They call it bespredel--literally, “no limits.” It means acting outside the rules, violently and with impunity. It translates as “excesses” or “atrocities.”
It’s the term Russian soldiers use to describe their actions in Chechnya.
“Without bespredel, we’ll get nowhere in Chechnya,” a 21-year-old conscript explained. “We have to be cruel to them. Otherwise, we’ll achieve nothing.”
Since Russia launched a new war against separatist rebels in its republic of Chechnya a year ago, Russian and Western human rights organizations have collected thousands of pages of testimony from victims about human rights abuses committed by Russian servicemen against Chechen civilians and suspected rebel fighters.
To hear the other side of the story, a Times reporter traveled to more than half a dozen regions around Russia and interviewed more than two dozen Russian servicemen returning from the war front. What they recounted largely matches the picture painted in the human rights reports: The men freely acknowledge that acts considered war crimes under international law not only take place but are also commonplace.
In fact, most admitted committing such acts themselves--everything from looting to summary executions to torture.
“There was bespredel all the time,” one 35-year-old soldier said. “You can’t let it get to you.”
The servicemen say atrocities aren’t directly ordered from above; instead, they result from a Russian military culture that glorifies ardor in battle, portrays the enemy as inhuman and has no effective system of accountability.
“Your army is based on professionalism,” said a 27-year-old paratrooper who served alongside U.S. troops as a peacekeeper in Bosnia-Herzegovina. “Our army is based on fervor.”
Russian officials, including the Kremlin’s war spokesman, Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, have criticized the human rights reports, saying they are riddled with rumor and rebel propaganda. Officials have sometimes blamed reported atrocities on what they describe as rebel fighters dressed as Russian soldiers.
But they acknowledge that some human rights violations do occur and say they are taking steps to curb them.
"[Chechens] are Russian citizens, for whose sake the operation was undertaken in the first place,” Yastrzhembsky said in an interview. “They should be treated according to the same laws as in the rest of Russia. Any violation, regardless of who commits it, must be reviewed by the procurator [investigating magistrate] and the guilty parties should be punished.”
That may be the Kremlin’s official position, but servicemen say things are different on the ground. In part because of media coverage of Chechen slave-trading, torture and beheadings, the soldiers believe that the enemy is guilty of far worse atrocities. Although they know that executions and other human rights violations are wrong, they also consider them an unavoidable--even necessary--part of waging war, especially against such a foe.
In their view, human rights workers and other critics are simply squeamish about the real nature of war.
“What rules? What Geneva Conventions? What difference does it make if Russia has signed them?” said a 25-year-old army officer. “I didn’t sign them, none of my friends signed them. . . . In Russia, these rules don’t work.”
Perhaps most important, the servicemen described a pervasive and powerful culture of impunity in the Russian armed forces. They believe that authorities say one thing in public but deliberately turn a blind eye to many war crimes. A few even said investigators helped cover up such atrocities. Right or wrong, the soldiers are confident that authorities will make no serious effort to investigate war zone misconduct.
“You don’t make it obvious, and they don’t look too hard,” another 21-year-old conscript said. “Everyone understands that’s the way it works.”
Many of the servicemen admitted having troubled consciences. But like a mantra, most repeated what they had been taught--that whether one likes it or not, going to war means acting bespredel.
“What kind of human rights can there be in wartime?” said a 31-year-old police commando. “It’s fine to violate human rights within certain limits.”
“The main thing is to have them die slowly. You don’t want them to die fast, because a fast death is an easy death.”
Andrei’s pale eyes glow against his tanned skin. He’s been home only 10 days. He opens and closes kitchen cabinets, searching confusedly for sugar for his tea. “I still haven’t gotten used to domestic life,” he apologizes. He has just turned 21.
During basic training, he recalls, Red Cross workers came to his base to teach about human rights and the rules of war.
“They tried to teach us all kinds of nonsense, like that you should treat civilians ‘politely,’ ” he says. “If you behave ‘politely’ during wartime, I promise you, nothing good will come of it. I don’t know about other wars, but in Chechnya, if they don’t understand what you say, you have to beat it into them. You need the civilians to fear you. There’s no other way.”
Andrei says the lesson that stuck was the one his commander taught him: how to kill.
“We caught one guy--he had a fold-up [radio] antenna. He gave us a name, but when we beat him he gave us a different name. We found maps in his pockets, and hashish. He tried to tell us he was looking for food for his mother. My commander said, ‘Stick around and I’ll teach you how to deal with these guys.’ He took the antenna and began to hit him with it. You could tell by the look in [the Chechen’s] eyes that he knew we were going to kill him.
“We shot him. There were five of us who shot him. We dumped his body in the river. The river was full of bodies. Ours, too. Three of our guys washed up without heads.”
Andrei says he knows that officially, Russian troops are supposed to turn all suspected rebels over to military procurators. But in practice, his unit literally took no prisoners.
“Once they have a bruise, they’re already as good as dead,” Andrei says. “They know they won’t make it to the procurator’s office. You can see it in their eyes. They never tell us anything, but then again, we never ask. We do it out of spite, because if they can torture our soldiers, why shouldn’t we torture them?
“The easiest way is to heat your bayonet over charcoal, and when it’s red-hot, to put it on their bodies, or stab them slowly. You need to make sure they feel as much pain as possible. The main thing is to have them die slowly. You don’t want them to die fast, because a fast death is an easy death. They should get the full treatment. They should get what they deserve. On one hand it looks like an atrocity, but on the other hand, it’s easy to get used to.
“I killed about nine people this way. I remember all of them.”
Taking No Prisoners
Servicemen say the type and frequency of bespredel vary significantly from one unit to another. A few said such things never happened in their units. But even they knew of incidents involving other units.
Other than looting, the most common crime recounted to The Times was the execution of suspected rebels.
“We called it ‘taking them to the police station,’ ” said one police commando. “The nearest police station was 300 kilometers [about 200 miles] away. In reality, they wouldn’t make it farther than the next corner.”
Nearly all of the servicemen interviewed said they didn’t bother taking prisoners--after all, for them it was the safest thing to do.
“We had a clear-cut policy with prisoners: We didn’t take any,” said another police commando. “To be more precise, we did take one prisoner once and tried to hand him over to the procurator’s office. But one of our men was wounded on the way, and then we decided--no more prisoners. What’s the point? We already risk our lives greatly when we fight against them. Why risk them again to save the lives of fighters and give them the chance to go to jail when what they deserve is death? . . . You can carry out the sentence right on the spot.”
The summary executions don’t just take place against suspected fighters. One 33-year-old army officer recounted how he drowned a family of five--four women and a middle-aged man--in their own well.
“You should not believe people who say Chechens are not being exterminated. In this Chechen war, it’s done by everyone who can do it,” he said. “There are situations when it’s not possible. But when an opportunity presents itself, few people miss it.
“I don’t know what it is, bespredel or not,” he continued. “But it is a war. A war is a very cruel thing, and matters of life and death should not be judged by civilian standards.”
Mutilation of corpses and torture were reported less frequently but clearly were common in a number of units. Several servicemen interviewed for this report confirmed that some members of Russian special forces cut off the ears of their victims in a revenge ritual.
“Cutting ears may seem savage to some, but it has its explanations,” said one commander. “It’s an old tradition among the special forces--you cut off the ears of the enemy in order to later lay them on the tombstone of your friend who was killed in the war. . . . It’s not a manifestation of barbarism. It’s just our way of telling our deceased mate: Rest in peace. You have been avenged.”
“I would kill all the men I met during mopping-up operations. I didn’t feel sorry for them one bit.”
Boris’ body was both built and broken by years of boxing. His face, hands and torso have the strength and subtlety of cinder blocks. Since he returned from the war zone, he has had trouble sleeping at night.
“Sometimes I fear I will not be able to control myself, especially after a couple of drinks,” the thirtysomething police commando says. “I wake up in a cold sweat, all enraged, and all I can see is dead bodies, blood and screams. At that moment, I’m ready to go as far as it takes. I think if I were given weapons and grenades, I would head out and start ‘mopping up’ my own hometown.”
He says he can no longer remember all the people he killed.
“I killed a lot. I wouldn’t touch women or children, as long as they didn’t fire at me. But I would kill all the men I met during mopping-up operations. I didn’t feel sorry for them one bit. They deserved it,” he says. “I wouldn’t even listen to the pleas or see the tears of their women when they asked me to spare their men. I simply took them aside and killed them.”
When he came home from Chechnya, he resigned from his unit. He says he’s happy to be in a regular job. And he’s trying to forget the war.
But there are some things he can’t forget.
“I remember a Chechen female sniper. She didn’t have any chance of making it to the authorities. We just tore her apart with two armored personnel carriers, having tied her ankles with steel cables. There was a lot of blood, but the boys needed it. After this, a lot of the boys calmed down. Justice was done, and that was the most important thing for them.
“We would also throw fighters off the helicopters before landing. The trick was to pick the right altitude. We didn’t want them to die right away. We wanted them to suffer before they died. Maybe it’s cruel, but in a war, that’s almost the only way to dull the fear and sorrow of losing your friends.”
Killing for Revenge
Notions of provocation and revenge are central to the servicemen’s mind-set. In Russian culture, a man not only has the right but is also honor-bound to respond to a “provocation.” When a Russian serviceman is killed or mistreated by the enemy, his comrades must take revenge.
Nearly all of the servicemen who recounted incidents of bespredel--a slang term that originated in Russia’s prisons--described them as revenge attacks for the deaths of their comrades.
“When you see your mates drop down on the ground, when you take your dead and wounded to the hospital, this is when hatred rises within you,” said a 23-year-old army officer. “And the hatred is against all Chechens, not just the individual enemies who killed your friends. This is when bespredel starts.”
These tendencies in Russian military culture have been intensified by a virulent Russian hatred of the Chechens--a hatred running higher in this conflict than in the 1994-96 war in the republic.
A major reason is the blood-curdling acts of the Chechen fighters themselves--while enjoying de facto independence for three years, many ran brutal kidnapping gangs that abducted Russian hostages, some of whom were tortured and killed. Russian TV reports have repeatedly broadcast gory footage of atrocities allegedly committed by the Chechens, including mutilations and beheadings.
“Why should human rights be respected only from one direction?” a police commando complained. “It’s always from our side and never from theirs.”
Russia’s human rights critics don’t dispute the monstrosity of the crimes committed by Chechens. But Malcolm Hawkes, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, points out that according to international law, “Russia is obliged to respect human rights regardless of abuses committed by the other side.”
Military analyst Alexander I. Zhilin, a retired air force colonel, says that’s a hard standard to live by in the heat of war.
“Russian soldiers ask themselves and their commanders simple questions: ‘Why can the Chechens do anything they want, kill right and left, and get away with it? Why are our hands tied?’ ” Zhilin said. “Sometimes commanders have to turn a blind eye to these terrible things because this is the only way to prevent a mutiny among soldiers, or often because they simply feel the same way.”
Moreover, after a series of bomb attacks in Moscow and elsewhere last year that killed more than 300 people, the Russian public and Russian servicemen have accepted the official line that this is not a war against unsavory separatists but a fight against inhuman “bandits and terrorists.”
The view has been enhanced by a barrage of news reports depicting the fighters as mercenaries and religious fanatics, many of them from other countries. While it’s unclear what proportion of the fighters come from outside Russia, many of the servicemen were convinced that it was a majority--making it easier to consider them alien.
Sergei Kovalyov, a Soviet-era dissident who served as human rights commissioner in Chechnya during the first war until he was fired for his outspokenness, says the Kremlin fosters a culture of impunity that makes it all but certain that some excesses might take place.
“As usual, it is the authorities who are to blame because they deliberately refuse to do what they should do--monitor the situation, suppress unlawful actions and severely punish the guilty. But they deliberately do not do it,” he said.
“If one were to make a list of those guilty of the cruel treatment of peaceful civilians, one should start with President [Vladimir V.] Putin,” Kovalyov said. “He knows perfectly well what is happening.”
And that, Kovalyov said, is “not too far from genocide.”
“It’s much easier to kill them all. It takes less time for them to die than to grow.”
Valery is a personnel officer, what in Soviet times would have been called a commissar. He’s a lieutenant colonel responsible for morale and discipline. He shouldn’t talk to reporters.
But the night is dark, the beer from the roadside kiosk outside his army base is cold, and he has a lot on his mind. He checks documents, then launches into a diatribe.
“In this war, the attitude toward the Chechens is much harsher. All of us are sick and tired of waging a war without results,” he says. “How long can you keep making a fuss over their national pride and traditions? The military has realized that Chechens cannot be re-educated. Fighting against Russians is in their blood. They have robbed, killed and stolen our cattle for all their lives. They simply don’t know how to do anything else. . . .
“We shouldn’t have given them time to prepare for the war,” he continues. “We should have slaughtered all Chechens over 5 years old and sent all the children that could still be re-educated to reservations with barbed wire and guards at the corners. . . . But where would you find teachers willing to sacrifice their lives to re-educate these wolf cubs? There are no such people. Therefore, it’s much easier to kill them all. It takes less time for them to die than to grow.”
Valery was in Chechnya in the early phase of the war, when he says there was little oversight from the high command and there were no pesky journalists.
“Now the press sets up a howl after the death of every Chechen. It has become impossible to work. We know very well that thousands of eyes are watching us closely. How are we expected to fight the bandits in such circumstances?
“The solution, in fact, would have been very easy--the old methods used by Russian troops in the Caucasus in the 19th century. For the death of every soldier, an entire village was burned to ashes. For the death of every officer, two villages would be wiped out. This is the only way this war can be brought to a victorious end and this rogue nation conquered.”
Valery acknowledges that atrocities occur but says that, in effect, soldiers are carrying out a policy the government needs but is afraid to declare. “For political reasons, it’s impossible to murder the entire adult population and send the children to reservations,” he says. “But sometimes, one can try to approximate the goal.”
Doing the Job Right
Russia has deployed a motley force of 100,000 in Chechnya. The men have different reasons for going, and they have different jobs when they get there.
The job of seizing territory falls largely to federal forces, under the Defense Ministry, which include elite paratrooper and special forces units, as well as infantry and artillery regiments composed of both conscript and contract soldiers.
The job of holding territory and weeding out rebels from the local population--so-called mopping-up operations--falls largely to troops under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry. Among them are elite police commandos, known as OMON and SOBR, as well as enlisted Interior Ministry troops consisting of both conscripts and contract soldiers.
Russia’s first war in Chechnya was largely--and badly--fought by conscripts. By law, all Russian men are supposed to serve for two years starting at age 18, and in the previous war many found themselves in the war zone before they knew how to fire their rifles.
This war was supposed to be different, to be fought mostly by second-year conscripts and professional soldiers. But contract soldiers, while older, are not really professional. They are largely men who sign up for the money. All have served their time as conscripts, and some have served several tours of duty--often because they find themselves unable to hold down a civilian job.
“I signed up because I have nothing else to do,” said one, who admitted that he had just split up with his wife and has been unable to find a regular job. “If things were normal here, I wouldn’t go, but the way things are, what other choice do I have?”
The elite police forces, while highly trained, also are not exactly combat soldiers. The OMON is largely schooled in riot and crowd control, SOBR in fighting organized crime. They are sent to Chechnya on two- or three-month assignments.
The police special forces and career soldiers tend to be older, and most have families at home. If they refuse an assignment in Chechnya, they face discipline or dishonor before their comrades. So, many take the assignments and, once in the war zone, do whatever it takes to return home safely.
To induce the contract soldiers and police troops to sign up, the Russian government offers hefty combat pay--800 rubles a day, about $28. At home, career soldiers and police earn only about 1,500 rubles, about $50, in an entire month. That’s an average wage, but even in Russia it doesn’t go very far.
Many said the money is a powerful incentive.
“Look out the window,” said one army officer, interviewed on his military base. “You’ll see a whole line of new cars parked outside.”
While the career soldiers and elite police forces face professional pressure to serve in Chechnya, contract soldiers are volunteers, viewed with suspicion by many of the other branches as little more than mercenaries.
“The worst thing is when a person goes to Chechnya to make money,” said a 34-year-old OMON officer. “A person who does that should really have his head examined by a psychiatrist, for this person clearly has a propensity for sadism.”
“So there will be one Chechen less on the planet, so what? Who will cry for him?”
Gennady is a paratrooper and proud of it. He’s wearing a telnyashka, the paratroopers’ trademark striped undershirt, and a robin’s-egg-blue beret studded with badges. It’s Paratroopers’ Day, and the 24-year-old has come to a city park to meet his pals and trade war stories. He spent a few months in Chechnya last winter and expects to return this fall.
Gennady says his officers taught him to trust no one in Chechnya, not even the children.
“There were cases when small kids would run to the middle of the road, right in front of a moving convoy of trucks and APCs. And they were shot dead right on the spot by soldiers who thought the kid could be carrying a mine or a grenade. Hell knows, maybe they weren’t. But it is better to be safe than sorry.”
Gennady says that although he’s been home for a few months, his hatred hasn’t abated.
“I hated them when I fought in Chechnya, and I hate them now. I can’t even watch TV when it shows Chechens--I feel all my muscles start to ache and I want to smash something.”
Gennady says the most important lesson his commanders taught him was: Shoot first. Think later.
“Our officers would always teach us: Be careful, do not feel ashamed to be afraid of everything. Fear is your friend, not your enemy, in Chechnya. It will help you stay alive and come back home to your families. If you see someone who looks suspicious, even a child, do not hesitate--shoot first and only then think. Your personal safety is priority No. 1. All the rest does not matter. So there will be one Chechen less on the planet, so what? Who will cry for him? Your task is to complete the mission and return home unscathed.”
Fearing Only Fear
Most of the interviewed servicemen describe a corrosive atmosphere of fear and isolation in the war zone that was often relieved by acts of violence against Chechens, both fighters and civilians.
Such fear was compounded by the difficulty of coordinating between so many different kinds of Defense and Interior Ministry forces; soldiers reported frequent misunderstandings, including an unnerving number of casualties from “friendly fire.”
“You can’t imagine anything more horrible than the sight of your buddy, who was at your side a few minutes ago, blown to pieces, bits of his flesh steaming in the snow,” said one 19-year-old conscript. “Especially when it’s your own side that did it.”
As a result, many Russian units feel vulnerable and isolated on the battlefield. They aren’t sure that they can count on other units to keep them supplied and safe, and tend to assume that they have to fend for themselves.
One theme repeated by many of the servicemen is that in the war zone, each unit’s commander was left more or less to set his own standards.
“I was lucky I wound up in a good regiment that wasn’t a madhouse, with a normal commander,” said the 35-year-old soldier. “Everything depends on the commander.”
Moreover, most of the servicemen had been told that the Chechens had a special animosity for their particular unit--that they would suffer excruciating torture at Chechen hands if they had the misfortune to be captured. True or not, those stories induced many Russian servicemen to assume the worst about any Chechen they met--man, woman, young, old.
“Our commander told us all the time, ‘There’s no such thing as a Chechen civilian,’ ” a conscript said.
Finally, the servicemen said they resort to atrocities because the authorities--both the political leadership and the judicial system--leave them unprotected.
“Bespredel emerges when soldiers know that the state is too far away or too little interested in supporting or controlling servicemen,” said one 25-year-old police commando. “And then everyone starts acting on his own, making his own decisions on the spot. Everyone is responsible for his own life. How decently he does that depends on his individual experiences, both good and bad, and on his level of cynicism.”
“War crimes have no expiration date. . . . When you die, you will have to answer to God.”
Denis is a major with the elite police forces. He is a training and morale officer, and he accompanied a contingent of his men to Chechnya last winter.
He acknowledges that servicemen don’t have much to fear from the military procurator and other investigators.
“It’s easy for a person to get away with almost everything,” he says. “You take this wretched Chechen down into a basement or a cellar under the guise of checking his documents in a quiet place. And then you just knock him off the way you want. There are no eyewitnesses, and no one will say anything.
“Usually it happens like this: You walk along the street and see a house with a basement. Why stupidly enter it? Why risk your life for nothing if you can avoid it? At best you just spray gunfire around, at worst you throw a couple of hand grenades into the basement. . . . In a war, you have to do your job and stay alive. If I walked into every single basement I had to check before securing the place by throwing in grenades, you would not be talking to me now.”
Denis took photos of one incident. His unit was preparing to lift off in a helicopter when the troops were warned that a Chechen sniper was in the area. They found him hiding in the bushes near the helicopter pad, armed with an antitank grenade launcher.
“We did not talk much,” he remembers. “The officers began to try to convince the soldiers not to execute the guy without a trial, but the soldiers said, ‘No way.’ . . . They took him to the side and unloaded their clips right into his body--90 bullets altogether.
“I took photographs of him before the execution, and I also photographed his dead body afterward. Boy, he looked terrible--the bullets broke his fingers and disfigured his palms. They turned his face and head into a bloody mess. He looked like a pile of fresh meat clothed in blood-soaked rags.”
When he returned home, Denis printed the photos.
“Sometime later I took a look at them and thought to myself: ‘Why on earth do I need these pictures? Who am I going to show them to?’ ”
So he destroyed them.
Denis says he was troubled by that incident and others. But that’s the kind of thing that happens in a war.
“Any war is a legitimized right granted by the government to one person to decide on the life and death of another person. . . . When soldiers go to Chechnya for the first time, they are afraid of that responsibility just as they are afraid to die. But as time goes by, they look at other soldiers who are on their second or third trip and they change. They come to understand that they have much broader powers than back home. This power intoxicates them--in fact, they can do whatever they want when no one is watching, and they will get away with it.
“But war crimes have no expiration date,” he concludes. “And every one of us knows that if you do something bad, you will have to live with it for the rest of your life. And when you die, you will have to answer to God.”
Fighting ‘Total War’
The Soviet Union signed the Geneva Conventions after the end of World War II. Officially, that means that Russia’s armed forces are obligated to abide by the principles of the accord: that civilians and combatants who have surrendered should be treated humanely and that violence of any sort or execution of war prisoners is forbidden.
But in a guerrilla war, experts say, it is nearly impossible to separate combatants from noncombatants.
“In a partisan war, it’s hard for even the best armies to maintain standards of conduct,” said Jacob Kipp, a professor at the University of Kansas and an expert on the Russian army.
All the same, Kipp and other analysts say, the Russian armed forces have a few cultural features that make wartime atrocities more likely than in Western armies.
First of all, public debate over the morality of a war focuses on whether it was right to begin hostilities in the first place; unlike in the West, there is no tradition of asking whether the way the war is waged is also moral.
“Russians come from a tradition that all war is ‘total war,’ ” Kipp said. “After you’ve made the decision that it’s right to start a war, there isn’t any notion that there can and should be limits on how you conduct the war.”
Second, the Soviet army tolerated a higher level of casualties than Western armies, a mind-set that continues. Some servicemen said they were convinced that their commanders considered them expendable.
“In Russia, winning wars has always been a matter of quantity, not quality,” said one conscript. “They don’t even count us as losses. We’re just meat. A conscript is nothing in the army. It’s like a chain--the generals don’t value our lives, so we don’t value the lives of the Chechens.”
Third, the Russian public has been overwhelmingly in favor of the war. For most of the past year, polls reported that between 60% and 70% of Russians supported continuing the hostilities.
In such a climate, the subject of atrocities committed by the Russian side is all but taboo in Russian society. However, not a single person interviewed on or off the record for this story--not high-ranking officials and not low-ranking servicemen--denied that Russian troops in Chechnya have committed war crimes and violated human rights.
“It’s a real problem, and you’re right to bring it up,” war spokesman Yastrzhembsky said. “It’s well known in the army. The command is working on it. But it’s a difficult issue that doesn’t lend itself to a quick solution.”
Finally, a major difficulty Russia faces in addressing the issue of atrocities is that the Russian armed forces--unlike Western armies--have no effective system of accountability for wartime conduct.
Kremlin officials say they are doing all they can to find and punish servicemen guilty of human rights abuses.
“Neither I nor the president has ever said there are no violations of human rights in Chechnya. . . ,” said Vladimir A. Kalamanov, President Putin’s special representative for human rights in Chechnya. “We are working as fast as we can so that these violations of human rights will disappear from the political map of the Chechen republic.”
But the interviewed servicemen painted a different picture. Not only do the authorities not make a serious effort to investigate war zone misconduct, they said, but they also sometimes go further. The 23-year-old army officer recounted how investigators from the military procurator’s office and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, helped his unit cover up war crimes such as the summary execution of detainees.
“The FSB officers would always write in their reports: ‘Killed in cross-fire,’ ” he said. “They would never give away our soldiers. There’s always been mutual understanding. It’s the same as if your son kills a bandit--would you go and report him to the police? Of course not. The same with the FSB. They were on our side. They understood us and supported us.”
The military procurator’s office, which operates today much as it did in Soviet times, tends to focus on misconduct within the ranks--offenses such as hazing and selling service weapons--not the treatment of civilians and enemy fighters. The military procurator’s headquarters in Moscow and its North Caucasus department in the southern city of Rostov denied The Times’ repeated requests for an interview or written information.
Yastrzhembsky and Kalamanov acknowledged that only a fraction of investigations of crimes involving servicemen has been completed. They provided the following figures: Of 467 criminal investigations opened by the military procurator since the start of the war, only 72 have led to indictments. Only 14 are for crimes against civilians. None has gone to trial.
Moreover, that’s only half the story. The military procurator has jurisdiction over only the federal forces. Misconduct by servicemen under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry is handled by the civilian general procurator’s office.
For instance, according to documents obtained by The Times, investigation of the largest massacre allegedly committed by Russian troops--the killings of at least 62 civilians in the Grozny suburb of Aldy on Feb. 5--was transferred from the military procurator to the general procurator’s office last spring because police troops allegedly were involved.
It is unclear how actively the general procurator’s office is pursuing such investigations. In written responses to The Times, the general procurator’s office said that, since the start of the war, it has indicted 179 servicemen for crimes of all sorts, from minor military infractions such as mishandling weapons to murder.
The chief spokesman for the general procurator’s office, Leonid Troshin, said he couldn’t say how many of the servicemen have been charged with serious crimes or crimes against civilians, or whether any of them had been convicted. And he declined to provide an update on the progress of investigations into the Aldy massacre or other incidents documented by human rights groups.
“The number of crimes committed by [rebel] fighters by far surpasses the number of crimes committed by Russian servicemen,” Troshin said when asked by telephone to elaborate on his written statement. “This is exactly what we have been trying to prove.”
One of the few people who have broached the subject of Russian atrocities in public is Aslambek Aslakhanov, a retired police general who was elected Chechnya’s deputy in parliament in an August ballot that many viewed as a Kremlin propaganda exercise.
But his descriptions of what he calls Russian troops’ “arbitrary violence and unlawfulness” have gone unreported in the state media and were reported only cursorily in the independent media. Aslakhanov says that’s because it’s hard for anyone--in either the government or the public at large--to face the truth.
“One’s ears love to hear that things are going well. It’s hard to believe what is happening, that this could be taking place at the end of the 20th century,” he said. “If Russian society knew the truth about what was happening in Chechnya, they would completely change their minds about Chechens as a people, and they would take steps to remove this pain, to right this wrong.”
Aslakhanov said he fully supports the use of force to rid the republic of the rebels, who he says have brought his people nothing but ruin. But he also insisted that war zone misconduct and atrocities are unworthy of Russia. And they risk undermining whatever victory is eventually achieved in Chechnya--both by earning the enduring enmity of the Chechens and by besmirching Russia’s reputation around the world.
“There are many people even among the military who say this must end,” Aslakhanov said. “But it is like dirty laundry that they don’t want to air in public.
“But you have to learn the truth before you can solve anything.”
Russian servicemen warn that the large amount of bespredel on the Russian side is not only harming Chechens, it’s also creating a new generation of troubled Russian men with deep psychological problems, many of whom are violent. Many of the returning servicemen said they were experiencing symptoms such as nightmares and an inability to control their anger. Many said they or their comrades were drinking heavily.
One 40-year-old police officer warned: “There are not enough psychologists in all of Russia to treat those who are returning.”
Tomorrow: The savage industry of Chechen kidnapping.
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The Year Since It Began
Aug. 7: Chechen guerrillas seize villages in Dagestan, igniting fighting with Russian forces.
Sept. 4-16: A series of four bomb explosions in Moscow and other cities leaves 305 people dead; authorities blame Chechen terrorists.
Sept. 23: Russia begins to shell Chechen cities using aircraft and long-range artillery.
Sept. 30: Russian ground troops enter Chechnya.
Nov. 13: Aerial assaults on Grozny; the Chechen capital, begins.
Feb. 2: Russian troops take Grozny, rebels free into the mountains.
Feb. 29: 84 Russian paratroopers are killed when rebels trap them in a mountain gorge, the highest single battle death toll for Russia.
July 2: Five suicide truck bombings kill at least 37 Russian servicemen.
Aug. 20: Russia holds elections in Chechnya to elect a parliament deputy for the republic; Asiambek Aslakhanov, retired police general wins.
Source: Russian government, Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
FIVE CENTURIES OF CONFLICT Russia first set its sights on conquering the Chechens and the other peoples of the North Caucasus under the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, but his forces met fierce resistance and were forced to retreat. Peter the Great was the next Russian ruler to take up the challenge of subduing the Chechens, in the 18th century, but he didn’t have much more luck.
In 1816, Alexander I tried again to conquer the mountain peoples, unleashing the ruthless Gen. Alexei Yermolov, who destroyed entire villages and slaughtered their residents, hundreds of families at a time. In 1834, a charismatic leader known as Shamil united the Chechens and neighboring Dagestanis and led them a fierce war of resistance that lasted nearly three decades before Shamil finally surrendered.
In Soviet times, Chechnya was part of the Chechen-Ingush autonomous republic. The region was occupied by the Nazis during World War II; Soviet dictator Josef Stalin accused the Chechens of collaboration and in February 1944 loaded the entire nation onto train cars and sent them into exile in the desert in Kazakhstan. They began to drift back to Chechnya after Stalin’s death in 1953.
The period of exile, which many living Chechens remember with bitterness, strengthened the idea of Chechen nationhood, eventually leading to the wars that have racked the republic in the last several years.
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Excerpts From the Geneva Conventions
Excerpts from Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which relates to internal armed conflicts:
1. Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat (unable to fight) by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, color, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
a) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatments and torture;
b) Taking of hostages;
c) Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;
d) The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.
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About This Report
The servicemen who discussed these issues with The Times did so on the condition that they not be identified. As a result, this report has omitted or changed their names and omitted their hometowns and the identity of their units.
In addition, no servicemen interviewed for previous reports in The Times--many of whom could be identified through information in those stories--played a role in this report. All of the servicemen were interviewed outside the republic of Chechnya.
A Russian version of this story is available on The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/chechnya.