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I t 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 explains the 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, following their 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 February 19, 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 official correspondence. 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 a fresh 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 independent existence; 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 Ministry of 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?”


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