MOSCOW -- Since he was arrested and charged with shooting eight fellow soldiers at an army base in October, Private Ramil Shamsutdinov’s world has been limited to the walls of a pretrial detention center in a Siberian city and the courtrooms where his case is being held.
From the beginning, the conscript and his relatives and supporters have sought to justify the shooting at a military base as an act of self-defense -- a response to brutal hazing of the kind that has been an intractable problem for Russia’s military.
Now, with a probe into the incident ongoing, the 20-year old has expanded on his explanation of the incident in an apologetic letter from custody.
"I regret the fact that I couldn't restrain myself and resorted to this extreme step, but I had no other choice,” reads the handwritten letter, which was published January 9 on a social-media page in support of the conscript. “I could no longer endure the humiliation.”
Shamsutdinov has been accused of opening fire on October 25, 2019 at the base in Russia’s Zaibakalye region, killing eight other soldiers and wounding two more.
After his arrest, the Defense Ministry sought to portray Shamsutdinov as mentally unstable. From the outset, however, Shamsutdinov has said he was driven to act by persistent humiliation and violence at the hands of his officers and fellow conscripts.
There was “nowhere to run” and no one to complain to, he wrote in his letter, and his “survival instinct” ultimately took over.
Last month, military authorities opened a separate criminal investigation into Shamsutdinov’s fellow soldiers, examining the bullying he alleged that he faced.
In an interview with RFE/RL on January 9, Shamsutdinov’s father Salimzhan said “he left home as a decent lad with a desire to serve.” He graduated from cadet school, did a lot of sport, and while his grades were not excellent he was generally a “good kid.”
“I didn’t send him to the army to murder his fellow soldiers, but to defend the country,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s the army that did this to him.”
Salimzhan said he hoped investigators would consider the circumstances around the shooting and that the judge will take them into account.
“Of course, he committed a serious crime, but considering why he did it, for what reasons, I don’t think he deserves a life sentence,” he said.
A Persistent Problem
Hazing in the Russian armed forces, a practice informally known as dedovshchina, has been the focus of human rights organizations for years. Despite efforts in recent years to discipline perpetrators and stamp out the chronic practice, activists and victims say it persists in units across the country.
Critics say the practice has long been accepted as a necessary part of instilling comradery and discipline in units -- particularly for conscripts. Military service is still mandatory in Russia, with men between 18 and 33 required to serve one year, down from two years in the Soviet era.
The requirement of serving, however, has been widely flouted in the past, for example, by wealthier families paying bribes to get out of service.
In recent years, Russia has also sought to professionalize its armed forces, relying more heavily on volunteer, contract soldiers.
In his letter, Shamsutdinov wrote that he never sought to avoid service like thousands of young men, but was committed to “defending the Motherland.”
He said he had planned to build a life around the armed forces, but “I didn’t expect I’d be sent into such hell.”
Defense lawyer Ruslan Nagiyev told RFE/RL last month that Shamsutdinov did not sleep for three days before the shooting because officers forced him to stay awake.
Investigators have said that by ordering Shamsutdinov to serve watch duty, the officers violated an order from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who banned using conscripts in military missions and duties that last more than three days.
According to this order, only personnel serving on a contractual basis can be used.
Following the shooting, several Russian NGOs appeared to dismiss Shamsutdinov’s version of events, and some officials blamed the influence of social media.
Valentina Mordova, the chairwoman of the Zaibakalye branch of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, an NGO that offers legal advice to soldiers, said that she "absolutely" did not agree with this assessment.
"The facts say otherwise. Hazing has been and will be there, unfortunately," Mordova told RFE/RL. “And its presence is prompted not by virtual reality but by the society we are living in.”
Shamsutdinov’s father, a veteran himself, said hazing of the sort his son endured was not widespread. He said his two other sons, who served at bases in the Caucasus and near St. Petersburg, always praised their officers.
“They had no problems at all,” he said. “But the officers make the base -- if they’re corrupt and depraved, the base will be too.”
Shamsutdinov also wrote in his letter that he was grateful to those who’ve waged a campaign in his support. He expressed regret for his actions and asked forgiveness from the relatives of his victims.
“I genuinely sympathize with families of the dead and ask you to forgive me,” he wrote. “If you can.”
In early December, Russian media reported that military base 54160, where the shooting took place, would be closed indefinitely.
Families of Shamsutdinov's victims received monetary compensation, and the Defense Ministry reportedly asked banks to write off any outstanding loans that victims’ families may have had.