‘They need cannon fodder’ Concerned about population decline but unwilling to address root causes, Russian politicians have set their sights on citizens' reproductive rights
In recent months, as Moscow has continued waging war in Ukraine, Russian politicians, officials, and pro-government activists have started promoting initiatives aimed at limiting the reproductive rights of citizens back at home. In August, for example, State Duma deputies proposed banning online sales of abortion pills. In September, Tatarstan’s Children’s Rights Commissioner said that an ad encouraging people to adopt homeless pets was veiled propaganda for the “childfree” movement — because it will convince people to get dogs instead of having kids. The independent Russian outlet 7x7 spoke to feminist and journalist Zalina Marshenkulova about the Russian authorities' new obsession — and why they're unlikely to be discouraged by public opinion. In English, Meduza summarizes the interview.
In the months since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, the Kremlin has been working hard to give citizens the impression that the country’s demographic future is under threat — and that the authorities are doing all they can to save it, including waging war in Ukraine. It’s true that Russia’s population decline rate has hit a record high, but rather than speaking honestly about the more than one million excess deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the tens of thousands of Russians killed in Ukraine, or the exodus of draft evaders that followed Putin’s mobilization announcement, the Russian authorities prefer to blame bogeymen such as LGBT+ people.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Russian politicians have set their sights on citizens’ reproductive rights in recent months. In May, for example, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, called for a ban on abortions in private clinics. A few months later, a group of State Duma deputies announced plans to introduce a bill that would ban Russians from paying for abortions through public health insurance. And in September, lawmakers introduced a bill that would ban information about the "childfree” lifestyle — a term that simply refers to women making the choice not to have children, but that is frequently painted by Russian leaders as an extremist ideology sent from abroad to weaken Russia.
Russian journalist Zalina Marshenkulova told 7x7 she has two theories to explain the politicians' new focus. First, she said, it could be a way to distract people from the war, which is decidedly not going the way Putin hoped. And second, the country's elites are likely actually concerned about population decline: “After all, they need cannon fodder for their [war]. And women don’t want to have children in that situation.”
Marshenkulova also believes that for Russia’s leadership, “childfree” women represent a specific kind of threat. “The government isn’t interested in passionate people; it doesn’t want there to be too many educated women taking active civic stances,” she said. “[Instead,] it’s interested in everyone being silent slaves — pliable, uneducated, and unclean.”
While initiatives aimed at limiting women's life options seem to be getting more absurd — for example, women in Irkutsk have been given surveys with questions like "Are you prepared to meet the soul of your unborn child?" at abortion appointments — Marshenkulova insisted that the authorities' interest in restricting reproductive freedom is nothing new.
"There’s always been pressure against women’s reproductive rights," she told 7x7. "But several years ago, the only people noticing it were feminists, while everyone else couldn’t give a shit about it."
At the same time, she said she has noticed a change in recent months — and that it might be because the government has started perceiving feminists as a threat rather than as a curiosity.
“They used to think feminists were just crazy city people who weren’t capable of influencing anybody. And now they’ve noticed that something has started to change. [...] We [feminists] have left the ranks of the city crazies and have turned into true leaders of public opinion. A lot of people have realized that we’re fighting against sexist perceptions, discrimination in culture, and even discrimination on a metaphysical level. On paper, everyone in Russia has rights, but we can all see how they work.”
Still, by no means do feminists make up the majority of Russians — or even the majority of the Russian opposition. In September, for example, numerous Russian politicians, activists, and economists who oppose the Putin regime gathered in Vilnius for the Free Russian Forum. After the plenary session, when an event featuring women from the Feminist Anti-War Resistance began, many attendees got up and left the room.
“I think [one reason they left is that] they just heard the word ‘feminist’ and ran off,” said Marshenkulova. “The second [reason] is the absolute sexism that reigns in the minds of many of our so-called liberals. There are a lot of closed-minded, uneducated [people] among Navalny’s supporters. In my opinion, there’s not a huge difference between pro-Putin men and anti-Putin men on that issue.”
But by criticizing her fellow opposition members, Marshenkulova isn’t calling for them to be written off. In fact, she said, she views herself as a former misogynist.
“We [were] all misogynists — all feminists went through that. We all saw women as second-class citizens. And you can’t get rid of that in a single day,” she told 7x7.
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Political scientists and other observers often discuss the Kremlin’s more extreme legislative initiatives as tools for “probing” public sentiment and determining whether a given policy would be popular or not. But Marshenkulova doesn’t buy this theory.
“There are a lot of initiatives that people speak out against, but [the authorities] have forced those things through anyways. I actively spoke out against the law on education that made it illegal to give a lecture without the authorities’ approval. That was a completely insane initiative, even crazier than the childfree stuff. Everyone was speaking out against it, but that didn’t stop [lawmakers] from passing it,” she said. “[...] The government has already shoved through a bunch of deranged, inhuman initiatives, and they don’t give a damn about public opinion.”