Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 16

Russian contract soldiers in Chechnya present new problems for Moscow

by Aleksandr Zhilin

According to the official version of the Russian defense ministry,the recruitment of fighters for the war in Chechnya took placein order to limit the use in military actions of untested anduntrained draftees. Beginning in December 1994, recruiters ofthe defense ministry conducted a stormy campaign to hire contractsoldiers to fight there. Now, when the war is winding down, thetime for paying up has come. However, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev,it seems, does not want to pay the trillions of rubles throwninto the Chechen black hole for volunteers prepared to do theheavy, dangerous and dirty work of the fighting.

Contract soldiers Albert Ivanov (of military unit 21555) andKonstantin Kucheryavenko (of unit 22033) last week returned fromChechnya and immediately appeared at my office. What they saidabout the interrelationships of commanders and their troops inthe forces of the defense ministry challenges the imagination.In fact, what they report should be the subject not only for militaryprosecutors but for psychiatrists as well.

Albert is from Smolensk, and Konstantin is from Lipetsk. Askedwhy they had been willing to go to fight in Chechnya, both answeredsimply: they needed the money in order to support their families.Albert himself went to the military office in December and declaredhis willingness to "fight for three months;" Konstantinat about the same time was recruited by his local military unit.

It is an interesting question as to how much it costs in theRussian provinces to buy someone to fight in Chechnya. "Therewere various stories going around," the lads said. "Theypromised to transfer some five million rubles to each of our familiesfor three months’ work, and to give us 30,000 rubles a day eachand other benefits…" The two concluded their contractsalready in Nizhny Novgorod. Although according to the law, suchaccords are to be concluded directly with the commander of theunit in which the men were to serve, in the case of Konstantinand Albert there was a certain intermediary "representative"who distributed the necessary documents which had already beensigned by the commander of the motorized rifle brigade. "Wewere assured that our families would receive the money,"they told me; "In the contract it is indicated to which addressthe funds are to be sent. But during the entire time of our servicein Chechnya, our families did not receive a single kopek. In general,in the contract, there was no indication of the actual sums tobe distributed, but only a note that pay would be distributed’on the basis of the law’… Before our departure, we were givenan advance of 100,000 rubles each."

"We went to war in the following way: by train to Prokhladny,then to Mozdok by truck, and further on into Khankala in Chechnya.There we were sent first to separate battalions and then to companies.We were stationed at Starye Atagi and Alkhazurovo. Initially,we were stationed at Goyta. On arrival, we received our "Afghan"clothes and our weapons.

"Then we were involved with several military operations.After this began a certain military idiotism. The chiefs cameand ordered everyone to appear in winter uniforms and helmetseven though the temperature was over 40 degrees centigrade. Itwas simply impossible to fight in such equipment. Indeed, suchoutfits increased the likelihood that we would be killed. Allthe time we were wondering when we would be given camouflage uniformsor any protection from the elements. We were forced to sleep inthe dirt wherever we happened to be. And we never had a changeof underwear: the officers said that the Chechens had destroyedthe train bringing our replacements. We had to build our own bathsand even the officers had to use them.

"There was nothing good about the food either. Initially,we were given more or less normal rations, sometimes an egg. Butgradually food, too, became scarcer and scarcer. We traded whateverwe were given to the local Chechens for whatever food they couldgive us. But then the people in the rear began sending preservedfood that was contaminated, and no one would trade for that. Therewas no problem getting vodka, however, there was always enoughfor those who wanted to get drunk. We could trade with the Chechenstwo boxes of cartridges–about 2000 shells–for five bottles ofvodka. But cigarettes were forbidden to contract soldiers. ‘They’llonly harm you,’ the officers said.

"The Chechen war was more than strange…Earlier, the entirecommand was forbidden to have any contact with the Chechens. Later,even the officers maintained close contact with the local people.Some brigadiers came to the unit, they wanted vodka and freshfood, and the officers obtained them from the Chechens."

The former contract soldiers said that every battalion had itsown pit instead of a guard house. Usually the pit was about fivemeters deep. Just like in Tolstoy’s "Prisoner of the Caucasus." Anyone violating any order got to spend several days there. Konstantinfell among their number. Concerning his misfortunes, this new"prisoner of the Caucasus" reported the following unpleasantbut unusual fact:

"These Chechens came to our unit and began cooking shashlykwith the officers. A senior non-com came to us. He wanted to showhis friend another noncom who was in charge and he began to shoutat us in the presence of the Chechens: ‘Well, you mutants, getmoving, who do you think you imbeciles are.’ I intervened andasked "What do you think you’re doing?’ He replied with cursesand I told him: ‘When you speak to me, you must do so as the rulesrequire.’ And he replied that ‘you’ll regret what you’ve done…’

"Then I was ordered to write an apology, and I said I hadnothing to apologize for and would not do so. The commanders beganto beat me. My head is still hurting from that beating. And thenthey threw me into the battalion pit. For five days I sat therewithout food or help. Everyday, they came and told me that ifI kept insisting on my rights, they would make sure I was amongthe ‘military losses.’

"After my contract was up, they nonetheless kept me foreight more days. Then it turned out that I was due ten days ofleave for every month. But the deputy political officer said thatI should accept the fact that they would simply change the dateof my service and thus not get any.

"When our times were up, no one was allowed to go home.We were told our three month contracts were illegal and that theymust be for three years. Anyone who tried to complain would simplywind up punished or among the missing. And would certainly notbe paid! And this means that for three months of the war we wouldnot get anything. Instead, the officers said we would be put intothe pit again.

"But we were able to break out of this hell while our friendsup to do are waiting to find out whether they will be listed amongthe military ‘losses.’ Save them!"

The defense ministry dealt with these contract soldiers likea bandit with trusting clients. The volunteers weren’t even allowedto keep copies of their contracts and so they have no recoursein the courts. They are thus in the position of slaves with whomcommanders can do whatever they want. It is an interesting questionas to who received all the money intended for such "huntersfor success." I would like to hear from the chief militaryprosecutor about who bears responsibility for human rights inthe Russian army.

Aleksandr Zhilin is the editor of the Department of SecurityAffairs of Moskovskie novosti.