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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. They told 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, but knowing 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 and thought 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.”
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 islands that 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’s commanding 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.
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 running short 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. She failed. 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 the officer 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.
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