Russia: Murder in the ranks: soldiers killed by their own comrades

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Indy Lifestyle Online
As the Russian army declines, hundreds of young soldiers are being murdered by colleagues. Our correspondent finds victims' relatives with little hope of getting any truth or justice.

Russians have an unusual word for the likes of Galina Kaloshin. They are "marginal". They are people deemed too poor, too burdened by the struggle to survive and too ignorant to have any influence over their fate.

So when her son was found dead in a back street in Volgograd, she was expected to behave like most parents whose children are conscripted into the army yet die not by an enemy bullet but at the hands of one of their own. Penniless, overwhelmed by grief, befuddled by bureaucracy and often living thousands of miles from the scene, they usually do nothing.

But Mrs Kaloshin is an exception. A long-time divorcee, her 19-year-old son was her only child, her one reason for living. Since his death, she has traversed the country by train, interviewing scores of people. Armed with a bundle of documents, she has slogged by foot around the streets of Moscow and Volgograd, hunting down military prosecutors, civil prosecutors, soldiers, handwriting experts, witnesses - in fact, anyone who might help. All this, to prove that her boy, Dmitri, was murdered by the military.

The first sign that something was wrong came shortly after Dmitri was dispatched to a railway army unit in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. He never wanted to join up. His ambition was to be a film cameraman but, unlike the thousands who dodge or otherwise evade the draft (40,000 last autumn), he was unlucky enough not to be either seriously ill, or rich enough to pay a bribe. He was also born too soon. Moves to cut service personnel numbers from 1.7 million to 1.2 million this year, and eventually to end conscription altogether, came too late to save him.

In early 1995, Mrs Kaloshin paid her son a visit, and was horrified to see that his face was bruised and scarred. The injuries looked suspiciously like the beating of junior conscripts by their seniors, a problem which has become endemic in the last few years. He said a sergeant beat him for eating too slowly.

Several months later, he complained he had been forced to steal wood by a senior officer who wanted a fence around his country cottage. Then, in October 1996, Dmitri wrote home, warning that something terrible was about to happen. A few weeks later, Mrs Kaloshin received a telegram at her home in Kavkaskaya, 300 miles to the south-west. He was dead. His body had been found at the foot of a nine-storey apartment in Volgograd.

Mrs Kaloshin says the army offered several explanations, all of which seemed far fetched. Although he was found near a lane with little traffic, they suggested he had been run over. They also said he may have fallen from the building, although - according to his mother - his head and internal organs showed no sign of a fall. (Both his legs were broken).

Official contradiction, prevarication, and fudge continued apace. She was told her son had been demobilised on the day he died, allowing the military to wash its hands of any further responsibility. But then a letter from Dmitri arrived, dated 14 November, the day of his death. He was unable to leave the army early, he wrote, and would have to serve his final two months.

"Everything here is as it was before," he wrote, "from now on it will not be easy to write what is really going on here ... Goodbye Mama. There is only a little time left to go here." A second, still more haunting, letter also arrived. It was his last. "Dear Mama, if you can come, I want to see you very much." Someone else had added the final, heart-breaking words. "Dima (a short form of Dmitri). Don't be upset. Don't worry."

The absence of any meaningful explanation from the authorities has hardened Mrs Kaloshin's belief that her son was among the annual death toll of 1,071 murdered Russian soldiers. She says just before his death, he called an acquaintance to say he was deserting. She believes he did so on the day he died, but was caught and beaten to death.

That is her conviction, but it will probably remain no more than that. Proving it seems almost impossible. "It has been disgusting," she said. "No one will listen to me. The military pushed me to the civil authorities, and the civil authorities told me to talk to the military."

"If there is any way of hushing this sort of thing up, it is hushed up," said a soldier who serves in Dmitri's base. It was to him that Mrs Kaloshin turned when she discovered that the authorities were giving her little - and sometimes wholly falsified - information. He smuggled papers out to her.

At the heart of the issue lies a structural flaw. Suspicious deaths in the army are investigated by a military, rather than a civil, prosecutor. Victims' relatives claim this is a recipe for cover-ups, and that the system is overburdened and out-dated.

"Military prosecutors live in the Stone Age," said Tatyana Zazulenko, from Mothers' Right, an organisation for soldiers' parents. "They have no computers, no typewriters, and sometimes no petrol to go to the scene. That means they end up appointing an investigator in the area, who is often a serving officer in the unit where the crime happened."

A measure of the official attitude came when, accompanied by The Independent, Mrs Kaloshin visited the clapped-out deputy military's prosecutor's office in Volgograd. She wanted, she explained, to find about about the case of her son "who was killed". "You mean who died!" bawled the prosecutor. The case was nothing to do with him, he said; she would have to go elsewhere. With that, he marched out, and locked his door.

A visit by The Independent (without Mrs Kaloshin) to Dmitri's base was scarcely more fruitful. The commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Akulinin, refused to be interviewed as it violated army rules, but he described Mrs Kaloshin's claims as "absurd" and accused her of "blackening his name".

She can take some comfort, though, that her campaign is hitting home. Officials have told her that civil prosecutors are now working on the case - some 14 months on. This week the General Military Prosecutor in Moscow, Yuri Dyomin, said he had launched a crack-down which led to 205 criminal charges for initiation ceremonies and "saved dozens of young men from beating and abuse".

And Mrs Kaloshin, the so-called "marginal", clearly has someone worried. A few days after our visit to the base, an anonymous call was made to this newspaper's researcher, warning that her apartment is to be searched.

Mrs Kaloshin has no plans to give up. "I will go on doing this until I die. I will never stop. I know I am right."