Reforming habitus, reordering meaningful worlds
Soldiers' Mothers and social change in postsocialist Russia

Maja Hojer

University of Copenhagen, Institute of Anthropology
Thesis submitted for the Cand.Scient.Anth. degree (specialerękke nr. 339; vejledt af Finn Sivert Nielsen)0

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Reordering meaningful worlds
Reforming habitus
Studying social change
Structure of the thesis

Chapter 1: The Field and its Actors
Military service and the Russian Army
The Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg
    - The organisation's methods
    - Daily activities
    - Draftees, runaway soldiers, and their mothers
    - Where are the men?


Chapter 2: Fieldwork and Methods
The course of the fieldwork and my position in the field
Methods and material
Ethical considerations

Chapter 3: Populating an intermediate social space–civil society revisited
Civil society – a contested social space
Public and private life in the Soviet Union and thereafter

Chapter 4: Arriving at The Soldiers' Mothers
"Soviet mentality"
Post-Soviet responses

Chapter 5: The Path to Freedom
Expressions of personal transformation
    - The School of Human Rights
    - Practical guidance and existential transformation

Own and common stories
    - Birth traumas
    - Fear
    - Militarization
    - Private into public stories


Chapter 6: Transforming the Self in Social Interaction
Technologies of the self
    - Individualized, governable subjects?
Technologies of the self in social interaction: The seminars
Working with Soviet selves: Knowledge, truth and incorporation
    - Gaining knowledge about the self
    - Producing "truths"
    - Incorporating practices

Conclusion: Responsible selves

Chapter 7: The Family, Gender and Kinship
Whose sons?
    - The power of kinship metaphors
The Father State and the Soviet Family
    - Soldiers and worker-mothers
    - A crumbling reciprocity

The importance of family networks
    - Bringing the family (back) in
Who is 'family'?
    - Gender and kinship: Women as the bearers of the family's responsibilities
    - "Motherist" organisations
    - A community of mothers

Conclusion: Father State vs. Soldiers' Mothers

A summary of the main arguments
When is "before"? Some thoughts about the study of change



Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been establishing the fundamental institutions of a democratic law-governed state and market economy. With the adoption of the Constitution of the Russian Federation in December 19931 and, by stages, the corresponding laws and institutions, Russians acquired new legal opportunities to defend their civic rights. It does not, however, automatically follow that local decision-makers, bureaucrats, and judges put the laws into practice, that people know how to make use of their rights or trust the supposedly democratic system. With the goal of making laws work in practice, a range of non-governmental human rights, environmentalist and consumer rights organisations have arisen since Gorbachev's Perestroika (1986-1991), mainly in the bigger cities.

In Russian, these organisations are called pravozashchitnye organizatsii (literally "rights-defending organisations"). They form the core of a special Russian variant of 'civil society' (grazhdanskoe obshchestvo or tretii sektor). Unlike those non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that were established with aid from Western governments, international agencies and private foundations after the fall of communism, these organisations, their ideology and methods grew out of the Russian historical experiences of arbitrary state power and terror (Daniel 2003). They emerged out of the small circles of dissidents and intellectuals during the 1960s and 1970s that turned into political protest movements in the 1980s as the Soviet state gradually weakened and loosened its grip on the population. Among the most prominent are The Soldiers' Mothers who use rights-defending methods to protect conscripts and soldiers in the Soviet-Russian army.2 This thesis is based on six months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted with The Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg in 2003.

I attempt to show that local organisations based on home-grown ideas and traditional networks offer a potential for social change, and that 'civil society' does not need to be about implanting alien institutions, values, ways of acting and thinking onto existing communities (Sampson 2002a). By this I hope to contribute grounded knowledge to plans and projects promoting human rights and 'civil society' in Russia and a useful perspective for anthropological studies of social change in the post-Soviet countries.

The Russian Soldiers' Mothers' movement counts more than 300 organisations spread all over the country with the two biggest in Moscow and St. Petersburg.3 The Soldiers' Mothers have become world-famous because of the brave mothers who retrieve their sons from the war zone in Chechnya and for raising one of the few Russian voices against this war. It is less well known that the main activity of The Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg is to teach draftees, conscripts, deserters, and their family members how to practically defend their constitutional rights. Their weekly lectures attract hundreds of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and other relatives who help the young men in their families. Approximately two thirds of these youths have not yet been conscripted, but since the Russian army is known for bad conditions, diseases and violence even outside war zones, families use the organisation's law-based methods to avoid military service from the start.4

With the goal of exploring these women's practical strategies and how they carve out "some space of manoeuvre between the personal and the public" (Hann 1996:20), I set out to do fieldwork in St. Petersburg from March to September 2003, with a pre-visit in January.

I was interested in the interaction between people and state structures and the opportunities people have to exert influence on bureaucratic decisions. The methodological problems in studying state structures have been pointed out by various scholars. Since it is impossible to directly observe the state, it has been suggested that one should study it as the relationship between the "state-system", i.e. the agencies of the government, administration, military and police that make up the state in an empirical sense, and the "state-idea" that legitimates its power (Abrams 1988 [1977]) or that one should study how the state appears in everyday and localized contexts (Hansen and Stepputat 2001:5). Military service in Russia is mandatory for all healthy young men between 18 and 27 years and nearly all families in one way or another encounter the state and must deal with the question of conscription, so recruitment to the army seemed to be a concrete and observable interface between citizens and the state.

In this sense I might as well have dealt with the changing strategies of people who get thrown out of their apartments, pensioners who don't receive their pay cheque or the interaction between patients and doctors in public polyclinics5 (Höjdestrand 2003, Rivkin-Fish 2001). But I soon discovered that military service meant more to people than a detached interaction with the state, to which they relate as rational actors. Once I witnessed a conversation between a deserted soldier and his mother and the military officer who was responsible for the young man's case and wanted him to return to his unit. The officer tried to intimidate him by yelling: "Aren't you ashamed to let your country down and run away like a baby? Aren't you ashamed in front of your mother?" This shows that being a soldier is perceived as a moral obligation towards one's country and one's family, which is wrapped up in a complex of loyalties, symbols, and identities. By refusing to serve in the army or letting one's son become a soldier, the young men break with what was traditionally seen as a natural and necessary step in becoming a real man and full citizen, and their mothers with the duty to give their sons away. In other words, the social and political order is unsettled. I have sought to add these layers to my study by employing Verdery's (1999) notion of "reordering of meaningful worlds".

The Soldiers' Mothers Organization - St. Petersburg

Reordering meaningful worlds

In The Political Lives of Dead Bodies (1999), Katherine Verdery suggests that anthropologists should view politics as "a realm of continual struggles over meanings" (ibid.:24). Verdery maintains that politics happens in context and that we should think about politics "both as strategies and maneuvering and also as activity occurring within cultural systems" (ibid.:25). By seeing politics as complex and contradictory symbolic processes anthropologists can animate, or "enchant" (ibid.:26), the narrow standard conception of 'the political'. Verdery has coined her perspective on politics an attention to the "reordering of people's meaningful worlds" which includes social relations, political ideas and behaviour, worldviews, economic action, feelings, identities, ideas of morality, and the nonrational (ibid.:36). She suggests that this perspective describes the scope of changes in the postsocialist countries far better than talk about the "creation of 'civil society'", "construction of democracy" or "privatisation".

I will argue that The Soldiers' Mothers are involved in this redefinition of social relations, meanings and moralities. As we shall see, they do much more than create 'civil society' or teach people about new legal and democratic mechanisms. They bring about change in the Russian political landscape by helping young men to avoid military service in the army. Moreover, with their three hour lectures involving themes like fear of bureaucrats, human dignity and the family's role in society vs. the state's, they are engaged in an even more extensive redefinition some of the fundamental ways in which society is imagined in Russia. My fieldwork with the organisation thus became a window on the reordering of people's meaningful worlds.

Verdery's conception of "the reordering of meaningful worlds" concerns the shared world, the Durkheimian "conscience collective" (ibid.:35-36). The Soldiers' Mothers work, however, begins at the level of individuals and their embodied practices. I have tried to capture the connections between these two levels with the notion of habitus (Bourdieu 1977).

Reforming habitus

I agree with Verdery that "meaning" and "meaningful worlds" should not be understood as mere ideas in the cognitive realm, but as beliefs and ideas materialized in people's actions and in the surrounding society (Verdery 1999:34). Yet, I will add, with Bourdieu's (1977) notion of habitus, that people feel, think and act out of dispositions that are embodied, that is materialized in individual persons' bodies (ibid.:94). Habitus is a socially constituted system of cognitive and motivating schemes of perception, conception, and action that people acquire through socialization and that is continuously adjusted by their experience of the social and historical conditions under which they live (ibid.: 85-86). These dispositions are "given body, made body (…) through injunctions as insignificant as "stand straight up" or "don't hold your knife in your left hand"" (ibid.:94). That is, habitus is not an individual system, but subjective in the sense that every individual has internalized in his or her body a structural variant of the socially constituted system (ibid.: 86). Change of habitus - "the dialectic of […] incorporation and objectification" (ibid.:72) – must thus be studied on the level of individuals' embodied dispositions.

I will argue that The Soldiers' Mothers want to bring about political change by working to reform people's habitus down to this bodily level, e.g. when they train people to control their embodied fear through different exercises at their workshops. This attempt of the organisation was spelled out when I interviewed one of the two leaders:

Lena: I think that civil society begins from the bottom. I think what we are doing here is the real politics, because we are changing… we are encouraging people to change their mind, to change their mode of living.

From the outset, people do not come to The Soldiers' Mothers in order to change themselves or society; they want to save their sons from military service. But as we shall see, while helping people with this practical task, the organisation engages some of them in changing their understanding of the social order and their embodied dispositions of action. Thereby, The Soldiers' Mothers strive to change the political landscape in the whole of Russia.

The basic problem that this thesis addresses is thus:

In what ways do the methods employed by The Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg contribute to the reform of people's habitus and the reordering of their meaningful worlds in postsocialist Russia?

I will explore this problem through the following research questions:

Studying social change

How can anthropologist with our small-scale, time-specific, and relatively short-term fieldworks study social change? By which kind of analysis can my study of The Soldiers' Mothers become a window on social change in postsocialist Russia?

To capture these processes I have been guided by the Manchester School's attention to local conflicts and their wider context and the concept of 'extended cases' (van Velsen 1967).6 The extended-case method or situational analysis was developed by British anthropologists working in Southern Africa during the 1950s and 1960s under conditions of social conflict and rapid change (increase of population, urbanization and work migration) – conditions which the then-dominant theory of structural-functionalism was poorly equipped to grasp (Eriksen and Nielsen 2002:128-129). An extended-case analysis covers the same actors over a series of related situations and imbeds local events in wider and wider circles of context. Hereby the anthropologist attempts to present a fuller picture of complex social processes, spanning longer periods of time, distinct geographical places and large-scale socio-economic processes.7

The way I use the concept, I will not unfold the layers of context of one event (like Mitchell (1956) uses the Kalela Dance as a vehicle for his general account of social relations in Northern Rhodesia), but present several distinct situations and cases, I add layer by layer to understanding what is at stake at The Soldiers' Mothers.

Structure of the thesis

The first chapter describes the field and its actors. It provides background information on the Russian army and its standing in the Russian society. I argue that it is considered honourable and yet, in practice, unattractive to become a soldier. I present the organisation of The Soldiers' Mothers, their daily activities and practical methods to achieve exemptions from military service on medical grounds. The people who come to organisation are for the most part mothers or other female relatives of "draftees" (young men who have received a draft order, but are not yet enrolled in the army) or "runaway soldiers" (soldiers who deserted from their military unit).

Chapter 2 considers my fieldwork, the methods by which the data for this thesis were generated and the ethical considerations connected to the fieldwork setting.

Chapter 3 opens the analysis but also serves to conceptualize 'civil society' as an intermediate social space between the public and the private. This intermediate space is shaped historically and politically and The Soldiers' Mothers want to fill it out with new understandings and patterns of behaviour.

The arrival of a deserted soldier's mother to the organisation in chapter 4 gives a picture of people's expectations and desperate state of mind when they first turn to The Soldiers' Mothers with their sons' problems. The Soldiers' Mothers' reactions and recommendations, in turn, tell us that they want people to learn to handle available legal mechanism and not to avoid formal interaction with bureaucrats. Beginning with this first encounter with The Soldiers' Mothers, we accompany the women as they venture deeper and deeper into the organisation's different activities, from the introductory lecture of "The School of Human Rights" (chapter five) to the participation in the organisation's workshops, the so-called seminars (chapter six) and intense discussions among the organisation's "core" (chapter seven). These activities illustrate the different layers of the organisation's goals – freeing young men from military service, reordering people's meaningful worlds, reforming their habitus and contributing to the overall social and political change in Russia - which the women can commit themselves to in varying degrees.

In chapter 5 I analyze the women's stories about their sons and their endeavours to free them from military service as 'ritual performances' and reflections of the organisation's dominant narrative. Hereby we shall see how the women are engaged in reordering meaningful worlds on the individual and collective level.

In chapter 6 I move to the analysis of the women's concrete attempts to overcome their fear of bureaucrats, that is, the concrete ways in which their embodied dispositions of habitus are reformed. In order to arrive at a dynamic and operational analysis of habitus, I use Foucault's notion of 'technologies of the self' by which individuals act upon their own bodies and conduct. I argue that the women scrutinize their individual behaviour and try to align it to The Soldiers' Mothers' ideals.

In chapter 7 the reordering of people's meaningful worlds is further "enchanted" by examining the relationship between people and the state which in the Soviet Union was cast in metaphors of family relations where men were the Father State's sons and women the Father State's wives and mothers of their children. I will argue that the parent generation has deeply embodied these metaphors of kinship and gender which is an obstacle in helping their sons to be exempted from military service, reordering their meaningful worlds and reforming their habitus.

In the Conclusion I sum up my main arguments and reflect on the thesis' contribution to studies of social change.

Chapter 1: The Field and its Actors

Military service and the Russian Army

The saying that "The Soviet Union had no army, it was one" (Bladel 2001:52) reflects not only that the Soviet Union was one of the world's most militarized states with a standing army of 4.5 to 5 million soldiers and another 50 million in the reserve, but also that civil life was modelled on military organization. Every workplace had a mobilization plan ready in case war should break out, the mass youth organisations were organized in patrols and detachments, schools taught distinct military training classes for boys and girls, universities had special military departments for men, and military metaphors were used as political slogans, e.g. the Soviet People were meant to struggle for the "Victory of Socialism".8 The state defined itself as a "Warrior State" (Nielsen 1987:133) and canonized its victory and people's heroism and sufferings during The Great Fatherland War (World War Two). The parents who come to The Soldiers' Mothers with their sons grew up with these images, identities and gender roles (see chapter seven) and with the collective memory of the war (see chapter five).

The army remains a strong national symbol and "Victory Day", May 9th, is still the most popular holiday in Russia with huge military parades and fireworks where the veterans and today's soldiers are celebrated. Military service in the army is widely considered everyone's contribution to the protection of one's family and country, an honourable duty, and a natural and necessary step in becoming a full citizen and "a real man". For young men from the provinces it is a chance to get away from the poor and dreary country-side, and many have listened to their fathers, grandfathers, and uncles tell with enthusiasm about their young years or leafed through their "memory books" with small drawings, poems and photos of fellow soldiers.

Due to the deteriorating conditions in the army and the risk of being sent to the war zone in Chechnya, the army has, however, lost some of its prestige and more and more young men try to evade military service. Besides the daily losses of Russian soldiers, often conscripts, in Chechnya, the Russian army is notorious for so-called "non-combat deaths": It is estimated that 5,000 soldiers "disappear" or die every year during their military service because of diseases, murders, suicide and "accidents" that often cover over violence among the soldiers (Bladel 2001:171). The biannual recruitment of conscripts for a two-year period gives rise to different kinds of abuse known as hazing that permits older soldiers to extort money, food, cigarettes and alcohol from the younger, make them work for them, beat and humiliate them. Hazing has long been considered a part of life in the barracks, but the extent of the problem was not publicly known in Soviet times. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, moreover, there is less discipline and control and hazing has developed into mortal fights, sexual abuse, and torture. Soldiers are ill fed and clothed, and tuberculosis, hepatitis, HIV, and other diseases spread due to the bad hygiene in barracks and hospitals. Officers get meagre pay and often try to make money by selling soldiers' labour to private construction companies. According to Russia's military traditions, soldiers' life is deliberately designed to harden them and conditions during military training should resemble the harsh conditions of war (ibid.:166). With the army's shrinking budgets and old equipment, soldiers spend most of their time on drills and receive no proper education. As a general rule, conscripts are sent far away from home for the whole conscription term, and home-leave is only granted in the event of special family circumstances. Soldiers in dilapidated barracks at miserable, desolate military stations have little other entertainment than drinking.

According to the "Law on Military Duty and Military Service"9 from 1998, two years of military service is mandatory for every fit man between 18 and 27 years. Summons takes place twice a year in two drafting periods, from April 1st to June 30th and October 1st to December 31st, and approximately 400,000 soldiers are recruited every year.10 In St. Petersburg, conscription is carried out by the city's 20 district draft boards (prizyvnaia kommissiia) and military commissariats (voennyi kommissariat or simply voenkomat). A team of 8-10 military doctors examine the young men, look through their "children's medical cards" from the polyclinics and other health certificates, and decide whether they are fit to serve in the army or not. Health conditions, family circumstances, and studies at institutions of higher education are legal reasons to postpone military service or be exempted.11

More and more young men and their families use all legal and illegal means to avoid serving in the army: They enter college just to postpone military service, try to prove that they are unfit and are happy if their girlfriend gets pregnant. Newspapers and handbooks bring special listings of valid medical defects, and on the Internet, anti-conscription organisations and advocates of alternative service give detailed information on laws and opportunities for evading military service and applying for alternative service12. Also, juridical firms offer their services in down-town offices and advertise on the Internet and in the St. Petersburg Metro. On the illegal side, health certificates and student cards are forged and can also be obtained on the black market. Bribery of the head military doctor or the head of the draft board is widespread. At the time of my fieldwork the unofficial price for an exemption was 1,500 dollars which is quite a lot considering that the average monthly income of state employees like teachers or doctors is 2-3,000 roubles (70-100 dollars).13

Data from the Leningrad Military District for 1992-1998 show that only 15-18% of the actual age cohort was effectively serving in the army – the rest managed somehow to escape service (Bladel 2001:190). The media and human rights organisations report illegal police detentions and round-ups on young men in the street, deportations to military stations without the required medical examinations, and denial of the right to appeal, because the recruitment authorities have problems meeting the quotas (Human Rights Watch 2002). Since draft evasion is primarily an urban, middle and upper class phenomenon, very many of those who actually are conscripted come from poor, rural areas, from broken families, have less than high school education (illiteracy is a problem in the army) and sometimes even have a criminal record (ibid.:200). When I visited a military station a few hours from St. Petersburg with The Soldiers' Mothers, I was shocked at how many were recruited to the army in spite of prior depressions, suicide attempts, problems with alcohol and drug abuse or violence in their families.

Faced with the daily losses of Russian soldiers in Chechnya and regular disclosures of violence, disease, murder, and suicide in the army, the majority of Russians favour a reform of the armed forces. In several television-transmitted speeches, president Putin has promised that by 2007 half of the army will consist of contract soldiers and conscripts will no longer be sent to "hot spots" (Izvestiia 2003, May 17). At present, some conscripts are sent to Chechnya before they have even fulfilled the first half year of preparatory service.

The Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg

The Soviet public first learned about the violence in the army during Perestroika (1986-1991) and in 1989 a group of mothers in Moscow formed a civil initiative to protest against the conscription of their sons (Hinterhuber 1999, Caiazza 2002, Zdravomyslova 2004). In the following years, similar groups of Soldiers' Mothers were formed all over Russia. These local and regional organisations and committees differ in the extent of cooperation with the Russian government and military; the two main organisations in St. Petersburg and Moscow stress their opposition to the present structures of the state and defence, whereas some local groups support the president and military leadership's goal of improving the soldiers' conditions in the army and the defence of the nation.14

The Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg15 was established in 1991 by a group of women who knew each other from the St. Petersburg civil rights movement during Perestroika and still form the board of the organisation, among them the organisation's two chairwomen Ella Poliakova and Elena Vilenskaia. As it is typical for this type of organisation in Russia, the leaders are charismatic and the organisation very personal.

Besides the two leaders, the organisation had employed four women part-time as staff members who helped with the organisation's daily activities (see below). The two leaders and two of the staff members were Roman Catholics, most of the other staff members and regular helpers Russian Orthodox believers, a priest from the Catholic Church visited the organisation once a week, and meetings at the organisation often ended with a prayer that everybody was invited to join.16

The organisation worked on a relatively modest annual budget of approximately 50,000 dollars which covered rent, wages for the staff and the expenses for their participation in a couple of international conferences and workshops every year. In the 1990s, The Soldiers' Mothers were involved in bigger cooperation projects with other Russian organisations funded by the European Union, but at the time of my fieldwork they only received small donations from private foundations, the American and some European embassies in St. Petersburg and international democratization, church and peace organisations.

According to the statutes of The Soldiers' Mothers, their goal is to "defend the lives, the health, and the civil rights of servicemen in the Russian army, recruits, conscripts, and members of their families".

In the beginning of the 1990s, one of the leaders told me, The Soldiers' Mothers engaged in formal politics – they participated in political hearings and tried to establish a political party - but disappointed by the political elite, they decided to build up 'civil society' (grazhdanskoe obshchestvo) from the bottom, and their work by the time of my fieldwork was mainly directed towards common people.

The organisation's methods

The organisation claimed, backed by a professor at the St. Petersburg State Paediatric Medical Academy (Levina 2002), that the general health situation in Russia was so bad, that fit young men almost did not exist. They advised young men to prove, with the help of their families, that they were not fit for military service and thereby to achieve a complete exemption from military service (family circumstances and higher education, on the other hand, only temporarily postponed military service).

Apart from physical disabilities, The Soldiers' Mothers claimed, most young men suffered from some kind of neurological or psychiatric disorder as a result of severe environmental pollution and all the genetic diseases that the Russian population accumulated during the wars, famines, and traumas of the 20th century (I will return to this view in chapter five). A few specialized neurological and psychiatric clinics in St. Petersburg had the technical equipment to detect symptoms of these disorders (e.g. cysts in the brain), and The Soldiers' Mothers recommended families to pay the 150-200 dollars these examinations cost. The medical certificates were to be sent to the relevant institutions of civil and military bureaucracy on local, regional and national level (the draft board or the commander of the young man's military unit and the public prosecutor's office in the city district, city of St. Petersburg and in Moscow) together with a letter of complaint and additional information on the young men's health situation. Later, the young men's mothers or another proxy person presented these documents to the draft board and the military doctors that took the final decision about the young men's fitness.17

The medical diagnoses were instrumental, in that they served the young men's purpose of being exempted from military service. The military doctors, of course, operated with different health criteria for fitness, criteria that have been reduced during the last decades in order to reach the annual draft quota and thus were instrumental too (Hinterhuber 1999:27). The official percentage of unfit was 40-50% which is still comparatively high by international standards (Human Rights Watch 2002). Military doctors accused The Soldiers' Mothers of fraud and people of "buying" fake health certificates at private clinics. Also many other people I met questioned that the young men were actually ill and took The Soldiers' Mothers' methods for just one among a range of other ways to dodge military service.

Inside the organisation, I never heard anyone question that the young men were actually unfit, as this – the unfitness of the young men being the basis for the organisation's legal methods and the basis on which most of the exemptions were achieved - would have undermined The Soldiers' Mothers' authority. For the families, the claim that their sons were unfit for service legitimized - not only legally but also morally - that they would not become soldiers as men ideally ought to (I will return to people's dilemmas about their moral obligations towards the state in chapter seven).

Depending on the difficulty of the case, the authorities' responses and the mother's efficiency, it took from a couple of months to several years until the young man received his "military ticket" with a stamp that proved he was exempted from serving in the army. E.g. some women went to The Soldiers' Mothers every week and worked to overcome their fear of bureaucrats for several drafting periods before they felt confident to face the recruitment authorities.

Daily activities

The organisation was open for visitors and answered their telephones Monday to Saturday from noon until ten or eleven o'clock in the evening. New comers to the organisation were always asked to participate in "The School of Human Rights", a three-hour introductory lecture held by one of the organisation's leaders twice a week. Here, people were introduced to the organisation, its activities, methods to achieve an exemption from military service, and ideology, that is, how people's meaningful worlds should be reordered according to The Soldiers' Mothers (I will analyze "The School of Human Rights" in detail in chapter five). After "The School of Human Rights", families could receive advice regarding their individual cases, either by the organisation's staff members or by other, experienced women. Participation in the organisation's activities and the consultations were free and no membership was required.18

At "The School of Human Rights", listeners were invited to take part in the organisation's other activities: Every Tuesday evening The Soldiers' Mothers arranged workshops, the so-called "seminars", where problems encountered while following the organisation's advice were discussed in a smaller, more intimate groups (the functions of the seminars will be discussed in chapter six). During these seminars people learn, among other things, to control their embodied fear which I conceptualize in this thesis as an attempt to reform their habitus.

On Thursdays from five to six o'clock, The Soldiers' Mothers held a picket on Nevskii Prospekt, the main street of St. Petersburg, where they demonstrated against the war in Chechnya. Usually, only a group of five to ten of the organisation's staff members and regular helpers stood there with their placards and banners, and only occasionally other women showed up.19

Monday and Friday were called "help days" and people were encouraged to come and help the organisation with paper work, telephone calls, and practical errands. The Soldiers' Mothers depended on the support of such helpers who came to the organisation a couple of hours each week, took care of deserted soldiers and gave advice to their families. Helpers were usually mothers who worked to achieve exemptions from military service for their own sons.

Draftees, runaway soldiers, and their mothers

The organisation is situated on Raz''ezzhaia Street 9 in the old part of St. Petersburg. Only a little sign on the thick front door marks the entrance, but the word about the organisation travels from mouth to mouth and hundreds of people find their way to it every week.20 They can be grouped after different criteria. For the purpose of this thesis I find it useful to distinguish between draftees and deserted soldiers and between the organisation's "core" and its "periphery" and to describe how these categories relate to people's social background.

"Draftee" (prizyvnik) is the Russian term for those young men whose fitness is being sorted out by the draft board (which involves 7-10 different specialists and can take some time) and those who have been found fit for military service and have received a recruitment order, but have not yet enrolled. The young men who are mobilized and have begun their two years' conscription service, but have left their military unit are called "runaway soldiers" (begunki) by The Soldiers' Mothers, a euphemistic term the organisation has invented for deserted soldiers. Draftees and runaway soldiers have different legal statuses that decide which actions are necessary to be exempted from (further) service. I estimate that around two thirds of the cases that the organisation dealt with during my fieldwork concerned draftees and one third runaway soldiers.21

I found that there was a connection between the son's status when the family came to the organisation and the family's material, educational and social background: As I described in the section about the Russian army above, those young men who served in military stations in and around St. Petersburg usually came from far away and from lower-class families with little education. When they ran away from their unit and turned to The Soldiers' Mothers, their parents had fewer resources to help them; sometimes they could not even afford to travel all the way from Siberia or the far North. In addition, runaway soldiers' cases were usually complicated, because they faced sentences for desertion and were wanted by the police. Some had lived underground for years.22 Among all those people who came to the organisation with a problem regarding a young man who was already in the army, The Soldiers' Mothers estimated that only in 30% of the cases a relative or someone else employed the organisation's methods and succeeded in receiving an exemption from further service. The rest never tried or gave up and the young man returned to his unit, kept hiding from authorities or ended up in prison.

In contrast, mothers in St. Petersburg who had the time and resources to deal with the question of military service before the son was drafted were usually well-educated, had no problems with alcohol or drugs and were less frequently lone supporters of their families. Their chances that the son would receive an exemption were almost 100%. The relatively privileged and well-off mothers also had the time and energy to attend the organisation's seminars regularly, give advice to new comers, and help out with paper work and practical errands. They took a special interest in the organisation's ideology and their own personal development, sometimes combined with an interest in religion, philosophy or psychology. They exchanged phone numbers and formed what they called "groups of mutual support" (gruppy podderzhki) consisting of 3-6 women who went to their sons' recruitment stations together and helped each other to write complaints. Sometimes, they sheltered runaway soldiers or even became their legal proxies. They kept each other posted about their own and each others' cases and news travelled fast through these networks. This lead to high efficiency but was also a potential source of conflict, because they tended to know everything about each other.

These women formed the organisation's "core" and counted around 50 women and two men at the time of my fieldwork.23 Especially those who already had saved older sons, nephews or colleagues' sons from military service enjoyed high esteem, served as examples for the others and aspired to become members of the organisation's staff. Towards the end of my fieldwork, when The Soldiers' Mothers were harassed by the city administration that threatened to terminate their tenancy, this core of women organised a petition in support of the organisation.

The organisation's "periphery" consisted of new comers and people who only participated in "The School of Human Rights" and seldom showed up at the seminars. Among these were the mothers of runaway soldiers who, faced with the seriousness of their sons' problems, had neither the time nor the patience to participate in the seminars with their rather abstract discussions, and also some of the highly educated women from St. Petersburg who only came for the organisation's legal expertise, but found "The School of Human Rights" and the seminars a waste of time. They were not afraid to face the authorities and did not need the organisation's help to write letters.

The Russian sociologist Elena Zdravomyslova, who conducted fieldwork with The Soldiers' Mothers in the beginning of the 1990s and has kept in touch with them since and whom I met with a couple of times during my fieldwork, told me that the clientele at the organisation has changed to include more educated and middle-class families and that more men also attended "The School of Human Rights". She remembered that the atmosphere at The Soldiers' Mothers in the beginning of the 1990's was dominated by poorly dressed, desperate and crying mothers of deserted soldiers, that is lower-class women with which "decent" and "cultured" people avoid mingling. But as The Soldiers' Mothers increasingly engage in draft evasion – they have recently started to publish special booklets for draftees – the organisation becomes attractive for middle-class families too. I take this to be a sign of the gradual acceptance and normalization of the organisation and its methods, and that people gradually learn to deal with public institutions and gain trust in the legal mechanisms instead of avoiding or bribing officials or using private networks (these alternative strategies are described in chapter four). This is, however, not a marked, general tendency, because, as Elena Zdravomyslova also pointed out to me, common people's trust in public institutions is generally low. This includes NGOs which are regarded as semi-official institutions, and even if people cooperate with them, it does not mean that they believe in their altruism.

Where are the men?

There are many reasons why there were still far fewer men than women at The Soldiers' Mothers: First, in a high proportion of the families I came across, there was no father or other male provider; the women had lost their husband, divorced him or lived with an alcoholic or disabled spouse. Also, it was my impression that The Soldiers' Mothers was a gendered space, which was most obvious at the seminars were the subjects discussed (e.g. giving birth), as well as the jargon and behaviour marginalized men. Men often listened to "The School of Human Rights", but in spite of the organisation's encouragement, they rarely participated in the seminars that demanded more interaction. When the women occasionally brought their sons or husbands to the seminars, they felt uncomfortable, skipped some of the games and exercises and used any excuse to leave early. Apart from that, the gendered division of labour in Russia, both within the family and in the public, assigns mothers the role of caretakers. Practically, it was much easier for women to be admitted into the recruitment centres and military stations. The draftees and runaway soldier risked arrest if they joined their mothers. Many of them simply let their mothers take the decisions for them; the most important thing for them was to settle the question of military service once for all, either by serving or receiving a total exemption. Ideologically, women's activities were not perceived as political acts whereas men risked being accused of treason, cowardice, and lack of masculinity if they openly resisted military service. The theme of gender roles is even more complex and I will return to it in chapter seven.

On top of that, there are some methodological reasons why men – both the young men and their fathers – are underrepresented in my material: I have chosen to focus on the women because their work was most active and most visible – and most accessible for me. I spent a lot of time with some of the runaway soldiers, followed them to court, visited them in the hospitals and so on, but I was simply too shy and found it irresponsible and unethical to ask questions or conduct interviews that might offend them or expose their emotions and experiences of violence and abuse in the army (some of them had been raped or tried to commit suicide, as I could read in their papers).24 Even their mothers did not ask the young men directly about their experiences and some mothers even hid their diagnoses in order to spare them. Instead, mothers comforted their sons and showed them affection by simply being with them, telling them about home and their relatives and friends there, and bringing them their favourite dishes.


In this chapter I have introduced the social and political context around the Russian army and the conscription of soldiers. I have shown that military service, on the one hand, is widely perceived as an honourable duty to one's country and people, but that it, on the other hand, has become less attractive to become a soldier, considering the deteriorating conditions in the army.

I have introduced the organisation of The Soldiers' Mothers, their daily activities and the legal methods they recommend for achieving exemptions from military service on medical grounds. In chapter five and six we shall see how people appropriate the skills to practically carry out the necessary steps of action, such as writing complaints and families' medical histories and confronting the authorities. The people who come to the organisation and actively engage in its methods are mainly mothers and other female relatives of either draftees or deserted soldiers, called runaway soldiers by The Soldiers' Mothers. The mothers of draftees are generally higher educated, come from a middle-class social background and have more time to become committed to the organisation's activities and self-work.

In the next chapter I will describe the course of my fieldwork with The Soldiers' Mothers and the methods used to generate the data on which the thesis is based. Given the sensitive issues I dealt with, I also had to consider the ethical aspects of my fieldwork which I will give an account of towards the end of the chapter.

Chapter 2: Fieldwork and Methods

The course of the fieldwork and my position in the field

On my pre-visit to St. Petersburg in January 2003, The Soldiers' Mothers had accepted me as a volunteer25 for the duration of my fieldwork. Employees at the organization were usually busy, so in the initial phase of the fieldwork I basically followed the two leaders around in their daily work and silently observed their meetings and conversations with draftees, soldiers, their parents and other visitors to the organisation (Russian and foreign journalists, sociologists, doctors and military personnel). I sat in the audience during The School of Human Rights and participated actively in the seminars' discussions, exercises, and games together with the other women who, in return, learned about me, my behaviour and opinions, and the purpose of my stay. Driving home by car with one of the leaders in the evenings gave me the opportunity to ask her about the details of the day's events. In this way, I gained a broad overview of the organisation's activities, and by simply hanging out, I also became a known face and gradually gained people's trust.

The Soldiers' Mothers' role as gatekeepers and intermediaries, who, especially in the beginning, introduced me to people, was crucial in Russia where "strangers are to be trusted only if they are linked to by a common acquaintance who is also trustworthy" (Bruno 1998:181). I tried to get official permission to visit a military unit on my own without any success, but when I went with The Soldiers' Mothers I was admitted without questions. Likewise, when I addressed lawyers or doctors on my own, I got different, more "polished" and official answers. The distance, distrust, and coldness, normally shown to outsiders and foreigners (Nielsen 1987:84-90) stand in stark contrast to the openness and warmth that I met at The Soldiers' Mothers'. They let me participate in all their activities and meetings and gave me access to their files, partly, I think, because it is their aim to do away with Soviet times' tradition of concealing information from the public, partly because they were used to visiting foreigners.

The timing of my fieldwork was well chosen, since I arrived well before the spring drafting period from April 1st to June 30th. The activities of the Soldiers' Mothers followed the drafts in cycles, focusing on the problems people experienced at different stages of the call-up. The progress of the cases determined my daily activities in that I seized the opportunity to participate in the whole chain of events, from families' first visits to the organisation, through their contacts with the various levels of bureaucracy, and till they received their documents of exemption a couple of months later. These trips to recruitment centres, hospitals, and military units not only produced insight into institutions and processes but also earned me respect at The Soldiers' Mothers.

Always joining The School of Human Rights and the weekly seminars at the organisation, I became friends with some of the regular participants and part of their large network of interknitted groups of mutual support. These women also invited me home and little by little lost their inhibitions and told me about subjects that were banned at the organisation, e.g. bribery and alternative strategies to get sons exempted from military service. My position in the field shifted between that of a curious researcher, eager to understand as much as possible by asking questions, and that of a friend or even "relative" (see chapter seven) with whom to share problems, but who was also cared for, fed and taken on walks on Sundays and holidays. Since the women were not dependent on me or my sympathy, but rather on The Soldiers' Mothers', I did not feel that they wanted to please me with their answers or give me a certain impression. Still, I can retrospectively see that the women, before they knew me, tended to answer my interview questions in accordance with the organisation's ideology whereas alternative or conflicting strategies were hidden, e.g. one woman whose case I followed for months only "revealed" to me on the day her son received his exemption that they had also paid for juridical consultations in a commercial agency and tried to influence employees at the recruitment station through acquaintances alongside using the methods of The Soldiers' Mothers.

The language at The Soldiers' Mothers was exclusively Russian. I had studied Russian at the university for two years before my fieldwork as part of my bachelor degree in anthropology and could follow everyday conversations, but during the first two months I preferred to conduct in-depth interviews with an interpreter. The first interviews aimed at a broad sample of draftees' relatively simple cases and runaway soldiers' more complicated cases, both from St. Petersburg and other provinces. As I improved my Russian and took a more active role, I followed up cases through phone conversations and repeated meetings with the mothers.

Towards the end of my fieldwork, I spent less time at the organisation and felt confident enough to venture alone into the city's recruitment stations, rallying points, and commercial consultancy agencies. In this way, I got an impression of other people's relations to the army and the drafting authorities. I also paid visits to families who had solved their problems with the help The Soldiers' Mothers some years ago. I found their stories in the organisations' archives and wanted to explore what had happened to them later, and whether The Soldiers' Mothers had changed their perspectives in significant ways. This random survey is too small to make any generalisations, but it adds to the breadth of data, as did my conversations with Elena Zdravomyslova.

To sum up the course of my fieldwork, I moved from observation to more and more participation during my fieldwork which added more and more layers of context to the events I witnessed (Davies 1999:72) as I gradually improved my Russian, developed a social network and gained people's trust.

Methods and material

In a big city like St. Petersburg (population: 5 mill.) with hundreds of families coming to The Soldiers' Mothers every week and thousands dealing in other ways with military conscription, I found myself in "a world of infinite interconnections and overlapping contexts" where the ethnographic field does not simply exist as such, but the anthropologist has to construct the field (Amit 2000:6). As a way to compartmentalize and delimit the field but at the same time accommodate interrelationships and relevant contexts I found inspiration in the concept of 'extended cases' (van Velsen 1967, see also "Studying social change" in the Introduction).

The way I used the concept during my fieldwork was by "following the conflicts" (Marcus 1995:110) of approximately 30 young men, in a few cases systematically and into details, the rest when the opportunity arose: I went with the young men and/or their mothers to recruitment stations, hospitals, and meetings with authorities and participated in the seminars and informal conversations at The Soldiers' Mothers. Here, the women discussed each others' problems and the other women's comments and opinions added yet another layer to the cases. Field-notes from such outings and conversations, the seminars and The School of Human Rights – all situations I did not initiate myself – constitute the bulk of the data. I also analysed a full session and some short excerpts of The School of Human Rights that I taped and had transcribed. Towards the end of my fieldwork I organized a focus group discussion with 12 participants to discuss recurrent themes I had noted during the past months (Dawson et al. 1992).

Often, the conflicts with authorities had started years ago when the young men were first drafted or went through their first military medical examination at the age of sixteen, and in order to record their whole stories from their beginning I collected biographical data about them by interviewing their mothers or other family members (Boulay and Williams 1984:249). All in all I conducted 28 taped interviews; seven of these concerned runaway soldiers, thirteen were conducted with draftees' mothers, and one with a draftee and his father together. I supplemented my own observations and interviews with the young man's health documents and the families' written correspondence with the authorities, which they allowed me to copy. To increase my knowledge of the strategies employed by people who do not use The Soldiers' Mothers' methods, I interviewed a friend's 20-year-old brother about his and his friends' situations.

A range of other material and contacts enabled me to contextualize and triangulate my data from The Soldiers' Mothers: I collected newspaper articles, reports and surveys about the Russian army, obtained law texts and the Russian constitution and conducted an expert interview (Larsen 1995:100-101) with a human rights lawyer in order to understand the legal procedures and court sessions that I witnessed. Throughout my fieldwork I was affiliated with an NGO and research institute, The Centre of Independent Social Research (CISR), where I was invited to seminars and met leaders of other NGOs. I was invited to a Human Rights course for law students, a workshop on alternative service, and an NGO forum and visited six different Soldiers' Mothers organisations on a few days' trip to Moscow, all of which gave me a good picture of the peculiarities of the St. Petersburg Soldiers' Mothers and of Russian NGOs' different methods and approaches to the state and military.

Apart from Elena Zdravomyslova, I also became friends with some sociologists and anthropologists from the CISR who responded to my fieldwork experiences with their professional insights and private views. Another valuable source of information on Russian life and language usage was my landlady and her family. My own everyday life in St. Petersburg and not least my troubles getting registered and renewing my one-month tourist visas by crossing the border to Finland, gave me my own, mildly arduous experiences with Russian authorities and red tape.

Ethical considerations

The ethical obligations of anthropological fieldwork concern first and foremost the safety, privacy, and dignity of the people that we do our research with (American Anthropological Association 1998). My ethical considerations regarding this study revolved around how I could avoid harming my informants or bringing them into trouble, to what extent and in which form I should write about the data, and how I could best treat those people with dignity who have shown me so much trust and help.

In Russia, the line between which actions are legal and which are illegal is blurred and the enforcement of laws and regulations unsystematic; for example, there is always at least one so-called "control-checkpoint" at the entrance of military units and hospitals, but the guards never controlled my ID.26 I do not know in which situations I, alone and together with others, have violated regulations or trespassed areas off-limit or which documents or information I have acquired and brought home illegally. Neither do I think that it is possible to get a clear, reliable picture of this. But as a consequence – to protect myself and others as well as possible - I do not name exact places and persons in the thesis. During my fieldwork, I always presented myself and my project to people I met at The Soldiers' Mothers', obtained their consent and let them make the decision to reveal my identity or not when we visited military institutions or other places together (usually I was introduced as a relative or not introduced at all). All things considered, I do not believe that I increased the danger for my informants or their fear, both of which were the conditions of their undertakings.

Apart from the organisation's two leaders who are known to the public and openly express their political views, I have given my informants pseudonyms. Some of them might not agree with my analysis, but by presenting their views and stating my arguments clearly, by writing the thesis in English and making it available to them through The Soldiers' Mothers, I hope to do them justice and give them a chance to see the outcome of my work.

Chapter 3: Populating an intermediate social space – civil society revisited

I take the creation of civil society to mean the population of an intermediate social space – between the level of households and that of the state itself – with organizations and institutions not directly controlled from above (…) The near-emptiness of this space in most socialist societies was the direct consequence of the absorption of resources to the political apparatus and of the disablement of all organizations external to it. (Verdery 1991:432)

In "Theorizing Socialism. A Prologue to the 'Transition'" (1991) Katherine Verdery describes 'civil society' as an independent, intermediate social space between private life and the state which after decades of "near-emptiness" or "near-vacuum" in the post-socialist states is going to be "populated" (ibid.:432). In this chapter I will use the image of an intermediate social space to conceptualize civil society, describe the historically developed configuration of the public/private dichotomy in Russia and propose that The Soldiers' Mothers are engaged in giving the space new meanings and filling it out with formal legal mechanisms and new forms of interaction.

Civil society – a contested social space

Though it is widely agreed that the creation of 'civil society' is essential for the democratization of the former socialist states, there is little agreement about the term's meaning. Keane (1998:36) has suggested that we should think of 'civil society' as a "polysemic signifier", because it is a global ideological concept with different meanings in different contexts.27 Those intellectuals in the socialist countries in the 1960s to 1980s who yearned for civil society had a different picture in mind than that of the neo-liberal economists that sought to control the direction of change in these countries after the fall of communism, whose opinions in turn differ from those of local politicians or Western NGOs today.28

The concept of civil society rests on an opposition between the modern state on the one hand and primary groups of families and kin on the other, with civil society as an independent third realm in between (Hann 1996:6).29 In post-socialist Eastern Europe, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become indexical of civil society, leading to the situation where western development agencies measure civil society quantitatively by counting NGOs, a high number of NGOs equating a healthy democracy (Sampson 1996:128). But in order to arrive at a useful analytical concept to understand how an organisation like The Soldiers' Mothers contributes to the recreation of people's meaningful worlds, I take 'civil society' to be more than a question of establishing organizations and institutions. I will rather see it as a social space constituted through action that exists in every society (Hann 1996:20).30

Not least feminists have reminded us that the public/private divide is an aspect of ideology and a rather powerful one31 (Gal and Kligman 2000:37). What is considered public and what private is object to historical change, but at any time it shapes the organization of political and economic life, e.g. when the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, they sought to destroy traditional family patterns and reconfigure men's and women's public and private roles (Ashwin 2000). The ability of a social actor, institution or movement to shift the boundaries or introduce new topics is thus a source and sign of power, and the private/public dichotomy is best conceptualized as "a field of disagreement and conflict" (Gal and Kligman 2000:40-41).

I will argue that The Soldiers' Mothers are engaged in this field of power and contestation and that they challenge the meanings of "public" and "private" which they want to interlink in new ways. "Public" and "private" are analytical abstractions that do not exist as such in the real world. Nevertheless, many people also think of their society in this way; e.g. many of my informants operated with distinct notions of "us" (the people) and "them" (the power holders) that were essentially different and worked towards essentially different goals (see also Gal and Kligman 2000:51-52). At one seminar, The Soldiers' Mothers arranged a specific exercise officials with the goal to make people realize that bureaucrats were human beings too and that, ideally, state officials only worked to execute the decisions of democratically elected politicians – and that means, The Soldiers' Mothers explained, that bureaucrats should be under "our" command.

In order to understand what The Soldiers' Mothers are up against when they want people to reorder their ways to perceive the social order, let us first take a look at the historical development of the public/private dichotomy in Russia.

Public and private life in the Soviet Union and thereafter

In opposition to theories of totalitarianism which hold that there was no separation between public and private life in communist states and thus no privacy, many sociological and ethnographic accounts (Kerblay 1983 [1977], Nielsen 1987, Shlapentokh 1989 and Verdery 1991 to mention only a few) describe a historical process towards the division of post-Stalin Soviet society into two sharply separate realms: An ideologized public to which people gave surface allegiance and a private life which became the repository of all that was authentic and meaningful, with a "near-vacuum" (Verdery 1991:433) or "gap" (Nielsen 1987:73) in between.

The relationship between the public and the private spheres was changing during the course of the Soviet Union's 70-year history: Since rational redistribution of production surplus was the central legitimating principle of the socialist state, it was the goal of the Bolsheviks to control and colonize all activity between the households and the state in order to eliminate any competition for central power (Verdery 1991:420-421). From private economic initiatives to leisure activities, all public institutions mediating between the family and the state were either outlawed or converted into administrative organs under the control of the state and ultimately of the communist party. Simultaneously, the private sphere was targeted for fundamental change not only through the elimination of private property but also through child care, legislation on divorce and abortion and other steps running deep into the heart of family life (in chapter seven I will return to this complex issue and argue that the state was symbolically legitimated as a "father").

In the post-Stalin period, beginning with Khrushchev's thaw in 1956, the ideological control of the Soviet citizens fluctuated. Disillusioned with the system and experiencing that it paid off to abuse their access to public goods via the work place rather than to fulfil official goals, people withdrew from the public sphere and diverted their energy from the state to their families and closed circles of friends. Many observers note that people operated with different sets of rules for private and public behaviour and charged the two realms with different moral principles; Nielsen (1987:78-90) vividly describes the difference between intimate "warmth" and formal "coldness", Gal and Kligman (2000:51-52) tell that people distinguished between the trustworthy, private and familial "we" and the untrustworthy, public "they", and Shlapentokh (1989:14) terms it the "two-level concept of Soviet mentality".

These two different movements – first the states colonization of the public sphere and then its retreat and the retreat of people to private life – neither of which were ever complete (the state still retains much control and many people are still dedicated to the communist project), led to an increasing alienation, "vacuum" or "gap" between public and the private life. Shlapentokh (1989:14) has named this ongoing historical process - that lead to the stagnation of the Soviet economy in the 1970s and, ultimately, to Perestroika - the "privatization" or "destatization" of Soviet society.

The increasing "vacuum" or "gap" has to be understood metaphorically in the sense that the there was no legitimate integrating form of power providing formal institutions, forms of communication, patterns of behaviour or information channels interlinking the public and the private besides the state organs which people avoided (Nielsen 1987:72-76). Independent political parties and even clubs for artists beyond state control were prohibited, no independent newspapers or television channels were allowed and private economic activity banned. Of course, a social space can not be literally empty: It was filled by a range of illegal and semi-legal ways to pursue one's interests avoiding formal procedures, which were developed by people in order to fulfil all those needs that the state with its stagnant economy and failed planning did not. People had to make do with their personal networks (blat) which they used to solve all kinds of everyday problems, from the access to information (e.g. illegally distributed literature or simply the mouth-to-mouth method), to the influence of official decision-making (e.g. instead of officially applying for a holiday trip through one's work-place, people contacted the employee distributing holiday arrangements personally). One of the women at The Soldiers' Mothers explained how her family obtained a new gas stove through acquaintances (who siphoned it off a state-owned factory) and had it installed by a friend of a friend (who was a state-employed plumber, but helped out acquaintances and made an extra earning after working hours) - "and that in spite the state officially guaranteed all a new stove when the old was more than 25 years!", she added. The compulsory military service was also target for such network activities, e.g. in the late 1980s my landlady managed to ensure her son a position in a military orchestra through personal contacts in order to prevent him from being sent off to the war in Afghanistan.

The informal practices were to some extent tacitly tolerated by the state in the post-Stalin period, but there was always an inherent insecurity in using the unwritten codes, because authorities could crack down on people's arrangements any time and punish them with arbitrary sentences.32 E.g. there were examples of people being imprisoned for years for reselling a motorbike, an activity that was termed 'speculation', which covered all kinds of private buying and selling with the purpose of making a profit; others, who had connections, however, might only be punished by reprimand (Ledeneva 1998:78). These conditions are best captured by the Russian phrase "nel'zya, no mozhno", which can be translated as "nothing is legal, but everything is possible" (ibid.:1).

With the fall of the Soviet Union the Communist party lost its ideological control over the bureaucracy and jurisdiction, politics and economy. This did not, however, mean that people stopped avoiding the system and gained trust in public institutions. According to one of my informants, the experience of insecurity and arbitrariness meant that Russians still feared contact with the police and dared not to take anyone to court, especially not state organs. When Gorbachev's campaign of glasnost' during Perestroika revealed some of the 'dark spots' of the past and confessed some of the political mistakes, large parts of the Soviet population became even more disillusioned with the system and their disbelief in public institutions was even strengthened (ibid.:192).

Many of the formerly forbidden or tacit practices were legalised during Perestroika and in the post-Soviet first years, some withered away or stayed illegal but commonplace, new ones arose and generally the way of "getting things done" changed rapidly. Money became a real means of payment and the language of blat (the use of personal networks and informal contacts to obtain goods and services, as described above) turned into a language of vziatki (bribes) (Rivkin-Fish 2002, Ledeneva 1998:183). E.g. today the most common way of avoiding military service is by bribing military doctors or other officials.

Speaking in terms of the alienation, "vacuum" or "gap" between the public and the private, one might say that it increased. The Soldiers' Mothers want to curb this trend. When they say that they want people to follow the laws and force bureaucrats to adhere to them too, they are not only opposing the "legacy" from Soviet times, but also the new strategies to get things done in illegal, semi-legal and informal ways that grew out of the Perestroika and the first post-Soviet years. The Soldiers' Mothers want to contribute to the creation of legitimate public institutions by filling out the intermediate social space with new meanings and patterns of behaviour by presenting people to their alternative worldview and lend them practices based on legal mechanisms (legal authorizations issued by notaries) and formal institutions (e.g. courts where complaints can be lodged).


I have suggested that civil society may be conceptualized as an intermediary field of power and contestation between notions of the private and the public which are object to historical changes. Based on ethnographic descriptions of the Soviet Union I have established an understanding of the intermediate space between the public and the private as an increasing alienation, "vacuum" or "gap", that is, an ungoverned space lacking legitimate institutions and officially recognized patterns of behaviour. Instead, personal networks and various informal, illegal and semi-legal practices offered ways to bridge the gap, but only provisionally, since people never knew when the system would crack down on their everyday survival strategies. Many of these practices were invalidated or altered due to the social, political and economic changes after the collapse of the Soviet system

The Soldiers' Mothers want to reorder these meaningful worlds of people, that is, their ways of perceiving and enacting the social order. In the following chapters we shall see how they, concretely seek to fill out the intermediate social space with new forms of communication, patterns of behaviour and information channels which, ultimately, will change the political system in Russia.

But first, the case of a mother and her deserted son in the next chapter demonstrates how The Soldiers' Mothers ideas and methods differ from people's expectations and from their alternative strategies to "get things done" that they made use of prior to their contact with the organisation and in some cases continue to pursue.

Chapter 4: Arriving at The Soldiers' Mothers

The office of The Soldiers' Mothers was usually staffed from one or two o'clock in the afternoon until ten or eleven in the evening. Visitors had to enter a dark staircase through a double iron front door and ring the doorbell to the organisation's premises on the ground floor. Passing through another three doors, one entered a hall where "The School of Human Rights" and seminars were held and where people waited to talk with someone from the organisation in one of the two rooms adjacent to the hall. Behind one of these two reception rooms, there were two small offices reserved for the staff. This "innermost shrine" was where the organisation kept its files and three computers.

A month into my fieldwork, one of the leaders gave me a set of keys, so I could come early and open the doors for people. On normal days, there was already a runaway soldier hiding on the staircase or some relatives waiting to get in. One of them was Nastia, a poor-looking middle-aged woman, who told me her story and anxieties while we waited for someone from the staff to help her:

Nastia had arrived by train from her home town a few hundred kilometres from St. Petersburg early in the morning and headed for the organisation straight after lighting a candle in the famous Vladimir Cathedral nearby. Her 19-year-old son Andrei had been drafted a month before and was immediately sent to a military station in the Northern Caucasus in spite of his high blood pressure and fainting fits. She showed me the only news she had received from him since then: two letters, the first telling of beatings and humiliations from the older soldiers and the other, sent shortly after from a military hospital, reporting a concussion and urging his mother to save him from this hell. The beatings continued in the hospital and his company was about to be transferred to Chechnya. Andrei had underlined the words "to Chechnya", and in the end of the letter he threatened to take his life by cutting his veins if his mother did not help him.

In the letter, Andrei instructed his mother to ask aunt Lida – who turned out to be a doctor – to forge a document stating that his mother was hospitalized with a heart attack. Only that would allow him two weeks' home-leave for family reasons, plus the ten days it takes for the travel home. Secondly, Andrei requested his mother to raise 22.000 roubles (700 USD) by lending them from a friend. This was the sum asked by a military psychiatrist he had met in the hospital to declare him unfit for military service.

But Nastia, having heard about the Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg from an acquaintance, decided to ask the organisation for help instead. Maybe, she thought, someone from the organisation travelled to the Caucasus from time to time and could sort things out with the officers in Andrei's unit. With her she brought the slip of a telegram that she had sent to the commander of Andrei's unit. In the telegram she asked reproachfully why her son was hospitalized and why they kept beating him. Why did her only son have to serve in the Caucasus, despite his bad health and her being a pensioner, still earning an additional salary as an employee of the national postal service?

When the organisation's leader Lena arrived, she wanted Nastia to write an official complaint, but Nastia did not know to whom such a letter should be directed. "To you?", she asked sheepishly between tears, thereby linking the organisation to the military system. Lena lost her temper, cut off Nastia's lamentations, and told her that she was absolutely ignorant (bezgramotnaia) and that it was her own fault that her son's rights were violated: "If you had bothered to read the law on military duty and military service before your son was drafted, you would have known that he was not fit for service right from the start!" Confronted with Nastia's telegram to the commander, Lena shouted: "Oh my God, what did you think of? Did you think the military does not know what is going on? Did you think they would help you? When will you stop thinking of the state as someone kind (milii)?!"

Nastia shrugged her shoulders.

Lena advised Nastia to travel to the Caucasus, "steal" (ukrast') Andrei from his military station, and bring him to St. Petersburg for medical examinations by independent, civilian doctors in order to prove the violations. Since it is a criminal act to encourage or be accessory to desertion, this advice was not directly stated.33 Nastia was hesitant about the whole idea, because they would have to leave Andrei's passport and documents at his military unit. Neither did she understand why they were advised to go to a notary upon their return to St. Petersburg to issue an authorisation for her to act in Andrei's name: "I am his mother, isn't that enough?"

Andrei's letter and Nastia's conversation with Lena show how The Soldiers' Mothers methods and ideology differ from people's other ideas and practices that the organisation wants to do away with. The strategies people deployed to deal with their sons' problems differed a lot, depending on their personalities, age, and gender, their social and educational backgrounds and whether they came from a big city or from rural areas. The Soldiers' Mothers, however, viewed the parents' ideas and patterns of behaviour as results of their socialization in the Soviet Union and as expressions of their "Soviet mentality" and "totalitarian minds" that they passed on to their children and that kept Russians imprisoned in a mental state of passivity and powerlessness.

"Soviet mentality"

Nastia's immediate response to her son's problems had been to write a letter to the commander of her son's unit, appealing to his conscience. During my fieldwork I saw many similar letters, in one of which the mother directly asked the commander if he was able to sleep at night because one of his soldiers was beaten by the others. As one of the effects of people's withdrawal from the public sphere, which I described in the previous chapter, it was common for people to avoid official contact with bureaucrats (chinovniki) and approach them on a personal level instead. Ledeneva (1998:83) calls this tendency the "personalisation of the Soviet bureaucratic system" and traces it back to pre-revolutionary practices. The Soldiers' Mothers wanted to do away with this kind of interaction between citizens and bureaucrats and spoke of people's appeals as "begging on ones knees", failing to recognize that officials were supposed to fulfil their professional duties to citizens in accordance with the laws and regulations and not some diffuse morality that people had to invoke.

Emphasising her roles as a mother and a state employee, Nastia reminded the commander in her letter that she, on her part, had fulfilled her obligations, raised children and worked for the state, but that the state, in turn, lets her down. But The Soldiers' Mothers wanted people to perceive of their relationship to the state as legal instead of moral. Accordingly, Lena scolded Nastia for thinking of the state as "someone kind" (milii, literally "a kind (person)"). Hereby, she hinted at people's common perception of the state as a "father" that provides for its citizens and with whom one engages in a reciprocal relationship (I will return to this in chapter seven). In the same way, Nastia should not simply claim her moral authority over her son, because she is his mother, but obtain a written authorization at a notary. Then she could prove in front of authorities that she was her son's legally appointed proxy and had the formal right to participate in all meetings and medical examinations, so that no officials or military doctors would intimidate him or scamp with his records (as was often the case if nobody controlled their actions).

When Nastia voiced herself as a pensioner, retired from work for the national postal service, this corresponds to the way in which the Soviet system distributed welfare benefits to people through their workplace (Anderson 1996). In contrast, The Soldiers' Mothers taught people that they have universal civic rights that are ensured by the Russian constitution, irrespective of other circumstances and irrespective of the various documents and passports (e.g. the residence permit (propiska), military ticket (voennyi billet) and work book (trudavaia knizhka)) that were used to prove one's entitlements and which Nastia was so afraid to loose.

As in the case of Nastia, many people are not familiar with such legal mechanisms. Russian NGOs report that people turn to them, because Soviet times' well-known public channels for help (e.g. the party committees at people's workplaces and letters to the editor in the official newspapers) have disappeared (Hemment 1999:36). The Soldiers' Mothers answered people like Nastia, who thought that the organisation was a semi-official structure that dealt directly with military officers. They themselves had to take action, write letters of complaint, become their sons' proxy persons and see that the sons become exempted from further military service.

Post-Soviet responses

Strategies like Andrei's were rejected by The Soldiers' Mothers, because they did not want people to avoid the authorities either. In his letter, Andrei asked his mother to obtain a fake certificate which would permit him a short home-leave. One option was not to return to the unit, but hide from authorities and the police like many other deserters did, another was to bribe a military doctor to declare him unfit for military service. It was not that The Soldiers' Mothers advised the young men to stay in their units – as the appeal to his mother to "steal" him shows – but they warned runaway soldiers against bribery and against simply hiding from authorities, because it did not settle the case in a legal manner and they might get into further trouble.

Born 1982-1986, the draftees and soldiers who came to the organisation belonged to the post-Soviet generation that has few memories of life in the Soviet Union, but were influenced by their experiences of economic turbulence and lack of rules of the post-Soviet years. It was typical for the young men who came to The Soldiers' Mothers to have very little trust in the authorities and not to care if they had to bribe policemen and other officials, as long as they could live in peace and the state did not interfere in their life. In the opinion of his father, a young man I interviewed had such a cynical attitude towards society that the father interrupted our conversation and accused him of not possessing any values or sense of morality. The son replied that values had not helped him, when he was cheated by a former employer and when rich and influential parents had "bought" their children access to the prestigious colleges that he was denied to enter, even with the best marks in the admission tests.


Nastia spent the whole day at The Soldiers' Mothers talking with the staff and the other women, but left St. Petersburg in the evening. I don't know if she ever returned to the organisation. Often people listened to The Soldiers' Mothers' recommendations but in the end decided to solve their problem by other means; and sometimes they returned after half a year or more when the situation had worsened.

The meeting between Nastia and The Soldiers' Mothers could, however, also have been the first step in a long course of actions where she learned to use the organisation's methods to get her son exempted from further military service, joined "The School of Human Rights" and engaged in the seminars' self-work. I saw many arrive at The Soldiers' Mothers for the first time in a state of shock, tears or hysteria – and two months later, some of them were calmly explaining new comers what to do and telling me, in interviews, about their personal transformation.

Of course, even those who belonged to the organisation's "core", served as examples for the others and took leading roles in the "groups of mutual support" when they went to recruitment stations, hospitals and courts also relied on some of those strategies that The Soldiers' Mothers wanted to do away with. It was, for example, common to stress one's moral authority as a mother, to appeal to bureaucrats', officers' and judges' conscience and to give doctors a bottle of cognac or a box of chocolates. Neither did The Soldiers' Mothers want to dispose of all the practices that resulted from the Soviet system and the unregulated intermediate social space; the organisation built to a great extent on personal networks and, not least, the organisation's ideology and methods belong to the "Soviet lifeworld" (Nielsen 1994:2-3) since they derive from Soviet dissidents.

It is the goal of The Soldiers' Mothers to teach people like Nastia how to write complaints and use the Russian laws and legal mechanisms to pressurize the military and bureaucrats to adhere to the laws. Yet, their goal is also to make people "get up from their knees" and behave different in front of authorities. In the next chapter, we shall see how the women engage in the organisation's methods, which is perceived as embarking on a transformational "path" and plotted as a narrative.

Chapter 5: The Path to Freedom

When I first came here, when my son was 17, I too did not know what to do. I went here once, twice, three times, because the first time you obviously don't understand anything. You have to come here five times [!] before something starts to reveal itself to you. Then I simply began to do what the organisation taught me. I wrote letters of complaint, went to the military commissariat with my son, let him be examined at the Bekhterev Institute [a private neurological and psychiatric clinic in St. Petersburg], put together his medical history, and sent all the documents. (…) Now [approximately a year after the first contact with The Soldiers' Mothers], the head doctor at the military commissariat ran up to me and said: "You will receive your 'military ticket' [exemption from military service]." That was yesterday, and now I feel like a "victor".

From a presentation at "The School of Human Rights"

Sharing the story of one's son with other women and listening to other women's stories is an important reason why many visit The Soldiers' Mothers again and again. At "The School of Human Rights", dismissed soldiers or women who have succeeded in freeing their sons from military service (so-called "victors") are invited to tell their story, and the organisation's seminars are introduced with a round of short presentations by each participant. It struck me how similar most of these presentations and stories were. They typically began with a short account of the son's situation and of how far the mother had gotten in her endeavours to save him. The events were usually ordered into a narrative plot following the lines of action suggested by The Soldiers' Mothers' methods. Then the narrators were encouraged to say a few words about their own life and state of mind. This is considered crucial for success; self-esteem and a positive attitude are beneficial, The Soldiers' Mothers believe, while fear and insecurity only hold people back.

However, I also noticed that the women often picked up the same story-lines, events, and themes and repeated their emotional frustrations when telling their stories in other contexts - in informal conversations, to a stranger on a train or to me in interviews. The stories were, in other words, not only staged for the benefit of the organisation, but meaningful in other contexts too (Steffen 1997).

Why do so many women express their experience in similar stories, where does this pattern come from, and why is it meaningful for the narrators?

This chapter is divided into two sections: In the first, I will argue that the women's stories reflect their experience of going through a personal transformation, when they follow the methods of The Soldiers' Mothers. What goes on at The Soldiers' Mothers can be compared to the interstructural "liminal" phase of a rite of passage, where the "initiates" are secluded from normal society. "Liminality" is a stage of reflection where initiates are encouraged to think about their society, question its accepted ideas and reconfigure its elements (Turner 1967: 105-106). Through rites of passage, in Turner's conception (1967), initiates both "transform from one kind of human being into another" and take up traditional social roles upon their return to the structured secular society (ibid.:106-108). Similarly, the women "reintegrate" into society and their families as mothers, albeit with a new understanding of this role (see chapter seven).

I compare "The School of Human Rights", that all new comers to the organisation are urged to attend, and the performance of "victors" to a ritual performance34 that expresses the women's experience of transformation (Kapferer 1986). The transformation that the teacher and the "victors" describe is promised to come true for the audience too. Such accounts being presented the first time people come to The Soldiers' Mothers and repeated again and again at seminars and in other interaction, stories of personal transformation not only reflect individual women's experience, but also structures their experience as a dominant narrative that "defines and illuminates inner experience" (Bruner 1986:6). I refer to the overarching narrative as the "Path to Freedom" (put' k svobode), an expression that The Soldiers' Mothers' leader once used, because this expression reflects the fact that the organisation's suggested steps of action, frequently spoken of as "the path", simultaneously outline a practical way of achieving freedom from military service for the young men, and also postulate a personal, existential transformation from a "totalitarian" to a "free" state of being for their mothers.

In the second section, "Own and common stories", I explore three common themes that the women deal with while they follow the organisation's "path": The experience of child-birth, fear, and militarization which the parental generation have deeply embodied and which The Soldiers' Mothers urge them to realize and come to terms with. As the women express their private experiences and emotions in public, The Soldiers' Mothers hope to create a new version of Russian history.

Expressions of personal transformation

The School of Human Rights

The introductory lecture of The Soldiers' Mothers, "The School of Human Rights", is held twice a week. Usually, I counted around 100 participants, one fourth to one third of which were young men or their fathers. The rest were women, primarily mothers of draftees or soldiers. At the height of the drafting season, up to 200 people were cramped into the assembly hall and even more had to wait outside the door because they had been unable to secure a seat.35

As part of the introduction to the organisation and its methods, passages from the Law on military service, the Russian constitution, and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights are read out and explained, because most listeners only have vague ideas about the practical workings of laws and civil rights. Many fear the police and do not know that they are not obliged to open the door for unwarranted searches of their private homes. Neither are they aware of their right of access to their health documents at the polyclinic nor of the right to appeal a draft commissions' decisions. Only a few have ever written an official letter of complaint or know that one must sign an authorization at a notary's in order to act on the behalf of even one's own son, so these concepts are carefully explained and followed up by concrete advice to each family after the lecture.

The necessary steps of action to obtain an exemption from military service form successive events in a chronologically ordered narrative plot (Ricoeur 1981:167), which the leaders refer to literally as a "path" that people are invited to follow step by step: To receive an exemption – marked by an entry in the "military ticket" (voennyi billet) that all men carry as card of identification (Höjdestrand 2003) – each family has to study the medical requirements in the Law on military service carefully and prove that their son is not fit. The documentation that must be obtained includes diagnoses by specialists, transcripts of the boys' "children's medical cards" from their local polyclinics, teachers' statements, and detailed accounts of their medical history. In the medical history, the mother (since she knows best, it is claimed) reports chronic diseases, war traumas, violence, and alcoholism among family members and tells of her son's birth and childhood illnesses. This documentation then has to be sent to 10-12 specific civil and military authorities. Finally, a legally authorized person, usually the mother, has to face the military-medical commission and the drafting board as a guardian for the young man.

Practical guidance and existential transformation

Many of my informants used the "path" as practical guidance and spoke of it as "the path". They memorized and enthusiastically discussed the exact order in which to do what, worked out detailed schedules and agendas for themselves and each other, and used a stock of common phrases to become acquainted with each other: "Whom are you defending?", "What step are you at?", and "Are you on track?" In this way, the narrative plot worked not only as a retrospective ordering of events but also as a line of orientation for lived life, in the sense that the women "emplotted" their actions with a "sense of an ending" (Mattingly 1994). For the women, each step became meaningful in relation to the overall narrative, and every successfully accomplished step gave them the strength to take the next.

The "path" outlined at "The School of Human Rights" describes a transformational process "from one state of affairs (a beginning) to a transformed state of affairs (an ending)" (Mattingly 1994:819), in both a practical and an existential sense. According to The Soldiers' Mothers, the practical steps the women take to free their sons from military service lead to a mental process of freeing themselves from their "totalitarian minds" (see chapter four). Their reasoning goes like this: To help your son, you have to know the laws and be able to convert them into action. And to fully understand the legal mechanisms and believe in them - with the heart, as one mother told me - you have to work with yourself and change your ignorance into knowledge and fear into strength. This change comes about when you deal with your own role in society by contemplating your family history, your experiences of giving birth, your previous contacts with authorities, and all the "hard" but "real" work implied by The Soldiers' Mothers' methods. As this existential transformation is gradually accomplished by more and more persons, society as a whole will change. "When every person takes responsibility, the situation in Russia will change", as one of the leaders put it. In this thesis, I have conceptualized these two processes as "reform of people's habitus" and "reordering of their meaningful worlds".

At the "School of Human Rights", the teacher describes the personal development symbolically as rising from one's knees: In the beginning of the lecture, participants are asked how they feel about the draft and why they have been unable to solve their problem. In response people express their fear, despair and lack of self-confidence. Later, the teacher brings in these emotions as a sign of people's totalitarian state of mind which she illustrates on the blackboard as a person crying on his knees in a cage.

Lena: You can, of course, stay in this state of mind, sit on your knees and cry and wait for them36 to open the cage (…) But in reality this cage is created by your own imagination, by your own fear.

This state of mind, the teacher explains, is an illusion that can be vanquished:

Every man is born free and when you realize this and speak the word "I", then you realize that you have dignity (dostoinstvo) and that you can stand up, like a person who knows his roots and stands normally on the ground. This is what we do at "The School of Human Rights".

Here, as a symbol of freedom and dignity, the teacher draws a blossoming flower with deep roots and the word "I" (Ia) in the centre.

The teacher referred to the turning point where one "gets up from one's knees" – usually a series of breakthroughs with the authorities that give people a feeling of personal transformation – as a "victory", and people who received their (or their son's) "military ticket" and thus achieved freedom from serving in the army were called "victors" (pobediteli/pobeditel'nitsy).37 This imagery was reinforced when dismissed soldiers or mothers, who had successfully fulfilled their tasks and freed their sons, were invited to tell their stories in front of the audience. The young men were generally too ill or too shy to tell about their experience at length and very few of them actually embarked on The Soldiers' Mothers' "path" on their own, so their presentations took the form of testimonies to the horrors of army life and thus emphasised the importance of taking action. As in the short excerpt of a mother's presentation at the beginning of this chapter, the women tended to adopt the organisation's narrative structure and report their son's case and their personal development as parallel movements.

In the excerpt, the mother recounts how puzzled she was in the beginning but how her endurance and persistence finally brought her a revelation and led her to success. After a detailed account of all the letters she wrote, medical examinations the son went through, and encounters she had with authorities, she ends her presentation with the triumph of receiving the son's "military ticket". While regularly dozing off during the leader's lengthy monologues at "The School of Human Rights", the audience always follows the "victors"' stories attentively. When the mother came to the culmination of her story, the promised "military ticket", sighs of relief and affirmative exclamations filled the air.

Throughout "The School of Human Rights", the teacher establishes the organisation's world view with its fear of bureaucrats that one must overcome by one's own force and its symbols of "human dignity" (the flower), much like the Sinhalese cosmology with demons and deities becomes present in the exorcist rituals (Kapferer 1986:199). And akin to the stage of intense music and dancing at the peak of exorcist rituals (ibid.:197), those assembled at "The School of Human Right" are drawn into the ritual action as they empathize and identify with the "victor"-mother during her presentation. They are located in the same relation to the military and the "path to freedom" as her and thereby share the experience of the hardship that she went through and the feeling of relief and victory when her son received his "military ticket".

This shared experience of victory, and the shared experience of being "on the way" towards victory that is produced when the women tell their stories to each other in the dominant narrative form of The Soldiers' Mothers, is a key to understanding why the narrative also becomes meaningful as a line of orientation for their practical actions.

With a crisis of life and death (the sons'), a process from one state to another, and a turning point, the narrative bears resemblance to illness narratives and accounts of therapeutic treatment (e.g. Mattingly 1994 and Good 1994). The Soldiers' Mother offer each woman practical guidelines to save her son from military service and at the same time to overcome her own fear of bureaucrats. But in The Soldiers' Mothers' ideology, the process of betterment exceeds the individual as society as a whole also has to recover from its pathological state and return to its "normal" state.38 In the following section we shall see how The Soldiers' Mothers seek to establish such a connection, when the women's private stories are told in public.

Own and common stories

Jackson (2002:292) proposes that storytelling is both a way in "which private events are translated into public stories, and (…), reciprocally, publicised events penetrate our private lives and shape our unconscious imagining". As we shall see, this dual process is at play at The Soldiers' Mothers, and I will add to this the political potential of common stories created through the organisation.

From a generational perspective, the women who came to the organisation shared similar life courses which unfolded in the same period of social history, since they grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1950s to 1970s and gave birth to a son who is now about to be recruited to the army. In this section I will show how their individual experiences of child-births, fear, and militarization are conceptualized at The Soldiers' Mothers so that they fuse into a common history of totalitarianism.

Birth traumas

The Soldiers' Mothers ask people to fill in a questionnaire about their sons with detailed information about their health situation. The questionnaire is used to advise the mothers on how to write their sons' medical history, and a copy of it is saved in the organisation's files for statistical purposes. It contains a long list of symptoms under the headlines "pregnancy", "birth", "development", and "personality" that have to be ticked off. I noticed that an extraordinarily high proportion of young men were said to have suffered from a birth trauma and that the mothers had generally had complicated deliveries and pregnancies characterized by bad health, trouble in the family, alcoholism, and domestic violence.

Sexuality was seldom spoken of, but in confidential situations some women told me about their experiences of birth-giving and repeated abortions which were the primary form of birth control when they were young39. The women focused on the lack of anaesthetics and on being rendered helpless by doctors and nurses in the overcrowded birth clinics. They attributed the birth traumas to the common practice of taking away the new-born from their mothers and only bringing the babies in to be breastfed, sometimes only after a couple of days. The carelessness and indifference of doctors and nurses often meant that mothers fell so ill that the babies were not breastfed at all. Sociological surveys and underground feminist writings from Soviet times confirm the bad state of female health, birth clinics, and maternity wards, as well as the impressions given by the women of the bad hygiene and medical procedures (Holland and McKevitt 1985, Maltseva 1984, Mamonova 1984). In spite of all the system's plans and policies, women often had to use personal connections and social networks to receive decent treatment (Holland and McKevitt 1985).

At The Soldiers' Mothers', birth traumas were considered one of the reasons for the neurological or psychiatric syndromes that boys who lacked physical disabilities that would be sufficient to substantiate their unsuitability for military service were often diagnosed with in special neurological clinics. Many families considered it the last way out to get an exemption on psychiatric grounds, because they feared the consequences of having such a diagnosis stamped into the young men's passport, but The Soldiers' Mothers insisted that the diagnosis did not concern civilian life but only fitness for military service with its risks of stress and war shocks.

The birth traumas, however, matter not only for the sons' medical records and the mothers' practical endeavours but also for the women's existential transformation. One woman finished her horrifying account by confiding in me: "I was only 24 and I thought it was normal to give birth in this way. Now I understand that my son is ill because of that." Like her, many women came to see their pregnancies, abortions, and births in a different light. The Soviet standards were no longer considered normal but inhuman, and Soviet birth practices were seen as an offence against a person's innate dignity (see also Rivkin-Fish 2001).

The women's reinterpretation of their experiences of giving birth fits The Soldiers' Mothers' ideological image of a totalitarian state that takes away children from their families, both at the time of their birth and now again, when they are recruited to the army. In a way, The Soldiers' Mothers generate a popular claim for rehabilitation, where family medical histories testify to common people's suffering, much like the organisation "Memorial" collects testimonies of Stalin's purges and the GULag. These sides of Soviet-Russian history were neglected by official Soviet historians, and are, according to The Soldiers' Mothers, also neglected by the current government40. The Soldiers' Mothers confront the state, which needs to man its army, with the proof that so many women and children suffered in Soviet birth clinics and hope thereby to get the state to recognize its past mistakes, to acknowledge people's sufferings, and to respect people's dignity in the future.

I have focused on births, but The Soldiers' Mothers also blame the totalitarian Soviet system for the prevalence of alcoholism, domestic violence, and broken families, and use the recurrence of these sociological symptoms in draftees' and runaway soldiers' medical histories to back their reinterpretation of Russian history. They also regularly use their own statistics and runaway soldiers' statements about their health for press releases.


Another prevalent theme was fear which was connected to Russia's violent and war-torn history. Almost everyone I talked with had initially been afraid to do anything about the son's situation out of fear of the police, military, or authorities in general. There were concrete reasons to be afraid of the police; every year the media reports illegal round ups of young men in the streets and metro stations (Human Rights Watch 2002), and during my fieldwork there were also instances when young men's health documentation mysteriously disappeared from the local draft administration and he was drafted in spite of obvious disabilities. A close informant told me that Russians in general did not expect the state to deal justly with its citizens. Many people were afraid to take anyone to court, because they had heard terrible stories of people ending up in Siberia; as one common saying goes: "Open your mouth and you will end up in Siberia". Some women at The Soldiers' Mothers were almost paranoid, saw "traps" everywhere and would run away if they glimpsed a person in uniform.

People's fear, however, also took the form of an inexplicable panic - I call it habituated - that paralysed them when they had to deal with authorities, even if they knew what to say and how to act. Some women told me that they had lived with the fear of their son one day being taken away from them ever since they gave birth to him. One of them was Anna. She was a faint-hearted woman who had spoken a lot about fear at the organisation's seminars. When I interviewed her in her home in a suburb of St. Petersburg and asked about her experience with The Soldiers' Mothers, she immediately started talking about her fear:

Anna: [When I first came to the organisation] I felt fear, I was terrified, I had a feeling that, finally, I clashed with this enormous terrible problem [the draft] that I could not budge. I was so small, so f-f-fragile (laughs), yes, and I just couldn't fight against any of these bureaucrats, I was very scared. (…) Thanks to them [the organisation] I could overcome that fear (strakh), the fear of bureaucrats (chinovniki).

Anna described her fear as "an explosion that blows you away and you no longer exist" and thanked the organisation for having taught her to deal with this once so overwhelming and incomprehensible feeling, so she was now able to speak about it. She recounted all the small steps she had taken and how every "little victory" had given her the strength and courage to continue. As for many other women, Anna's "victory" was a question of conquering her fear. When I asked where her feeling of fear had come from, she explained:

Anna: It was born from our Soviet realities. I think that they were the fears in my family, my childhood fears, yes, and these fears came from real events. How many wars have we had… how many people have died! (…) It is as if the fears come from reality and from our parents – they lost their parents during the war. My mother's parents died in the war when she was five years. She grew up in an orphanage. My father was twelve years when he lost his parents too and grew up in an orphanage. And these two people, who had no parents, lived with all this fear, the fear from the war, and it formed the psychology of their children.

Anna's description of her fear as something she inherited from her parents echoes The Soldiers' Mothers' concepts of "genetic fear" and "fear accumulated through generations". These concepts offer an explanation for Anna's feelings and enable her to tell her family's muted history, however fragmented it is.

The fact that conversations about fear often turned toward the war was probably in part triggered by the risk of their sons being sent to Chechnya, but many women like Anna connected their fear with experiences of war or violence in past generations. Russia has an exceptionally bloody history during the 20th century, with civil war, famines, forced collectivization, purges, the First and Second World Wars, deportations, and labour camps. Almost every family has its victims. Many women remembered fragments of what they had heard as children about their grandparents who died in WWII, starved to death during the Blockade of Leningrad or mysteriously disappeared, but their memory lacked concrete descriptions. Pahl and Thompson (1994), who recorded the life histories of 46 Russians born before 1965 in Moscow and Leningrad in 1991, observe that their informants' knowledge of their family histories was full of gaps (ibid.:136-8). Pahl and Thompson attribute this fact to a habit of "politics of forgetfulness" by which Soviet citizens omitted information about e.g. their ancestors class background from their life stories out of fear for repressions (ibid.). But this does not explain why such memories were still seldom mentioned inside families after the thaw following Stalin's death, indeed, even after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. My material suggests that it is embodied fear rather than a rational fear of certain consequences that holds people back from remembering.

Anna did not know how her grandparents died, because her parents never spoke about it; maybe even they did not know, she said. But all her life she had carried a deeply embodied feeling that something inexplicably terrible had happened to them. In this sense, "genetic fear" means that Anna, incorporating in her habitus "the objective structures of history", carries "part of yesterday's man [that] makes up the unconscious part of ourselves" (Bourdieu 1977:78-79) and through The Soldiers' Mothers she became engaged in reforming her habitus.

Certain occasions, such as confronting authorities, rouse this horror in her. Similar feelings of fear were the reasons many people gave for avoiding contact with the authorities, and many could not stand to visit e.g. military stations. So when The Soldiers' Mothers take up the theme of fear and their methods force people into situations that produce fear, they are up against powerful forces that hold people back. This can, in part, explain why some people at The Soldiers' Mothers struggle with the problem of the draft for years avoiding to face the authorities at the recruitment station. In chapter six I will analyse The Soldiers Mothers' exercises to work with and overcome this habituated fear.


Apart from this deeply embodied fear, the parental generation is also marked by their socialization in a militarized Soviet society that demanded obedience and preparedness for war. In an interview, the father of a draftee traced his initial inability to oppose the draft order of his son back to his childhood experiences of militarization and submission:

When I was in the army, there was the command "rise!" and we all got up, "fall in!" and we ran to the canteen - in formation! And I remember it was the same in the Pioneer camp and in kindergarten. They were not the military, but conditions were militarized. From childhood we learned to obey orders, they didn't even have to be pronounced. (…) You knew it, but you didn't realize it.

This man told me that it was only through The Soldiers' Mothers that he had realized that he was unconsciously "led" by a vast force that would also take away his son if he did not learn to resist it. The post-war generation learned to be suspicious of enemies and prepared for war and – at least in public life, e.g. in school and at the Pioneers' – to express their loyalty to the socialist state.

Once, when I was travelling on a suburban train together with Olga from The Soldiers' Mothers, a young guitar player struck up the tunes of a song about a soldier going to war. Olga expressed her discontent: "Why do Russians always have to sing about war? It would be much more normal for a young man to sing about love and beautiful girls!" She had just explained to me that people all over the world just want a normal, decent life, and the sight of the musician was her proof of how far away from that ideal the Russians are.

The tendency to use metaphors of war in art and music is widespread in Russia. Asked about the prominence of war in his songs, the famous Russian artist and songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) once said in an interview in Canada: "You know that we all grew up on material from the war… (…) The songs are written by someone who lives now, for people who are not through with this history either… So it is clear that they contain something which made me write them now" (cited in Nielsen 1984:17). Vysotsky was one of the few public persons in the Soviet Union, who understood these complicated and pent-up emotions and expressed them in his chansons about ordinary Soviet life, and when he died thousands gathered in the streets to mourn (Nielsen 1984). "War" permeated his songs, Vysotsky seemed to say, because people still lived in a society permeated by violence and suffering.

As Hannah Arendt writes, it is in "storytelling and generally in artistic transposition of individual experience" that "the greatest forces of inner life (…) are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance" (Arendt 1998 [1957]:50). The Soldiers' Mothers offer such a context in which people's fears and anxieties are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized into a common story.

Private into public stories

The women's stories at The Soldiers' Mothers work to reorder their meaningful worlds on three levels: On the individual level, with concepts such as "accumulated" or "genetic" fear, women like Anna receive a framework to comprehend their emotions and family histories and to express them in public. "The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves" (Arendt 1998 [1957]:50), so when the women tell their stories at The Soldiers' Mothers' they gain a new sense of self, not only in relation to themselves but also to others41.

On the second level, the women's life stories achieve meaning on a collective level, because they insert their individual stories into The Soldiers' Mothers' recreated version of Russian history. Skultans, in her analysis of Latvian life stories collected in 1992-1993, describes how dominant narratives of experiences of the Soviet state's arrests and deportations of people to Sibiria offer Latvians both meaningful individual autobiographies and a collective national identity (Skultans 1997:766). This requires of the narrator to build "links between the self and the social and cultural landscape" (ibid.:767). Such links to the social and cultural landscape are offered to people by The Soldiers' Mothers, so e.g. memories from Soviet birth clinics testify to "totalitarianism" and childhood experiences from the kindergarden and Pioneer camp explain citizens' blind submission to a militarized state.

The third level concerns The Soldiers' Mothers' political goal to change society from the bottom as they strive to elevate their version of Russian history to an official level, partly through engaging more and more individuals, partly by putting pressure on the state via draft evasion and publishing reports on the state of soldiers' health in the army. There is a tradition for eye-witness testimonies of war and suffering in Soviet-Russian historiography (e.g. Dickinson 1995 on the Blockade of Leningrad during WWII), but in the Soviet Union, people's suffering was interpreted as their heroic sacrifices to reach communism. After the Communist party lost its monopoly on 'history' and information in general, the need of a new future orientation arose – and here ideology of The Soldiers' Mothers offers one option.

In the context of the Latvian history of Soviet occupation from 1940-1991 and independence in 1991, personal stories of arrest by the Soviet secret service, deportations to Siberia, exile and finally return to the homeland metonymically become tales of Latvian national destiny with a strong potential to become a national myth after Latvian independence (Skultans 1997:777). In Russia where "private grief over state-perpetrated violence was more rigidly repressed than in the Baltic countries" (ibid.), however, the social and historical landscape is another and the alternative version of Russian history that is promoted by The Soldiers' Mothers, Memorial and certain groups of intellectuals is marginal.


In this chapter I have analysed The Soldiers' Mothers' introductory lecture, "The School of Human Rights", and the stories that the women tell as "victors" in this forum as well as in other settings. I have shown how the organisation's dominant narrative of personal transformation - "The Path to Freedom" - becomes real and meaningful to the assembled during the "ritual performance" of "The School of Human Right". The narrative links the practical steps necessary to receive an exemption from military service with a process of personal transformation which the women are offered to go through. Activities such as writing family medical histories urge the women to contemplate their past experiences of fear, giving birth and childhood in the militarized Soviet society. The narrative and these distinct themes contribute to the reordering of the women's meaningful worlds on the individual and collective level.

At the same time, I have described the women's embodied fear, inhibitions and reluctance to confront authorities. It is part their personal transformation to comprehend and handle their embodied fear, an activity which I have termed "reforming habitus". Telling their stories in front of each other and writing family medical histories are two ways to comprehend and handle fear. In the next chapter I will describe other ways in which the women seek to control their fear and inhibitions so as to prevent such emotions from dominating their behaviour in front of officials.

Chapter 6: Transforming the Self in Social Interaction

This chapter examines the change of habitus that is predicted in the narrative of personal transformation which I described in the previous chapter. I showed that even if the women wanted to follow the organisation's methods, this was not merely a strategy that they chose, but one that demanded of them that they overcome their deeply embodied fear of authorities and other unconscious dispositions.

Bourdieu points out that habitus, being an "open system of dispositions that is constantly subjected to experiences, and therefore constantly affected by them in a way that either reinforces or modifies its structures", is durable but not eternal (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:133). Bourdieu opens up the possibility that "[a]side from the effects of certain social trajectories, habitus can also be transformed via socio-analysis, i.e., via an awakening of consciousness and a form of "selfwork" that enables the individual to get a handle on his or her dispositions" (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:133). I will argue that the women at The Soldiers' Mothers engaged in such "selfwork", e.g. when they participated in the organisation's seminars and formed "groups of mutual support" to help each other employ and train the new ways of acting that they had learned.

In my efforts to shed light on these processes of "selfwork", I have found inspiration in Michel Foucault, especially his notion of 'technologies of the self' (1988a, 1990), by which human beings actively turn themselves into subjects. Before I turn to the analysis of the women's concrete activities at seminars and in the "groups of mutual support", I will explain my understanding of the concept of 'technologies of the self' and how I benefit from it in this study. As we shall see, the goal of the women is not to transform into Western-type individualized subjects, but to become responsible mothers who are capable of defending their sons in front of the authorities.

Technologies of the self

According to Foucault, technologies of the self,

permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality. (Foucault 1988a:18)

In "The Care for the Self" (1990), and at a seminar about the technologies of the self (1988a), Foucault analyses some of these self-techniques: Control of sexual behaviour and desires as found in the classical age, practices of letter writing and keeping diaries, remembrance and examination of the self, askesis, and the disclosure of the self in the Roman Empire and early Christianity are all techniques of the self, some of which have been handed down to our time. Here, I have found parallels in the ways in which the women at The Soldiers' Mothers work out detailed schedules and agendas to follow the steps of action outlined in the organisation's "path", write up their family medical histories, disclose their selves in discussions on fear and violence, and evaluate their conduct at recruitment stations, in court rooms, and military units. I will use the concept of 'technologies of the self' as an analytical tool to unwrap the complexity of The Soldiers' Mothers activities involving narrative constructions, mental and bodily techniques, and reshaping of conduct and identities (Rose 1999:52).

Techniques of the self involve being "called upon to take oneself as an object of knowledge and a field of action, so as to transform, correct, and purify oneself, and find salvation" (Foucault 1990:42). In other words, they are educational processes that involve producing knowledge about oneself and acting upon oneself and one's actions in order to transform oneself with a certain goal in view. The connection between 'knowledge' and 'truth' runs through all of Foucault's work, and in an interview he made it clear that "the care for the self is of course knowledge of the self (…) but it is also the knowledge of a certain number of rules of conduct or of principles which are at the same time truths and regulations. To care for the self is to fit one's self out with these truths."42 (1988b:5). Correspondingly, at The Soldiers' Mothers, the self is objectified and examined under a critical gaze to be transformed in accordance with the organisation's "truths", that is, its ideology. The concrete goal is to overcome one's fears and inhibitions and to be able to defend one's son in front of military officials. Though the processes of 1) gaining knowledge about oneself, 2) producing "truths" and 3) incorporating a renewed self go on simultaneously – i.e. human beings are at once objects and subjects of their actions – I will separate these three aspects for analytic purposes in the section "Working with Soviet selves: Knowledge, truth and incorporation".

My use of the concept of 'technologies of the self' differs somewhat from other usages. In Foucault's work, 'technologies of the self' are one among three overall mechanisms of modern power or "modes of objectification"43 that function together (Foucault 1982:208). Through analyses of different Western European institutions and phenomena of power like the prison system, psychiatry and sexuality, Foucault created what he called "a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made into subjects" (ibid., emphasis added). It is in Foucault's late work that he explores how subjects work as agents of their own self-cultivation with 'technologies of the self'.

In many studies inspired by Foucault, 'technologies of the self' have been considered an aspect of a modern rationality of power or 'art of government' that Foucault calls 'governmentality' (Foucault 1991, see also Shore and Wright 1997). In these studies, 'technologies of the self' work as neoliberal political technologies of power whereby individuals, mainly in Europe and North America, install themselves as 'governable subjects', be it as self-managing employees (Tynell 2001) or clients of the welfare state (Järvinen and Mortensen 2002). Since this thesis deals with a non-Western context, I will delimit my use of 'technologies of the self' from studies of 'governmentality' in the following section.

Individualized, governable subjects?

In the Soviet Union, power was legitimized in a different way than in the capitalist systems of Western Europe where the population is governed through ideas like "privacy" and "private property" (Nielsen 1987:75). Verdery (1991: 436) describes state power under socialism in Foucault's terminology as a mix of "premodern", coercive and "modern" power; the socialist states belonged to the "modern" world, but to an alternative modernity. The Bolsheviks came to power on the basis of a violent coup d'état and established their position through civil war, purges, and violent dispossessions of private property before the emergence of invisible disciplinary mechanisms. In chapter seven I describe one of these disciplinary mechanisms, namely the image of the Soviet nation as a family where men and women fulfilled different gendered duties toward the Father State.

The second difference is that the 'technologies of the self' at play at The Soldiers' Mothers' do not feed into the Russian government's political technologies.44 The Soldiers' Mothers are in opposition to the government - during my fieldwork military officers and the city administration of St. Petersburg accused the organisation of treason and of undermining Russia's defence – and to claim that they produce 'governable subjects' would be to dismiss the organisation's potential for resistance and change.

Advocates of the concept of 'governmentality' would argue that 'governmentality' exceeds governments and states (Rose 1993). In this sense, citizens of "third world" countries and of the "newly emerging democracies" are also submitted to neoliberal government strategies through international aid agencies' and lending institutions' programs of economic liberalization and democratization. In a study from Chile, Schild (1998) argues that feminist consciousness raising workshops - similar in their contents to The Soldiers' Mothers' seminars - that offered working-class women empowerment and an alternative to the traditional female identity of motherhood during dictatorship, now feed into a new discourse of individualization and "active citizenship" based on market economy and neoliberal modernization. The allegedly independent 'civil society' thus supports the state's neoliberal project of producing governable 'subjects of rights'. One could claim like Hemment (1999), writing about women's crisis centres in Russia, that The Soldiers 'Mothers' ideology stems from a powerful and pervasive international discourse and contributes to the establishment of a new market-oriented order. My material, however, speaks in favour of a different interpretation, which emphasises relations to Russian-Soviet history, e.g. the ideas of the Soviet dissident movement, and The Soldiers' Mothers' notions of individuality (lichnost') that are connected to the family.

My third point is, consequently, that studies emphasising the dissemination of global hegemonic discourses run the risk of becoming "thin" descriptions, which anthropologist, with our local, small-scale studies, can "thicken" and enrich through careful ethnographic description and local contextualization of concepts like 'human rights'.

If human rights reports strip events free of actor's consciousness and social context, then part of anthropologists' brief is to restore the richness of subjectivities, and chart the complex fields of social relations, contradictory values and the emotional accompaniment to macro-structures that human rights accounts often exclude. (Wilson 1997:15)

Human rights and citizen's rights play an increasing role in Russia. This was evident from the abundance of shelves in the big down-town bookstores with the Russian constitution, statute books, and easy-to-read books explaining legal issues from labour legislation, the rights of disabled and retired servicemen to housing acts, regulations on the police' powers and, of course, military service. At an NGO forum held in St. Petersburg in April 2003, I noticed that various civic initiatives - including environmental organisations, organisations that arrange shelters for homeless and orphans and organisations that help pensioners, disabled, and single mothers – tend to view the issues they fight for as a question of rights protection and citizens' lacking access to information.45 But, following Richard Wilson's recommendations, the perspective on human rights that is relevant for my study of The Soldiers' Mothers activities is the way in which the concept is put into practical use by concrete actors in local contexts.

To sum up, when I analyse the 'technologies of the self' at work at The Soldiers' Mothers, it is not to prove that a certain kind of neo-liberal 'governmentality' is being installed, but to understand how the processes of self-work takes place at The Soldiers' Mothers.

It is important to note, that 'technologies of the self' are social processes that take place in actual locations, not internal processes that go on inside individual selves (Foucault 1988a:18). Important settings are the seminars at The Soldiers' Mothers that I will describe in the following section. Also, I will show that the women at The Soldiers' Mothers are involved in these processes in different ways and to different degrees. As we shall see, The Soldiers' Mothers want to achieve a certain sense of self that is capable of certain actions and has certain local consequences.

Technologies of the self in social interaction: The seminars

In the previous chapter we saw how people were introduced to the organisation and its methods at "The School of Human Rights". Those who decided to follow the recommended "path" and encountered problems along the way were invited to participate in The Soldiers' Mothers' seminars. They were held once a week in smaller, more intimate forums of 20-30 women and dealt with specific events, obstacles and conflicts, through games, role play, and small discussion exercises in groups of four to five women. Part of the aim was to teach the women to cooperate in teams, listen to others and formulate their own opinions. At the beginning of each three-hour session, all participants – including the two teachers and me - were seated in a circle and presented themselves by names. The content and aim of the seminars followed the course of the drafting seasons, so in March participants were mentally prepared for the coming draft by working out agendas and memorising the articles of the constitution and the law on military service, and when the time came for the medical examinations of the sons at the recruitment station, the women discussed their experiences in order to improve their performances in front of the officials. At the end of the seminars, their outcome was evaluated, and each participant was urged to say a few words about his or her reactions, emotions or lessons learned. For The Soldiers' Mothers it was important that people worked with their personality on an abstract level in order to find that out that they acted and thought as they did because of fear and because they grew up in a totalitarian society. Only upon realizing this could people move on and change their habitus.

However, far from all women who come to The Soldiers' Mothers and make practical use of their methods engage in these more abstract and existential activities or frequent the seminars regularly. Single mothers often had no time to participate in the seminars, because they were busy supporting their families materially, and runaway soldiers' relatives rarely had the patience. As I have shown, self-work takes time and energy and they have to force themselves to embark on "the path" and engage in The Soldiers' Mothers' scheme for personal development.

Usually, more than half of the participants at the seminar belonged to the "core" of the organisation. For them, the seminars were also an opportunity to meet and hear the latest news and make appointments to go recruitment stations, courts and hospitals. But they also helped new comers, gave advice, sheltered runaway soldiers and sometimes even became their legal proxies. What is more, they mastered the organisation's jargon and ideology and took a leading role in bringing out the moral that the discussion and exercises aimed at. Naturally, many women cared little about the seminar's abstract discussions, considering the abuse of their sons in the army and the many practical tasked they stood in front of in order to free them. So sometimes their conversations drifted away from the subject and the leaders scolded them. In group discussions, the core made sure that everybody stuck to the theme and purpose of the exercise. Though everybody was invited to speak their mind freely without being interrupted by the others, a certain moral or "truth" always showed through. This was promoted by the core through gestures or a smile and in cases of "wrong" opinions, e.g. support of the army, some even protested loudly and corrected the "periphery".

The morals and ideals for correct behaviour in front of authorities that were learned at the seminars were also trained in other settings. One mother explained to me that the point of coming to the seminars was attaining the "theory" needed for the "practice" at recruitment points, military units, courts, and hospitals during the week. Knowing the women who participated at the seminars, their cases and their problems and going with them to the recruitment stations, military stations and so on, I could see how they worked to improve their selves in different situations. In the following section I will analyse some of these situations and contextualize exercises from the seminars with relevant discussions, cases, incidents and other ethnographers' accounts.

Working with Soviet selves: Knowledge, truth and incorporation

For analytical purposes and because I think that different aspects predominate in the diverse activities, I discriminate between three aspects of the women's self-work: 1) The goal of gaining knowledge about the self was to become aware of one's personality and realize that one had to change; 2) Producing "truths" means that the women defined which self was desirable in order to solve their sons' problems; and 3) this self had to be embodied. In reality, theses processes go on simultaneously.

Gaining knowledge about the self

When the women at The Soldiers' Mothers' write their family medical history and contemplate their experiences of birth-giving, fear, and militarization, as analysed in the previous chapter, this is one way in which they gain knowledge about themselves. By telling their stories and discussing issues such as "Violence in my life" and "What does fear do to me?" with the others at the seminars, they make themselves objects of scrutiny and reach an awareness of their selves and the reality they live in and used to live in during Soviet times.

The seminars, too, included aspects of self-examination: Once, in a game, the participants had to work in pairs and in turn lead their blindfolded partners around the assembly hall without bumping into anything. In an interview some time later, one woman told me that this game had exposed her personality and taught her how she could improve.

Lilia: I had to lead Aleksandra, and I did it very fast, but I was very afraid of kicking her ankles. (…) The other women told me that I was the kind of person who does everything very fast, even when I should take a break and think things over. And I think that is true.

She also told me that the game made the women think about their and their husband's role in the family and how different personalities complemented each other. So even if the women were discussing their personalities, they did not see themselves as free-floating individuals but persons that are bound up in various social responsibilities.

Producing "truths"

What kind of self was desirable appeared as a theme at another seminar, where the participants discussed the question: "Which skills and traits of personality are necessary to reach one's goal and free one's son?" In small groups, the women had to define the qualities that would help them on their way through all stages of the bureaucracy. The most popular answers were "love for your son", "responsibility", "knowledge of the laws", and "mutual support". At the end of the seminar, the groups' ideas were discussed and ranked. The women clearly felt they stood in front of a big task and some suggested that "faith", "hope", and "patience" were necessary virtues. The organisation's leaders disagreed. They valued "determination", "persistence", "confidence", "courage", and "resilience" much more.

Two month later, a train trip with one of the organisation's staff members opened my eyes for The Soldiers' Mothers' differentiation between "patience/endurance" (terpenie) and "persistence" (uporstvo): I had expressed my admiration for a mother who had visited first her sons' military unit and then the military hospital and the prosecutor's office every day for over two months and had finally received his "military ticket". Olga hissed "Admire?!"- she did not have the faintest respect for this kind of "Russian patience". Instead of "enduring and quietly relying on fate", Russian women should learn to act persistently, "patience" being a passive and "persistence" being an active response to one's problems. She herself had freed her son in six weeks and not spent more than a couple of hours at the military offices.

This controversy reflects a longstanding discussion about Russian, notably female Russian, personhood: In her ethnography on Russia during Perestroika, Russian Talk (1997), Nancy Ries reveals her frustration over her friends' and informants' constant litanies of futile self-sacrifice that she concludes are paradigmatic (ibid.:17-18). Ries points to the "basic sacred vocabulary of the Russian tale - such abstract but recurrent themes as danger, heroism, endurance, and hope" (ibid.:55-56, emphasis added) and to the "art of loss" in Russian modern literature, e.g. of exiled authors' enduring and self-sacrificing wives (ibid.:142). In Russia, she claims, it generally generates more moral value and "social power" to side with the powerless than to prove successful (ibid.:19, see also Pesmen 2000:232 ff). Similarly, I have often heard people tell jokes about their nation's ridiculous fate or complain, though sometimes in an affectionate way, about their country as "the country of fools". Boym (1994:40) refers to the folktales about Ivan the Fool who sleeps under the stove most of the time and only wakes up occasionally to do noble deeds. He symbolically represents what Russians call their "national character".

At The Soldiers' Mothers, it was not at all regarded as prestigious to cry, lament one's situation or even complain. The organisation sent the message that even common people could take control of their lives and also that they, in a joint effort, could change the whole of society. Whereas Ries (1997:53) quotes her informants as telling mainly about small "defeats" or "achievements" (podvigy) over everyday obstacles - e.g. grandmothers bringing home a kilo of sugar after waiting for hours in a queue – there are performances by "victors" at "The School of Human Rights, convey a sense of "victory" as empowerment rather than lamentation. I attribute this striking difference between Ries' and my fieldwork findings to our different fieldwork settings: For the women at The Soldiers' Mothers it was the health and sometimes even survival of their sons that was at stake. Ries mainly sat and talked with her informants around their kitchen tables, but The Soldiers' Mothers insisted that people should act. At one seminar, the teachers were so tired of two women who kept complaining that they were not admitted into their sons' recruitment station, that the teachers decided to stage the situation at the recruitment point as a play with all seminar participants as actors. With the leaders and members of the organisation's core in the leading roles, the play demonstrated that the women had made several mistakes and thus only had themselves to blame: They had neither cited the relevant passages from the constitution, shown their authorization nor asked to see the head of the recruitment commission. Afterwards, the scene was repeated in the correct form, with the correct attitudes and behaviour. To me, this was a concrete way of working with the habitus.

Incorporating practices

This kind of mutual evaluation and correction also went on among the women during the support groups' common visits to offices and authorities. Before a woman addressed the doctor or officer, another would give her a little pep-talk and check up on her preparedness. Afterwards, the course of action was evaluated in order to do better next time: Had she cited the right paragraphs and remembered to put down the person's name or service number in order to write a complaint? Had she acted self-confidently or had her eyes flickered?

The body and body language was a particularly important field of self-work, because it was perceived as the most difficult to control. I was told by some women that even though they intellectually knew their rights, their bodies would not always comply with the mind and they were overpowered by embodied fear. So the women reminded each other to signal strength, determination and self-confidence by looking the officials straight in the eyes. Previously, they told me, they had felt "downtrodden as a grass straw", "wiped out" or "kicked around like a football".

At the seminars, a range of exercises dealt with controlling the body. In one exercise two women had to hold a sheet of paper stretched out between them, both persons pinching two corner of the sheet, one with each hand. Holding the paper between them at chest height, one had to act the head military doctor and the other a mother, convincing him that her son was unfit to serve. If she could do this without crumpling the paper, she was so much in control of her body and emotions as to not shiver or yell at him. This was a sign of successful incorporation of an improved self.

Another game addressed the women's ability to defend the private space that surrounds around each human (lichnoe prostranstvo). The participants stood shoulder to shoulder forming two rows facing each other with four or five metres between them, partnering off with a women opposite. One player defined for herself her "border", a point in front of her which marked the closest she would let her partner approach her. She then had to signal with her eyes to her opponent - without saying a word - where her "border" was while the other person slowly walks towards her. Afterwards, feelings and reactions were discussed and it became clear that the whole game was meant to reflect social conduct in public life and especially with regards to authorities. In this relationship it was imperative to signal strength, determination and self-confidence.

Conclusion: Responsible selves

We have seen that the women's self-work led to an awareness and improvement of their selves, both in regard to their attitudes and their bodily behaviour. But the self they strived for cannot be reduced to a legally defined, Western-type individualized sense of self. In his famous essay on the notion of person and the notion of self, Mauss (1985 [1938]:3) demonstrated that the notion of self is formed by "social history" according to changing "systems of law, religion, customs, social structures and mentality". There are a few things to say about the notion of self employed at The Soldiers' Mothers as it reflects specific Russian discourses and social structures. The following points also manifest the connections between individual's embodied dispositions and people's collective meaningful worlds of which notions of the self are a part.

First, there is a tradition to create a link between individuals' behaviour and attitudes and the overall good of society which is also known from classic Russian philosophy and literature (e.g. in Tolstoi's writings on marriage). In the Soviet Union, personhood was both a target of social change through educational campaigns and a realm of popular resistance, because people regarded private life a refuge from the over-controlling state (see chapter three and Rivkin-Fish 2001:30). In a study of public health education in Russia, Rivkin-Fish gives an account of physicians who conceive of their health promotion work as the cultivation of lichnost' (personhood, the person), that the Soviet system has trampled down in favour of materialism and the collective. By teaching women to care for their bodies' integrity, these doctors believe, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and abortions are prevented and the generally poor state of women's health in Russia improved. Like the physicians in Rivkin-Fish's study, The Soldiers' Mothers perpetuate the Russian-Soviet principle of linking personal transformation to social change, albeit with a different political goal.

Second, in Russia, where people's movement and choices in life have been restricted by the state and in many other ways e.g. by the living conditions in communal apartments for so long, "individuality" and "individual freedom" is thought of in other ways as in the West, and Boym (1994:83) tells us that "personality" and "freedom of the soul" are more adequate expressions. "Inner life" was more important than "private life" (ibid.:84) which was also obvious from many of my informants preoccupation with philosophy, psychology and religion. The Soldiers' Mothers, however, wanted the women to go one step further and utilize their concern for the self to become capable of actions in public life, e.g. to confront the recruitment authorities. Similarly to the way in which The Soldiers' Mothers created an alternative to the Soviet version of history based on the family medical histories' testimonies of social suffering in chapter five, in this chapter we have seen that The Soldiers' Mothers want to replace the defeatist and fatalistic discourse that Ries (1997) described in her ethnography on Russia during Perestroika.

Last but not least, the women's selves were defined through their social roles as mothers, aunts, wives, members of groups of mutual support and so on. The reason why they developed their selves was to become able to defend their sons, that is, they developed their self for the sake of someone else.

Janet Carsten (2004:107) has pointed out in her studies of kinship that the longstanding opposition between Western individual and non-Western collective notions of self stems from the fact that anthropologists have looked to philosophy, law and religion when studying personhood in the West while focusing on caste or kinship in non-Western settings. Equally, if I had focused only on The Soldiers' Mothers' orientation towards human rights and individual consciousness-raising, I might have arrived at the conclusion that the organisation promotes Western individualism. Instead, in the next chapter, the reordering of people's meaningful worlds will be further "enchanted" (Verdery 1999:26) through an analysis of the relation between people and the state as 'family'.

Chapter 7: The Family, Gender and Kinship

As a way to tell The Soldiers' Mothers and my informants about my fieldwork findings, I offered to give a short presentation at a seminar in the end of July. I planned to stage the session as a focus group discussion, set in motion by my presentation. Besides two from the organisation's staff, eleven women participated in the discussion. Four were mothers of runaway soldiers and new comers to the seminars, so they made only a few remarks. The rest were experienced seminar-participants who provided a lively discussion in which I barely interfered. The whole discussion centred round the issue of "responsibility" that I had raised in the presentation, because I had heard them speak about personal responsibility and the responsibilities of mothers, families and bureaucrats so often. The discussion revealed that they thought of responsibility in terms of family ties and felt obliged to their family, as a family member. Their relation to the state was, however, also wrapped in kinship metaphors, which, I will argue, makes it a strong and "embodied" tie that The Soldiers' Mothers encourage the women to reconsider and act out differently.

'Family' constitutes a weighty metaphor for several close and committing social relations and in this chapter I will consider four aspects of family relations: 1) The imagined family of the state, 2) the role of concrete families of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and other relatives, 3) gender and kinship (here I will argue that mothers and other female relatives act on behalf of families and become their family's public face), and 4) relationships of mutual trust and help among the people who come to The Soldiers' Mothers, which are also described in kinship terms.

Whose sons?

Nina, the mother of an 18-year-old draftee and always an agitated speaker at the seminars, made the first in a row of comments:

Nina: Well, take my family: I have a daughter and a son. I was the one who raised him, but when he grew up, I was told: "Your son must pay his debts and do his duty". I don't know what he owes them [the state/power holders]. And the thing is that we don't want to give away our children, especially as we know the conditions in the army. But they want to take him, take him with force. They don't give a damn about the laws and all our documents. (…)

Sonia: I want to add that our state does not need us, it does not need the people. Nobody cares about us, we are just small grains of sand. The state really lives its own life – and we live ours. (…) When we give birth to our children, nobody worries how we shall feed and dress them. But when they reach the age of 18, they want us to give them away. Give them to what? To torture and humiliation. Before, we had an army that protected us and 20 years ago we even had patriotism and everything. Now there isn't anything of that. (…)

Lena (leader of The Soldiers' Mothers): I want to stress personal responsibility. (…) In my opinion, everything we have is our own making. Why, after all, do young men end up in the army? Because their mothers do not take personal responsibility and sort things out in time. Everything, in reality, begins with the family.

The question of responsibility provoked Nina to defend her reasons for not letting her son become a soldier by rejecting her son's and her own obligations toward the state: On the one hand, men are obliged to fulfil their duty to the state by serving in the army, and mothers are obliged to give their sons away. But on the other hand, the state has not given her son anything in return and has left his upbringing to her, which obviously has not been an easy task in the 1990s when the shelves in shops were empty and wages were not paid. And now the state is not even able to protect her son while he is in the army. In other words, her sense of mutual responsibility and reciprocity between the state and herself as a mother and her son as a soldier/"son of the state" is broken. The state no longer deserves people's sacrifices, and its request for her son is illegitimate, immoral and against the law.

Sonia agreed that the state disregards its obligations and only has an interest in its people as soldiers. With torture and humiliation in the army, young men cannot be entrusted to the state anymore. But this is not the way it should be; 20 years ago the reciprocity was intact, the army protected the people, and people were patriots. Sonia was disappointed and it seems that she would still have been willing to bring her sacrifices, if only the state lived up to its side of the deal.

Sahlins (1974:193-196) describes a continuum of three formal types of reciprocity: 1) "generalized reciprocity" where the giver does not keep track of how much he is giving and what he gets in return, e.g. in a family where members give what they can and receive what they need; 2) "balanced reciprocity", which is less personal and more transactional, because both sides expect duties, gifts and payments to be directly returned; and 3) "negative reciprocity" where each side seeks to maximize their own gain at the expense of the other. In these terms, Nina and Sonia, at the outset, expect a relationship of generalized reciprocity where the state and the people live a "common" (vs. "separate") life, care about each other's wellbeing, and see the upbringing and protection of children as a joint task. What they experience today when they draw up the balance sheet is, however, negative reciprocity where the state only takes from people and makes unjustified claims.

Lena, as the organisation's leader, wanted the mothers to reframe the whole question of whether the state deserves their trust or not. They should think about their own responsibilities before the state's. Families and not the state bear the responsibility for their sons, she maintained, so it does not help to complain about the army's bad performance and the broken reciprocity with the state, once one has blindly followed its demands. Later, we shall see that The Soldiers' Mothers want to get away from these emotional extremes and instead promote a more business-like, balanced reciprocity between the state and its citizens where each side is aware of and fulfils its distinct duties.

But where do Nina's and Sonia's expectations of the state and their own commitment to it come from and why are they so emotional about it? I will argue that their expectations derive from their socialization in the Soviet Union, when men's and women's relationship to the state was framed in kinship terms. It was inculcated in women that their sons were also the state's sons whom they "gave to the state" (rodit' gosudarstvu, literally "to give birth for the state") (Zdravomyslova in Ashwin 2000:26) and, in turn, the state provided for the family like a father. This symbolic relation worked as an effective source of legitimacy for the Soviet Union.46

The power of kinship metaphors

The power of kinship metaphors is widely acknowledged in anthropology, and many have pointed out, in general terms, that nationalism in part derives its solidarity and strong emotional appeal from the language of kinship (e.g. Anderson 1983:131-32, Schneider 1977:67-68). But kinship is not just any metaphor; it is a very strong and "deep" one. The image of the family is an ideal condition for "generalized reciprocity" because kinship ties, considered as blood relationships, provide for "diffuse, enduring solidarity" (Schneider 1977:67). Schneider called kinship a "privileged system", because people think of it as natural and biological ties derived from sexual procreation (Schneider in Carsten 2004:141). Solheim and Borchgrevik (1993:157) propose that gender roles, and here I would add family roles, are tied to "primordial experiences" of birth giving, and they become powerful, "deep" metaphors for describing reality in a way that is difficult to question or break with.

Following Herzfeld (1992:12) and Delaney (1995:177), I therefore do not find it sufficient to treat the image of the state as family as "mere metaphor". Instead, I will show how, in Russia, the metaphor is grounded socially and was reflected in a real material and moral reciprocity between the Soviet Union and its citizens that had – and still has - real effects on people's behaviour and emotions. In addition, my material sheds light on what can happen when such a quite literal relationship of kinship and reciprocity is broken, because the state no longer acts as a "father".

The Father State and the Soviet Family

I solemnly swear allegiance to the Russian Federation. I swear devotedly to observe its constitution and laws, strictly to fulfil the regulations for military service and my superiors' and commanders' orders. I swear honourably to fulfil the military duty and bravely to defend the Federation's freedom, independence and constitutional order, the People and the Fatherland.

Military oath of the Russian Federation

I have a son of 16 years who goes to a military college, but I don't even know if he should go to the army, for what is there to defend today? Sobchak?! Putin?! Berezovskii?!47

Military psychiatrist, helping out at The Soldiers' Mothers

Whereas in the military oath coming soldiers declare, often witnessed by their proud parents in a ceremony, that they will defend their people and fatherland (otechestvo from otets, father), a military psychiatrist whom I met once a week at The Soldiers' Mothers' once exclaimed, that he did not know who to defend anymore, because today's men of power were certainly not worth giving one's life for. It belongs to the story that the psychiatrist professed a belief in communism and longed for the time when there was an idea or a charismatic leader like Stalin to defend.

The Soviet Union defined itself as a "Warrior State" (Nielsen 1987:133), and when Russians "built communism" and sacrificed their lives in The Great Fatherland War, they did so in the name of the Soviet People and Lenin and Stalin as strong and mobilizing father figures that united the early Soviet nation. The Bolsheviks were not nationalists and with the notion of "The Soviet People", of which Lenin and Stalin were the founding fathers, they rather tried to create a new kind of collectivity that would, eventually, overcome national identities (Schoeberlein 2004:211). It was the goal of the Bolshevik revolution to destroy the traditional patriarchal family structures by violently dispossessing private farmers, legalizing divorce, emancipating women economically from their husbands and instead making them dependent on state-provided child-care and paid jobs. Pavlik Morozov, the young Pioneer who denounced his parents for hiding some grain, became a national hero symbolizing that one's duties were primarily to the state (Ashwin 2000:9). By portraying Stalin as the father of the Soviet People, they drew on a gendered and procreative imagery that would replace the traditional patriarchal family head. The ideological imagery of the head of state as a father was well-known from tsarist times, but in the Soviet Union it took a different form: The state was 'patriarchal' in terms of the social role it performed and the unprecedented way in which it provided work, health, housing, and education for its citizens and sought to manage them (Ashwin 2000:23). Even when Stalin died, the image of the Father State that provided for its citizens did not. This symbolic, but potent, source of legitimacy of Soviet power fits the principle of rational redistribution (Verdery 1991:420-422, see chapter three), because the patriarchal state distributed resources among its people like a head of family.

Soldiers and worker-mothers

In the 1940s, due to crash industrialization, the Second World War and the subsequent need for manpower, soldiers, and stable homes to raise them, the family was resurrected as the prime cell of socialization, albeit in the form of a new, Soviet family, controlled by the state and benefiting the state's interests (Ashwin 2000:9). Here, gender was a central organizing principle, in that men and women fulfilled different duties toward the state (ibid.:1): Men were expected to serve the state as workers, leaders, and soldiers - symbolically speaking as sons - and their status was defined by their position in the service of the state, not by their role in the family. All this lead to biological fathers being marginalized in the family where their role was reduced to financial obligations. Often, parents were divorced or the father was absent because he was an alcoholic, had died or was away fighting in the war or on migrant labour or in labour camps in the North or Far East48. The responsibility for the household and the children's socialization was left to women - mothers, grandmothers, other female siblings, and close friends - to a degree that justifies the predicate matrifocality (Nielsen 1987:149, Rotkirch 2000:120).

The women's role was defined as that of the worker-mother who had to work for the state, run the household and bring up new communists, workers, and soldiers. Motherhood was a social function that was rewarded with guaranteed wage labour, protection and special maternal benefits from the patriarchal state on which women were more dependent than on individual men. By the 1970s and 80s, when the parents of today's draftees came of age and founded their families, it was accepted to become a single mother (Issoupova 2000:48), and due to the historically low birth-rate, the Soviet maternal benefits peaked in these two decades (ibid.:39). Metaphorically, women were thus the state's wives and mothers of its sons, whereas the only grown-up man was the Father State (i.e. Stalin, who founded this metaphorical family structure, and later the idea of a strong father-figure to which his successor could only aspire).49

It is the experience of this metaphorical relationship with the state - of a reciprocity with and dependency on the state as provider and protector - that is reflected in the discussion among the women at The Soldiers' Mothers. The relationship to the state being imagined as gendered roles in a family makes it a very strong bond. This applied not only to the young men's mothers, but also to their father; e.g. many fathers insisted that their sons should become soldiers - or stay in their military unit despite being beaten and humiliated - in order to become "real men". I take this masculinity to cover more than physical fitness and the ability to handle weapons (which many young desire, too), namely the incorporation of the role of protecting one's family, not only one's concrete family, but also the nation. It seemed to me that that like the women worked to overcome their embodied fear of authorities, men had to overcome their shame, because the sons did not serve as soldiers. This adds another layer to the complex explanations of why men rarely participated in The Soldiers' Mothers' activities (see "Where are the men?").

A crumbling reciprocity

The symbolic relation of kinship with the state does not, however, stand alone, because the state never fully replaced the family and never managed to take over all its functions, neither morally (as I have mentioned before, the family was a place of freedom, trust and safety ) nor economically. Alongside with the ideal of maintenance by the state, there existed a reality where concrete families had to patch up the state's shortcomings (see chapter three). When the Soviet economy stagnated in the 1970s, the household became central for the private networks of the second economy by means of which people, in fact, survived (Shlapentokh 1989:165). Though these so-called connections of blat (Ledeneva 1998) rested on colleagues, friends and friends of friends, the household was the community that was provided for and in which consumption took place (Ivleva and Patchenkov 2003:142). The importance of one's family was even strengthened when the Soviet Union's state-provided welfare structures broke down, companies were privatized and people lost their jobs and access to the state-owned goods. When there was less to give of and share, the circles of mutual support narrowed to the family50 (Ledeneva 1998:195).

The reciprocity with the state that Nina and Sonia spoke of in the excerpt of the focus group discussion was therefore, in part, an ideal that had crumbled in a gradual process beginning in the 1950s when people distanced themselves more and more from the state as I described in chapter three. This also became clear during the focus group discussion where Nina said:

Nina: My brother served as a soldier in 1970. When they took him, he did not drink and did not smoke. He came back as an absolutely unhealthy person; it was terrible for him there. Since then, he has never been able to pick up a normal life and care for his wife and two children. (…) When I gave birth to my son [in 1985], I already knew that I would protect him and that he should never go to the army.

Taught by her brother's experience in the army, Nina had already from her youth sensed, that the ideal – and yet embodied - reciprocity between people and the state was somehow fake. On another occasion, she told me about her upbringing in the Ukraine where she was active in the communist youth organisations, and of the shock it had been for her to move to St. Petersburg to work and find out how things really were, e.g. how little the leader of her work brigade cared about his workers. Other women remembered the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl in 1986 as their eye-opener and turning point, because they discovered that the state had "let women and children march in the radioactive rain" and had ordered their husbands to clean up the nuclear plant. The state had cared more about the parades than about its own people.

This realization process varied from family to family, dependent on their life experiences and what they had read or heard about the Soviet state's crimes against its people. For many, the trustful relationship with the state and the state's good intentions were so fundamental that they explained away the mistreatment of their sons as subordinates' mistakes which the leadership knew nothing of. Other women said that they had never doubted the army until the day they received a letter from their son saying that he had been beaten or until they saw the marks after cigarette burns on his back.

The importance of family networks

Most people who came to the organisation knew from experience how important family ties were for their mere survival, since the state for long periods had been unable to fulfil even everyday needs. Family networks also played an important role for the practical carrying out of The Soldiers' Mothers' methods, especially for runaway soldiers whose cases took a lot of time and effort. I followed the case of a runaway soldier, Ivan, where an intricate network of relatives, spread all over Siberia, some even in formerly closed cities with bad lines of communication, was activated to help him. It included not only Ivan's mother and two sisters, who travelled to St. Petersburg, but also the remaining family that stayed in Siberia and took care of the sisters' children and sent money for Ivan's medical examinations. During the two months it took to get his "military ticket", his mother stayed with her son-in-law's cousin. This cousin lived with her husband and two daughters, each of whom had a baby of five months, in two tiny rooms in a communal apartment in the old part of St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, when Ivan was discharged from hospital, there was also made room for him.

Family networks of mutual support and dependency could be very complicated. The aunt of a 19-year-old soldier wanted to free him from military service, so he could support his younger half-brother. Their alcoholic father, whom they had not seen for years, had died and left a high rent debt, and if nobody paid it off, his half-brother would loose his registration in the father's flat and thus his residence permit (propiska) and social benefits51. Since his mother had drunk herself to death years ago, the half-brother would have no other possibility to register than with the remaining relatives who were too poor to take him in, so he might end up on the street.

Tova Höjdestrand's fieldwork among homeless in St. Petersburg confirms that the only possibility for ex-cons, migrant workers, ex-soldiers or orphans to get a residence permit and thus social benefits, medical insurance, and the permission to work is to register with a relative or spouse (Höjdestrand 2003). The dependency on relatives is thus built into the system and if family networks fail, there is only the street left. What Höjdestrand concludes about the homeless - that for many of them, "kin" signified "hope" (ibid.:6) - also counted for the runaway soldiers in my study. There exist few alternative 'safety nets' besides the family, and in cases where they had no relatives who were willing to help them, they often ended up in military prison or went back to their units, almost certainly to face renewed violence and harassment.

Bringing the family (back) in

Unlike many people coming to the organisation who considered it necessary for the family to step in because the state failed to fulfil its moral obligations, for The Soldiers' Mothers, this was a matter of principle. According to them, the state has legal obligations towards citizens that have civic rights (and, in case citizens' rights are protected, they also have certain civic duties), whereas families – and not the state – have the moral obligation to support and protect their family members. The organisation maintained that the Soviet state had destroyed concrete families and that there was a need to recreate the primary human bonds between family members (like also all other human relations had to be restored).

At "The School of Human Rights", the concrete families' importance for the safety and protection of its members was impressed on the audience, whereas the state was portrayed as a source of danger:

Lena: Every person, every family must understand that there is a boundary around private life52, private space, into which one must not allow anybody, not under any circumstances. (…) When the family demarcates this personal space, then also the recruitment commission, the military, and the police will turn to you with respect.

Lena establishes two important points regarding the family: First, every person is not only an individual with certain rights, but also a member of his or her family. In the drawings on the blackboard during "The School of Human Rights", every person is depicted as one among many blossoming flowers on a plant with deep roots, symbolizing a family with its ancestors. Circles around each flower and around the whole of the plant symbolize that both the individual and the family as a unit are encompassed by a "personal space" (lichnoe prostranstvo).

Second, the family as a unit is responsible for the protection of this "personal space". Although one's privacy and civic rights were guaranteed in the constitution and laws, The Soldiers' Mothers urged families to take upon themselves the responsibility for putting the rights into practice and making the laws work. As youths hardly ever live alone, it is most likely that a mother or grandmother will answer the phone or open the door, when the police search for draft-dodgers and deserters. Therefore, The Soldiers' Mothers considered it crucial that all family members understood the concepts of rights and privacy and mastered the right behaviour. As we shall see in the next section, in practice, the organisation managed to mobilize almost exclusively female family members.

Who is 'family'?

Gender and kinship: Women as the bearers of the family's responsibilities

Even though more than two third of the audience at The School of Human Rights consisted of women and other female relatives, it was always the "family", "parents" or "mothers and fathers" that were addressed and responsibility was laid on them as a collective. When I asked one of the organisation's leaders, why, then, the organisation was called "Soldiers' Mothers", she answered that it was the most straightforward way to communicate the organisation's goal to save soldiers' lives, because this was thought of as mothers' duty53.

This line of thinking was shared by most of the women who come to the organisation and it also worked this way in practice: The relatives, who actively participated in The Soldiers' Mothers' work and the practical endeavours to help the young men, were almost exclusively female relatives, because female relatives, especially mothers, were considered to have different tasks than male relatives. Nevertheless, husbands and other male family members were perceived to be equally responsible for the family's wellbeing - they only contributed in a different, however unnoticed, way than women. Typically, they helped out with the paperwork, made photocopies, sent letters and drove the women by car to recruitment stations and other authorities (but usually they stayed in the car and read the newspaper while waiting to hear about their wives accomplishments). Many women also appreciated what they called their husbands' "moral support". In the focus group discussion, Nina described the division of labour in her family like this:

Nina: In my family, for example, my husband is the breadwinner, and I defend the rights [the son's rights concerning the military]. He supports me, materially and morally, that I do the right thing. But I know that he is ready to help. "Boria, will you go to the recruitment station with me?", and he answers "I will." But I know that he will not open his mouth there.

As it is common for Russian women, Nina depicted her husband as a "breadwinner", whereas she did all the practical work at home and took care of their children. Women, some said, have special qualities and obligations for the physical, psychological and moral well-being of their family (Kay 1997).

Nina, however, did not describe the division of labour in her family as a conflict between an overburdened woman and a passive man, but as a joint project between equal partners each with their gender-defined tasks. Both the organisation's leaders and the other women welcomed men's participation for the male perspective and male qualities they could introduce, and on several occasions they bemoaned the actual lack of men. Like many other women at The Soldiers' Mothers, Nina excused her husband's reluctance to join her at the recruitment station and his muteness once there with his male "nature" and primary occupation of providing for the family materially.

I was surprised by Nina's description of her husband, since only a few weeks before she had complained about her husband that he did not support the family, pay her any attention or give her presents and confided in me that she wanted to divorce him. I therefore understand Nina's contribution to the discussion as the ideal image of the gendered division of labour in Russia (Mørck 1998).

"Motherist" organisations54

Both gender and kinship models draw on a notion of biological and thus "natural" difference between men and women, which stems from their different roles in sexual procreation (Collier and Yanagisako 1987:31-32). Both Nina's and Sonia's arguments for their authority over and responsibility for their sons start with giving birth and raising children. Other women directly said: "What I have set into this world, I will protect." It is sexual procreation that links the women to their children and to their "natural" roles of motherhood.

Internationally, there are many examples of "motherist" organisations like The Soldiers' Mothers, such as the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires (Winther 2004), the Agrupación of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Chile (Fingscheidt 1998) and the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Political Prisoners, Disappeared and Assassinated of El Salvador (Stephen 1995). Also when it comes to losses in Western armies, e.g. of American soldiers in Iraq, television shows wailing mothers standing by the coffins. Because these pictures have a very strong emotional appeal, both in America and Russia, the state strives to control the media and keep such pictures hidden from the public (e.g after the sinking of the Russian submarine "Kursk" in 2000 or during the second Iraq war).

There seems to exist a "cross-cultural 'specialization' of women in the division of emotional labor", Scheper-Hughes observes in her ethnography on women enduring repeated losses of their infants in a Brazilian township (Scheper-Hughes1992:428). "Cultural feminists", she writes, have considered maternal thinking and maternal care as something universal womanly, but Sheper-Hughes insists that mothers' emotions are also ideological constructs that should be treated in the context of the specific culturally and historically constituted social realties, and the economic and demographic constraints of the given society (ibid.:341-342). Thus, I have pointed to the centrality of kinship roles by imbedding Russian men's and women's roles in the Soviet state's ideology and gendered division of labour on many levels of society.

A community of mothers

In this section, I will argue that kinship is such a strong metaphor that not only are relatives thought to be helpful and reliable, but also, the other way around, people who help and whom one can trust are thought of as "relatives"55 and the women at the organisation form a "community of mothers" (Ivleva and Patchenkov 2003).

The psychiatric ward of St. Petersburg's main military hospital, where most runaway soldiers spent one to three months for observation and examinations, had visiting hours for twice a week in a small "visiting room". The Soldiers' Mothers regularly encouraged people to visit those runaway soldiers who had no family in St. Petersburg and to bring them food, clothes, and books. On one of these trips, I accompanied two mothers of draftees, Vera and Liuba, and – quite typically – they discussed their strategy to be admitted (propushchën56) into the hospital area already on the bus. They decided that we should all be relatives (rodstvenniki) which was accepted at the check-point and we were let in.

Vera and Liuba had brought two big plastic bags with bread, canned food, and fruit that they repeatedly reminded the 19-year-old Dima, whom they saw for the first time, to wash before eating. Dima was very introverted, barely answered their questions and kept asking for his mother; the only time he smiled was when he heard that she was on her way from their home town in central Siberia. Vera and Liuba were concerned about his health, asked him if he was beaten by the other inmates, and also talked with the department's psychiatrist. After the visit, at The Soldiers' Mothers, Vera and Liuba reported the other women that "he really needs his mother", but at the same time already planned their next visits and which books of Dima's taste their own sons could spare.

Liuba was amused that we had been relatives, and when I met with her at her own son's recruitment station the next morning, she exclaimed "We are already relatives, even if I barely know you. Today you will be my cousin!"

People from The Soldiers' Mothers usually pretended to be relatives to be admitted into military stations and hospitals. And it was not just that visitors told the guards that they were relatives; this was also taken for granted and usually no explanation was needed at all. Consequently, I, too, was taken for a girlfriend, sister or another relative, but, in accordance with the gendered division of labour described above, had I been a man, they would probably have wondered about my intentions and not let me in.57

To qualify as a "relative", however, was not merely pretence; it was a weighty metaphor that involved real responsibilities. For example, a few weeks after our visit to the hospital, Liuba offered to become the proxy of another runaway soldier who stayed with her family for a couple of weeks when he was released from hospital and while he waited for his "military ticket". She also took him to her mother's house in the countryside, because he was nervous, barely ate and suffered a depression. When the time came to pick up his exemption, the officer who handed out the document asked Liuba: "How many sons do you have?" She told this to the other mothers, not without pride.

There was certain prestige connected to doing these thing and they gladly told each other about them. To compare, Ivleva and Patchenkov (2003) describe the rules of interaction among small-scale street sellers with their folding-tables around a metro station in St. Petersburg as "the code of motherhood" and their community a "mothers' community": Mothers had the moral right to work in the market because they had to feed their children, others not. A mother's care of her children and how she acted towards her children determined her reputation among this group of traders. Like at The Soldiers' Mothers, the mothers' community dictated that one should not only take care of one´s own children, but of all children (Ivleva and Patchenkov 2003:139-140).

I want to stress, however, that not all women at The Soldiers' Mothers automatically became "relatives". E.g. class distinctions influenced who formed "groups of mutual support" and took runaway soldiers into their homes. Many of the families that accommodated runaway soldiers were very poor, but whereas they opened their homes to complete strangers, some of them felt too ashamed to invite me home, because I was from the West.

Conclusion: Father State vs. Soldiers' Mothers

I have argued that in the Soviet Union power was, in part, legitimized by drawing on metaphors of kinship and gender roles. Men served the state as workers and soldiers - symbolically as sons – and women as workers, wives and mothers who gave their sons to the state. Kinship ties being perceived as "natural bonds" because they derive from sexual procreation, these roles are deeply embodied in concrete men and women. Moreover, the gendered division of labour was not only a figure of mind, but mirrored in the concrete, material structures of society.

To this powerful metaphorical family relationship belongs the notion that the reciprocity within the family should be "generalized" (Sahlins 1974), as expressed by Nina and Sonia in the focus group discussion. But what happens when the state is no longer able to act as a "father" and does not give its citizens the protection they expect?

The Soldiers' Mothers offer an answer. In their view, "generalized reciprocity" should be restricted to the concrete families of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and other relatives, whereas the relationship citizens and the state should be of balanced reciprocity where the duties on each side are legally instead of morally defined. As we have seen, these family ties are supplemented with other kinds of "relatedness" (Carsten 1995) and relationships of mutual trust between citizens, e.g. the "groups of mutual support" among the women that form "communities of mothers". In sum, The Soldiers' Mothers want to move the language of family from the realm of the state to the private realm, instead of blurring the boundaries. This is a symbolic expression of the organisation's aspiration to fill the intermediate space between the public and the private with formal institutions, forms of communication and patterns of behaviour.


A summary of the main arguments

In this thesis I have described how women who come to organisation of The Soldiers' Mothers in St. Petersburg work to free their sons from military service in the Russian army. We have followed the actions of the women from their first encounter with the organisation until their sons received their "military tickets" and official exemptions from military service.

I have asked in what ways the work of The Soldiers' Mothers can be said to bring about social change, both in regard to the social and political order, which I have called the "reordering of people's meaningful worlds", and in regard to individuals' embodied practices, which I have called "reforming people's habitus". Throughout the thesis I have used different analytic perspectives to explore these levels of social change and their interconnections.

I have suggested that The Soldiers' Mothers want to promote a new form of civil society by filling out the intermediate social space between the public and the private with formal legal mechanisms and new forms of social interaction. These mechanisms and forms of interaction with the state bureaucracy differ from the informal practices that people employed during Soviet times and adapted to the new conditions after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In chapter five I examined the reordering of people's meaningful worlds through the women's stories of personal transformation and the themes of fear, militarization and giving birth. It was one thing for the women to understand and accept The Soldiers' Mothers version of the social order, but another to carry out the necessary actions. In chapter six I used Foucault's concept of 'technologies of the self' to examine the concrete ways of self-work that the women engaged in.

One of the reasons why it seemed so difficult for the women to change their behaviour towards state bureaucrats and recast their role in society was described through an analysis of the symbol of the 'family' in chapter seven: In the Soviet Union, men's duty to become soldiers and women's duty to give their sons to the fatherland were modelled on family relations and a gendered division of labour. As gender and kinship roles are connected to bodily functions of procreation, the metaphors are embodied and difficult to overcome.

Throughout the thesis I have distinguished between four levels of change, not all of which are realized, at least not for all: First, there is the straightforward and practical question of saving the young men from military service which is achieved by following the practical steps of action that The Soldiers' Mothers recommend. Most of the women who come to the organisation and do an effort, either alone or with the help of others in "groups of mutual support", succeed in this. In very concrete ways – rescued lives, newspapers' headlines about the scandals in the army, reforms of the armed forces etc. - this changes the political landscape in Russia.

On the second level, people are introduced to The Soldiers' Mothers' perception of the relation between citizens and the state and are offered a model for reordering their worldview. They learn to insert and re-narrate their stories within The Soldiers' Mothers dominant narrative of Soviet totalitarianism that they have to deal with and overcome and they are reminded that their expectation that the state protects them like a father is disappointed and has been disappointed before and that they better recast their relationship to the state in legal instead of moral terms.

On the third level, the social relations and patterns of interaction implied by The Soldiers' Mothers' vision of a new social and political order are converted into concrete bodily actions, so that the reordering of meaningful worlds is "made body" and acted out by concrete persons. Interaction with bureaucrats, perceived as representatives that execute the decisions of a democratically elected government (and not of the father state), takes the ability of citizens to raise demands and point toward laws and constitutional rights, demarcate one's "border" and signal confidence, instead of shivering, begging or hoping for the best and fearing bureaucrats' arbitrary display of force.

The fourth level is related to The Soldiers' Mothers' overall vision of changing the whole of society from the bottom and making their reordered meaning come true. Whether this will succeed or not is not of The Soldiers' Mothers' making alone and remains a question to be answered only by the future.

The question of different kinds of change, as I have studied them on the levels of people's habitus and collective meaningful worlds, deserves further exploration. It would be relevant, as a perspective on empowerment, to see if the "victors" from The Soldiers' Mothers changed their relation to the state and bureaucrats in general and brought their experience to other fields of action. Such questions are difficult to answer on a short fieldwork. I tried to raise the question in my conversations with the women and a few reported that they had used references to the relevant laws and letters of complaint to demand payment of pensions or raise claims on firms for damage on goods they had purchased. In order to get a broader picture I could have followed key informants in other social settings defined as "public" than the military and civil institutions concerning the conscription of soldiers.

Towards the end of my fieldwork I got a glimpse of the scale of people's transformations by visiting a few families who had freed a son from military service some years ago. In one case, the son had recently bought the newest edition of The Soldiers' Mothers booklet in order to assist his younger relatives and friends to get exempted from military service too. In two other cases, the parents were preparing for a younger son's case. But there was also one mother, who opened the door and whispered that I better leave, because her son could not stand hearing anything about the issue of his military service. The problems had only begun when he was discharged from the army; he had begun to drink and fight and suffered from regular depressions. His father muttered from behind that the son would have been better off if he had finished his military service.

It would also be valuable to compare the methods of The Soldiers' Mothers more systematically with some of the other strategies that people applied - e.g. bribery, personal contacts to the members of the draft board and commercial juridical agencies' services – to get a picture of how widespread and effective the methods of the organisation were and whether they were supported or counteracted by other tendencies in the Russian society.

When is "before"? Some thoughts about the study of change

A few years ago, one could easily assume that when Russians used the word "ran'she" (literally "before") they meant "in Soviet times" - and assume that this idiom covered the inherent statement that things "then" were either better or worse than today.

In this thesis, I hope to have destabilized the all too easy assumptions about the past, present and future by presenting the heterogeneities of these categories and by tracing tendencies of both change and continuity in the cultural systems at play at The Soldiers' Mothers'. I hope to have shown that 'change' is not necessarily about adapting to foreign models, as 'continuity' is not merely a question of replacing "remnants from the past" with new institutions, values, ways of acting and thinking.

The Soldiers' Mothers ideal of civil society derives from Soviet dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s and has been formed by the Soviet-Russian historical experiences. Though The Soldiers' Mothers definitely define themselves as anti-Soviet, their ideology belongs to the "Soviet lifeworld" (Nielsen 1994:2-3), now post-Soviet lifeworld, in the sense that both the official communist ideology, the opposition against it and common people's everyday lives constitute(d) the lifeworld. By combining home-grown ideas with the new political and legal opportunities that arose during Perestroika and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Soldiers' Mothers have created effective tools for Russians to deal with the state bureaucracy and enact civil society, and meaningful models for them to think about their history, future, and their role in society.

The thesis has revealed existing local structures and pointed to the value for donors, planners and projects to build on these structures when they want to promote human rights and civil society in the former Soviet Union. There exists a range of other Russian grass roots initiatives; parents' associations at their children's school, crisis centres for women and shelters for homeless to mention only a few. Like The Soldiers' Mothers, many of them work with international partners or other kinds of input from abroad.58

For many observers, researchers and economic planners in the early 1990s, Russia was expected to be in a phase of 'transition' from 'communism' to Western-type democracy and market economy. Among anthropologists studying the postsocialist countries in Europe and the former Soviet Union there has been an ongoing debate the 'transition', agreeing that this macro-economic model is unsuitable to grasp the equivocal and multidirectional changes in the region (e.g. Verdery 1991, Burawoy and Verdery 1999). I agree with Burawoy and Verdery (1999:4-6) that neither 'the socialist past' nor 'the capitalist future' should be treated as pre-given, uniform entities, and that the 'transition' should not be perceived as a period of transitional anomie between two consistent and coherent systems. In 2002, in an anthology assessing the development of postsocialist studies in the past decade, Sampson (2002:297-298) emphasises that people in the region have moved beyond the "shock of the new" and established new ways of life and that their frame of reference is no longer restricted to socialism (if it ever was).

With this study I hope to have shown that 'change' occurs at various levels with different temporalities – and accordingly must be studied with different frameworks. I have used the concepts of "reordering people's meaningful worlds" to grasp changes that take place in the shared political landscape; like the appalling conditions in the Russian army that compel young men to avoid military service and desert from their military units, so that the moralities of relationship between citizens and the state are altering. At another level of change I have studied the "reforming of habitus" among these young men's mothers who are confronted with their embodied fear of bureaucrats and strive to overcome it in cooperation with The Soldiers' Mothers. I have studied social change on the basis of a concrete time-limited fieldwork with The Soldiers' Mothers in St. Petersburg, analysing change along the lines of this organisation's ideology and goals, but the way in which I have understood the processes of change reaches beyond this local context.


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0 There are 31.395 words in this thesis, excluding footnotes, references and abstract. I have used the Library of Congress system for the transliteration of Russian words, with the exception of certain well-known names that are anglicized in a different way, e.g. Yeltsin, and references where I follow the authors' own chosen way.

1 The Soviet Union had a constitution that was adopted first in 1918 and renewed in 1924, 1936 and 1977, but in practice it was subordinate to the orders of the Communist Party (Sakwa 2002 [1993]:54-55). 

2 Other internationally famous pravozashchitnye organizatsii are The Moscow Helsinki Group (founded 1976), Memorial (founded 1987) and Fond Glasnost (founded 1989).  

3 "The Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia" in Moscow claims the status of an umbrella organisation for all Soldiers' Mothers in Russia, but the cooperation between the different branches varies, often dependent on personal issues between the leaders. The Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg consider themselves independent, and in Moscow I know of a couple of smaller splinter groups of Soldiers' Mothers. 

4 I refer to the organisation and its staff, consisting of two leaders and four permanent staff members, as "The Soldiers' Mothers", whereas I use "the women" as a collective term for all the people who came to the organisation on behalf of draftees and deserted soldiers. 

5 Few studies have focused directly on people's everyday interactions with state bureaucracy in Russia. Notable exceptions are studies of corruption and social networks (Rivkin-Fish 2002, Humphrey 2000, Ledeneva 1998) and gender studies that focus on the changing relationship between women and the state, because women were particularly dependent on the welfare apparatuses and had entered a special relationship with the state as provider (Haney 1999, Ashwin 2000, Issoupova 2000). A related research topic has been conceptions of 'civil society' and the critique of the transfer of Western models to the East (Anderson 1993, Sampson 1996, Mandel 2002). There also exists a whole body of anthropological studies on economic changes, on how people in the post-socialist countries cope with the alleged transition to 'market economy' (a concept that has been widely criticized (Arnstberg and Borén 2003, Burawoy and Verdery 1999), and on the privatization of collective farms (Humphrey 1998, Lampland 2002, Sejerøe 2003). 

6 Another student of Max Gluckman and the Manchester School, Victor Turner, developed a similar analytical concept through his studies of the Ndembu in North-Rhodesia (today's Zambia), the unfolding 'social dramas' (Turner 1957). 'Social dramas' are conflicts or deviations from common norms of kinship, marriage, inheritance or other social relations that lend "transparency to the otherwise opaque surface of regular, uneventful society" (ibid.:93).  

7 The ideas of the Manchester School have been further developed in different directions: The extended-case method has proved especially useful in the field of anthropology of law for the study of disputes (Nader and Todd 1978:8). Sally Falk Moore (1987, 1993) introduced the concept of "diagnostic events" to establish an awareness of history through a processual perspective that sees fieldwork as a moment in time and explores "what sort of a sequence of transformations took place before the present acquired its shape" (Moore 1993:370-371). With his "multi-sited ethnography" that encompasses and connects local and global contexts, conventional single-site locations and the world system, Marcus' (1995) has brought the concept of 'extended cases' into interdisciplinary studies of the spread of meanings in the postmodern world. 

8 Andrew Bickford (2003) has an interesting description of the similarly militarized ideology and comparable institutions in the GDR and how this affected gender identity and concepts of citizenship and the person.  

9 The conscription of soldiers is regulated by the 1998 "Law on Military Duty and Military Service" (hereafter – the law on military service) and the 1999 implementing regulation (Arbatov and Chernikov 2003). 

10 This is an estimate by The Soldiers' Mothers, built on figures from the early 1990s. After an initial phase of democratization and opening up to the public during the first years under Yeltsin, the Ministry of Defence no longer releases such information, partly as an attempt to conceal its failure to meet the official quotas (Vanderheeren 2003:6). I have, however, found the same figure in the 2002 Human Rights Watch report on conscription in Russia's armed forces (Human Rights Watch 2002). 

11 In July 2004, however, due to the shortage of fit draftees, the Russian president and Ministry of Defence gave political signals that they would cut down on opportunities for postponement. 

12 E.g. "The Moscow Anti-Conscription Point" (Moskovskii antiprizivnoi punkt) at and the St. Petersburg-based "Help for Conscripts" (Pomoshch' Prizyvniku) at Alternative service (Alternativnaia Grazhdanskaia Sluzhba, in short, AGS) is, however, not an attractive alternative to military service, because it lasts three years and must take place in institutions under the Ministry of Defence where the same conditions prevail (Golz 2003:88-89). The annual number of objectors is very low; the Russian Ministry of Defence reports that it has received 1530 applications for alternative service nationwide in the 2004 autumn drafting season and will approve of 1005 cases (RIA, 2004 September 30). 

13 However, most of my informants who were employed by the state had other sources of income: e.g. they had their own sales business or worked as saleswomen in shops in the evenings and weekends. Also, Russian household budgets can not be directly compared to Western European, because many rely on non-monetary exchange of goods and services and the expenses for e.g. rent, heating, and telephone are much lower (see Rose 1994:46-50). 

14 A splinter group of The Soldiers' Mothers in Moscow, whose leader I interviewed, cooperated with the army to deliver humanitarian aid to Russian military units in Chechnya. In contrast, The Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg strongly condemn the presence of Russian soldiers in Chechnya and support Chechen independence.  

On another address in St. Petersburg, in the "House of Officers" (Dom Offitserov) that belongs to the Ministry of Defense, there is another Soldiers' Mothers organisation called "The Committee Soldiers' Mother" (Komitet "Soldatskaia Mat'"). They receive people every Thursday from five to seven and help them to pass their complaints about conditions of conscripts and servicemen in the army on to the relevant military unit and organs of the Ministry of Defence. 

15 The full name of the organisation is "The St. Petersburg regional non-governmental human rights organisation Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg" (Sankt-Peterburgskaia Regional'naia Obshchestvennaia Pravozashchitnaia Organizatsiia Soldatskie Materi Sankt-Peterburga) – hereafter The Soldiers' Mothers. 

16 I do not go further into detail with these aspects, since a detailed description of The Soldiers' Mothers ideology, which was partly informed by Christian ideas, goes beyond the scope and argument of this thesis. For more on this issue, see Hinterhuber (1999:68-76) who did fieldwork with The Soldiers' Mothers in 1996 and analyses the organisation's "worldview". 

17 The Soldiers' Mothers explicitly stated in their introductory lecture about the organisation's methods that the principle of pressurizing state organs to adhere to their own laws (in this case the law on military service) and the method of writing letters of complaint to the various levels of state bureaucracy derived from Soviet dissidents in the 1960s and 1970s, notably Aleksandr Yesenin-Volpin (1961) and Vladimir Bukovsky (1977). 

18 One of the leaders told me that The Soldiers' Mothers decided to quit demanding membership after the financial crisis in Russia in 1998, because people could not afford the membership fee and the organisation sees itself as a movement where the quantity of formal members does not matter. Today, the organisation counts around 20 members who participate in its yearly general assembly and most of whom have been members since the beginning of the 1990s. 

19 There are many different reasons for this: When The Soldiers' Mothers asked people to come to the picket, most women expressed their willingness, but often they did not show up and explained later that they had been too busy that day. Once, however, a woman revealed to me, that she did not want to participate in the picket, because she was in favour of the Russian army's endeavours to prevent the Caucasus republic to break away from the Russian Federation. Whereas the organisation was against the war in Chechnya, the opinions of the women who came to organisation varied. They all agreed, however, that their sons should not fight in Chechnya and that this should be left to professional soldiers. 

20 According to a telephone survey among 1260 citizens of St. Petersburg on their relations to the army, ordered by The Soldiers' Mothers and The Gagarin Foundation and conducted by the Russian "Sociological Information Agency" (Agenstvo Sotsial'noi Informatsii), 82% of the respondents had either "heard about" or "knew of" the work of The Soldiers' Mothers. 

21 The Soldiers' Mothers' statistics show that around 650 runaway soldiers turn to the organisation every year. This figure only includes those who filled in the organisation's questionnaire. 

22 In Russia, the police and state authorities' lack of control and the country's size make it possible to live without a residence permit, work on the black market without a work permit, and receive treatment by doctors without a valid ID. 

23 During my fieldwork, only two men participated regularly in the seminars. They were fathers of draftees. One seemed to be motivated by his strong Christian belief and the other took a special interest in legal mechanisms. 

24 I conducted one taped interview with a runaway soldier who was very open and who was also interviewed by journalists. He told me about his everyday life in the military unit, the soldiers' slang and mutual relations, how he escaped with together with a friend and came to The Soldiers' Mothers, because he had heard about the organisation. 

25 From time to time, young people from Western countries volunteered to help the organisation with translations, press releases and contacts with international organisations. During my fieldwork there were five foreign students who stayed from two weeks' to a year's time. In my case, The Soldiers' Mothers found my research project interesting and agreed that I could follow my own plans. They appreciated the personal contact I had with the young men and their parents and the errands I sometimes ran for them, e.g. following soldiers to their hospitals. 

26 I kept silent not to reveal my accent, and with lipstick and a lot of make-up I slipped through as a Russian. 

27 It is often claimed that 'civil society' - in all its local shapes - has attained world-wide popularity (e.g. Keane 1998:32-34). Yet, while 'civil society' (grazhdanskoe obshchestvo or tretii sektor) is a popular concept among Russian intellectuals, NGOs and politicians (when they speak in international contexts), it is not a symbol that mobilizes the broad masses in Russia (Oslon 2001). 

28 The notion of civil society of Russian intellectuals in the 1960s and 70s represented a desire to bring "public" and "private" together which has to do with the rigid division between public and private spheres that the state socialist system produced in the post-Stalin era (Shlapentokh 1989). For these intellectuals, civil society seemed to offer a way out, a utopia (Hemment 1998). 

29 The public/private divide plays a special role in European history and European sociology. Habermas (1962) demonstrates how in Western Europe from the Enlightenment onwards there developed together with capitalism, universal laws, the nuclear family and the concept of private property a civil society, or "bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit", to balance and communicate between the public and the private. This notion of 'civil society' originates from historically specific conditions in the West – that differ radically from the public/private divide in Russia - but has nevertheless been applied as a model in non-western settings. 

30 For example, David Anderson (1993) argues that a form of civil society existed in Soviet times, even in the extreme Northern peripheries. 

31 The feminist literature on the public/private distinction is voluminous, with Rosaldo's (1974) argument that women everywhere in the world are subordinate to men and that this has to do with the fact that women, because of their role in reproduction, are tied to the private sphere and men to the public as one of the central contributions. The study of gender roles (which are organized in a specific way in Russia) offers a key to study the configuration of the public/private dichotomy (see chapter seven), but is not in itself the focus of this thesis. 

32 Shlapentokh (1989:7-8) notes that what was deemed legal and illegal changed several times in the post-Stalin decades and that "many deeds that were illegal in the 1950s became tolerable for the authorities in the 1960s, while actions that were severely punished in Breshnev's period were later praised in the era of glasnost". 

33 Since Russian soldiers' human rights are violated in the army through torture and humiliation, The Soldiers' Mothers do not consider it a criminal act to leave one's military unit in order to become medically treated and examined which military doctors and hospitals usually deny the soldiers. 

34 I distinguish between "ritual performance" as an event like "The School of Human Rights" or Sinhalese rituals of exorcism (Kapferer 1986) and the liminal state of seclusion and reflection that spans the whole time they are dealing with their son's situation at The Soldiers' Mothers. 'Reflection' because they are confronted with new ideas and contemplate their own role in society and in the family; 'seclusion' because some women spend so much time at the organisation and are so occupied with the paper work and visits to recruitment stations, hospitals and military stations, that they dissociate from normal family life which some husbands complained about.  

35 The contents of the lecture follow the same basic structure but vary a little, because the two leaders hold it alternately and they follow the drafting season with its specific order of problems and tasks and comment on current political events (during my fieldwork these were the wars in Chechnya and Iraq and the development of three trials at local St. Petersburg military courts that could create a precedent). With the following analysis I want to give a general picture of "The School of Human Rights"; the analysis leans on fieldnotes collected throughout my fieldwork and two tape recordings from June 2003. 

36 Russians typically use the impersonal "they" about the power holders, but The Soldiers' Mothers want to change people's perception of the power holders as an unspeakable, invincible force. At one seminar during my fieldwork, The Soldiers' Mothers arranged a role play in order to "humanize" individual bureaucrats: The participants were taught that one can communicate with bureaucrats like with other human beings and are e.g. reminded that bureaucrats also have children and families. 

37 This metaphor suits both the Christian faith of The Soldiers' Mothers in that Christ is also called "victor" (pobeditel') and the militarized imagery of the people who come to the organisation and speak of their controversies with authorities as "battles" for which one needs to be properly "armed". 

38 In Russia, it is common to perceive of the present as not "normal". Dorte Jensen describes in her MA thesis how middle-aged unemployed women in St. Petersburg conceive of imagined and idealized jobs in western firms as "normal" (2003:37 ff). The Soldiers' Mothers both draw on this discourse and challenge it, because they hold not only the rulers but also common people responsible for the state of their society.  

39 46% of women in the Soviet Union in the 1980s had more than three induced abortions and 20% had more than five (Remennick in Rivkin-Fish 2001:33). 

40 This view was also advocated by the leader of the St. Petersburg branch of Memorial. Once when I visited the organisation during my fieldwork and took part in a visit to the burial site of victims of Stalin's purges in 1936-38, the leader pointed out to me, that after a short period of Perestroika and the first years under Yeltsin, historical archives were again closed to the public and no efforts were made to establish official museums or memorial sites for the victims of the Soviet state's crimes. 

41 The opposite, not to be able to tell one's story in public is to be deprived of "objective" relationships to others which is the case in mass societies (Arendt 1998 [1957]:58-59). This fit The Soldiers' Mothers' ideological picture of Soviet society and "our totalitarian mind", described by the teacher at "The School of Human Rights as a "cage" into which each individual was locked and isolated from others and from which people should liberate themselves.  

42 In Foucault's work, 'knowledge' and 'truth' are often established through experts' knowledge of medicine and the functions of the body. Medical knowledge is also important for the methods of The Soldiers' Mother and the truth that the women reach for is supported by medical examinations, scholarly reports (e.g. Levina 2002), and opinion polls (e.g. The Soldiers' Mothers paid a sociologist and a sociological research agency in St. Petersburg to conduct an opinion poll about people's relationship to the army). Other sources of authority that The Soldiers' Mothers emphasized during "The School of Human Rights" were the Bible, The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the constitution and laws of the Russian Federation. 

43 The two other modes of 'objectification' concern 1) the "scientific classification" of things, social phenomena and human life in biology, history, linguistics and other disciplines and 2) the "diving practices" of isolating the sick, poor or deviant from the remaining population in hospitals, prisons and psychiatric clinics (Foucault 1982:208). 

44 Without going in depth about Putin's policies of "controlled democracy", the current political development in Russia points more toward state control of the media, the population, and civic organisations than to the self-government of rights-bearing subjects. 

45 An interesting feature about the rights discourse in contemporary Russia is that the government and president Putin have taken over the concept of "pravovoe gosudarstvo" from the German word "Rechtsstaat" which means rule by law rather than rule of law (Sakwa 2002:68-70). That the state governs by law found expression during my fieldwork when the Ministry of Justice tested the organisation of The Soldiers' Mothers by means of an audition and pointed out details (e.g. that there was no explicit sign on the front door identifying the organisation with its correct name) that should justify the closing the organisation, because they did not conform to the laws. In similar ways, Russian journalists have been fired and newspapers and television-channels closed, because they allegedly violate the laws on national security.  

46 Nielsen (1987:123) suggests that Soviet power rested on an unstable alliance of Weber's three ideal types of legitimacy: The Soviet Union's relative lack of traditional legitimacy through ethnic, religious or kinship ties was counterbalanced by bureaucratic legitimacy, resting on modern principles of standardized general rules, and charismatic legitimacy, based on the believe in an ideal future. Whereas Verdery's (1991:420-422) model of rational redistribution of resources, which I referred to in chapter three, belongs to bureaucratic legitimacy, I would argue that the image of the 'family' creates a kind of traditional legitimacy. 

47 Sobchak was mayor of St. Petersburg in 1991-1996 and one of the thinkers behind the first wave of economic reforms after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Berezovskii is an influential media mogul and one of the so-called oligarchs who came to wealth through the privatization of state-owned companies. 

48 Divorce was restricted under Stalin, but boomed when it was reliberalized in 1968. By the 1970s, almost one in two marriages ended in divorce, with most divorces in big cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow (Kerblay 1977:123-124). At the same time male life expectancy was 65, compared to women's 74 years (ibid.:33), and in 1982 male life expectancy had dropped to 62-3 years (Nielsen 1987:xxvii). Soviet sociologists blamed alcoholism that was considered a huge social problem and fought the sale of alcohol via law regulations (Kerblay 1977:291). Male life expectancy declined from 64 years in 1989 to 58 in 1994, but reached 59.8 years by 1999 (Goskomstat 2000 in Ashwin and Lytkina 2002:1). 

49 This lack of "real men" was – and still is – reflected in the way women speak about their husbands and other men; e.g. "they are like children", see Mørck's (1998) study of the contrast between women's ideal of men as leaders and their practiced everyday life where they speak of them as "children" or "fools". 

50 According to Ledeneva (1998:200-202) blat has changed its character, so that exchange among acquaintances today mostly covers information. At The Soldiers' Mothers', for example, the prime commodity of exchange was information and most women had learned about the organisation from colleagues or acquaintances. Since blat was an answer to the lack of goods and restricted access, it will change gradually if access to information becomes more open and public in the future. Already now, more and more women at the Soldiers' Mothers receive information from the media and the Internet.  

51 Established by Stalin in 1932 as a means to control the population, the propiska (registration at a permanent address) restricted Soviet citizens' movement and also became the precondition to receive a work permit, education, health services, housing and social benefits (Höjdestrand 2003:2). Even though the propiska system was outlawed by the Russian constitution in 1993, it is still practiced by regional social administrations in many places, also in St. Petersburg (ibid:3-4). 

52 The protection of privacy and private life that The Soldiers' Mothers promote is of another kind than Soviet times' retreat to the private sphere that I described in chapter three. In their opinion, people then were involuntary forced into such closed but intimate communities like small circles of intellectuals (uzkie kruzhki, one of the leaders called them "kitchen democrats") by the state. Now, it was time for people to learn to demarcate their privacy by themselves – and use this standpoint to engage in civil society and public life beyond the kitchen. 

53 Elena Zdravomyslova (2004) demonstrates that The Soldiers' Mothers' fight for conscripts' human rights is presented in the broader public as a matter of a mother's duties, rights and entitlements. Their concept of "responsible motherhood" comes from intertwining the traditional Russian-Soviet ideology of gender and human rights and is part of the organisations' cognitive work or "framing activities" to make it visible and justify its work. 

54 Similarly to Lynn Stephen's (1995) article on the CO-Madres (Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Political Prisoners, Disappeared and Assassinated of El Salvador), the women at The Soldiers' Mothers' do not experience social scientists' divide between feminist, strategic activism oriented towards women's emancipation, and feminine, pragmatic actions following traditional gender roles assigned to women as mothers or wives.  

Amy Caiazza (2002:42-47) discusses different kinds of feminism in Russia and argues that the Russian Soldiers' Mothers can be considered feminists, both in the sense of "individualist" and "relationalist" feminism, that is Western-type feminism aimed at equality between men and women and political struggle for the recognition and protection of women's roles as care-givers. I agree that The Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg challenge and reshape traditional gender roles, but this is not the main objective of my study. 

55 Janet Carsten (1995:224) coined the term "relatedness" to better describe indigenous ways of feeling, acting out and conceptualizing kinship than to divide "biological" ties of kinship off from other, "social" relations. 

56 Propustit' means to admit or give access to many kinds of restricted spaces (see Nielsen 1987:93), often official buildings, but the same verb is used by The Soldiers' Mothers about not admitting the police or military into one's, private restricted space. 

57 As far as I know, none of The Soldiers' Mothers male volunteers took the role of relatives and care-givers that was ascribed us women. Instead, their interest in The Soldiers' Mothers and their actions were considered to be motivated by their political views e.g. pacifism. 

58 I have mentioned that The Soldiers' Mothers participate in international conferences and receive donations from international foundations and organisations and they also contribute to the work of international human rights' organisation's with their reports, but I have not dealt explicitly with this aspect of their work in this thesis. However, "input from the West" at The Soldiers' Mothers' also covers Western European liberal philosophy which the leaders were very inspired by but interpreted in their own way and the religious activities they participated in together with the Roman Catholic Church, e.g. the Pope's visit to Poland.