In Ukraine, many Russian soldiers die, but their deaths are unacknowledged: Russia is officially not at war with Ukraine. They return – if they are not left behind somewhere on the battlefield – as ‘cargo 200’: the term used in former Soviet Union countries for the transport of fallen soldiers. Along with her organisation, the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg, Ella Polyakova provides ‘some kind of human rights school’ for soldiers and their kin.
The offices of the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg receive around seven hundred phone calls per month. ‘If family members are really desperate, for example after hearing nothing from their men or sons for months, they call us. We also get calls from contractors, for instance when their contract fees are not paid.’
The Soldiers’ Mothers can offer help in the form of information or legal support. ‘We are a kind of human rights school’, Polyakova says. ‘We provide education on the rights that soldiers have.’ For instance, conscripts can refuse to go to Ukraine. They can file a complaint against the Ministry of Defence. They can appeal to the law that prohibits being a mercenary or participating in military action on foreign territory. Polyakova: ‘But that is very difficult. The individual that refuses will be subjected to enormous pressure by his commanding officer and the entire group, becoming the target of blackmail and threats.’
Thousands of Russian men leave for Ukraine as volunteers to support the separatists. Many have already fought in earlier wars. ‘These men cannot live a life without violence any more’, says Polyakova. ‘Some of them have suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome in a previous war. They have never dealt with that.’
A dead soldier generates a lot of money for his family. ‘Five million rubles’, says Polyakova. ‘That is the amount of money that family members are paid if their son has died in Russian military service. Despite the devaluation of the ruble, that will buy you two apartments in rural areas.
The Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg are subject to threats. Even though Polyakova says it is part of her work, it does not make her job any easier. Shortly after Ella Polyakova declared last August that over one hundred Russian soldiers had died at an incident in Ukraine, she and her staff were denounced as ‘foreign agents’. This means that they are vilified in the media, do not have any money left, and are not allowed to organise any meetings in the country. Yet they still continue their work. Polyakova: ‘We must provide information. We need to inform people of their rights. We are currently living in a totalitarian society again. The propaganda works very well. The only thing we can do as an organisation, is provide the proper information.’
By Margreet Strijbosch