The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia sends soldiers to war but ignores mental trauma they bring home

A Russian soldier embraces a woman as others recently conscripted to fight in the war in Ukraine gather before boarding a train at a railway station in Tyumen, Russia, on Dec. 2. (AP)

RIGA, Latvia — When Vladimir returned from the front line to his hometown in Siberia, his wife barely recognized him.

The nice young man she married in university was gone. Instead, she now lived with a secluded, abusive husband who routinely drank himself into oblivion, brutally beat her and tormented their three children.

Their four years of happy marriage had ended when Vladimir was conscripted into the Soviet army in the mid-1980s and sent to fight in Afghanistan. He rarely spoke about what he experienced, except when the flashbacks occasionally broke through from the depths of his consciousness during drinking bouts.

“He would get so drunk he wouldn’t remember who was in front of him, and he’d confuse us with those on the front line, screaming that he was going to kill us all,” his daughter, Alya, said in an interview, speaking on the condition that only first names be used to protect her family’s privacy.

It is now widely understood that psychological injuries remain long after combat ends. And as Russian President Vladimir Putin presses on with his bloody war in Ukraine, it is only a matter of time before thousands of veterans begin returning from the front — to their families and to a failed mental-health-care system that many experts say is no better equipped to help them than it was when the Afghanistan war ended in 1989, or after two wars in Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s.

Violent altercations involving soldiers who returned from Ukraine this year are already piercing through the slumber of Russian society, which has tried to tune out the war from daily life.

In September, a soldier who recently returned from “behind the ribbon,” a euphemism for the Ukrainian border, walked into a pizzeria in Tula and hit the owner with a metal chair, reportedly dissatisfied by the look the owner gave him.

A month earlier, in Rostov-on-Don near the Ukrainian border, the captain of a missile regiment shot a taxi driver who said he opposed the invasion of Ukraine, according to local media.

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Already more Russian soldiers have been killed in nine months of war in Ukraine — more than 25,000, according to British Defense Ministry estimates — than in the decade-long Soviet mission in Afghanistan, in which 15,000 died.

“When soldiers return from Ukraine, their families and friends will be the first ones to suffer because the soldiers will go nuts from all the injustice,” said Dmitry Florin, a journalist and a veteran of the second Chechen war. “And if later it starts to dawn on them that the whole war in Ukraine is one of the biggest deceptions of this century, and that they were sent there like cattle to kill people with their own hands, it will be a nightmare.”

“After their relatives, the state will be their next target of placing anger and their main enemy,” Florin added, “as it is the state that ruined their lives.”

Florin said that his tours in Chechnya still haunt him in a recurring nightmare, where a general orders him to go back even though he quit the military years ago.

He said that the authorities effectively discarded many of his comrades after their return from the war. Promised financial payments were often never received — Florin sued his local military office for eight years to get his — and officials dismissed their requests for any rehabilitation or psychological help.

The only counseling, Florin said, was during mandatory “prep” sessions before each deployment to Chechnya, which he said felt more like ideological indoctrination with “hate lessons.”

The war in Ukraine means that Russian men born in the late 1990s or early 2000s will grapple with the same lack of support provided to Russian men born in the 1960s to 1980s who served in the military operations in Afghanistan and Chechnya, which, as in Ukraine now, the Kremlin refused to call “wars.”

While the Kremlin’s use of euphemisms is commonly viewed as part of a propaganda campaign, the lack of a formal war declaration can have legal and financial implications for Russian soldiers who, as a result, may not technically qualify as being eligible for veterans’ benefits.

Soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya were eventually granted veteran status and modest benefits similar to those granted for service in World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, but they hardly basked in glory.

A conflict in a foreign land, Afghanistan, that was at first hidden from the population and the “counterterrorism” operations to suppress Chechen guerrillas in a rebellious territory seemed alien compared with the Red Army’s defense of mainland Russia against Nazi Germany that became a pillar of Soviet identity.

Instead, “Afghantsi,” as the Afghan veterans are commonly referred to in Russia, were quickly forgotten by the state and did not find sympathy in the general public. The chaos that ensued from the fall of the Soviet Union only exacerbated the situation of widespread and untreated post-traumatic stress and an overall sense of purposelessness experienced by thousands of ex-soldiers.

“Returning from Afghanistan, they could not find a use for themselves, without a profession and education, many of them are forced to drag out a miserable existence, especially those who were injured and became disabled,” concluded a 1993 sociological paper, published by the Russian Academy of Public Administration four years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. “They no longer had the strength to earn money, and their pensions are barely enough not to starve to death,” the report said.

And even if surgeries and prosthetics for missing limbs were eventually obtainable, there was little to no psychological help available to address the trauma veterans suffered.

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Even now, there are no centralized Russian rehabilitation programs for veterans of military conflicts, and those returning from Ukraine risk being left to their own devices as private organizations struggle to cope with the rise of people needing help, according to a Russian grass-roots support group called War Veterans.

“There are no rehabilitation programs themselves, because no one tests veterans for psychological trauma, and its effect on the physical state of the body,” a representative of the group said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because government critics are persecuted in Russia. “There is no individual approach to assessing the condition of combatants and often a common single and ineffective template is applied en masse.”

According to War Veterans, the Russian government provides grants to veterans’ unions and individual groups set up by former soldiers, effectively outsourcing counseling and rehabilitation. The existing network of government-run military sanitariums, a Soviet-era relic where wounded ex-soldiers could spend several weeks for recovery, has also proved to be ineffective. There are few such facilities and even fewer with specialized programs for veterans.

Some Afghantsi, and later Chechnya veterans, formed the core of organized crime groups that defined much of the 1990s in Russia. Amputees in military uniforms begging for money on the streets or veterans busking on town squares singing wartime songs were a frequent scene in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. Alcoholism and drug use spiked among former combatants, often hand in hand with domestic abuse. In 2017, Russia passed legislation to make some forms of domestic violence an administrative violation rather than a crime.

“Zinky Boys,” Svetlana Alexievich’s collection of firsthand accounts from the war in Afghanistan, which is probably one of the fullest depictions of the disarray experienced by soldiers and their families, opens with a monologue by a mother whose son killed a neighbor with a kitchen ax and put it back into her cupboard as if nothing unusual had happened.

The book paints a picture of forgotten soldiers, left to fight their demons and the chaotic Russian bureaucracy on their own.

“When Afghantsi came to the authorities to solve some problems, they were always told: ‘I didn’t send you to Afghanistan,’ ” retired Col. Leonid Khabarov recalled in a 2019 Current Time TV special commemorating 30 years since the Soviet withdrawal, referring to years-long legal battles for compensation and health care promised by the state.

According to Alya, her family only realized Vladimir was dealing with a severe case of PTSD later in life, as they had never heard the term and access to psychological help was severely limited.

There were no one-on-one counseling sessions. Vladimir went to several group meetings set up for Afghan veterans, but they only triggered him, and each gathering led to drunken violence. Vladimir was especially harsh toward his son.

Angry families say Russian conscripts thrown to front line unprepared

Alya’s mother for years tried to protect her children from abuse, but constant beatings took a toll on her mental and physical health. She also developed an alcohol addiction, barely left the house in her final years, and died recently from liver failure. Neither Alya nor her elder siblings married or had children, fearing they might carry the abuse and trauma into a new generation.

“We discuss it often with my brother: Should we, with our family experience, ever have kids? Will we be able to raise normal people, or will we turn into our parents?” Alya said.

“People who will be returning soon from Ukraine are not only traumatized but also corrupted by all-permissiveness,” Alya said. “This won’t be just something they keep in the families; it will pour onto the streets.” She added: “There will be thousands of men just like my father, and it won’t be safe either for them and for us.”

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