Russian Defector Says Army Killed Civilians in Chechnya
Date: March 16, 2002
A Russian Army officer who fled the battlefield as Moscow sent military forces into Chechnya in 1999 says that young fascist cadets in his elite airborne unit encouraged soldiers to execute civilians during the assault.
The officer, Capt. Andrei Samorodov, a communications specialist in Russia's 21st Airborne Brigade, deserted his posting in November 1999 and moved his wife and two children into a village in the Russian countryside. Later he made his way to Mexico, took a bus to the United States border, forded the Rio Grande near Laredo, Tex., and turned himself in to surprised Border Patrol officers.
"I love Russia and I have been in love with the Russian Army since childhood," Mr. Samorodov said in a recent interview in San Antonio, where he now makes a living as an electrician and a fencing instructor while he studies English three days a week. "But I was faced with a choice: I could either leave or die."
Mr. Samorodov said he had confronted unruly recruits from neo- fascist groups in his unit. He tore swastikas off the uniforms of some cadets, he said, and reported to his commanding officer their illegal efforts to incite troopers to murder civilians. But those efforts were rebuffed, and he was threatened with death, he said.
In one instance, Mr. Samorodov said, he came upon a roadside execution of Chechen civilians. He stopped to intervene and was arrested by another officer who was presiding over the killing, he said in the interview. He was sent back to his unit under guard, beaten and threatened further. Unidentified men showed up outside his home in Stavropol, a southern regional capital near Chechnya, and killed the family dog in front of his 13-year-old son, Yevgeny, he said.
The allegations represent a significant confirmation from within the ranks of the armed forces that civilians were singled out by soldiers who were driven by ethnic hatred or ultranationalist ideologues to kill Chechen civilians. This was at a time Russian commanders were stating openly that any Chechen male between the ages of 15 and 60 was considered a rebel.
In late 1999, a number of human rights organizations expressed their alarm that Russian forces entering Chechnya were executing civilians during the campaign to suppress the rebellion there, including the areas where Captain Samorodov's brigade was fighting.
Mr. Samorodov, now 40, himself betrays an ethnic bias against Chechens as chronically rebellious and prone to banditry, but he said he regarded the murder of civilians as a crime and said he was disturbed by the breakdown in discipline and support for the armed forces.
The greatest threat to discipline in the ranks, he said, arose from the neo-fascist party Russian National Unity. Founded in 1990 by Aleksandr Barkashov, the party was banned in Moscow for its openly fascist and anti-Semitic views, but cadets from the party flooded into the ranks of military units around Chechnya and some splintered factions still thrive in southern Russia.
A Kremlin spokesman, Aleksandr Machevsky, said he had no knowledge of this rare case of post-cold- war defection, but he questioned the officer's motives. "Why didn't he do the right thing and go to the prosecutors?" Mr. Machevsky asked. "Maybe he just wanted to go to the United States."
After spending six months in an immigration detention center, where he gave United States intelligence officers a detailed briefing on the current state of Russian battlefield communications and cryptography, Mr. Samorodov was granted political asylum in the United States on May 12, 2000. At his hearing, however, a government lawyer argued that he might have simply been a deserter from the Russian Army.
Mr. Samorodov's defection emerged last fall when a San Antonio newspaper made an appeal to its readers to pay the air fare to bring the former officer's wife and children to the United States. They arrived three months ago from Stavropol under the same grant of asylum.
John Blatz, an immigration lawyer in San Antonio for the Refugee Aid Project, which took up Mr. Samordov's case, said a critical factor in persuading Judge Susan Castro to grant asylum had been the numerous news reports that he and Mr. Samorodov were able to compile from the Internet. They showed that Russian National Unity had organized a training camp in Stavropol for "Russian Knights," made up of teenagers gathered from the poverty-stricken region and indoctrinated in ultranationalist ideology.
About 400 of these Russian Knights joined Captain Samorodov's 21st Airborne Brigade and its sister 101st Brigade of Interior Ministry forces in 1999. That was when the Russian Army was unleashing its assault on Chechnya to end the rule of rebel forces who had invaded the neighboring territory of Dagestan and who were being blamed for terrorist bombings in other parts of Russia.
"Andrei had serious problems" with the cadets from the Russian Knights that entered his unit, Mr. Blatz said, referring to his client. "He abhorred what he saw as the rise of fascism."
The party leader in Stavropol at the time, Andrei Dudinov, has denied that the party is fascist. But in speeches he is known for drawing comparisons between post-Soviet Russia and Germany in the 1930's and likes to say that Hitler's "Mein Kampf" is a "must" read "for any intelligent man," especially the passage, "He who controls the streets controls the politics."
Reached by telephone in Stavropol, he denied any knowledge that the cadets he trained had been involved in inciting atrocities against civilians.
"I know many people in the 21st division and there could not have been such an occurrence," he said. As for Mr. Samorodov, he added, "he is just pulling you by the nose."
Mr. Samorodov, who is now engaged in the daily struggle of working to support his family in the tiny clapboard house filled with donated furniture from the fencing students and their parents who support him, winces when he thinks about what his commanders might be saying about him back in Russia.
"My father has not spoken to me since I left," he said. "There is always the question of the honor of the uniform." He said he still felt that he had somehow violated that honor, and he expressed a strong reluctance to speak at length about his wartime experiences in Chechnya. He also professes a disdain for Russia's political leaders because of their failure to support the armed forces in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
"We fought for Russia," he said, "not for Moscow."
Nonetheless, faced as he was with the influx of soldiers who were determined to commit war crimes against Chechens, he said "that is what caused me to run."