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Interview with Russian PeaceWoman

"We were able to get back to the most important thing: we want peace!"

On 25 February 2022, the day after the start of the war of aggression on Ukraine, called a "special operation" in her home country, Valentina Cherevatenko left Russia. The PeaceWoman and long-time human rights defender describes in this interview with PeaceWomen Across the Globe how pain and despair over this act of aggression initially blocked all other feelings. "In this state, however, one can barely act efficiently. I had to make a great effort to close my heart and soul in order to work." And she has been doing so non-stop ever since.     

She has been particularly active as a member of the coordination team of Women's Initiatives for Peace in Donbas(s)*. WIPD is a platform of more than 50 women from Russia, Ukraine and Germany that was founded in 2015, in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea. After 24 February, WIPD women had to face difficult questions on both sides of the frontline. In the course of their discussions and public appearances – including in Bern in May – they have become "increasingly calm and confident". Today, they continue to stand together for peace and against violence. The women's motto remains: "Nothing for us, without us!"  

What were your feelings, your thoughts, on 24 February when the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine began?

I don't think my thoughts or feelings on that day were different from those of millions of people in my country. I am speaking, of course, of those who understood what had started in the early morning of 24 February. My thoughts and my head were working non-stop, 24 hours a day. It was important for me to answer the questions:  "What to do? What can I do and what must I do?” The question "Who is to blame?" was not relevant for me at that time. My feelings were much more complicated. The pain and despair were so strong that they blocked all other feelings. In this state, however, one can barely act efficiently. I had to make a great effort to close my heart and soul in order to work, just to work – to work a great deal. Because at that time, I don't think anyone had the slightest idea of what to do. Nobody had any idea about how to act.  

Were you surprised?

What happened surprised everyone. Probably it is a trait of most people not to want to believe the worst and to hope for the best. And this, despite the fact that in recent years statements and messages were heard more and more often, the contents of which clearly demonstrated the intentions of one country towards the other. Nevertheless, absolutely no one wanted to believe in the possibility of war – certainly not me.  

What impact does the war have on the Russian people?

This is a very complicated question. According to official sociological statistics, 85% of Russians support the invasion of Ukraine. I am one of those who do not trust official statistics and sociology. And my attitude is not an emotional one; it was formed long before today's events. These events have further strengthened my attitude towards the information that is not simply passed on to us, but is, in addition, imposed upon us. However, the fact is that the invasion of the territory of a neighbouring country by the Russian military forces has practically divided the people of my country into two groups of equal size. However, I understand that it is not easy to maintain such a large number of supporters of unlawful and obviously aggressive actions. We are seeing how the ruling powers deliver different propaganda statements almost weekly, reinforcing them with repressive laws, the court system and armed structures. So everyone in Russia is experiencing this rollercoaster of worries and concerns. They have experienced it in the past or will continue to experience it. Everyone will have to make a choice sooner or later and I believe it will not be in favour of war.  

What are the implications for the WIPD members and its work?

WIPD has been active for eight years. This means that for some of the participants, the war did not start on 24 February, but in 2014. After 24 February, however, the situation changed fundamentally, both for those who had first recognised it in 2014, as well as for all our Ukrainian and Russian colleagues. We all had to question who we are, where we are, whether we are moving away from or towards peace, whether we are ready to try and find this path together. And that was very difficult. But it was clear to us that those who believe will start, and that those who doubt will join later, and only then those for whom a conversation with the enemy is not possible today. And we were all suddenly on different sides of barricades, barricades in the literal sense. But today we are all here. We are together. That means we have made it!  

Some of the members of WIPD met physically in Bern for the first time since the war began in May. What was the first joint meeting like?

We didn't just meet, we also appeared on different platforms in front of different audiences. And I could feel how we changed each time, how our rhetoric changed. How we became calmer and more confident. We were able to return to what was most important: We stand together! We are against violence! We want peace! And above all: nothing for us, without us!  

At the event in Bern you said: "I am a peacemaker and against any kind of violence. I went through an inner crisis myself during the discussions with civil society about arms deliveries to Ukraine." Can you please elaborate?

What reactions do the demands for arms deliveries to Ukraine trigger in you? The role of the peace activists, the peacemakers, has always been very complicated. What we do – our appeals for peace, for dialogue, for negotiations – are usually not popular. Sometimes all sides don't like them. Up to a certain moment, each side believes that it is right and powerful. Up to that moment, no one counts their fallen and disabled; no one sees the future challenges of the country and the connection between what is happening today and how many people no longer have a future, how many children will never be born. At the same time, I understand my colleagues who believe that victory is the most important thing, no matter what the cost. Victory is the goal! And to achieve it, you need weapons. But I personally do not believe that violence can bring peace and happiness, that today's problems can be solved with weapons. I see other possibilities for a return to peace. Unfortunately, only a few people hold this view, and there are very few among them who call themselves politicians. That is the calamity of our time.  

Before 24 February 2022, WIPD was a group of women "who wanted to change the world and bring peace", you said in Bern. What goal is WIPD striving for now? What role can WIPD play in the current situation?

WIPD is already playing a role now. In a nutshell: first, because we are continuing the dialogue. And that means that the hatred is decreasing, even if only a little. Secondly, we are passing on the information that there are people on both sides of the frontline who do not want war. Thirdly, we want to say with certainty that we are not victims of war: we are the ones who continue to act as subjects and demand that the world become as WE see it. And we will work for that. We have kept our platform because we have found the fundamental values that unite us. For example, Ukraine is a state that has a right to exist and to a vision for its future. And we are united on that! We do not support aggression as a means to solve problems and issues.  

You also said that WIPD wanted to strengthen women's representation on different sides of the conflict, even before 24 February. What opportunities do you see for women's participation in peacebuilding and possible future peace processes?

At different stages, WIPD had different ideas regarding women's participation in the negotiation processes. This does not mean that we necessarily have to sit at the negotiating table, although that would be desirable too. But because we are a group of active women working alongside ordinary people in the real world, we see the problems of these people differently than from the window of a luxury car. Our task is first and foremost to communicate the current needs of these people to the structures responsible for negotiations, and secondly to monitor their decisions and their implementation.  

You have done a lot of work in the field of psychological trauma of people affected by war and conflict, for example in Chechnya. What do you expect regarding trauma in the affected society in Ukraine, Donbas and in Russia too? What should be done to heal these traumas?

Unfortunately, the wave of violence from the battlefield will return to families, regardless of which part of the war people are in today. We have to think about this now and start the work.

I always think about how I shared our work experience in Chechnya and in my city with Viktor Efimovich Kogan, a famous psychotherapist and psychologist who lived and worked in Saint Petersburg at the time. We were confronted with such forms of violence within families that we had to look for solutions on the spot. He was very surprised by what we managed to do, including that we understood a very important point: each family member of a soldier or a person at war leads his or her own life, and when they come together again, each of them tries to share their worries, burdens and hardships. But no one is willing or prepared to listen. This is due to what they have experienced. Accordingly, there is discontent, anger, alcohol, drugs and other problems. That brings back the violence. And that is only part of the problem. This is why it is a major task to return a traumatised person and a traumatised society back to peaceful life. You have to make the state aware of this and get it to provide the appropriate resources. I also see that as our task. (The Interview was conducted between May and July 2022)

Short biography: Valentina Cherevatenko is the founder and chair of the Association of Women of the Don, formed in 1993, and coordinator of of WIPD, the Women's Initiatives for Peace in Donbas(s)*, a platform of more than 50 women from Russia and Ukraine, founded in 2015. The aim of WIPD is to create conditions for a peaceful transformation of the conflict in and around the Donbas region. The group includes activists from both countries, residents of the non-state-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukrainian refugees in Russia and representatives of the international community. She is a long-time human rights defender and has launched several peacebuilding initiatives, for example, in the Caucasus and Chechnya. There, her focus was on peacebuilding activities and reconciliation between Chechen and Russian people. She has organised various seminars on healing the psychological trauma of the war-affected people and breaking the vicious circle of hatred. She was one of the 1000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. PeaceWomen Across the Globe grew out of the initiative "1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize".  

*Ukrainian place names are spelled differently in Russian and Ukrainian. We use the Ukrainian spelling of Ukrainian place names (i.e.: Donbas, instead of Donbass). WIPD includes women from both countries, which is why the organisation has chosen to write Donbas(s) that way in its name.