Commentary

Mothers Of Russian Soldiers Fight for Their Sons

Wednesday, March 21, 2001

The hand that rocks the soldier's cradle in Russia is rocking the Russian military, demanding it treat soldiers with dignity and professionalism, feed and clothe them properly, end forced labor and abide by the rule of law.

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Swanee Hunt

MOSCOW (WOMENSENEWS)--President Bush has reaffirmed his commitment to a well-paid, well-equipped, highly effective military, visiting military command centers to underscore his support for U.S. women and men under arms. Americans expect nothing less than the utmost military professionalism, but in many countries, such as Russia, the military remains a dinosaur, dangerous to its own soldiers, unjust and unaccountable.

In Russia, the intrepid mothers of soldiers are demanding that the military change, that it treat soldiers as professionals, not cannon fodder. They have been harassed and intimidated by the authorities, but they keep soldiering on.

Last month in Moscow, I met my friend Ida Kuklina in her crowded, tiny office just around the corner from the former KGB headquarters. Ida sat at her desk, talking with the parents of a Russian soldier, jotting down notes. Across the small room, another staff person spoke with a soldier's mother who was giving her the particulars of his condition. In the corner, a volunteer took information over the telephone.

The office is in a state of dynamic disorder, packed with row upon row of office records. I tried to take notes but kept getting bumped as 15 people moved back and forth among five computers. Meanwhile, Ida's next appointment waited patiently just outside the door, as did her next appointment, and her next, with the queue stretching down the hallway.

The people in line wanted help from the Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia, which Ida helped found in 1989. The union is an umbrella organization of 300 provincial Soldiers' Mothers Committees created throughout Russia after military campaigns in Afghanistan and Chechnya, but birthed really (the organizers say) because of the freedoms that accompanied the fall of communism. When Russians became empowered as citizens, non-governmental movements such as this one were launched.

Mothers Organization Holds Russian Military Accountable

As one mother said, she got involved to help Russians learn their rights and learn how to protect themselves from the arbitrariness of those in authority.

Before the mothers committees, there was no organization to hold the Russian military accountable. That's different now. The Soldiers' Mothers Committees challenged Russian officials on the number of Russian casualties in Chechnya. They argued that the official figures are only half the actual amount--a claim based on the constant stream of phone calls from the relatives of men killed. The mothers also visit cathedrals to count the funeral services held for soldiers.

"It's hard to hide such things in the provinces, where every soldier's death is a tragedy for the whole town," said one of the mothers.

The work is grim, but humor pervades the office. "Fit," reads the poster on the door, a picture of a skeleton receiving his health certificate from a military doctor. Conscripts' certificates of medical problems are sometimes thrown away or put aside for bribes, according to the mothers union staff.

To deal with medical trauma from military service, organizers have set up a rehabilitation center for soldiers, some of whom are permanently disabled because of their experience, many of whom are emotionally traumatized.

The mothers have been horrified by what they've seen and learned about conditions in the armed forces: beatings, humiliations, torture, hazing, lack of food and other necessities, and virtual slavery imposed by forced-labor construction battalions.

Soldiers Forced To Take Part In Atrocities, Mothers Contend

Some soldiers of conscience even are treated as criminals and punished for not participating in atrocities, the mothers say.

As a result, they are educating conscripts and parents, organizing public awareness campaigns and non-violent protests, pressing authorities on individual complaints concerning human rights violations, inspecting military units, devising legislative proposals and advocating for the rights of conscientious objectors.

Their goal is nothing less than a thorough reform of the Russian military on a democratic basis, an end to forced labor in construction battalions, demilitarization of the justice system, civil control over the military and legislation to provide for an alternative civil service.

These mothers--grandmothers, aunts, nieces, sisters, daughters and wives--hope to transform Russian soldiers from cannon fodder into military professionals under a just and disciplined system, one that is law-abiding and accountable.

They've had some success. The Russian Duma, or parliament, has adopted many of their legislative initiatives; 500 conscientious objectors who refused to participate in the first Chechen war were not punished as criminals, thanks, in large part, to the mothers' efforts. And, perhaps most important, the soldiers' mothers have pushed ordinary Russians to confront their armed services on the basis of military law and have succeeded in amending laws--actions utterly unthinkable a few years ago.

The mothers have been evicted from their offices, pulled off trains, lied to by officials, and confronted by the Russian military. Raising awareness and bringing about change hasn't been easy, and Ida Kuklina throws her shoulders back with pride as she shows off the German Human Rights Prize the mothers' union received last year.

"We aren't looking for money from outsiders," she insists. The personal stories behind the 40,000 annual telephone calls, letters and visits is enough to fuel their trailblazing work.

"Every Monday, we have up to 500 draftees gathered in the hall, or outside on the sidewalk. Ludmilla here stands on a chair and speaks to them all," Ida waves her arms, with a broad smile across her face, ". . .like Lenin!"

Swanee Hunt was the U.S. ambassador to Austria from 1993-1997 and is currently the director of the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


The Union Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia may be contacted as follows:

Luchnikov pereulok 4
Entrance 3, Room 5
101000 Moscow
Phone: (095) 9282506
Fax: (095) 2068958


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A special daily feature of Women's Enews during Women's History Month.

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