‘The state isn’t interested’ The NGO ‘Soldiers’ Mothers of Saint-Petersburg’ has defended the rights of Russian servicemen for 30 years. Now it can no longer work with them.
After 30 years spent defending the legal rights of Russian conscripts and soldiers, the NGO “Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg” will no longer be working with military personnel. In a statement published on October 5, the organization said that a new order issued by the Federal Security Service (FSB) has rendered most of its operations impossible. Indeed, the new order includes a list of topics — many of which concern the military — that you can’t collect information on without risking a “foreign agent” designation or even felony charges. That said, Soldiers’ Mothers isn’t shutting its doors completely. To find out more about how the NGO plans to move forward, Meduza spoke to its chairperson, Oksana Paramonova.
In an order published on October 1, the Federal Security Service (FSB) outlined a list of information that “could be used to threaten the security of the Russian Federation.” Anyone collecting information specified in the order is now expected to voluntarily identify themself to the Justice Ministry as “foreign agent.” Failure to self-register is considered a criminal offense.
The FSB’s list includes 60 topics in total, many of which are related to the army — like the locations of specific military units, for example. Other banned topics include information about the “observation of the law and the moral and psychological climate in the armed forces,” and information about the progress and results of criminal probes under investigation by military investigators.
These restrictions have thrown a wrench in the work of Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg, an NGO that has been defending the legal rights of Russian conscripts and soldiers since 1991. “Every year we received more than a thousand applications from military units from all over the country regarding the health of service personnel,” the organization’s chairperson, Oksana Paramonova, tells Meduza. “We report on servicemen not being provided with medical aid — we indicate the hospital and the specific military unit. And the collection of such information — and indeed, information about the moral and psychological state of the army, about the health of soldiers — has now been banned.”
As Paramonova explains, Soldiers’ Mothers has long served as a link between service personnel and Russian government agencies. For example, in cases involving apparent negligence and the concealment of injuries, Soldiers’ Mothers initiated inquiries and reached out to supervisory departments, the Military Prosecutors’ Office, and the military investigation department. The organization also worked directly with military units in cases involving military hazing: “We supported families, sought punishment, and negotiated with the military units where this violence was practiced.”
“Now we won’t be able to purposefully collect information, and we were preparing analysis for the Defense Ministry — for example, for their main military medical department. We proposed changes to legislation. We prepared reports for international organizations — for example, the UN Human Rights Committee. And if we don’t collect any information, we can’t provide any assistance,” Paramonova underscores.
In years gone by, Paramonova’s predecessor sat on President Vladimir Putin’s Human Rights Council, taking part in a working group on civil-military relations. However, this working group was disbanded five years ago and Soldiers’ Mothers has been shut out of the human rights council entirely. “The state isn’t interested in the problem of lawfulness in the army,” Paramonova says. “And are you surprised? For some time now, many human rights organizations have no access to the human rights council. People who were engaged in real human rights work were excluded from it or left.”
Asked what the organization’s decision to stop working with service personnel will mean in practice, Paramonova says that it will shift the burden of defending the rights of individual servicemen to their family members. That said, she maintains that Soldiers’ Mothers will still offer what help it can by providing “tools,” information, and advice, as well as access to a network of support. In terms of providing legal aid, Soldiers’ Mothers will still be able to connect service personnel with lawyers. “Though we will no longer be able to file reports about crimes, or help draw them up,” Paramonova explains.
“[In response] to all appeals to our organization we will explain how to act, but the responsibility for the son of each mother and father will have to take upon themselves,” she stresses. “We won’t shut down our hotline, we will be able to listen to the stories of parents, but we will not be able to record the information they provide.”
The way the Soldiers' Mothers chairperson sees it, the order from the FSB is just the latest development that has forced the organization to rethink its work. “Our vision of how much society and the government needs [our work] has changed,” she says.
“Over the past seven years, the state has been purposefully working to isolate the army from civilian oversight, and society has become increasingly insensitive to the problems of military personnel. People aren’t prepared to defend themselves, but they are prepared to suffer. Parents are looking for ways to solve their own private issues, but they aren’t able to view the problem as systemic and recognize [that] ‘If my son is beaten in the army, then the one who comes after him will be beaten, if I don’t make efforts to punish those who do [the beating]’.”
Soldiers’ Mothers has already experienced a year as a “foreign agent.” It was added to the Justice Ministry’s registry in 2014. “We weren’t able to conduct work with servicemen because the district command instructed the military units not to work with us,” Paramonova recalls. The NGO managed to get off the list by turning down all foreign funding and refraining from carrying out “political activities” for a year. It later began to receive financial support from the Presidential Grants Foundation.
But now the stakes are higher: under Russia’s amended “foreign agents” law, this status can be handed down to individuals. And the FSB’s latest order further ups the risks for those involved in an organization like Soldiers’ Mothers by threatening felony prosecution. Nevertheless, Paramonova says that the NGO hasn’t seen any of its employees or volunteers resign.
Asked about the future, the Soldiers’ Mothers chairperson says that the organization has no plans to “emigrate” and will continue to work from inside Russia. “I don’t feel that this is the end,” Paramonova tells Meduza. “Now is an important moment when we need to look back and recognize that it was already like this — and somehow we coped with it and even gained new strength.”
Please note. The text above is a summary of Meduza special correspondent Liliya Yapparova’s interview with Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg chairperson Oksana Paramonova. You can read the full Q&A in Russian here.
Summary by Eilish Hart