Russian mothers, fearing for the lives of their sons fighting in Chechnya, have begun flying to the battlefield to find their boys, take them out of the army and bring them home.
Their mission is extraordinary, even for a nation of mothers accustomed to lavishing love and protection on their children well into adulthood.
But their perilous journeys have provoked more sympathy than astonishment.
The Russian army has become so notorious for its ill treatment of young men, there is only honor for a mother who resists it and no shame at all for her son.
“People hate the army,” said Yuri I. Deryugin, a retired army colonel and now a military sociologist. “They know how badly young soldiers are treated.”
No one knows exactly how many mothers have made the trip to the war zone or if any actually have managed to rescue their sons. But women who have visited Chechnya or plan to go have been drifting in and out of the Moscow office of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers to tell one another their stories and offer each other encouragement.
Tatyana Skorbilevya returned to Moscow the other day after two weeks in Chechnya, looking for her 19-year-old son, Anatoly. He was supposed to finish his two years of military service at the beginning of December. Instead, he was sent to Chechnya.
Six months ago, Anatoly wrote Skorbilevya a desperate letter from his barracks, after a beating at the hands of other soldiers had left him with a broken arm.
“My dear beloved mother,” he wrote, “I miss you so much and I love you so much. It’s so bad here, come here and take me from here for God’s sake.”
When she found out her son had been sent to war, she decided to find him. She wandered across Chechnya, through mud and snow, in front of and behind the Russian lines, looking for Anatoly.
She saw other Russian soldiers eating cold food, sleeping on the cold muddy ground without tents. And she saw Chechens, mourning their own boys.
“We were told the Chechen people were fierce, cruel people, but they were so kind to me,” Skorbilevya said. Chechens took her in and helped her in her travels. They told her they hated the war and could feel her pain as their own.
But they told her that if her son came to their village as a soldier, they would kill him. In the end, she returned to Moscow without her son. She is planning to return to Chechnya.
“Let God save you from seeing what I saw,” she told the other women at the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers.
This mother, from the Moscow suburb of Domodedovo, is a vivid symbol of the opposition to the Chechen war. Her trip has left her totally sympathetic to the Chechens, outraged that Russian President Boris Yeltsin had started the war and filled with despair that 18- and 19-year-old boys like her son are losing their lives in what she calls an utterly worthless cause.
If a large-scale protest movement against the Chechen war arises in Russia, it will begin with women like Tatyana Skorbilevya and the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers.