In the no. 17 (March 12) and no. 18 (March 15) issues of the pro-democracy weekly, Novaya gazeta, award-winning Russian war correspondent Anna Politkovskaya described crimes committed by members of the Russian military against their fellow soldiers. Today ethnic Russians, she observes in her essay “Ordinary Sadism,” have come to adopt “the typically Hitlerite (let us remember the Gypsies and the Jews) idea of the collective responsibility of a nation for the actions of its separate representatives.” The Chechens as an entire people are seen as deserving the severest punishment. Similarly, all Russian soldiers serving in Chechnya cite the saying, “The only good Chechen is a dead Chechen.” “But [Russian] citizens,” she continues, “have forgotten: there are two ends to a rope.” If an army is permitted to descend “to the level of the Middle Ages,” then it may begin to treat its own soldiers in savage fashion.
The first example of such treatment that Politkovskaya describes is the case of Private Yury Koryagin, who was conscripted in November 1998 and sent to guard the Chechen-Georgian border in Itum-Kala District. One day, Koryagin was feeling fatigued and failed to salute one of his officers. “The result–twenty days in a pit.” The pit in which Koryagin was imprisoned was a capacious one, about 25 square meters wide and one-and-a-half meters deep. More than ten other soldiers were undergoing punishment in the same pit. The soldiers were fed rarely and there was not enough food to go around. The floor of the pit was damp earth. Blankets and warm clothes were not provided. “Koryagin left the pit completely ill.”
Politkovskaya learned of Koryagin’s story because the editorial board of Novaya gazeta had been told it by the organization “Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg,” where the soldier had appealed for help. In the opinion of Private Koryagin, Russian officers often find fault with their soldiers for no reason at all, simply because they are in a bad mood and also to force the soldiers “to feel themselves slaves.” “For the slightest blunder–it’s into a pit with you.”
It is well known, Politkovskaya remarks, that commercial considerations now inform many relations between Russian soldiers and Chechen civilians. “Well-to-do Chechens pay the soldiers to ‘fire beyond’ their homes and to let them pass through checkpoints, and to let them enter a hospital during the evening hours [when a curfew is in force], etc.” “With time,” she writes, “buying and selling have also extended to intra-army relations.” Today soldiers who have resources pay money to their officers to redeem mistakes committed during their service and also to buy themselves out of having to serve a watch.
A 30-year-old contract soldier, Aleksei K (his real name and address are known to Novaya Gazeta) was serving in the 291st regiment of the Ministry of Defense. For errors committed during the carrying out his duties, Aleksei “received [a sentence to] the pit directly at Khankala, at the main military base.” This happened in early February of this year. In Aleksei K’s case, the pit was a small one in which four soldiers were barely able to fit. “He came out of the pit with severe bronchitis” and also with a high fever. Somehow he made his way from Khankala to Mozdok in North Ossetia, where he broke his contract with the army and then, possessing no money, eventually managed to make his way to the north of Russia (Politkovskaya reports there were instances at Khankala in which some soldiers were able to ransom their fellow soldiers by offering their officers, for example, two bottles of champagne per soldier. Aleksei K, however, was not so ransomed.).
Politkovskaya quotes from the text of a letter written to the Novaya Gazeta editorial board by a group of Russian soldiers based at Khankala. “We have a request,” they write, “help us as you can. We are based at Khankala… We came voluntarily to Chechnya. Having arrived here, we discovered that we had ended up not in a simple unit but in what the soldiers themselves call a concentration camp.” A particularly savage punishment, they write, occurred three months after they had arrived. One of their number accidentally lost his automatic weapon. “The commander of the staff, Major Polyakov, was enraged, as were the political officer Major Voronin and Lieutenant Colonel Lymar. They took three of the soldiers into the baths and beat them to a point where they lost consciousness. They then began to torture them. Major Polyakov and Major Voronin used electric shock cords on them.” The officers then took the soldiers into a tent, where Major Polyakov “began to burn their hands on a scalding hot stove.” When the three men were released, their fellow soldiers examined their backs and found that they were “blue and all in blood.” Colonel Lymar, according to the authors of the letter, warned his subordinates: “A man can be written off here just like a pack of cigarettes–we’ll give him a posthumous medal for courage and consider that he died in battle.”
In concluding her article, Politkovskaya underscores “a most important detail: all of the above-related facts without exception are in the possession of the organs of the military procuracy, and even of the General Procuracy. They had them before they arrived at our editorial board.” Those submitting the complaints received signed official receipts.
As a footnote, it might be noted that Colonel Yury Budanov, whose trial resumes this week in Rostov-on-Don, is alleged to have savagely assailed a fellow Russian officer while in a state of intoxication: Budanov “threw him to the ground and ordered him hog-tied. Then Colonel Budanov and his deputy hit and kicked the prone officer and imprisoned him in an earthen pit. Two more beatings followed; the officer was left in the pit overnight” (New York Times, March 18).
In her second article, “In Chechnya Once Again–Death for One’s Own,” which appeared in the no. 18 issue of Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya broached an even grimmer topic than the punishment pits. On February 5, 2001, she writes, Private Danila Vypov of the Kamyshinsky regiment, who was not yet twenty, was shot to death at Khankala military base. The military coroner’s report, authored by Major Igor Matyukhov, concludes that Vypov was killed by a bullet which traversed his head and neck. Vypov’s family, however, was officially informed that he had been “blown up by an explosive device and that they had had to bury the pieces of him that they had gathered up.” Suspicious, Vypov’s brother had visited the military morgue in Rostov-on-Don and had been able to examine his brother’s body, learning that he had been shot to death.
On February 20 of this year, Danila’s brothers, who live in St. Petersburg, wrote complaints to the Chief Military Procuracy, to the military procuracy of the St. Petersburg Garrison and to other bodies. They also recounted what had happened to the “Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg” organization. In response, the military prohibited the conducting of a civilian autopsy on the body.
Vypov’s case appears to be far from unique. On February 22, when Politkovskaya was being flown in a military helicopter from Vedeno District to Khankala, she was “accompanied” by the body of a young soldier. “That morning, he had been mortally wounded in the [119th paratroop] regiment, and he died several minutes before the helicopter took off.” The officers on the scene before the helicopter took off seemed bored; what had happened was clearly a common occurrence. Before she left, Politkovskaya witnessed how an officer of the FSB and the chief of staff of the paratroop regiment ordered certain soldiers to “spit out” (that is, eject) the bullets from their automatic weapons. The bullets would later be tested to determine which gun had killed the young soldier from Chelyabinsk.
“Our soldiers,” Politkovskaya ends her essay, “die almost daily. Bullets fired by fellow soldiers are extracted from their bodies. Then the military command busies itself so that those bullets and those bodies are hidden from their relatives…. What is guaranteed to the families is an information vacuum. [Russian] society is indifferent. The European Community also looks on with indifference upon our internal torments. The president [Putin] and his wife go skiing in a marvelous spot in Siberia…. Yastrzhembsky travels to the West and tells them about the atrocities of the rebels.” The result, she concludes, is “a dead end.”
On March 14, the Chief Military Procuracy of Russia announced that it had begun checking the facts contained in Politkovskaya’s article “Ordinary Sadism.” The procuracy went on to express doubts that her facts would prove to be accurate (Lenta.ru, March 14).