Over the past almost six months, the world has watched with bated breath as Russian armed forces escalated centuries of antagonism against the Ukrainian people into a full-scale invasion and, by all accounts, massacre. Ukrainian civilian groups and government agencies alike have focused on calling Russian mothers to action because of their previous success in hindering their government’s acts of violence, building peace, and addressing human rights violations in Eastern Europe. Founded in 1989, the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees of Russia, or USMCR, are groundbreaking in their efforts because of the dual focus on human rights abuses within their borders and on foreign soil.
The Russo-Ukrainian War has been happening since 2014, and surrounds Ukraine’s sovereignty as an independent state since declaring independence from the USSR in August 1991 before the union dissolved, which is heavily disputed by Russia. The war started when Russia annexed Crimea and proceeded to back separatist movements in Donbas–both of which are internationally recognized as part of Ukraine. A steep escalation of violence occurred February 24, 2022, when Russian troops that were building around Ukrainian borders for at least a year began an ongoing invasion into Ukraine.
On March 8, President Putin insisted in a nationally televised message he would not send conscripted soldiers to Ukraine, which was since proven false.[i] Ukrainian forces and media report a fair number of Russian soldiers are 18 and 19 years old, or going into their early twenties. “These are not warriors of a superpower,” Zelenskyy said in a speech disseminated via Facebook. “These are confused children who have been used.”[ii] Further videos are circulating the internet of Russian prisoners of war calling home with assistance from Ukrainians. They are recorded saying they are scared, and confused how they ended up on the frontlines; if the Russian government told them or their families anything at all, it was that they were going on a roundtrip training exercise through Belarus.[iii] When it became apparent parents were being intimidated by Russian secret services and fed what to say on the phone, Ukrainian social media users like Volodymyr Zolkin took to YouTube and Twitter to post interviews with these soldiers that anyone–family and international onlookers alike–could access online.[iv] Combined with videos of these young Russian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians dying in the street as a reflection of Putin’s will, social media is being used to its full extent as an open channel of communication to lower Russian support of the war and gain international sympathy. By the first week of March, the Ukrainian government urged Russian mothers to come retrieve their sons. The defense ministry went as far as publishing emails and phone numbers to Facebook where parents could obtain the information necessary to do so.[v]
This hopeful reliance on Russian mothers to action can be traced back to the USMCR’s creation in 1989 during the Soviet-Afghan war. The coalition’s goal was straightforward: free their sons from present and future compulsory service and safely return them home. Though conscription exists today, USMCR lobbying for their sons’ rights and safety in the spring of 1989 led the Soviet government to halt its six-year mass recruitment of higher education students–which was already legally defined as an excuse for postponement of service prior to the Soviet-Afghan war.[vi] A few months later, after continued petitioning, 180,000 soldiers were sent back to Russia.[vii]
This marked only the beginning of their peacework. In 1990 the USMCR discovered and began exposing dedovshchina, an informal hierarchy of hazing rituals ranging from extra chores to physical and psychological torture, which prior to 1989 was masked by military sentimentalism.[viii] When summer came to Moscow, they held mass demonstrations to bring attention to 15,000 peacetime deaths they uncovered as a result of dedovshchina.[ix] In popular Russian history scholarship, a now widespread national scrutiny of the army is attributed to USMCR’s mobilization, transparency, and relentless interrogation of military officials on the matter.[x] They are perhaps most renowned for their “March for Compassion” through Grozny in 1995, during the First Russian Chechen War. Mothers entered then-active warzones to illuminate Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya and take their sons–or their bodies–back home to safety.[xi]
Today, the USMCR functions as a branch of the international peacebuilding organization Human Rights House. They have continued their work by making people aware of the lasting effects violence has on soldiers after they return from war. This work includes taking testimonies from Russians opposed to war and military aggression, founding physical and psychological rehabilitation centers for soldiers, their families and civilians experiencing the lasting effects of violence, providing legal counsel for soldiers and their families, and organizing conferences and mass demonstrations against government aggression.[xii]
On the Russian front, while working alongside Ukrainian efforts to send soldiers back home, USMCR are also actively petitioning their government for sending newly conscripted soldiers to war. Between 2006 and 2008, the required time for military service was lowered from two years to 18 months to one year, though multiple conditions to be exempt from conscription were removed from the law at the same time.[xiii] Previous public understanding was that soldiers could not legally participate in combat with under four months of training.[xiv] It, however, is not illegal to transfer conscripts between military bases and USMCR noticed transfers taking inexperienced soldiers gradually closer to the Ukrainian border as late as two days before the invasion.[xv] USMCR lawyer Alexander Latynin told Russian media outlet Meduza that soldiers can consent to enter into combat with 1-3 months of experience depending on their personal education level if they sign a government contract.[xvi] The committee has reason to believe contracts were disguised or even changed after signing, emphasizing the power dynamic between the military and their sons could easily have coerced them into signing these contracts either with threats or without their knowledge. As a result the USMCR is actively petitioning Putin to cease these actions, but updates out of Russia since the initial announcement of the lawsuit are sparse and unavailable online.
As USMCR’s work has garnered attention from the outside world, anyone interested in offering rehabilitating, educational, and/or legal support is encouraged to help–regardless of maternal status. They maintain the title of mothers because it is entrenched in their peacebuilding framework. Most often, mothers are the ones who communicate with them first regarding concerns about their sons. When approached by someone in need, whether soldier or civilian, whether their family is involved in the process or not, the organization assumes the role of protector, offers all available resources, and provides a safe haven to heal from trauma–pillars traditionally associated with motherhood. Often in traditionalism these values are viewed as vulnerabilities, especially when combating violence or during times of war. For USMCR, however, values such as compassion and forgiveness are a major strength in creating spaces where people feel secure opposing the government. In 2005, Danish ethnographer Maja Hojer argued that when people previously viewed men as the sons of the state and women, in turn, as the state’s mothers, then “the obligations felt towards the state [were] deeply embodied” as moral ties.[xvii] By teaching draftees and their relatives their rights and what to be aware of to protect themselves, the USMCR was successful in “[changing] people’s relation to the state into formal and legal” instead of somewhat blindly dutiful.[xviii]
Putin has made his stance against domestic opposition clear. After the invasion began in March, many young Russians fled the country in protest. Putin responded by calling them the “fifth column,” “national traitors.”[xix] One of these refugees, Anastasia Mez, told Politico in an interview that “nowhere are Russians treated as badly as in Russia.”[xx] Dissident political groups such as USMCR are actively targeted by Putin’s 2012 foreign agent law which labels any organization receiving international funding as a foreign agent, making them choose between ineligibility in government processes, surveillance and armed searches, and wrongful imprisonment, etc. or cutting ties with their primary sources of funding.[xxi] Because of this ongoing, decade-long struggle, data surrounding international support for USMCR has been heavily removed from the public domain to protect its members. Since foreign agent status effectively criminalizes their work, USMCR has refused international funding since May of 2014.
Mez, residing in Turkey at the time of her Politico interview, was candid about international intervention as well. “Western sanctions are also affecting those who oppose Putin,” she said, referencing the inability for political refugees to access personal assets like bank accounts, while local stores quickly run out of necessities such as flour and hygiene products.[xxii] NGOs such as USMCR have a policy of following Ukraine’s sovereignty in their country when trying to reach lasting peacebuilding decisions–but in a time rife with political suppression in Russia, they urge the international community to be aware of which sanctions will hurt the Russian people more than they will effect Putin and how that is still unlikely to convince him to stop his personal warpath.
[i] “Putin Says Will Not Use Conscript Soldiers in Ukraine,” Reuters (Reuters, March 8, 2022).
[ii] Aaron Parsley. “Video Appears to Show Russian Soldier in Tears as He’s Fed by Ukrainians and Allowed to Call Home,” PEOPLE.com. PEOPLE, March 3, 2022.
[iv] Daniel Boffey. “’Often a Russian Mother Has a TV for a Brain’: Ukraine Youtuber Films Pows Calling Home.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 5, 2022.
[v] Parsley. “Video Appears to Show Russian Soldier in Tears as He’s Fed by Ukrainians…”
[vi] Gerald Nadler, “Soviets Halting Student Military Draft,” UPI (UPI, March 31, 1989).
[vii] Betty Reardon, Asha Hans, and Valerie Zawilski, “Russian Women Opposing War,” in The Gender Imperative: Human Security vs State Security (London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor et Francis
Group, 2019), p. 264.
[viii] Julie Elkner, “Dedovshchina and the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers under Gorbachev,” The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies. (CERSIPS, July 2, 2004).
[ix] Reardon, et al., “Russian Women Opposing War,” p. 264.
[xiii] “The State Duma Reduced the Term of Service in the Army and Canceled Deferrals,” RBC (RBC, April 21, 2006).
[xiv] “’I’m Panicking – Where Is My Child?’ Conscript Soldiers Are Being Sent to Fight against Ukraine, Their Relatives Say. Here’s What Their Families Told Meduza.” Meduza. Meduza, February 25, 2022.
[xvii] Reardon, et al., “Russian Women Opposing War,” p. 265.
[xix] Uliana Pavlova, “Putin Is the Only Leader They’ve Known. and They’re Done with Him. POLITICO (POLITICO, April 7, 2022).
[xxi] “Russian NGO of Mothers of Soldiers Labeled ‘Foreign Agent,’” Human Rights House Foundation (Human Rights House Foundation, September 2, 2014).
[xxii] Pavlova, “Putin Is the Only Leader They’ve Known. and They’re Done with Him.”
Boffey, Daniel. “’Often a Russian Mother Has a TV for a Brain’: Ukraine Youtuber Films Pows Calling Home.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 5, 2022.
Elkner, Julie. “Dedovshchina and the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers under Gorbachev.” The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies. Centre d’études et de recherche sur les sociétés et les institutions post-soviétiques (CERSIPS), July 2, 2004.
“Human Rights Organization ‘Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg.’” Солдатские матери, February 24, 2022.
“’I’m Panicking – Where Is My Child?’ Conscript Soldiers Are Being Sent to Fight against Ukraine, Their Relatives Say. Here’s What Their Families Told Meduza.” Meduza. Meduz, February 25, 2022.
Nadler, Gerald. “Soviets Halting Student Military Draft.” UPI. UPI, March 31, 1989.
Parsley, Aaron. “Video Appears to Show Russian Soldier in Tears as He’s Fed by Ukrainians and Allowed to Call Home.” PEOPLE.com. PEOPLE, March 3, 2022.
Pavlova, Uliana. “Putin Is the Only Leader They’ve Known. and They’re Done with Him.” POLITICO. POLITICO, April 7, 2022.
“Putin Says Will Not Use Conscript Soldiers in Ukraine.” Reuters. Reuters, March 8, 2022.
Reardon, Betty, Asha Hans, and Valerie Zawilski. “Russian Women Opposing War.” Essay. In The Gender Imperative: Human Security vs State Security. London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor et Francis Group, 2019.
“Russian NGO of Mothers of Soldiers Labeled ‘Foreign Agent.’” Human Rights House Foundation. Human Rights House Foundation, September 2, 2014.
“The State Duma Reduced the Term of Service in the Army and Canceled Deferrals.” RBC. RBC, April 21, 2006.