Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 10

By Marina Konnova

Perhaps the only large structure in Russia to have remained virtually unaffected by the political changes associated with perestroika is the Russian army. Or rather, it suffered a number of shocks related to the financial crisis, the total collapse of the standard of living and budget cuts in defense spending, but all this mainly affected that section of the army which may be termed professional. Yet the Russian army does not consist of the professional officers so much as of the young adults called up for real military service, who, according to Russia’s constitution, serve for two years (in the army or air force) or three years (in the navy).

Naturally, almost everything to do with the armed forces in any country is a state secret. However, the legislative basis for the composition of the army is no secret in itself. A few years ago Russia’s then President Boris Yeltsin put forward an initiative, backed by almost the entire population of the country, to introduce recruitment to the army on a professional basis by the year 2000. But to this day there has been no progress whatsoever on this. Recently, following the relative stabilization of the situation in Chechnya, interest in the Russian army’s internal problems had dwindled. But everything changed again after the loss of the nuclear submarine Kursk. This tragedy once again focused the world’s attention on the state of Russia’s armed forces. Many were shocked by President Putin’s admission that he was genuinely unaware of the state of affairs in the Russian navy, even though by law he is its commander in chief. The media played a key role in lending a sharp edge to public reaction to the Kursk tragedy, and not only because the manifold mistakes of the country’s leaders and the criminal suppression of facts were highlighted as events unfolded. The most important thing was that the whole world could see the real tragedy of the families of the dead seamen, who included draftees. Yet there was a key phrase, spoken by the mother of one of the dead sailors, the significance of which many millions of citizens were unaware: “And we were happy when he was sent to the Northern Fleet, not to Chechnya.” This statement was a clear illustration of the fact that however difficult and dangerous serving in the navy was, it was much worse for mothers to see their sons off to join units engaged in the military campaign in the North Caucasus.

However tragic the events in the Barents Sea, they did not come as a complete shock to many Russians familiar with the realities of life in the army. This is not surprising: In a country waging a second successive military campaign in which young men are dying every day–men who form the basis of our nation’s gene pool (it is intelligent and extremely fit young men who are selected to serve in the paratroop regiments fighting and dying in Chechnya)–people have long known what army life is really like. But, for its part, the state will go to any lengths to perpetuate the myth that the situation in the zone of conflict is stable. The Kremlin and the General Staff suppress the real figures about numbers of dead in both wars (those cited in official sources were lucidly disputed by human rights organizations, particularly the Unions of Soldiers’ Mothers, which are the subject of this article). The suppression of facts and figures is openly described as “a policy which has vindicated itself.” As a now retired military commander said in an interview with NTV: “If we had not shipped ‘cargo-200’ [coffins containing the bodies of dead soldiers] back to Russia from Afghanistan, we would have won that war.” Incidentally, the military admits that the tradition of shipping dead Russians home was borrowed from the U.S. army, which brought its dead home from Vietnam. But today the lessons have been learnt. Now, whenever another dead body is brought back from Chechnya, the authorities invariably try to follow the directive from army command: “No fuss surrounding the funeral.” Often the body is buried the day after it arrives home, and the grief-stricken parents are in no state even to organize a wake for friends and relatives to say their goodbyes. Nevertheless, the huge numbers of these tragedies are the source of no less public consternation than the “communal grave” at the bottom of the Barents Sea.

It should not be forgotten that according to figures released by human rights organizations, particularly those given in the bulletins Pravo materi and Za mirnuyu Rossiyu, about 5,000 conscripted soldiers die every year in the Russian army, even during periods when it is not fighting any military campaigns. This is often the result of the unprofessional actions of commanders, violations of security codes, and–perhaps most alarmingly–the tradition of hazing, where a young soldier who has just begun his service is subjected to terrible humiliations at the hands of older soldiers. The result is a large number of murders, suicides or desertions of young soldiers who have been driven to the edge of despair. The statistics for such losses are also concealed from the public. This is quite understandable: Having taken charge of a new recruit, the army bears full responsibility for him before the law. In cases such as these, it either has to admit that death resulted from harsh treatment, or, if the soldier who committed a crime (suicide) was mentally unstable, that a man had been serving who should not have been drafted on health grounds. Therefore, in those cases when the relatives of the dead try to investigate the events leading up to this tragic end, the army does all it can to place the blame specifically on the dead soldier, in order to deflect blame from itself.

Awful as it is to admit it, a Russian soldier doing military service (and indeed while being prepared for service) is completely deprived of rights. Laws are constantly violated in respect to him, and he himself–first in training and then in the army unit–is like a man who has broken the law and has thus forfeited his rights. Suffice to note the following: Despite the fact that, by law, the Russian passport is the main document proving the identity of a Russian citizen, and may only be confiscated under specific circumstances (essentially only in detention centers), every young man has his passport taken away at the recruiting office until he finishes his service. It is also worth noting that while official army structures protect the rights of professional military personnel, there is no state organization to protect the rights of conscripts. Neither is there any protection for draftees at recruiting offices–traditionally the regional military commissariats which muster recruits and send them off on service compete with each other in organizing the draft. Regions which do not muster the “planned” number of new recruits are subjected to criticism by the federal authorities.

Because of the changes which took place in Russia in the early 1990s, this legal lacuna was filled. But not by the state. The protection of the interests of military conscripts was undertaken by voluntary organizations: committees for the social protection of soldiers and their families, councils of soldiers’ parents and so on (despite the different names, they were in many ways identical in terms of their activities). The Unions of Soldiers’ Mothers (Russian acronym SSM) became particularly prominent in Russia. Almost all of them were set up in the early 1990s, and again the initiative did not come from the state. Moreover, the state actively opposed them at first. And, like any structure created in a time of need, they gradually began to develop into forces backed by public sympathy. Despite the fact that SSM members are predominantly women, the structures are not feminist, neither in essence nor in their outward features. Their central tasks are to protect the rights of conscripts and their families, promote the transition to a professional army, help the families of soldiers killed while serving with the armed forces and so on. There are a fairly large number of SSMs, and they are entirely independent of each other–financially independent too, although congresses of soldiers’ parents are held regularly in Moscow on a purely consultative basis.

It is noticeable that the tasks of the Unions of Soldiers’ Mothers vary depending on the region in which the specific organization exists. In subjects of the federation with an authoritarian government, the Unions effectively serve the existing regime. The population of Kalmykia, for example, is totally unaware of the activities of the local SSM, which has been existence since 1995. In other places (such as Kursk or Tambov), where they are unwilling to jeopardize their relations with the local authorities, SSMs are obliged–in addition to their main functions–to work to promote the image of the region’s leaders, organizing charity marathons or joint handouts of small sums of money to the relatives of those who have died in “trouble-spots”. As a rule, the authorities actively involve these Unions in organizing the draft. Nevertheless, there are many examples of genuine human rights activities on the part of SSMs.

Generally, the founders and leaders of Russia’s Unions of Soldiers’ Mothers are people who are active in the community and have first-hand knowledge of the fears which haunt parents while their son is serving in the armed forces. At a time when civil activism was on the rise in Russia, they brought together like-minded people and began by monitoring the units where many conscripts from their regions served. Naturally, the commanders of these units, faced with an unknown organization rather than individual citizens, initially resisted them. However, the activists did not give up, and in time, thanks to support from individual members of the army command and the personal qualities of the leaders of the SSMs, they began to be granted access to the units. Subsequently the military district commanders did not regret their demonstration of good will: The soldiers’ mothers helped improve the micro-climate in the army units and helped young soldiers adapt more quickly to service. Many SSMs still consider this to be their priority task. The leaders of the Unions regularly visit their charges, checking carefully that all the laws are observed in respect of the soldiers.

Initially, this state of affairs basically suited everybody–the state, the Unions of Soldiers’ Mothers themselves, and the soldiers. The SSMs declared: “We do not object to our sons’ serving in the army, we merely want them to be able to serve in the conditions prescribed by law.” Thus during the first stage of their existence, the Unions were absolutely loyal to the authorities, did not set themselves any broader aims and gradually accustomed army leaders to their existence.

The situation began to change dramatically during the first Chechen war. Having only just got over Afghanistan, Russia found itself with a “trouble-spot” within its own borders. In the very first days of the military operation, it was clear that most of the casualties on the federal side were conscripts–yesterday’s schoolboys, called up to join the army, who could not fight on equal terms with professional fighters. A little later, as the war became protracted, information began to filter through about soldiers and officers taken prisoner by the Chechens. Against this background, the Unions of Soldiers’ Mothers began to undertake a new type of work. It was at this point that they acquired their present status and the respect of the public. The effectiveness of the work of the Saratov SSM, in particular, can be seen in the fact that in the eight years and more of its existence (since February 1992) every young man whose mother was a member has returned home from the army alive and well.

During the first Chechen campaign the SSMs were mainly involved in searching for soldiers and officers missing in action; they appealed to every possible organization in trying to help grief-stricken citizens (regardless of whether they were members of the Unions) find their sons. In addition to this, SSM activists traveled personally to Chechnya on several occasions, helping in whatever way they could–they took humanitarian aid (food, clothes, medicines), and looked for missing soldiers in hospitals and combat units. At home they collected funds to pay ransoms for soldiers and officers held in captivity. Naturally, everything they saw in the war–the deaths of soldiers and civilians–could not fail to have an effect on their outlook. Many of them began demanding that the government put an end to the war. This was perhaps the first political demand of the Unions of Soldiers’ Mothers. At about the same time some of Russia’s politicians began to take note of this organization which had become so popular. Realizing that the authority earned by the soldiers’ mothers could attract a large swathe of the electorate, some candidates running for election in legislative bodies at various levels hastened to woo SSM activists onto their side with various promises. For their part, the Unions, like other publicly active nongovernmental organizations, needed to lobby their interests if only at the level of the regional authorities.

Nevertheless, in practice virtually none of the deputies who secured their mandate with the support of the Unions subsequently gave them any help at all. As a result, disillusioned by “their” deputies, SSM leaders increasingly refused to support any candidate in the name of the whole organization, even if they were personally helping someone in the pre-election campaign. On a federal level, State Duma deputies elected from the regions often have no concept of the activities of regional SSMs, for some unknown reason overlooking this rich electoral capital. It is possible that some of them deliberately avoid contact with the SSMs, which may then demand support for their initiatives which are far from easy for the government to deliver.

During the second Chechen campaign the Unions of Soldiers’ Mothers demonstrated no less activism than during the first. Furthermore, during this period they often consciously challenged the policy pursued by the government with regard to the soldiers. For example, they demanded that the government publish a list of the names of soldiers who had died in Chechnya. The government, which suppressed these figures, did not respond to the SSM initiative in any way. On top of this, the soldiers’ mothers demanded that soldiers’ rights should be fully observed, and above all that Chechnya should be declared a zone of military conflict as it had been during the first campaign. Without this status, the young men who fought in Chechnya have no right to the state benefits which are due by law to the participants of military campaigns. The families of those killed in Chechnya will not receive any benefits either. Human rights activists see this as unjust in the extreme–if the state demands the lives of its young men, it should at least guarantee partial compensation for the possible losses.

The Unions of Soldiers’ Mothers are aware that they are not a real political force, so they cannot influence the political decisionmaking process. Nevertheless, they are one of the few active and fairly broad voluntary movements in Russia–not initiated from above–which have to be reckoned with. They are involved, for example, in the preparation of legislative acts which will determine the future face of the armed forces of the Russian Federation. One such law, long awaited in Russia, concerns the introduction of a system of alternative community service (Russian acronym AGS). This still does not exist in Russia, despite the fact that the right to do such service is enshrined in the constitution in force for the past seven years. It should be noted that the number of young men who do not want to serve with a weapon in their hand on the basis of their religious, pacifist, political or other convictions is not very large. However, this is, possibly, only because at the moment every one of them has to defend his right in the courts with no guarantee of success. Army leaders do not want to acknowledge that their demands are legal and bring criminal charges against objectors. They argue that if all young men demand AGS, there will simply not be anyone to call up if there is a war. But at present this argument does not have any foundation. In Saratov Oblast, for example, where SSM members help those who want an alternative form of service, there are four or six such cases a year. Even if there were ten times as many, it would certainly not undermine the capabilities of the army.

It should thus be recognized that in their human rights work the Unions of Soldiers’ Mothers to all intents and purposes substitute for the bodies which are supposed to monitor the observance of the rule of law in the army. They do not do this directly, of course (they do not have the authority to do so), but merely draw the attention of the military prosecutor to the many violations of the law which take place in the army. The state, however, simply ignores their activities: In the official press–both federal and regional–there is almost no mention of the activities of the SSMs; their own figures, obtained as a result of their own monitoring programs, are not recognized by the authorities. Nevertheless, their work cannot be described as useless: In opposing, as far as they can, the concealment of events taking place in the armed forces, they have a direct influence on public opinion; and in circulating their information in the nongovernment media they contribute to the development of freedom of thought.

In conclusion it may be noted that in response to the events surrounding the nuclear submarine Kursk, there have been attempts to establish a new network of organizations in Russia–Unions of Sailors’ Mothers. However, I do not see that this is warranted. The call-up of young men to serve in all branches of the armed forces, without exception, is carried out by the same military commands. It is practically impossible to guess in advance where a young man will be sent. A significant part of the work that these unions do is related to pre-call-up issues. Finally, it should be borne in mind that all units, both land and sea-based, form part of the same army. Consequently they have more problems in common than they do different problems, and these problems should be resolved collectively. Thus, one of the main tasks facing the Unions of Soldiers’ Mothers today is to continue rallying around themselves both individual members of the public concerned at the current state of the Russian army, and organizations which have a broad human rights brief.

Marina Konnova is an expert on social organizations with the Volga Information Agency in Saratov.