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.
"All those sleepless nights I had," she said. "I felt there was something I could do to make the fate of guys in similar situations easier."
Her city is home to the 22nd Army, an infantry unit with tank and artillery support units. In mid-September, parents began coming to the committee worried that their sons would be sent to Chechnya despite a 1996 presidential decree that prohibited conscripts from serving at the front unless they volunteered and unless they had been in the service at least 12 months.
Some parents, informed of that, went to the base, grabbed their sons and turned up at the prosecutor's office complaining that the conscripts were being illegally dispatched to the Caucasus.
"We know the laws on military service considerably better than anyone in the military does," Zhukova said.
The commanders of the 22d insisted the soldiers were not going to war, just being "relocated." The mothers investigated, and discovered that all the soldiers had been given dog tags and had had blood and hair tests for use in identifying bodies.
Confronted with this evidence, the commander promised to recall the men.
"But knowing their ability to lie, and their capacity for hypocrisy," Zhukova said, "we went to Mozdok to see for ourselves."
In Mozdok, Russian military headquarters in the Caucasus, Zhukova and a few other mothers complained that the young conscripts drafted in the spring had spent their military service thus far gathering berries and mushrooms to feed themselves -- activities encouraged by the senior leadership to supplement the poor army diet.
"Are soldiers going to collect grapes in the Caucasus?" Zhukova asked the commander.
The women succeeded. The army flew 650 Nizhny soldiers out of the battle zone. Unfortunately, Zhukova said, draftees whose mothers didn't know how to fight for them remained behind.
This Chechen war has become far more dangerous for the mothers. The end of the last war left Chechnya victorious but in ruins. Kidnapping soon became the most lucrative occupation.
On Sept. 11, four mothers disappeared from Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Polina Zakharova from Barnaul, Antonina Borschova from Rostov-on-Don, Valentina Yerokhina from Perm and Roza Khalishkov from Nalchik were looking for sons missing since the first war.
They were staying in a house the Russian government rented for mothers searching for their sons.
"We have had no news from them," said Vyacheslav Filimonov, of the State Committee on Hostage Exchanges. "We don't even know where they are kept. Nobody has contacted us about ransom."
Zhukova said she understands how those mothers could be driven to Chechnya, trying to learn the fate of their sons, despite the huge risks of kidnapping.
"They were just mothers ruined by grief," she said.
Pub Date: 11/20/99