A Sinister Force

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When Alexei reads about a sensational contract killing--for example, the opposition Deputy Galina Starovoitova gunned down on the stairs of her apartment building last fall, or the St. Petersburg politician Mikhail Manevich hit five times at long range as his car sped down a busy street in August 1997, or the mafia leader felled by a sniper's single bullet as he left a steam bath--he has an eerie feeling. He wonders whether he trained the hit man. At times, he says, he imagines himself sitting next to the killer, checking his technique as he carries out the hit. Alexei--a pseudonym--is still in his 30s and was until a few years ago a senior officer in the Spetsnaz, the secret Russian special-forces units modeled on the U.S. Delta Force. When it comes to killing, Alexei knows of what he speaks: he was a specialist in the "physical elimination" of adversaries.

Highly classified and highly trained, the Spetsnaz once epitomized the menace and power of the Soviet state. But these days, the Russian military is in such deep decline that the dash last month by 200 of its airborne troops to Pristina airport--traveling over roads not much more dangerous than a Middle-American highway--was hailed as a major feat of arms. Morale is low throughout the Russian army, and the special forces are no exception. But unlike most Russian soldiers, the Spetsnaz have salable skills. They are snipers, explosives and communications specialists, experts in close combat and surveillance, trained to be cool under extreme pressure and to think for themselves. In the Russian marketplace today, that makes them perfect bodyguards and perfect killers. While most Spetsnaz veterans are law-abiding citizens, a small minority have crept into the nation's underworld, with devastating effect.

The decline of the Spetsnaz--and the way the public's perception of these special forces has swung from adulation to cynicism--symbolizes the way Russia has lost its bearings, its hopes for the future and its ideals. An elite group like the Spetsnaz was held together by a belief in the system, as more than half a dozen soldiers interviewed by TIME recall. No longer. "I swore allegiance to Russia," says Alexei. "I don't identify the present regime with Russia." Many feel equally alienated from their corrupt commanders. A conversation with Sergei, a Spetsnaz noncommissioned officer, frequently drifts off into descriptions of how senior officers are stealing the funds for the upkeep of soldiers or even the barracks provided for them. Ivan, a former senior officer who suffered multiple concussions from artillery in Chechnya, explains that he could not obtain a disability pension because he did not have the several thousand dollars for the bribe that a military medical commission demanded to process his application.

Equally striking is the way the public's view of the Spetsnaz has changed. Ten years ago, the special forces were regarded as the country's secret weapon, the men who had overthrown the President of Afghanistan in his own palace and would strike deep inside Western Europe if a new world war broke out. This has changed. The most popular video in Russia last year was Schizophrenia. An unremittingly bleak portrayal of modern Russia, it tells the story of a Spetsnaz-type officer who is framed by the security police and then forced to assassinate a banker planning a run against the incumbent President. The officer carries out the murder and is later eliminated by state-security thugs. Many Russians find the film plausible. Over the past year, for example, a number of current and former Spetsnaz officers from the Russian airborne forces have been arrested in connection with the 1994 murder of Dmitri Kholodov, an investigative journalist killed by a booby-trapped briefcase while he was working on a story about high-level military corruption.

Spetsnaz soldiers also hire themselves out to the underworld in less dramatic ways, Alexei says. "Say a crime boss is planning a confrontation with a rival," he explains. "He phones his Spetsnaz contact and asks for four or five guys. They take time off from their units and stand behind the boss, fully armed, while he talks to his rival. The other side sees they are serious kids and is impressed." For a couple of hours' work, they make $200 each, Alexei says. If there is any shooting, their fee goes up to $500. This is more than a year's salary for an experienced noncommissioned officer, who officially makes about $30 a month.

Wretched salaries are not the only source of demoralization. Living conditions would provoke a mutiny in many countries. Sergei, the Spetsnaz noncommissioned officer, lives in a slum. Officially called noncommissioned officers' married quarters, his single room measures 5 ft. by 8 ft., and he lives there with his wife and daughter. Ten families share a rat-infested kitchen and a single toilet whose walls are rotting from dampness. Sergei does not wear his uniform when he goes into the city--civilians view soldiers as losers, he says.

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