Articles

Is the Russian Army Bullying Its Soldiers to Death?


Russian President Medvedev attends a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow.
Grigory Dukor / Reuters


Jun 22, 2010
Time

dedovshchina — a banned but widespread practice that includes the physical and psychological abuse of recruits by older officers.

Soldiers' rights advocates also believe some of those suicides aren't suicides at all. They see something more sinister in Suslov's death and maintain that his senior officers may have beaten him to death during a savage hazing session and then staged his suicide. The tactic, they allege, is a common way to cover up conscripts' violent deaths at the hands of fellow servicemen.

According to the latest figures released by the Russian Defense Ministry, a total of 149 Russian servicemen committed suicide from January to November last year. The figures suggest a decline from previous years, which saw more than 200 suicides annually. But Veronika Marchenko, head of A Mother's Right, a Moscow-based NGO, estimates that the majority of these deaths are directly related to brutality in the ranks. "One-third are cases where people are driven to suicide, while one-third are criminal acts disguised as suicides," says Marchenko, whose organization handles thousands of complaints from families of Russian soldiers who died during their service.

Suslov's purported suicide is just the latest case to spark national soul-searching over the plight of Russian conscripts. His death echoes the alleged suicide of conscript Alexander Mazhuga in June 2009. Like Suslov, Mazhuga, a 21-year-old recruit from the Siberian city of Kurgan, was sent by train to basic training near the Russian-Chinese border. And like Suslov, he hanged himself in a carriage bathroom before he made it to boot camp, investigators said. Medics managed to revive Mazhuga, but he died later in a hospital.

Mazhuga's parents say he had been badly beaten before his reported suicide attempt, and while he was still on life support they made a video at his bedside in which they allege he was the victim of a fatal assault. According to excerpts from the official autopsy published by A Mother's Right, military doctors said bruises on Mazhuga's forehead and cheekbone were likely caused by a blunt object, possibly a hard surface in the train's bathroom, and that he had clearly died from the hanging. But medical experts commissioned by A Mother's Right to conduct an independent examination said they found numerous other bruises and injuries consistent with an assault with a blunt object and that the nature of the soldier's head and neck injuries excluded the possibility that he had hanged himself.

Mazhuga's mother Tatyana refuses to believe the results of the official autopsy and says her son was not a suicide candidate. "He wasn't exactly excited about going to the army, but he wasn't scared," she tells TIME in a telephone interview. "He said, 'Why should I try to avoid the army? In Russia, everyone tries to dodge the draft. I'm going to volunteer.'"

Natalya Sirmanova says her nephew, Private Yevgeny Filippov, had little reason to kill himself. Filippov was two weeks from finishing his mandatory service when he hanged himself from a bunk bed at his military unit outside Moscow in June 2007. The following year, a military judge found an older officer, Konstantin Roslov, guilty of assaulting the private for refusing to bring him a bottle of beer and thus prompting him to take his own life. Roslov was sentenced to five years in prison. "We visited [Filippov] a month before he died," Sirmanova says. "He said he was ready to get on with his life. He told his mom that he would be out soon." Doctors hired by A Mother's Right examined Filippov's case and concluded there was significant evidence that he died from beatings incurred before his alleged suicide.

According to Russian Defense Ministry statistics, of the 297 noncombat deaths from January through November last year, just four were officially attributed to hazing. When questioned about this by the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta, chief Russian military prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky said the low number of suicides linked to dedovshchina did not signal a cover-up. "Every single incident of suicide is investigated," he said in October 2009. "If it leads to the conclusion that a person committed suicide due to hazing, then the guilty parties will be convicted and the tragedy will be classified under hazing statistics. But people take their own lives for different reasons."

Russian military investigators say they are looking into whether mental or physical abuse may have prompted Suslov to hang himself. Svetlana Petrenko, a spokeswoman for the main investigative committee of the Russian Prosecutor General's Office, declined to comment on Suslov's case and referred TIME to official statements released to the media.

Russians have become so familiar with stories of military suicides that Suslov's death might have warranted little more than a brief mention in the press had it not been for the disturbing video posted on YouTube on June 2 showing his body in an open casket. In the video, Suslov's shirt is opened to reveal a line of enormous stitches running from his neck to his abdomen, evoking images of the leather laces on an antique basketball. His mother hovers over his body while the mother of a solider who allegedly committed suicide in 2003 gives a harrowing narration of the apparent injuries to Suslov's body. The woman, Alma Bukharbayeva, claims her son Marat was murdered during his mandatory service in Bikin and that his organs were removed and sold on the black market in China. The crude stitches and various bruises and abrasions on Suslov's body, she alleges in the video, indicate his organs may also have been removed to be sold for transplant surgeries.

At a June 18 news conference, Fridinsky categorically denied the existence of a "mafia that removes organs right there in the train and sends them somewhere," and transplant specialists dismiss the claims as well. The preparation, expertise and time constraints involved in the removal of organs for transplantation exclude the possibility of such a complicated procedure taking place on a train full of soldiers and civilians chugging across Siberia, Andrei Vatazin, a veteran Moscow transplant specialist, tells TIME.

But sometimes despair trumps logic. Tatyana Suslova says she believes her son was probably murdered for his organs and that she's ready to have his body exhumed to prove it. "I won't stop until I discover the truth," she says.
">By Carl Schreck / Moscow

Oksana Berelyuk says her fiancé was whispering the last time they spoke. Days earlier, her betrothed, 19-year-old army recruit Roman Suslov, had shipped out in good spirits from the western Siberian city of Omsk. But his family was troubled by a series of text messages and frantic phone calls they received from him during the four-day train journey to the Far East town of Bikin, where he was to begin his mandatory year of military service. Suslov claimed his superiors were bullying him and denying him food, water and cigarettes. On May 22, he called Berelyuk and told her that a lieutenant and a warrant officer were threatening him. "He was scared someone would hear him talking," Berelyuk tells TIME. "He told me, 'They'll either kill me or cut me.' Then he hung up."

The next day, Suslov's mother received a call from the unit's command. Her son, she was told, had hanged himself with a belt in one of the train's bathrooms.

Investigators have classified Suslov's death as a suicide, placing him among the scores of Russian servicemen who kill themselves in any given year. Many of these soldiers, relatives and rights activists say, are driven to suicide by a pernicious tradition of brutal hazing in the Russian military known as dedovshchina — a banned but widespread practice that includes the physical and psychological abuse of recruits by older officers.

Soldiers' rights advocates also believe some of those suicides aren't suicides at all. They see something more sinister in Suslov's death and maintain that his senior officers may have beaten him to death during a savage hazing session and then staged his suicide. The tactic, they allege, is a common way to cover up conscripts' violent deaths at the hands of fellow servicemen.

According to the latest figures released by the Russian Defense Ministry, a total of 149 Russian servicemen committed suicide from January to November last year. The figures suggest a decline from previous years, which saw more than 200 suicides annually. But Veronika Marchenko, head of A Mother's Right, a Moscow-based NGO, estimates that the majority of these deaths are directly related to brutality in the ranks. "One-third are cases where people are driven to suicide, while one-third are criminal acts disguised as suicides," says Marchenko, whose organization handles thousands of complaints from families of Russian soldiers who died during their service.

Suslov's purported suicide is just the latest case to spark national soul-searching over the plight of Russian conscripts. His death echoes the alleged suicide of conscript Alexander Mazhuga in June 2009. Like Suslov, Mazhuga, a 21-year-old recruit from the Siberian city of Kurgan, was sent by train to basic training near the Russian-Chinese border. And like Suslov, he hanged himself in a carriage bathroom before he made it to boot camp, investigators said. Medics managed to revive Mazhuga, but he died later in a hospital.

Mazhuga's parents say he had been badly beaten before his reported suicide attempt, and while he was still on life support they made a video at his bedside in which they allege he was the victim of a fatal assault. According to excerpts from the official autopsy published by A Mother's Right, military doctors said bruises on Mazhuga's forehead and cheekbone were likely caused by a blunt object, possibly a hard surface in the train's bathroom, and that he had clearly died from the hanging. But medical experts commissioned by A Mother's Right to conduct an independent examination said they found numerous other bruises and injuries consistent with an assault with a blunt object and that the nature of the soldier's head and neck injuries excluded the possibility that he had hanged himself.

Mazhuga's mother Tatyana refuses to believe the results of the official autopsy and says her son was not a suicide candidate. "He wasn't exactly excited about going to the army, but he wasn't scared," she tells TIME in a telephone interview. "He said, 'Why should I try to avoid the army? In Russia, everyone tries to dodge the draft. I'm going to volunteer.'"

Natalya Sirmanova says her nephew, Private Yevgeny Filippov, had little reason to kill himself. Filippov was two weeks from finishing his mandatory service when he hanged himself from a bunk bed at his military unit outside Moscow in June 2007. The following year, a military judge found an older officer, Konstantin Roslov, guilty of assaulting the private for refusing to bring him a bottle of beer and thus prompting him to take his own life. Roslov was sentenced to five years in prison. "We visited [Filippov] a month before he died," Sirmanova says. "He said he was ready to get on with his life. He told his mom that he would be out soon." Doctors hired by A Mother's Right examined Filippov's case and concluded there was significant evidence that he died from beatings incurred before his alleged suicide.

According to Russian Defense Ministry statistics, of the 297 noncombat deaths from January through November last year, just four were officially attributed to hazing. When questioned about this by the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta, chief Russian military prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky said the low number of suicides linked to dedovshchina did not signal a cover-up. "Every single incident of suicide is investigated," he said in October 2009. "If it leads to the conclusion that a person committed suicide due to hazing, then the guilty parties will be convicted and the tragedy will be classified under hazing statistics. But people take their own lives for different reasons."

Russian military investigators say they are looking into whether mental or physical abuse may have prompted Suslov to hang himself. Svetlana Petrenko, a spokeswoman for the main investigative committee of the Russian Prosecutor General's Office, declined to comment on Suslov's case and referred TIME to official statements released to the media.

Russians have become so familiar with stories of military suicides that Suslov's death might have warranted little more than a brief mention in the press had it not been for the disturbing video posted on YouTube on June 2 showing his body in an open casket. In the video, Suslov's shirt is opened to reveal a line of enormous stitches running from his neck to his abdomen, evoking images of the leather laces on an antique basketball. His mother hovers over his body while the mother of a solider who allegedly committed suicide in 2003 gives a harrowing narration of the apparent injuries to Suslov's body. The woman, Alma Bukharbayeva, claims her son Marat was murdered during his mandatory service in Bikin and that his organs were removed and sold on the black market in China. The crude stitches and various bruises and abrasions on Suslov's body, she alleges in the video, indicate his organs may also have been removed to be sold for transplant surgeries.

At a June 18 news conference, Fridinsky categorically denied the existence of a "mafia that removes organs right there in the train and sends them somewhere," and transplant specialists dismiss the claims as well. The preparation, expertise and time constraints involved in the removal of organs for transplantation exclude the possibility of such a complicated procedure taking place on a train full of soldiers and civilians chugging across Siberia, Andrei Vatazin, a veteran Moscow transplant specialist, tells TIME.

But sometimes despair trumps logic. Tatyana Suslova says she believes her son was probably murdered for his organs and that she's ready to have his body exhumed to prove it. "I won't stop until I discover the truth," she says.


© 2017 Carl Schreck. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.


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