The soldiers' mothers understood that to defend their children they have to change the State and society. Their call for human rights in all the military power structures meant a call for democracy.

Acceptance speech – The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia (CSMR)

Madame Speaker,

Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

To take the floor in the Swedish Riksdag as one of the recipients of the Right Livelihood Award is a great honour for the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia as well as for soldiers’ mothers organisations all over Russia.

It is not by chance that the soldiers’ mothers movement sprang up on the Soviet soil. It was over militarized soil richly fertilised by totalitarian ideology. One can say that the military sphere in the former USSR was one big state secret. The so called “women councils” totally and absolutely submissive to the military political bodies were the only kind of permissible women´s activity in the military sphere.

The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia (CSMR) created in 1989, in the euphoric period of “perestroika”, was the very first women’s NGO in the former USSR which began to act on the traditionally masculine field – in the military sphere. At this period some possibilities to look behind the “iron curtain” surrounding the Soviet power structures appeared. And the mothers who could look through the first holes in this “iron curtain” were horrified by the truths which gradually emerged. The mothers’ feelings demanded immediate action. That is why almost simultaneously with the CSMR creation many soldiers’ mothers committees were organised in various republics of the former Soviet Union.

Up to this day there are no other broad women’s movements in Russia on the grassroots level. It proves that the heritage of “superpowerness”, the consequences of cold war policy plus new military problems of post-totalitarian development which burden the country still are the strongest reasons for women’s unification.

Initially the founders of the Mothers Committee united with one purpose – to establish the right of their sons to prolong education without interruption for compulsory military service. At that time every student has to serve for two years as a soldier after the first year of educational training. The mothers of soldiers-students achieved their aim quite successfully: about 180 thousand students returned to their auditoriums.

But the soldiers’ mothers movement was not dissolved after this victory. The women saw the indescribably inhuman conditions in all the military units they visited. The soldiers of the so called “legendary and invincible” Soviet army had to struggle for their physical and mental survival. The mothers were horrified by the mass humiliations of the 18-year old boys dressed in military uniform, by the unhygienic, unhealthy living conditions in the barracks, by disrespect of human beings’ dignity justified by existing laws, by the arbitrary actions of the military authorities. They were astonished to know that in average about 5 thousand young soldiers per year died in peaceful times because of hunger, illnesses, beatings, suicides, murders, traumas etc.

Since the very first moments of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee functioning, the flow of people coming to the Committee for help never stopped. The mothers’ love, the mothers aspirations to defend their children turned very soon into the conscious human rights activity with the general purpose – to prevent the violations of human rights of those soldiers who were taken to the army for compulsory military service, of draftees and also of their parents. It meant that the soldiers’ mothers had to defend the interests of about 5 million soldiers and sailors, of about 10 millions of their parents, of unaccountable numbers of young people whose rights were seriously violated during the compulsory military service without any compensation, of all the future soldiers.

The soldiers’ mothers understood that to implant the concept of human rights in the Russian military sphere is not an easy task for the pioneer women NGOs. To decide how their goals could be approached in 1990 they called the first forum of soldiers’ mothers “What kind of army do we need? Mothers against violence”. The soldiers’ mothers demanded military reform, a professional army under civic control, the demilitarisation of military justice and to create a military law system to prevent human rights violations. In fact the soldiers’ mothers understood that to defend their children they have to change the state and the society. Their call for human rights in all the military power structures meant a call for democracy.

There was absolute vacuum of the human rights practice in the country. The soldiers’ mothers organisations as well as many other Russian human rights NGOs of the latest generation began to work in the area of human rights illiteracy, being isolated from world women, human rights and peaceful NGO activities. They had to work out their own specific mechanisms for prevention of human rights violations in the military sphere which is always very sensitive to any kind of outside penetration, especially in Russia.

The soldiers’ mothers were able to work out the most effective ways to deal with about 10 thousand individual complaints per year by establishing working contacts with the various military and state structures on different levels. They set up a human rights school for future soldiers and their parents. These regular educational meetings are held every Monday at 18.00 sharp since 1989. When there was no suitable conference-hall these meetings were organised just on the street. The soldiers’ mothers actively participated in many public actions of protest against undemocratic changes in the military laws. They campaigned for military reform, for alternative civil service, against violence and lawlessness in the army, against slave labour in the construction battalions. Non-violence is the fundamental principle of their activities.

When the Chechen war began the soldiers’ mothers were ready to work in the extreme conditions.

The soldiers’ mothers activities during the Chechen war were a logical and natural continuation of their human rights practice in the pre-war period. Since the late 80’s they accumulated enough knowledge and experiences to work out their anti-war and peaceful strategy.

The essence of this strategy was to put pressure upon the Russian Federal authorities to stop the war, to withdraw the Russian troops from Chechnya, to begin peaceful negotiations without any pre-conditions and to campaign uncompromisingly against violations of human rights of every human being involved in the conflict regardless of any kind of ethnic, national, religious and other social divisions.

The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers used all the possible ways and methods to realise this strategy. The soldiers’ mothers are proud that the Committee was the very first organisation among all the Russian NGOs who on the 27th of November, 1994, after first battle in Grozny, i.e. before the mass intervention of the Russian troops to Chechnya, sent its clear anti-war statement to all the highest Russian authorities. The Committee established close contacts with the Chechen side and since the very beginning of the Chechen war was cooperating with Chechenian women to solve the common problems born in the course of war. The Committee participated in the process of the exchange of prisoners of war and brought humanitarian aid to peaceful Chechen people and to wounded and invalid Federal soldiers. In co-operation with the other peaceful NGOs the Committee organised the public anti-war actions of protest, collected tens of thousands of signatures against war, sent its statements and reports to the international organisations with a request to undertake any possible actions to stop the unlawful and undeclared Chechen war.

Hundreds of soldiers’ mothers were directed by the Committee to Chechnya in order to take home their sons captured by Chechenians in the course of military actions. Hundreds of them with support of the Committee went to Chechnya to take their sons home from the Federal military units. For those soldiers who refused to participate in the dirty and criminal Chechen war, the Committee worked out a special draft of the statement to prevent their criminal punishment. The March of Mothers Compassion supported by Russian and Chechen women in their desperate attempts to stop the war took place in the spring of 1995. The innovative methods of anti-war activities used for the first time in Russian history were initiated by the soldiers’ mothers because of their natural aversion to violence.

In February 1995 the representatives of soldiers’ mothers met Prime Minister V. Chernomyrdin and once again were trying to convince the Government that the consequences of the military actions in Chechnya will be disastrous, that undeclared and unlawful war should be stopped immediately. In the special letter addressed to the highest Russian state authorities the Committee formulated the essential problems concerning violations of soldiers’ human rights in the war and suggested the practical and legal ways of their solution. These problems were and still are the problems of prisoners of war, of missing persons and of those soldiers who were conscientious objectors to this particular war.

During the Chechen war many new soldiers’ mothers organisations were founded all over Russia. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia co-operates very closely with these organisations sharing its human rights and peaceful experiences. At present there are about 50 independent soldiers’ mothers NGOs with the Committee serving as a kind of umbrella organisation.

The soldiers’ mothers were and are convinced that the main responsibility for the crime which is called the “Chechen war” is on the side of Russian Federal authorities. The soldiers’ mothers believe that this crime was committed not only against the peaceful population of Chechnya but against the interests of all the Russian peoples, in fact – against the future of Russia and Chechnya. At the International Congress of Soldiers’ Mothers “For life and Freedom” which took place in Moscow in February of 1995 the delegates demanded criminal punishments for those who were personally responsible for the decision-making which led to the armed struggle in Chechnya.

In August 1996 the Chechen conflict reached the stage which could be characterised as quite inglorious for the Russian Federal authorities. Once again the soldiers mothers proved that they could see further and think better than the so called political elite of the Russian state which was not able or rather did not want to understand that there are no military ways to solve the Chechen problem. In fact the soldiers’ mothers are convinced that the document similar to Chasawyourt agreement signed by the two generals – Lebed and Maskhadov (which led to cease-fire and to peaceful negotiations) could be easily signed much earlier with the same or even better political results for Moscow. The absence of political will was the main and the only obstacle to the peaceful negotiations which could save the lives of all the victims of Chechen conflict both known and those still missing. That is why the soldiers’ mothers could not forgive those who are responsible for the Chechen war.

At present the amount of problems concerning the sphere of the Committee activities is still growing. The great expectations of soldiers’ mothers that the new Russian state with its quite democratic constitution could stop the violations of human rights in the military sphere, have not materialised.

The development of the socio-political situation in Russia, the Chechen war and its consequences brought to the Committee, in addition to the “old” pains, a lot of new problems which are still very far from a solution.

The number of individual complaints concerning violations of human rights is not diminishing. There is a great necessity to continue the programmes of human rights education and training especially on the regional level. There are dangerous tendencies in the development of the military law system which demand the constant attention of the Committee. The multiplication of military structures became a problem in itself. Even “Krasnaya Zwezda”, the official newspaper of the Ministry of Defence, openly speaks of the dangers connected with the legitimisation of the so-called “parallel armies” which mushroomed in the last years. These military monsters are continuing to kill the sons of Russia through hunger, illness, humiliation. The situation when the state takes the young men for compulsory military service in order to defend itself and then makes a mess of its own responsibility for their health and lives could be called the tragic Russian absurdity. There is a little hope that the pre-electoral Yeltsin Decree concerning terms and conditions of the military reform could be realised. It means that the problem of the demilitarisation of the country is still very urgent.

Many of the Committee’s problems are connected with the consequences of the Chechen war.

The danger of a renewed armed struggle in Chechnya still exists. Campaigning for the continuation of peaceful negotiations without interruptions remains to be one of the most important tasks for the Committee.

Russian society still does not know the real and officially acknowledged scales of human losses in this war. According to Committee opinion all the figures declared on the official level are not full and not true. One can say that the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers and some other human rights NGOs in Russia know better than the state authorities the numbers of killed, wounded, invalids, missing, captured and other victims of the Chechen war on both sides of the invisible front line.

The problem of missing persons is also very important and strenuous for the Committee. On one side there is a great number of missing militaries in Chechnya. On the other side there are about 1500 peaceful Chechen citizens who were captured by various military and non-military authorities and then just disappeared. The process of searching and exchanging these individuals is going on very slowly and unsuccessfully, nobody knows where they are. Nobody knows if they are alive or dead. All the military and state bodies created to solve these problems proved to be ineffective. And every day could bring new deaths among the missing persons.

All the militaries who participated in the Chechen war need rehabilitation. They are bringing to the society the Chechen syndrome which is much more dangerous than the well known Vietnam and Afghan syndromes. In Vietnam and Afghanistan the militaries fought on foreign territory. In Chechnya they had to kill those who according to the official position of the Federal authorities were and still are Russian citizens, who speak the same language and share the same Soviet past. The normal human conscience refuses to accept it. A new wave of violence and aggression was already brought to the army when the militaries – participants of the Chechen conflict – began to return to their military units in Russia. Still there is no hope that the state is able to establish a system of rehabilitation for the great mass of soldiers traumatized by the war.

The soldiers’ mothers movement are well aware of the difficulties ahead. There are problems of institutional development, the huge problems of communications between the soldiers’ mothers organisations, the problems connected with the state policy towards human rights NGOs etc. One has to take into consideration that the general social, political and financial situation in the country does not help in diversification of democratic NGO activities. It is not by chance that the soldiers’ mothers translate the notion “right livelihood” not as “right means of maintaining life” but as “right way of survival”.

The soldiers’ mothers will continue their activities for the sake of peace and human rights, for the sake of civic democratic society. They are proud that these activities nowadays are internationally recognised. They are proud that they have now many friends among women, human rights and peaceful NGOs in Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Norway, France and other European countries. The Committee support from abroad helped the soldiers’ mothers to go through the worst period in the history of modern Russia – through the Chechen war. The soldiers’ mothers are deeply grateful to all their friends for the continuation of this support as in a way the members of the Committee are always working in very extreme and quite specific Russian conditions.

They would like to assure all their friends that the honourable Right Livelihood Award will be used in order to strengthen the soldiers’ mothers movement in Russia, for the regional organisations’ development.

Thank you.

The Union of Soldiers Mothers Committees of Russia
Luchnikov per., 4, Room 5
101000 Moscow