Ella Polyakova: It seemed the abolition of conscription was just around the corner! But, unfortunately, we were wrong

10 February 2020

An interview with Ella Polyakova, founder of Soldiers’ Mothers of St Petersburg and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize by Andzhei Belovranin

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Альтернативная служба без границ]

How the protection of human rights in the army was born in Russia, what we were able to achieve in the process, and where we have arrived thirty years later is covered in an interview with Ella Mikhailovna Polyakov, the legendary founder of Soldiers’ Mothers of St Petersburg and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize.

How did you come to start dealing with the problems of protecting human rights in the army?

At the end of the 1980s, society already sensed that there was something wrong with the army. It was the Afghan war, there were deaths, there were human rights violations. But no-one really knew or understood anything, it was still just some kind of underlying ferment.

The real shift – at least, in my opinion – came after the case of Arturas Sakalauskas. I remember that we were all astounded by this situation.

He was a Lithuanian who served in the Escort Troops, now called the Russian Guard. He was humiliated to an extreme degree and shot eight people with a machine gun – colleagues and a woman.

It was the start of 1987. I was living in Leningrad, in Kupchino and I remember officers were standing beneath the windows of my house – they were hunting him. Military patrols were all over the city.

It was a very vivid story that made me understand the horror of it all. How one person was a victim of monstrous violence and sees no way out. He picks up a gun and kills those he sees as his enemy and, perhaps, random people nearby. And this destroys his own life because there can be no normal life for him after this.

There was an understanding of the horror that people in the army face every day: it’s clear that Sakalauskas was not alone. He was simply one of the few who decided to stand up for himself. Or that we heard about because he escaped and a massive search for him was launched.

But at that moment it was impossible to directly engage in human rights protection for soldiers – society was facing other problems. It was impossible to do anything without reforming the society and the political system. So the next active phase was a period of creating the People’s Front.

In Kupchino, we organised our own branch of the Leningrad People’s Front, the first branch registered in our city.

Straight away, the opinion formed that we had been “permitted” to register so that it would be easier to strictly control us. And that opinion had every right to exist – people visited me in particular, showed me their credentials, threatening unspecified punishment. But at that time, things didn’t go beyond threats. Registration took place, we dealt with many problems: we looked into people’s treatment, organised committees for public oversight and, of course, attached massive importance to the elections.

When the KGB switched from just threats to attempts at disrupting our work, we transferred our headquarters to my apartment. A coordinating council worked there. That was 1989, and my home phone number was pasted up around the whole city. Many future deputies passed through my apartment.

We staged a lot of actions: held processions, rallies. They were all non-violent. Lithuanians and Poles helped us.

Then there was participation in the elections. We got our candidates elected. I remember that Vladimir Gel’man – now a professor at the European University – kept the whole election process of the city in his head. We fought to make sure the Communists and the KGB didn’t win. Fortunately, the security services were afraid to show themselves too much.

On the deciding night we set up a headquarters, a place to go for information. I was on duty, relaying information while Volodya directed: analysing and making decisions faster and better than any computer could.

Symbolically, it was the city government had its headquarters on Moskovsky prospect, where the military enlistment office is now located.

In the upshot, our candidates were elected. I became an aide to Yuly Rybakov.

Kostya Etingof was also aide to a deputy. He studied at the military political Academy in Gorelovo, and was liable for military service. A campaign had just begun against Article 6 of the Constitution of the USSR, which claimed that “the leading and guiding force of Soviet society is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union”.

We were opposed to members of the Communist Party having some advantage in public and political life. Etingof, given his military background, had no right to speak out against this Article, i.e., against the Communist Party. Or so he was made to believe. He came to us, and I helped him to speak on Radio Liberty to openly express his opinions. So we consistently undermined the foundations of the totalitarian regime. Step by step, we studied democracy, human rights and how to live on their own terms.

The next milestone was the first human rights conference in the Soviet Union. It was meant to be held in Lithuania, but Gorbachev banned it. It ended up going ahead in St. Petersburg, in the recreation centre of the Leningrad city council.

It is a great tale. The legendary Democratic Union was there and human rights activists from around the world came, including from England and the United States.

I was in the organising Committee of the Congress. I could see that we were being interfered with. That’s how we first learned about their methods of interrupting events.

Like what?

For example, mentally ill people who allegedly wanted to participate were sent to speak. Well, maybe they were not genuinely unwell but were just good at pretending to be. We had our electricity cut. Basically, all the same stupid techniques that are used to this day. Anything which will get in the way of work.

So, at that congress, during one of the sessions, I was approached by Liubov Lymar. Her son was killed in the army, a really horrible story, he was stabbed in hospital. Liuba was not informed. The vast majority of human rights activists did not understand the problems relating to the army. And now, unfortunately, not everyone understands.

So, I helped Liuba to speak out. I was shocked when she told me about the horrors which she had to face.

After that we kept in touch. She invited me to a meeting run by the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. It was the year 1990.

I saw the disorganisation, all these mothers and fathers holding posters. Up until that moment I did not understand how the authorities had manipulated their grief. At the meeting, I saw it all.

We entered the organising Committee, I met several times with Liuba and naively explained to her how to better organise themselves. I did not immediately understand her when she said she was “people-driven”.

She was from Chelyabinsk. She’d lived in terrible poverty. And then, in her room at the hotel Moscow, she was given ministerial rations — which at the time was an unheard-of luxury.

I slowly realised ways of manipulating people trickier than just turning out the lights. It is done in a way that prevents the channelling of popular indignation. This indignation would dissipate – no solutions would be found.

An officer was always standing behind Liuba. She was like a showcase: it drew people in, but nothing concrete was proposed.


How successfully?

Sadly, not without some success. One of the worst scenes I have witnessed during my life unfolded before my very eyes. The parents started to fight with each other. Their energy exploded – and was directed not against those who were guilty of causing their grief, but against those who, like themselves, were its victims.

Incidentally not a single deputy came out from the White House.

Then the demonstrators went on to Red Square, to the Kremlin. And there they suffered further humiliation; in front of the Historical Museum a naval band suddenly appeared, playing cheerful music. Just like at a parade, celebrating Russian military prowess. And this to accompany parents whose children had been killed, and the truth about how they had died had been covered up. Accompanied by this orchestra they went to Red Square.

There the demonstrators split – a small group went to meet with the President, and the rest stayed at the Spassky Gates. Everyone stood about, not sure what to do.

Then I went up to Moskovtsev – he was the officer attached to Liuba, and he was not allowed to meet with the President. I said – give me a megaphone. He brought me one. He, too, probably had no idea who I was, and whether I could give him orders. I then organized a meeting at the Spassky Tower.

The parents spoke in turn – and told horrific stories of what they knew of their sons’ deaths. And each was inconsolable – they had no one to turn to. Everything was hidden, it was impossible to learn anything, or to appeal to anyone.

It was then that I finally recognized – that was what the authorities wanted: go on demonstrations, appeal to us, bring petitions – let off steam. Let people tell of their pain, and it disappears into a vacuum, it’s lost.

If it’s heard, it’s quickly forgotten, confused with other stories, all mixed up. And it doesn’t get anywhere. And no one will do anything to change the situation.

And that meant we should act in a different way. Not meet so as to get rid of the tension or emotion we feel but to work together – sensibly, purposefully, and consistently.

Realizing this, and once back in St Petersburg, I discussed it with my colleagues. And we decided to set up an ‘initiative group’ – a quite new organization. Not a Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which was wholly under the control of the military, and which could nothing but ask: don’t devour our children.

Then, in January 1991, there was Vilnius. There I saw with my own eyes how our army behaved, how it set upon its own people. We tried to establish what had happened there, with the Pskov parachute division, whose soldiers participated in the murder of civilians. Finally, the human rights organization, ‘The Soldiers’ Mothers of St Petersburg’ emerged out of the ‘initiative group’ in the autumn of 1991, after the attempted putsch. […]

Translated by Nathalie Corbett, James Lofthouse and Mary McAuley 

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