Courageous mothers make Russia quake

Government and war no match for women

November 20, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- In this land of suffering, a special misery is visited on the Russian mother. As young men reach adulthood here, they come under threat from a sometimes predatory but always indifferent government. The mothers fight back, ferociously, in a way other citizens seldom dare.

Natalya Zhukova, once an ordinary woman from the city of Nizhny Novgorod, discovered extraordinary courage when her son was caught up by one of the institutions that most commonly destroys young men: the army.

During the first war with Chechnya, Zhukova roamed the treacherous battlefield six times, negotiating with the enemy, tracking down her son and finally rescuing him.

Transformed, she decided to fight on, for others. The other day, she plucked 650 poorly trained conscripts who didn't belong there out of the latest Chechen war.

"I don't know where mothers get their courage," says Maria Fedulova, who rescued her soldier son after he was taken prisoner by Chechen guerrillas in 1995.

"They act automatically. They don't think of danger. When I was looking for my son, I felt my own life made no sense if my son was killed. Why should I live if he was dead?"

In a country where most citizens are too demoralized or feel too powerless to organize and make demands of their leaders, mothers have a powerful reason to fight. They're willing to spend their life savings -- even to die -- to save their sons.

A Moscow mother named Yelena is best identified no further. She committed a crime to save her son.

She bribed the police, who represent the other institution most dangerous to young men.

While there are many honest policemen, the dishonest ones are left to range mostly unfettered, pursuing personal grudges, extracting confessions by torture, picking up whomever they choose to fill their daily arrest quotas.

Most often, young men are their victims.

One night, Yelena was awakened by loud knocking at her door. With no explanation, policemen roughly hustled her 21-year-old son Alexei off to the station.

She followed, knowing time was crucial, understanding that she had to get him out before he was formally charged and bribery became too awkward.

She quickly discovered that her son and a friend had gotten into an argument the night before with a group of young men. What her son didn't know then was that the others were off-duty members of an strike force against organized crime. They wanted revenge against her son and his friend, and they got it.

"I found a lawyer who knew what to do," Yelena said. Before the end of her son's first day in custody, Yelena had paid a bribe of $10,000 to get her son out. It was her life savings, which she had been putting away under her mattress so she could buy a tiny house in the country.

"What could I do?" said Yelena, who was grateful that at least she had the money for the bribe.

Since then, Alexei's student deferment from the army has expired. Now Yelena is spending $500 a year to pay a doctor for a medical deferment.

The army has become notorious for the way it treats its soldiers.

In peacetime, thousands are killed or seriously injured by hazing. In wartime, young men are treated as cannon fodder, sent to the front after firing a gun once or twice, or getting a brief turn at the controls of a tank.

Natalya Zhukova's son Sergei was one of the first captives taken when Russia invaded Chechnya in December 1994. Soon after, he was freed in a prisoner exchange, with the Chechens ordering him out of the Caucasus and threatening to kill him if he ever returned.

Sergei, then 19, was sent directly back to the front. He was taken prisoner again and threatened with death, but a Chechen named Mavsur who had captured Sergei the first time happened to see him in a car in the town square.

"He snatched Sergei out of the car and took him to his home," Zhukova said. "He let me know in Nizhny.

"I left immediately, and this is how my career with the Soldiers' Mothers began."

The Soldiers' Mothers Committee was founded in 1989 as perestroika began to permit questions and as the public was growing skeptical of the military in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan.

The group of mothers complained that their sons were being illegally drafted and inhumanly treated. The Chechen war turned the mothers into the single most powerful, organized and aggressive citizens group in the country.

After getting the call from Mavsur, Zhukova traveled through the battlefield to Chechnya and reached Mavsur's home Jan. 21, 1995.

"Parents were moving quite freely in Chechnya," she said, "and the Chechen people were helping us. Now it's completely different. Now there's a big abyss between us."

Mavsur drove Zhukova and Sergei to a train station in neighboring Dagestan, and they returned home.

Zhukova, now 52 and a former engineer, became the chairman of the Soldiers' Mothers in Nizhny Novgorod. She was discussing her son during a visit to Moscow for a seminar on organizing, arranged for committee members.

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