Russian mum's fight to save sons from Putin's war

By Steve Rosenberg
Russia Editor, Moscow

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Steve Rosenberg with mother

When Marina's two sons were conscripted last winter to the Russian army she welcomed the idea of her children doing a year's military service.

"I told them that they had to serve," Marina tells me, "it was their duty to the motherland."

But a few weeks later she began to worry. Her sons had been deployed to an area close to the border with Ukraine.

On 24 February President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to invade Ukraine. That day Marina (not her real name) lost contact with her sons.

"Time stopped for me. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep," she told me. "I exchanged messages with the mothers of other conscripts from the same unit. It turned out that many of them had lost contact with their children, too."

The Kremlin promised that Russian conscripts would not be sent to Ukraine.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
A Russian soldier in Mariupol

So where were Marina's sons?

"I got in the car and started searching. On the phone one of the commanders insisted that they were on military exercises out in the fields. I said: 'I've driven round all the fields near here where there had been exercises. They're not there. Please don't lie to me.' He hung up."

"Once, out of desperation, I tried to drive into Ukraine. Of course, they didn't let me through. There were check-points everywhere."

"Then the casualties started arriving. I got a call from someone telling me there were dead and wounded. I rushed to the military hospital."

Marina's sons were not there, but she was shocked by what she saw.

"In the military hospital there wasn't enough medicine or bandages. Local residents supplied everything. The soldiers were cold and hungry. Local people with a big heart were bringing food and drink to the hospital."

Eventually someone at her sons' military unit admitted that they were, indeed, in Ukraine.

"I was told the terrifying news: 'Your children have signed military contracts to be professional soldiers. They're taking part in the special military operation [in Ukraine]. They will return as heroes'."

"What on earth are you talking about? They had no plans to sign a contract," was her response. "They've been in the army for three months. They've only held a gun once. They've only been to a firing range once. Most of the time they've been shovelling snow."

"I wrote to the prosecutor-general's office asking to investigate. I told them there was no way my sons could have signed military contracts. I was certain. Other mothers wrote, too. They all knew their children."

Image caption,
Marina with her two sons - their picture has been cropped to disguise their identities

Russia relies on conscription to boost troop numbers in the armed forces. Military service lasts 12 months and, with some exceptions, is mandatory for Russian men aged between 18 and 27.

On 5 March President Putin announced that "only professional soldiers, officers and contract servicemen are taking part in the operation [in Ukraine]. There is not a single conscript there and we do not plan, we are not going to use them".

But just four days later the Russian defence ministry admitted, for the first time, that conscripts were among military personnel involved in the Russian offensive in Ukraine. The ministry claimed that "virtually all such servicemen have now been returned to Russia".

A Kremlin spokesman said the president had ordered the military prosecutor's office to investigate how conscripts had turned up in Ukraine.

Marina's official complaint was upheld. The Russian authorities confirmed that her sons had not signed military contracts. Both sons were returned to Russia.

"They allowed me to come and take my younger son home for the day," Marina says. "While I was driving to collect him, I called and asked him if there was anything he needed. 'Mum, I don't need anything,' he replied, 'just you'."

"When I saw him he looked a total mess. The lads that came back from there were so thin, dirty and exhausted. Their clothes were torn. My son said: 'It's better that you don't know what happened there.' But all that mattered to me was that he had come back alive."

Marina is angry about what happened.

"They lied to my face," she told me. "First they lied that my sons weren't in Ukraine. Then they lied that they'd signed military contracts. Officers lied, sergeants lied. Later someone told me that they weren't allowed to tell me the truth. Incredible. They were allowed to break the law and send my sons [to Ukraine], but they weren't allowed to tell a mother where her children are."

Image source, Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Pool
Image caption,
Vladimir Putin visited wounded Russian soldiers for the first time on Wednesday

"I'd like to believe that our president, the commander-in-chief, just isn't aware of the mess and chaos in the army. I want to tell him that not everything here is like they say it is on television."

Marina is relieved that her conscript sons are safe. Her thoughts now are with other families.

"So many sons haven't come back and never will. So many mothers are still searching for their children. It's terrible. We're supposed to have reached the peak of human development. How come we couldn't reach agreement? Why do we have to fight and kill?

"My children were different people when they came back. You can see it in their eyes. They're different. They're disillusioned. I want them to believe again in a bright future, in peace and love. They've stopped believing."

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