An article recently published in the New York Times has created something of a stir in Russia. The article concerned Andrei Samorodov, a former Russian army airborne communications specialist, who claims that in November 1999, at the start of the ongoing military campaign in Chechnya, he deserted his post in the breakaway republic because of threats from neo-fascist members of his unit who had encouraged soldiers to murder Chechen civilians. Samorodov eventually left Russia with his wife and two children, made his way to Mexico and then crossed the border into Texas, where he asked for political asylum, claiming he feared for his life from neo-fascist members of his airborne unit, whom he had confronted. Samorodov and his family were granted asylum in the United States and currently reside in Texas.
Samorodov claimed that the neo-fascists within his airborne unit belonged to a group called “Russian Knights,” a group of teenagers trained and indoctrinated in the southern Russian region of Stavropol by the ultranationalist organization Russian National Unity (RNE). According to Samorodov, 400 members of the Russian Knights group joined his unit, the 21st Airborne Brigade, and its sister unit, the 101st Brigade of Interior Ministry forces, in 1999. RNE, which was formed in 1990 by Aleksandr Barkashov, a former KGB martial arts instructor, was banned in Moscow because of its openly fascist and anti-Semitic views. According to Samorodov, many of its members have joined the military and ended up with units stationed in Chechnya. Samorodov told the New York Times that he had ripped swastikas off the uniforms of some members of his unit and tried to intervene in an execution of Chechen civilians. Samorodov said that while he tried to inform his superiors about their attempts to incite the murder of civilians, he was rebuffed, beaten up and threatened with death. Finally, in November 1999, he deserted his post.
The New York Times quoted a Kremlin spokesman, Aleksandr Machevsky, as saying that he had no knowledge of Samorodov’s defection, but asked why he had not done “the right thing” and gone “to the prosecutors.” He strongly suggested that Samorodov cooked up the story as a way to win political asylum in the United States (New York Times, March 17).
What is more, following the publication of the New York Times article, Izvestia.ru, the Izvestia newspaper’s website, quoted a spokesman from the command of the Russian army’s airborne troops as saying that Samorodov had indeed served as a communications officer in the 21st Airborne Brigade, but had been kicked out of the unit in 1993, and that the brigade had long ago been merged with others. The website quoted one of Samorodov’s former fellow servicemen as confirming the airborne spokesman’s version of events. It also quoted the author of the New York Times story, Moscow correspondent Patrick E. Tyler, as saying that U.S. intelligence agencies had carefully looked at the information supplied to them by Samorodov after his defection–which included such things as the location of specific military units deployed to Chechnya in 1999–and found it credible. Izvestia.ru claimed that Samorodov himself refused to comment on the controversy when the papers asked him to do so through his American lawyer, and that Samorodov turned off his mobile phone to avoid calls on the subject (Izvestia.ru, March 18).
It is difficult to assess the validity of Samorodov’s story. On the one hand, it is indeed possible, as alleged, that he concocted it to win political asylum in the United States. The Monitor’s correspondent traveled to Chechnya numerous times during both military campaigns and never ran into Russian National Unity members within the ranks of the federal forces located there. On the other hand, it is certainly true that many Russian servicemen regard all Chechens, regardless of age or sex, as rebel fighters and openly say they should be shown no mercy. On more than one occasion the Monitor’s correspondent heard Russian servicemen tell stories about 10-year-old Chechen children who purportedly played soccer with the severed head of a Russian serviceman. Whatever the truth of such stories, they show that Russian soldiers view even Chechen children as potential enemies.
It also cannot be ruled out that individual RNE members have joined the Russian army to fight in Chechnya. The Monitor’s correspondent can, for example, attest to the fact that a special Cossack battalion named after General Yermolov, the Russian general known for his cruelty during the Caucasus War of the 19th century, operated in Chechnya during the first military campaign there (1994-1996). The unit was set up under the patronage of Russian Cossack organizations and made up of persons calling themselves Cossacks, who wore regular Russian military uniforms but had a special insignia indicating their membership in the Cossack forces. Chechens told the Monitor’s correspondent during that period that members of the Yermolov battalion behaved with particular cruelty toward Chechen civilians.
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