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Welcome back from hell Soldiers from the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya discuss PTSD. A photo series.

Meduza
Photo: Artem Protsyuk

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD, also referred to as the “Afghan Syndrome” or the “Chechen Syndrome” in Russian) is a psychological condition caused by experiencing or witnessing war. Symptoms of PTSD include psychological distress, memory loss, and high levels of stress and anxiety.

Starting in February of this year, Artem Protsuk photographed veterans of the Afghan and Chechen Wars suffering from PTSD. He asked each of them to show him some object relating to their war-time experiences and tell him about returning to civilian life. Meduza shares this photos series, along with the stories of the veterans pictured. The years in the captions below reflect when each man served in combat.

Dmitri Dagas. 1983-1985. Afghanistan (Bagram-Panjshir)
Dmitri Dagas. 1983-1985. Afghanistan (Bagram-Panjshir)
Photo: Artem Protsyuk

I got this document on my birthday. I was deployed; the owner of this document shot at me first, but, luckily, I was a better shot than him. When I got back to base, we all listened to the only channel that would come in on the radio, and it turned out that my mother had put in a song request for my birthday: “View of Earth Through the Porthole.” [A Russian song.] It was like a knife in the heart. After returning home, I spent five months in the hospital due to my injuries. Afterwards, I obviously had outbursts. The most important thing is to expect nothing from people, even if you occasionally want their compassion. I had flashbacks only when asleep—apparently, that’s one of the body’s defense mechanisms. After a concussion, I stuttered, my eye twitched, and I couldn’t hear out of one of my ears. Obviously, I was feeling quite low and didn’t know what to do with my life. Luckily, one of my good friends came to me and just said, “Let’s go.” We got our tents, brought along two girls and our dog, and went into the middle of the woods for three weeks. We borrowed a boat from a hunter and bought paints. For three weeks I was surrounded by nature, women, and painting. I returned a completely different person, began re-learning the things I’d learned at art school, then entered college. In short, art rehabilitated me.

Igor Dembovski. 1982-1984. Afghanistan (Kabul-Shindand)
Igor Dembovski. 1982-1984. Afghanistan (Kabul-Shindand)
Photo: Artem Protsyuk

Once, as night was already falling, I was summoned by my some of my superiors. They asked, “Why don’t you go get some heroin?” I realized that I didn’t really have a choice; I had to go. They explained where to go, which house and which fence. It turns out I got lost and ended up at the wrong place, but everyone there was trading anyway, so I gave them the money and got a bag of the stuff. As I start to leave, I see two APCs [Armored Personnel Carriers]. I dive into the bushes; it’s muddy and I have to sink down up to my neck so that my own comrades don’t see me. I return at a snail’s pace, and suddenly I’m being shot at from our lookout posts—three bullets nearly hit me in the head, and fifteen others land around me. It seemed to me like I was running, but time had stopped—I was so young, and here it was: time to die. In short, I got back, and my superiors chewed me out for getting some kind of powder instead of heroin. When I returned home to St. Petersburg, I went into the streets and started using my fists. I beat up punks on the Field of Mars and the Nevsky Prospect [the Saint Petersburg equivalent of Paris’ Champs-Elysées]. I even almost landed in jail. In short, I spent the entire summer cleaning the rabble out of the city. Later, I came to the conclusion that I could either keep drinking and fighting without a cause, or I could share my experience with others. That’s how my professional life began. Now I work for a social organization that helps veterans of the Afghan and Chechen wars.

Eugene Dobrynin. 2000-2002. Chechnya.
Eugene Dobrynin. 2000-2002. Chechnya.
Photo: Artem Protsyuk

This is one of the sketches I made when I was serving in the army; it depicts Death handing out leaflets bearing the words “Cargo 200” [the Soviet and Russian code word referring to casualties being transported back home]. I drew it while at the lookout post. In front of the lookout posts, there were always mines that would explode if the enemy got near. There are also signal rockets. If someone came near at night, they'd launch and illuminate the entire perimeter. There were a lot of them, because the various detachments rotated constantly, and not all of them cleaned up after themselves. I was at my post when nature called and I went to relieve myself. I was surrounded by tall grass, and the dew had just appeared—everything was lovely. Suddenly something exploded between my legs. I immediately thought that I’d stepped on a mine. I saw my life (all 19 years of it) flash before my eyes at a rate of about 24 frames/second. I suddenly understand that if I jump—and even get as far as a meter away from it—I’m still going to end up without my legs. I have to jump, and I think, this is going to hurt. What a shitty situation. But it turns out that it’s just a rocket, and when I jump away it simply flies into the air. But after this encounter, I started looking at things completely differently. I was born in a village, so when I returned from the war I didn’t have much time for sadness—there was plenty of work necessary just to get by and no time to relax. I started a club for war patriots and became its president. A lot of people from various schools and colleges came, and we even decided to create a break-dancing group. In general, I had things to do that prevented me from falling into drink and drugs. Although, of course, my family and friends expected extreme actions from me. I think they expected me to start yelling, shooting, and killing. But the only effect of the war on me was nightmares. Being busy and employed helps in this period of one’s life.

Mikhail Alimov. 1981-1983. Afghanistan (Kandahar-Shindand).
Mikhail Alimov. 1981-1983. Afghanistan (Kandahar-Shindand).
Photo: Artem Protsyuk

We were traveling in a convoy of 42 trucks when we chanced upon a particular section of road that had bushes on both sides. We couldn’t see anything. Suddenly, we were being shot at. When you watch war movies, it seems like gunfights are very beautiful and brave. In reality, what happens is this: we get shot at, and we can’t see anyone. The driver is holding a machine gun with one hand and his other is on the wheel. I’m shooting too. You open fire, just in case, hoping for luck, because you can’t see a damned thing. Suddenly the driver yells, drops his gun, and grabs his throat. I ask him, “Kolya, what’s wrong?” “I’m wounded, Major!” “Can you keep driving?” I ask. “I can!” he says, and takes away his hand away from his throat. I press down on his wound, and we press on. When convoys get into situations like this, the orders are to keep going so as to get away from the bullets as fast as possible. Adapting to civilian life upon returning was a long and complicated process. When I flew home, nobody met me at the airport, because no one knew when I was coming home. I saw my wife again once I was home, while my son was at school. The memories, of course, come back constantly. I dreamed about war for a long time, but I had no desire to return to it. I didn’t have any regrets about going either—I was told to go and I went. Thank God I returned alive and healthy. I wasn’t caught up in any kind of false patriotism, or any overly high evaluation of my worth—I just willingly did my duty. Now I work at a university, in the military department.

Vladimir Popov. 1999-2010. Chechnya.
Vladimir Popov. 1999-2010. Chechnya.
Photo: Artem Protsyuk

These are two bullets that each of us always carried—one for yourself, one for your comrade. They’re for speeding up either your comrade’s death or your own. If we had to use one of the bullets, it was replaced. I had to use mine. When I returned home, I felt wild, almost feral. You’re afraid of people and constantly stressed. You keep thinking, what am I going to do, how am I going to earn money, if I don’t know how to do anything besides fight? That’s where the problems start. Some people start drinking, some end up in jail, and there are even those who start doing drugs. This whole flood of emotions weighs on you so heavily that if you don’t find a way to deal with it yourself, then it’s the end: you start drinking, stab your neighbor with a knife, and end up in prison. We weren’t prepared for what would come after the war. Nobody ever said anything. When I returned, I awoke at the slightest noise. Everything around me seemed too bright, every movement and sound. The first six months, it’s very hard to get used to the fact that people just move around and cars just pass by. Every explosion made me jump and look around for the source of danger. Every time I went out, I would note the rooftop where there could be a sniper, where a gun could be pointing at you. The relationships and camaraderie you form during the war really helps—we support each other, go to meetings, call each other, help each other. Even talking to someone who’s also served is more comforting than talking to a psychologist. As for work, I work as a guard.

Nikolai Knyazev. 1983-1985. Afghanistan (Panjshir).
Nikolai Knyazev. 1983-1985. Afghanistan (Panjshir).
Photo: Artem Protsyuk

I was already getting ready to be discharged. We were going up the mountains, and the higher we went, the colder it got. We, as the superior officers, were going first, and behind us there were about 100 newer soldiers. The night of October 16, at a height of 4,200 meters [almost 14,000 feet], command-central contacted us and told us to go from the ridge where we were to a different one by the next morning. That’s a 6-8 kilometer [4.5-mile] trip to a height of 4,600 meters [15,000 feet]. We’d already been trying to survive in the mountains for ten days on a three-day trail without any kind of special gear or warm clothing. Before that, we got into a firefight, and we were promised that they’d send a helicopter to pick up the injured. We spent the entire night keeping them warm with our body heat, so that they wouldn’t lose too much blood. Consequently, by the morning, 18 of us were frozen and more than 60 has frostbite on our arms and legs. We came home [to Russia] in a state of euphoria, but didn’t really adapt normally, so that feeling didn’t last long. We returned home in the late 1980s—we’d left one country and come home to another. In this country, nothing was ready for regular people, let alone for the handicapped. Many young men went to war whole and healthy but returned home as invalids who got by any way they could manage. We just weren’t suited to the time we lived in. Now I fight for the rights of war veterans. I do social work.

Oleg Ryabikov. 1995. Grozny (Chechnya).
Oleg Ryabikov. 1995. Grozny (Chechnya).
Photo: Artem Protsyuk

It was the winter of 1995; we were involved in a “zachistka” [an unofficial Russian term for a “mopping-up operation"] near Grozny [the capital of Chechnya]. We chanced upon “friendly fire”—that’s when you get shot at by your own people. The “zachistka” was unsuccessful, but at least none of our people were killed or injured. When you return from the war, you come back to a city, where life is peaceful. People take walks, dance—they don’t care one bit about what’s going on over there. My family was happy to see me alive, but that was about it. That hurt a little.