War in Chechnya Has Hidden Toll in Russia

As Suffering Persists, Topic Is Taboo 

By Susan B. Glasser

Washington Post Foreign Service

Saturday, June 21, 2003; Page A01 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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." 

 2003 The Washington Post Company 


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