MOSCOW, April 10 (Marc Bennetts, RIA Novosti) – The assailant, stripped to the waist, grips a young conscript firmly by the neck, forces his head down, and brings his knee up repeatedly until blood spurts from his victim’s nose. He then shoves the draftee onto a bunk in the dimly lit barracks and moves onto the next in a line of soldiers waiting obediently to be battered.
The undated scene, apparently filmed on a cellphone, is just one of scores of similar videos purporting to show the abuse of conscripts in the Russian army. Similarly harrowing footage is widely available on the Internet, including on the website of the Russian Soldiers’ Mothers Committee rights group.
The Russian army’s tradition of hazing – or dedovshchina, as it is known here – generally consists of the victimization of younger conscripts by their more senior fellow servicemen, and has roots that stretch back to the Soviet era.
But military officials said in 2008 that the lowering that year of the period of compulsory service for draft-age males from two years to one, along with the much-vaunted “humanization” of military service introduced by then-Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, would largely eliminate the concept of seniority among conscripts, and with it the problem of hazing. Early last year, Russia’s chief military prosecutor, Sergei Fridinsky, said that the battle against hazing was slowly being won. When contacted for a fresh evaluation of the issue for this article, the Defense Ministry referred RIA Novosti to the military prosecutor, who did not respond to a written request for information.
“Hazing remains a deeply entrenched problem in the army, but the situation is improving slightly,” said Alexander Kanshin, head of the commission on servicemen and their families in Russia’s Public Chamber, an advisory council to the government.
“Of course, even six months of service [sets soldiers apart from new recruits] in the army, but the change from two years of mandatory military service to one has seen a slight improvement of the problem. The active role played by human rights groups has also helped draw attention to the issue,” he added.
It’s an optimism that is not entirely shared, however, by the rights workers themselves, who say that violence remains the army’s preferred mechanism for enforcing discipline and that reforms such as allowing soldiers the occasional use of cellphones merely distract from the larger problem.
“Hazing is going nowhere,” said Andrei Kurochkin, a rights worker with the Moscow branch of the Russian Soldiers’ Mothers Committee. “The Russian army remains in utter chaos. For military officials, soldiers are not human beings, but statistics.”
Jail Better Than Military Life
As Russia’s annual spring military draft gets underway this month, tens of thousands of young men will begin life in an army that Kurochkin and other rights workers say suffers from an institutionalized system of abuse.
“Officers are taught to rely on their sergeants, to allow them to control their men,” said Kurochkin, speaking in his tiny office in east Moscow. “So they turn a blind eye to whatever they do to soldiers, including when they assault or humiliate them.”
Around 500 soldiers died annually in non-combat situations in the Russian armed forces from 2006-2010, according to figures announced variously by the Defense Ministry, the military prosecutor and Russia’s prosecutor general. No figures have been made available since 2010. Kanshin, the Public Chamber official, whose committee acts as advisor to the government on military-related affairs, estimates that around half of those deaths were the direct result of hazing or suicides.
A lack of quality training for officers also contributes to the persistence of hazing, suggests Kanshin, who said younger officers, lacking authority and the skills to develop it, frequently fall back on the army’s traditional method of violence to enforce discipline among conscripts who are often older than them.
“But servicemen must know their rights and where to turn when those rights are violated,” insisted Kanshin. He added, however, that conscripts rarely have such information at their disposal, despite the army’s stated efforts to improve rights awareness among both officers and rank-and-file servicemen.
Rights workers say that the system is geared against ordinary soldiers, who are frequently prosecuted for fleeing on-base abuse. Jail sentences of up to five years for “deserters” are common, said Ella Polyakova of the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg Committee.
“But many soldiers would do anything to get out of the army, and often express a willingness to go to prison rather than return to the horrors of military service,” said Polyakova in a telephone interview.
Not Hazing, But Torture
For some, the expression “hazing” masks the true nature of the abuse meted out to soldiers in Russia’s army.
“What is going on in your army is not hazing, but torture,” Allesio Bruni, a member of the United Nations committee against torture, said at a conference in Geneva last year after studying reports from Russian rights workers.
A 2013 report on torture in the Russian army compiled by Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg alleges that much of the abuse that goes on in barracks across the country is not investigated, let alone punished.
“The military is unwilling to recognize hazing as torture, and when cases are investigated, attacks are usually classified as ‘abuse of authority’,” said Polyakova. “Military investigators are accustomed to covering crimes up, not exposing them.”
Kashnin agreed that cover-ups frequently take place, but expressed hope that Russia’s drive to dramatically boost the number of contract personnel in its army would help to reduce incidences of hazing.
“Contract soldiers are generally older and they know not only their duties, but also their rights. They know that no one has the right to beat or humiliate them,” he said.
But rights workers like Polyakova point out that professional soldiers, or kontraktniki as they are known in Russian, are also frequently subject to abuse. She suggests that the only solution is a massive shake-up of what she calls “Soviet-style” attitudes and legislation governing army affairs.
“The army places no value on human life,” she said. “Like the police force, prisons, psychiatric facilities and state hospitals, attitudes there have their roots in the totalitarian Soviet system.”
Back at the Public Chamber, Kashnin called progress on hazing both vital and inevitable, but cautioned that drastic change is not imminent.
“Hazing has an effect on military morale and discipline, and – accordingly – Russia’s defense capability,” he said. “But it will take at least another generation before we see any real improvement. Expectations have to change – and right now hazing is largely seen as the norm.”