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‘We’re here and we’ll keep fighting’ How an underground women’s movement fights back against Russian forces in occupied Ukraine

Source: iStories

Multiple methods of statistical analysis have confirmed: Russia’s most recent presidential election was the most fabricated in the country’s modern history. The Russian authorities claim that Vladimir Putin received an eye-popping 87.3 percent of the vote, with more than 90 percent of voters “supporting” him in most of Ukraine’s occupied territories. With official numbers like these, it’s no wonder Russian officials try to ignore the existence of underground pro-Ukraine protest groups in the occupied regions — but according to the activists themselves, their ranks are only growing. Perhaps the most well-known of these clandestine movements is a women-led group based in the city of Melitopol called Angry Mavka, named after female spirits from Ukrainian folklore that tempt men with their beauty before leading them to their deaths. The independent Russian outlet iStories spoke to one of Mavka’s founders about the group’s activities. Meduza shares a lightly abridged translation of her first-person account.

‘For women, it’s doubly dangerous’

Since the beginning of Melitopol’s occupation, people here (including my friends and I) have been staging large street protests. We thought we’d be able to go out and quickly drive away the occupiers. Even when they started breaking up our rallies and abducting people, we still continued to believe that this wouldn’t last for long. After Kherson was liberated, we thought every day that maybe our turn was just around the corner. Many people in the city tried to protest however they could; there was a lot of graffiti. Ukrainian flags were all over the streets, the words “Glory to Ukraine” were written on walls, pro-Ukraine flyers were everywhere.

A woman stands in front of Russian troops during a rally against Russian occupation in Kherson, Ukraine. March 19, 2022.
Olexandr Chornyi / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Then they started tightening the screws even more: the occupiers began stopping people for random checks, many people’s homes were raided, they started making arrests, people started to disappear, and, instead of trials, there was basement torture. Sometime around the one-year anniversary of the occupation (Note from iStories: Melitopol was first occupied by Russian forces on February 25, 2022), it started to feel like this might last for a long time. Life seemed to freeze; suddenly it was like Groundhog Day. The protests went underground.

The occupiers forced practically everyone to get Russian passports. What else were we supposed to do? We want to survive to see our city’s liberation, and they did everything they could to make it impossible to survive without a passport.

For example, without a Russian passport, you can’t call an ambulance or get medication. They started playing some interesting games with real estate. If an apartment sits empty, the occupiers take it for themselves. Someone spent his entire life saving up for that apartment — it’s all he has. If you want to sell it and at least get the money back, you can — you just have to go and get Russian documents. Because of this situation, a lot of people are scared that when Ukraine returns, they’ll be arrested [for obtaining Russian passports]. My friends and I have tried to explain to people that nobody’s going to be arrested unless they helped the occupiers.

Melitopol residents apply for Russian citizenship and passports. July 14, 2022.
Sergey Ilnitsky / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Living under occupation is hard, but it’s doubly dangerous if you’re a woman. Russian soldiers behave like they’re the kings of the world: there are no consequences for them. They get drunk a lot and harass women in the street; they’re liable to grab your arm and drag you away somewhere.

I remember one incident where a car full of soldiers was driving down the street and they saw a young woman. They skidded to a halt and started shouting at her: “Come here, baby!” The woman didn’t have a choice, just like none of us would. You never know how people who are armed are going to react when you refuse to meet them. You have to walk up to them and hope you’ll be able to avoid getting in their car.

I don’t know what happened to that woman after that. If I’d stuck around to watch, it might have made them suspicious. And drawing the attention of the soldiers is a scary thing. It feels like about half of the women in Melitopol now dress as inconspicuously as possible when they go outside. I’ve already forgotten what it’s like to dress nicely and put on makeup because I don’t want to attract their attention. I can’t even recall the last time I put on a dress and went for a walk around the city.

Tortured in occupied Melitopol

‘Mom, I went to hell’ A disabled Ukrainian man was nearly tortured to death in occupied Melitopol. Now he’s back in Russian captivity.

Tortured in occupied Melitopol

‘Mom, I went to hell’ A disabled Ukrainian man was nearly tortured to death in occupied Melitopol. Now he’s back in Russian captivity.

‘We remind them they’re not welcome here’

It sounds funny, but we came up with the idea for our partisan movement in a kitchen. It was the eve of the one-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion, in February 2023, and my girlfriends and I were sitting around and discussing our lives. A lot of anger had built up in each of us. We couldn’t just keep living amidst this lawlessness. And we somehow came to the idea of starting a women’s resistance movement. Why not? At that point, the occupiers didn’t suspect that an underground movement could be made up of women; most of the people getting stopped and checked were men. Meanwhile, we women had a lot of things we wanted to get across to them.

As International Women’s Day approached, we were sure that there would be soldiers walking through Melitopol and handing tulips out to women. With that in mind, we came up with an idea for a flyer: “We don’t want flowers — give us back Ukraine.” We wanted to find a strong female mythological figure, both for this protest and for our entire movement. And we quickly remembered the Ukrainian Mavka. We decided that Mavkas vs. orcs would be cool — like something from Mortal Kombat!

Angry Mavka flyers in the city of Yevpatoriya in Crimea. Spring 2024.
Angry Mavka

An artist drew us a Mavka beating a soldier with a bouquet, and we put our flyers up all over the city. On March 8, just as we expected, there were soldiers going around the city with bouquets. When a man with a machine gun comes up to you and holds out a flower, you can’t say, “Ew, you’re disgusting, get away!” Because a man with a weapon can do whatever he wants to you, including killing you or raping you. So of course you take the flower and you thank him. But on that day, we already knew that we’d found our voice — and that we’d be able to tell the occupiers what we were really thinking.

Over time, the occupation authorities intensified their crackdown. They started listening in on our phone conversations and installed surveillance cameras on every street post. At the same time, they cultivated a network of informants throughout the city. People who’d known each other their entire lives were suddenly trying not to say anything to one another, because they knew the other person might be bribed or threatened into revealing something. If a person has been “in the basement,” they won’t say anything about it as long as they’re still in the occupation zone. If you say one wrong word out in the city, they could come for you the next day.

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Given all of those things, we decided that the most important element of our partisan movement would be security. I can’t divulge any specifics about our activities, but I can tell you that we educate people on how to use their phones securely, and we check the city blind spots in the network of surveillance cameras.

The core group of women who started our movement is in Melitopol; we don’t know the identities of the rest. It’s safer that way for us and for them. To spread our movement to other occupied cities, we rely heavily on social media. Anyone who wants to resist the occupiers in some way can write to us through an anonymous form or our bot. They can’t find out who we are, and we can’t find out who they are. But we can give them flyers and examples of protest activities. And in response, they send us photos from their protests.

When there were fewer cameras, we put up a lot of flyers. Now we’re having to come up with alternative protest methods.

To mark 10 years of Crimea’s occupation by Russian forces, Angry Mavka released 200-ruble bills that read “Crimea is Ukraine” and distributed them throughout the peninsula.
Angry Mavka

We’ve started producing counterfeit rubles. This was our thought process: first of all, they’re easier to distribute, and second of all, there’s not a single occupier who won’t take money, given the opportunity. Our artist made a fifty-ruble bill that, from afar, looks very realistic. Russians see the money, pick it up, flip it around, and see a drawing of the Ukrainian Mavka with a trident and the words “This isn’t Russia — you’re in Ukraine.” We want to ensure that the occupiers never forget for even a minute that they’re not welcome here.

Mavka makes occupiers shit themselves!’

There’s very little access to news in Melitopol right now. I mean, we can go on Telegram and read Ukrainian news, but the older generations don’t have anything but Russian TV: Channel One, Rossiya-1, NTV — just like in other Russian cities. It’s such insidious brainwashing. The occupiers are trying to instill the idea in people that Ukraine doesn’t need us, that we’re with Russia for good. For us, it’s very important to convey to people that this is a lie. So we decided to launch a weekly newspaper.

We gather news from Ukrainian sources, distill it down to the most important parts, and succinctly describe what’s really happening. We deliberately seek out positive news that will boost people’s morale and help them understand that on the other side of the “wall,” nobody has forgotten us; people are fighting for us. We put these news flyers in people’s mailboxes, under people’s doors, or in conspicuous spots, and we wrap them in Russian newspapers and leave them out on benches.

Angry Mavka’s news flyers in Melitopol
Angry Mavka

While our flyers and fake rubles are important long-term initiatives, we do more targeted protests as well. Sometimes, for example, we give the Russian soldiers gifts from the Mavkas’ kitchen. We have one wonderful member who knows how to make the most awful moonshine — with an enormous dose of laxatives. It’s her secret recipe.

At the start of the occupation, when they first banned the sale of alcohol, the soldiers were desperate for something to drink, and we felt compelled to help them out. They would drink our concoction and pass out — and then give us a show we like to call “Mavkas’ Revenge.” Sometimes we also bake sausage rolls with the same secret ingredient. We deliver all of these gifts to them as tokens of “appreciation” from the city’s residents. 

After these stunts, all the local pro-war social media pages start posting, “Be careful! How many times have we warned you not to take food from the locals!” Naturally, I get a huge kick out of this.

People often ask us why we don’t just kill them. First of all, that’s the job of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Everyone has their role. Second of all, we’ve decided that laxatives are exactly what the occupiers deserve. We’re very happy with the slogan we’ve coined: “Mavka makes the occupiers shit themselves!”

The entire city is covered with quotes from Putin, billboards promoting Russia’s “Year of the Family” campaign, and that kind of thing. For some reason, you don’t see the “Z” symbol so much, but Russian flags are everywhere. They really piss us off — so we’ve started burning them down. We call it Operation Catharsis, because even we didn’t anticipate how much satisfaction it would bring us. You watch it burn, and you just feel lighter. We started by taking one of the flags, bringing it to an unidentifiable spot, and burning it on camera there, so that nobody would be able to tell where we’d done it. Then we posted it on social media. After that, people started sending us videos of themselves burning flags in other cities.

‘We’re heading back to the Soviet Union’

From the outside, life in Melitopol might appear peaceful, but that’s far from the truth. Some people are living normal lives, but only those who were brought over from Russia. They don’t have anything to fear, so they go to cafes and have fun at concerts.

But that’s all a facade. People continue to disappear. The occupiers continue to torture people. While the occupiers are no longer stopping people on the street, the surveillance has increased exponentially. A lot of locals have continued to leave (Note from iStories: Before the full-scale war, more than 150,000 people lived in Melitopol. Six months after the invasion, only 70,000 people were left in the city. Nearly 100,000 Russians have moved to Melitopol since the start of its occupation.)

Sometimes, I get the feeling that the entire world is going on with its life, moving forward, while we’ve been put in a time machine and are heading back to the Soviet Union. All of the food products [from Russia] are lousy and overpriced; clothes are now sold at street markets, and everything is mass-market; there’s propaganda everywhere, people are scared, and we no longer have freedom of speech. Life in the city is dominated by the occupiers; I spend all of my free time in my apartment now, just like most Melitopolites. I try not to go outside unless I have to.

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Recently, they staged “elections.” It was a clown show. First came their pre-election bacchanal, with calls to vote everywhere; performers like [Russian singer Yulia] Chicherina and [pro-Russian Ukrainian actor and singer Nikita] Dzhigurda came to encourage people to go to the polls. We, the Mavkas, called on people not to vote, but many people didn’t have a choice.

They went door to door: a girl with a ballot box and all of the voting paperwork comes to your home accompanied by a soldier with a machine gun. What can you do but vote?

They also had mobile voting: a Zhiguli car stops on the street, and they take out a ballot box and set it on the trunk. Then, when you’re walking down the street, people with machine guns stop you and walk you to the ballot box.

I managed not to vote. Others told me that the polling stations were absolutely empty. But when the cameras were around, they bussed people in, created a crowd, and made it look like everybody had gone to vote.

Russian election workers count ballots in occupied Melitopol
Konstantin Mihalchevskiy / Sputnik / IMAGO / SNA / Scanpix / LETA
Russian servicemen in occupied Melitopol. June 14, 2022.
Yuri Kadobnov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

‘Fighting the occupiers with anger and sarcasm’

We recently celebrated one year since Mavka’s founding.

We now have over 100 people carrying out protests “on the ground,” but the movement itself is much bigger. For a lot of people, it’s not just about the fight but about the chance to speak out: if someone’s afraid to put up flyers, they can write for our project Mavka Diaries, where we collect anonymous stories from women about the occupation and show people what life is really like.

The Mavka partisan movement is growing. This winter, like flowers in the snow, we started hearing from women from Luhansk and Donetsk; before that, there was practically no contact from them. The biggest surprise for me has been the resistance in Crimea. We were certain that after so many years under occupation, people there wouldn’t be able to put up resistance. But so many women have written to us from there! It seems to me like they’re no longer afraid of anything — they’re ready to fight to the end.

We’re using our female power to fight the occupiers with anger and sarcasm. We’re putting up a fight, but we’re doing it with jokes — after all, humor makes everything easier. I think people living under occupation really need this right now.

When we’re finally liberated, we’ll all emerge from the shadows and take off our masks. I think everybody will be shocked. You would never think, meeting these women, that they’d be capable of tearing down Russian flags and burning them in a courtyard.

I really want to say hello to everyone on the other side of the “wall.” My message for them: We’re here, and we’re still fighting!

Crimean Tatars under occupation

‘We don’t have another motherland’ After years of Russian occupation and oppression, Crimean Tatars hold out hope for Ukraine’s return

Crimean Tatars under occupation

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Reporting by iStories. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.

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