‘Our boys do not want this war’: The grieving widows of Russian soldiers speak out against Putin
Vladimir Putin may insist that his invasion of Ukraine is going to plan but thousands of Russian women disagree.
These are the grieving mothers of dead Russian soldiers, the bereaved sisters and the weeping widows.
“This is not our war, we did not start it. This is the authorities’ war,” Anastasia Banschikova told the Telegraph in a telephone interview from Orenburg, central Russia. where she lives with her three-year-old daughter.
“I am so afraid right now. I understand that our boys there do not want this war,” she said. “They thought they were going on regular exercises but ended up in a meat grinder.”
“I want it to just end it as soon as possible, peacefully, with as few casualties as possible.”
Hers is the story of a young romance in central Russia that has been shattered by Putin’s war, of a family torn apart.
Mrs Banschikova decided to speak out after she was told in a gruff phone call by a Russian army officer that her 21-year-old husband, Viktor, had been killed while fighting in Ukraine.
And Mrs Banschikova is not alone. Despite the Kremlin propaganda, which has tried to block out evidence of high casualties, across Russia there are growing signs that thousands of wives and mothers share her fear and anger.
In an intercepted telephone conversation released by Ukrainian intelligence this week, a Russian mother begged her soldier son to lay down his rifle and come home.
“Vova, no. Yulia also said that she was fine but yesterday they came and told her that her husband had been killed. Kristina’s husband had also been killed,” the woman implored. “And our neighbour was also killed. There is no one left.”
According to the Kremlin’s last estimate, just under 1,400 soldiers have died since Putin ordered his forces to invade on February 24. Ukrainian estimates have put Russian dead at ten times that, while the US has said that it is somewhere in between.
But for Putin, the truth is far less important than the Kremlin’s version of reality and he has deployed both his propaganda machine to insist that the “special operation” is going to plan and also his police force to crack down on any dissent.
Criticism of the war can mean being arrested. Thousands of liberal-minded Russians have fled the country and the Kremlin’s hardcore propaganda campaign has brainwashed most of the rest of the population.
Genuine outpourings of support for the war are a common sight in Russia, with the ‘Z’ insignia of the main battle group plastered across cities, and heavy sanctions imposed by the West on Russia used to galvanise support for the Kremlin.
And yet, the Kremlin knows it has an Achilles heel.
In the 1980s, it was the rage of the mothers of dead Soviet soldiers sent back in bodybags from Afghanistan that turned public support against the USSR’s war. After a decade of war, this anger led to a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and also the fatal undermining of then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He was ousted from power only two years later.
Putin is all too aware of the danger that angry women could do to his war effort and is prepared to counter them, according to a Russian analyst based in Moscow who declined to be named.
“Putin was around during the Chechen and the Afghan war. He has seen how powerful their voices are,” he said. “But, although they are important, they don’t have much of a voice at the moment. The clamour of the propaganda covers them up and the Soviet women’s groups have been subsumed into the ministry of defence.”
From Orenburg, Mrs Banschikova said that her future looked bleak. Her days are filled with caring for her three-year-old daughter and now also supporting other new Russian widows.
“My husband’s best friend died yesterday. His daughter was a month old yesterday too but he never got to see her,” she said.
Mrs Banschikova’s voice didn’t falter during the telephone conversation – and she didn’t cry. But her deep sadness was clear.
On her profile on the Russian social media page VK, she has updated her status. It now reads: “Has died.”