Moscow, 19 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Volodya Berezin, a teenager from a poor family in Moscow, lifted weights every day for months to prepare for his military service.
"He wanted to be tough," one of his younger brothers told "Izvestiya" last week. But Berezin's efforts could not prepare him for what killed him on 2 January -- a bout of double pneumonia. Berezin was drafted on 3 December to serve in Russia's border guards. During the long trip to Magadan, the infamous starting point of marches by Soviet-era prisoners to the gulags, the young conscripts -- wearing city clothing -- slept in an unheated airport building and stood for hours on airfields in Siberia, escorted by officers huddled in padded jackets.
HRW says conscripts reported finding worms in fish and cockroaches in soup.
The temperature was minus 25 degrees Celsius. A few days later, Berezin and some of the other servicemen started to cough and run high fevers. By the time they were finally sent to hospital, many had contracted pneumonia. Berezin died in Magadan. According to ITAR-TASS, 46 border guards suffering from acute respiratory infections and pneumonia remain in hospital in Magadan and another 63 are hospitalized in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
The story has made headlines in Russia. State television channels have played up the story, too, perhaps because Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged that the "guilty will be punished." Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has called the incident outrageous. Colonel Mikhail Yanenko, a spokesman for Russia's Military Prosecutor's Office, told reporters that an investigation is under way. "The investigation will look into the cause of the ailments and the death of one of the soldiers, as well as into the role of the commanders of the military unit that are responsible for the health of their subordinates."
Aleksei Frolov, commander of the Kamchatka border detachment, is quoted by ITAR-TASS as saying yesterday that doctors have not detected any serious illness among the hospitalized conscripts and are not unduly concerned. Frolov said no charges have been brought against the officers who accompanied the soldiers to the region.
Mikhail, a former Russian conscript, served two years in the mountains of the North Caucasus. In a telephone interview, he says Berezin's story is not unusual. He says his officers often chased him and his fellow soldiers out into the cold. "Sometimes, the officers would make us stand outside just in our uniforms -- without a padded jacket, and no hat. They'd just make us stand for an hour, for two hours, when it was below freezing."
Veronika Marchenko is the head of the Pravo Materi fund, a nongovernmental organization that supports the parents of children killed during military service. She says an atmosphere of fear exists in the army.
"In the letters that we receive from the parents of kids who died, we often read that when a kid tries to go to his commanding officer and tell him that he's ill, as a rule he is sent back to work because he is suspected of feigning the sickness," she said. "That's how even common illnesses that are easy to cure in ordinary life -- like a cold -- turn into something potentially lethal for a conscript, because no one takes care of him."
And those conscripts who do spend time in hospital receiving proper treatment are often penalized for it when they return to their unit.
Twenty-one-year old Roman Podekryobyshev, a soldier with the 76th Pskov Division, was treated for pneumonia and missed some field training with his unit. After he returned, officers allegedly stole his passport and wedding ring and also physically abused him.
Pushed over the edge, Roman shot himself in the mouth during a stint of guard duty last August. But even after that, his family says the army was not especially eager to help, beyond providing the immediate emergency care for his severe wound.
In a telephone interview from Vikhorievka in central Siberia, Roman's mother, Lyubov Podekryobysheva, says the Russian military has been reluctant to give her son proper treatment: "My son is being transferred from one clinic to the other without any surgery happening. Time is running out," she says. "I called and was told [by the hospital] that it's too late to save his [remaining] eye because, after all this time, it went bad. He lost his other eye when he shot himself. The orbit is completely empty. He needs plastic surgery. He can speak, but very badly, because he doesn't have any teeth left, and also because he doesn't have the bone the teeth are attached to."
Podekryobysheva relates what she was told by her son's commanding officers after she asked them to issue the necessary papers for her son to receive eye and cosmetic surgery. "When I called to get the papers, I asked, 'Do you at least remember that he was serving with you?' [They replied,] 'Yes, we remember -- and so? We didn't shoot him, so why are you annoying us? I didn't shoot him, he did it himself.' [And I said,] 'But you pushed him over the edge.' 'That's something that still has to be proved,' he says."
According to Pravo Materi, more Russian conscripts die from disease than from wounds received in fighting. Exact figures are difficult to determine, however. In Chechnya, death in action is sometimes listed as death from illness in order to mask the real number of combat fatalities.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), a U.S.-based watchdog organization, came to similar conclusions after interviewing hundreds of Russian conscripts about their health for a report it published last November. Aleksandr Petrov is one of the report's authors: "It's pretty common for a [Russian conscript] to come home covered in festering abscesses, sores, and lice. Not only do these young men not receive needed medical care, they don't even get [access to] the minimal hygiene conditions to defend their health."
Some conscripts told HRW they were issued clean underwear only once a month. Another cause of illness is malnutrition. Mikhail says meals lacking in fruit and vegetables gave him a bleeding ulcer.
"You can't call it food at all. We got oatmeal, but I don't know how it was cooked. You could [turn] around your spoon and it wouldn't fall down. Also, we got some other cooked oats, but I don't know what they were made of. Now I feel more or less OK. The [ulcer] sort of turned into constant gastritis, so it's OK, more or less."
HRW says conscripts reported finding worms in fish and cockroaches in soup. Sometimes, they were forced to eat their meals in one minute and said older soldiers would often steal the better rations.
Ulcers like Mikhail's, but also dysentery and dystrophy, further weaken the body, making it less resistant to illness. Marchenko says there have been prosecutions of military officials for improper treatment. But generally, the army maintains that the soldiers were sent to them in bad physical shape in the first place.
There have even been a few cases of starvation. In early 1996, Mikhail Kubarskii -- who was 180 centimeters tall -- weighed just 42 kilograms when he died, six months into his military service. In 1993, three soldiers serving on a Pacific island also starved to death.
Marchenko says weight loss of 20 kilograms is common among conscripts. "They always lose 20, 30 kilograms, but it doesn't always end fatally. In that case, [they were] on an island. Otherwise, you can steal something or beg. In Moscow, we've all witnessed it many times. You go to a shop and there's a little soldier who walks up to you and asks you, 'Could you buy me a piece of sausage? Could you buy me some cookies? Could you give me 10 rubles?'"
"Obviously," Marchenko concludes, "the army continues to see a conscript as a mere bolt that can be simply replaced by an identical one when it breaks."