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Hazing Harming Russian Military's Reputation

  • Lisa McAdams

Each year, dozens of young men die in the Russian military, not in combat, but by the hands of their own colleagues. Hazing, so-called "rule by elders" (dedovshina), is a long-standing problem in Russia that only recently grabbed attention again, with the publication of a recent case at the Chelyabinsk academy in the Urals, in which a young conscript had to have his genitals and both legs amputated after severe beatings by more-senior soldiers.

The brutal beating of 19-year-old army conscript Andrei Sychev over the Russian Orthodox New Year has been described as one of the more cynical and brazen crimes against a fellow soldier in more than 20 years.

The attack, allegedly carried out by a senior officer and later covered up by the military's top-brass, has left Andrei fighting for his life and eight other conscripts seriously injured. It also exposed a festering wound in the Russian military, which has long struggled to contain abuse from within its own ranks.

Each year, scores of young Russian soldiers are killed at their hands of their colleagues, while hundreds of others commit suicide or seriously maim themselves, to escape the hell of hazing. Last year, 16 servicemen were officially reported to have died as a result of hazing, but some suggest the actual number may be far higher.

Several weeks after the incident at Chelyabinsk, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly responded. He said more attention should be paid to the well-being and social guarantees of servicemen. President Putin also said that the Russian state must react with maximum toughness to any incident of violence, just as to any attempt by officials to cover it up.

Mr. Putin says resolving the issue of hazing is key to the development of the armed forces and to his long-stated goals of raising military preparedness as well as morale.

Valentina Melnikova, the head of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, an independent rights group made up of concerned mothers defending soldiers' rights, says the government's response is inadequate. She says the only way to stop hazing is to create a professional army and do away with the whole practice of forced conscription.

Melnikova says the new military must have new management and operate under a whole new concept of compassion. She says, at present, Russia has a Soviet-style army that, in her assessment, does not care one bit about our young boys.

Independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer tells VOA that the lack of a professional recruitment system to ensure good officers is only helping to fuel the violence, which he says is really being used as a way to maintain discipline. He says, as the system stands now, anyone can and often does become a sergeant who hazes.

"We need professional officers," he said. "People who are going to be not only volunteers, but who are going to do their work well and they are going to try and stick with the military and have a career. We have right now a terrible crisis of personnel in the Russian military. And, the problem is not only not having decent sergeants, we don't have decent officers, or decent generals or admirals."

Felgenhauer says this crisis leads the army to get the so-called worst of the lot when it comes to the officer corps, with better-suited individuals going by way of big business or to the civilian bureaucracy, once their minimum time has been served.

Of course, he says, some kids have parents who can afford to buy their way out of any service at all and even those who don't, he adds, are still trying to opt out.

In the wake of the recent violence, some small steps have been taken. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov ordered an inquiry into the incident at Chelyabinsk, which has so far resulted in seven soldiers being detained, three of them officers. And, the deputy chief of Russia's general staff has said the academy will be closed.

President Putin has also reiterated his support for the idea of creating a military police force to clamp down on hazing. But analyst Felgenhauer says this idea again presents the problem of how to find the best, most qualified men to serve. He also asks, who will monitor the monitors?

"If its going to be the same style of policing as the Russian civilian-style police, that will be no good at all," says Felgenhauer.

Meanwhile, the Russian government recently dispatched the head of the new-found public chamber commission on hazing, lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, to Chelyabinsk to look into the matter. There, he met with all levels of the Russian military. Kucharena says the overall cooperation was good, but he says his underlying impression gives him cause for concern.

Kucherena says it appears as if the soldiers have all been hazed for a very long time. He says any attempts to ask them what really happened, is met with stony silence. Otherwise, he says the conscripts try to pretend as if everything is all right, even though the facts of soldier Sychev's case tells us otherwise.

Kucherena said he was especially disturbed to find such cynical indifference as regards the harmful nature of hazing.

He says when he was speaking with one of the arrested soldiers, accused of carrying out the beating, the man asked several times, "What else shall I do? When I first came here, senior soldiers taunted me."

Kucherena says it is this kind of attitude, in part, that persists in driving the deadly practice of hazing.

As for the Russian people, they appear to have even less faith than before in the Russian military. In a recent poll conducted in January by the All Russian Center for Public Opinion, 54 percent of Russians surveyed said their attitude toward the army has worsened following the recent hazing case. Only 32 percent said they still approve of the army, down from nearly 50 percent in December.

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