Mothers and Sons: As the Death Toll Mounts in Chechnya, Russian Parents Are Fighting to Rescue Their Boys from a Brutal War. the Story of One Determined Woman
Powell, Bill, Newsweek
Yekaterina Zhadova sensed trouble late last summer. Her son Nikolai, 19, hadn't written for more than a month. Drafted in June 1998, he had sent frequent letters from an Army base not far from his home in Arzamas, a city about 250 miles east of Moscow. He had grown up there in a large, bleak apartment complex called Microdistrict No. 11. His mother's anxiety grew in mid-September, as Russia's latest Chechen war was gathering force. On Sept. 24, when she finally got a letter from Nikolai, Zhadova's unease turned to panic. It was postmarked from a southwestern town that lies along the route to the northern Caucasus. Nikolai wrote that he was participating in "military exercises." "That's when I realized," his mother says, "that he was on his way to Chechnya."
Chechnya is Vladimir Putin's war. Even now, with Russian troops finally having seized Grozny, Russia's acting president vows to carry the fight to rebel strongholds in the mountainous south. And that means in the run-up to the March 26 presidential election, the zinc coffins that bear the remains of Russian soldiers killed in action will continue to come home--in numbers far greater than the Kremlin acknowledges. Earlier this month, before Grozny fell, Putin's public support had begun to slip ever so slightly, falling from a 54 percent approval rating to 49 percent. The reason is obvious. By last month, in just one small corner of Arzamas, three 19-year-old soldiers had already been buried. Towns across Russia are also now burying their sons, and wondering how much longer the carnage will continue.
The three young men lie next to each other in a graveyard just across a shallow ravine from the Zhadovs' apartment. Nikolai is not among them--yet. And for that he has his mother to thank. When Yekaterina Zhadova figured out 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. She had read how, at the end of the last Chechen war in 1996, its representatives had tried--often successfully--to spring Russian boys held as POWs. A committee representative told her to go to Mozdok, the main Russian staging base for the Chechen campaign; talk to the officers in charge; harass them every day if she had to; tell them she wanted her son back. Period. She borrowed some money from friends and took the long train ride to the base in southwest Russia.
In the early days of the war, a handful of mothers had cajoled--or bribed--military officials into releasing their sons from Mozdok. By the time Zhadova arrived in October, the military was cracking down. She was harassed by "political officers" at the base, she says. But she stayed on. "You can get rid of me," she said to one official, "but only after I see my son. I am not going to leave this place until I do." Every day for two weeks she appeared before a commander at Mozdok, pleading her case. Zhadova does not want to name him publicly, because in the end, he broke under her persistence. One day she showed up outside his office. He wasn't in. Where was he, she asked his assistant. Gone, he replied icily, "to get your son."
On the evening of Oct. 13, a bewildered Nikolai Zhadov arrived in Mozdok and was taken to his mother. The commander told them Nikolai would return to Chechnya with a convoy of trucks on the morning of the 15th. On the 14th, Yekaterina revealed her plan, telling her son, "I've come not just to see you, but to take you back home." Nikolai was incredulous. "How can you do that?" She took his civilian clothes out of her bag and told him to get dressed.
The long train ride back to Arzamas was tense. …