A Letter From Russia
On May 19, 2008/9, Roman Suslov, a twenty-one-year-old conscript, left his native city of Omsk to join his unit in Bikin, a small town on the border with China, in the province of Khabarovskiy Krai. At the crowded train station, he said his good-byes to his mother, his fiance Oksana and his infant son.
For the first three days after his departure, Roman sent Oksana upbeat text messages, but when she phoned him on the morning of the fourth, he muttered that he was in fear for his life.
“They will murder me or cut me,” he said through the crackle of his dying cell phone battery.
“Who?” she asked.
“My lieutenant,” he replied — and then his phone went dead.
A few hours later, Roman called Oksana from a different cell phone, one he was able to get from a friend. He told her that he had been segregated from the other men for some reason. He was also being denied food and water, and guards escorted him whenever he went to the bathroom. The call ended abruptly, and when Oksana dialed back the number, the owner of the cell phone picked up.
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” he whispered. “We are all frightened.”
The next day, an officer from the Bikin base called Roman Suslov’s mother and tersely informed her that her son had hanged himself in a public restroom.
Russia has a blanket draft for males, even in peace time. Its military is notorious for the despicable practice of dedovschina, which entails severe and unrelenting abuse of conscripts, up to an including torture, rape and murder. Conscript suicides and suspicious deaths are therefore not uncommon. When such deaths occur, perpetrators are almost never punished or even identified. But in Roman Suslov’s case, there was a gruesome twist.
Tatiana Suslova received her son’s body in a sealed lead coffin with instructions forbidding her to open it. She ignored the order and had Roman’s remains autopsied. The contents of the coffin were horrifying beyond the family’s darkest fears. Roman Suslov had a cut running from his chin down to his groin. His face, back and arms were covered with cuts and bruises. Most tellingly, there were no ligature marks on his neck, his spine was not broken, and there were no signs of asphyxiation. Oh, and — most of his internal organs were missing.
Not surprisingly Russian families go to extraordinary lengths, exploiting social connections and scrounging for bribes, to get their sons exempt from military service. It is therefore predominantly the poor and the socially insignificant who end up serving. (Also, I suppose, the honest and the idealistic — but those are exceedingly rare breeds in today’s Russia.) It is common knowledge that these kids are treated worse than cannon fodder, seeing as how they can be tortured and killed merely for sport. Still, even in a country where this sort of thing is par for the course, conscripts at the Bikin base die under suspicious circumstances with a shocking frequency — especially conscripts from Omsk, a city located approximately 2600 miles to the east of Bikin. Roman Suslov was the seventh Omskite to die a questionable death enroute to Bikin in the space of a decade. At least one other Omskite draftee, Marat Bukharbaev, died in 2006 under circumstances virtually identical to Roman Suslov’s death. Bukharbaev’s mother, too, received her son’s body in a lead coffin with a warning not to open it, and like Suslov’s mother, she opened it anyway and had an autopsy done. Like Roman, Marat had a cut running from his chin down to his groin, and several of his vital organs were missing. Like the Suslovs, the Bukharbaev family were told that their son had hanged himself, but there was no evidence on the body to support that claim. When Marat’s mother asked a forensic pathologist in Bikin why her son’s organs might have been taken out, he replied that a kidney fetches $50,000 on the black market in nearby China.
When I heard about these incidents in 2010, I was not sure whether to believe it. It sounds too much like an urban legend, and too macabre to be true. But the story eventually ran in Kommersant (Russian ) and Novaya Gazeta (Russian), two Russian newspapers highly respected for the quality of their investigative journalism, and the Suslov incident is mentioned in the 2010 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report. I am not sure that the Bikin base is involved in illicit organ trade — it is, again, too urban-legendish for my taste — but some facts would seem to support that theory. For one, Novaya Gazeta found numerous instances of hospital patients in Khabarovsky Krai having their organs lifted without their consent. Despite the occurrence of 43 deaths from unauthorized removal of healthy organs in 2006 alone, the ensuing investigation was effectively quashed by the authorities in Khabarovsk and no prosecutions ever came about. And, the journalist who wrote the expose quotes the French press, including Le Figaro, for the fact that there is a black market for organs in China, most donors being executed criminals. If all this is true, then I can see how conscripts — who are young, physically fit, disease-free and lacking any recourse against abuse by their commanding officers — would make for attractive involuntary donors.
There is also the fact that victims are apparently selected in Omsk — which supports the notion that the selection is based on their medical records, which the local recruitment office would have. There is the indeterminate cause of death and bodies consistent with being dissected whilst still alive. And, the fact that Roman Suslov was denied food and water the day before his death is consistent with him being prepared for general anesthesia.
Additionally, the official explanation that Roman Suslov merely had a routine autopsy, and the organs were not put back because why bother?* is clearly not true. To begin with, it is highly unusual to autopsy the body of a hanging victim, and even if an autopsy is done, organs are returned to the body, unless there is a specific reason not to. Then, there is the cut. Suslov’s mother, in a desperate attempt to get the public’s attention, had the autopsy filmed and put the video online. The images are disturbing, and I won’t link them here; suffice it to say, in my job, I often look at photos of autopsied bodies, and Roman Suslov’s cut, from his supposed initial autopsy, is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The cut is crude and amateurish. It is not the right shape. When a pathologist opens the torso, the cut has a characteristic V-shape around the neck; it does not go straight down from the chin to the groin. The body looks butchered, not autopsied. Based on verbal descriptions, Marat Bukharbaev’s cut was analogous to Roman Suslov’s.
At the same time, there are several important factors that negate the organ-theft theory:
1. The infamous cut. Commentators have often pointed out that the cut proves the authorities are lying about the reason for and the manner of Suslov’s death. The problem is, the cut also seems to prove he wasn’t killed for his organs. If the goal was to get his organs, why not involve a doctor or at least a medical student, who would know what they are doing? (I mean, since medical professionals are already lifting organs from patients in Khabarovsk-area hospitals anyway?) Why not make a proper cut with flaps, which would make it much easier to visualize the organs and remove them without damage? Making a proper cut would serve a dual purpose — get the organs more easily and create an appearance of a legitimate autopsy, or at least one where the sham isn’t blatantly obvious. The cut is probably the most puzzling thing about this case.
2. One source I read reported that Roman Suslov’s cranium was opened as well. That would suggest the purpose of the dissection wasn’t to sell organs. Organ thieves would have no reason to open the victim’s skull. Of course, it could be theorized this was done to create an appearance of a legitimate autopsy — but if the killers went through the trouble of drilling into Suslov’s cranium, couldn’t they have followed a medical textbook diagram and dissected his torso properly?
3. Why spend a day beating and terrifying the victim before cutting him open? After all, physical abuse risks damaging those precious organs or driving the victim to do something desperate. Why risk leaving witnesses by intimidating other conscripts? Wouldn’t it make more sense to quietly grab the victim and later make up a story about some emergent ailment that necessitated surgical intervention and ultimately an autopsy?
The more I think about it, the more I am inclined to conclude that the murders of Omskite conscripts, including those of Marat Bukharbaev and Roman Suslov, are probably thrill killings. The serial killer is, in all likelihood, a senior officer who selects his victims in Omsk and butchers them enroute to Bikin. But what of that? The Russian justice system — an ironic term if there ever was one — is a corrupt morass that swallows whole families and spits them out. As of this writing, Suslov’s death is still ruled a suicide and the case is officially closed. Bukharbaev’s case file has been amended to say that he did not hang himself but was killed during a training exercise. None of the seven Omskite deaths are under investigation. And Russia’s own Jack the Ripper is probably picking another one as we speak — someone else’s son, husband or father.
*A random observation: The military judge said that organs are always taken out and discarded during an autopsy, unless there is a reason not to, such as if the dead body is that of a Muslim. He was at that time commenting on the Suslov case, of course. Marat Bukharbaev’s name, however, suggest that he was of Uzbek background and almost certainly Muslim.