Today it’s the mothers and wives of the soldiers on the front line of the war in Ukraine who march in the streets and stand silently outside the very rare Putin public appearances.
Thirty years ago, a different set of mothers organized themselves into the Mothers of Soldiers of Russia to protest the Chechen war in which their sons were sent to fight, clouded in secrecy and official denials. They were asking a single question: Where is my son?
I first wrote about them in The San Mateo Times in 1995:
They were lined up across the square facing the exit from the busy Arbatskaya Metro station in the business center of this bustling, hustling city. The crowds rushing to work couldn’t miss them, their shouts or the signs they carried. The words varied from woman to woman, but the messages were the same:
“Where is my son?”
These are the Mothers of the Soldiers of Russia, and they have been standing vigil in the streets of Moscow daily since the invasion of Chechnya began, sometimes silently with the portraits of their sons held in front of them, sometimes noisily as they try to make the generals meeting inside buildings nearby aware of their presence.
Today’s mothers of the soldiers of Russia don’t have to depend on the single telephone line at the Ministry of Defense to try to find out about their sons. We live in the Information Age, and today’s mothers and wives are getting lots of information, much of it awful, directly from their sons and husbands, via phone calls, photos, and videos from the front lines.
The Guardian of London reported on calls they intercepted on a single day in late November. “No one feeds us anything, mum. Our supply is s***, to be honest. We draw water from puddles, then we strain it and drink it.”
Another soldier described looting bombed-out Ukrainian kitchens for food. He told his mother he knew it was wrong, but he was starving.
They quoted another call to a grandmother from her grandson: “I’m in a sleeping bag, all wet, coughing, generally f***** up, Baba. We were all allowed to be slaughtered.” He said he fled from the bloodshed with three others, and they were contemplating surrender.
She begged him not to let himself be taken prisoner, reminding him that returning World War II prisoners of war were sent to the gulags in Siberia or executed on Stalin’s orders. He believed they had to have been collaborators to have survived. She was convinced Putin would do the same.
From the very first day of the invasion, nearly a year ago, calls on supposedly forfeited smart phones have told these mothers of Russia’s men on the front lines more than they wanted to know. But they cling to them because when the calls stop, all hope is lost.
Meduza, a Russian news organization that now reports from Riga, Latvia, said that “Russian soldiers in Ukraine have spoken on open cellphone lines, often revealing their positions and exposing the disarray in their ranks.”
Or the mothers hear of it from the pro-war bloggers embedded with Russian ground units. These bloggers, who use a dedicated Telegram channel, have taken on the role of war correspondents or journalists now that Putin has throttled the functioning press within Russia. They report pretty accurately what’s happening at the front and don’t hesitate to heap scorn on the imbecilic decisions of the high command.
After the New Year’s Day shelling of a Russian base at Makiivka in western Russia, they demanded to know what military genius would billet troops in the upper floors of a school dormitory with an ammunition storehouse in the basement. They scoffed at the Kremlin’s count of 64 dead Russians, suggesting that the number had to be closer to 200 with many more injured. They demanded accountability—and a week later Putin reshuffled the high command, once again.
Just as the Mothers of Soldiers of Russia, who formalized their efforts 30 years ago to bring their sons home alive, today’s mothers and grandmothers and wives are sending signed letters to Putin with copies to social media and the press.
But their question today is different—not “Where is my son?” but “Why is he there?”