Ivan stays up until dawn, afraid to face his nightmares. Andrei has become belligerent and may join the mafia. Vasily hates little children - they remind him of a boy who died from a grenade he threw.
Former Russian soldiers, all are among the many untallied victims of Moscow’s disastrous and unpopular war in Chechnya.
Scarred by a conflict that killed tens of thousands, these young men have returned from the war to face new foes. Hardly heroes, many are battling psychological problems, unemployment and a chilly reception back home.
“I saw peaceful citizens killed, children’s bodies, POWs’ bodies … All those things that normal people with normal psyches cannot take calmly,” said Alexei Frolov, 33, an ex-intelligence officer who is publicizing the vets’ plight.
Psychologists have labeled the problem “Chechnya syndrome.” As with veterans of wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, the effects may take years to show up and are difficult, sometimes impossible, to cure.
Suicide among Chechnya veterans is alarmingly high, according to the head of a Moscow psychological center. Others, possessing few job skills, reportedly have cashed in on their weapons skills to join criminal gangs.
‘You only know how to kill people’
The military daily Krasnya Zvezda (Red Star) says it has been flooded by letters from veterans and their parents worried about the transition to postwar life and bemoaning the lack of any government assistance.
“My son tried to find out about a job, but they told him, ‘You only know how to kill people,”’ wrote one mother, Maria Slobodyanyuk. “He served where he was ordered, served well. And now nobody needs him.”
Many veterans have receded into an emotional shell, reluctant to share their grisly memories even with family or friends. Several who agreed to be interviewed for this story changed their minds or failed to show up.
Din Magomed-Eminov, a Moscow psychologist who counsels Chechnya and Afghanistan war veterans, can sometimes spot vets on the capital’s streets: glassy-eyed young men walking like automatons.
“They look as if they had just seen something terrible and are immobilized, as if they couldn’t express it,” said Magomed-Eminov, who heads the Stress and Personality Studies Center.
“These men had to create a dual personality to be able to perform in war, and they can’t cope with it when they come back,” the psychologist said. “They are in a state of symbolic death.”
Join mafia, ‘if I can’t find work’
The refusal to adapt drives some ex-Russian soldiers to go on living by the gun: joining the mafia, or sometimes the police.
Andrei Ivashkovsky was a soldier and POW in Chechnya and figures he learned a lot in the war against separatist rebels.
“Those who have been in Chechnya know how to shoot and kill with any kind of weapon,” he said. “I admit that I myself have thought about joining up with some bandits if I can’t find work.”
Andrei’s mother, Nadezhda Ivashkovskaya, said war changed him immensely.
“He has become hot-tempered and rude,” she said. “He yells a lot and drinks a lot. A completely different person returned from the war.”
To the veterans, it seems it’s the world around them that has changed.
Yura Taranets, a somber-faced 20-year-old, returned to Moscow last June after 10 months in Chechnya and sensed a “glass wall” between himself and his old friends.
For months he did little but lie on his couch, haunted by bad dreams and a recurring memory of running across a field toward a trench, his heart racing wildly as bullets whizzed all around.
Since finding temporary work recently as a salesman, his mood has improved and his sense of alienation is fading. But like many vets, he feels betrayed - “set up” for a losing situation and cast off when he needed help.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Three of the haunted Din Magomed-Eminov, a Moscow psychologist, cites three cases that typify the trauma suffered among the estimated 120,000 Russian personnel who passed through Chechnya during the war: Ivan, 20, has nightmares so devastating he can’t talk about them. Quiet and kind before the war, he now has no sympathy for anyone. Vasily, 19, is aggressive and suicidal. He watched a fellow soldier suffer and die after stepping on a mine, and is tortured by guilt over an incident in which a child died when he tossed a grenade into a basement. Sergei, 26, needs his wife and relatives but can’t stand to be with them. Nostalgic about his past, he says he lost his soul in Chechnya.