Life in the Russian army is tough and grueling, but for millions of former recruits, getting by outside the war zone has been worse. “I am kind of lost now. I can’t find my place,” said Nikolai Makarov, who served as a reconnaissance soldier during the last war in Chechnya in 1995. “At least in the army I knew my job, what was expected from me.”
Today, Makarov, 22, works the telephone in his three-room Moscow apartment lining up real estate deals for a few hundred dollars a month. With luck, he can clear $300-$400 to support his wife and son. “We do not live. We simply exist,” Makarov said.
Makarov, while waiting for potential renters to call him back, watches the countless images of the current Chechen war shown on Russian television. He remembers the carnage he saw in 1995, while serving his required 18 months with a unit that saw some of the worst fighting in Chechnya.
Russian soldiers were sent in to “clean-up” after their civilian areas were shattered by artillery and air strikes. Low on food and water and barely trained, they were easy targets for Chechen fighters who set ambushes for the unsuspecting young recruits.
“I remember one Chechen sniper. We passed a building and he appeared behind our backs. We hit the ground but there was no cover. He was right behind us and used artillery and gunfire against us. That day we had 65 wounded and four killed.
“I was 19, not old enough. I was not ready,” Makarov said.
A forgotten force
If Makarov remembers often that part of his youth he lost in Chechnya, as far as the government is concerned, however, the former reconnaissance officer is forgotten.
Makarov has joined thousands of former soldiers cut off from society after years of fighting, hazing and irregular pay and pensions. The army was once the pride of the Soviet Union. Its Russian successor has floundered ever since, and today suffers some of the highest desertion rates in the world.
In 1998, there were more than 500 homicides in the 1.2 million-strong Russian military, according to the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, a group of women that lobbies the military. Similar 1998, statistics show 1,400 suicides in the army, over 100 deaths from drug overdoses and 950 fatal incidents that could not be explained to the soldiers’ parents.
Under such circumstances, desertions and draft-dodging are commonplace - in the tens of thousands annually.
Many doubt whether Russia’s army can sustain the assault into Chechnya to crack down on an independence rebellion that the Kremlin blames for a series of deadly apartment bombings in Moscow and another Russian city, killing more than 300.
And despite pledges to the contrary, there is evidence that Russian generals even are sending some of the same young recruits into Chechnya - a policy that led to the army’s deadly and demoralizing defeat in 1994-1996.
“The Defense Ministry lies when it says that new recruits are never sent to the battle front,” says Viktoria Marchenko of the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee. “The Defense Ministry lies when it says that everything is OK there, that [the soldiers] are not starving and that they have good clothing and shoes. It is all a bunch of lies.”
Flashbacks on television
Watching a repeat of his war on television, Makarov predicts that that Chechen rebels will let the Russian army into Grozny but never out. An estimated 80,000 civilians and untold thousands of Russian soldiers - the Kremlin has yet to release a credible death toll - perished in the 1994-96 Chechnya conflict. This time around, over 200,000 refugees have fled the rebel republic and there is no reason to believe the fighting is any less bloody.
“They say Grozny was a beautiful city before the war,” Makarov said, remembering his first - and last - visit to Chechnya. “As we entered the city, we saw a big sign: ‘Welcome to hell.’ We were fired at from every house, every window.”
At his kitchen table thumbing through old photographs of his unit, Makarov, surprisingly, declares, “I want to go back and rejoin the army.” His commanding officer recently paid a visit and told Makarov that many of his friends had signed up for another tour.
Why return to a war that was lost once before? Why risk one’s life for an army that barely feeds its troops, let alone protects them? Makarov said he’s still looking for a purpose in life, an elusive goal for many veterans of the Russian army.
“Nothing has happened in my life since I left the army,” he said. “It’s hard to find a job. Life is just hard.”
NBC’s Dana Lewis is based in Moscow.