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Soviet & Post-Soviet Wars: An Oral History Project - Testimonies
Chechnya (2nd War)

Interview with Vadim, - Voluntary Conscript, then Contract Intelligence Officer (2nd Chechen War) -, Conducted in Moscow, Russia, July 2010 (EN)

Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski

Abstract

Vadim served in Chechnya during the second campaign as a conscript in a paratrooper company in 2005 for a year and a half. He then enrolled for 6 more months in Chechnya as a contract intelligence officer.

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Index terms

Keywords :

Chechen War

Countries :

Russia, Chechnya

Research Fields :

Oral history Project
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Editor's notes

This interview was conducted in the framework of the Emergence(s) project of the City Hall of Paris "A 'Russian violence'? War experiences, social trajectories and institutional practices in contemporary Russia", 2009-2013.

Full text

Pipss is grateful to Nicolas Pehlman who translated this interview into English.

Were you in Chechnya as a conscript?

Vadim: At first I was a conscript, I served my term and finished, I served a year and a half all together. In order to be granted leave it was necessary to complete my contract and I finished as a contractor. That is, I served my term of service in a year and a half; I served two and a half years. Two years of ordinary service and half a year on contract. I was in Chechnya a year and a half.

Which specialties do you have?

Vadim: Do you mean military or civilian?

Both

Vadim: I am an intelligence specialist. Special intelligence. A paratrooper. My military specialty is as a paratrooper and I also have a specialization in intelligence. We worked in the mountains and in the forests.

And your civilian specialization?

Vadim: I’m a lawyer. I am finishing Moscow State University (MGU), as a fifth year student.

Did any other members of your family serve in the armed forces?

Vadim: Not in Chechnya. My father served in Afghanistan, and my grandfather fought during the time of the Great Patriotic War (WWII). Everyone served.

When you were young, did you dream about joining the army?

Vadim: No, when I was young, definitely not. But a lot of my family served. My father was a military investigator. It’s similar to the French investigative judge, who carries out pre-trial investigation, [here] we call them investigators.

A very vague idea about the conflict in Chechnya Prior to the departure

What was your attitude towards the conflict in Chechnya before you went to war?

Vadim: At that time when I went there, I had a very vague idea. I understood that, in principle, that according to our constitutional integrity of our state, the Republic of Chechnya is an integral part of the Russian Federation, as its subject. That is, according to state thinking, I supposed, that as a citizen I should prevent the outrage and disorder that was occurring there. I think that that was, lightly put, unconstitutional. On the other hand, the question was very complicated, and there was no single obvious solution. And now, after four years studying in law school, I understood that I can't answer this question. So, how was my attitude? [towards Chechnya]… Of course it was a very nasty conflict, it’s a purely political question. That is, someone resolved their political problems, many innocent people really suffered, including peaceful civilians and armed forces personnel alike. They were sent there with no training - I’m speaking, of course, about the first campaign, 1995-1996. People had no training whatsoever, our people died, and citizens died. In that sense - it was very, very awful.

A Military Contract in Chechnya in 2005

What years were you in Chechnya?

Vadim: 2005.

How old were you when you went there?

Vadim: 25 years old.

Did you receive special training before being deployed to Chechnya?

Vadim: Of course. To become a special intelligence officer, we had specialized and lengthy training - a complete regiment of training, including mine-sweeping - the whole course lasted eight months.

Which division did you serve in? Paratroopers?

Vadim: Yes

What was your rank?

Vadim: I was a private, but I had a position - a senior intelligence officer, this is something like a sergeant. But we had neither sergeants, nor privates, we all were privates, and we were senior intelligence and ordinary intelligence officers. The junior commanders are senior intelligence officers. That is, I was the commander of the subgroup.

“ For me it was like hunting”

Did you take part in combat actions?

Vadim: Yes, of course.

How many times?

Vadim: Well, I can’t say that it was every time we went out. To give you an idea - every mission, all the time our mission lasted for five or six days, that is, we went out into the mountains, into the forest for five or six days from the camp, we worked there, then came back to camp and switched. Then we stayed five or six days in the camp, while other groups went out. And practically every time we went out on patrol we encountered someone. We worked in the forest, that is, we did not protect anyone, we did not work in the villages or in the towns. The Chechen guerilla fighters, usually have groups of two or three people each, they work like that. We were looking for them either on ambushes, or reconnaissance-search actions - that is, we went through the mountains and searched.

What feelings did you experience during a combat situation?

Vadim: Well, you probably know it is a lot like hunting. Have you ever been hunting?

I have not

Vadim: It's kind of like that. You see – I have been hunting since childhood and I grew up in the mountains, in the Caucasus, so for me it was like hunting.

The Fear of Stepping on a Mine

Were you ever scared?

Vadim: Well, what’s fear? Of course, some parts were dangerous. But that was youth, maybe it was even romantic. So, no, nothing like that.

What was the scariest thing of all?

Vadim: The scariest thing was to step on a mine. No one was scared of an open shootout, but everyone was scared, not exactly scared, but concerned about being blown up and losing a leg. That was the scariest thing in war, mine war. I have many close friends who are now invalids, some are missing one leg, some are missing two. It’s terrifying.

Still, was there some moment or event or day that was the most difficult or dangerous? That you can remember?

Vadim: We were mine-sweeping, and four people died at once. They weren’t exactly our guys, we were accompanied by a group of sappers, and - either by negligence or by carelessness - they were already five or six years in Chechnya, they were contractors, they worked professionally, and they got comfortable to such an extent that their armor and vests were unsecured. There was an explosion. They were walking in front, and we walked behind, covering them. There was an explosion, and four people died at once, among them two twin brothers. It was the most difficult moment. I had to take them out and carry them back down from up in the forest, the rain had just passed, and we had to wait for the evacuation. The armored personnel carriers had to come and evacuate them. And so, when they died in our arms - it was very hard. And so, all the other clashes, it was not as you might imagine a war - for example the Great Patriotic War, or the Second World War. On the front... There were casualties, but not from our side. We generally had no losses in the group. There were injuries, but there were no casualties. Basically, the losses were from the Chechen guerilla fighters - one or two people - we carried them with us.

Were you ever injured?

Vadim: No.

Military Brotherhood

What role did military brotherhood play?

Vadim: You know, military brotherhood is the foundation of everything. When you go on a mission its difficult to rely only on oneself, in fact, it’s impossible. You always have to remember that your comrades are around you. Basically, all intelligence activities are designed on two principles, that no single person is independent, and there is always a group of two. So, it might not always be a friend, or a comrade, but namely a partner who is with you. Your always together from the fighting position, and wherever. If a guy goes for firewood- he always takes someone with him, there is always a pair.

Can I ask why you wanted to become a contractor?

Vadim: I did not want to become a contractor, it just worked out that way. I was interested. After serving two years as a paratrooper, which is probably the most combat-capable of our units, I was interested in putting the knowledge that I received over two years of service into practice. I was prepared for more than a trip, but for the entire tour. I had received training in shooting, special tactics... It was interesting, so I went. There was a recruitment in our groups, and I volunteered with pleasure, I was enrolled after the interview, and off I went.

Back from Chechnya

When did you come back from Chechnya?

Vadim: That was September 2005.

How did everyone receive you? How did you reacclimate?

Vadim: Who welcomed me?

Family, friends…?

Vadim: Well I had very few people close to me - friends, comrades, that knew that I had gone somewhere. My own parents only knew about it at the very end. The whole time I wrote letters, but I wrote them without a return address.

Because you couldn’t, or because you didn’t want them to know where you were?

Vadim: Because I wanted it that way. There weren’t any secrets. Its just that I didn’t want anyone worrying or to feel some kind of emotion. Because what you see there with your own eyes, that’s one thing, and what people think back home - it’s a completely different thing. And in the media too - it's not at all the way things really are.

When they realized where you had been, how did they react?

Vadim: I don't know, honestly. They were glad that I was back whole and unharmed. And so... My father was already gone, he suddenly died, and grandfather was alive, he - having been an officer on the front. He understood. He shook my hand and said well done [molodets]. In this spirit.

And your mother?

Vadim: My mother was just glad that I was back home. Of course, she reproached me that I had resorted to such a deception. But then everyone understood.

And your friends?

Vadim: Most of my friends, too, all went through the crucible of war.

But not everyone chose to go to war?

Vadim: No, not everyone. [...] Well, you know, everyone has different goals... Some chase money, some test themselves, someone else something... everyone’s motivations are different.

Military Compensation

Was money also important for you?

R.: Actually, what money are we talking about?

Military compensation.

Vadim: More than four thousand dollars. Well, in principle, at some stage, they helped me. When I was adjusting to civilian life, I arrived in Moscow and enrolled the university. This was immediately after I left the army - in October-November I applied to the university and entered. Extra money helped, because for two years I had not studied or read books and it takes a while to get back into this academic lifestyle. It can be very difficult after service. To fully immerse yourself in this environment, you need to stop working or looking for income. So, the money helped me, I completely devoted myself to studying and succeeded. Money is not even the second, but the third or fourth most important consideration for me. I was just interested in studying. And money... you understand, what little money is made by a simple private or contractor, it's peanuts. […]

You received your military compensation without any problems?

Vadim: I can't say without problems- we didn’t get it all at once. We received our pay in portions because, probably, the command and financial part of our unit had some issues, maybe with bank registration, I can’t say... I had little understanding of this process. So, we received our pay in portions, but, in the end, we got it.

Did you have to go to court?

Vadim: No, it just took a long time. Probably they thought that it was too much to hand them right away. It wasn’t that serious.

Entering University

Did you get into the university as a veteran?

Vadim: Moscow State University is the only university in which there is a preparatory department for people who have served in the army. In general, in the army, not just for combat veterans, but for all who have served altogether. People who have served in the army, go to the preparatory department, undergo training, then enroll. The fact that I was a veteran did not give me any extra benefits.

I thought that if you are a veteran of Chechnya, you can skip the waiting list [to enter university]?

Vadim: No. There are some exceptions for the disabled, they can get in without a competition.

Post-War Rehabilitation

After the war, were you offered any rehabilitation programs?

Vadim: You know, I honestly did not need them.

But you were offered anything?

Vadim: There were some programs.

Was there any examination?

Vadim: No, there were no examinations. It was possible to go to different centers, in the Moscow suburbs there are centers, namely, for psychological services. But I got into a very good environment- the academic lifestyle, university. I didn’t experience any problems.

You did not want or you just were not offered?

Vadim: I immediately decided. When we returned, there was a questionnaire – “who has any problems”. There was a meeting with a psychologist, and, during this interview, they determined who has some problems. Of those who did, they made a separate group, sent them some kind of surveys, and provided them with psychological assistance. I did not have any problems.

I understand. But you still spoke to someone?

R.: Yes, there was a regimental psychologist, this is obligatory.

So, you did not expect anything in this area? You did not need anything? Or were you expecting something else?

Vadim: You need to look at things clearly. Still, given the needs of people who really need it, they often do not receive help, so I, as a person who does not need anything… Maybe I’m too pessimistic, but we have social support... you probably imagine what, in our country... I honestly did not even want to and did not apply for anything.

War Veterans Status

Vadim: I still do not have a war veteran certificate. There is a certain allowance per month, a one-time cash payment - just over a thousand rubles a month. I do not even have time to process these documents, because it will take a lot of time.

Is this a pension? You don’t receive it?

Vadim: I don't receive it, because I do not even have time to file these documents. I need to go home to do this. I am a student, I have to work an internship in my specialization, there is really no time to go home. If there are two or three days to go home, I see my relatives and I come back.

All the experiences that you had to experience in Chechnya, do they affect your life?

Vadim: Of course. They hardened me.

Can you call them traumatic?

Vadim: You know, to some degree, yes. Negative phenomena - in the sense that the person is in contact with the most negative phenomena, with extremes - death, violence. On the other hand, in my opinion, as a man, this was a character building experience that hardens both the will and the psyche for a more independent life. Throughout history, people always fought, there was always war, and somehow people lived their lives after that. War is a good school. Of course, there is a chance that you can die, worse still - you can be crippled for life.

These experiences, can you talk about them with friends with serenity?

Vadim: Yes, absolutely.

Do you feel like hiding some elements sometimes?

Vadim: Well, some moments, from the point of view of ethics, maybe. But generaly there is nothing to hide.

For you, to hide is not a sign of weakness?

Vadim: No, of course not.

Who do you want to become professionaly?

Vadim: I am now a trainee. In the investigative committee. This is like your investigative judges, that is, my specialization is a criminal process. I am interested in the criminal area from all areas of law. I will be an investigator.

Veterans Association

Are you connected with the veterans association “Military Brotherhood”?

Vadim: I cannot say that I am very involved with the “Military Brotherhood” association. But there are not many organizations like this one. They are some others. But often these pseudo-veteran organizations - we call them "professional veterans" - this is when people try to deal with their problems, in particular, economic, entrepreneurial - under the guise of veteran status.

When did you get into the veteran’s association?

Vadim: Immediately. Two thousand and six, if I am not mistaken. They brought us […] to their building, everything was so new, interesting.

And who sent you?

Vadim: No, we came ourselves, with comrades. We have an organization at the University - the veterans association of Moscow State University. We are in close contact with the university leadership, in particular, we are engaged in military-patriotic education of young people. What is lacking now is patriotism. Nobody is working today with young people. Young people, you know, it's crime, alcohol, drugs, etc., because there is not enough work being done with young people. If in Soviet times this vacuum was filled, there were special state structures that were engaged specifically in working with youth, that is, before their army service: ROSTO, DOSAAF ... Now nobody is doing this, and young people are left to their own devices. Service in the army is no longer considered prestigious, and everyone who considers himself reasonable is trying to avoid the army, in all ways, possible and impossible, legally and illegally. There are not many legal ways to evade service, it's basically just university study, and everything else is illegal - illnesses, for example... Therefore, it seems to me that in this context, the veterans association provides a real benefit. There are few organizations of this scale. Those who unite such a large number of veterans. I'm having trouble thinking of what else to tell you about the veteran’s association. It's in scale – it’s like a state within the state. Other people will probably tell you more about the scale of the organization.

And what exactly do you do with the organization in Moscow State University?

Vadim: I am a representative of the MSU Student Union. That is, it is a youth organization, I supervise Patriotic projects. In particular, we take children to the firing range, we have a parachute class... [ ... ] when I say "children", I mean students. Although we also work with children, we have two schools that we supervise. We take children from these schools to the firing range, teach them some shooting skills, show them weapons, introduce them to military life. There is a hundred sixth division, landing, in Tula Region, we take out them there, we help acquaint them with military life, we show how the soldiers live there. So that already from teenage years children develop an interest. Without this the state cannot be prepared, if we don’t have any programs working with youth, specifically before the draft age. Serving in the army has become non-prestigious, that's the problem.

“For me it is unclear what hazing is”

When you went to army as the recruit, did you undergo hazing...

Vadim: No way. I went to the army with the greatest pleasure, you can say, I rushed there.

Wasn't the hazing there?

Vadim: Well, for me it is not clear what hazing is. There is always a certain relationship between people who have been serving for over year and people who are just coming in. To call it hazing…? Of course, all of these extremes – beating, humiliation – are no good, and they should be eradicated. In a normal healthy collective you wouldn’t have this, but rather a normal educational work in relation to young subordinates – they need to be brought into an appropriate state, which they do not carry in themselves, coming from civilian life. I generally don’t like the term "hazing", it is very severe and carries with it a terrible connotation. I do not know, I have never experienced hazing – neither when I first came into the army, nor after I had served for some time. There was some patronage, that is, you had to come with some manners, to demonstrate how to serve, etc. It existed and still does, I do not know if it will continue because pretty soon we won’t even have an army in our country. If the [military] reform reached its logical conclusion– army service will only last for a year soon, I guess... I find it difficult to assume that the army will continue to exist, but nothing good will come of this for sure.

Would you ever consider returning to the army?

Vadim: No, for sure I’ve had enough already.

What did the army give you?

Vadim: The army was a very good life school, which helps you to understand people very well. That is, when you live in a group for a long time, change groups, and when you try to find a common language with strangers, it helps. On the other hand, it is preparing for an independent life. Why was military service prestigious in Soviet times? Because every man had always served in the army, there was a duty. That is, first you have to fulfill your duty to the state, and then the state has to fulfill its duty back to you. I proceed from the assumption that first – duties, and then – rights. Another thing is that in our country, even if you served your duty, it’s not always the case that that the state will repay its debt to you. Some received help from the state, others did not. For example, I’m currently receiving education now at the expense of the state, so in a sense, the state is repaying me a debt.

And without this help you could not have gone to University?

Vadim: Yes, I could have. But I am very glad that I did not have to. I entered the history Department before the army and studied there for one semester, but I was at that age – I was seventeen years old – it was impossible to study, I could not sit still at a desk for even two classes. And today I sit quietly all day. I understand that I need it, I have already come to the University a man who has lived through something.

The effects of war

How did the war affect you?

Vadim: Well, a person becomes more serious, more responsible. Although I will not say that it strongly influenced me in this context. I was raised like this from childhood, they tried to instill these qualities in me – namely responsibility – and the war strengthened them, maybe sharpened them.

What problems are the most important for you right now?

Vadim: To be honest, I do not even know, there are no major problems... I am a student, and what problems can a student have? I have some funding, not a lot, just a bit, and that’s it. Everything else is in its place. Academic performance... I try to perform well, and I don’t have academic problems. Everything else sorts itself out... No big problems.

Have you already answered such a questionnaire?

Vadim: Not for a long time. I have a lot of friends who are psychologists, from the faculty of psychology of MGU. Having graduated from the University, they are writing dissertations on these topics, and many devote their research to people who have been in extreme situations. There were a lot of questionnaires like this.

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References

Electronic reference

Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski, « Interview with Vadim, - Voluntary Conscript, then Contract Intelligence Officer (2nd Chechen War) -, Conducted in Moscow, Russia, July 2010 (EN) », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 20/21 | 2019, Online since 17 October 2019, connection on 15 July 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/pipss/4685 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/pipss.4685

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Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski

PIPSS & EHESS

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