KOSTROMA, RUSSIA — Olga Garina spits out the time, “one-o-five,” when she got the call telling her that her paratrooper son was one of 10 taken captive this week in Ukraine. That call — from a neighbor, not from the army — set her on course to become a defiant ringleader against stonewalling Russian military officers.
The neighbor, in the small town of Makaryev, had seen online a picture of Garina’s son, Yegor Pochtoyev, 20, in Ukrainian captivity, and she thought Garina should know. That neighbor ended up calling an ambulance after Garina nearly fainted.
Pochtoyev and other paratroopers from Kostroma were detained Monday on Ukrainian soil. Since then, Garina has been making the daily 125-mile journey from her home in Makaryev to Kostroma, where she has rallied the captured paratroopers’ mothers as they demand answers about what happened to their sons.
They are from the city and the country. They support their government and their president. Most claim to be apolitical — although ask a few if they support the takeover of Crimea and the ready answer is: Of course.
Yet, what to outsiders watching the unfolding crisis in Ukraine might have seemed inevitable — that Russian troops would end up there — was, to the mothers of those soldiers, unthinkable.
“If there were a plan for them to be sent to Ukraine, someone would have given them notice, and then he would not have gone,” Tatiana Arkhipova, 42, said of her son Sergei, 22, who is among those captured. She fought back tears as she recalled driving at dawn to the military base, where officials confirmed that her son had been captured, then dismissed the rest of her questions.
“We’re very emotional, and everyone is angry at everyone,” said her husband, Alexander Arkhipov, 44. “But we still hope they will help.”
The families’ continued faith in the authorities stems from a common conviction: They believe the Russian government’s version of events, that the soldiers crossed the border by mistake, over the Ukrainian government’s assertions that they were sent there to support the pro-Russian rebels.
Hope regularly gives way
to frustrating disappointment, though. On Thursday, the paratroopers’ families made their way to what is effectively their base camp — a dark, damp, cramped basement office behind a shoe-
repair sign that is the headquarters of the local Soldiers’ Mothers chapter — expecting to meet a senior representative of the local military outfit. He had promised an audience with the families to answer their questions.
Lyudmilla Khokhlova, who runs the Soldiers’ Mothers chapter in Kostroma, is not afraid to speak out to people in authority. On Wednesday, she persuaded some of the mothers to go on camera and make direct pleas to Russian President Vladimir Putin — an uncommon act in Russia made even more remarkable by reports that in the city of Pskov in western Russia, journalists and others asking questions about the deaths of Russian troops in Ukraine were physically attacked.
So the mothers waited. On the street outside the military base, about 30 other distressed women clamored for answers of their own, and it appeared that this had spooked the base commanders.
“Those who will have the opportunity will call on Sunday,” said Albert Akhmerov, a public relations officer for the base who was clearly not making any headway with the anxious crowd.
Finally, two hours later, the paratroopers’ mothers would get their moment with the military brass: an inconclusive, five-
Now the parents of the paratroopers were becoming distressed, too. Garina took the families into a back room and began barking out orders and telephone numbers. If they couldn’t bend the ear of the military, they would take their claim all the way to Putin’s human rights advisory council.
“I can’t sleep, I can’t eat,” Garina explained on her next cigarette break. “How can I eat, if maybe my son is not eating?”
But this time, relief came in the form of a phone call. Alexei Generalov, one of the paratroopers, had called his family, and they called Garina to tell her they had heard from their son.
Ten minutes later, Garina’s phone rang again.
“Son? Son! Son!” she screamed. They were in detention in Kiev but being treated well, her son, Yegor, told her. He gave her a number to call Friday, to make plans to come to Kiev to get him.
Other mothers reported similar calls, similarly ending in floods of I-love-yous and tears. But not one asked her son the one question that had been the group’s singular obsession for the past few days: Why on earth were they in Ukraine in the first place?
“No, no, we didn’t speak about that,” said Albert Tsvetkov, 47. His wife Yelena Tsvetkova’s only child, Sergey Smirnov, 28, was among the captured paratroopers. “They were only telling us that everything in Ukraine is good.”
But as the mothers rejoiced, Khokhlova fielded one more call from a local administration official, warning them away from going to Kiev, and suggesting it might be a trap.
“Maybe it is a trap,” mused Tsvetkova, 49.
Yet others had simply had enough.
“Even yesterday, we were ready to go,” said one mother, who gave only her first name and patronymic, Olga Vladimirovna. She said she and her husband had packed the trunk of their car to go to Rostov to search for their son. Now, she would simply change her destination. “If now I know where to go, I’m going.”
Mika Velikovskiy in Kostroma and Alex Ryabchyn in Kiev contributed to this report.