MOSCOW (Reuters) – Natalia Yermakova’s husband, Alexander, has been fighting in Ukraine for over a year after responding to President Vladimir Putin‘s mobilisation call. Wounded on the battlefield, he was operated on and then sent back to the front after recovering.
Now his wife, who shares his love of tango dancing, is doing her own bit for the war effort: toiling as a volunteer in a “Family Battalion”.
One of a group of around 40 mostly female relatives of mobilised men in Moscow who give up their free time to help out, she threads camouflage netting, makes signs to mark minefields, gathers candles to be used in trenches and dug-outs, and puts food parcels together.
As Putin positions himself to win a fifth presidential term in March, it is people like Yermakova – who like many Russians supports the “special military operation” in Ukraine – whom the president is relying on to hold his support base together.
Her work takes place in an office belonging to the ruling United Russia party, which is adorned with Russia’s red, blue and white flag and portraits of politicians such as Putin.
There are similar groups working around Moscow, she said.
The relatives take turns to accompany the deliveries they assemble – in a more than 30-year-old van – to the Russian military in what she calls “the new territories” – Ukrainian land annexed by Russia.
“We really want to support them (the soldiers) morally and emotionally and send them a message of kindness and a message that what they are doing there is needed by people here,” Yermakova told Reuters, while taking a break from threading a giant camouflage net.
Some wives of Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine are demanding that their husbands, who they say have not been given enough breaks to spend time with their families, be demobilised and their places taken by others.
‘THE WAY IT HAS TO BE’
But Yermakova, 37, does not share that concern. She was able to be with her own husband for some time after he spent several months recuperating in Moscow following an operation on his leg and they even managed to fit in a bit of tango dancing once he was well enough.
“If our government decides to act in such a way it means that’s the way it has to be,” said Yermakova, who has a 10-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.
“I believe that Russia is waking up, waking up from its sleep, and understands that it (the war) is not just happening for no reason and that there are compelling reasons for it.”
That’s a reference to the Kremlin’s stance that the conflict is part of a wider existential struggle for a fairer world order against what Putin sees as a decadent West.
The West brands Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a war of aggression and a land grab but this view finds little purchase among Russians like Yermakova. They accuse Ukraine of mistreating Russian speakers in the east since 2014 when a Russian-backed uprising erupted there. Kyiv denies the charge.
Yermakova said threading camouflage nets to help conceal trenches and to fit on soldiers’ helmets was the volunteers’ main task because it was something that could help save their husbands’ lives by keeping them safe from enemy drones.
She and others had also started sewing bandages and baking apple and cabbage pies to send to their men.
Yermakova said she had made several delivery runs, describing the area close to the frontline as “a different world”.
The thread of tango dancing has run through their wartime life, she said.
When Alexander, 32, had a 24-hour leave period in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region in February, she described spending a night with him in an evacuated hospital where she changed into a dress, turned on some music, and they both danced a tango.
And when they got married in a civil ceremony some six months ago while he was injured and on leave in Moscow, tango dancing featured again even though he had to walk with a stick.
(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones)