Civil society and organizations have long been the lifeblood of protest, reform, and progress in Ukraine, and few organizations have shared both the longevity and impact of the Organization of Soldiers’ Mothers of Ukraine (also referenced in English-language materials as the Forum of Soldiers’ Mothers of Ukraine). Founded on September 8, 1990 and headed by Chairman Lyudmila Trukhmanova (who was later replaced by Valentina Artamonova), the Organization of Soldiers’ Mothers of Ukraine grew out of the broader societal awakening spurred by the process of glasnost and the increasing awareness of the poor conditions faced by Soviet conscripts.
For decades, national imagery of the proud mother sacrificing her sons and husband in defense of her country and limited information access constrained the mothers across the Soviet Union. Ukrainian women—who acutely felt, understood, and participated in the sacrifices made to push back Nazi occupiers during the Second World War—could strongly relate to this narrative. However, the ongoing campaigns in Afghanistan and the abuse, torture, and even death of conscripts under the dedovshchina systems in the Soviet military were not acts of defense or protection, and they wasted the lives of countless sons and brothers. Across the Soviet Union, mothers refused to stand for it, penning floods of letters to officials beginning to organize. Though the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the activism of mothers did not end. To protest the treatment of their sons, 210 women from across 12 oblasts formed the Organization of Soldiers’ Mothers of Ukraine.
On September 8-9, 1990, the Organization of Soldiers’ Mothers of Ukraine gathered in Zaporizhzhia to push their demand that conscripts form the Ukrainian SSR perform the duration of their service within the territory of their republic. The children of Ukraine were no longer to serve as cheap labor or as soldiers outside their homeland. The mothers also decried the cruelty inflicted on new draftees by senior military officers. They adopted a declaration stating these demands as well as arguing the need for greater Soviet military transparency via Organization of Soldiers’ Mothers of Ukraine representation on the draft committees of the military commissariats, stating:
“We do not want our children, to whom we gave birth and who grew for life and for good fortune, to be dragged into armed conflicts in foreign lands at a peaceful time, and we appeal to your reason and mercy, to mutual understanding and joint action. The army should not fulfill the role of a gendarme. The army should not be a slave labor force… Let us be intelligent about this! Only we, mothers, can halt bloodshed on the road of some kind of imperial ambitions!”
Following the conference, the new members joined women from all across the Soviet Union to picket in Moscow at the headquarters of the Soviet Ministry of Defense.
Yet the advocacy of the Organization of Soldiers’ Mothers of Ukraine did not stop with the protection of their children while serving as soldiers, the mothers also championed the development of a stable, sovereign state to support their children following their service. The women included in their declaration the statement, “Long live a peaceful and sovereign Ukraine,” later becoming a part of the Ukrainian transition to independence. Less than a year after their first meeting, the Organization of Soldiers’ Mothers of Ukraine joined groups of protestors on International Women’s Day, coming forward to discuss the challenges faced by women in the Soviet Union. Many women publicly shared their support for the position of the Rukh, pressing their supporters to vote “no” on the referendum and “yes” to the republican question on March 17th.
The organization remains active to this day. Activists of the Organization of Soldiers’ Mothers of Ukraine contributed to the development and reform of military legislation of Ukraine, achieving the implementation of social and legal protections for servicemen and for members of their families, working to overcome hazing in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and strengthening social protections for mothers who lost their sons while they were serving in the army.
After the Russian occupation of Crimea and the start of the war in eastern Ukraine, the Organization of Soldiers’ Mothers of Ukraine released both written and filmed appeals to the mothers of Russian soldiers, asking for their assistance in protecting the lives of all their children and in restoring peace in Ukraine. The organization has also done a great deal to unite the people and government of Ukraine in support of the individuals within the Armed Forces of Ukraine. As their sons continue to fight a defensive war with no end in sight, the mission of the Organization of Soldiers’ Mothers of Ukraine continues.