Russia's powerhouses of dissent: mothers

The Soldiers' Mothers Committee takes on the military in ways others can't

For five months, five days a week, Yelena Makarova telephoned the Ministry of Defense hotline seeking news of her nephew Andrei. She suspected the boy was missing in action in Chechnya. Each time, the reply was polite, but noncommittal. "We don't have any information," she was told.

Finally, Mrs. Makarova followed the path of thousands of Russian women before her. She contacted the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, a national group that boldly challenges, scolds, and cajoles Russia's male-dominated military bureaucracy into helping families find information about sons or relatives.

True to form, within a few hours, a committee member had located the youth. He was alive. And yes, he was in Chechnya.

With Russia well into its second campaign in the breakaway Muslim republic, the decade-old committee has risen to new prominence here. At a time when limits on free speech appear to be growing, the group is now a crucial source of information on casualties and conditions in Chechnya. It's emerging as a powerful nongovernmental organization, with 300 offices and an aura of impunity that only the sanctity of motherhood could provide. The current war effort, to reestablish control that Moscow lost in the disastrous 1994-96 Chechen conflict, remains popular with most Russians. But disillusionment is growing, especially among those who have lost kin.

With seeming boundless energy - apparently fuelled by tea, poppyseed bread, and moral conviction - committee members dispense tips on how to get around Russia's tangled bureaucracy and to avoid the draft. A pregnant wife, enrollment in university, or well-documented chronic illness are among the possible exits cited.

As irritating as their work may be to the Defense Ministry, mothers committee members say they have experienced little harassment by authorities other than phone tapping - customary, according to human rights groups here - and the odd fake organization set up as a rival.

"What motivates me? It's sort of mystical," says the organization's founder and leader, Valentina Melnikova. "Practically all of us who work here have [experienced] burn-out. At that point, many leave. Those who stay seem to grow stronger."

Mrs. Melnikova stumbled upon her mission in 1989 at the end of the Soviet Union's decade-long occupation of Afghanistan, where an estimated 15,000 Russian soldiers died. Melnikova, who had two draft-age sons, began to study the law for loopholes and linked up with other women to build the movement. Their work intensified during Russia's first military campaign in Chechnya.

The committee's profile has grown especially with the severe restrictions imposed on media coverage of the current war. Since most journalists cannot get to the scene of the fighting, the group serves as a vital source of information.

The group, too, has emerged as a champion of the rights of the 100,000 Russian conscripts in the region, and countless others who fear being called up for their two years of compulsory military service. Reports of hazing of recruits are rampant. Suicide is also reported to be common. Compensation in cases of injury or death can be delayed for years.

For families that cannot afford lawyers, or hefty bribes, to evade the draft or discover the whereabouts of missing sons, there is nowhere else to turn.

"This was my last hope, my last resort," says one of the tired women waiting her turn in the drafty corridor outside the committee's Moscow office. "If they can't help me, no one can."

One reason for their success, one sociologist speculates, is that these tough middle-aged matrons can instill respect in Army men as only mother figures can.

"The organization uses the symbolism of sacred motherhood very effectively," says Yelena Zdravomyslova, a researcher in St. Petersburg with the Russian Independent Social and National Issues Institute. "Theirs was a clever choice, to appeal to the notion of uncorruptible mothers defending their children."

While some of their 300 offices are manned by a single woman in an isolate village, the committee ranks appear to be growing. Men also now work for the organization. Due to a scarcity of charity funding in Russia, the group relies on foreign financing, including money from a foundation set up by Hungarian philanthropist George Soros.

Often working without pay, committee members take down the testimonies of soldiers who have been beaten. They make lists of dutiful letter-writing sons whose correspondence stopped abruptly and without explanation. They counsel deserters and potential draft dodgers about their legal rights. And they tirelessly go through hospital and military records to calculate a true estimate of casualties.

Melnikova now figures the death toll in Chechnya at more than 3,500 and the injured at more than 6,000 - double the official government figures.

"These numbers are not just important for the public record. We're talking about people's lives," she says. "Their families cannot ask for compensation from the state until the state acknowledges they died in action. The fact that the Defense Ministry wants to hide facts means that it doesn't want to accept responsibility for this war."

Melnikova rises from her chair to meet several women entering her office with hopeful faces. She turns with a final remark: "Our 'war' is endless here. The heaviest thing is that we face the same situation time and again."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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