On November 9, Human Rights Watch will honor Natalia Zhukova, the head of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee of Nizhnii Novgorod and a leading activist in a decade-long battle against rampant and brutal hazing in Russia’s armed forces.
Human Rights Watch said that honoring Ms. Zhukova sends a signal that individuals can make a difference in fighting for basic human rights. In the Russian military, every year hundreds of thousands of new recruits face grossly abusive treatment at the hands of more senior conscripts. As a result, dozens die annually, and thousands sustain serious — and often permanent — damage to their physical and mental health. Hundreds commit or attempt suicide and thousands run away from their units. While the government stands by as hazing takes its toll, a powerful network of soldiers’ mothers’ groups has emerged throughout Russia that works tirelessly to end the abuses.
“Natalia Zhukova and her colleagues have heroically taken on the powerful Russian armed forces over their abysmal human rights record,” said Diederik Lohman, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “And they manage to save countless young Russian men from violence and possible death everyday.”
Human Rights Watch said that soldiers’ mothers’ groups also make an important contribution to changing the Russian public’s suspicion and even hostility toward human rights. The Kremlin’s persistent anti-rights rhetoric has led many Russians to believe that human rights are a Western political tool for bashing Russia, create chaos and do not benefit ordinary Russians.
In recent years, Human Rights Watch has documented massive abuses in Russia’s campaign in Chechnya.
The work of the soldiers’ mothers proves to many thousands of Russians that human rights organizations work to protect them and their families every day. While violent hazing in the military may be on the margins of the human rights agenda in most Western societies, the Russian public widely views it as their country’s top human rights problem. A 2004 Center for Strategic and International Studies opinion poll said that 94 percent believe that officers who tolerate hazing practices should be prosecuted. Seventy-five percent of the Russian population knows of the soldiers’ mothers’ groups, and 66 percent approve of their work.
“Top Russian military officials are afraid of the Russian mothers. Ms. Zhukova regularly calls military commanders to tell them off,” said Lohman. “The soldiers’ mothers’ campaign has helped show ordinary Russians that human rights activism can help improve their lives and has built a constituency for human rights in Russia.”
Human Rights Watch is honoring Ms. Zhukova at a time when Russian civil society, and its human rights movement in particular, is increasingly under attack from the Kremlin.
In its drive to consolidate power, the Kremlin has obliterated independent television, marginalized the political opposition, and sought to re-establish executive control. In May, President Putin gave the opening shot in an assault on civil society with a vicious critique of human rights groups; since then government officials have lashed out at human rights groups, including soldiers’ mothers’ committees, and harassment of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has rapidly increased.
“The Kremlin’s turn towards authoritarianism is now endangering the last remaining large, growing and independent sector of public life in Russia: the nongovernmental organizations,” said Lohman. “We must act now to prevent the Kremlin from destroying a flourishing and effective movement.”
Background on Natalia Zhukova
Natalia Zhukova was born in 1947. She is a graduate of Nizhnii Novgorod Technical University and worked for more than 20 years as an engineer at a ship construction company. In 1995, Zhukova’s son, then a conscript in the Russian army, was sent to Chechnya, and was captured by rebel fighters there. Frustrated with the government’s indifference to her son’s fate, Zhukova traveled to Chechnya herself, tracked him down, and rescued him from captivity. Following this experience, Zhukova decided to dedicate her life to defending the rights of conscripts. She joined the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee of Nizhnii Novgorod, helping hundreds of victims of violent hazing and continuing to travel to Chechnya to look for captured conscripts. In 1998, Zhukova became the chairperson of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee of Nizhnii Novgorod. Zhukova is, among others, the author of a book on soldiers from Nizhnii Novgorod region killed in the 1994-1996 Chechnya war.