The Mother’s Right Foundation: Protecting Liberties in Russia

VM_Manezh_vystavkaThe Mother’s Right Foundation is a classic example of a charitable organization. As a rule, during perestroika (“restructuring”) and the period of the new Russia, human rights organizations were created as self-help groups. The Mother’s Right Foundation is a group of people wishing to help those who are not able to have their rights protected because of poverty or lack of education. A distinguishing feature of our foundation lies in the fact that our services are not only free but professional.

I studied journalism at Moscow State University and worked for Yunost magazine. In the 1980s Yunost published Hundred Days before the Order by Yuri Polyakov, a story about the death of a young conscript who was constantly bullied by senior Soviet servicemen. It was the first work that publicly, with circulation of three million copies, told about “dedovshchina” (the informal system of subjection of new junior conscripts to harassment, extortion, and sometimes torturing), customs that reigned in the Soviet army – issues that had always been hushed up.

It was like a bombshell! The Communist Party and military censors opposed the editor – yet the story was published and the issue was raised. At the time, I worked at the so-called “Twentieth Room,” youth section of Yunost and we were invited to the most popular live broadcasting TV show “Vzglyad.” The entire nation watched the program and Vzglyad staff invited our “Twentieth Room” team to discuss our work. This was how I got on TV.

As far as I remember, it happened in the summer of 1988. I said nothing about problems in the military. But soon I received a letter from the mother of a deceased student of a military college from Nikopol, Ukraine. It was a huge parcel full of documents and photos. The official version of Sasha Alurdos’ death was “suicide” but one could doubt it for many reasons.

As a journalist, I decided to write about it. Then came a mother from Moscow. Her son served in the Russian city of Chita; his fellow serviceman, a sergeant, hit him and injured his spleen. The boy spent five days in a train from Chita to Moscow though his mother had sent him money so that he could buy a flight ticket. He arrived home and died the next day. When the Moscow mother entered my office, the letter from the Ukrainian mother was lying on my table.

However censorship restricted freedom of the press and it was difficult to publish an article on sensitive issues in the Soviet Union

If an article managed to be published by the central “big” media, it helped to solve a problem. A newspaper or a magazine could act both as the prosecutor’s office and court. Of course, it should not have been the media’s activity but people were attracted by the idea of solving a problem with the help of the media.

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I prepared the article and the editor told me, “Settle the matters with military censors on your own.” For six months I constantly went to their office. It was like going to work. Sometimes, censors deleted numbers of military units and other geographical issues so that enemy agents could not learn their locations. Fortunately, the most important issues were left untouched. The magazine’s circulation was incredible – three million! From that day on, I started receiving sacks full of letters from parents of deceased soldiers.

I received several thousand letters. Before that day, people stayed home. They were not allowed to speak about how their children had died; they were grieving alone and felt depressed. Then they read about a case similar to theirs. Naturally, they wished to make calls and write letters. We started our meetings at our editorial office: we talked and looked through photos. Mothers were pleased because they were listened to, and nobody said that their cause was hopeless.

Then came the second publication and then the third. As a journalist I faced the question, “The issue is exhausted – what next?” I could go on writing about the same feelings and pains, about how bodies of state power treated people. The only thing that would be different would be names. But one thing was invariable: nobody in the country had ever dealt with the problems parents of dead soldiers faced, and nobody was going to. I remember a friend of mine saying, “Mark my words: ether you’ll leave those soldiers’ mothers and work as a journalist or it’ll be your job for the rest of your life.”

And right he was! Sure, I could not give up the issue. I saw the parents’ eyes and hope they entrusted in me. I could not deceive and disappoint them. On the contrary, I wanted to help them. I was eighteen then – the same age as their deceased sons.

In the summer of 1992, I heard that the Moscow Center for Human Rights was being founded. Thanks to Alexei Olegovich Smirnov, one of its founders, we received half a chair, a quarter of a table, and a third of a phone. My assistants and I worked as volunteers. At the end of 1994, we received our first financial support. Kirill Yermishin who had lived in Switzerland for many years, explained the meaning of grants and how to use them: we received a grant from his Liberty Road Foundation.

More than twenty-two years have now passed. The Mother’s Right Foundation has helped over 100,000 families of deceased servicemen. We win over 75% of our cases. We are assisted by over 345 volunteers. And we have big plans for future.

Veronika Marchenko is Board Chairperson of the Mother’s Right Foundation.