Saturday, July 02, 2005
Brutality in Russia's army
“Conscription,” Tolstoy wrote of the mid-19th century Russian army, “was like death.” Things may have improved a bit for the 350,000-odd young Russians now drafted in two batches each year. But scarcely a week passes without a case of conscripts being murdered, killing themselves, freezing to death, or deserting and sometimes going on violent rampages. According to official figures, the armed forces suffer roughly 1,000 non-combat deaths every year. Military prosecutors uncovered 46 in just one week in June.
This being Russia, that revelation, like prosecutors' other remarks about theft and embezzlement among officers, was seen as a bid to undermine Sergei Ivanov, the defence minister, who is tipped as a possible successor to President Vladimir Putin. Mr Ivanov has promised more transparency over military deaths—a departure from his usual line, which is to insist that military depravity is declining. The normal justifications are that crime and suicide are national problems (“the army is a copy of society and suffers from all its diseases,” wrote Trotsky, “usually at a higher temperature”); and that other countries' armed forces suffer from them too.
Or that the problems do not exist at all. Vladimir Valuyev, admiral of Russia's Baltic Fleet, based at Baltisk in the Kaliningrad region, says that 12 sailors who deserted in April after alleged abuse simply did not want to go to sea. “We turn out real men,” says the admiral angrily.
However much it is still cited by runaway draftees, dedovshchina (rule of the grandfathers) is said by the defence ministry to be waning. Dividing conscripts into categories according to their length of service, this system of persecution evolved in Soviet times but has become more brutal over the past two decades. Younger conscripts who refuse its serf-like obligations, including begging and stealing, risk horrific, occasionally lethal punishment, which absent, callous or corrupt officers fail to prevent.
In 2008 the conscription term is due to be cut from two years to one; by the end of 2008, 70% of all troops are meant to be volunteers. A planned professional corps of non-commissioned officers might even tackle dedovshchina. At the barracks of the Tamansk division outside Moscow, which is evolving into an all-volunteer unit, privates say that conditions are much better than elsewhere: they sleep ten to a room, rather than 100. Officers say that contract soldiers are more interested in their pay than in bullying.
But dropping conscription altogether is still not in prospect. Colonel-General Anatoly Mazurkevich argues that if Russia's armed forces—now less than half their size at the collapse of the Soviet Union—shrink any more, they will be unable to defend the country's territory. A counter-argument is that these unreformed armed forces could never repel a serious invasion anyway. “If you've got 1.2m men who've got the wrong kit and can't be deployed,” says one western liaison officer, “the situation is not much better than when the Germans came.”
Russian generals have always relied on two strategic superfluities: lots of land and enough people to compensate for the poverty of their equipment, training and feeding. But Russia's rapidly shrinking population, combined with draft-dodging, is threatening the old calculus. Government talk of abolishing student deferments to bring in more and better-quality conscripts subsided after big protests over social reforms in January. Another idea being mooted to achieve the same goal is to cut the number of universities that offer military training alongside their normal academic courses. But if anything could alienate ordinary Russians from Mr Putin's still popular regime, the prospect of tens of thousands of their sons being called up just might be it.
Meanwhile, MosNews reports:
347 Russian servicemen died from January to May 2005, at least 101 of them committed suicide, the Defense Ministry said on its website.
Brutal hazing, widespread in Russian army, led to the deaths of eight conscripts, 88 were killed in road accidents, 83 servicemen died in other types of accidents, 39 were killed by civilians, and 14 died due to carelessness — one soldier accidentally killed himself while handling a weapon.
Since January Russian servicemen have committed at least 6,000 crimes.
The Defense Ministry reported in February that 1,100 people had died in the army in 2004, while a Russian soldiers’ rights group, Mother’s Right, says that about 3,000 conscripts die each year while doing their mandatory military service in Russia. The foundation’s head, Veronika Marchenko said that about 35 percent of parents seeking guidance in her foundation said that their sons had committed suicide. About 15 percent are the result of murder and beatings, while 17 percent are the result of military action.