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Russian soldiers' wives want their men back, posing a rare challenge to Putin and his war in Ukraine

NBC News spoke with a number of women who are part of a growing movement calling for their loved ones to be discharged from the military and allowed to return to civilian life.
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In a rare challenge to the Kremlin, a growing number of Russian women are fighting to bring home their husbands, brothers and sons who were drafted to fight in Ukraine.

They say the men have served their time on the front lines, 15 months after some 300,000 reservists were called up to bolster Russia’s struggling campaign. But with little sign of  President Vladimir Putin scaling back his ambitions, the military is ignoring their pleas and propagandists have sought to villainize those speaking out.

The women’s mounting frustration has bonded them together, providing common cause in their defiant public stand just months before Putin will extend his rule in an election.

NBC News spoke with a number of women who are part of a growing movement calling for their loved ones to be discharged and allowed to return to civilian life. They have emerged as among the few voices in Russia willing to publicly question how the Kremlin is conducting the war, which continues to reshape the country even as it descends into a stalemate.

Asya is one of those who is desperate for her husband to return home.

He was drafted in September 2022, she said, and is still in Ukraine serving in an artillery unit more than a year later.

She said she now fears her husband, who worked as a driver before he was called up, will be stuck there indefinitely.

“You try to dig yourself out of this pit every day and think, ‘How long can this carry on?’” Asya said, speaking on the phone from her home in the Moscow region. “How long can they mock us like this?”

A Russian woman protests outside the sefense ministry in Moscow earlier this month.
A Russian woman protests outside the sefense ministry in Moscow earlier this month.Telegram

Asya said she is struggling to cope by herself with their 1 1/2-year-old daughter. “I was not planning to be a single mother,” she said. “I need a husband at home.”

Like others in the story, she did not want her last name or the name of her husband to be published out of fear of retribution against her family. Putin’s war next door has brought a far-reaching crackdown on dissent at home, and anything that can be perceived as an anti-war stance could result in arrest or even jail time.

Yet Asya is not alone in expressing her dismay.

She said she wrote to regional and federal officials demanding answers, but when none came she turned to other women facing the same plight.

They formed a group that morphed into a channel on the Telegram messaging app called “The Way Home,” or “Put’ Domoi” in Russian, which now has more than 39,000 followers.

When the channel launched in August, the administrators were still voicing support for the “special military operation,” as the Kremlin calls its invasion, and hoped that Putin would intervene to return their men.

But with their pleas unanswered, their rhetoric has changed in recent weeks.

Partial mobilization in Russia
The lengthy mobilizations with no clear end in sight have led a growing group of women to take a stand.Anadolu / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The women are increasingly questioning the purpose of Putin’s war — alongside sometimes scathing criticism of the president himself. “We have no hope under your leadership,” read one of their posts published last month.

One of the women’s main issues is with Putin’s mobilization decree, which does not clearly lay out an end date for draftees’ service, leaving the men at the Kremlin’s disposal indefinitely.

The group has tried to organize protests across Russia but said authorities have refused to sanction them due to Covid-19 restrictions, despite other public events going through. They have engaged in other acts of civil disobedience such as wearing #returnmyhusband stickers on their clothing and cars, and laying flowers on war memorials across the country. They wear white headscarves as their distinguishing mark.

Their profile has grown in recent weeks, culminating in a public audience with Boris Nadezhdin, who is planning to run against Putin in the March presidential election. A liberal-leaning politician, Nadezhdin has called the war Putin’s biggest mistake. It is unclear whether he will clear the hurdle of 100,000 signatures needed to get his name on the ballot, and how far he will be allowed to push his criticism of the war in an election critics see as a sham to maintain the illusion of democracy.

At a meeting at a cozy party venue in eastern Moscow last week, which NBC News attended, some of the wives said they wanted the whole country to see that they are “ordinary Russian women” and their stories are real.

They said they were happy to meet with any other candidates, including Putin himself, as well as the Kremlin propagandists who have been attacking their campaign. “We are fighting for justice,” a woman named Antonina, whose husband was mobilized and is currently injured, told the audience of several dozen women and journalists at the event. “But we are the bad ones, for some reason.”

Wives of some of Russian soldiers who were called up for military service during a partial mobilization in 2022, have pushed for them to be discharged from the ranks.
The soldiers' wives met with Boris Nadezhdin in Moscow, a rare acknowledgment of their campaign from a public figure.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

So far, “The Way Home” has not reported any detentions of its activists, either for their public protests or for the meeting with Nadezhdin. Their most outspoken activist, Maria Andreeva, was temporarily held by police officers after standing with a banner in front of a monument close to the Kremlin last weekend, but she told NBC News she was let go shortly after.

Leading Kremlin propagandists like state TV host Vladimir Solovyov have been trying to discredit the women in social media posts labeling them foreign-sponsored saboteurs, linking them to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and accusing them of trying to destabilize Russia.

The pushback is hardly surprising, Asya said. “We are inconvenient for the authorities,” she added.

Putin is running for his fifth term in March, and although the result is in little doubt, the Kremlin will be seeking to avoid any high-profile confrontations, especially with a group whose members are far from hardened opposition activists and whose partners are still on the front lines. So it appears the Russian president has chosen to ignore the issue for now.

He did not raise the topic of demobilization during his biggest news conference of the war last month, despite the women telling NBC News they sent in hundreds of questions for the president.

“The government is facing a difficult choice,” Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political analyst and former Putin speechwriter, told NBC News. “The Kremlin’s repression machine is fine-tuned against ‘damn’ western-learning liberals and the nation’s ‘traitors,’ but these women are not it,” he said. “They are the people that the Kremlin is leaning on and tries to represent, so mass repressions against them is a completely different story. It’s not a story the public will like.”

NBC News reached out to the Russian Defense Ministry for comment, but did not hear back.

Russian military wives
Paulina and her husband, who serves in the Russian military. She blurred his face when she posted the photo on social media. Telegram

In an interview ahead of last week’s Moscow event, Paulina said that her husband, an IT specialist, was called up in October 2022 and is currently serving as an assault trooper in eastern Ukraine.

Life has been “very difficult emotionally” without him as she cares for their young daughter, she told NBC News on the phone from her home in the city of Dolgoprudny, just outside the capital.

Like Asya, Paulina said she had written to officials of all ranks, including the presidential administration, asking for her husband to be demobilized, but received only generic responses. She also tried to organize a public protest in her city, but was denied permission by municipal authorities.

She said her patience is running out.

Paulina started a separate Telegram channel in which she reveals her face as she documents her efforts to get her husband back, and takes part in protest actions with “The Way Home” activists. Like the other women NBC News spoke to, she said she was determined to keep up her fight on the home front.

“Every day could be the last one for them there,” Paulina, 20, said of the men in the Ukraine meat grinder. “There is no reason to be afraid and hide, because the worst thing has already happened to us — they took our loved ones.”