"Sometimes it seems like someone is walking outside the window," said Margarita, a Russian military medic who has been on medical leave in Belgorod for the past two months receiving psychiatric treatment following her service in Russia's war in Ukraine. "Sometimes objects seem to move. Or it as if someone is sitting on me. I have constant nightmares and panic attacks."
Margarita, whose real name has been concealed to protect her from potential reprisals for speaking out, told RFE/RL's North.Realities she has been in therapy and taking powerful antidepressants in a bid to cope with what she experienced as part of Russia's invading army in Ukraine. But what she fears most, she says, is being sent back.
"Even when other people are around or I am busy doing something," she said, "I can constantly see all those horrors."
During her months as a medic in Ukraine, Margarita said, she experienced severe sexual harassment herself and witnessed harassment, assault, and other crimes against women serving with her. She was also told of incidents in which officers threatened and abused soldiers who were reluctant to go into combat and encountered soldiers who had mutilated themselves in an effort to be sent back home.
RFE/RL has confirmed the basic facts of Margarita's life and service record but has not been able to verify the details of her time in Ukraine, largely because of Russian government restrictions on reporting from the war zone.
'They Wanted To Break Me'
Margarita, 42, left the military in 2017 after 11 years of service as a radio operator. She settled in the western city of Belgorod but had trouble adjusting to civilian life and never made a second career. In the summer of 2022, she went to the local military office for a document confirming her retirement status and was offered a new service contract in a medical unit.
Her nightmare, she said, began before she even had a proper uniform.
"As soon as I arrived in the Nizhny Novgorod region, at Novosmolino, a colonel noticed me in formation," she recalled. "He was the commander of the 10th armored division. He said, 'Margo, come with me.'
"He ordered that I be given a uniform and that I report to work in his headquarters," Margarita said. "After I got to know some of the people there better, they told me, 'The colonel has his eyes on you. You will probably be his field wife.'"
When she asked what that meant, they told her, "cooking, cleaning, and indulging him," suggesting a sexual relationship.
She said she resisted his increasing pressure for nearly a month when the unit was sent to the combat zone in Ukraine, where Russian forces were continuing the massive, unprovoked invasion launched in February 2022.
When the officer realized she would not become his field wife, he ordered that Margarita's life be made a living hell, she said.
"When we arrived at the front, I finally was assigned to the medical unit," she recalled. "The officer there told me that the colonel had ordered that I be 'harshly punished.' For a month, I basically lived outdoors. While everyone else was quartered in buildings or barracks, I slept on the ground in a field tent by the road."
"Sometimes I was also not given rations," she added. "They wanted to break me so that I would agree to sleep with him. But I held out. And when he realized I wouldn't submit, he transferred me to an artillery unit close to the front. I thought I would die there."
Margarita said there were seven other women in her medical unit, between the ages of 23 and 38, and that all of them faced pressure to become field wives for officers.
"One got it from an intelligence officer," she said. "Another from a tank commander. A third from an infantry officer. When we arrived, no one knew what was going on there. And by the time we figured it out, it was too late."
Margarita said she saw "with my own eyes" how one officer shot and seriously injured a female soldier.
"Whether they were drunk or whether jealousy was involved, I don't know," she said. "But he tried to make it look like the Ukrainians had done it, even injured his own arm and said he had been protecting her."
The woman, she said, was permanently disabled and has undergone five operations to repair the damage the officer caused.
"Now she is back home in Buryatia, but this month she will travel back to Moscow for another operation," Margarita said, adding that the officer, who used the call sign Akatsia, had beaten the woman on several prior occasions.
Eventually, almost all of Margarita's seven female colleagues, under the pressure of threats or hellish conditions, gave in to the officers, she said.
"[One woman] gave in as early as September," she recalled. "They just told her bluntly: 'This guy likes you, and you will be with him.' She was also from Belgorod. She never came back to our unit."
She said a mutual acquaintance, a military driver, later told her the woman had "adjusted" to her circumstance.
"Most of the girls did," Margarita said. "They decided it was better to live in the rear with good food and plenty of cigarettes."
Later an officer in the unit told Margarita, "We sold [that woman], and we'll sell you."
"I looked at him in such a way that he added, ‘Come on, I'm kidding,'" Margarita said.
The phenomenon of field wives has long been reputed to be a part of Russian and Soviet military culture. In a 2018 paper on women in the Soviet Army in World War II, English historian Alexander Wood Balsom wrote: "[S]ome government officials and army officers forced themselves upon female subordinates because they believed they were entitled to have 'field wives' (often referred to by the abbreviation PPZh in military jargon). Not all PPZh relationships were a product of coercion as some were formed from a genuine shared interest, while other relationships were initiated by women to take advantage of the benefits of favoritism."
Marina Zaitseva is a St. Petersburg native who served in the Russian military in Chechnya from 2001 until 2006 and retired from the military in 2019. She told RFE/RL that field wives are an open secret in the military and that she encountered the practice during her own career.
"Some women are able to resist, but some are looking for protection," Zaitseva said. "I resisted."
She added that women face many other forms of harassment and discrimination in the Russian military. She said one officer tried to extort money from her in exchange for a promotion.
Based on her experience, she said, she would not advise women to pursue military careers.
"Russian society considers women at war to be just prostitutes," she said. "And that is really sad."
St. Petersburg professor Maksim Arzamstsev is the author of a study on workplace sexual harassment. He reports that a quarter of all women in the Russian military have experienced some form of sexual harassment or abuse.
Valentina Melnikova of the banned Committee of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia said she had encountered only a few cases of servicewomen complaining of rape or harassment in the military. She believes most victims are simply unwilling to come forward.
"As long as they remain silent, the abuse will continue," Melnikova said. "Why they are silent and why they tolerate the abuse, I don't know. That's a question for psychologists."
She added, however, that the victims of sexual abuse in the Russian military are not all women. She said many men have appealed to her organization with complaints of rape or sexualized violence.
"In the Soviet Army, they bought and sold everything, including people," she said. "Soldiers were sold left and right. Our committee has worked since 1989. Under [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev there was a commission on deaths and abuse in the military, and I served on it. Nearly 4,000 servicemen appealed to that committee for help."
Melnikova said she has no doubt that a Russian officer might shoot his field wife.
"During the Second Chechen War there were cases when officers got drunk on one holiday or another and shot at their soldiers," she said, referring to the conflict that began in 1999 and officially ended in 2009. "Some of the injuries were very serious."
Margarita told RFE/RL that some of the soldiers she treated for injuries told her officers had tortured and shot at soldiers for refusing to go into combat. She was told that, in some cases, soldiers were held naked in rat-infested basements until they relented.
In one case, officers forced such soldiers to dig their own graves, she claimed.
"They dug a pit and then were forced to lie down in it," Margarita said. "Then others, at gunpoint, were forced to shovel in dirt from above."
After the men were covered, an officer would fire his weapon blindly into the pit.
"If they hit someone, too bad," she said. "Anyone who survived crawled out of that pit completely mad. They didn't care what happened to them next."
"I asked one soldier what he had been punished for and he said he didn't remember anything," she recalled. "He had been hit in the head so hard that he lost consciousness…. He was in pretty bad shape…. There were a lot of guys like that."
She said that only the most seriously wounded soldiers were sent back to Russia for treatment. The rest remained on Russian-held territory in Ukraine's Donetsk region so they could be more quickly returned to duty.
'Nothing To Do But Amputate'
Conditions on the front lines were so bad, she said, that some soldiers would mutilate themselves in a bid to be sent home.
"They had nothing," she said. "The boys in the trenches were hungry and in rags. They hadn't been paid for months."
Frontline troops lacked ammunition, grenades, and transport, she added.
"Everything was stopped, destroyed, or broken down," she said of the military vehicles she saw. "When I was in the Nizhny Novgorod region, I saw enormous transport trains of equipment -- tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery…. We were shipped to Ukraine on such a train and waited forever while it was unloaded. But when we got to the front, there was almost nothing to fight a war with. What happened to it? I think it was sold to the Ukrainians, and I'm not the only one."
Some of the soldiers she treated were suffering from self-inflicted wounds, she said.
"They would shoot themselves in the leg because after weeks in the trenches they couldn't even walk anymore," she said. "The damp and freezing conditions just rotted their feet. When their boots were removed, I was in horror; I'd never seen such things before. Gangrene, dried blood -- you couldn't even find their toes. There was nothing for us to do but amputate."
In the end, Margarita couldn't stand any more. She was sent home for psychiatric care at a civilian hospital in Belgorod.
Despite everything she endured and her fear of being sent back to the war in Ukraine, she said she hopes to return to the military with a different unit. She said she wasn't made for civilian life and salaries in Belgorod are too low to live on.
"I'd like to help the boys, at least a bit," she added. "I have some sort of sense of an unfinished obligation. I don't know, maybe I'm just crazy. But, yes, I'd probably serve again."