#5 - JRL 7232
June 21, 2003
War in Chechnya Has Hidden Toll in Russia
As Suffering Persists, Topic Is Taboo
By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
SOCHI, Russia -- Natasha Yaroslavtseva's son Sasha hanged himself almost a year ago.
He was 21, and just back from the war in Chechnya. Back to Sochi, the famous and now run-down Soviet-era resort on the Black Sea. Back to the same 10-square-yard basement apartment where he grew up. Where there were no jobs for young veterans like him, and where, as elsewhere in Russia, the right thing to say about the long-running conflict in Chechnya was often nothing at all.
"People are afraid to talk to me about it," said a tearful Yaroslavtseva. "When they come back, people like my Sasha, nobody needs them anymore."
His death is one of many suicides that will never show up in the official statistics as a casualty of Russia's war in Chechnya. In Sochi, there are other consequences of the war that rarely draw public comment, such as the drunken rages of Pavel Brazhnikov, who once drove a car that picked up corpses in Chechnya. Or the homelessness of Leonid Pensakov, a veteran who now sleeps in a shack on Sochi's famed black-pebbled beach.
In Chechnya, the war continues, a grinding guerrilla conflict that has been declared over and won many times by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the rest of Russia, the legacy of nearly a decade of on-again, off-again war in the separatist republic 250 miles east of Sochi remains a taboo subject. As Lev Gudkov, a pollster in Moscow, put it, the majority of Russians "don't want to know and don't want to try to understand."
To human rights groups, opposition politicians and Russians who have directly suffered because of the conflict, that indifference is an attempt to ignore damage to society that goes far beyond the 10,000 Russians killed in the war.
Pollsters such as Gudkov, of the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, have detected what he called "a significant effect on the psychological and moral climate of society" due to the prolonged war, including "getting used to aggression and anger and cruelty, decreasing levels of tolerance, and the growth of cynicism."
The Soviet Union's 1979-89 war in Afghanistan had similar costs at home -- a generation of dysfunctional veterans and heightened suspicion of the communist order. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, has written that anguished letters from the families of some of the 15,000 Soviet dead were a major factor in persuading him to end that war.
Russian popular anger over Chechen attacks helped propel Putin to power in 1999, when he vowed to "rub out in the toilet" rebels and enjoyed approval ratings of 70 percent of Russians. But even though a large majority has since turned in favor of peace talks, Putin has not followed Gorbachev's lead and withdrawn his troops. His own popularity has not suffered for that, according to recent surveys.
Instead, Russians like the two dozen interviewed in Sochi over a recent holiday weekend say the war has contributed to their belief -- fervently held since Soviet times -- that they can do nothing to influence the state.
"The war is a nightmare," said Lydia Vlasenko, a retired nurse. But her eyes lit up at the mention of the president running the war. "I like everything about Putin," she said. "His manners, his education. He can communicate, he's charming." Vlasenko said she believed the war never should have been started, but that Putin "has no other option right now. I'm sure he'll be able to finish it after the elections" next year. Putin is heavily favored to win a second term in that vote.
"In Russia, the people always believe in the 'good czar' -- all mistakes and failures are associated with stupid, fat and greedy local bosses while people look to Moscow with hope," said Alexander Zvyagin, a member of the Sochi City Council. "The same is true with Putin here in what we call the suburbs of the great empire."
Sochi, with its honky-tonk beachfront boardwalk and its uncomfortable proximity to both Chechnya and Georgia, which was the scene of another separatist war, is a portrait of neglect like many Russian cities. In interviews, many residents said the conflict diverted money and attention from the country's more pressing economic problems, such as those they confront daily as they try to make a living.
Putin is a regular visitor each August, but Sochi now attracts half or fewer of the 4 million tourists who came each year in Soviet times. Package tours to Turkey or Egypt are cheaper for Russians than a trip here, and despite a few new hotels and garish casinos, signs of deterioration are everywhere in the city of more than 400,000 year-round residents.
The city was once famous for flower-lined boulevards; now the flower beds are choked with weeds. A massive concrete tower built as a relaxation center for the proletariat sits abandoned on the city's outskirts.
"It's like heaven and earth, the difference between now and what this place was before," said Vlasenko, who has lived in Sochi since just after World War II. "It's all slowly falling apart," echoed Zvyagin. "In the next 10 to 15 years, we'll not see anything in Sochi when it comes to development, and I'm an optimist."
When people do talk about the war, which has killed an estimated 180,000 Chechens, it's often to express distrust of the political system that produced it.
"The state took these children and threw them into this bloody war and sent our children back with broken psychologies, and nobody wants to do anything about it," said Natalya Serdyukova, who has seen two sons drafted and sent off to two successive wars in Chechnya.
During the first war, which ran from 1994 to 1996, she helped found the Sochi chapter of the national antiwar group, the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. Now, she estimates that there are at least 3,000 veterans of the first war in Sochi and that she has met with "a minimum of 1,000" returnees from the second war, which began in 1999 and continues today.
Each year, she said, about 2,000 18-year-olds are conscripted in Sochi, most from poor families unable to pay bribes to get them out of serving. Serdyukova said she believes about half of the Sochi conscripts get sent to Chechnya or other "hot spots" near the separatist republic, despite a stated government policy of not sending draftees to the war.
"I was very naive. When my first son was sent to Chechnya, I believed very much that if women of all Russia grabbed hands together, regardless of social status, and we expressed our protest, it could have been stopped," she recalled. "It didn't happen because everybody is concerned only with themselves. I told them, 'Today it's my problem, but tomorrow it will be yours.' But the only ones who heard were those whose children were in the army."
Yaroslavtseva was one of the ones who listened, but only after it was too late for her son Sasha.
When he went into the army, she recalled, she was like all the other mothers in Sochi -- she prayed that her son, a lover of sailing and playing the harmonica, would be sent anywhere other than Chechnya. At first, she believed the cheery letters home.
It was only when he landed in a hospital with what he said was the flu that Yaroslavtseva became suspicious.
"He wrote to me, 'Mom, in the hospital everything is all right. We have enough bread and the tea is hot.' For me, it was a shock to see that my son was happy just to have bread."
Then came worse news. Her son had been attached to the border troops guarding the mountainous divide between Chechnya and the neighboring region of Dagestan. When Chechen rebels launched an incursion into Dagestan in 1999 that helped precipitate the current round of conflict, Sasha served in the area with the heaviest fighting. He and his fellow soldiers had no barracks, just an earthen trench they dug themselves.
At one point she went to see him. They met at a checkpoint -- she wasn't allowed near his position -- and talked. He complained of skin problems and she asked why he wasn't receiving treatment. "He said, 'Mom, there are no sick people here, just living and dead.' "
By the time Sasha returned to Sochi early last year, Yaroslavtseva said, he was unrecognizable. "Even his eyes were crazy, senseless," she recalled, pulling out a small black-and-white, grim-faced picture of Sasha when he came home. He couldn't sleep, had nightmares and couldn't find work. After six months, he gave up trying to adjust to civilian life and talked only of death, she said.
Once, he tried to slit his wrists at a birthday party, Yaroslavtseva recalled. When she summoned the ambulance, the woman on the other end of the phone line knew immediately.
"The first question she asked was, 'Did he go to the war in Chechnya? They're all like that.' " From then on, "he was always walking around saying, 'I don't want to live. For what? I will get drunk, buy a motorcycle and smash myself into the wall.' "
Shortly after 6 a.m. last June 28, Sasha killed himself. All he said before he went to his bedroom and hanged himself was, "Okay, mom, I'm going now."
His mother still doesn't know the details of why. She suspects there was no single traumatic incident that unhinged him, just the effects of constant combat and death.
Before her son went to war, Yaroslavtseva believed in Putin, as did Sasha. They voted for him and thought he would bring change. Yaroslavtseva, a divorced single mother who brought up Sasha in their basement apartment, tiny even by Russian standards, now works two jobs -- one washing dishes in a restaurant, the other at a sewage pumping station.
They were never in favor of the war in Chechnya, but it never occurred to them to do anything against it either, she said.
"Next time, I will not vote for anyone at all, because I finally understand that we are not needed by anybody," she said. "In Russia, people don't believe they can change anything themselves. But now I know we need to change the system completely."