A conversation somewhere in Russia:
“So, did you get him an exemption yet?” [‘otkosili’ is a slang term which can mean legally or illegally get exemption or avoid service]
“Finally got him a ‘V’ ticket – legally – thanks to the hospital. It means he can’t be called up in peacetime. I talked to some people whose kids are serving right now. Some places it’s ok, other places it’s totally fucked up and they come back fucked up beyond all recognition. Better not to go. There’s still hazing.”
Whether or not the interlocutors were talking about ‘some places’ in Ukraine, or just military service in general I don’t know. The mother went through a six-step procedure to get the ‘ticket’ and could not have afforded a bribe. The father had said: ‘either he gets a job or let him go to the army’. In any case, since 2016 it has become almost impossible to give a bribe successfully to get an exemption ticket.
Why write about this? I was asked to go on US cable TV to talk about ‘The role of soldiers’ mothers in ending the war in Ukraine’. I’ll post a link when it comes out. I don’t know why I was asked, or where this idea came from.
I guess I could summarize my answer: domestic NGOs like the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers (CSM) could historically put a lot of moral and political pressure on the Russian government. Now, with no independent press in Russia, they can only play a role in giving parents and soldiers good legal advice on their rights. They are not the only way of undermining the war though. There are always informal messenger and social media groups that can make a difference. Perhaps this war is different in that the personal contacts and social pressure of one’s immediate peers is the most important factor.
The longer answer:
The first Chechen war in the 1990s saw a freer Russian press strongly criticize the loss of life of Russian soldiers and the conduct of the war. Mothers’ actions (sponsored by CSM) ‘had a profound effect on raising awareness and turning public opinion against the war’ wrote Amy Caiazza in 2002. Its members often kidnapped their own sons from military bases. What was different in the first war was that everyone had clear information from the press about the incompetence of the military campaign. The government was not trusted, and the army did not have a high standing in society. Furthermore, the mothers had strong support from wider society for their actions. Caiazza writes that CSM was able to be quite activist in the 90s, though its success was more down to publicity and its influence on institutions low in the longer term.
She also notes the organizing principle based not on objection to men making war, but on mothers’ suffering. At least part of the success of the messaging was based on a bio-essentialist version of maternity and instinct. Mother’s activist actions were a ‘natural’ biological imperative to protect their sons and therefore they fulfilled their duty as mothers. This exploited well an ideological opportunity structure to gain legitimacy that has mainly been unavailable for groups trying to undertake civic action in Russia. This is not only ‘smart’ from a perspective that would see Russians more receptive to a conservative message like this. CSM avoided being identified as a feminist organization and instead proposed women’s rights as human rights (Caiazza 2002). This caused conflict with more radical feminist organizations in Russia, but the CSM’s public activities also drew plaudits. Caiazza also writes about the men’s anti-draft movement, which was largely unsuccessful.
CSM lobbied Parliament and got concessions on deserters. (Interestingly only Yabloko and LDPR voted against full amnesties!). Caiazza claims further success in the campaign influencing Yeltsin’s cuts to the size of the military. CSM failed, however, to prevent army service being extended from 1.5 years to 2. CSM also was successful in publicizing the individual resistance to military service – i.e. draft dodging and getting medical exemptions legally. The second Chechen war saw more mobilization of public opinion behind the conflict and a controlled press coverage of it.
This present conflict shows how effective Putin’s destruction of free press has been in the long term, and how the new laws against discrediting the Russian military and spreading ‘fake’ information about the war, mean everyone is afraid to speak out. He has shown himself a master at demobilizing Russian society, but that does not mean that Russians are all falling into line, or that they automatically support the war. Much has also been made of the social profile of soldiers – many hail from peripheries – becoming a soldier is a way of getting social mobility, education, and ‘escape’ from places with no prospects. Most of my informants, even those who served at the time of Chechnya are quite nostalgic about some aspects of military service. However, if further mobilization is attempted, it is likely there will be large scale resistance to the draft. This resistance will be active and passive and it’s important we pay attention to the passive part because like similar phenomenon, it is a huge substratum of Russian political action that can easily be overlooked.
Soldiers Mothers Committee is still active. We should note in passing that soldiers rights were and remain a barometer of health of Russia as a civil society, not least because of the extremely brutalizing experience of being conscripted. Since 2014 it became harder and harder to do even the basic work of a human rights NGO in Russia because of NGO oversight laws. This law was used against organizations like CSM who got funding from abroad. Now, such organizations can mainly just observe and give free legal advice to the families of soldiers – for example on how to claim compensation for death or injury of the son. Here’s a more focused organization – the ‘Rights of the Mother’ NGO Fund, that operates mainly as a legal aid team with funding from various small firms within Russia, along with the small-scale online donation platforms that exist. RMF also provides free legal representation in court cases about discrimination in providing social benefits to the relatives of dead soldiers. NGOs can also document coercion of conscripts in the current conflict – young men forced to sign up to military contracts. The regime shows it is not willing to even allow a mild oversight by civil society of the most vulnerable citizens it asks the most of (laying down their lives). What does it tell us about the regime – that it cannot function without breaking its own rules and laws.
There’s also more qualitative research on how mothers responded to war by organizing – there is a book by Sergei Oushakine partly on this topic from the early 2000s. This research argued that sympathy for traumatic suffering is an effective mobilizer in Russia – more effective that claims of human rights or justice. However, there is always a risk that others and the authorities think there are suspicious motives (and the influence of the West). Finally, it’s possible that mobilization of civil society does not necessarily lead in the direction of claiming rights or righting wrongs, but risks leading to public calls for revenge and retribution. This is what Oushakine found after the Chechen wars. He called this the Patriotism of Despair which is the title of his book.
My own more recent research tends to partly support Oushakine’s earlier findings. Faced with the war there is a form of ‘defensive consolidation’ around the idea of a nation under threat, and of supporting the armed forces, ‘right or wrong’. However, that doesn’t mean over the course of the conflict more positive forms of solidarity cannot emerge. In fact, given the effects of the sanctions, Russian people might be inspired to work harder at permissible forms of social organization and support for each other. There might emerge politically acceptable grass-roots veteran associations and organizations that provide a muted or Aesopian form of opposition to war.
A final point is about ordinary resistance to the war – we find evidence of this among soldiers, ordinary people and among mothers. Russia is not so different to other societies during periods of harsh authoritarian control – there are only a few percentages of the population willing to take risks to stand up. But even this is encouraging. At a more basic level, Russia is not North Korea – you can’t shut it down completely. People communicate in messaging services and create support groups including for soldiers’ mothers. It is thanks to informal groups we know how soldiers were tricked into signing contracts and so on. The formal organizations can only provide legal advice to relatives, but we also find out useful things from their interviews with the media brave enough to produce coverage of the war’s results
Journalists are trying to write about the human costs of the war in Russia. Here is an example about the many military funerals in Buryatiya – a poor region with disproportionate losses among the ethnic minority Buddhist population. The journalists writing this piece (published in Russia in Russian) also interviewed other journalists who report they are pressured not to write about the war. The parents of killed soldiers are also pressured not to talk to press. They are told their words (or photographs of funerals) will be used by ‘hackers in Ukraine who will steal the information and make fakes’. The relatives are even told not to answer calls from unknown numbers. Another interesting point from this article is that many soldiers felt a strong sense of responsibility to their comrades meant it was hard to refuse to go to Ukraine. But they did not mention patriotism, their martial vows, or their duty to the Commander-in-Chief and his aims.
“The military stands at attention at the head of the dead. The backs are straight, machine guns on belts are pressed to the chest. The faces are young, they look like high school students in the guard of honor near the Eternal Flame. Some of the soldiers are crying. Tears cannot be wiped away, and they flow down the cheeks.”
[from the Buryatiya piece]