‘The impulse to save lives is gone’ The Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg helps desperate parents find their children. They say morale is at an all-time low.
Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine began on February 24. In the thirteen days since, Russia’s defense ministry has only reported casualties once, a week after the war began: 498 casualties on the Russian side. That’s currently the only official data we have. One of the few places where parents of missing Russian soldiers can turn for help is the human rights organization Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg. Meduza special correspondent Sasha Sivtsova spoke with the head of the organization, Oksana Paramonova.
For most of the past 30 years, the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg has provided both legal aid and information services to military servicemen and their relatives. In October, however, the FSB issued a new decree that effectively banned the collection of any information about the armed forces, putting the Soldiers’ Mothers at risk of criminal prosecution if they didn’t make major changes to the way they work. “Personal data, medical information, crime data, ongoing investigations — we don’t have the right to collect any of that,” said Oksana Paramonova, who leads the organization.
As a result, they’ve started focusing on the one service they can still provide: providing guidance to parents whose sons are missing. And, unsurprisingly, they've seen a dramatic increase in requests since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on February 24.
“We’ve tried to consolidate the requests we’ve gotten so we can figure out where to direct people,” said Paramonova. “We’ve been distributing recommendations on social media and sending them to everyone who reaches out. I tell them what their options are — what statements they should make and to whom.”
The organization has also stopped providing legal services; that’s something people can get elsewhere, but for parents seeking information, the Soldiers’ Mothers’ phone service is unique.
“There doesn’t seem to be any other option, anyone else for them to call,” said Paramonova. “Some of the callers say they’ve tried calling the unit [where their children were last known to be], but either nobody has answered or they’ve been told to keep waiting until more information becomes available. Some of them say they’ve tried calling the Defense Ministry. But the Defense Ministry hasn’t put up any information about who relatives should reach out to since removing it on the 24th.”
Luckily, Paramonova and her colleagues have built up a decent list of official contacts in their three decades of work, and they share it liberally. “We recommend just cold calling all the way down the list. Eventually, they might some information about their son,” she said.
As its name implies, Soldier’s Mothers of St. Petersburg works best when parents actively work together to search for their missing boys. “We need them to cooperate,” said Paramonova. “One parent might go to the military unit where a child was last heard from, another might wait on the phone line, and another might send requests [to the Defense Ministry and other government agencies].”
But cooperation isn’t always easy — especially in times of stress. According to Paramonova, the parents who reach out can generally be divided into two camps: some prefer to sit and wait, while others prefer to act. Paramonova understands both approaches, but she’s more inclined to take action.
“I get that prayer is also a form of action,” she said. “But it’s not, of course, the only one, in my view. Some people make the decision to wait. And I hope to God they won’t be waiting forever.”
According to Oksana Paramonova, many of the parents who call after losing touch with their sons don’t have even basic information about the situation, such as the phone number of the military unit or the names of the other soldiers’ parents. She sees this as one symptom of a larger problem with Russian society’s relationship to the military.
“We’ve given everything over to the state, and now we’re dealing with the consequences,” she told Meduza. “The next step will be that the state will bear minimal responsibility for what’s happening. [...] The parents, unfortunately, don’t feel this. They don’t understand that, whatever happens to their sons, the state will pay a negligible price for it.”
Still, Vladimir Putin has promised to bear some responsibility; according to him, the government will pay additional compensation to the families of soldiers killed in Ukraine. Paramonova doesn’t buy it.
“They’ll be sure to make a few high-profile payments — a million rubles, whatever,” she said. “But the rest will get caught up in years of litigation — that’s the best case scenario. In the worst case scenario, the families will try to get their payments for a while, and then they’ll give up, make peace with it, and say, ‘Well, what can you do — that’s our country for you.’”
The Russian government has begun posthumously giving out military accolades and honors to soldiers killed in Ukraine. Paramonova sees this as a way to cut costs in the future. “They may not have to pay some people’s families at all — they’ll just bury them with honors, put up memorial plaques in the villages where they grew up, and that will be it. I think a part of our population would be satisfied with that, unfortunately,” she said.
‘For them, there’s no point’
In the weeks since the war began, Oksana Paramonova and her colleagues have probably spoken with more missing soldiers’ parents than anybody else in Russia. And while they can’t officially collect data, they do observe some general trends, especially when it comes to how parents are feeling. For Paramonova, her observations have been fairly discouraging.
“Instead of a sense of action, the parents all feel a certain maternal powerlessness,” she told Meduza. “I feel this very sharply. I’ve seen all kinds of mothers in all kinds of situations, and I know how mothers are capable of taking action. But right now, many of them respond to our suggestions with, ‘What’s the point?’ For them, there’s no point in saving their sons’ lives. [...] From my perspective, it’s a fact: the impulse to save lives is gone.”
In her view, families’ perceived powerlessness, parents’ inability to work together, and the state’s wholesale control of soldiers’ lives are unlikely to lead to anything good in the long term.
“Each individual family will face its own consequences,” said Paramonova. “The question is whether they’ll add up to some bigger picture that will point to the role and responsibility of society, of the state, and whether this will lead to any significant changes. It will probably turn out more like a mosaic — with every family experiencing its own consequences and coping however they can. In general, we’ll remain in the same situation we find ourselves in now. Perhaps even in a worse one.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale