By Bill Powell
Yekaterina Zhadova sensed trouble late last summer when she didn't receive a letter from her 19-year-old son for more than a month. Nikolai had been conscripted into the Russian Army in June 1998 and had corresponded frequently from a base not far from his home in Arzamas, a city of more than 100,000 about 400 kilometers east of Moscow. He had lived there with his parents in a large, bleak complex of apartment buildings called "Microdistrict Number 11.'' The fact that he had stopped writing "scared us,'' says his mother. By mid-September, Russia's latest Chechen war was gathering force. Troops were in neighboring Dagestan, and soon were rolling into Chechnya itself. That is what Yekaterina Zhadova was afraid of. On Sept. 24, when she finally got a letter from Nikolai, concern turned to panic. The postmark was Voronezh, a southwestern town that lies along the route to the northern Caucuses. Nikolai wrote that he was participating in "military exercises.'' His mother didn't believe it. "That's when I realized," she says, "he was on his way to Chechnya.''
When Zhadova's neighbor in Microdistrict Number 11, Antonina Tsurkan, received a telegram on Jan. 4, she didn't think much of it. So little, in fact, that she, a widow with five children, didn't read it right away. Her youngest son, Andrei, 19, had been in the Army since November 1998, posted with an elite Spetsnaz unit outside Moscow. Antonina figured the telegram was from Andrei saying he was coming home for a vacation. In one of his more recent letters he said his unit had helped "pick and store vegetables" in the countryside--routine duty for Russian troops. Another letter, dated Nov. 19, arrived in early December. It said his duty "was going well--even great, if I may say it--so don't worry." Her son said she should continue writing letters to him addressed to his base outside Moscow, and they will be delivered "to where I am now." Then, writing that he had "no time" to produce a longer letter, Andrei said to his mother and the two of his four siblings still living at home: "I love you all. Goodbye. See you soon. Your son, Andrei." And then, just below: "Don't worry about me, Mother. Bye." They were the last words he would ever write to her. When Antonina finally opened the telegram on Jan. 4, she learned that Andrei had been killed in Chechnya on Dec. 29.
Chechnya is Vladimir Putin's war. And now, with Russian troops bogged down in a fierce fight over control of Grozny, it is coming home. Last week, for the first time, Russian media openly questioned the military's official casualty count. Acting President Putin's public support has, according to one reputable polling agency, begun to erode, falling from a 54 percent approval rating to 49 percent--the first ever dip for the man who hopes to be elected president in his own right on March 26. In Arzamas--home to three young men killed so far in the Chechen war--and others towns like it across Russia, parents with soldier sons are petrified that soon they will receive the kind of telegram Antonina Tsurkan did last month. Some, in desperate response, try to find ways to get their sons back. Most fail.
Most, but not all. When Yekaterina Zhadova figured out in September that Nikolai was in Chechnya, her first stop was the nearest branch of the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee, one of the few effective antiwar groups in Russia. During the last war the Mothers' Committee had effectively pressured the military to account for soldiers either missing in action or kidnapped in Chechnya. At the office in Nizhny Novgorod, about 110 kilometers north of Arzamas, the chairwoman told Zhadova to go to the committee's Moscow headquarters for advice. She borrowed some money from friends and did--even though her husband thought it was a fool's errand. In Moscow, another committee representative told her: go to Mozdok, the main Russian staging base for the Chechen campaign; talk to the officers in charge; do what you can. …