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Forgotten Victim of Chechnya: Russian Army

BUDYONNOVSK, Russia, Jan. 15– Last August, Cpl. Sergei Valdov drove his tank into the worst battle of the Chechen war. Most of his platoon died in that final, desperate fight for Grozny, the capital. Corporal Valdov was lucky: he escaped with only a large piece of shrapnel in his leg. When he heard three weeks ago that he and his devastated unit, Russia's 205th Motorized Infantry Brigade, were finally about to withdraw from Chechnya, he fell to his knees and wept. "I was sure I was going to die there," he said, tears once again filling his flat gray eyes. "Most of my buddies did."

But ask him about life on his new base on the outskirts of this frigid city in southern Russia and he does not hesitate to speak his mind. "I'd rather be back in Grozny, for God's sake," the 22-year-old Siberian farm boy said, reaching for a bottle. "Even hell was better than Budyonnovsk."

Having been defeated in battle by their Chechen opponents, the soldiers of the Russian Army have come limping home to humiliation, hunger, sickness and despair. Like hundreds of thousands of comrades scattered throughout the country, the young men who fought in Grozny find themselves humbled and demoralized before a nation that sees in them all it wants to forget. Once the invincible protector of the mighty Soviet Union, Russia's military has become the atrophied symbol of its loss and shame.

Soldiers in ripped sneakers and frayed uniforms beg for food at city markets from here to Moscow. Outside the Chechen war theater, suicides accounted for one-third of the army dead last year. As many as half of all Russian draftees now simply refuse to serve. For those who do, housing shortages have become so acute that thousands live in boxes or forage for space in abandoned factories. Even the general staff in Moscow acknowledges that a quarter of all servicemen have no place to live.

"Anya, I have solved my housing problems," Capt. Andrei Golubev, based in remote eastern Kamchatka, wrote in an all-too-typical suicide note to his wife last month. He then drew his service revolver and blew his head off.

Few soldiers have suffered like the men of the 205th, who bore the brunt of the fighting throughout the war. Those who managed to survive live crammed into drafty tents pitched hastily on the icy steppe here. Many are dressed in rags and have not been paid in months. Malnutrition is common; so are other preventable illnesses. For food, the soldiers have already come to rely on the grudging charity of a city that learned to expect them on the day their trains pulled into the station.

The word Budyonnovsk long ago became a symbol of Russian rage and helplessness. In 1995, in an act of terrorism so savage and daring that it quickly gained worldwide attention, a Chechen guerrilla leader named Shamil Basayev led a hostage-taking raid here in which hundreds of residents died before the Chechens were allowed to return in a triumphant caravan to their own land, a republic that they hope to make independent of the Russian Federation.

Mr. Basayev is now a major candidate in the Chechen presidential elections, scheduled for later this month, and he says he would like to return to this town to express his apologies. But people here are not quite ready to turn the other cheek.

"I don't mean to be cruel or insensitive," said Ivan Andreyev, the top official in the city administration. "But we don't need any more visits from Mr. Basayev. We do not have the resources to care for our own people. Suddenly the army is here. These men are bitter and angry, and I don't blame them. They need support, and we will try to give it. But I must ask, how much is fair? How much should a little town live through? How much fear, how much sorrow, how much shame do we deserve?"

Mr. Andreyev is, by most accounts, a kind and paternal leader of this town of 60,000, which has a couple of underused plants, one making bread and the other plastic, and some farmland that has produced two bad harvests in a row. He has tried to reach out for help to local leaders in Stavropol, to the federal Government and to the army.

"Nobody cares," he said sadly, noting that in the past two years, Budyonnovsk had received less than half its allotted funds from the federal and state budgets. "They just keep telling us they understand our problem. We are feeding the troops, but so far we have received nothing for it. Not one kopek."

People here are already terrified of their new neighbors. Drunken soldiers roam the streets; crime rates have tripled every week since their arrival. Hand grenades sell on the brand-new black market for $2 each. Both of the town's hotels have turned into dangerous holding pens for discharged soldiers with little money and nowhere else to go. Last week a soldier was found dead from drink in the Prikumsk, the "better" of the fleabags. Since then, only officers have been allowed to register.

"I served and was wounded for my country!" one indignant soldier shouted after being refused a room. "How dare you ignore me!" The woman behind the Plexiglas looked away and mumbled something about not making the decisions.

There are large piles of lumber at the entrance to the new base here. Asked when barracks will be built for the 6,000 men of the 205th who are now living in tents along a windswept lake, one of the commanders, Col. Viktor Boikov, thought for a minute and answered, "When somebody gives us the money to buy nails."

Demoralization is total. Pvt. Volodya Yarilov, 20, said: "I actually signed up for the army because I thought it was my duty to help my country. It was one of those things stupid kids do. One of the stupidest things kids do."

Private Yarilov served for eight months in Chechnya, fighting in some of the largest and bloodiest battles. He was in the southern mountains last spring when the Chechens destroyed a column of Russian tanks and support vehicles.

"I was there," said Private Yarilov. "I was in one of the trucks at the beginning of the column. One of the only trucks they didn't hit." Told that videos of that attack now sell in the Grozny marketplace for $5 each, he almost started to retch.

"I don't know what it was for," he said, sipping and then slurping down icy glassfuls of the bad vodka that soldiers here seem to live on. "We lost. We never had any guidance. We were lucky to get helmets. Nobody ever told us what our mission was. Nobody ever told us why we were killing the people we insist are Russians. And now we are supposed to sit here and freeze to death until we get the nerve to desert."

It is not clear what the soldiers are doing on their new base. With fuel and materials in short supply, training is far too costly. Most of them make about $20 a week. Although journalists are strictly denied access, a concerned voice and a couple of packs of cigarettes tend to make sentries forget the rules.

"You know about our past," the guard said, finally letting a reporter by. "Go take a look at our future."

In Moscow, where army generals constantly talk of reform and commitment, there is much discussion about the erosion of values in the Russian armed forces. Nobody here would disagree.

Nothing is done by the book. Food is scavenged; furloughs are based on a bribery system. Rifles are dumped in large, haphazard, icy piles. Men eat potatoes shipped from a nearby town whose farmers have contributed 10 percent of the winter stores. Sentimental Soviet music blares from the base speakers as men chop ice and wood to boil water. Patriotic ideals mean nothing.

"I was not expecting a hero's welcome," said one young conscript from the Moscow region who refused to give his name. "We lost. But I assumed they would feed us. It almost seems as if they are trying to kill us here."

It is impossible to find anyone on this freezing base who is proud he fought. They complain that their friends died for nothing, in a war that average Russians care little about. And now all they hear about is the need for the army to cut spending. "We are in a crisis," said Colonel Boikov. "And we are not going to get out of it without the help and desire of the Russian people."

Dr. Pyotr Kostyuchenko knows all about crises. As the chief doctor on duty at the hospital when Mr. Basayev's men took Budyonnovsk, Dr. Kostyuchenko became the main intermediary between the Chechens and the Russian Government.

"I have seen a lot of sadness in this town," he said. "I never thought we could handle it. But we did. Now there are dozens of servicemen who need our help badly, and we will provide it." Dr. Kostyuchenko said he absolutely rejected the common notion that Budyonnovsk has done enough for the Russian Army.

"We have suffered," he said. "So what? These young men — boys, really — were willing to die for us. And they did die, by the hundreds. If they have no hope, then we have no hope. And after all we have been through here, if I know one thing, it is that hope is there."

Pavel Velikanov of St. Petersburg laughed when he heard that one. He put his left hand on his dog tags and his right on a bottle of vodka.

"When I was in Grozny," he said, "the Chechens would have paid $300 for these tags." His eyes bugged a bit as he pulled on the string around his neck. "Three hundred dollars, dead or alive. Who could possibly say I'm worth that now?"

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