The military: thugs in ragged uniforms: poverty, corruption, and brutality

By James Meek


A curious discovery awaited detectives inside the flat at 20 Rublyov Highway where the two elderly residents--Anna Ichko and her husband, Andrei--had been killed. The murderers took clothes, an old radio, some jewelry, and cash. But perhaps made careless by the vodka they had found in the fridge, they left behind two rough khaki jackets of the kind worn by soldiers in the Russian army. After killing the pensioners, the perpetrators sat down and laboriously pinned Andrei Ichko's 20 or so military decorations to one of the jackets.

Suspicion fell on two young conscripts from the Volga region who had deserted from a garrison near the Ichkos' flat five days before the murders. After an intensive manhunt, they were tracked down to a hostel in Petrozavodsk, near the Finnish border. Police say they confessed immediately.

The case has strengthened the growing association in the public mind between the armed forces and crime. The pampered military behemoth of Soviet days has sunk lower in both power and prestige than would have been thought possible five years ago. Analysts estimate that of its 78 divisions, the Russian army could now field and supply only one in full battle order. To mention the army is to conjure up an image of hunger and rags, of officers and their families struggling to survive in single dormitory rooms without being paid for months on end, of corruption, pilfering, bullying, and draft dodging on a huge scale.

At the same time as the Ichko case, two soldiers at an air-defense base on the Pacific island of Sakhalin went AWOL after gunning down four of their colleagues. The new generation of young urban Russians look on the army as a throwback to a darker age and on national service as a punishment for a crime not committed.

"The army is a mirror of the country as a whole. If there's no order in the country, how can there be in the army?" says Maria Fedulova of the Russian Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, the most active organization working to protect conscripts.

Two years ago, Yura was making a reasonable living as a vodka salesman. He had just graduated from school and hoped to get into an elite economics institute, which would have saved him from the draft. He failed and heeded the call up without too much concern, expecting to have some time to prepare for another attempt at college. He was assigned to a regiment near the Volga city of Ulyanovsk.

One of the obscure legacies of Soviet days plaguing conscripts is that they are not allowed access to radio or television in their first year of service. Only by rumor did Yura's company hear that Russian forces had rolled into Chechnya in December, 1994. In July, they were sent themselves. They were told they were going for three months. In fact, it was 10.

Yura's reminiscences have an eerie echo of the tales of U.S. GIs in Vietnam: the uncertainty about what they were supposed to be doing, the unseen enemy picking them off from the hills--his regiment lost 30 men--the hostility between officers and enlisted men, and the desperate attempts to speed the passage of time.

"It was difficult to get vodka," he says. "Some people picked hemp, which grows wild in Chechnya. It was too weak to smoke so you could roast it or cook it with milk--but there wasn't any milk, so we usually fried and ate it. To get away from reality. Folk drank chefir, which is a whole box of tea in a single mug of water. Some people sniffed petrol."

The company lived in trenches, ate porridge--potatoes on holidays--and slept on mattresses on wooden boards. In winter, on a good day, there was wood for a fire. Otherwise, they quarreled over who got to wear the few chemical-warfare capes. Fighting between the soldiers was constant: At one point a private, fed up with being bullied, opened up with his rifle. Whole months would go by without the men seeing their officers. "Basically, everything was settled by force there," says Yura.

Yura's war ended with the news that his father had died. The telegram never reached him, but a former teacher knew he was in Chechnya and contacted the Soldiers' Mothers Committee. It took Yura three days to get back to Moscow and he missed the funeral. With the committee's help, he was able to get a discharge. But he feels Moscow is not as he remembers it. "They just spit on all these people dying," he says. "The Americans suffer for every one of their soldiers who dies. It's not like that with us."

The Russian army has always brutalized its recruits. During the Crimean War, Tolstoy was struck by the difference between the confident bearing of British prisoners and the servility of the Russian troops. In the Imperial Russian army, soldiers were not conscripted en masse, but those required to go were obliged to serve for 20 years. Much of the success of the Red Army during World War II was due to the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of men in frontal attacks.

For military analysts such as Aleksandr Golts of the army newspaper Krasnaya Zuezda, the main priority is to make the armed forces an effective fighting machine. "From 1991, when the Russian armed forces were created, it was clear that such an army was an unbearable burden on the economy," says Golts. "We will have to recognize that cardinal military reforms can't be carried out. Better to accept the inevitability of a slow, tortuous process of reform over 10 years."

But Fedulova of the Mothers Committee believes the first job should be to make the armed forces--and society--care about individuals. The best hope, she believes, is the growing rebelliousness of the young. "The kids have already grown up a little bit differently. They've become less yielding to authority. They've begun to think freely--not much, but they have begun," she says.

One of the conscripts at the Mothers Committee offices in Moscow recently was 19-year-old Sergei, who was trying to get a transfer from a unit in the Siberian city of Barnaul where, he says, he is being bullied mercilessly by conscripts from the north Caucasus. His unit is responsible for a flight of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles. What had the officers said when he complained to them about the bullying? "They told me to sort it out for myself."


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