first female prime minister of Poland, and its cabinet was later also led by women, Hanna Suchocka and Beata Maria Szydlo. In 2016, Kersti Karjulaid became the first female president of Estonia, and in 2017, the Serbian government was first led by a woman, Ana Brnabić, and notably also openly representing sexual minorities. In 2011, Vasilica Dăncilă became prime minister of Romania, and in 2018, Georgia elected its first female president Salome Zourabichvili. In 2020, a woman, Maija Sandu, first became the president of Moldova. In 2019, Slovakia elected its first female leader Zuzana Čaputová, previously known for her work at an NGO, and the same year in Lithuania, Ingrida Šimonytė took the post of the prime minister. In 2020, Kosovo elected its second female leader Vjosa Osmani-Sandrin. In 2021, Estonia had its first female head of the cabinet, Kaja Kallas, and Moldova, its third woman prime minister Natalia Gavrilitan.
It all happened over a very short time. The development of gender equality in these countries may be compared to the development of women’s rights in the Soviet Union before the wall fell. In Finland, equality was developing steadily for years, but we only elected a woman president for the first time in 2000. Tarja Halonen became the country’s leader in that year, and in 2003 the Finnish cabinet was first headed by a woman, Anneli Jäätteenmäki.
I wanted to list those names, because now is the time to consider how the Kremlin might view this list. It all seems like a female political revolution spreading like wildfire right beside Russia. It all seems like an ever greater female involvement in the politics of the countries that have grown apart from Russia, but worst of all, most of these women who rose to power are young, most of them actually the youngest women to hold such posts in the histories of their countries, and many of them turned to politics not at all from traditional political elites. These women have shown that political power may also have a female face. That is not the case in Russia, and the Kremlin cannot allow Russians to imagine that anything like that is possible in Russia.
These examples are very significant – this was what the younger generation of Russian feminists was emphasizing. The citizens of these countries now see many examples of women who have changed the world and are actively contributing to societal change. The Belorussian opposition and protests against the tyranny also acquired a female face. There are no women of such fame in Russia. One might note Maria Zacharova, who is the media representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, but she cannot be considered an example of a woman who is a man’s equal. In pictures she uploaded to her social media accounts at the beginning of summer we see her imitating fellatio while licking strawberries.
The Russian soldiers do as they like in Ukraine, because they believe that they will not be punished for their actions. They believe they will run and return home free, because Russia always runs home free.
In many countries the role of the first lady, who is beside the president, is considered very important, but that is not the case in Russia, because Putin does not take his wife nor girlfriends anywhere public. Neither do other powerful men and oligarchs of the country. They don’t go out in public. The men are not accompanied by their ladies even in photo-ops. The optics is clear: they don’t share their public space with women. It is probably a deliberate strategy: towards the end of President Yeltsin’s term, there was a search for a candidate for the Russian leadership who could manage to bring the country out of the chaos of the 90s. Gleb Pavlikovski, Putin’s advisor in 2006-2011, has said that while searching for Yeltsin’s heir, the Russian people were presented with various types of leader profiles to determine what kind of new President would be most desirable. Apparently, the Russians mostly preferred the James Bond-type agent, therefore a young man called Vladimir Putin was the fulfillment of this dream. However, the main goal was to elect a president who can make a difference compared to Yeltsin and Gorbachev. The role of Nina Yeltsina and Raisa Gorbacheva as first ladies of the country was clear. Since them, Russia never had a single first lady that would be visible at all to the people.
In creating the Russian national identity, Putin made deliberate use of his gender. It’s not an accident that his family is absent from his public pictures: the family, the wife, the children are inseparable from the home. But it should be considered a message: the public power is male, and men decide the matters of the state.
Over the last few years it has become clear what Putin and his government of siloviks fear more than anything. They fear a revolution, and therefore Russia has been trying to quell riots elsewhere. However, there has been less talk about the fact that the revolution of dignity in Ukraine was also a revolution of equality. Many of present-day female Ukrainian politicians have arisen exactly through the civil activism encouraged by the revolution. Those women were not part of the old corrupt political elite, and that is already a revolution.
In Ukraine, female activism during the protests in 2013-2014 also meant that as the war began in the country’s east, the women became significant agents in the Ukrainian defense forces. Female participation in the defense of the country has also strengthened the men’s faith in gender equality and its development. Today around 25-30 % of Ukrainian defense forces are women – only Israel has more female members in its armed forces – and their presence has essentially changed the Ukrainian Army. Already at the beginning of the war the women started drawing attention to the Army’s problems in assigning women inappropriate tasks, worse pay and sexual harassment. These observations by women encouraged the “Invisible Battalion” campaign, which revealed multiple deficiencies that were then dealt with.
I believe the country’s armed forces may become the most gender-equal army in the world. So many Ukrainian women contribute to the defence of their country and the number of female veterans is already high. They have already broken many glass ceilings, they already have high-ranking officials among them, and gender quotas are applied in many other fields in the country. In the same year that Russia reduced punishment for violence against women, Ukraine criminalized the same kind of violence, and at the moment more women are contributing to the legislature of the country than ever before. As one of the latest steps of the development of gender equality, it is worth mentioning the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Information about this exceptionally fast progress has been overshadowed by the stream of other kinds of news and the pictures of refugees, the majority of whom are women and children, which may have created a slightly incorrect impression of the situation. In the reports about Russian war crimes, women are also consistently shown as victims. The Ukrainian media presents the situation differently, and women’s activities are obvious. For instance many women have remained in Ukraine in order to help their communities. Olga Sukhenko, Motyzhy village elder, was killed with her family by the occupants in the Bucha massacre. She stayed not to bake bread for the army, but to take care of her community as a community leader. When President Zelensky and Minister of Defense Reznikov address the nation, they start with greeting heroes AND heroines of the country.
Many are aware that Putin fears color revolutions, but so far I have not come across a report or a study about how this phobia in him is also related to another Western revolution, the #MeToo movement regarding sexual abuse. In 2017, we followed the harsh accusations directed at Harvey Weinstein, theUS cinema magnate, as one woman after another started describing Weinstein’s crimes. However, in Russia, the public discussion raised Weinstein up as a hero, he was even most cordially invited to visitRussia. So #MeToo did not leave Russia behind, but the huge audience of the country was presented with a distorted view of the Western #MeToo. Famous Russian actresses justified Weinstein and blamed the victims. Women of the movie industry spoke, but their opinion was the opposite than in the West. Miss Russia Xenia Alexandrovna said: “It would not be possible in Russia thanks to President Vladimir Putin.” The same year, Putin complimented Russian prostitutes by saying they were the best in the world, and in early 2022, during his press conference with the French President Macron he spoke about sexual abuse in jest and quoted a song encouraging necrophilia and rape. A couple of months later Putin’s army did just that in Ukraine.
An old weapon
Sexual violence is an old weapon of war, and its victims rarely see justice. The weapon is as old as time because it is cheap, and because it’s so effective. It has a future tense. Its range cannot be measured in miles, but in generations. It traumatizes the victim and her loved ones for years and decades. It also traumatizes bystanders and those who are exposed to the acts by witnessing the crimes. Psychologically it especially affects women – also outside the country. It disperses communities and families, separates spouses, reduces birth rates. It replaces the identity of the victim. Its trans-generational effect forms the future. It is very hard to return one of the most basic needs, that of the security and trust. My friend saw as a child during WWII, how a Red Army soldier raped her mother. She is now elderly, but still she is afraid to hear the Russian language. It was exactly because of the future tense of sexual violence that I started writing about this subject matter couple of decades ago. I thought it was overlooked. Sexual violence was one of the instruments used by the Soviets during their occupation in Estonia. This year it became clear that Russia is using the same weapons as the Soviet Union. The play book of the Russian war is exactly the same as the Soviet. It was never updated, but many things have changed outside Russia. Today we know so much more about sex crimes and their effects. We are better at forensics today. Once rape was not considered a serious crime, unlike other types of war crimes, but now the situation is different. Coverage if it has also improved because there are more women among war reporters. There are also more of them among decision makers. More among lawyers, prosecutors, forensic medics. Jurisprudence has changed a great deal. The first punishments for rape as a war crime were carried out in 1998, investigating the cases of mass extermination of the people in Rwanda. The courts that investigated genocides in former Yugoslavia and Darfur also helped create legal instruments and expanded the understanding of the effects of sex crimes. Today we have a better idea how rape is used for genocide, and this is exactly what is now happening in Ukraine.
The world has also changed in the sense that information about war crimes and its dissemination throughout the world is faster than before, because we of digital communication, and also because each Ukrainian may collect evidence of Russian war crimes in a way that was never before possible. Although everyone in Ukraine may capture videos on their phone, not every video will be considered proper evidence by the court, therefore Ukraine is training its citizens in things like collecting all kind of evidence material on their phone. There was never before a possibility of crowsourcing evidence collection. And according to the Ukrainian court officials, at least 26 000 war crimes have been committed over the five months of war, and the number is growing.
Since the beginning of the invasion, 135 people have been charged of war crimes. Compared to the number of crimes, it is clear that it is not going to be easy to charge all of the perpetrators because the investigation mechanism will need funding, and the work will require a lot of resources and people. However, while collecting victim testimonies, it has become clear that many of them understand perfectly well that the perpetrator may or may not be caught or charged, and that not everyone who is guilty will be held to account for their crimes. Officials will have to select the war crimes to be brought before court. Most of the victims claimed to understand that. But they find it important to be heard and not remain unseen. And to have the crimes documented. For their experiences to be known. It must be done out of respect for the victims.
Last year many said that sex crimes are a feature of all wars. However, this is not entirely true, because not every armed conflict involves systemic extermination of civilians, and the aggressor doesn’t always seek to liquidate the nation it has attacked. The concept or explanation that Russia acts like every other aggressor in a war or conflict is just an attempt to reduce Russia’s responsibility. Not every war sees convicted conscripted to wage the war of the aggressor. This was exactly what Russia did this summer as it began sending prisoners to the Wagner group acting in Ukraine. This group was formed as a private entity, so that Russians could have a military unit for actions which the Russian government could not be blamed. But today the line between the Russian army and the mercenaries is blurred, and Wagner may be considered a shadow part of the mobilized Russian forces. In prisons, the preferred mercenary men are murderers and thieves. The media has announced that there are hardly any rapists among them, or men whose crimes could indicate lack of impulse control. However, the media has forgotten to mention that associating rape with lack of impulse control is just another patriarchal myth, previously used to justify criminal activity. Rape and sexual harassment are controlled, because the perpetrator almost always tries to hide his actions if it is criminalized by law. It has nothing to do with so-called male instincts. In Russian prisons, torture and rape are rampant, and officers never try to prevent it, or even join it directly or indirectly. The Russian mercenaries conscripted in prisons are able not just to thieve and kill. Russia is looking for men who are used to the medium in which torture and rape are a part of everyday life and who are used to doing it. The mercenaries are well paid, around £2700 a month, and after six months’ service in the armed forces, they may expect an amnesty.
Although rape has been used as a weapon for a long time, not every war features sexual abuse as an instrument of genocide. Usually genocidal intentions are kept secret as long as possible, but Russian government representatives have publicly declared their motives for years, by openly stating that the Ukrainian state does not exist. For years Russia has depicted Ukrainians as Nazis, the symbol of evil, thus encouraging the cruelty against its citizens. According to TASS, the Russians have taken more than 300,000 Ukrainian children to Russia, where they will be given away to Russian families after expedited adoption procedures. Forced Russification is a part of the Ukrainian genocide, just like forcibly removing people from the country. In the Kremlin’s view, such a measure is not unreasonable, it is just another way of solving the Russian demographic problem; Ukrainian children are being turned into future birth-givers and Russian soldiers.
The attacker does not act in every war like Russia acts in Ukraine. However, Russia is endlessly repeating what it did in other countries – Syria and Chechnya, and what not too long ago Stalin’s Soviet Union did as it used deportations to solve its lack of workforce. Besides, the Russian government has turned sexism, gender inequality, misogyny and violence into a positive part of the national identity and, lumping it all together, has applied the euphemism “patriotism”.
Not in every case may systemic sex crimes perpetrated by the invader in the territory of military action or occupation be called genocidal, and the same is true for war crimes. They are consider genocidal based on the occupant’s goal and motives, and not the number of crimes perpetrated. Russia’s intentions are revealed, for instance, in talk between Russian soldiers, depicting the same schemes as in the other territories of military action, where people where being raped with genocidal intent. The case where the Russian Army soldier castrated the Ukrainian POW should also be attributed to the genocidal context.
Defining numerous crimes as genocide is a slow process, because it consists of recognizing various patterns, however, it is easier to acknowledge them as war crimes or crimes against humanity. What is characteristic of all of these crimes is the fact that they are only possible when the aggressor creates a environment conducive to their perpetration. Genocides begin in words which create the reality, and the populist, polarizing speech is always used as the main construction material for this project. Hate speech does not always lead to genocide, but before genocide, increasingly hateful speech is heard, usually misogynistic as well. The genocidal sexual violence of the Russian soldiers is the latest example indicating where authoritarian populism leads to and what its goals may be: the destruction of the whole nation and state. Therefore Russian propaganda is a significant factor that prepares the soil for war crimes. We may also remember that during the genocide in Darfur, in the parts of the country where propaganda radio stations where heard, more people were killed than in those areas where no one listened to these radio programs.
Multiple intercepted phone calls between the Russian soldiers and their wives and girlfriends offer evidence in their conversations about raping Ukrainian women. In the West, the most well known conversation is between a 27 year old Russian soldier named Roman Bykovsky and his wife Olga Bykovska. During the conversation, the wife laughingly encourages her husband to rape Ukrainian women. She says she is fine with it as long as the husband uses a condom. The couple are raising a child. Bykovski’s wife and son live in Russian-occupied Crimea. According to social media, the man’s mother, Irina, is very proud of her son who is defending his fatherland. Roman Bykovsky’s and his family’s attitudes reflect the surrounding enabling of war crimes. The intercepted phone calls of Olga Bykovskaya contain no encouragement that would indicate incitement of genocidal activity, but her words do incite a war crime. The couple has grown up during Putin’s rule and have not themselves experienced the world without Putin.
The Bykovskys have reached adulthood watching the ever-clearer image of Russia’s enemy. The couple may be called a textbook example of homo putinicus, created by this system. Homo putinicus is different from homo sovieticus in that sovieticus still had faith in the future. Homo putinicus only knows the necessity to return to the past and the mythology of the Great Patriotic War, which Putin’s rule has turned into a new religion and has become one of the main enabling narratives of war crimes in Ukraine.
WWII became known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union, because this name was supposed to improve the morale of the nation and strengthen resolve to defend the Russian homeland. The name is associated with Napoleon’s Army’s invasion of Russia in 1812. The words “the Great Patriotic War” emphasize Russia’s victimization and reinforces the faith in the myth that Russia is constantly under attack. It is a completely different concept compared to the Second World War, in which all the countries of the world took part in. The myth of the Great Patriotic War in the context of WWII, grew during Putin’s rule, because the central government needed an identity narrative to unite Russians: a story about a victory, and this myth is nothing but victory. Russia, after all, commemorates this as Victory Day, and military museums and monuments are called victory museums and victory monuments. The myth is so important to Putin’s government that any deviation from its official narrative is criminalized in Russia. The actions of the veterans of the Great Patriotic War and their legitimacy must not be doubted, although historically for Russia, rape is just one of numerous types of weapon. Having marched to Germany in 1945, the Red Army raped more than 2 million women. Russia sticks with this tradition, to rape women it calls “Nazis”.
After the fall of the Berlin wall, many countries of Eastern Europe began a process of lustration, but Russia chose a different direction. One of the most famous Soviet-era dissidents Vladimir Bukovsky, having studied the Russian archives in the 90s, tried encouraging Russians to review their process of investigating the past, but was not met with approval, not even in the West. The Russian government had little interest in such issues, but even in the West, few had the appetite to dig into all of that. According to Bukovsky, the West did not want to dig into archival data just like it did not want to open court cases that would have revealed wide-reaching Soviet networks in the West. Thus, the Western disinterest in Russian lustration, in its own way, allowed Russia’s current spiral into impunity.
As Russia, which took over the Soviet rights, was never held accountable for the crimes, this culture of impunity was grounds for further crimes, and facilitated what is happening in Ukraine today. The rape, marauding and other war crimes of the Soviet Red Army were never condemned by the West or by Russia. So why should the present-day Russian Army not do whatever generations of its fathers and grandfathers did? This generation considers them to be glorious heroes of the country, after all.
A Levada Center study in 2019 revealed that the Russian Army is more popular than the presidential institution, which is the second most reliable part of the state. 61 % of Russians trust their army, although dedovshchina is a widespread phenomenon there, just like the sexual abuse of men. The Russian Army is a dangerous place from the start, even before arriving at the battlefield. Crimes in other wars around the world, have demonstrated that accountability within an army’s leadership for its actions, is essential towards prevention the abuse of human rights. That is not the case in Russia, but in that country, the army is the institution that the people trust the most.
Russia denies its war crimes in Ukraine, and in spring Putin honoured the 64th motorized infantry brigade, which carried out the Bucha massacre, by awarding it the honorary title of “Guard”. Thus, the crimes of those soldiers are rewarded for their heroism and the impunity culture of Russia and its army provide grounds for and encourage further human rights abuses.
A lot has been said in the West about how Putin is fighting this war alone. But that is a Western illusion. He is not alone. Putin has quite a number of allies outside the West, which provide a broad space for Russian disinformation and propaganda; two thirds of the people in the world are still in the Russian sphere of influence and fail to understand, for instance, whose fault it is that Ukraine is facing challenges with grain exports. There is no equality in those countries either. Those countries are ruled by dictators and tyrants, who do not condemn weaponizing rape in war. They consider such actions as normal by a country’s army. Russia is funding its war with the gold that it acquires, for instance, in Sudan. In terms of women’s rights, Sudan is one of the worst countries. In May there were reports about how Wagner mercenaries raped a nurse and two new mothers in a South African maternity hospital – and that is the country through which the most Sudanese gold is smuggled. When Sudan’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor visited Helsinki in August, she said she had always supported good relationships with Russia.
This year, we have often heard that Ukraine is fighting for Europe and democracy. But so far, I haven’t yet heard that Ukraine is also fighting for equality and a better future for the women of the world, although the Ukrainians indeed are fighting for that. Because all tyrants, dictators and authoritarian leaders of the world are watching how the West is going to react to the Russian war crimes. Will they get tired of the war? will their ranks break due to energy problems? Will our moral judgment erode as the funds for prosecuting war crimes dry up?
The Russian soldiers do as they like in Ukraine, because they believe that they will not be punished for their actions. They believe they will run and return home free, because Russia always runs home free. If such ideas are contested, it will define the future for generations of women and children throughout the world.