How Ukrainian women are fighting Russian occupation
The "Angry Mavka" movement is proof Moscow-backed forces are not welcome in occupied southern Ukraine territories. The group's actions are multi-faceted and unpredictable
I don't tell my family about my underground activities. I do everything in my power so they don't see a single leaflet or can of spray paint," says Tetyana, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. She is from Simferopol, the capital of the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia is 2014. It is also home to the "Angry Mavka" resistance movement. "Mavka," a creature from Ukrainian folklore and mythology, is the guardian of the forest, a virtuous nymph who protects nature from evil influences.
The women-run underground organization is active in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine and is coordinated via the Telegram messaging app. The group distributes pro-Ukrainian flyers, does graffiti, destroys Russian symbols and gathers information about the Russian military.
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A resistance movement is born
Slogans such as "Mavkas see everything!" and "Occupiers, get lost! Do not anger Ukrainian women!" are written on the posters, along with images of the mythical mavka. These have been cropping up not only in Russian-occupied parts of the Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions, but also in Crimea. The resistance movement was founded by three friends from Melitopol. DW was able to speak with one of them via Zoom. She asked to be referred to as "Angry Mavka," concealing her real name out of fear for her safety. Throughout the call, her face was covered by a mask, and she had a cap pulled over her eyes.
The young woman explained that the idea for the underground movement came from a get-together in a kitchen. "March 8, International Women's Day, was approaching. We knew the [Russian] occupiers would do something; without a doubt they would stand in front of businesses and give flowers to women. We wanted to show them that they cannot buy us with flowers, and that we know what we want, that is, we want Ukraine back."
'Mavkas' against 'Orcs'
One of the founders of the movement, who is an artist, created posters with an image of a young woman hitting a Russian soldier with a bouquet of flowers, whose inscription read: "I don't want flowers; I want my Ukraine." The others turned their attention to Telegram. Through the social network, residents of the occupied territories can download and print digital copies of the flyers to display around their cities.
The women decided to use "Mavkas" to contrast with the "orcs" (many Ukrainians have adopted this term for the humanoid creatures best-known for their service as foot soldiers and slaves in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," to refer to the Russian military). "Throughout the occupation we have tried to make our resistance known, we have also helped with other movements. But we always thought it would be good to do something as women," said the organization's co-founder, adding that the Russians did not expect such a resistance movement from women.
Shortly before March 8, Tetyana from Simferopol saw some "Mavka" posters on Telegram. She spent her childhood in Melitopol and has been able to keep a close eye on events in the occupied city in Ukraine's south by subscribing to the "Angry Mavka" Telegram channel. She said that she already wanted to express her pro-Ukrainian position in 2014, during the annexation of Crimea but she still was a minor at the time. In March 2023, she learned that some Russians had moved into her grandmother's apartment in Melitopol, which had been empty since Moscow's full-scale invasion in February 2022 — she decided it was time to act. That's when she contacted the "Mavkas" and asked what she could do to help.
Flyers, graffiti and burning Russian flags
Her first task was to gather information. "At first, I just observed the military and their equipment in the city. I heard rumors from acquaintances working in local authorities and reported everything to 'Mavka,'" says Tetyana. Later on, she was asked to distribute pamphlets and paint blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, as well as pro-Ukrainian slogans on walls.
The women usually film their actions and post the videos on their Telegram channel, which has amassed more than 7,000 members.
Tetyana said it was not easy to be inconspicuous: "As you're sticking the leaflets up, pulling out your mobile phone, taking a photo, you hear someone's footsteps behind you. Graffiti is even harder because you have to wear gloves so your hands don't get covered in paint. Then you have to take them off and snap a photo. In busy places, that just doesn't work."
Going by the Telegram channel, it seems that traces of the "Mavkas" work is more likely to be found in less frequented places.
When Tetyana's father brought Russian propaganda posters and a Russian flag home from work, the young woman came up with an idea that she put forward to the "Mavkas": filming or photographing Russian symbols being burned. This, she said, has become one of the "Mavkas" favorite activities.
How many 'Mavkas' are there?
The movement now has over a hundred active participants across various occupied cities, said "Angry Mavka." Hundreds more women and girls joined in on a less regular basis, she added, saying that they did things such as reporting back about roadblocks when the Russian military carried out checks and searches, about buildings where Russian troops were stationed or hospitals only accessible to the Russian occupiers, or when locals were used as human shields.
The "Mavkas" have also been collecting stories from women who feel defenseless in such a hostile environment. "Angry Mavka" described Russian soldiers as behaving brazenly often and trying to make contact with Ukrainian women on the street. "One young woman wrote to me saying that she rarely dared to leave her house and only went to the store every so often."
Some pro-Russian Telegram channels in Melitopol have mentioned the "Mavkas" and described their activity as an attempt to "intimidate" locals. For them, the women are "sabotage squads." Others have gone as far as to question the "Mavkas" existence altogether. "To me, this is a sign the occupiers see everything, and they don't like it at all," said "Angry Mavka." The goal of the resistance movement, she added, is to remind the Russian occupiers that they are not welcome in Ukraine. The "Mavkas" are doing what they can to counter the masses of Russian propaganda, flags and slogans, she said.
Waiting for the Ukrainian counteroffensive
Despite a counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces and regular explosions in Melitopol, "Angry Mavka" said that the Russian military still felt "comfortable" in the city. She said there was little sign that it had any plans to leave but said that the local population was becoming more and more active each day. "When people see how successful our soldiers are and then they read about them, that gives them courage. The men can do it, so can we," she said.
Tetyana from Simferopol, said that since the recent explosions in Crimea, there was more fear among those living on the peninsula who support the Russian occupiers. She said that some had already left for Russia, while others were considering leaving should fighting escalate. "During nine years of occupation [in Crimea], parts of the population have been influenced by the persistent Russian propaganda," Tetyana said regretfully, adding that she did not talk about her involvement in the resistance movement with friends, family or acquaintances. But she said that many of them were critical of the Russian occupiers and spoke positively about Ukraine. "It seems to me that a large number of people in Crimea, especially the [Indigenous] Crimean Tatars, support the resistance."
Published: 10 Aug 2023, 9:03 AM