Valentina Melnikova: “Putin despises the mothers of Russian soldiers”

Valentina Melnikova Putin despises the mothers of Russian soldiers

In 33 years of fighting, Valentina Melnikova has not lost an ounce of willpower. From her “hatred against the inhumanity of the Russian regime”, she has made her driving force to carry the voice of the mothers of Russian soldiers within the famous “Committee of the mothers of soldiers”, one of the best known NGOs in the country, formed in 1989 to help these families find their missing and dead at the front. At 76, the “babushka” no longer dyes her hair red as in the past, but she returned to service after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Discreetly at first, much more openly in recent days.

This Friday, November 25, Vladimir Putin received handpicked mothers of soldiers at the Kremlin. “Without me!” Said Valentina Melnikova, who says she expects nothing from the Russian president. “Putin despises soldiers’ mothers,” she judged in an uncompromising interview with L’Express.

L’Express: Vladimir Putin met with a group of soldiers’ mothers this Friday, November 25. He claimed to “share” their pain and promised that he would do his “maximum to report and implement” their demands. What do you think ?

Valentina Melnikova : Who are these “mothers”? How were they chosen? I don’t know what they talked about or how, but frankly this masquerade does not interest me. I will always remember Putin’s reaction to the dramatic sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000, in which 108 sailors died. Do you know what he called their grieving wives, who were crying out for justice? Prostitutes! He had implied that these women, who had testified on Russian television, had been paid for it. I will never forget him and I will never forgive him! This is how Putin treats soldiers’ wives and mothers: with contempt and insult.

These mothers have come out of silence in recent weeks. Your NGO has been classified as a “foreign agent” in Russia since the end of 2021. Do you still manage to work?

Our Committee has existed for 33 years, people know us well, we still have around forty branches across the country. As of February 24, we received up to 50 requests per day. Then, the announcement of the mobilization, on September 21, caused a flood of calls and e-mails. In the past two months, we have received 35,000 requests. Unfortunately, it is the tenth war that we are going through and we still find the same problems.

First, the prisoners. The first requests from families about this fell in March 2022. This is a huge challenge, because it is increasingly difficult for us to investigate: in 2021, the state has secreted all data relating to the military . When the mothers of soldiers contact us about this, we help them to contact the official structures responsible for drawing up lists of prisoners and looking for them. These include the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Russian Defense Ministry.

However, our experience shows that the State does everything to ignore the very existence of prisoners of war and hide information that could concern them. It is a Stalinist approach. Under the Soviet regime, capture was considered an act of treason [Staline a sacrifié son propre fils, soldat de l’Armée rouge capturé par la Wehrmacht en juillet 1941, en refusant son échange contre un prisonnier allemand, NDLR]. In fact, it is from the Ukrainian side that we have so far obtained the most information. Their authorities have created a Telegram channel where photos of prisoners of war are published, with the possibility sometimes of reaching them by telephone. A few detainees have been able to return thanks to prisoner exchanges with Ukraine.

For all those who have been able to return to Russia, we urge the families that these ex-prisoners of war imperatively consult psychologists in order to limit the consequences of post-traumatic stress. We work with volunteer practitioners who notably carry out online consultations.

Another subject concerns in the foreground the wives and mothers of soldiers: these soldiers who died at the front or are missing, and whose bodies do not return…

This is a particularly complicated question during this war, because the weapons used in this conflict do not allow, most of the time, to recover the bodies on the battlefield. On the Ukrainian side, they sometimes recover the bodies, bury them, and put up signs with the names of the soldiers, when possible. But in this war, there are a lot of missing, unheard of since the Second World War.

Of course, we receive many requests from women who are looking for their sons or their husbands. Each time, we ask them to gather as much information as possible about their loved one: do they know approximately when he died or disappeared? In which county ? In which circumstances ? All this data is sent to the ICRC, to the military prosecutor and to the Ministry of Defence. But the majority of families are unable to obtain information. They are told generalities such as: “we are doing everything we can to find the missing people”, but nothing concrete.

As for the volunteers and paramilitaries who work for private military companies, it is very difficult to find them in the lists of dead or missing, their status not being at all clear.

Of all the messages you receive, which stories resonate with you the most?

After 33 years in this field, unfortunately nothing surprises us anymore! Only one question haunts us: can we really do something for all these women? Of course, there are even more revolting cases. For example, families where a man is mobilized and leaves behind totally dependent disabled people. This makes us angry! Sometimes we have small victories over this system, for example when a woman writes to us: “I was able to get my son back, he is going to the hospital…”

Other associations campaign for the rights of soldiers, such as the “Council of mothers and wives”, represented by Olga Tsukanova. Are you connected with this organization?

Listen, it’s very good that other groups draw the attention of society and journalists to the plight of soldiers. Obviously they understood that it was useless to write official letters and that it was absolutely necessary to publicize all this by making video spots, etc. They have the merit of warming the interest of journalists on the conditions in which the mobilized soldiers find themselves.

But to answer your question, no, I’m not related to this woman, for one simple reason: Olga Tsukanova publicly acknowledged that her “Council of Mothers and Wives” came from an organization called “Renaissance of Russia”, a chauvinistic, anti-Semitic and imperialist association. A few years ago, I had met an activist from this organization. I can tell you that the conversation we had vaccinated me, and I understood that day that I will never support them!

There is a major difference between this Council and our committee: their association is not fundamentally against this war, its only concern is that these soldiers are well trained and fed. This in no way corresponds to the position that we, the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, express.

The war is entering its tenth month. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers died there, more and more families are affected. Do you think this can, in the long term, destabilize power?

The majority of the families of the dead do not protest. We have been observing the population of our country for many years. If a mother buried her son, received a sum of money, she will do nothing most of the time. The family will be proud of their son who died at the front “as a hero”. It must be said that the State is doing everything to make it so. On all the streets, photos of these “heroes” of Russia are displayed. Who are these people ? What are these portraits? Mystery.

You are 76 years old, you have spent almost half your life campaigning for the Committee. Why this commitment?

In December 1979, when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, I swore to myself that I would not hand over my sons to the army for anything, even if they were small at the time. When they grew up, I started looking for like-minded people. And I ended up joining, in 1989, a community of women from all over the USSR who were campaigning for the rights of students called up for military service.

Thirty-three years later, I continue to fight against the inhumanity of the Russian regime, the horror of what it is doing to these soldiers. This hatred against this state barbarism is my only driving force. I made it something constructive.

There is a lot of speculation in the West about scenarios for the “end” of Putin’s regime. What is your feeling ?

I have no idea how things can turn out. I know the history of our country well and nothing is ever simple. Today, I have two fears: that the Putin regime will launch a nuclear war and that it will stop paying us the pension, due to the collapse of our economy.