Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 25

The Russian Defense Ministry has apparently succeeded in ridding itself of a whistle blowing forensics expert who had made himself a hero to the relatives of soldiers fighting in Chechnya. Colonel Vladimir Shcherbakov and his laboratory, based in Rostov on the Don, specialized in identifying Russian soldiers who had died in battle or in captivity–sometimes from mere fragments of their bodies. A spokesman for the Defense Ministry offered as the reason for Shcherbakov’s forced resignation the fact that he had just turned 50. But the ministry simultaneously announced the merger of the colonel’s 124th Investigative-Medical Laboratory, the army’s main forensics laboratory in southern Russia, with a military morgue.

Shcherbakov told correspondent Aleksandr Tolmachev of Moskovskie novosti that his superiors had, in effect, “performed the funeral rites” for the laboratory. “I am confident that with the passage of time nobody will even try to identify bodies here,” he said. He described how his arch-enemy, General Vladimir Isakov, had been “personally applying the maximum of his strength” to drive the forensics laboratory out of existence, but had feared to do so without at least a formal pretext.

According to the English-language Moscow Times, Shcherbakov’s laboratory succeeded in identifying 764 Russian soldiers who died in the first Chechen war of the 1990s, plus additional hundreds during the current war. It quoted the colonel as stating that another 190 bodies are still unidentified. The Russian news media and human rights activists have reported numerous cases in which soldiers’ parents receive coffins containing bodies which turn out to be those of strangers, leaving them uncertain whether their sons are indeed dead–or perhaps held captive in Chechnya. Valentina Melnikova of the activist Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers told the Moscow Times that “Western counties like the United States and Germany have respect for their dead. We do not and are ready to sacrifice an important service to an internal feud between Defense Ministry officials.”

The eight-year-old laboratory has used techniques that are considered routine in most modern armies, such as DNA testing. Shcherbakov has pushed a reluctant army to use such techniques on a systematic basis, for example by recording DNA samples from all servicemen before they go into combat. Instead, he charges, the Defense Ministry’s preference has been “to bury and forget.”