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Russian Activists Say Suspicious Military Deaths Often Tied To Extortion Schemes

  • Yelizaveta Mayetnaya

The Russian military says Ilya Gorbunov, 19, died when a tank he was driving rolled off a bridge. His sister says that a soldier from her brother's unit said Ilya died after being locked in a tank and suffocating.

At 10 a.m. on February 17, Russian draftee Arkady B. jumped out of a third-story window of his barracks outside Moscow. Doctors say it was a miracle that he survived, with multiple compression fractures, a concussion, and other injuries. They are optimistic that Arkady, who asked not to be identified for this article, will walk again after a few months of rehabilitation.

"They were squeezing money out of me," Arkady told RFE/RL. "They wanted 110,000 rubles ($1,860). Supposedly some things went missing -- a tent, some shoes, some sort of spare parts. They found a naïve idiot and pressured me hard."

Arkady's mother, Natasha, told RFE/RL that he had repeatedly reported widespread extortion in his unit to his division psychologist, but no action was taken.

"He called home several times and complained about the extortion," Natasha said. "He called on the 10th, 11th, and 12th of February, saying that if he didn't come up with 110,000 rubles, they would either put him in prison or force him to sign up for a stint as a volunteer soldier. He couldn't take the pressure, so he jumped out a window."

Arkady's story is hardly unique. Although the Russian government does not release statistics on crime in the military, reports of suicides and suspicious deaths in the armed forces are depressingly common. According to government figures, cases of extortion overall more than doubled between 2015 and 2016, and rights activists say cases inside the military are also on the rise.

"Violence and extortion haven't gone anywhere in the military," Sergei Krivenko, head of the Citizen And The Army NGO and a member of Russia's Human Rights Council, said. "But the form of these things has changed. Hazing as a day-to-day form of control by senior soldiers over recruits has been superseded by a system where violence is determined on ethnic grounds or by region of origin. The point of the violence now is not maintaining some sort of discipline but the extraction of money."

Denis Khamidullin, 19, died on March 7 at his military unit outside Yekaterinburg. The military provided no details on his death, which was ruled a suicide. His family says he regularly asked for money.

Denis Khamidullin, 19, died on March 7 at his military unit outside Yekaterinburg. The military provided no details on his death, which was ruled a suicide. His family says he regularly asked for money.

Though the Russian Defense Ministry remains silent on such incidents, Citizen And The Army's most recent semiannual report, covering the second half of 2016, provides glimpses into the closed world of the Russian military.

-- On July 28, a soldier died when he fell from a barracks window in the Kaliningrad region. The incident is under investigation.

-- On the night of August 4-5, a soldier in the Novosibirsk region was found dead from hanging, a suspected suicide.

-- On August 8, the body of an 18-year-old soldier was found in a St. Petersburg cemetery about 10 kilometers away from his unit. The case is under investigation.

-- On September 26, a soldier was found hanged near Bryansk. His mother reportedly received an SMS from him four days earlier asking for money. His body was reportedly bruised, with two broken ribs.

-- On October 17, the body of a soldier was discovered in Amur Oblast. He had been shot dead and, officially, the incident was ruled a suicide.

-- On November 19, a 26-year-old lieutenant was stabbed to death in Volgograd by a soldier over a "conflict about money."

-- On December 27, an 18-year-old soldier was found hanged in a shower near Dzherzhinsk. The incident was ruled a suicide, although the body was scratched and bruised.

Activists estimate there are 200 to 300 such suspicious incidents in the Russian military each year.

Many of these cases are connected with extortion, Krivenko said.

"Extortion within military units has been on the rise in recent times," he said. "Many connections between soldiers have literally turned into money relationships: 'If you don't want a particular duty, pay. If you want to make a phone call home, pay.' And it must be understood that these crimes are, as a rule, unreported. Many soldiers are afraid to complain, thinking it will only make things worse. Very often, information about extortion only comes out during the investigation of other crimes."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the military fell on hard times, with massive reductions and spending cuts, as well as a sharp loss of social prestige. Hazing, or dedovshchina, was rampant, often with fatal results. Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, the military's budget has been sharply increased. The state has prioritized upgrading the military's equipment and the creation of volunteer, contract-based units.

The soldiers are afraid to complain, preferring just to pay in the hope that they will then be left to serve out their term in peace. But then their parents get their sons back in a zinc coffin."

Hazing, in its pure form, has been on the decline, but extortion has become "the norm" in the military, says Veronika Marchenko, an activist with the NGO Mother's Rights.

"The vast majority of these crimes go unreported and taking a case to court is extremely hard," Marchenko said. "The soldiers are afraid to complain, preferring just to pay in the hope that they will then be left to serve out their term in peace. But then their parents get their sons back in a zinc coffin. And when we investigate these cases, either we learn that either the soldier was driven to take his own life or it was a murder that was covered up to look like a suicide. Very often, the root of these tragedies is extortion as draftees are squeezed for money."

In many cases, the ultimate culprits are officers, extorting money from soldiers either for their own benefit or to purchase things for their unit. Aleksandr Gorbachyov, a lawyer with the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers in St. Petersburg, told RFE/RL that officers often use collective discipline among soldiers to pressure recalcitrant recruits.

"The soldiers, as a rule, pay, of course," Gorbachyov said. "There are those who don't pay, but they have problems with their units because resistance is collectively punished -- for instance, by denial of permission to call home or by depriving them of sleep."

On February 6, 19-year-old Ilya Gorbunov died at his military unit outside of Moscow after just three months of service. According to military officials, Gorbunov died from injuries suffered when a tank he was driving rolled off a bridge. The incident aroused suspicion because no other soldiers were reported injured, although the T-80 tank should have a crew of three. In addition, Gorbunov's sister said her brother had no driving license or experience.

Ilya Gorbunov had repeatedly contacted his family by SMS, seeking money.

Ilya Gorbunov had repeatedly contacted his family by SMS, seeking money.

Maria Gorbunova told RFE/RL that her brother had contacted her repeatedly in the days before his death asking for money.

"First, he called and asked if we could quickly sell his share in our apartment," she said. "An officer supposedly lost 58,000 rubles and, Ilya said, they were making the four soldierswho were on duty at the time pay the money back. He said he had to give his portion immediately."

Gorbunova said Ilya told her that he was beaten regularly along with another soldier who reportedly suffocated to death in a storage closet in January.

"Another SMS from Ilya was asking for money that he needed to pay for a notebook computer that disappeared from his unit," Gorbunova said. "We immediately sent him 18,500 rubles. But that money didn't save him in the end."

She says a soldier from her brother's unit told her Ilya had been severely beaten by three other soldiers and locked in a tank. When they went to let him out three hours later, he was dead.

"Ilya is the third soldier to die in that unit since the beginning of the year," Gorbunova said.

On March 7, 19-year-old Denis Khamidullin died at his military unit outside Yekaterinburg with only two months left to serve. Officially, his death was ruled a suicide, although the military provided no details.

His family says he regularly asked for money. In November, he sought 5,000 rubles and in February, 2,000 rubles more.

"He spoke to his sister several times in January and February," Khamidullin's mother, Dina Khamidullina told RFE/RL."'I have such problems, if you only knew,' he told her. But she hid that from me."

"We spoke to him for the last time on March 7," she said. "We were cut off, but I didn't bother calling back. I figured I'd talk to him again. But there was no 'again.'"

RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson and RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report
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