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Chechnya war veterans – How Russia treats its heroes

« One shared assumption is that the way a society treats soldiers will reflect its humanity by measuring the value that it places upon compassion »

Russian soldiers were often young boys coming from poor backgrounds; they usually received little or no military training

Russian soldiers were often young boys coming from poor backgrounds; they usually received little or no military training. Photo by Heidi Bradner from the “Lost Boys” series

Forgotten Victim of Chechnya: Russian Army

Soldiers in ripped sneakers and frayed uniforms beg for food at city markets from here to Moscow. Outside the Chechen war theater, suicides accounted for one-third of the army dead last year. As many as half of all Russian draftees now simply refuse to serve. For those who do, housing shortages have become so acute that thousands live in boxes or forage for space in abandoned factories. Even the general staff in Moscow acknowledges that a quarter of all servicemen have no place to live.

”Anya, I have solved my housing problems,” Capt. Andrei Golubev, based in remote eastern Kamchatka, wrote in an all-too-typical suicide note to his wife last month. He then drew his service revolver and blew his head off. (read the full article here)

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Report on the situation of Chechen war veterans

source: http://www.pipss.revues.org

Veterans of local wars in post-Soviet Russia consider themselves as victims of negligence and bad treatment, often exposed to unnecessary risks on the battlefield.
Once returned to civil life, they speak about rejection and abandonment. Although the history of the Soviet Union demonstrates that lost wars lead to the social abandonment of veterans as much as victorious wars, the fate of disabled veterans seems to be conditioned by the cultural heritage of the Soviet period which glorifies a muscular body and favors work capacity as a criterion for Russian citizenship.

The fate of disabled veterans seems to be a particularly unhappy one, conditioned by a Soviet cultural heritage which glorifies a muscular body and favors work capacity as a criterion for citizenship.

1. Sending conscripts to the battlefield with a minimal training
Sergei, 35 years old, was born in Novokouznetski, Kemerovo Oblast. He was conscripted during the first Chechen war he was sent to the front with one week of training. He was badly wounded during the storming of Grozny in 1994.
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Officers knowingly allowing conscripts to use defective weapons:
Aleksandr, 28 years old, was born in Kovrov, Vladimir Oblast. He volunteered to fight in the second campaign in Chechnya, serving as an artillery sergent.. A few weeks before his demobilization Kovrov’s gun was ordered to fire despite being in dire need of maintenance. He was assisted by four newly arrived volunteers, his old crew having already been discharged. The gun exploded. Sergei was the only survivor.

2. Aberrant orders given under the influence of alcohol leading to accidents and injuries.
Valentin is 27 years old. He chose to go to Chechnya deliberetely. He loudly and clearly insists: « We were betrayed by our commanding officer ». Valentin and his fellow soldiers were ordered by their commander to pursue Chechen guerillas on February 23rd, Defender of the Fatherland day in Russia – a day many servicemen celebrate with alcohol. They were dropped by helicopter and told they would be picked up again three days later.
But on the third day, his commanding officer, obviously still drunk, refused to pick them up. The only other route back for the patrol required them to cross an extensive Russian laid minefield of 12 km. Unwilling to send a helicopter, the commander ordered them across the minefield.
Their sergent was the first to activate a mine. Valentin was the second, suffering severe leg and foot injuries. He also lost his right eye. Vision in his left eye is now also declining.

Russian soldier in Chechnya war North Caucasus checkpoint

The currency of passage at Russian checkpoints in Chechnya was often cigarettes. Sometimes it was food to fight off starvation. The Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees of Russia joined with Chechen women in Nazran to find their lost sons, often lacking even basic information such as the regiment name. Critics claimed that the Russian army treated its conscripts as cannon fodder or slave labour for officers.
Source: theaftermathproject.org

3. Neglect by medical staff

Valentin, mentioned above who tripped a mine was treated with improper surgical materials in a military hospital; the doctors using corroded needles instead of stainless steel needles to bind his bones together. .As a result of thismedical negligence, Valentin developed severe complications and almost died.

Sergei was a conscript who was sent to Chechnya during the first war against his will . He was trapped during the storming of Grozny and shot in the stomach. He lay unattended for several hours and was conscious enough to hear the medic say that there was no use doing anything for him as he would not survive until the next morning.

4. Rehabilitation in a State sanatorium (or any psychological care) is an alternative rarely offered to veterans.
Most do not even know they are legally entitled to this service and never file an application for admission.
Several of the interviewees mentioned that they were sent to a sanatorium (dom otdykha) in Abkhazia, in an ironically improper environment.
Albert fought in Chechnya as an officer, where he was wounded and sent, along with his wife and daughter, to the sanatorium in Abkhazia. A war was fought here between 1992 and 1993 between Georgian government forces and Abkhaz/ Russian forces. Albert recalls that the medical complex was surrounded by signs « Beware of the mines », by destroyed houses and signs of gunfire and artillery. « From a walking distance towards Sochi, there is a river Psu in which you could see the skeleton of a tank ».
During his stay in hospital which lasted more than a year and a half, Valentin was visited by a young female psychologist who asked him all sorts of questions and records their conversations.
He says of her : « She exhausted me, she tormented me », and he recalls : « she left. Then two days later she showed up again and said – ‘you are all sick, you need to get help’ – and she never came back ».

5. The state denial of responsibility towards wounded soldiers.
In January 2005, a regional court of the Orel region overruled the decision of a lower court compelling the Ministry of Defense to compensate Gennadi Uminsky, a military contractor gravely wounded during the battle of Grozny during the first Chechen war.
Young Russian soldiers in Chechnya, year 1995

Young Russian soldiers in Chechnya, year 2000

Cut off in a cave, his section remained isolated there until the end of the war. Left for dead, Uminsky and his companions survived, although they were officially declared “killed in combat”.

After a year in hospital he was released, and classed as an “invalid of the second group”, implying that he would be in need of constant medical supervision. After having tried in vain to obtain a pension from the Ministry of the Defense, Uminsky went to court. No pension was granted and compensation was awarded to Uminsky. Some plaintiffs demanding compensation for war wounds were asked to provide proof that the Federal Army was responsible.

In the end, they were told to request compensation from the Chechen combatants, those in fact responsible for the wounds.

Ex: Disabled Soldier Sues Rebels “I know Basayev (chechen rebel) will laugh when he learns about this, and I will laugh with him over this idiocy. But what else can I do if the Russian government and the Russian courts have put this absurdity on me?”

6. The idea that veterans themselves are responsible and that the state cannot be held responsible for their resulting suffering.
Valentin was told by medical authorities that his loss of eyesight due to an exploding mine could not be linked to his service in the Federal Army. Therefore he was ineligible to be treated in a military hospital nor would his expenses not be met by the State.
Chechnya Russia wars russian soldiers chechens North Caucasus
7. Delegating social and medical care for the disabled to private networks (family, friends) and to Philanthropic Organizations

The economic crisis of the 1990s led Yeltsin’s government to neglect the social services and to transfer the economic burden of the army to the local authorities. Some local authorities provides assistance for disabled veterans, while others were unable or unwilling to become involved.

Pensions granted by the state are not sufficient to cover medication, prostheses, wheelchairs etc. therefore associations and personal networks are solicited to compensate for the failure of the state.

Veterans organization struggle to get funding for medical equipment and medication for disabled veterans.
In the December 2004 issue of Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, the case of a disabled veteran from Afghanistan is mentioned. This veteran is able to survive only thanks to the support of his former comrades. The man lost his sight and his two legs as a result of his service in Afghanistan.
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In 2003, The All Russia Organization of Invalids of Afghanistan (joined also by Chechen veterans) conducted a survey among its members and found that

  •  -46% of them have an income only sufficient to meet basic needs;
  • 90,7% have a difficult time finding a job;
  • 87,7% have no professional qualification for use in civilian life;
  • 50,7% have no apartment and will have to wait several years before getting one;
  • 91,4% have received no monetary allowance whatsoever.

Half of the respondents had never been to hospital or to a sanatorium despite having obtained invalidity status.

From 1990 to 2005 the Center for Sociological Research of the Ministry of Defense conducted a series of annual studies showing that war invalids constituted the most underprivileged citizens of Russia.
  • 26,6% are forced to live with parents or relatives;
  •  35,2 % have been waiting for housing for more than five years;
  •  79,6%, their disability pension is their only means of subsistence.

Only 5.8% of disabled invalids receive financial support for civil life rehabilitation; 5.2% are cared for in military hospitals; 4.3% in convalescent homes 1,5% receive help in psychological and medical centers in their district; while more than 80% do not receive any medical and psychological help from the government.

As Sergei, aconscript who served during the first Chechen campaign, says:

« The soldier who is going to war to serve his country has to give up his health, although he would like only to adapt and find himself in a social environment, but the state does not want this. You are left to your fate, and you are not needed by anyone. You are given a miserable allowance on which you are supposed to live.
When my mother found out how much I was given, she burst into tears […] and then she said : « Sergei I will send that money to the Kremlin, to Yeltsin with the following note : – take this money and just give him back his health ».
Today, the only rehabilitation home for invalids of local wars in Russia (Dom Sheshira) is a philanthropic organization which has struggled for its survival since its creation in the 1980’s.

8. There is no official data on the number of victims in the Russian Army for the Chechen wars.

Although veterans associations estimate that the counting of the missing and dead in Afghanistan is not finished, official figures that have nonetheless been published and tend to coincide with Western estimates.

The situation is completely different for the campaigns in Chechnya: here the only estimates are those made by Russian military journalists or Western military specialists. The absence of statistics testifies to the total disregard by the State for the veterans.

9.The Non-Recognition of the Chechen war

 (how Non-Recognition of the Chechen war affects the other side of the conflict – read here Difference between combatant and insurgent “Fighter” or “Terrorist“)

The status of veterans and the social policy depends on how the state defines war: if it refuses to call a conflict a “war”, then the war does not exist and there are no veterans. The official aim of the first Chechen conflict was to “restore constitutional order” and the second, beginning in 1999, was fought as a “struggle against terrorism”. It was only in 2002 that Chechnya was added to the list of “operations outside Russian borders”, granting veterans a legal status, along with rehabilitation measures and financial compensation. As noted by Sergei Oushakin, prior to this amendment, veterans of Chechnya were handed documents in which they were categorized as invalids of the Great Patriotic War. The “absence” of war led to the denial of the existence of veterans and their sufferings, and therefore a belated response to the needs of this population.

10.Hiding the failure of Social Policy -Victorious war veteran vs Crippled reality

From the 1920s to the aftermath of WWII, the state tended to hide the crippled veterans that tarnished the image of the Soviet Union as a nation free from social problems.

In 1947, the cities were cleared of beggars (most of them veterans). These unfortunates were allegedly sent to Valaam Island in Karelia. The Samovary – men without legs and arms – died there during the following winter in terrible conditions. Working Camps were created for invalids of the civil war, WWI and WWII.

“There are no invalids in the USSR!”

A more recent account of the state relationship to disability was made by a journalist who was in Moscow in 1980 on the Olympic games. The journalist asked an official organizer of the Olympic games if the Soviet Union would participate to the paralympic games. The Russian official responded « There are no invalids in the USSR ! ».

Some of the interviewees, when complaining to their fit companions about their impossibility to find work in their physical condition heard themselves told: “Well, stay at home” (“Nu, sidi doma”).

The culture of Heroism opposed the image of the Mutilated Body
December 1995, Russian soldier wounded in Chechnya

December 1995, Russian soldier wounded in Chechnya tries on a prosthesis

Post-Soviet Russia has inherited a culture which glorifies heroes and muscular bodies. Post-Soviet cinema and State patriotic programs glorify heroes of Russian history. The persistence of a heroic, militaristic conception of masculinity is still perceptible in today’s Russia. One need only look Putin’s press photographs flying military planes, riding horses, firing weapons etc.
As far as newspapers are concerned, there are very few accounts of the fate of disabled veterans of the Afghan war and none from the Chechen campaigns. The subject remains taboo in the Russian media.

11. The capacity of Work as a criteria for Russian Citizenship
Since the Second World War, pensions aim to compensate for the loss of income rather than physical damage, and that does not cover the expenses of medical care.

The state sends two messages: work has healing virtues and veterans have duties, even debts, to the state.

As if it were not enough to have risked their lives in the service of the homeland, veterans discovered on their return that having a place in society was linked to continued work and that they will be receiving social benefits and state aid only after additional service (work).

Chechnya

In Chechnya

The military press has also continuously to refer to the additional obligations of veterans:

“Veterans must take part in the organization of special days for conscripts, in competitions for the best preparation of citizens for military service, in the organization of the draft in municipal establishments and schools. They must to the best of their ability aid in the training of youth for military service. They must organize the implementation of the State Program in the Armed Forces “Patriotic Education of Citizens of the Russian Federation, 2006-2010”. It is also evident that they must contribute to the preparation of manifestations linked to the 65thanniversary of various events of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945.”

As far as disabled veterans are concerned, being unable to be useful to the state – they are not included in those state patriotic project and therefore not promised any examination of their situation.

Conclusion

Most of the disabled veterans interviewed have internalized the idea that they cannot be useful to society and describe themselves as the waste:

Sergei « […] When I came back home, I had a strong inclination for alcohol. I drank really a lot. For a year I kept drinking. My mother tried to make me stop : « Sergei stop, your health is not good, do you wish it to worsen? » You feel completely rejected, abandoned to your fate. You are not useful to anyone, you are similar to waste… »

Valentin when questioned “Why does Russian state refuse to care about us ? Because they don’t want to, that’s why. Maybe we are not indispensable. The state, they probably see us as the scum of society ».

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