Swastikas, Bullets, and Beatings: Russian Women Face Chaos to Run for Office

Courtesy Violetta Grudina
Courtesy Violetta Grudina

MOSCOW—The new wave of threats began almost as soon as Violetta Grudina, an opposition politician and a gay rights activist in Russia, declared her candidacy in local elections. It was a dark beginning to an election campaign but hardly a surprising one.

Such attacks were not new to Grudina. Once a few years ago, she was pushed down and kicked in her face by a nationalist thug for her “unwomanly” appearance. Last spring, rifle bullets flew through her office window.

But this time was different, and it was clear to Grudina that somebody was putting a lot of effort into ending her political career. Fliers went up around her hometown of Murmansk, in the north of Russia, with her phone number, home address, and pictures of her and her girlfriend. The fliers were calling for an “elimination” of the politician.

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The political movement Grudina led in Murmansk, a military port city in Arctic, was a regional branch of imprisoned Aleksei Navalny’s opposition group until a court formally banned it last month, labeling it as “extremist.” Many opposition leaders in the region fled the country. But Grudina stayed and decided to run an election campaign as an independent in Murmansk, the city she loved. “Some corners of our city are so poor, so run-down, they look like slums, so I would like to change that and many people in the community support me,” Grudina, who is 31 years old, told The Daily Beast.

In late April, somebody painted a swastika on the door of Grudina’s office, she said. Then, she discovered a piece of paper with crosshairs drawn on it in her post box.

“Even when some radicals fired an assault rifle at our office windows, authorities did not do anything to investigate the crime or provide us with protection,” she said. “Police rejected our complaints, nobody investigated the attacks, I am clearly unprotected,” Grudina said. “I expect even worse things can happen to me.”

Every Russian election season brings grim news of political persecutions and violence against opposition candidates. Independent politicians who protect minorities, speak out against political repressions and violence become targets of death threats, arson, arrests, beatings or shootings. This year has been especially tough for independent politicians running for local and Parliamentary elections. They all take grave risks, but often, it seems the women in Russia’s opposition circles bear the brunt of the attacks.

Until recently, Yulia Galyamina was a lawmaker, a university professor and a well-respected politician calling for non-violent change in Russia. She led multiple rallies in Moscow, which would often end in her arrest. Members of a special anti-riot police unit, the OMON, violently beat Galyamina at a rally in 2017. She ended up in a neurological hospital with broken teeth, a damaged jaw and a concussion. But that did not stop her. She won the 2017 local elections a few months after the attack.

The lawmaker has not seen her attackers on trial. Instead, she ended up in the dock herself: Last year, a Moscow court sentenced Galyamina to two years of probation, a conviction that deprived her of the right to participate in public politics. Galyamina was accused of organizing unauthorized rallies, “aimed at changing the constitutional order.”

In other former Soviet states, women have played pivotal roles in bringing political change. Georgia and Moldova have elected women presidents in recent years.

“Despite the fact that our country is poor, Moldovans have been fighting for democracy and freedom for 30 years, no matter how hard the fight was, people did not give up. I am so proud of people protesting in the streets,” Moldovan President Maia Sandu told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview earlier this year. “People continue to demonstrate a deep devotion to democratic elections. I have been strongly supported in my intentions to fight corruption and defeat the oligarchic system.”

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A majority of Russians want to see more women on the political stage, too. About 70 percent of the population would like to see more women in politics, according to Levada Center’s social polls.

But the government has been relentless in pressuring women opposition figures. Navalny’s top ally and lawyer, Lyubov Sobol, had to quit her parliamentary election campaign last week. She could not protect her team members against the anti-extremism law targeting Navalny’s supporters.

“I really don’t understand why authorities would not want to allow independent candidates to take part in political competition, and demonstrate whether they are effective,” a political observer with Kommersant newspaper, Vladimir Solovyev, told The Daily Beast. “The competition would shake up and energize the system.”

Russia’s only registered liberal party, Yabloko, has nominated a prominent rights activist and journalist, Marina Litvinovitch, to run for parliamentary elections this year. Litvinovitch has been a victim of violent, politically motivated attacks in 1999 and 2006 but has not seen any results from police investigations against her attackers. As a member of the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission, Litvinovitch observed prisons and documented human rights violations in Russian jails for two years. She is now seeking to improve conditions in women’s prisons.

“Convicted women stay in cells of 30 people, just like men. If I get elected, I would work on improving the prison system,” Litvinovitch, a 46-year-old politician and a single mother of three children, told The Daily Beast.

In March, the state-controlled Moscow Public Monitoring Commission voted to remove Litvinovitch from a panel after she visited Sobol in jail, accusing her of disclosing information on Sobol’s investigation to the press.

“I am sure authorities would like to invent something to stop me from running in the elections,” she said. “But in spite of all the risks, I am still determined to run. Our society is tired of injustice, aggression on television, aggression in politics. People want to speak with women politicians. Russian women journalists, human rights defenders, and politicians are often braver and more effective in communicating ideas. Politics are not dead in Russia. There is still me.”

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