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Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracyby Anna Politkovskaya
MY COUNTRY'S ARMY AND ITS MOTHERS
The army in Russia is a closed system no different from a prison. Like anywhere else, people don't get into the army or into prison unless the authorities want them there. Unlike other places, once you are in, you live the life of a slave. Armies everywhere try to keep what they do quiet, and perhaps this is why we talk about generals as if they belonged to an international tribe whose personality is the same all over the world, irrespective of which president or state they serve.
There are, however, further peculiarities specific to the Russian army or, rather, to relations between the army and the civilian population. The civilian authorities have no control over what happens in the military. A private, who belongs to the lowest caste in the hierarchy, is a nobody, a nothing. Behind the concrete walls of the barracks, officers can mistreat soldiers with impunity. Similarly, a senior officer can do anything he fancies, anything at all, to a junior colleague.
You are probably thinking that things surely cannot be so bad.
Well, not always; sometimes things are better, but only becausesome humane individual has called his subordinates to order. Those are the only rays of hope.
"But what about Russia's leaders?" you may wonder. "The president is the commander in chief, personally responsible for what goes on, isn't he?"
Unfortunately, once they make it to the Kremlin, our leaders abandon any attempt to rein in the army's lawlessness and are more likely to give senior officers ever greater power. The army either supports or undermines the leaders depending on whether they indulge it. The one attempt to humanize the army was made under Boris Yeltsin as part of an effort to promote democratic freedom. The program didn't last long. In Russia, holding on to power is more important than saving soldiers' lives, and under a barrage of fury from the generals, Yeltsin ran up the white flag and surrendered.
Putin hasn't even tried. He himself is a former officer. End of story. When he first emerged as a possible head of state rather than an unpopular director of the universally detested Federal Security Bureau (FSB), he started making pronouncements to the effect that the army, diminished under Yeltsin and by its defeat in the first Chechen war, would be rejuvenated, and that all it lacked for its rebirth was a second Chechen war. This assertion is responsible for everything that has followed. When the second Chechen war began, in 1999, the army was given free rein, and in the presidential elections of 2000, it voted as one for Putin. For the army, the present war has been highly profitable, a source of medals and accelerated promotions, and a first-rate springboard for a political career. Generals who leave active service are catapulted directly into the political elite.
How exactly Putin helped the army we shall see in the stories that follow. You decide whether you would like to live in a country where your taxes maintain such an institution. How would you feel if when your son turned eighteen, he was conscripted as "human materiel"? How secure would you feel with an army where every week the soldiers desert in droves, sometimes whole squads at a time, even entire companies. What would you think of an army in which, in a singleyear, 2002, a complete battalion, more than five hundred men, had been killed not by enemy fire but by beatings, and in which the officers steal everything, from the ten-rouble notes privates receive from their parents to a full tank column? In which all the officers hate the soldiers' parents because every so often, when the circumstances are just too disgraceful, an outraged mother protests her son's murder and demands retribution?
No. U-729343: FORGOTTEN ON THE BATTLEFIELD
It is November 18, 2002. Nina Levurda is a heavy, slow-moving woman, a retired schoolteacher, old and tired and with a string of serious ailments. Like many other times over the past year, she has been sitting for hours in the unwelcoming waiting room of the Krasnaya Presnya District Court, in Moscow.
Nina has nowhere else to turn. She is a mother without a son: even worse, without the truth about her son. Lieutenant Pavel Levurda, born in 1975, soldier No. U-729343, was killed at the start of the second Chechen war. What has compelled Nina to spend the past eleven months doing the rounds of legal institutions is not that No. U-729343 was killed but the events surrounding his death and what followed it. Her one aim: to get a precise answer from the state as to why her son was left behind on the battlefield. She would also like to know why, since his death, she has been treated so abominably by the Ministry of Defense.
As a child, Pavel Levurda dreamed of a career in the army--not too common nowadays. Boys from poor families do apply for places at the military academies, but their aim is to earn a degree and then be discharged. The self-congratulatory reports from the president's office about the increasing competition for admission to military institutes are true. But the situation has less to do with a rise in the army's prestige than with the abject poverty of those seeking an education. A desire for training but an unwillingness to serve in the army also explainsthe catastrophic shortage of junior officers in the field. When they graduate from military college, they simply fail to appear at the garrisons to which they have been posted. They suddenly become "seriously ill" and send in certificates testifying to all manner of unexpected disabilities. This is not difficult to arrange in a country as corrupt as Russia.
Pavel was different. He really wanted to be an officer. His parents tried to dissuade him, because they knew how hard life is in the army. Petr Levurda, his father, was himself an officer, and the family had constantly been shifted from one remote garrison to another.
In the early 1990s, moreover, the collapse of the Soviet empire had left chaos in its wake. A high school graduate would have been mad, everyone agreed, to choose to attend a military academy that couldn't feed its students. But Pavel insisted on his dream and went to study at the Far East College for Officers. In 1996 he received a commission and was sent to serve near Saint Petersburg. Then, in 1998, he was thrown into the frying pan: the Fifty-eighth Army.
In Russia, the Fifty-eighth Army is synonymous with the army's degeneration. Its bad reputation, of course, began before Putin. He does, however, bear a heavy responsibility--because the anarchy among its officers goes unchecked; they are effectively above the law. With very few exceptions, they are not prosecuted, no matter what crimes they commit.
In addition, the Fifty-eighth was in the hands of General Vladimir Shamanov. A Russian hero who fought in both Chechen wars, he was known for his brutality toward the civilian population. When Shamanov resigned, he became governor of Ulyanovsk Province, benefiting from his role in the second Chechen war, during which he was rarely off the television screen. Daily he would inform the country that "all Chechens are bandits" who deserved to be eliminated. In this enterprise he enjoyed Putin's full support.
The staff headquarters of the Fifty-eighth Army is in Vladikavkaz, the capital of the republic of North Ossetia--Alaniya, which borders Chechnya and Ingushetia. The officers of the Fifty-eighth Army, followingtheir general's example, were renowned for their cruelty toward both the people of Chechnya and their own soldiers and junior officers. Rostov-on-Don is the location of the general headquarters of the North Caucasus Military District, to which the Fifty-eighth Army is subordinate. The greater part of the archive of the Rostov Committee of Soldiers' Mothers consists of files relating to desertion by privates as the result of beatings by their officers, who are also well known for the blatant theft of supplies and for wholesale treason: by selling stolen weapons to the Chechen resistance, the officers aid the enemy.
I know many junior officers who have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid serving in the Fifty-eighth. Levurda, however, decided otherwise. His letters make heavy reading; when he came home on leave, his parents saw their son becoming more and more morose. Whenever they urged him to resign, however, he would say, "What must be done must be done." Clearly Pavel Levurda was someone who could justly be described as a profoundly patriotic young Russian with a special sense of duty toward the motherland. In fact, he was hoping for a genuine, rather than Putinesque, rebirth of the Russian army.
In 2000, when the second Chechen war began, Pavel Levurda had an opportunity to avoid fighting in the northern Caucasus. Few would have blamed him. Many junior officers found ways to obtain exemptions. But, as Pavel explained to his parents, he couldn't desert his soldiers: when they were sent to Chechnya, he went as well. On January 13, 2000, Pavel reported to the Fifteenth Guards Motorized Infantry Regiment of the Second (Taman) Guards Division (Army Unit 73881), in Moscow Province. On January 14, Nina heard her son's voice on the telephone for the last time. He had signed a special contract to go to Chechnya, and it was clear enough what that portended.
"I cried. I did my best to change his mind," Nina remembers. "But Pavel said there was no going back. I asked my cousin who lives in Moscow to go straight to the Taman Division, to try to talk him out of it. When she got to the unit, she found she had missed him by just a few hours."
By January 18, No. U-729343 was in Chechnya. "At present I am on the southwest outskirts of Grozny ... ," Pavel wrote in his only letter to his parents from the war, dated January 24.
The city is blockaded from all directions and serious fighting is going on. The gunfire doesn't stop for a minute. The city is burning, the sky is completely black. Sometimes a mortar shell falls nearby, or a fighter plane launches a missile right by your ear. The artillery never lets up. Our losses have been appalling. All the officers in my company have been put out of action. The officer in charge of this unit before me was blown up by one of our own booby traps. When I went to see my commander, he grabbed his rifle and sent a round into the ground a few centimeters from me. It was sheer luck I wasn't hit. Everyone laughed. They said, "Pasha, we've had five commanding officers already, and you almost didn't last five minutes!" The men here are all right but not really strong-willed. The officers are on contract, and the soldiers, though mostly very young, are holding out. We all sleep together in a tent, on the ground. There is an ocean of lice. We're given shit to eat. No change there. What lies ahead we don't know. Either we'll attack who knows where, or we'll just sit around until we turn into idiots or they pull us out and pack us off back to Moscow. Or God knows what. I'm not ill, but I feel very low. That's all for now. Love, kisses. Pasha
The letter would not have helped reassure a parent, but in war you lose the ability to reassure others, and you forget what might seem shocking to someone far away, because the terror you've experienced has been so intense.
Later it became clear that Pavel had intended to calm his parents. When he wrote it, he wasn't lying in a tent wondering what lay ahead. From at least January 21, he was involved in the "serious fighting," having first taken command of a mortar unit and, shortly afterward, of an entire company. The other officers had indeed "been put out of action" and there was no one else to take command.
Nor was he "on the southwest outskirts" of Grozny. On February19, while helping the battalion's intelligence unit escape an ambush and "covering his comrades' retreat" from the village of Ushkaloy, Itum-Kalin District (according to the citation nominating him for the Order of Valor), Lieutenant Levurda was mortally wounded and died of "massive hemorrhaging following multiple bullet wounds."
So Pavel Levurda died in Ushkaloy, where the fighting was at its fiercest--a desperate partisan war in highland forests, on narrow paths. But where was Pavel's body? The family never received a coffin containing Nina Levurda's son for burial. His remains, she discovered, had been lost by the state he had tried with such desperate loyalty to serve.
Nina Levurda then took on the tasks of military prosecutor and investigating officer. She found out that on February 19, the official date of her son's death, the comrades whose retreat he was covering did indeed get away, and simply abandoned Pavel, along with six other soldiers who had saved them, by breaking through the ambush at the scene of heavy fighting. Most of the soldiers left behind had been wounded but were still alive. They shouted for help, begged not to be abandoned, as villagers later testified. They bandaged some of the wounded themselves, but could do no more. There is no hospital in Ushkaloy, no doctor, not even a nurse.
Pavel Levurda had been deserted on the battlefield and then forgotten. Nobody cared that his body was lying there, or that he had a family awaiting his return. What happened after his death is typical of the army, a disgraceful episode that stands for an ethos in which a human is nothing, in which no one watches over the troops, and there is no sense of responsibility toward the families.
The military only remembered Pavel Levurda on February 24, when, according to information provided by general headquarters in Chechnya, Ushkaloy was cleared of Chechen fighters and "came under the control" of federal forces. (This explanation was actually presented later, to prove that "there was no objective possibility" of recovering Pavel's body.)
On February 24, the army collected the bodies of six of the seven soldiers. They couldn't find Pavel Levurda, so they forgot about him again.
Back home, Pavel's mother was in a dreadful state. The only communication she had had was Pavel's letter, which she had received on February 7. The Ministry of Defense's "hotline" wasn't much help: talking to the duty officers there was like talking to a computer. "Lieutenant Pavel Petrovich Levurda is not on the list of the dead or missing," was the invariable reply she received. Nina went back to the "fully updated" hotline over the course of several months: even after she had located Pavel's remains through her own efforts, even after official notification of his death, she continued to hear the same information.
But to return to the story of Pavel's body. On May 20, three months after the fighting in Ushkaloy, the village police discovered "the body of a man showing signs of violent death." However, it was only on July 6, after another one and a half months of Nina's calls to the hotline and the local army commissariat, that the same police filed the relevant form, "Orientation/Task No. 464," in response to the ordinary missing-person's inquiry Nina had registered with her own local police. On July 19 the Ushkaloy report finally reached Bryansk, where Pavel's family lived. Thus on August 2, Detective Abramochkin, an ordinary police officer, came to see Pavel's parents.
The only person at home was another Nina, Pavel's fourteen-year-old niece. Abramochkin asked her some questions regarding the belongings Pavel might have had on him, and was surprised to find he was talking to a soldier's family. To Abramochkin, what had begun as a routine investigation became something quite different. It was Abramochkin--and not an official from the Ministry of Defense--who came to inform the mother of a hero that her son's entitlement to all provisions and allowances had been canceled. And it was Abramochkin who was sent to the parents in Bryansk to ask for "the permanent postal address of Army Unit 73881 in which Levurda, P. P. had been serving" so that the Itum-Kalin police could contact the unit's commanding officer to establish the circumstances relating to the death of a person who, from his mother's description, appeared to resemble one of their officers. (The quotation is from the officialcorrespondence. It reveals a good deal about the realities of the army and the nature of Putin's war in the Caucasus.)
Seeing the state the family was in, Abramochkin strongly advised Nina Levurda to go to the main military mortuary in Rostov-on-Don as soon as she could. He had heard that the remains of the unknown soldier from Ushkaloy had been taken there for identification by Colonel Vladimir Shcherbakov, director of the 124th Military Forensic Medical Laboratory and a well-known and respected man. Shcherbakov, it should be noted, does this work not at the behest of the army but because his heart tells him it is the right thing to do. Abramochkin also advised Nina not to expect too much, because, as we say, "anything can happen in Russia," where mix-ups involving dead bodies are only too common. In the meantime, the Bryansk Committee of Soldiers' Mothers was helping with the Levurda saga, and it was only through its good offices and the efforts of Abramochkin that the elite Fifteenth Guards Regiment and the even more elite Taman Guards Division finally twigged that the seventh body just might be that of Pavel Levurda.
"We arrived in Rostov on August 20," Nina said. "I went straight to the laboratory. There was no security at the entrance. I walked in and went into the first autopsy room I found. I saw a severed head on a stand next to an examination table. More precisely, it was a skull. I knew immediately that it was Pavel's head, even though there were other skulls nearby."
Is there any way to assess this mother's distress or compensate the distress her for it? Of course not. Nina was given sedatives after the encounter with her son's skull, which she had correctly identified. At this moment a representative from Pavel's unit came rushing in to see her; the commanding officer had received a telegram from Abramochkin and then sent someone to Rostov to take care of the formalities. This representative soldier showed Nina a letter. She looked at it and, despite the sedatives she had just taken, she fainted. She already knew the news contained in the letter; the army's callousness, however, was afresh blow. In the letter, the acting commanding officer of Army Unit 73881 and the unit's chief of staff requested that "Citizens Levurda" be informed that "their son, while on a military mission, true to his military oath, showing devotion and courage, has died in battle." The unit was trying to cover the tracks of its forgetfulness.
When Nina recovered, she read the notice more carefully. There was no indication of when her son had died.
"Well, what about the date?" Nina asked the soldier.
"Write it in yourself, whatever you like," he replied.
"What do you mean, write it in?" Nina shouted. "The day Pasha was born is his date of birth. Surely I have a right to know the date of his death!"
The soldier shrugged and went on to hand her a further document: an order to "remove Lieutenant Levurda from the list of members of the Regiment." This paper, too, bore no date and indicated no reason for removing Pavel's name, but it did have various stamps and signatures at the bottom. Again, with the artless gaze of a child, the unit's representative asked Nina to fill in the blanks herself and hand the paper in, when she got home, to the local army commissariat so that Pavel could be removed from the register.
Nina said nothing. What was the point of talking to a person with no heart, brain, or soul?
"But surely that's easiest, isn't it? Rather than me having to go all the way to Bryansk?" the soldier continued uncertainly.
Of course it was easier. There is no denying that soullessness makes life easier. Take the minister of defense, Sergey Ivanov, a crony of the president since Putin's FSB days in Saint Petersburg. Every week Ivanov appears on television to deliver the president's war bulletin. Nobody will make us "kneel down before terrorists," he says; he intends to pursue the war in Chechnya to its "victorious conclusion." Minister Ivanov has nothing to say about the fate of the soldiers and officers who allow him and the president to avoid seeming to kneel down before terrorists. Their line is wholly neo-Soviet: humans have no independentexistence; they are cogs in a machine whose function is to implement unquestioningly whatever political escapade those in power have dreamed up. Cogs have no rights, not even to dignity in death.
Not being heartless is much harder work. But that would mean seeing beyond the general policies of the party and government to the details of how these policies are implemented. In the present instance, the details are that, on August 31, 2000, No. U-729343 was finally buried in the city of Ivanovo, to which Pavel's parents had moved to escape the dark associations of Bryansk. The forensic analysis in Rostov passed Pavel's head on to Nina. Unfortunately, that seemed to be all the remains they had to return.
MANY RUSSIANS HAVE heard of Nina Levurda because, on the ninth day after the funeral, having committed what was left of her son to the earth, she set off to the headquarters of the Fifteenth Guards Regiment, in Moscow Province. Her initial intention was only to look Pavel's commanding officers in the eye and to find in them, when confronted by his mother, at least some remorse for all the things they had forgotten to do.
"Of course, I didn't expect them to apologize," Nina said, "but I did think I might at least see some sympathy in their faces."
When she arrived at the Taman Guards Division, however, nobody wanted to see this mother. The commanding officer was simply unavailable. Nina sat for three days waiting to meet him, without food, tea, sleep, or any attention paid to her. Senior officers scurried to and fro like cockroaches, pretending not to notice her. It was then that Nina Levurda vowed to sue the state, to bring an action against the Ministry of Defense and Ivanov for the suffering they had caused. Not in connection with her son's death--he had, after all, perished in the line of duty--but because of what had happened subsequently. Translated from convoluted legal jargon into plain speech, she wanted to know who was responsible.
What happened next? First, the Order of Valor awarded posthumously to Nina's son was presented to the family in the army commissariat in Ivanovo. Second, the army took its revenge. The Ministry of Defense and the Taman Guards Division went on the warpath against this mother who had dared to express her outrage at their behavior.
This is how they went about it. In just under a year, there were eight court hearings, the first on December 26, 2001, the last on November 18, 2002, none of which came to any conclusion. The court never even got around to considering the substance of Nina's writ, because the Ministry of Defense ignored the hearings completely. And in the view of at least one court, they were right to do so. The case of "Nina Levurda against the state" first came before a judge in the Krasnaya Presnya Intermunicipal Court, Moscow. He decreed that a mother "has no right to information" about her son's body, and the Ministry of Defense was, accordingly, under no obligation to supply her with such information. Nina went to the Moscow City Court, where, in view of the manifest absurdity of the previous verdict, the case was referred back to the Krasnaya Presnya Court for a new hearing. The state machine's assault on the bereaved mother continued to take the form of a boycott of the court sessions by Ivanov's representatives and by the Land Forces Command, of which the Taman Guards Division and the Fifteenth Guards Regiment are a part. They simply failed to appear, brazenly and systematically. So Nina Levurda kept going from Ivanovo to Moscow, only to find herself confronted by an empty dock, her journey wasted. An ordinary woman dependent on her state pension, whose purpose is only to keep you from starving, Nina also found that her husband had taken to the bottle after Pavel's funeral as a way to escape from their suffering.
In the end, Judge Bolonina of the Krasnaya Presnya District Court, to whom the case had been referred from the Moscow City Court, became exasperated. At the fifth hearing, she fined the Ministryof Defense 8,000 rubles--at taxpayer expense, of course--for failing to appear. Then, on November 18, 2002, after the imposition of the fine, Ministry of Defense representatives finally turned up in the courtroom, but they knew nothing about the case and declined to identify themselves, complaining that chaos at the ministry was the cause of the problems. The upshot was that the court was again adjourned, this time to December 2.
Nina was in tears as she stood in the grim corridor of the court building.
"Why are they doing this?" she asked. "You'd think they had done nothing wrong."
How enviable to be Sergey Ivanov, head of the pitiless Ministry of Defense. How straightforward his life must be, not having to bother with mothers whose sons have died in the "war on terror" about which he waxes so lyrical, not having to hear their voices or feel their pain. He knows nothing of the lives he has destroyed, nothing of the thousands of parents deserted by the system after their children have given their lives for it.
"Putin can't do everything!" the president's admirers protest.
Indeed he can't. But as president, he is the person who shapes policies. In Russia, people imitate the man at the top. We know how he views the army. He is entirely to blame for the brutality and extremism endemic in both the army and the state. Cruelty is an infection that can easily become pandemic. First inflicted on people in Chechnya, it is now used against "our people," as the patriotically inclined like to describe Russian citizens--including the soldiers, those Russians who fought patriotically against the Chechens, who experienced the state's atrocities first.
"Well, he made his choice and followed his destiny," says Nina, wiping the tears from her face as Judge Bolonina stalks past in her robes, inscrutable. "But for heaven's sake, aren't these people human beings?"
FIFTY-FOUR SOLDIERS, OR RUNNING HOME TO MOM
People leave Russia when staying either becomes life-threatening or involves massive injury to their integrity and dignity. On September 8, 2002, such was the situation in the army. Fifty-four soldiers gave up and tried to leave.
The Twentieth Guards Motorized Infantry Division training grounds are situated on the outskirts of the village of Prudboy, in Volgograd Province. The men of the Second Section of Army Unit 20004 had been taken from their permanent base in the town of Kamyshin, also in Volgograd Province, to the grounds in Prudboy.
The move seemed unexceptional: the troops were to receive training. Their instructors would be their commanding officers. On September 8, however, these role models, Lieutenant Colonel Kolesnikov, Major Shiryaev, Major Artemiev, Lieutenant Kadiev, Lieutenant Ko-rostylev, Lieutenant Kobets, and Sublieutenant Pekov, decided to conduct an inquiry outside their authority. The soldiers assembled on the parade grounds were told there was to be an investigation to find out who had stolen a fighting reconnaissance and landing vehicle (FRLV) during the night.
The soldiers later insisted that nobody had stolen the FRLV. It was right there in its usual place in the divisional parking lot. The officers were just bored. They had been drinking for days, were probably feeling ill as a result and decided to divert themselves with a bit of bullying. It was not by any means the first time this sort of thing had occurred at the Kamyshin training ground, which has a bad reputation.
After the announcement, a first batch of soldiers was led into the officers' tent: Sergeants Kutuzov and Krutov, Privates Generalov, Gursky, and Gritsenko. The others, who were ordered to wait outside, soon heard the cries and groans of their fellow soldiers. The officers were beating them. The first batch was thrown out of the tent. Theytold their comrades that the officers had beaten them on their buttocks and backs with the hafts of entrenching tools, and kicked them in the belly and the ribs. The description was unnecessary. The signs of the beatings were clearly visible on the soldiers' bodies.
The officers announced that they would now take a break. The lieutenant colonel, two majors, three lieutenants, and one sublieutenant would be having dinner, and they informed the remaining soldiers that failure to confess voluntarily to having stolen the FRLV would result in being beaten in the same way as those now sprawled on the grass outside their tent.
Their announcement made, the officers departed to take soup.
And the soldiers? They walked out. They mutinied, choosing not to wait like sheep for the slaughter. They left the soldiers on sentry duty behind, since deserting your post is a criminal offense involving a court-martial and sentencing to a disciplinary battalion, and they also left Kutuzov, Krutov, Generalov, and Gritsenko, who were incapable of walking.
Forming a column, the soldiers marched out of the training ground toward Volgograd to get help.
It is a fair distance from Prudboy to Volgograd but the fifty-four soldiers marched the entire journey in an orderly manner, making no attempt to hide, on the edge of a busy highway along which officers of the Twentieth Division were traveling to and fro. Not one vehicle stopped. No one thought to ask where the soldiers were going without an officer, which is against army regulations.
The soldiers marched until dark. They lay down to sleep in the strip of woodland beside the highway. No one came looking for them, despite the fact that when the lieutenant colonel, two majors, three lieutenants, and one sublieutenant emerged from the dining room after finishing their meal, they discovered a marked thinning of the numbers of the Second Section. They had almost no one left to command.
The officers went to bed, having no idea of the whereabouts of the soldiers for whom, by law, they were personally responsible, butknowing full well that in Russia no officer is ever punished for something that has happened to a private.
Early on the morning of September 9, the fifty-four soldiers set off again along the highway. And again army officers drove insouciantly by.
This detachment of soldiers blessed with self-respect was on the march for one and a half days, and nobody from the Twentieth Division missed them. On the evening of September 9, they marched quite openly into Volgograd. They were observed by the police, but still nobody took any interest.
The soldiers marched to the city center.
"It was about six in the evening, and we were preparing to go home when the telephone rang suddenly. 'Are you still open? May we come to see you?"' Tatyana Zozulenko, director of the Volgograd Province Mothers' Rights organization, tells me. "I said, 'Come right in.' Of course, there was no way I was expecting what happened next. Four young privates came into our small room and said there were fifty-four of them. I asked where the others were, and the boys led me down to the little basement of our own building. The rest were all standing there. I have worked in this organization for eleven years but had never seen anything quite like that before. The first thing I worried about was where we were going to put them all. It was already evening. We asked them whether they had eaten. 'No,' they replied, 'not since yesterday.' Our members ran off to buy as much bread and milk as they could. The boys fell on the food like hungry dogs, but that was something we are used to. Soldiers are very badly fed in their units. They are chronically undernourished.
"When they had eaten, I asked, 'What do you want the result of your action to be?' They replied, 'We want officers who beat up soldiers to be punished.' We decided to put them up for the night in Mothers' Rights, all of them in together on the floor, to give us time to sleep on it. First thing in the morning we would go to the garrison prosecutor's office. I locked the door and went home. I live nearby andthought I could come around quickly if I was needed. At eleven that evening I phoned them, but nobody answered. I thought they must just be tired, probably asleep or afraid of answering the phone. I was awakened at two in the morning by our lawyer Sergey Semushin. He said someone who hadn't identified himself had called to ask him to 'secure his premises.' I was around there within minutes. There were small military vehicles outside with officers in them. They did not introduce themselves. The soldiers had disappeared. I asked the officers where they were and got no reply."
The Mothers' Rights workers also discovered that their computer system, with information about crimes committed in the Twentieth Division, had been broken into and stripped. They found a note under the carpet from a soldier saying they didn't know where they were being taken; they were being beaten and needed help.
There is a little more to add. The officers at the training ground "missed" their soldiers only after being telephoned by their superiors. This was late in the evening of September 9, after Tatyana Zozulenko had contacted journalists in Volgograd and information about the AWOL soldiers had first gone out on the airwaves. The regional staff headquarters naturally demanded an explanation from the officers. Then, during the night, vehicles drove up to Mothers' Rights, and all fifty-four soldiers were removed to the guardhouse in the military commandant's office. They were then returned to their unit under the supervision of the very officers whose bullying had made the soldiers leave the training ground in the first place. Zozulenko asked Volgograd garrison prosecutor Chernov, whose duty it is to ensure that the law is upheld in the garrison's units, why he had returned the soldiers to the Twentieth Division, and he replied, without flinching, "Because these are our soldiers."
That's the key phrase in the saga of the fifty-four. "Our soldiers" effectively means "our slaves." Everything remains just as it always has been in the Russian army, where a perverse understanding of an officer's honor means the negligible value of the life and dignity of any private.The march from the training ground was the result of the abhorrent tradition that a soldier is an officer's slave. An officer can treat a soldier exactly as he pleases. It also stemmed from the sad fact that civilian control of army procedures, about which much was said in the Yeltsin years, and a draft law was even written, is non-existent. President Putin shares the army's view of its officers' rights and considers civilian monitoring of the armed forces inappropriate.
Underlying this story is the fact that the Twentieth Division--also called the Rokhlin Division after its commander, Lev Rokhlin, a hero of the first Chechen war and today a deputy of the state duma--and particularly Unit 20004, have long been notorious in Volgograd, and indeed throughout Russia.
"For an entire year we sent information to the military prosecutor's office, primarily to Mr. Chernov, the garrison prosecutor, but also to everyone higher up the hierarchy, right up to the chief military prosecutor's office in Moscow, about the crimes committed by the officers of Unit 20004," Tatyana Zozulenko says. "In terms of the number of complaints we receive from soldiers, Unit 20004 is top of the list. The officers beat their soldiers and extort their active service payments from those who have returned from Chechnya. We have yelled about this from the rooftops, but nothing has happened. The prosecutor's office has decided to keep everything quiet. The episode at the training ground is a wholly predictable result of army officers' lack of accountability." 1
A FEW SHORTER STORIES
Misha Nikolaev lived in Moscow Province. His family saw him off to the army in July 2001. He was sent to the Border Guards, to a frontier post ten hours' flying time from Moscow, at the village of Goryachy Plyazh, on Anuchina Island in the Lesser Kurils--the Pacific islandsthat have vexed Russian and Japanese politicians since the end of the Second World War.
While the two nations argue, someone has to police the border. Misha was one of those doing the job. He lasted just six months at this outpost of the Russian Far East and died on December 22, 2001. By the autumn he had already been writing alarming letters home, having discovered festering sores on his body. He asked his family to send medicine: Vishnevsky's Balm, sulfanilamide, "in fact, any medicines for treating suppuration, metapyrin, antiseptic, bandages and as much sticking plaster as possible. There is nothing here." His parents sent off the parcels without complaining; aware that the army is underfunded, they assumed that things could not be all that bad, since Misha was still working as a cook in the army's kitchens. If he was seriously ill, his parents supposed, he wouldn't be allowed anywhere near food preparation.
Even when his skin was covered with oozing sores, though, Misha continued to cook meals for the troops. The pathologist who conducted the autopsy reported that the unfortunate soldier's tissues literally split apart under the scalpel. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a Russian soldier rotted alive under the eyes of his officers, receiving no medical attention at all. What killed Misha was the complete lack of responsibility of his superiors.
DMITRY KISELEV WAS posted to serve in the Moscow Province village of Istra. In Russia such an assignment is regarded as a stroke of luck. He was close to Moscow; his parents, being Muscovites, could visit their son and battle their way through to his commanding officer if he needed help. It was not the Kuril Islands. The location did not, however, save Dmitry from his officers' depravity.
Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Boronenkov, Private Kiselev'scommanding officer, had a lucrative sideline. Nothing too unusual about that in today's army. People are up to all sorts of tricks, because their wages don't amount to much. This particular lieutenant colonel's enterprise was trading in soldiers. Istra is a dacha settlement of second homes, and Boronenkov sold his soldiers to the owners of nearby plots of land as cheap labor. The soldiers worked only for food; their pay went straight to their commanding officer. This moneymaking scheme is by no means unique. Indeed, it is widespread: soldiers become the unpaid laborers--that is, slaves--of wealthy people for the duration of their military service. In some cases, the officers use the troops as a means of bartering with people they think of as useful. If an officer needs his car repaired and has no money, he herds a few soldiers along to the local body shop. They work there, unpaid, for as long as the shop requires; in return, the officer gets his car fixed.
In late June 2002, it was the turn of the newly conscripted Dmitry Kiselev to be sold into slavery. Private Kiselev was sent to build a house for a certain member of the Mir Horticultural Association in Istra District. Initially he was constructing a house, but then he and seven other conscripts were required to dig a deep trench the length of the plot. On July 2 at seven in the evening, the sides of the trench collapsed, burying three of the troops, including Dmitry, who suffocated under the earth. His parents tried to have Lieutenant Colonel Boronenkov brought to trial, but he wriggled out of it. He knew a lot of useful people. Dmitry was the Kiselevs' only son.2
ON AUGUST 28, 2002, Army Unit 42839 was deployed in Chechnya, not far from the village of Kalinovskaya, a place where there had been no fighting for a long time. The Granddads were drinking themselves silly. Granddads--ordinary soldiers about to be demobilized into the reserves--are the most terrifying, murderous force in the army. In the evening it seemed to the Granddads that they were runningshort of vodka, so they told the first soldier who came along, Yury Diachenko, to go into the village and "get some more from wherever you like." The soldier refused. In the first place, he was on duty guarding a section of the perimeter and had no right to leave his post. In the second place, as he explained, he had no money. The Granddads told him to steal something in the village and get them the vodka that way.
Yury, however, said firmly, "No. I won't go." They beat him brutally until five in the morning, and between beatings subjected him to cruel and disgusting humiliations. They dipped a floor cloth into the latrine and rubbed the filth in Yury's face. They forced him to clean the floor, and when he bent over, took turns ramming the handle of the mop into his anus. To conclude their training session, as they called it, the Granddads dragged Yury into the canteen and forced him to eat a three-liter can of kasha, beating him if he tried to stop.
Where were the officers? That night they, too, were drinking themselves senseless and were physically incapable of being in charge of anything. At around six in the morning, Yury Diachenko was found in the provisions depot. He had hanged himself.
ALTHOUGH SIBERIA IS not Chechnya--it is far removed from the war--the distance makes no difference. Valerii Putintsev, a young man born in Tyumen Province, was posted to the Krasnoyarsk Region to serve in the district town of Uzhur, in the elite units of the strategic missile forces. His mother, Svetlana Putintseva, was delighted. Because they were dealing with the most up-to-date and dangerous weaponry on the planet, officers in the missile units were considered to be the best educated in the army, not likely to get drunk or to beat up conscripts, and likely to maintain discipline. Soon, however, she, too, began to receive distressing letters from her son, in which he wrote that the officers were no better than "jackals":
Hello, Mom! I don't want this letter to be seen by anyone other than you. In particular, please keep what I am writing from Gran. We both know the score there, and I'm sure you won't undermine what health she has left. I worry about her a lot. I can't accept that I have to work as a slave to benefit people I despise. More than anything in the world, I want to work for the good of my own people, to better my family. It's only since being here that I have understood how important you all are ... .
Valerii was never to return to work for the good of his people. The officers in the Uzhur barracks robbed the soldiers of everything they had, degrading any who, like Valerii, tried to defend their dignity. In the half year he spent in his unit, four soldiers were carried out in coffins, all of them privates, all of them beaten to death.
The officers' first game was to confiscate Valerii's uniform (the soldiers have no clothing apart from their uniforms). They told him that now he had to ransom it. They assumed he would write home and ask for money to be sent as a matter of urgency. Valerii resisted. He knew that his mother lived very modestly with his grandmother, an old-age pensioner, his sister, and her little daughter, and could ill afford to send him money. As a result of his concern for his family, he was brutally and repeatedly beaten. In the end, he had had enough. He turned on the officers and was sent to the guardhouse for insubordination. Pretending he was attempting to escape, they wounded him badly. Svetlana Putintseva became anxious and called the unit's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Butov, who she says informed her that he knew how to beat people so as not to leave any trace. Svetlana dropped everything and flew straight to Uzhur, where she found her son at death's door. He had gunshot wounds to the pelvis, the bladder, the ureter, and the femoral artery. In the hospital his mother was told to find blood for a transfusion: "Urgently! We have no blood here." Alone in a strange town, she was expected to find donors. She rushed back to the army unit to ask for help. The commanding officer refused. She scrambled through the city, trying to save her son. Shefailed. Valerii, lacking a transfusion, died, on February 27, 2002. In one of his last letters, he had written to Svetlana, "I wasn't expecting much help from the officers. All they are capable of is humiliating people."
BACK TO MOSCOW Province. It is the morning of May 4, 2002. Army Unit 13815, in the village of Balashikha. Two boilerwomen working in the plant that provides heating for the unit hear cries for help from nearby. They rush out and see that a trench has been dug in the middle of the courtyard, in which a soldier has been buried up to his neck. The women dig down, cut the rope binding him hand and foot, and help him out of the pit.
At this moment an army major appears in a towering rage. He shouts at the women to leave the soldier alone. He is teaching Private Chesnokov a lesson, and if they do not go back to the boilerhouse immediately, he will have them sacked.
Private Chesnokov, having escaped from the pit, deserted from the unit.
THE RUSSIAN ARMY has always been a fundamental pillar of the state. To this day, it is mostly a prison camp behind barbed wire where the country's young are locked up without trial. It has prisonlike rules imposed by the officers. It is a place where beating the hell out of someone is the basic method of training. This, incidentally, is how Putin, when he first took the Kremlin throne, described the way he would deal with enemies within Russia.
It may be that the president finds this state of affairs agreeable, with his lieutenant colonel's epaulettes and his two daughters who will never have to serve in such an army. The rest of us--apart from theofficer caste, who revel in their status as petty gangsters above the law--are deeply unhappy about the situation. This is especially true of those who have sons, and all the more so if the young men are of conscription age. These families have no time to wait for the military reforms they have been promised for so long. They fear that their sons will leave home only to be sent straight to a training ground or to Chechnya or to some other place from which there is no return.
Copyright © 2004 by Anna Politkovskaya Translation copyright © 2004 by Arch Tait Foreword © 2007 by Anne Applebaum
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