“Mama I didn’t want to come.” A captured conscript was shown on Ukrainian media, getting his message out by the only mean available. Russian authorities had imposed a total blackout of news from the front – pretending there were no casualties or POWs. Ukrainian estimates hover around 5300 so far, although the Russians simply declare their losses were “many times” less than those of the Ukrainians. As the fighting continues, there are many more Russian dead. Many of these are youngsters from rural villages and were tricked into fighting; some didn’t even know they were in Ukraine. Troops are disoriented, hungry, and don’t understand why they’re invading.
The current conflict is a tragedy for both combatants. Let’s focus on the Russian side for a moment. Starting at age 18, Russian young men are obliged to 12 months military service. Many are draft-dodging; hiding out for fear of being press-ganged, or even seeking asylum in the U.S. Conscripts live under squalid conditions, made even more degrading by the informal hazing process called Dedovshchina, frequently involving rape, beatings, and extorting money. The Russian conscript’s status as throwaway doesn’t even terminate with his death.
The Afghan war left some 13,000 bereaved families – although official Russian figures were “significantly undercounted”. In a process officially designated Cargo 200, the “lucky” dead were known as “Zinkies”, because they were repatriated in sealed zinc caskets. As the Cargo 200 death train chugged along, it often came to an end in a dirty warehouse, with grieving parents traveling to retrieve their son and bury him at own expense. This was not the America that receives fallen soldiers with full military honors. They meant nothing more to the USSR than cannon fodder. A few relatives had the nerve to pry the coffin open, only to find rocks and sand. In 2014, Russian troops in unmarked olive-drab uniforms masqueraded as “Little Green Men”, seizing all of Crimea. If captured, soldiers were ordered to say they had come as random volunteers during their “vacations”. Bodies were returned, but were met with a cover-up of the funerals by Russia’s state-controlled media. The remains were disbursed throughout cemeteries to disguise the numbers. Gravestones were unmarked, and mourners were told not to ask questions.
There is some doubt whether Cargo 200 will resume operations in Ukraine. Reports indicate Russia has deployed mobile crematoria to incinerate dead soldiers in-situ to hide the true scale of Ukraine war. “We’ve had a flurry of calls from scared mothers all over Russia. They are crying, they don’t know if their children are alive or healthy,” according to the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. The Committee is a well-respected NGO within Russia. Since the 1980’s, it has “played a crucial role in opening up the military to public scrutiny and in influencing public perceptions of military service.”.” Many demoralized Russian conscripts in Ukraine have pleaded with their mothers to bring them home.
I wish I had met my wife’s uncle Gisbert. But he lies somewhere in a mass grave. Barely 17, he was drafted into the last-ditch Wehrmacht and was killed almost immediately on the Eastern Front. When a soldier dies, its the women left behind who suffer the most. Cremation is forbidden in the Orthodox canon, and those vehicle-mounted crematoria will not replace the all-important rite of consecrated funerals. It is a sin to deny a holy burial for a body violently torn from its soul, let alone allow the grieving family closure under the Church. If internal discontent is simmering in Russia, it is mothers having lost their sons to another pointless war that will raise the temperature.
Walk into any Russian Orthodox church and you’ll see the majority are mothers and grandmothers. Despite the repression of religion during Soviet times, it was these matroskas and babushkas that “refused to allow the flame of faith to go out in Russia”. Being a babushka in Russia equates to something just short of gaining sainthood. Solzhenitsyn, the keen observer of the minutia in everyday Russian life, evokes the moral superiority of that guardian of the Russian soul, the peasant mother. He writes of his saintly peasant Matryona, as a sacred icon: “the righteous one, without whom, as the proverb says, no village can stand. Nor any city. Nor our whole land.” Joanna Hubbs adds that Solzhenitsyn “evoked the moral superiority of that guardian of the Russian soul, the peasant mother.”[i] Mothers and grandmothers are the foundation of Orthodox spiritual life, and the preparation for death is at its center. Putin is desecrating the sanctity and memory of these dead. Putin should never underestimate the moral power of a Russian mother.
We are entering the spiritual season when we set our faces towards the Cross, and the Son of Man who suffered many things, even unto death. This Lent, we should pray the spirit of Cargo 200 be rebuked, and take up our cross with those who are suffering, both in Ukraine AND Russia. Especially the women who can’t properly bury the “throw-aways” and are left behind to grieve. Pray for the mothers of sons they’ll never see again. !
[i] Joanna Hubbs, Mother Russia, (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press), 1993, p. 237