Interview with Ida Kuklina, Mothers of Soldiers. October 10, 1997, Moscow.
Interviewee — Metta Spencer
Interpreter — Ignat Kalinin (who was then a boy of about twelve).
I start with my notes about my visit to the office fs the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers (here called “SM” or “cSM”.). The founding chair of SM was Maria Kirbasova, but there had been a conflict in the group and Kirbasova was ousted. Kuklina is prominent scholar at IMEMO who writes about civil society and national security issues.
They showed me the two rooms where they worked. There are several staff women — maybe 8 or 9, at a guess — who work more than full time. There is a reception desk where people come with their problems. There’s are two computers, and each case is registered on a database. Then there is a woman who handles letters. She showed me her binder, about 5 or 6 inches thick with correspondence. The first case in her binder was that of a soldier whose mother wrote in complaining because he was being beaten a lot. He has epilepsy and walks in his sleep. After being beaten badly he ran away. They caught him and put him into medical wing of the military prison, into a room that is supposed to have 20 inhabitants but which has 100. It normally takes two years to get a medical appeal heard. This woman got him examined in four months. They did tests on his head, found that he does have epilepsy and should never have been inducted, so he was released by the court.
The second case was a letter from a mother who was worried because she had not heard from her son in two months. He was in the Leningrad Military District. Before the Soldiers’ Mothers could do anything, she got a notice saying that her son’s body was being shipped to her in a metal box. She got it and opened it. There were many pieces of a body, but no head. SM wrote to the general, who wrote back saying that the boy had been using drugs, had run away into the woods and had hanged himself. SM said that could hardly be the explanation, given the condition of the body. No one from the military district wrote to the mother at all, but after two months more, they shipped the boy’s head to her. SM is still demanding an investigation of the general but so far there has been no response.
I talked with Ida informally before I turned on the computer. She says SM has been working on the law of military service. The current law is okay, but the duma wants to change it. There was a draft of a law that went to Yeltsin but he has not signed it because it had been changed in so many ways. He may still sign it but it is not a good law.
She says that they almost always get good cooperation from the government in handling specific cases of soldiers, but they don’t want to talk about changing things as a package.
My name is Ida Kuklina. I am a member of the coordinating council of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia. In the beginning the Chechen War, the committee signed an agreement with other Russian NGOs for anti-war activity. If my memory is still good, it was more than 40 such NGOs. There was no coordinating centre because we did not want to create a special structure for this but we agreed to inform each other about anti-war activities and if some of the _____ who would like to participate in these activities, for example, a demonstration, they joined other organizations. And it was an effective form of cooperation with the anti-war committee, whose members are peaceful and human rights NGOs. It is still acting and doing very useful thing because they are creating the ability for a peaceful Russia. They inform the regional organizations. There is quite a lot of regional organizations in Russia now — about peaceful and human rights activities. For example, in one of the last issues of this bulletin, the resolution of the cSM conference which was held here in Moscow in July of this year was published. It concerned the law on military service. It concerns the problem of military reform. And so on. I think the whole problem of cooperation between peace and anti-war organizations inside Russia is a new topic for Russian social life. As for cooperation with European organization and the NGOs of other countries, I can state only my own experience as a member of the cSM of Russia. We closely cooperated with the women’s organization. The European women’s organizations, such as Women for Peace, and so on. For example, the Swiss women’s organization, Women for Peace, they came to us.just in the beginning of the war. It was a concrete real help from them. They saw a crowd of people in our small office, crowds of mothers whom we organized in groups and explained how to go to Chechnya. They saw everything. At that time we were open 24 hours a day. And so they brought us a fax. They bought it and brought it to us and it is still the only fax in the office, which we are using until now.
I would like you to meet Luda Vosninada, chairman of the anti-war committee. I think it would be interesting for you.
MS: Tell me about the anti-war committee. That’s a separate organization that is as old as soldiers’ mothers?
IK: It was formed during the Chechen War. Its membes are representatives of human rights an anti-war organizations, and Luda received a grant to issue a special anti-war bulletin. She continues this work. It is very important. I think she is chairman of this anti-war committee.
MS: Oh yes. Tell me about the distribution of your organization. Do you have branches.
IK: At the moment we have 51 regional organizations. That is not young because when someone says “soldiers’ mothers” others automatically suppose that there is just one organization, one movement. It is not so. Since the beginning there were different kinds of organizations. One was under military authorities. Or one was part of the heritage of the Soviet times. At that time there was a so-called woman’s councils in every military unit. Some of them survived. Usually the head of women’s council was the wife of the commander.
MS: These were official parts of the unit?
IK: No, officially these were NGOs, but in practice they did what they had to do by commander’s orders. For example, they organized festivities for children, for the summer, they organized military theaters, etc. It was non-political, not human rights, but just a woman’s touch to the military. Some of them survive till this day. Under perestroika, some of the under the aegis of military authorities. For example, in the ministry of defence there is a woman, Galina Shaldikar, who is head of the council of parents of militaries, and she is paid by the ministry. There are several committees — about 20, maybe — under these organizations. But this committee (SM) is different because it is the very first organization that emerged without any help, exclusively by the initiative of women. And it is the first — of course, there was an evolution of this organization, and then it became a human rights organization. By law, every SM organization had to be independent in their region. So at the same time they are members of the cSM of Russia, so at this moment there are 51.
MS: Did they all start independently or did someone go out an organize them?
IK: No, absolutely not. This Moscow committee was the first, but some other committees also emerged in the same year, 1989. The eldest committee is in Chelyabinsk and in Petravodsk. And in the former Soviet republics. After that several committees, and a lot of them during the Chechen War.
MS: I would think that would be the great surge in your membership. Has it begun to decline?
IK: No, I would not say that it has begun to decline because the problems are the same, and even worse, you know. Some of the committees in villages maybe they don’t function anymore. but in case of need, they are there. And now we have got registered memberships. But in several areas of the country are out of our influence because there are several places where soldiers’ mothers are under political parties — mostly under the Communists. For example in Havarisk, there is a committee with a very strong woman.
MS: Does she take the same position that you do, such as protecting soldiers?
IK: Yes, but nevertheless they refuse to cooperate with us. And she organized, for a bouquet of soldiers’ mothers organizations in this place and we had a week to go there because we don’t want to close this committee, we want to cooperate. Some other committees would like to remain independent, for example, SM of St., Petersburg. On the congress we cooperated together working out a resolution on military service. It’s quite a complicated system.
MS, These Communist M of S, would they go with you, say, to protest in Chechnya? Would they do anything direct?
IK: From such organizations there was another approach. For example, we say that every soldier has a right to refuse to go to Chechnya and the war has to stop immediately. The government has to recall all the soldiers from Chechen territory. And we said that for us the violations of human rights are just them same on both sides. Their approach to the chechen problem was quite different. Mostly they collected some medicine, presents, and they came to the military unit to bring these presents. There was a streak of patriotism. “We have to help our soldiers because it’s our army, they are fighting, and so on.”
MS: If a soldier came to you who had left because he didn’t want to fight and if you contacted those women to help him, would they help him? No? But you have lots of cases of men who appear for help.
IK: Of course, if you have such cases, they say: You have to serve in the army. it’s the duty of every Russian citizen. It ‘s your debt to the Motherland. This patriotic orientation. But I woul say that the process that is going on in the armed forces, it is killing Russia’s future. Destroying Russia’s future, from our point of view.
MS Mine too. Sure. How often do you have men appear here and say, “I have left the arm”?
IK: You see that information letter? It shows. It’s the biggest part of this. By the way, there are two soldiers. If you want to speak to them, you can. They are still here.
MS: Let me focus on the things that I want for the book. Tell me the history of the women who began this organization. Say, in your background had you and most of the other women been involved in peace work before you became involved in this organization?
IK: No, the organization was initiated to returned to the institutes and universities the students who at that time had to be taken to the army after one year of learning. That was the initial purpose. But there was quickly an evolution. What women saw in the military made them decide to stay. Of coure a lot of them stopped working, but some of them tayed and continued to work.
MS: The organization won the right livelihood award>
IK: Yes. In 1996, last year.
MS: Do you get much support from other countries?
IK: Before the Chechen war we never got any help. This Centre for Human Rights paid the rent and we just worked without anything.
MS: Who were the Centre for human Rights?
IK: There were 15 organizations, cofounders. There existed some money but it was enough only to pay the rent. That was something! Because before that, the SMs worked at home an all the soldiers came to them. It was a big problem. It became impossible because too many people came for help. So the place was very important. You know, I told you about our first office, one room with four tables for four different organizations. For three, almost four years, the committee was quite satisfied that they had a place to work. In Russian conditions, it is very important. But until the beginning of the Cheechen War, we never received any money. during that war we received quite a lot of money. Mostly from Swiss and German women and Scandinavian women. Afterward we received two small grants from Switzerland government, which is over. We still haven’t got the Right Livelihood Award because of our former chairman, Maria Kirbasova. She wanted to receive it for herself, or something I don’t know, and since that time, we have not received the money. Only the diploma. So now we are quite poor. The rent is paid until December. I don’t know what will happen in January. You should know that I never have anything to do with Maria. I was out of this problem. They say now it is a split in the movement but from our point of view it is just a natural course of events because nobody wanted Kirbasova as the chairman anymore. We elected a new coordination council, created a new kind of organization, very democratic. She is just outside trying to unite some other organizations. I don’t know what they are doing. We have enough work to do here. So the problem of the Livelihood Award is still not solved.
(We are interrupted by a woman who comes to tell us that the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to ICBL (I think it’s International Committee to Ban Landmines.)
We interview two soldiers. Ignat translates:
“They served in a couple of legions in Russia but all of them were divided into parts and at first they got into some special legion named Black Legion, with all the caucasus nationalities inside. So they just got into the Black Legion with all the caucasus nationalities, I guess all the others just beat them.
So you want to leave the army?
Da. He said that actually he can serve in the army but not in this legion.
So there is a lot of conflict within the army because of these ethnic wars.
(Later, Ignat says he thinks they did something terrible to him and that they did not want to tell me about it.)
Later, Ida says that these women work all the time, and they try to pay them because they have no other income, but now this month they cannot be paid. There is no money. She says:
Metta! Don’t worry! We worked and we will work, and we will make a professional army in Russia!