Sheep's blood, live fire, and burpees Russian state journalist submits legal complaint following mandatory training camp for war correspondents
RIA Novosti journalist Svyatoslav Pavlov has asked Russia’s Investigative Committee to open a criminal case after he was beaten during a training camp for war correspondents. Pavlov gave interviews to the independent outlets Mediazona and Open Media after submitting his complaint.
The training camp in question, called Bastion, is organized by the Moscow Union of Journalists in collaboration with Russia’s Defense Ministry and other government security agencies. Since the camp was founded in 2006, more than 700 journalists and press attachés have passed through its training program. On September 1, 2019, it became mandatory for all Russian journalists working for state-controlled outlets to pass the Bastion course before working in conflict zones.
Svyatoslav Pavlov works at the government outlet RIA Novosti as a nightly news editor. He was sent to a Bastion training session because he works from conflict zones on some occasions: For example, he spent a month and a half in the Russian Defense Ministry’s press pool in Syria during the spring of 2019. More than 30 other journalists joined Pavlov for the training course. They were employed by various branches of the staunchly pro-regime government outlet RT as well as a few Crimean news outlets. The group consisted predominantly of men but included a few women as well.
Military trainers beat the journalists and threw sheep’s blood at them
Training began on September 15 at the Black Sea Fleet’s naval infantry base in Sevastopol, Crimea. The journalist trainees were lodged in barracks, forbidden from leaving the base, and forced to march as a regiment. Their first two days at Bastion were dedicated to lectures, and then the practical lessons began. The very first one was a role-playing exercise in which the journalists came under fire from “terrorists” played by the base’s sailors. “They actually put us face down against the rocks. They laid us all out and kicked us around a few times — I was kicked about twice. And that was it, the lesson ended,” Pavlov told Mediazona.
The next day, the journalists attended a lecture by Nikolai Ivanov, the head of the Russian Writers’ Union and a retired soldier who was taken prisoner by Chechen separatists in 1994. In the middle of the lecture, another role-play began. This time, it was a simulation of a hostage crisis. Pavlov said naval infantry soldiers pushed him and his fellow trainees face down onto the ground, “put bags on our heads, and kicked us in the ribs” before beginning to shoot blanks into the air from their pistols. Then, Pavlov recalled, the journalists were brought outside and forced to crawl across a rocky surface with the canvas bags still covering their heads — “on our knees, on our elbows, on all fours, however we could, and they were kicking us the whole time.”
“I was relatively lucky in the sense that they took that bag off of me because I started suffocating in it and losing consciousness […] They took the bag off of me and said, ‘Well, you died,’” Pavlov said to Mediazona. “And then they went off to torture the others for half an hour or so. They poured sheep’s blood on them, shot over their heads, and forced them to do burpees.”
After the simulation, Pavlov continued, the journalists met with the director of the course, Colonel Alexey Zakharov. Zakharov is listed on Bastion’s website as the special programs director for a Moscow-based private educational company called The Center for Stress Defense. He told the journalists that “the real terrorists will beat you and bully you even harder,” which is why “we’re beating you and bullying you a little.” Pavlov emphasized that the journalists were not warned in advance about the Bastion camp’s use of force in its training methodologies.
Some journalists were injured in the roleplay exercises, and one woman’s ear was torn
The RIA Novosti editor claimed that during their simulations of terrorist violence, Bastion’s military trainers caused multiple injuries. “They tore one young woman’s ear — they tore out her earring, and that’s it, her ear’s torn. Another woman had a fit of hysterics, and they took her away in an ambulance. One of the guys from [RT’s] Arabic newsroom had his ribs broken, and I had lacerations on my face and my body. There were a lot of people injured. One of my colleagues went to the infirmary to ask for help, but they told him, ‘The people who beat you were professionals, so you’re going to be okay,’” Pavlov recalled.
Pavlov left the training camp that same day. (Open Media reported that the Sevastopol sailors allowed a doctor to examine the injured journalists after Pavlov’s departure). The journalist said at least two other trainees dropped out of the program as well. In Moscow, Pavlov sought medical treatment, and doctors diagnosed him with a head injury, bruised ribs and knees, and abrasions on his face, torso, and limbs. According to the medical report obtained by Open Media, Pavlov also has a possible concussion. RIA Novosti promised to pay for his treatment and recommended that he let the memory of his experience at Bastion go.
Pavlov asked for the trainers to be charged with military overreach
On October 1, Pavlov and his attorney submitted a formal request to the Central Military Investigative Branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee. The journalist asked for criminal overreach charges to be brought forward against those who, in his words, “participated in harming my health and causing me psychological suffering.” Pavlov also demanded that investigators determine who gave the order to beat and taunt the journalists and identify the sailors who executed that order.
According to the RIA Novosti editor, most of the trainees at the Bastion camp remained at the program because they live in combat zones and would risk losing their jobs without a Bastion certificate. Pavlov believes his fellow journalists did not attempt to hold their trainers legally accountable for the same reason. “If you do something about this, it’s an almost 100 percent chance you get fired,” the editor told Mediazona.
Open Media noted that Pavlov’s claims about the use of force at Bastion correspond with a news segment that aired on the state-owned television channel Rossiya 1. The segment shows journalists covered in sheep’s blood crawling through dirt while “terrorists” threaten them and shoot into the air. When Pavlov saw the segment, he remarked, “Only the most vegetarian shots made it on air — the ones that didn’t show anything especially cruel.”
Translation by Hilah Kohen