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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Brothers-In-Arms




Considering the intensity of Russia's opposition - on all levels - to NATO's military operation in Yugoslavia last year, it is no wonder that some Russians set off for the Balkans to support their Serbian "brothers." Andrei Zolotov speaks with two such men to get an idea of their motives, hopes and disappointments as they voluntarily risked their lives thousands of miles from home.


-


"Yes, as a weapon I may be of some use. But as a man, I'm a wreck," he said slowly.


- Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina.


Count Vronsky speaking to a train companion on the way to fight on behalf of Serbia after his beloved's suicide.


The scene was a bit absurd: It's mid-January, the war in Chechnya is four months old and two firm-looking men pass a line of middle-aged women on the verge of tears who hope to save their boys from military service, enter the cramped little Moscow office of the Soldiers Mothers' Committee and demand the organization help them join Russian armed forces fighting "terrorists" in the breakaway republic.


Alexander, 40, and Vladislav, 28, turned out to be professional "fighters for the Russian idea." Or maybe some other noble cause would have done. Last year, they fought on the side of Serbian forces in Kosovo. Now, they want to go to Chechnya, where, they say, "the same job" they handled so well in Yugoslavia has to be done: the so-called zachistki , or "mopping up," operations, when buildings and other hiding places are scoured for stragglers after the bulk of rebel forces have abandoned a city or village.


For months now, the former brothers-in-arms have been trying to get to Chechnya as kontraktniki , or professional "contract" soldiers. Their main technical problem, however, is that they want to go as an international group, made up of roughly 30 members who met and learned to fight together in Kosovo last year.


"We have already told you - go talk to [pro-Moscow Chechen militia leader Bislan] Gantamirov," Valentina Melnikova of the Soldiers Mothers' Committee told Alexander and Vladislav on the second of their two visits, which clearly irritated the committee's staff and supporters.


The tension between the human rights activists, who have been Russia's most vocal organized critics of the current war in Chechnya, and the fighters electrified the air. One woman called Alexander and Vladislav "mercenaries" and even "war criminals." But their response was dignified: "You support [the idea of] a professional army, and we are professional soldiers," Alexander said firmly. "We know how to fight there and are ready to do it instead of the untrained boys. What really galls me is that the French have their Foreign Legion and don't give a damn, the British have Nepalese in their army and don't give a damn. Why can't ours have the same?"


A SENSE OF PURPOSE


The two friends flatly deny they were "mercenaries." They insist they would not fight for just anyone willing to pay, particularly for those whom they see as Russia's foes. Back in November, recalled Vladislav over coffee in the tiny kitchen of his apartment in central Moscow a few days later, a Moscow-based Dagestani businessman friend invited him to go fight for the Chechens. "I nearly trashed him," Vladislav said.


Fighting in Yugoslavia was a completely different matter. When the United States and its NATO allies started bombing the country on March 24, 1999, Russians across the political spectrum came together in gut-level outrage. In the context of Russians' bitter disappointment in the democratic ideal and growing belief in betrayal by the West, NATO's operation was perceived as an arrogant attack by the world's only remaining superpower against Serbia - historically seen as a junior Slavic Orthodox sister subject to Russia's protection.


Perhaps more importantly, the prospect of fighting in Yugoslavia provided a sense of purpose, an opportunity for some of the socially marginalized to become patriotically useful. Who were Vladislav and Alexander when the conflict erupted? Vladislav had taken part in some of the most vicious armed clashes of the early '90s - in Vilnius and Nagorny Karabakh - before getting into business, losing everything in the 1998 financial crash and ending up a gypsy cab driver barely managing to support his wife and two kids. Alexander had been a sailor, had dabbled, unsuccessfully, in business, shifted from city to city, wound up in Chechnya in 1995 while in the throes of a divorce and got a concussion there. Recalling last spring, Alexander sighed as if with gratitude: "And then Yugoslavia turned up!"


Incredibly, the atmosphere in society bore a striking resemblance to the Russia of the late 1870s described by Leo Tolstoy in his novel "Anna Karenina." The observations of one of the characters, Sergei Koznyshev, can be largely seen as those of Tolstoy himself. It is worthwhile to quote them at length:


"[Sergei Ivanovich] saw that the Slavonic question had become one of those fashionable distractions that succeed one another in providing society with ... an occupation. He saw, too, that a great many people were taking up the subject from motives of self-interest and self-advertisement. He recognized that the newspapers published a great deal that was superfluous and exaggerated. ... He saw that in this general movement those who thrust themselves forward the most and shouted theloudest were men who had failed and were smarting under a sense of injury - generals without armies, ministers not in the ministry, journalists not on any paper, party leaders without followers. He saw that there was a great deal in it that was frivolous and absurd. But he saw and recognized an unmistakable growing enthusiasm, uniting all classes, with which it was impossible not to sympathize. The massacre of men who were fellow Christians, and of the same Slavonic race, excited sympathy for the sufferers and indignation against the oppressors. And the heroism of the Serbs and Montenegrins struggling for a great cause begot in the whole people a longing to help their brothers not in word but in deed."


In late March, Alexander and Vladislav separately attended the spontaneous rallies outside the U.S. Embassy. "There was a terrible feeling of injustice" over NATO's actions, said Alexander. "I got infuriated, went to all the rallies and wanted to go fight."


GETTING THERE


The two buddies met as they were leaving Yugoslavia in early June. And while they managed to get to Kosovo with relative ease, getting to Chechnya has proved problematic due to bureaucratic obstacles. The guys' ad hoc international brigade includes citizens of Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Macedonia, Yugoslavia and Israel, but non-Russian citizens can not be recruited into the Russian army and even Alexander, who is a Russian citizen, will have problems since he has no propiska, or permanent residence registration, and thus cannot register for military service.


Both Vladislav and Alexander had first appealed to Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, which had announced it was gathering volunteers to go to Yugoslavia. But both agreed this turned out to be "just empty talk." So they paid for their tickets out of pocket and went off to "fight NATO."


As a former marine, Alexander has a "sailor's passport," which exempts him from the need for travel visas.


Vladislav said he went to the Yugoslavian Embassy in Moscow and applied for a tourist visa. When he told the consular officials he was going to fight, he said he was invited into another room, given a different questionnaire - specifying his military skills and experience - and told at which border post to surrender to the military police. "There was clearly a coordinated task by the Yugoslav government" to recruit volunteers, Vladislav insists.


At the Serbian border post near the town of Subotica, he said he revealed himself to military police who took him to a nearby shack for three days of heavy drinking and interrogation - "to test who I really was." Then he was deployed for two weeks of special training with a unit for foreign volunteers in a suburb of Belgrade called Lestane.


Serbian commanders confiscated their Russian passports and any other sort of IDs and assigned pseudonyms. Vladislav became Kot, or Tomcat, and Alexander was dubbed Kubanets. All the volunteers constantly carried hand grenades by their shoulders (see group photo) so that "nobody would be taken prisoner." Vladislav estimates the total of Russian fighters engaged in combat on the Serbian side hovered around 200 men.


The Yugoslavian ambassador in Moscow could not be reached for comment, but Russia's Foreign Ministry said it was not aware of any recruitment of Russian soldiers through the Yugoslavian Embassy.


VOLUNTEERS


OR MERCENARIES?


Both Alexander and Vladislav insist neither they nor other foreigners who fought with them were "mercenaries." They went out of solidarity with the Serbs. "Kosovo is holy Serbian land," said Alexander. Albanians were "guests," because they only settled there recently. "Imagine that you have guests staying with you," he continued. "And after a few months they start to rebel. What would you do? Kick them out."


The International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries (Dec. 4, 1989), to which Russia is a party, says a mercenary isone who "is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and ... is promised ... material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar rank and functions in the armed forces" of the party in question.


But Alexander and Vladislav say they were paid, fed and equipped on par with Serbian soldiers and substantially less than the elite Serbian military police. During their service in Kosovo, Vladislav said, he and his fellow fighters of the "international platoon" within the Serbian 7th tank army corps got the same allowance as their Serbian comrades-in-arms - 9 Deutche marks per day plus a bonus for combat. For his two months of service, he claims to have received about $1,000.


Under Article 359 of the Russian criminal code, mercenaries and those who recruit and train them are subject to three to eight years in prison. Sergei Ushanov, a spokesman for the Main Military Prosecutor's Office, confirmed by phone that Russian law enforcement bodies were aware that Russians had fought in Serbia, but no criminal cases have been opened because there have been no known instances of people fighting for big money. If Alexander and Vladislav are telling the truth, they are "not perpetrators of a crime," Ushanov said, because the payment has to be "vastly higher" than the cost of living in Serbia or Russia.


INTERNATIONAL


EMBARRASSMENT


Russian volunteers' participation in the war nonetheless contributed to a major international embarassment for the country.


When Russian troops in KFOR, the international peacekeeping contingent, were deployed in war-ravaged Kosovo, the ethnic Albanians living in Orahovac maintained a three-month blockade of their town aiming - and eventually succeeding - to prevent the replacement of a Dutch contingent in town with a Russian one, as had been envisaged by the Helsinki agreement. The people of Orahovac objected to a Russian military presence precisely on the grounds that Russians had fought with the Serbs there and, the Albanians believed, had taken part in crimes against the civilian population. Vladislav had indeed been there.


The concerted effort by NATO and Russian military officials to persuade Albanian leaders that there was a difference between Russian "mercenaries" and the regular army led nowhere. KFOR had to back down.


While negotiating with Orahovac's Albanians, Russian General Vadim Andreyev referred to people like Vladislav as "bandits." "We are a professional army," he was quoted by AP as saying. "They were bandits."


Vladislav strongly disagrees. Although he and two of his comrades are accused of raping a pregnant Albanian woman, Vladislav denies that it happened. "I had my wife's picture and worshipped it," he said sitting in his cramped smoke-filled kitchen, where drying diapers hang from the ropes strung above.


Vladislav said he witnessed no mass executions of Albanians and no looting. Things like taking a satellite dish from a neighboring house don't count. Many Albanian owners had already fled Orahovac by the time Serb forces moved in. "When a town or village was 'cleansed,' the best houses were chosen and the military settled there," Vladislav said. Albanians were scared of Serbian and Russian fighters. "If you just approached an Albanian woman with a kid, the kid immediately pissed in his pants," he said.


He added that Orahovac was likely the only place where locals knew for sure that Russians had fought alongside the Serbs. He recalled one particularly ferocious battle at the end of May, when his platoon was to locate and destroy fortified positions of the Kosovo Liberation Army five to 10 kilometers outside of Orahovac. Ultimately, they discovered the KLA positions a mere 10 to 15 meters away. In response to the Moslem cry "Allah Akhbar!," or "God is Great!," the Russians responded, "Voistinu Akhbar!," playing on the traditional Orthodox Christian Easter greeting "Christos Voskrese! - Voistinu Voskrese!," or"Christ Is Risen! - Indeed He Is Risen!"


PURGES


While Alexander and Vladislav deny "ethnic cleansing" took place in Kosovo, the reason may be a question of slippery definitions. If you mean mass shootings, neither of the men saw any. But when asked about their military objectives, Alexander said they were simple: to push "disloyal" Albanians away from Kosovo to their "homeland" - Albania proper. After the warning was made, "all who remained [in a town or village] are considered rebels and are subject to annihilation."


But the main thrust of their fury appears to have been directed not so much at Albanians as at NATO. Alexander, whose unit was stationed in Pres?evo near the Macedonian border, said his comrades went on a reconnaissance raid across the border to locate NATO bases. He proposed to his Yugoslavian commanders to organize a "diversion" on the French base in Kumanovo and the Petrovac airport near the Macedonian capital of Skopje, which was one of the main transit points for NATO troops. To this day, Alexander regrets the attack was not sanctioned.


Vladislav described the zachistki, or "mopping up," operations intended to eradicate any potential enemies left hiding in houses after their main forces had ostensibly left town. Part of the group would throw grenades and burst into the first floor of a house while others would take aim at the second floor. When the cellar and ground floor were "cleansed," the same procedure would be carried out for the second.


UNORTHODOX ORTHODOXY


Both Vladislav and Alexander describe themselves as Orthodox. While in Yugoslavia, church was one of the few places they would go during the brief breaks between "operations." Vladislav recalls how once he went to a church in Orahovac, after a night of drinking on the eve of an operation, and asked for confession and communion. The priest rejected him because he was drunk but succumbed when Vladislav said he might die today or tomorrow.


Now, in peaceful Moscow, however, Vladislav doesn't go to church at all. "There, everything is more acute," he explained.


"You come to God when things get real hard," Alexander added. For him, too, there is a vast difference between "here" and "there." There, in Serbia, as in Chechnya, "people are different," he said. "Real men, not made of putty. Everything is simpler than in this life."


Certainly these men went to risk their lives thousands of kilometers away from home - and hope to do so in Chechnya - in pursuit of a meaningful life, fighting for what they see as a great cause in a clear-cut world of "us" versus "them." They do not appear to have succeeded in achieving such fulfillment in the mundane day-to-day life that lacks the clarity of choices and the blood-stained romanticism of battle.


After participating as a paratrooper in the notorious seizure of the television center in Vilnius, Vladislav was demobilized and agreed to fight on the Azeri side in its war with Armenia over Nagorny Karabakh. There he was a mercenary, fighting for 500 rubles a month - a large sum at the time - in a unit that, he said, had been clandestinely formed by Soviet military commanders to fight Russia's main ally, Armenia.


Later, he had moderate success selling curtains, but the August 1998 financial crisis and betrayal by his partner led to a grave disappointment. "Business is not for me," Vladislav said. "There is no such friendship in it as there is in the army."


Alexander's life was equally unfulfilling. He had worked on a commercial ship in the Far East before taking up importing various goods from Japan, Korea and China, but the business was "strangled" by hiked customs duties. In 1995, while in the midst of divorce, a cousin asked him to go to Chechnya and bring home the body of his son, who'd been killed in combat. There Alexander came under fire, hooked up with a group of Cossacks, took up a Kalashnikov rifle for the first time and received a concussion. In recent years, he has not been able to find a good jobor a place to live and gets by re-enameling bathtubs.


DISAPPOINTMENT


AND A RAY OF HOPE


Their experience in Yugoslavia cast doubt on some of their illusions about the Russian-Serbian brotherhood. When they met in Belgrade in early July, both men were scraping for money and documents to go home. Serbian authorities told Alexander his passport had been destroyed due to bombing, and Russian consular officials forced him to pay a bribe for issuing a temporary certificate allowing him to "return to the Soviet Union." Vladislav and his companions had spent all their money "in bars" expecting a return ticket from the Serbian military. But in the end, a wealthy Cypriot comrade-in-arms paid for the entire group's return home.


Serbian secret service agents would keep watch over the foreign fighters. They would always occupy the first floor of the houses where the brigade lived between battles, recalled Vladislav. They fought sheepishly and "always knew the way back." "I think their task was to dispose of us in case something went wrong," Vladislav said.


"After all this, I am not so sure Serbs are indeed such brothers to us," lamented Alexander.


Maintaining contact with their brotherhood of Orthodox fighters, looking at photos and the few trophies from Kosovo appear to constitute the main joys of their current life. (Vladislav proudly showed off several passports of ethnic Albanians and a silver cigarette case with "Albanian blood stains.")


And, of course, going from one bureaucratic door to another, trying to make their way to Chechnya.


"The real bloodbath is only starting there," Vladislav said. "We want to get there all together as a group because we are like a fine-tuned mechanism that has worked out the cleansing tactics to perfection - the same kind now needed in Chechnya."