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

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


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

The nice young man she married in college was gone. Instead, she now lived with an isolated and abusive husband who regularly drank himself to oblivion, beat her brutally and tormented their three children.

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

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

It is now widely accepted that psychological wounds linger long after fighting has ended. And as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his bloody war in Ukraine, it’s only a matter of time before thousands of veterans start returning from the front lines – to their families and to a mental health system. defaulter who many experts say is no better equipped to help them than he was at the end of the war in Afghanistan 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 running through the slumber of Russian society, which has tried to disconnect war from daily life.

In September, a soldier recently returned from “behind the tape”, a euphemism for the Ukrainian border, walked into a pizzeria in Tula and hit the owner with a metal chair, apparently unhappy with 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 media reports. local.

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

“When the soldiers return from Ukraine, their families and friends will be the first to suffer because the soldiers will go mad from all the injustice,” said Dmitry Florin, a journalist and veteran of the Second Chechen War. “And if later they begin to realize that the whole war in Ukraine is one of the greatest 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 loved ones, the state will be their next target of anger and their main enemy,” Florin added, “because it was the state that ruined their lives.”

Florin said his tours of Chechnya still haunt him in a recurring nightmare, where a general orders him to return even though he left the army years ago.

He said the authorities effectively rejected many of his comrades after they returned from the war. Promised financial payments were often never received – Florin sued his local military office for eight years to get his own – and officials denied their requests for rehabilitation or psychological help.

The only advice, Florin said, was in the mandatory “preparation” sessions before every deployment to Chechnya, which he said was more like ideological indoctrination with “lessons of hate.”

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

While the Kremlin’s use of euphemisms is generally considered part of a propaganda campaign, the lack of a formal declaration of war can have legal and financial implications for Russian soldiers who, therefore, can technically not be eligible for veterans benefits.

Soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya eventually earned veteran status and modest benefits similar to those who served in World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, but they don’t hardly knew fame.

A conflict in a foreign country, Afghanistan, which was at first hidden from the people and the “counter-terror” operations to suppress Chechen guerrillas in rebel territory seemed foreign to the defense of mainland Russia by the ‘Red Army against Nazi Germany which became a pillar of Soviet identity.

Instead, the “Afghantsi,” as Afghan veterans are commonly referred to in Russia, were quickly forgotten by the state and failed to find mainstream sympathy. The chaos that followed the fall of the Soviet Union only exacerbated the situation of widespread and untreated post-traumatic stress and a general feeling of worthlessness experienced by thousands of former soldiers.

“Returning from Afghanistan, they could not find any use for themselves, without a profession or education, many of them are forced to drag out a miserable existence, especially those who have been injured and become disabled” , concludes a 1993 sociological article, 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 were barely enough to keep from starving,” the report said.

And while surgeries and prostheses for missing limbs were eventually available, there was little or no psychological help available to deal with the trauma experienced by veterans.

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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 on their own as private organizations struggle to cope with the increase in the number of people in need of help, according to a grassroots Russian support group. called 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,” the group said. “There is no individual approach to assessing the condition of combatants and often a single, ineffective common model is applied en masse.”

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

Some Afghan and then Chechen veterans formed the core of the organized crime groups that defined much of the 1990s in Russia. Amputees in military uniforms begging for money in the streets or veterans strolling through city squares singing war songs were a common scene in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. Alcoholism and drug use increased among former combatants, often accompanied by domestic violence.

Zinky Boys, Svetlana Alexievitch’s collection of first-hand accounts of the war in Afghanistan, which is probably one of the most comprehensive descriptions of the disarray experienced by soldiers and their families, opens with the monologue of a mother whose son killed a neighbor with a kitchen ax and put it back in his closet as if nothing unusual had happened.

The book paints the portrait of forgotten soldiers, left alone to fight their demons and the chaotic Russian bureaucracy.

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

According to Alya, her family didn’t realize that Vladimir was dealing with a severe case of PTSD later in life because they had never heard of the term and there was very limited access to psychological help.

There were no individual counseling sessions. Vladimir went to several group meetings organized for Afghan veterans, but they only triggered him, and each meeting led to drunken violence. Vladimir was particularly hard on his son.

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Alya’s mother tried for years to protect her children from abuse, but the constant beatings took a toll on her mental and physical health. She also developed an addiction to alcohol, barely left home in her later years, and recently died of liver failure. Neither Alya nor her older siblings married or had children, fearing that the abuse and trauma would be passed on to a new generation.

“We often discuss this with my brother: Should we, with our family experience, have children one day? Will we be able to raise normal people or will we become our parents? Aliya said.

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

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