Liudmila Vakhnina on the NGO Women of the Don: Will We Let It Be Destroyed?

posted 2 Oct 2016, 06:55 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 2 Oct 2016, 08:16 ]
6 September 2016

By Liudmila Vakhnina

Source: [original source:]

A criminal case has been brought against Valentina Cherevatenko, leader of the regional NGOs Women of the Don Union and Women of the Don Foundation, for failing to comply with the law on foreign agents. This sets a precedent. Valentina has become the first person to whom Article 330.1 of the Russian Criminal Code, which provides for up to two years in prison, has been applied.

[Article 330.1. Malicious non-compliance with obligations established by Russian law on non-profit organizations fulfilling the functions of foreign agents. Punishable by a fine of up to 300,000 roubles or the sum of two years’ pay or other income of the convicted person, or compulsory correctional work for up to two years, or deprivation of liberty for the same period. -]

I first met Valentina at the end of the 1990s. Perhaps nowhere in my travels around Russia had I met NGOs with such diversity, originality and positive attitudes as in Rostov region. And it happened that most of the initiatives going on in the region were headed by a woman.

In 1996 the well-known Rostov human rights defender, Stanislav Velikoredchanin, in introducing me to what was happening in his region, immediately pointed to the Rostov Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee, headed by Elena Kharlampievna Ziubrovskaya, as one of the most important. In his words, it was not only on issues concerning soldiers that people turned to them for help, people realized that what was new was that they had begun working on the basis of law. He made a bold prognosis: with time the human rights movement would unite around the Soldiers’ Mothers’ committees, and from them other organizations would grow. He pointed to the women’s movement as the beginnings of this process. ‘The stature of Women of the Don grew considerably once they began to help the Soldiers’ Mothers’ committees,’ he said.

The centre of the women’s movement crystallized back in 1992 in Novocherkassk. By 1995 they had adopted the following way of working: once in two weeks at a session of the Women of the Don Union, activists arrived from various towns in the region. To get there from Taganrog they got up at 5 am and travelled by local train, changing trains in Rostov. And Natalia Kokh, chair of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers in Zernograd, was so well able to ‘put the officials from the military conscription commissions in their places’ that ‘sometimes they gave her a lift in a car of the military commission, waited for the end of the session, and then drove her home.’

At the same time, Cherevatenko asserts: ‘The Union is not a purely women’s organization. Women of the Don is a women’s initiative that is supported by men. The situation in Taganrog clearly confirmed the justice of her words. Suffice it to say that between Women of the Don, Taganrog Human Rights Centre and the organization Assembly of Soldiers’ Parents there is quite a degree of joint membership. ‘The Taganrog Human Rights Centre was really a family team, three Trofimovs took part – husband, wife and son. They were active in the Assembly, either together or in turn. This organization was set up in January 1995 from a spontaneous movement of mothers who were looking for their children who had been sent to fight in Chechnya. The military conscription commission was ready to cooperate with then, and set up a joint hotline based in the commission. Others who helped included Duma deputies elected from Rostov region.

And so the first priorities of the Centre’s work were above all protecting the rights of children, of families with many children, of refugees, and so on. Both the Centre and the Assembly of Soldiers’ Parents won the right to send their representatives to sessions of the conscription commissions. The leader of the Centre, Nikolai Ivanovich Trofimov, said: ‘We worked for a while in these conscription commissions and we saw that they were calling up young men who were ill, calling them ‘fit with insignificant limitations’. They would send them to the construction units, which is the same place they send those unfit for service. The unfit and the almost criminal go to one and the same place. It’s clear who will become the butt of humiliation.

In terms of its impact on public life in the Rostov region, Women of the Don has had a very wide geographical spread. It is not always clear where there is a branch of Women of the Don and where there is simply another organization that is collaborating with it. But that is not important.

Women of the Don has had continuous contact with the Soldiers’ Mothers’ organizations in Donetsk and Volgodonsk. I heard from many people about Darya Andreevna Drobysheva, chair of the Volgodonsk Committee of Social Protection of Russian Military Service Personnel and Conscripts, who would say: ‘She is a tank, a bulldozer. A woman it is impossible to stop.’ In the town of Belaya Kalitva a very unusual Red Cross Society was created in collaboration with the Association of Women Health Worker Veterans. Activities such as propaganda of a healthy lifestyle and educational lectures were carried out in the town’s districts. In the town of Shakhty Women of the Don had links with an environmental organization fighting against harmful emissions from a factory. That is what the network of the Women of the Don Union was like, linking groups from various towns that were engaged in different kinds of activities.

And this is how it all began: ‘Our first common effort,’ Cherevatenko said, ‘was the publication in Novocherkassk, in April 1993, of the booklet Celebrating At Our Table. We brought together our members favourite recipes for cakes, pastries and biscuits and published the book. We sold it and we used the money we earned to buy chairs and a table for the women’s club. The remaining money we gave to families that didn’t have enough money to buy food. And when I visit someone’s house and see that there in the kitchen on a shelf is a copy of this book, I’m always very happy. But it is a life-long road that led from this book to the International conference, ‘Women for Life Without Wars and Violence.’

Interest in pastries and similar things that are traditional women’s activities has not been abandoned. Most important in their work now, however, is working with children. The Union of Women of Taganrog ran role playing games and debates for senior students in 30 schools. They were organized in this way: at first meetings with experts, then the school students broke up into two groups by taking lots, and each group takes an opposing point of view in the debate. The questions debated varied from ‘Shall we build a nuclear power station?’ to ‘Should the capital of the country be moved to Taganrog? A lot of work was done on the basis of the Children’s Artistic Club. I very much appreciated seeing there the brochure ‘Green Crow’, a handbook for role playing developed in Moscow by my good friends.

Meanwhile, in the city of Shakhty, the work with children and young people was carried on by the organization People’s Home. This came into being as a continuation of old traditions, reaching back to before the Revolution. They monitored the situation in children’s homes. They ran a youth theatre, organized trips to hospitals, and took art exhibitions to hospitals. Unfortunately, during my second trip to Rostov region in 1998 I happened to hear that a lot of the work of this kind in Shakhty had come to an end. However, the work of providing psychological assistance to various categories of the city’s residents on the basis of approaches worked out for victims of stress situations, including military conflict, continued. It was headed by the director of People’s Home, Liudmila Ivanovna Pavlichenko, a psychologist by education.

And of course, in this varied community the theme of protecting social rights, so natural for women (but, moreover, also appropriate for men), was very important. Among the activities of the Taganrog Human Rights Centre, the strongest impression was made by the campaign they initiated to lodge en masse appeals to the court on the failure to pay welfare payments for children. Half of the town lodged appeals, and subsequently the authorities began to make the welfare payments!

We can see that during the 1990s a unique community was created in Rostov region, based on exchanges of experience, mutual help, and joint initiatives, not only of men and women, but also of organizations from different towns. In this community the attraction of new knowledge, especially legal knowledge, was very strong. Many of the possibilities in these areas came about through the work of the Southern Regional Resource Centre (SRRC), which had its main office in Krasnodar and a branch in Rostov. It conducted programmes of support for civil society initiatives; published books based on the materials of conferences and handbooks for civil society organizations; and conducted seminars, training sessions, and quarterly meetings of NGO leaders.

SRRC was persecuted by the authorities and closed down in 2014.

I must point out that the beginning of the 1990s far from all Soldiers Mothers’ Committees sought to use the law to defend their clients. It was, in essence, only at the very end of the 1980s that the very possibility appeared of using the law to defend conscripts and other military service personnel. Earlier there could not have been any thought of any such committees or interventions by civilians in what was happening in military units. The legislation of that time simply did not make it possible. ‘The groundbreakers in the defence of soldiers’ rights most often put their hope in building relations with commanders of the military units and with the conscription commissions. I remember very well (not in Rostov region) on activist speaking on the phone to a military commander: ‘Ivan Petrovich, we so respect you, you’ll make sure that the boy won’t be badly treated.’ Having put down the phone she gave vent to her feelings: ‘I’d like to smash his face in!’

Against this background, it was gratifying to hear Ziubrovskaya talk about the SRRC: ‘All our training seminars have a very high level of attendance. People are coming all the time, people from many civil society organizations – for example protecting the rights of people with disabilities, of those of mothers with many children. Seminars on human rights, economics, computer training. All very useful.’

That was the environment that was being created in the region. And there is no doubt that the contribution of the Women of the Don in its creation was fundamental.

However, in Taganrog one very interesting, and practically exclusively male initiative, that we discovered should be mentioned. The Argo City Youth NGO Song Studio from 1994 was well known as a creative collective. In February 1995 it was registered as an organization. Its adult supporters, Grigory Sinyavsky, a teacher, and Viktor Bogatov, a historian, made it their goal to drag young people off the streets and to raise their cultural level. ‘We don’t take the children of the elite, the kind that go to ballroom dancing classes. Where we are based there are two factories, neither of them working, people aren’t getting their pay, children at school are fainting from hunger.’

The backbone of the group was 10-12 people, while they could attract as many as 60 or 90 participants to major events. According to Sinyavsky, not everyone sings, some people are glad to help. For example, a welder can mend something.

They organized special events, for example, a cultural event or an evening fundraiser for children with disabilities. The Music Teaching Centre helped the Studio and with their support professional musicians visited libraries and schools.

Real life moved the organization towards human rights work. Sinyavsky said: ‘According to the NGO’s charter, it has the right to defend its members. In the military conscription commissions there was complete lawlessness, they were pulling out pages from medical records that gave proof of illnesses. I told them: “For the sake of the young people I’ve been looking after, I’m ready to wring anyone’s neck.” We got five people out, they were sent to the Military Medical Commission to be formally excused service. But here we couldn’t do without the assistance of the Women of the Don in the shape of the Assembly of Soldiers’ Parents.

What kind of conference is this if Cherevatenko’s journey towards it has been ‘life-long’? Valentina has been the initiator, organizer, or co-organizer of many forums that have implemented peacemaking and humanitarian initiatives. On 15-16 November, Women for Life Without Wars and Violence, an international conference she chaired that brought together 250 participants from 16 regions of Russia and several foreign countries near and far, passed a resolution giving the Conference permanent status and elaborated plans for further activities.

All the forums that have been held by this conference have been aimed at solving specific practical problems. After the 1996 Conference, a working group made up of 8 people from the Women of the Don Union took four trips to Chechnya, and on the second and third trips was able to bring about a prisoner exchange and obtain lists of more than 50 Russian servicemen who had gone missing. Humanitarian aid collected in Rostov region was delivered to Chechen children.

The second forum, held 17-18 January 1998, approved the Building Peace After Conflict programme. The Psychosocial Rehabilitation for Participants in Armed Conflicts: Cleansing the Warrior project was implemented as a part of this programme.

The story of how the rehabilitation methods were developed is noteworthy. It was noticed that in the United States, veterans of all ethnic groups except for representatives of the indigenous population, native Americans, were prone to ‘Vietnam Syndrome.’ Researchers reached the conclusion that this was connected with the ancient tradition of ‘cleansing the warrior’, when the entire family and the entire tribe help a man ‘get off the warpath.’ Women of the Don applied methods developed with the help of the Independent Psychiatric Association on the basis of this experience.

The means for achieving the goal were as follows: selecting volunteer helpers from among NGO members, and, what is very important, members of servicemen’s families; preparing them in ‘Cleansing the Warrior’ training seminars; and creating a Center for the Rehabilitation of Individuals with Stress and Post-Stress Disorders.

This line of activity was extended in 2004 with another project, The Complex Long-Term Rehabilitation of Individuals Who Suffered as a Result of the Terrorist Act in Beslan. Subsequently, this kind of help was also rendered to the inhabitants of the flooded town of Krymsk.

We cannot list all the initiatives in which Cherevatenko has participated. We’ll mention Abduction, Hostage taking, the Sale of People, and Prospects for Human Rights Activity, an international conference held in Nalchik on 3-4 July 1999.

In 2009, Valentina Cherevatenko was one of the initiators of the creation of the Alliance of Women Peacemakers of Russia and Georgia

In 2005, on the initiative of NGOs from various countries, the 1000 Women—The Nobel Peace Prize project was implemented. Among the 1000 women from 150 countries nominated for the prize were 35 from Russia, and these included Valentina Cherevatenko. Although the action was symbolic and was mostly for the sake of publicity, you will agree that being among the top thousand women in the whole world is no small thing.

Unfortunately, the Women of the Don website does not arouse the same kind of admiration as their activity does. Perfection cannot be achieved in everything. It’s hard to understand from the website which of the activities mentioned are ongoing. Except perhaps the list of the Coordinating Council, nearly half of whom are people I’ve met in my travels, which attests: ‘Women of the Don remains as it has been.’ The gap in information about their activity has been filled partially by the Social Information Agency (ASI), a supportive NGO that has released a marvellous video that presents entertainingly and colourfully the Women of the Don’s programmes in psychological rehabilitation, work with children, and training.

Today, Women of the Don has once again taken up peacemaking. In 2015, the alliance became known for ‘Civilian Minsk,’ an initiative intended to employ the methods of popular diplomacy to ensure civilian monitoring of the implementation of the Minsk peace accords halting the armed conflict in the east of Ukraine. Isn’t this the main reason, one must wonder, why the organization has been harassed? . . .

On their website, there is an appeal to the Contact Group on Regulating the Situation in Ukraine. This is not about politics. This is about the difficulties people encounter in passing through the checkpoints from the ATO [anti-terrorist operation] zone and back. This is a woman’s approach. This is the kind of truly charitable work, of which we could all use more.

What kind of steamroller is it rolling through our country, rolling everything sensible and good into the asphalt?

Translated by Marian Schwartz and Simon Cosgrove