Putin last week took part in a meeting with the mothers of soldiers killed in the war in Ukraine. The title “soldiers’ mother” carries a lot of influence in Russia — and Putin was famously humiliated by a group of soldiers’ relatives in his early years as president. Unsurprisingly, Friday’s meeting included only those trusted to meet Putin and the gathering passed off without awkward questions. Putin — who now rarely communicates with anyone outside of his inner circle — once again demonstrated a complete detachment from reality.
- The Russian authorities have been nervous of organizations of soldiers’ mothers since the mid-1990s. During the first Chechen war (1994-1996), in which the Russian army was humiliated, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers was one of the country’s leading anti-war forces and held the state and the military to account.
- For Putin personally, any encounter with soldiers’ mothers stirs unhappy memories of one of the most dramatic incidents of his first year in the Kremlin. In August 2000, the inexperienced president was subjected to a grilling by the wives and mothers of sailors who died in the Kursk submarine disaster. The transcript of the meeting immediately appeared in the press and a recording was played on Channel One, which was then owned by Kremlin eminence grise Boris Berezovsky. Presenter Sergei Dorenko subsequently claimed that, after the broadcast, Putin called the channel and yelled that the widows were not genuine and that Berezovsky’s colleagues “hired whores for $10.” Ever since that encounter, the Russian president has avoided in-person meetings, favoring stage-managed gatherings with hand-picked members of the public.
- This time, of course, there were no surprises. The Kremlin carefully selected the soldiers’ mothers who were invited to attend. At least half of those at the meeting turned out to be activists from the ruling United Russia party and members of pro-Kremlin organizations.
- The most striking speech at the event was close to parody. It was given by Nina Pshenichkina, a woman from Ukraine’s Luhansk Region whose son was killed in 2019. Pshenchkina later became a member of the Public Chamber of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic and has attended almost every official funeral and official celebration. She told Putin that her son’s last words were: “Let’s go, lads, let’s crop some dill” (in this context, “dill” is an insulting nickname for Ukrainians).
- Putin’s speech was also striking. First, he told the assembled mothers that Ukrainians were Nazis because they kill mobilized Russians soldiers who did not wish to serve on the front line. Then he embarked on a long, strange discussion about why we should be proud of the dead. “We are all mortal, we all live beneath God and at some point we will all leave this world. It’s inevitable. The question is how we live… after all, how some people live or don’t live, it’s not clear. How they get away from vodka, or something. And then they got away and lived, or did not live, imperceptibly. But your son lived. And he achieved something. This means he did not live his life in vain,” he said to one of the mothers.
Why the world should care
It would be an error to assume that Putin has completely abandoned rational thought. However, it is instructive to watch him at meetings like this, which provide a window onto the sort of information he consumes. At this meeting with fake soldiers’ mothers he quoted fake reports from his Defense Ministry and, seemingly, took it all seriously.