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Dead but not killed How the Russian government is saving money by denying compensation payments to dead soldiers' families

Source: Meduza

Close relatives of people killed while serving in the Russian military rely on compensation from the state, which is regulated by several laws. Families often find it impossible to claim these entitlements, however, because the military uses the word umer (died) rather than pogib (killed) in its official documents. Many people spend years in litigation with the government, trying to gain access to these payments, while others simply make peace with a lack of any compensation for a relative killed in the armed forces. Journalist Mikhail Danilovich studied this phenomenon to learn more about families forgotten by the Russian state.

On June 11, 2007, a woman living in Perm named Lyubov Borzova telephoned her son, Zakhar Ugolnikov. At the time, Zakhar had been serving for more than a year at Military Base 33444 in Yekaterinburg, after dropping out of college and being drafted. Seeing nothing wrong with the army, he didn’t try to dodge the draft. After serving, Zakhar wanted to finish school and join the faculty at the Perm Technical Institute. His mother called him regularly, and their conversation on June 11 was no different from usual. “He spoke calmly, and didn’t complain about anything,” Borzova said.

She would find out later that her son died a few hours after this phone call. To this day, she still doesn’t know how exactly he died. Orders from the commander of Zakhar’s unit contain the phrase “sudden cardiac death,” but Borzova believes there’s more to this story. She says she saw bruises on her son’s body, and one of Zakhar’s fellow soldiers who used to spend time with him in Yekaterinburg suddenly stopped speaking to her, saying that he refuses to discuss Zakhar’s death.

The local military commissariat never contacted Borzova about the payments the government is obligated to make to relatives in the event of a soldier’s death. She says she had to discover on her own that regional social development officials were supposed to issue her a certificate entitling her to several benefits, including subsidized utility services and monthly cash payments of 1,500 rubles ($25).

Borzova applied for the certificate, but she was denied. Welfare officials told her that the paperwork issued by her son’s army commander uses the word umer (died), but it must say he was pogib (killed), for her to receive the requested benefits. As a result, officials argued that she wasn’t entitled to a single kopeck from the government.

Lyubov Borzova
Yaroslav Chernov

Borzova spent the next nine years fighting the state to get the compensation owed to her as the mother of a killed soldier. She says she did it out of anger, more than anything. She wanted to prove that she was right. Statistics published by Russia’s Pension Fund suggest that there are thousands of people across the country currently in similar situations.

A lousy way with words

“Social support measures apply to the family members of servicemen and women killed in the line of military service,” a representative of Perm’s Social Protection Ministry explained to Borzova in an official letter (Meduza obtained a copy), emphasizing the last part of the sentence. The official then concluded that the state is obligated to make no payments to Borzova because her son merely “died [...] in the line of military service.” On one page, the operative words were printed in bold font and underlined.

After eight years of trying to convince officials and military authorities of her case, Borzova finally decided to take the Social Protection Ministry to court. The regional commissariat was also included in the lawsuit as a third party, as it had ties to both sides in the dispute and could help the court understand who was right. As soon as this process got underway, the military suddenly abandoned the linguistic debate. In a formal response to the lawsuit (saved as case evidence), a representative for the commissariat wrote, “Zakhar Vadimovich Ugolnikov, born in 1986, was killed (died) in the line of military service.” The document indicated that he died while with his unit during service hours,” meaning that he was “killed.” The judge agreed with this assessment, and ordered the state to award her all the compensation and benefits required by law.

Meduza found at least 41 other court rulings over the past seven years where killed soldiers’ relatives sued the state after officials denied them their entitlements. The reason for the litigation was always the same: verbal discrepancies — usually between the words “dead” and “killed,” or between the phrases “during military service” and “in the line of military service.” Not one of these cases concerned a combat death. In most of these trials, the judge sided with the relatives of the killed soldiers, usually ruling that a serviceman’s relatives are entitled to payments, benefits, and compensations, so long as the cause of death wasn’t self-inflicted. In one case, the court sided with a soldier’s family, even though he committed suicide.

Several laws guarantee benefits and payments for the relatives of Russian soldiers killed in the line of duty. Borzova sued her local welfare office in order to receive payments from Russia’s Pension Fund, as mandated by a federal law on veterans.

As of 2017, in accordance with another federal law on compensation for servicemen’s relatives, Russia’s Defense Ministry is required to pay more than 18,000 rubles (roughly $315) per month to each disabled relative of a soldier killed in the line of duty. This amount is divided, however, among all relatives, and the killed serviceman gets a share, as well, which reverts to the state. So if a soldier has two children and is killed while on duty, each of his children would receive just 6,000 rubles (a total of 12,000 rubles) and the remainder would go to the government. The Defense Ministry refused to tell Meduza how many people in Russia are currently receiving these payments today.

Exhibit A: this dictionary

In 2003, a 24-year-old senior lieutenant from Kemerovo named Chabanov died at a military base in Chelyabinsk. His first name, like the names of his relatives, is missing from the public version of his case files, and Meduza was unable to contact his family. In the report from his commander, his death is described as the result of an “acute cerebrovascular disturbance” during combat alert duty. Like Lyubov Borzova, the Chabanovs got documents from the military that used the word “died” and “death,” not “killed.”

When Chabanov’s mother applied for a certificate from her local city officials (different government agencies handle these benefits in different parts of Russia), she was denied on the grounds that her son’s paperwork needed to use the word “killed.” A decade later, in 2013, Chabanov’s mother finally took the matter to court, where her lawsuit was rejected because the document from her son’s military commander was now out of date. When she submitted a new copy, the city officials once again pointed to the discrepancy between the words “killed” and “died.”

Fed up, Chabanova even brought a dictionary to one of the hearings, where she highlighted the expression “die for the Motherland,” trying to prove that the words “die” and “be killed” are synonyms in the context of military service. In the end, the court ruled that the legally significant circumstance of Chabanov’s death was that it occurred during military service, and not that he died a particular way. The city actually appealed this verdict and lost. A short time later, officials refused to pay Chabanov’s father compensation on identical linguistic grounds. He took the city to court and won.

Some judges write directly in their verdicts that there’s no difference between the words “died” and “killed,” when it comes to awarding payments and benefits to soldiers’ relatives. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Kalmykia drew attention to the very name of the 21st article in Russia’s federal law on veterans, which uses the word “died” in parentheses after the word “killed.” In the final appellate ruling, the court found that the law doesn’t distinguish between these two concepts.

But it’s not unheard of for killed soldiers’ families to lose in court. Of the 41 cases Meduza examined, seven rulings sided with the government. In one case, relatives started getting compensation payments, but then local officials changed their minds. Alexey Durakov died 20 years ago at a military base in the Smolensk region. After his death, Durakov’s parents got the necessary certificate to receive their entitlements, but the authorities later decided that they’d made a mistake and started returning documents to the family through the courts. A regional court in Voronezh then determined that Durakov’s death had not been “tied to the performance of military service duties.” According to the military’s paperwork, he and another soldier abandoned their posts a day before they were supposed to be discharged, riding a bicycle to a nearby village, where they planned to meet up with some girls they knew. Along the way, however, they were hit by a car. Durakov was killed and the fate of the other man isn’t reported in the case records. Durakov’s mother says she’s certain that her son was murdered, but the court ignored her opinion.

Sometimes Russian courts issue contradictory verdicts in cases with very similar circumstances. In 2014, the mother of a killed serviceman from Perm managed through a lawsuit to get the paperwork necessary to claim compensation and benefits, but two years later a court in Bashkortostan ruled against the parents of another soldier named Alexey Shlychkov. In both cases, the deaths were a result of suicide.

In Perm, the judge sided with the mother, but in Bashkortostan the court got stuck on the same infernal vocabulary that’s plagued relatives elsewhere. In the latter verdict, the judge wrote, “From the literal meaning of the words ‘died’ and ‘killed,’ it follows that a person killed while performing his duties is someone whose death is the immediate result of an injury.” Andrey Shlychkov served just three months in the armed forces. On March 7, 2016, he hanged himself from a tree on a military compound in the Orenburg region.

The difference between the words “died” and “killed” isn’t the only stylistic sticking point that can make the difference for relatives seeking state compensation. For example, pensions for soldiers’ families who’ve lost their breadwinner (this is another type of payment) depend on reports from the military’s medical commissions. Specifically, they depend on the cause of death that’s officially recorded. Death from a “military injury” and an “illness contracted during military service” result in pension payments of different amounts. Meduza learned of some cases where the families of killed soldiers were denied both monthly compensation payments and pension payments because they lacked a report from a military medical commission.

Nikolai Mishin, the director of the welfare center at Perm’s regional military commissariat, told Meduza that the military medical commission’s report — not the wording in the report from a killed soldier’s commander — is what’s most important for claiming compensation from the state. Mishin says he knew a warrant officer who “got drunk and choked on his own vomit” on New Year’s Eve, “but he did it while on duty.” The medical commission later recorded the officer’s cause of death as a “military injury,” Mishin says, and his relatives were awarded the maximum possible compensation.

An assembly of new conscripts on April 21, 2012, in a town outside Moscow.
Igor Stomakhin / PhotoXPress

Dying “after hours”

Despite Mishin’s claims, in almost every case known to Meduza, families’ problems began with the orders issued by killed soldiers’ commanders about a loss of personnel, not with reports by military medical commissions. These orders by commanders are issued on the basis of death certificates recorded by military forensic experts.

Previously, these military documents explicitly used the word “killed.” An order by Russia’s defense minister in 1999 established the standard phrase in these situations. That template read: “Private Ivan Efimovich Pavlov, a mechanic-driver of the second tank company, was killed in [redacted] as a result of a car accident and excluded from the personnel lists of his unit and all support groups.” According to Arseny Levinson, a lawyer for the human rights organization “Citizen and Army,” the Defense Ministry canceled this order in 2009, without offering a substitute. At the same time, however, the template text on official ministry documents has remained almost unchanged, except for one revision: the word “died” has replaced the word “killed.”

Meduza telephoned several military commissariats across Russia to ask about this policy. At every office, military officials said they believe there is a difference between the words “died” and “killed,” but no one could offer clear criteria to distinguish the two concepts.

Konstantin Kesayev, the acting deputy commander of North Ossetian military unit number 20634, suggested that the word “died” means relatives should receive one kind of payment, while relatives of soldiers who “were killed while on duty” should receive another kind. Kesayev struggled, however, to explain the substantive differences between soldiers who “die” and “are killed.”

Another official at the same North Ossetian unit, identifying herself only by her callsign, expressed a similar opinion. “A soldier is killed when he dies on some kind of combat mission,” she said. “Whereas a soldier dies, I guess, after hours, when he leaves the military base and is walking home and then something happens to him.”

“Being killed is if it’s during the performance of military duties, and dying is when it happens off the job,” the representative of a military unit in central Russia told Meduza, asking not to reveal his name or unit number. “And commanders, so the brass doesn’t have their asses, and so the money keeps flowing to their units, they write ‘died’ and not ‘killed.’”

Other state officials who spoke to Meduza expressed similar views about payments and benefits for the families of deceased soldiers. One of the experts working at Perm’s Social Protection Ministry, which lost in court to Lyubov Borzova, said that her office issues certificates only when a soldier’s documents indicate that he was killed.

* * *

And if it’s written that he died and his death was tied to the performance of his military service duties, would you issue a certificate?

But he wasn’t killed in the line of duty. What was the cause of death? He might have gotten sick, and died from this, right? Maybe he injured himself somehow, or maybe he hanged himself.

There are court decisions saying that the only relevant thing is that the death is connected to military service, and that the words “died” and “killed” don’t matter.

But courts can reach different verdicts, right?

* * *

An official in the Novocheboksarsk office of Russia’s Pension Fund (which also lost in court to a killed soldier’s mother) told Meduza that they have “no problem” issuing compensation certificates to relatives when military documents feature the word “killed,” but not when the paperwork features the word “died.”

“Since 2000, we in the government have finally started counting the money,” explains Tatyana Smolskaya, the head of the Perm commissariat’s public affairs department. On the one hand, her office duplicates the language used in commanders’ orders, when issuing letters of condolence. On the other hand, it accepts applications for certain compensation payments from soldiers’ families. Smolskaya says that her office is obligated to make any payments mandated by a court, but she says that without a court order her office will always reject compensation requests if the soldier’s paperwork doesn’t say anything about a “military injury.” She insists that this is what the law requires: “We don’t have the right to break the law, but a judge can go ahead.”

“We get visits from auditors, the prosecutor’s office — anybody you can imagine,” Smolskaya said. “They evaluate the legality of how we award [compensation]. You think we just award whatever we feel like? No! And if we violate the law, you know, then they’ll get the money back from the person who signed the compensation certificate. There’s the law, and then there’s justice. Maybe you’re aware that they’re not always the same thing.”

The families of killed Russian soldiers don’t rely entirely on the government for compensation. By law, insurance companies make two one-time payments to these families: one of almost 4 million rubles (almost $68,000) and another of more than 2.5 million rubles (about $45,000). Unit commanders issue separate paperwork for these payments, and Russia’s Defense Ministry has reissued this form several times in the past few years, using the words “died” and “killed” interchangeably.

The economics of ignorance

One of the main organizations responsible for compensating the families of killed soldiers is Russia’s Pension Fund, which calculates two kinds of payments. First, there is a pension for any disabled family members of a “serviceman who was killed (who died) during military service conscription as a soldier, sailor, sergeant, or petty officer” (this is the language that appears in Russian Federal Law 166). Second, there is a monthly payment that applies to “the family members of servicemen [...] who were killed while performing military service duties.”

Officials in Russia’s Pension Fund told Meduza that this first payment is calculated independently from any paperwork. There are currently more than 46,500 people in Russia claiming these payments, which totaled 6 billion rubles ($104.3 million) in 2016. That same year, the Pension Fund paid out 422 million rubles ($7.3 million) in monthly compensation to 24,414 Russians. In other words, the number of killed soldiers’ disabled family members collecting compensation is more than twice the number of killed soldiers’ able-bodied family members receiving monthly payments.

Arseny Levinson, a lawyer for the group “Citizen and Army,” says he’s sure that the overwhelming majority of families never go to court, when they’re denied compensation for a relative killed in the military. “First, people lack the sufficient legal literacy, and finding available professional assistance isn’t easy. Second, people simply don’t realize that compensation rejections can be illegal.”

Lyubov Borzova
Yaroslav Chernov

Lyubov Borzova says she never once encountered understanding from state officials or the military, during her 10-year fight to get compensation for her son’s death. She says the Russian authorities treat these benefits and compensation payments like it’s money coming out of their own pockets. Borzova spends most of the money she won last year in court from the government on medical needs. After her son died, her legs began to fail. Despite this, she continues to volunteer with the regional Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, an organization founded in 1989 to expose human rights violations in the Russian military. Borzova says she tries to share her experience with other parents, some of whom are just as ignorant as she used to be about the benefits and compensation available to families of killed servicemen.

Speaking to Meduza, Borzova almost never used the past tense when discussing her son. “I have one son and two daughters,” she said, producing Zakhar’s karate certificate and listing the international tournaments where her “child” competed. In just a few days, he’ll turn 31, she explained.

Russian text by Mikhail Danilovich in Perm, translation by Kevin Rothrock

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