Conscripts and Grandmothers

by V. M. Karren

Val with Conscripts.jpg

No war has ever been, is, nor ever will be glorious. Those who portray war as glorious have not lived through a war that took their own home, destroyed their factory or farm or took their only son or grandson.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, campaigns for independence and sovereignty of different ethnic groups within the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Azerbaijan have created both hot and cold conflicts that have grabbed the international headlines. For those in the west, Russia’s annexation of The Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the wars in Chechnya in 1995 and 2000 have been widely reported in the press.

The first of two Chechen wars in the post-Soviet period began in December 1994 when the Russian government tried quietly to put down a rebellion and coup which had been orchestrated by  local separatists, lead by a former Soviet Air Force general named Dhozkar Dudayev. Moscow did not want to call the attention of the world to the growing spectre of civil war in Russia, and hoped for a quick ‘mopping up’ operation by sending in troops to restore order after a short military blockade of the provincial borders. Unfortunately, Russian intelligence organisations grossly underestimated the resolve, organisation and readiness of the Chechen militias and suffered an embarrassing defeat with the complete destruction of a brigade and the death or capture of all of its soldiers sent in to establish government control of the provincial capital of Grozny.

After the humiliation of the Russian army in Grozny, on January 5th, 1995, the Kremlin sent the big guns into Chechnya: numerous armoured columns, war planes and helicopter gun ships to systematically and mercilessly destroy the capital city. I listened to Boris Yeltsin announce this to the world from an airport television as I prepared to board a flight from Seattle to Moscow for what was to be an indefinite stay in Russia, in another provincial capital: Nizhny Novgorod.

By April the seriousness and cruelty of the Russian civil war in Chechnya was beginning to be felt by the mothers and grandmothers of the country, and they were beginning to demand that their children be sent home. When too many of the soldiers began returning home in pine boxes, busloads of mothers and grandmothers began travelling to the regions surrounding the conflict zone as rumours were heard that the Chechens were allowing only mothers across the front lines to take their captured young army conscripts home with them. The Russian authorities tried with all their might, except for turning their guns on these determined women, to stop them from crossing the front lines to find their sons and grandsons.

In any war there is immense personal suffering on both sides. Nobody is ever ‘winning’ a war, no matter what the generals or propaganda machines tell those back at home. There are only conquerors and defenders…no winners. It was a mild spring evening in Nizhny Novgorod when I came to understand how the mothers and grandmothers of Russia were suffering from the conflict that their young sons were fighting thousands of miles away.

I was on my way home from university lectures in the old city centre and had just taken a seat on a half-empty bus that was heading home across the river. One of the last stops that the bus makes is at the top of the steep bluff that overlooks the junction of the Oka and Volga rivers, before descending a windy, bumpy road to the main bridge leading to the opposite side. If you don’t have a seat before this descent, you’d best have a pole or handrail to hold onto before the bus begins careening down the switchbacks. The experience could be compared to trying to remain standing on a roller coaster. It is advisable for old women, young children and drunk men NOT to stand during this segment of the route.

Near this stop at the top of the hill was a makeshift bazar of fresh foods, bread and whatever other odds and ends a household might need. The bus, only half-full, filled up quickly at this last stop with shoppers lugging bags of vegetables and bread. Those who could find a seat quickly did so. As the bus pulled away from the curb with a jolt, a middle-aged woman began demanding something from me that I didn’t understand. From her body language I took her to be a transit controller who was asking to see my bus ticket. The transit systems in Russia are systematically abused because one can board the bus without buying a ticket first, nor paying the fare on exiting. These plain clothes agents are authorised to spot check passengers for tickets or monthly passes and to give fines to those without one. Many times during very crowded bus rides one is requested to pass money forward to the driver’s cabin, while the bus is moving, in order that a ticket can be purchased and passed back. From where the money comes, and to whom the tickets belong, can sometimes remain a mystery. Taking this demanding woman for a controller, I flashed my monthly bus pass with my student identification at her with a slightly defiant attitude. She apologised in a very humble voice and turned to grab a hand-rail as the bus was beginning to sway around the first switchback down the hillside.

I became puzzled when the same woman did not ask anybody else to show her their bus passes. Her quiet apology was also very odd as the controllers usually just move on to the next passenger, who is hurrying to get out his money, to look as if he is passing it forward to buy a ticket by proxy. It became evident to me that I had misunderstood what she was demanding of me. Wanting to know what had just happened, and what I had represented myself to be, I leaned over and tapped the shoulder of the white haired Babushka sitting next to me. I explained to her that I was a foreigner and that I hadn’t understood why this woman was first so angry at me and then so quickly apologetic and silent.

This sweet white haired grandmother explained to me that this woman wanted my seat, because she didn’t want to stand with her groceries while the bus was speeding down the hillside. She went on to explain that my bus-pass and student ID had been mistaken to be an invalid’s permit to sit in the seats reserved for old folks, pregnant women, women with small children and of course, invalids. Seeing that I was neither old, female, nor carrying a small child I asked why she would have mistaken me for an invalid?

“Oh young man,” she sighed with distress,“the boys from here are starting to come home now from the war in Chechnya and many of them have been badly wounded and have been given an Army pension and invalids’ papers. This woman thinks you are an wounded soldier . . .”      

This grandmother went on to tell me that her youngest grandson, who was my same age had just been called been called up to fight in Chechnya with his brigade and feared that she had seen him alive for the last time. He was twenty-one years old.

She held my hand the rest of the ride home telling me war stories from 1945 and warned me to leave Russia before it was too late. She told me that she had lost her father in the Second World War and she understood that sacrifice, but couldn’t come to grips with sacrificing her grandson to this conflict, not for these leaders, fighting other Russians for no real reason than to save their own pride.

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