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Vladimir Putin and the participants in the meeting

A ‘necessary quantity of mothers’ Putin held a highly publicized meeting with ‘mothers of the mobilized.’ Here’s who those women actually are.

Source: Meduza
Vladimir Putin and the participants in the meeting
Vladimir Putin and the participants in the meeting
Alexander Sherbak / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Story by Andrey Pertsev. Translation by Emily Laskin.

On November 23, Vladimir Putin’s administration invited 16 “mothers of mobilized soldiers” to the president’s personal residence, ostensibly to discuss their opinions and suggestions about the war in Ukraine and mobilization in Russia. In early reports about the event, it was already unclear how many of the women actually have sons who had been drafted. Meduza has now confirmed that only three of 16 participants are the mothers of mobilized sons — the rest have sons who were or are either volunteers or career soldiers. Here’s what we found about who these mothers are, and how the Kremlin chose them to meet the president. 

In late November, Vladimir Putin held what was officially called a meeting “with mothers of service members taking part in the special military operation.” Initially, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov and pro-Putin media outlets presented the event as a meeting with “mothers of the mobilized.” However, by Meduza’s count, out of the 16 participants (a list was published on the Kremlin’s website), only three have sons who were actually drafted.

They were:

  • Yulia Belekhova, head of the Moscow regional branch of the pro-Putin political coalition, the All-Russia People’s Front;
  • Elena Alekseeva, a homemaker from Stary Oskol, in the Belgorod region; and
  • Marina Bakhlina, a cook from Yakutsk.

The rest appear to be mothers either of volunteers or of career soldiers. One of the participants, Nina Pshenichkina of the self-proclaimed “LNR,” showed Putin a picture of her son, who had gone off to “fight for the Russian world” in 2014 and was killed in 2019. Nadezhda Uzunova from Khakassia, an activist with the veterans-support non-profit Boyevoye Bratstvo (Combat Brotherhood), even said during the meeting that she attended because she has been “familiar with the Donbas” since 2017. She allegedly assisted in the evacuation of “critically ill and wounded children,” and she now helps draftees.

It was almost immediately clear that the women invited to meet with Putin were hardly chosen at random. Meduza counts 11 (out of 16 participants) who work either at state-funded organizations or for pro-Kremlin social movements. Here are a few of the women who attended:

  • Maria Kostyuk, deputy head of the government of the Jewish Autonomous Region;
  • Irina Tas-ool, head of the Family, Youth, and Sports Department in the Tuva Republic’s Kaa-Khem region; and
  • Olga Beltseva, Moscow municipal deputy of the United Russia political party.

Representatives from independent organizations — the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, for example — were not invited at all.

Alexander Sherbak / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Describing preparations for the meeting, two sources close to the presidential administration told Meduza that the idea arose in the context of numerous complaints from draftees and their loved ones about the mobilization process. “Mobilization affected many, and many still fear it. It was important to show that the president is on top of any problems, and that he hasn’t forgotten about people,” said one source, explaining the logic behind holding the event.

However, according to Meduza’s sources, it quickly became evident that the “necessary quantity of mothers” would be hard to find. “You can’t just take people from the street to meet with the president. They could ask anything — it could lead to unpleasant incidents,” said one insider.

“And with people you’re not just pulling off the street, as a rule, their kids aren’t mobilized,” added a source. It’s true: immediately after mobilization was announced, members of jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s team called the sons of a few high-ranking military officials and asked them to report to enlistment offices. No one agreed, and Dmitry Peskov’s son even said that such decisions are made “at another level.” 

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Employees of the presidential administration found some of the participants themselves. Meduza’s sources say this category includes the head of the Moscow region branch of the All-Russia National Front, Yulia Belekhova, and “patriotic” filmmaker Olesya Shigina. (At the Kremlin meeting, Belekhova claimed that her son was drafted, while Shigina said her son had volunteered.)

One source told Meduza that Belekhkova and Shigina were brought to the meeting by the administration’s Social Projects Directorate, which is headed by Sergei Novikov (a close colleague of Sergey Kiriyenko, who manages the Kremlin’s domestic policy.

“[At the meeting] Belekhova spoke about volunteers, and Shigina spoke about the Znaniye Society and the Internet Development Institute — basically, projects overseen by Novikov. The women reminded the president of their existence and requested support,” said Meduza’s source in the administration.

Belekhova told Putin about volunteers with the My Vmeste (We’re Together) project, which started, with Kremlin support, during the COVID-19 pandemic and now supports the “families of our soldiers.” Shigina mentioned other structures affiliated with the authorities and claimed that they “hear” Russia’s “patriotic” directors and support them.

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The administration also searched beyond Moscow, instructing several regional administrations to select “suitable women.” A source close to a member of the presidential administration who, among other things, is responsible for connections between federal and regional authorities, confirmed that “a request came from the center, and we did it.” 

“Priority” candidates were long-standing state officials, members of United Russia and the All-Russia United Front, and workers at state-funded projects, Meduza’s sources close to the presidential administration reported. The sources emphasized that the meeting’s participants, by its organizers’ design, had to be either in the authorities’ “power vertical” or to “know when to speak and what to say.”

“Their bosses, with whom they need to be careful, are the governors [who sent them to meet with Putin] and, ultimately, the president,” one source told Meduza, explaining that the women were not promised “any kind of material benefit from the visit to Putin.” They were allegedly “motivated” by the opportunity to “see the head of the state” and to “become notable at the regional level.” 

It was also important for regional authorities that they be mentioned at the event. “It’s necessary, so that your region and you yourself are part of the hearing,” a source close to the Kremlin explained. 

At the meeting with Putin, participants did in fact thank Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, Tula Governor Alexey Dyumin, the head of Yakutia, Aisen Nikolayev, and Jewish Autonomous Region Governor Rostislav Goldshteyn. 

Our sons defend the homeland at its epicenter, and we’re trying to support them at the home front. Our governor, Mr. Alexey Dyumin, you know, he undertook mobilization not as the head of the region, but as a father who personally oversaw all the outfitting processes, all training for mobilized soldiers, for which everyone is very grateful to him. 

That’s how Elena Nikulnikova, who works at a prison in the Tula region, described mobilization. At the Kremlin meeting, she said that her son, a career soldier, was “on another assignment” when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and he was “very sorry to be absent from his homeland at that point.” But he was sent to the front when he returned, Nikulnikova added.

Meduza tried to contact the meeting’s participants. Not one of them returned our calls or messages. Immediately after the event, however, participant Yulia Belekhova, of the Moscow regional branch of the All-Russia People’s Front, openly discussed the presence of United Russia members and deputies at the meeting with the president. “I don’t understand what ‘functionaries’ are,” she said. “Mothers can work. You’re a mom first and foremost. And what party a person belongs to [doesn’t matter].”

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Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Emily Laskin

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