Mothers are a force to be reckoned with when their sons are at war. That goes in spades for the mothers of some 15,000 fallen Russian soldiers.
Swanee Hunt and John Spencer
| Opinion contributors
In March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on Russian mothers to do anything in their power to prevent their sons from being deployed. “If you have the slightest suspicion that your son could be sent to war against Ukraine, act immediately” to prevent him being killed or captured, he said.
Clearly, Kyiv knows the power of connection with soldiers’ families. The Ukrainian Ministry of Interior set up a hotline for the families of Russian soldiers. Anxious responses have come from as far away as Vladivostok, Russia, thousands of miles to the east.
‘TikTok War’Mothers are a force to be reckoned with when their sons are at war. That goes in spades for the mothers of some 15,000 fallen Russian soldiers, many of them young conscripts.
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It has become something of a cliché to call this the “TikTok War,” but more so than any other war in the Information Age, Russians are communicating with their families from the front lines. Advances in technology mean that no longer do soldiers head off to war with slow and scant communication until their deployment is over. Soldiers aren’t robots fighting for dictators – they’re valued warriors who fight for a cause. They yearn for connection with family and friends they left behind.
Technology also allows their loved ones at home to see individual firefights, dead soldiers strewn in streets and refrigerator trucks with the bodies of the fallen.
‘A sea of tears’Recently, an image went viral showing a captured Russian soldier crying when Ukrainians allowed him to video call his mother. A smartphone recording has surfaced from Siberia with enraged women shouting down a government official who let it slip that conscripts had been sent into action unprepared for battle.
In Moscow, Svetlana Golub, at the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, has been fielding hundreds of calls. “It’s just a sea of tears,” she told The Guardian.
And it’s only the beginning. Most of the body bags haven’t made it home yet.
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In Russia, maternal grief has been a particularly powerful, iconic force, tracing back to World War II, in reverence for the sacrifice of millions upon millions of sons killed while halting the Nazi invasion.
But in the 1980s, Soviet veneration of the mothers started to backfire during the occupation of Afghanistan. A host of angry women rose up to protest the widespread abuse of new recruits within deployed units – to the chagrin of the military and politburo.
Vladimir Putin’s nightmareRussian soldiers’ mothers found a greater voice in the next decade. Fierce women mobilized against the Russian war with the breakaway republic of Chechnya. In early 1995, they demonstrated in Red Square; a few days later they headed to a devastated Grozny, ground zero of the hostilities. In the weeks that followed, they confronted Russian military commanders to gain the release of dozens of their boys and men.
When asked how she could grab her son by the collar and drag him past his commander, a leader of the group growled, “Every general has a mother.”
Such a scenario is Vladimir Putin’s nightmare. It’s why, in his March International Women’s Day address, he urged Russian mothers to be “proud” of their sons. He repeated his cynical lie that draftees would not be deployed in his “special military operation.”
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Beyond an autocrat targeting journalists and dissenters, Putin is now a ruthless dictator clamping down on independent voices, using draconian laws and penalties. His wrenching grasp presents an ominous threat to the mothers of his soldiers. Nevertheless, through social media platforms like Telegram (heavily used by Zelenskyy), Russian families can seek and find the truth about the fate of their sons. Imagine a legion of inconsolable mothers descending on the Kremlin. Imagine their collective voices raised in righteous grief that their boys have become cannon fodder.
As Putin’s war enters a bloodier phase, we are in awe of the will of Ukrainians united in ferocious defiance. We can hope the same of Russian women who gave birth to a soldier – whose fierce will as she watched his first breath is rekindled as his last breath is extinguished.
Swanee Hunt, former U.S. ambassador to Austria, is the founder of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is also the founder of Inclusive Security. John Spencer, chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Madison Policy Forum, is author of “Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connections in Modern War.”