Russian social networking site speaks for dead soldiers

Igor Andreev
Image caption Igor Andreev hanged himself after being bullied and beaten by other soldiers

"Hello, my name is Nikolay, I am 24 years old and I died serving in the Russian army."

Twenty-seven young men, many in military uniform, gaze out from a page on the social networking site - a Russian equivalent of Facebook.

Many smile, looking happy and proud.

All of them have died while in the army - but only a few perished in actual combat operations in Chechnya or Dagestan.

A non-governmental charity, The Mother's Right Foundation, has set up the unusual page. It says that the majority died from extreme bullying, crime, bad living conditions or the abnormal psychological climate in the army.

Some were killed by fellow servicemen, shot at point-blank range or beaten to death.

Others were forced to commit suicide by constant violence and abuse, the charity claims.

But on, the men all look very much alive.

Users can add them as friends, look at their photos, write on their walls or send a private message.

And in their bios, they describe their lives - and deaths - in the first person.

Nikolay Ishimov from the village of Mezhozernyj, not far from Chelyabinsk tells his story.

"On 20 August 2007, in front of 47 fellow soldiers, I was shot by a drunkenofficer, Vladimir Bazelev, just like that, for no reason.

"The bullet hit me right between the eyes; I died instantly.

"After three court cases and with the help of the Mother's Right, my mom managed to get my killer jailed for five years and eight months.

"But my mom still cries, every day… Sometimes my parents see me in their dreams."

Hearts and minds

Only weeks into the internet campaign, this unusual way of drawing attention to the problem of violence in the Russian army has already got people talking, says the foundation's head, Veronica Marchenko.

"By sharing this information with the world, we show what happened not with some abstract words and statistics, but with these concrete examples, these boys, so that people start thinking about whether this is normal, and what they can do to change it."

She explains that by using the first-person format, saying "I died, I was killed", the charity was suddenly able to hit a nerve, to get a reaction from people.

"You may live in the same building as a woman, but only find out that her son died in the army from this social network, because so many people go online and interact with one another more than they interact with their neighbours."

Since 1990, The Mother's Right has been providing free legal aid and support to parents of deceased soldiers, guiding them through the labyrinths of the Russian court system.

In 2009, the US First Lady Michelle Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Veronica Marchenko with a prestigious International Women of Courage award for her work.

Image caption For many parents, it is extremely important to find out exactly how their son died

Ms Marchenko says that parents of dead soldiers usually not only seek financial compensation and justice, but also attempt to establish why and how their son died.

The most common verdict on a young conscript's death is suicide, but parents often say that after examining their child's body, they find internal injuries and fractured bones.

Some believe that soldiers have been beaten to death then put into a noose to make it look like suicide, or even forced to hang themselves.


Ninteen-year-old Igor Andreev from Saint Petersburg died in 2005. He was found hanging from his belt on a train while being transferred from one military unit to another.

"We were so shocked and shaken by the news that we never performed an autopsy," says Igor's mother Lyudmila Strugova, sobbing.

"They told us that his body had been lying in the coffin for five days and that they had forgotten to embalm it, so they said not to open it."

"How is that possible? Why wouldn't they let us open the coffin?" she asks.

On the website, Igor's story is laid bare for all to see.

"I was constantly bullied and abused by other soldiers: they demanded money, beat me, I was covered in bruises and haematomas," Igor "writes".

"In March 2005, I was very badly beaten by a soldier, Ruslan Romadov, because I was unable to get the money for him. I had to ask my parents for money, and I come from a poor family.

"Serving in the president's unit, these constant beatings, extortion and humiliation broke me."

Sobbing, Igor's mother says she had heard the army could be tough, but her family had never imagined the full extent of it - including the complete lack of punishment for the abusers while Igor was still alive.

"In court, I looked the officer in the eyes and asked him why my son was tortured, deprived of sleep for nights in a row, made to stand in the corner, constantly severely beaten - all of this is written in his case documents," she says.

"I did not get a real answer, but thanks to the lawyers from the charity, we were able to at least get the main person responsible for the abuse behind bars, and we got financial compensation."

Image caption The Russian government says it is trying to tackle the problem of bullying and abuse and has introduced several reforms to military training

Igor and Nikolay's deaths are not isolated cases.

Activists say thousands of Russian military personnel die from non-combat incidents every year - and many more come back home either mentally or physically handicapped, or both.

Many are said to be the victims of "dedovshchina" - a brutal form of military hazing.

Rite of passage

One conscript, 19-year-old Andrei Sychev, made headlines in 2006 when his legs and genitals were amputated after he was forced to squat for several hours during New Year's Eve, and then tied to a chair and brutally beaten.

His complaints of severe pain were ignored, and when he was finally hospitalised four days later, he had gangrene in his legs and doctors had to remove them.

Hearing such horror stories, many young men try to avoid service any way they can, sometimes paying thousands of dollars in bribes or pretending to be clinically insane and spending months in a mental institution.

The Russian government has been trying to eradicate the problem for some time.

In 2008, the Defence Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, announced military reforms: cutting down the number of officers, reducing the service time to one year and eliminating some cadre formations and units, among other changes.

"It's much easier now that the service period has been reduced - there are no psychological reasons to first endure the service and then to take it out on the new recruits," explains Mikhail Nenashev, a Russian MP and member of the Duma defence committee.

But military analyst and journalist Alexander Golts disagrees.

He says that now the function of "enforcing discipline" - and all the abuses of power that come with it - lies with those "who have bigger fists".

Image caption Analysts say that reducing the service to one-year terms has not solved the problem of bullying

The Ministry of Defence acknowledges that several hundred soldiers - about 500 - still die every year during peace-time.

NGOs say that the real figure is several times higher, putting the number at 2,000-3,000 deaths per year.

Initiatives, such as The Mother's Right, help to keep up the pressure for change.

For Igor Andreev's mother, it is a way to ensure that her son's death was not completely in vain.

Nothing will bring Igor back, but sharing his story online could help save the lives of other young Russians and spare their families from pain.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites