Ida Kuklina (Soldiers' Mothers) & Yevgenia Issraelyan, 2008

Ida Kuklina, interviewed in Moscow, June 5, 2008
Interviewed by Metta Spencer and Yevgenia (Zhenya) Issraelyan. Zhenya is a specialist in women’s affairs and Canada at the USA/Canada Institute and has visited me several times in Canada.
Kuklina is a scholar at IMEMO. Main topic: Security. “Other half of my life,” working since 1993 at Soldiers’ Mothers. [When I spoke with her by phone in 2009 she was working on the issue of piracy off the coast of Somalia.]

Discussion of IPB meeting. Neither of us have had much contact with them. She met Colin Archer in Geneva very often.

Since then, the structure of the committee has changed. We, the association, are partner of ECO? There are about 200 partners throughout the country.. Now I am writing an article in NGO and its services. Nobody can say how many people are working with NGOs. Sometimes there are lots of people, sometimes only a few. We are the poorest and the biggest women’s organization in Russia. Practically all our work is done on volunteer priniciple. We manage to pay a bit of money, very small, to a few. Cannot compare with the volume of work they are doing. The main thing is the mission. The soldiers’ mothers are all willing to work without pay. The work is going on in 200 places. It is a different system of relations between the state and NGOs than in Canada. I read Zhenya’s book about that. We manage to organize a system. We work with people and try to solve every individual complaint. In Moscow, 10,000 average complaints per years from soldiers and/or their parents. We tell them what to do and then to check with us if something goes wrong. But some complaints involve a great volume of work. For example, a young man came who in 1991 was in a military unit on the border of Germany and Poland. He left his unit and went to Germany. Nobody can remember what happened with this military unit. We cannot find it. He lived in Germany 10 years illegally. After that, he wanted to marry and he began to think of how to regularize himself. The authorities sent him back to Russia. No passport, nothing. It took 1.5 year to legalize him, then he went backt o Germany legally and they married. He’s staying in Germany.

Here every complaint is different from the others. We have to be advocates, know how to deal with court cases, with laws, with every military . Each case is different. We work closely_. In Moscow their representative comes to us once a week. They are now working according to the law. It’s a rare thing in Russia. Some of our women are dealing with one cases, another with medical cases. I represent the union for 7 years in the council on human rights. Now the new president will make his own body. At least we wrote a letter and said that the state needs such a body, in spite of the Public Chamber. ____________ (he) made maximum of such possibilities.

Metta: You’re talking about a Russian organization, not the UN Human Rights Council?

Ida: Only Russian. Council of the President of Russia on the Development of Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights.

MS: Is this current structure a good one?

IDA. It no longer exists. Putin created it so it ends with his presidency.

MS: Medvedev could start a new one?

Ida: I don’t know. We have a message to change system for a medical centre for all young people to be tested for conscription. He made a good resolution. Now we will prepare a letter to urge him to realize his own prescription. It will be inside the existing structure but will get special functions. Now they are mixed with all kinds of other patients. There is an economic background. And before that, this council was the only victory for my side in this council, because the soldiers were patients without arms, legs, etc. They received the smallest pension in Russia among all disabled people. The pension consists of three packages – insurance, saving, and small formal pension that is impossible to live on. I got two things from Putin.

Zhenya: What is the procedure?

Ida: He addresses it to the prime minister – originally to Kasyanov.

MS: When I was here many years ago, during the first war in Chechnya, I went to the office. There was a binder with hand-written letters mostly from mothers complaining about the problems of their sons. Somebody there told me that 6,000 Russian soldiers every year die in the military of non-military causes – suicide or being beaten or something. Is my memory correct?

Ida: Yes, officially now it is about 2,000 but our data show that it is now about 5,000.

Zehnya: Yearly!

Ida: Suicide, traumas, and sometimes murders which are masquerades as suicides.

MS: That’s what I remember hearing. This is worse – in peaceful times.

Ida: Lately there was a meeting of the committee in Public Chamber about this problem, but the Public Chamber decided that the best way to fight such things is to improve the military patriotic education.

Zhenya: Oh my goodness. I heard that.

MS Tell me what you think of this Public Chamber.

Ida: Public Chamber is a quasi-form of NGO. One third of it is chosen by president. They choose the next third. And all together they choose the final third.

MS: What about having citizens say something about it?

Ida: There are some good people there. And others are not so good. The chairman of the military committee is not a man, but someone who is thinking of his own material interests, that is all.

MS: I wanted to go see Yevgeny Velikhov. During the Gorbachev years he was an extraordinarily effective person working with other scientists abroad, and trying to get nuclear disarmament. But when I mentioned that I want to him, my friends say that he’s the head of the Public Chamber and chosen by the president and he’s no good at all anymore.

Zhenya: I don’t know in details what he is doing but he may be a person with good views and principles. The fact that he belongs to the Public Chamber doesn’t mean that he has betrayed his principles.

MS: There are some good people there, but twice I have been to meeting, and I got a ____ view like party meetings in the old times. [MS: Re-reading this two years later, I don’t know what I meant at the time. I never went to a meeting of the Public Chamber and I can’t imagine what meeting I was referring to here, if indeed I was the speaker.]

Zhenya: I went to a meeting of the commission on Charity. At that time I was the __ ____Canadian___ and the donors were invited. It was headed by the Russian oligarch. It didn’t resemble the politburo, it was done in a very businesslike procedure. The decisions were fine because they promoted the legislation on endowment of the NGO centre. Different commissions work in a different way, I think.

Ida: There are differences.

MS: But your attitude, both of you, is that in general you don’t think it’s great.

Ida: No.

Zhenya: The original idea was that it was to be a connection between government and the people but it doesn’t work like that.

Ida: You remember the article that I wrote. I was right. It’s a system to control civil society. Putin made everything. Among the human rights defenders, we have got a dream. GONGO, MANGO (Mafia NGO) and BINGO (Business NGO).

MS: I hadn’t heard those last two. Are there such things as Mafioso-organized NGOs?

Ida: In the West too. I read an article about it in Foreign Affairs by Garermik. He said that it is making a shift of power and helping the terrorists. The issue was the spring of this year. Not only this article.

MS: That would be BINGO – business oriented, but not Mafia.

Ida: By his opinion, no good is coming from NGOs. He was in Uzbekistan and criticized American NGOs too. Lately I spoke with German people. They are discussing the negative role of NGOs also. He is American.

MS: In the car I asked you whether you also believe that civil society is the way to democracy. You made some qualifications, said that some are and some aren’t. Can you explain that?

Zhenya: What I said is that the NGOs are not very strong and don’t have the needed professionalism and advocacy skills to move civil society ahead. What I think is that the citizens on the grassroots level, this is the potential of civil society. They can be the real actors for change in the society. I was talking more about such groups as those delivering such services as ecological services or support for marginalized groups or community reform or advocating for drivers’ rights. These grassroots movements which are developing in the communities, I think they have a good potential.

MS: Then explain to me what you mean by NGOs. The distinction is not one that I can immediately understand.

Zhenya: I am talking about the registered organizations, which are working on the national level, not so much at the community level. The community groups may be registered or not but they have their own mission and they are working like a self-organization of people – health support groups and so on.

MS: You can see a difference. I’m not sure I always would. I’m not sure I would always know what is an NGO and what’s a community support group.. You talked about car owners, for example.

Zhenya: Yeah, this is a movement of people. It came from one case when there was a car driver who was accused of killing the governor of one oblast. It was not true but it brought together a mass movement of drivers all over the country. On the grassroots community level and all that. It was in the interests of all drivers. They started working on a national level.

MS: That sounds like an NGO to me.

Zhenya: No. I’m talk of the change of mentality, not that much about groups and organizations. It’s about people’s attitudes. It may be on community level or national level but it’s what is happening in the minds of people.

MS: My only problem is in getting clarity about the distinction between NGOs and other types of groups. I would have called the car owners’ group an NGO.

Zhenya: It might be an NGO, it might be a driver. It’s not important whether it’s registered. What’s important is that the people themselves are acting, not a body or a structure.

MS: Give me some examples of NGOs that you think do not work very well. Is it because they are organized from the top down or what?

Zhenya: I don’t want to criticize anyone but when there was a [union pool?] about what NGOs are prepared by the ordinary people, what type of NGOs are most respected, they would choose those that are working for women, childrens’ rights, ecological organizations or social services. The advocacy groups, the human rights services were not mentioned as much. I’m not criticizing them. I respect Memorial very much but maybe they need to change their strategy to get more mass social base.

MS: And to do that, they should offer real social or material support to their members or to people in the community who are in need – other than just advocacy, right?

Zhenya: I’m not recommending anything but, for all my respect to these groups, they need to update the methodology of their work.

Ida: NGOs are multi-colored. The people are expressing their interests, which will be absolutely different. For example, Cossask NGOs, and the small group of mothers of many children. Absolutely different interests. Among them most NGOs are dealing with socio-economic problems. Statistics. Not less than 2/3 of them are dealing with socio-economic problems. I think it’s connected to globalization and market economy. Weakening of the state. The state is giving NGOs this sphere of activity to satisfy the people. The NGOs are doing useful work, but they aren’t changing anything. They are just helping the state and business. The other kind of NGOs whose activity is politicized by its nature – human rights is a political problem, brought into existence by the state. Now it became a matter of security and so on. And this problem is a small change in the political games.

MS: It seems to me that Mothers of Soldiers would be both kinds, no?

Ida: We are a human rights organization. We defend human rights. We compare the rights of prisoners and the rights of soldiers. The prisoners have lots of rights and the soldiers have none at all.

MS: I hadn’t thought of that before.

Ida: A soldier is a human being. Of course, such an idea would occur only in the Soviet Union because of our history. In Germany they don’t need such an organization as Soldiers’ Mothers because the interests of the soldiers is defended by the system created by the state. Also in other countries, there exist such systems. I know about Switzerland. They even help the soldier for several years after he finishes his military service. This is a unique situation because of Soviet history. We never thought about human beings. In Russia we liked to kill the old people. That is why Soldiers’ Mothers are human rights. But what is common between West and modern Russia is they are afraid of human rights NGOs because the NGO shows they could be used to change the political situation .

MS: What reaction have you had from Putin’s government to Soldiers’ Mothers?

Ida: Nobody can kill us. We existed without money. But when we decided to organize a party, now we have got a party history. It is not connected to a union, it is separate. It is the Party of Soldiers’ Mothers.

Zhenya: Does it take part in the elections?

Ida: No. As soon as we brought our intention to the minister, he said no. “We don’t accept it.” Though the law says you just should bring it and they have to accept it. For two weeks we tried to prove that we have a right to bring such a letter of intention. The creation of a party begins with one slip of paper stating the intention to organize such a party. After two or three weeks they had to accept it. There was an interview of a minister in a popular newspaper, saying “We don’t need such a party as the party of Soldiers’ Mothers. Four parties is enough for Russia.” Notice that in this Duma there are four parties. It was 1995. We understood very well that we should make everything according to the law. We called the Congress of the Party and at that time they told us to register the party. It should have 5,000 members. Next day, absolutely unexpectedly the Duma increased it from 5,000 to 50,000. We collected 25,000. We had no money to collect 50,000. Then what to do? We joined the Republican Party. We voted Republicans during the elections of 1995. They did not do much for human rights. But there was activation of the party. I was not a party member, I was just a consultant. I will never be a member of any party. I was a member of the Communist Party.

MS: And when you dropped your membership, you decided you’d never be a member of any party again?

Ida. Yeah. So we joined the Republican party as an independent faction. Nikolai Ryzhkov’s. Independent deputy of the State Duma. I like him.

Zhenya: Me too..

Ida: So what happened to the Republican Party? it was prohibited. Now there is a case

Audio file

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See also
Ida Kuklina (Soldiers' Mothers), 1997

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books