“Five times” Tatyana Kolodij buried her 21-year-old son Vadim. The tall, pale boy with thick eyebrows was said to have been killed somewhere in northern Ukraine on February 28, four days after the Russian invasion, according to the Russian army. But the messages the Ukrainian-Russian wife receives from the army are contradictory and Vadim is missing. As long as she hasn’t seen his body, she finds hope in any sign that he might still be alive.
Last week Kolodij, together with two other mothers of Russian soldiers, her story in the YouTube program ‘Tell Gordejeva’ by independent Russian TV journalist Katerina Gordejeva. Since the war started, and Russian media was silenced with strict censorship laws, Gordejeva has interviewed many critical Russians and her videos are among the most watched online current affairs programs. “Three interviews with three Russian women who are of great significance in understanding what is going on in our country,” reads the accompanying text.
In the two-hour program, which has since been viewed 2.5 million times, the women tell how their sons were sent to war completely unprepared. Kirill, 19, son of Irina Chichakova from Petrozavodsk, western Russia, had only been in military service for three months, according to his mother, when he was forced to sign a contract. He would then have been sent to Ukraine without a helmet or fragmentation vest and in sneakers. Since then, there is no trace of him. The woman was first told by the Russian Ministry of Defense that her son had been taken prisoner of war, then that he had gone ‘missing’. The third wife’s son, Gulnara, has since returned to Russia, but is accused of desertion.
There are thousands of stories like Tatyana, Irina and Gulnara in Russia. “We recognize the stories that these women tell in the broadcast,” a spokeswoman for the Russian aid organization Soldiers Mothers tells us by telephone from Russia. She wishes to remain anonymous. The movement – a network of aid workers, activists, lawyers and family members of soldiers – is known throughout Russia and was declared a ‘foreign agent’ as early as 2014, at the start of the war with Ukraine.
Since February, the organization has largely operated underground. After all, ‘discrediting’ the Russian army carries severe penalties, telephones are tapped. That is why the aid workers prefer to remain anonymous – and they urge soldiers not to give any facts about their situation in Ukraine by telephone. On the basis of one phone call, someone can easily be brought to court as a traitor. For example, the atrocities committed in and by the military in Russia remain largely unknown. Meanwhile, this week’s propaganda showed images of President Putin visiting wounded soldiers in hospital† “Will you go back to serve?” Putin asks a soldier in blue striped pajamas. “Absolutely,” is the reply.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a military hospital in Moscow Foto Sputnik/ MIkhail Metzel
Read also Russians fear for the fate of their child at the front
Reality is inky black, as Tatjana Kolodij’s story shows. She comes from Mykolaiv, Ukraine, a hard-fought town near Odessa, where her mother and brother still live. Years ago she left for Russia as a babysitter to support her children. Then she brought her children over and took out a hefty loan to apply for Russian passports for them. In 2020, her son voluntarily enlisted. Instead of the good salary that had been promised to him, he died in Ukraine, his native country. The loan for his passport has yet to be paid off.
Her Ukrainian family is furious, says Kolodij, and they don’t want any more contact. “Why did you let your child go to your homeland to fight against us?” her mother yelled on the phone. “But who asked me something? Who asked him something?” is her resigned reply to interviewer Gordejeva. Three months later, she still has no idea where and how her son died. She does not expect help from Ukrainians in the search for her child. She can understand that. “During the Chechen war, Russian women who came to look for their dead children on the battlefield were helped by the Chechens. But then it was easier, now there is an information war going on and there is only aggression.”
Irina Chichakova believes her now captive son was fighting for a good cause. “I know that our children were going to protect the Donbas,” she answers when interviewer Gordejeva asks whether she believes that the ‘military operation’ is a ‘necessary’, as the propaganda tells Russians. She calls the Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine “heroes”, to which Gordeeva cannot hide a shock reaction.
desperate phone calls
Yet the organization of soldier mothers sees a turning point. While in the first weeks of the war they mainly received reports from relatives, more and more Russian soldiers have recently been sounding the alarm themselves. They are desperate calls from often very young boys without any military experience. The hopeless situation of many Russian army units in Ukraine would lead to more and more cases of desertion.
“We recently released 53 soldiers who were locked up in a cellar in the Luhansk region. They refused to participate in the horrors and demanded return to Russia. But the commander threatened execution if they didn’t fight. In the end, they were imprisoned, beaten and starved,” the spokeswoman said.
Other calls come from soldiers who survived bloody battles and fled back to Russia. In Russia, she faces charges of desertion or ‘treason’. Especially if they open their mouths about their experiences at the front.
The great losses and the lack of men lead to all kinds of shady practices. This week the maximum age for military service (now 40 years) was removed by the State Duma. Now reservists and retired soldiers are often recruited, but the Soldiers’ Mothers also hear stories about men being recruited on the street by unclear types. “There seems to be a business emerging. We do not rule out the recruitment of mercenaries and human trafficking.” Some Russians who lost their jobs as a result of the sanctions are tempted by the promise of a good salary.
The Soldiers’ Mothers are concerned that more and more men are signing a ‘short-term contract’ for two months of military service. “Two months! What does that actually mean? That means: go to Ukraine and not return,” said the spokeswoman, upset. The men who come forward appear to be driven by money and patriotism, excited by the story that Ukraine must be ‘liberated’ from ‘Nazis’. “Once they end up in misery on the spot, they realize that Ukrainians are not waiting for liberation at all. But then there is no going back.”
One question remains virtually unanswered: to what extent are soldiers’ relatives aware of the war crimes their children may have committed in Ukraine? Because of the censorship, many horrific stories do not reach Russians or are emphatically dismissed as fake news by state propaganda. At the same time, intercepted recordings published by the Ukrainian secret service SBU in April show that some mothers call their sons encouraged to fight† “You don’t kill children and civilians, you kill fascists,” a mother bites her devastated son. It is unclear to what extent this attitude is representative.
“A mother always wants to believe the best about her child. It is easier to see him as a hero than as a criminal. Many women do not want to face the simple facts. But whatever you think of them, it’s important that these stories are brought out,” said a spokeswoman for the Soldiers’ Mothers. She does indeed speak to parents who detest war and realize that their child may have committed serious crimes. Gordejeva’s broadcast also shows how risky it is to go public about this in Russia. Goelnara, the only one who takes a critical stance, remains anonymous.
Katerina Gordejeva herself has meanwhile proven that the critical voice in Russia has not yet completely died down. Since the beginning of the war, she has spoken with many critical Russians, including the Nobel Prize-winning journalist Dmitri Muratov. Some of them have fled the country.
At the beginning of May, Gordejeva was awarded the Russian Redkollegia Prize for independent journalism. The question is how long she can continue to do her job. “If you haven’t seen the broadcasts yet, we recommend that you do,” wrote independent news site Meduza. “We hope for the best, but don’t put off watching too long. Nobody knows what the future of YouTube will look like in Russia.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of May 28, 2022