Prague, 21 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "Dedovshchina" is a word familiar to anyone who passed through the ranks of the former Soviet armed forces. Conscripts were expected to undergo periods of humiliation at the hands of older soldiers, as a rite of passage.
But it rarely cost them their lives.
Over the past decade, however, things have deteriorated in the Russian military. A fundamental change in the social structure of recruits, lack of money, and a shortage of qualified officers has led to a breakdown in discipline. Hazing no longer serves as an initiation ceremony, but has degenerated into systematic, vicious abuse that allows officers and second-year recruits to terrorize first-year conscripts.
"There are other bases where once the cold weather hits, the barracks will have floors covered with ice, where the walls will freeze through, like in a prison, like in the gulag."
Diederik Lohman, Human Rights Watch's representative in Moscow, describes the process.
"Conscripts serve two years. The first year they are victims of hazing abuses, and then in the second year, they actually perpetrate the hazing themselves. What seems to be the motor behind this cycle of violence continuing is the desire for revenge. The only way conscripts can suffer through their first year is with the prospect of being compensated for their suffering the next year by being able to inflict the same on the next generations of conscripts," Lohman said.
Every year, some 800,000 conscripts enter the Russian military. For their first 12 months, as described in the Human Rights Watch report, they are virtual slaves to their older colleagues, forced to hand over money, food, personal effects, and perform tasks day and night for their "masters." Insubordination is punished by beatings and humiliation. The climate of scarcity in the Russian military -- where food supplies and proper supplies are often inadequate -- encourage this system.
The drop in the quality of both recruits and junior officers over the past 10 years also helps to perpetuate the cycle of violence. Any young man with hopes of getting a higher education or who has parents with any contacts or savings will try to purchase his way out of the draft. That leaves the poorest and most uneducated young men to serve. Many of them come from broken homes. Some have already been in trouble with the law.
It is a problem the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledges. Forty percent of last year's recruits were high-school dropouts. Half were classified as having problems with alcohol. In September 2002, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov characterized the conscripts drafted in the fall of that year as a "pathetic lot, afflicted with drug addiction, psychological problems, and malnutrition."
Junior officers, charged with supervising recruits, sometimes take part in the abuse. More often, they close their eyes to it. Junior officers receive only a fraction of the training they once enjoyed and are often not capable of handling unruly soldiers -- leaving recruits to fend for themselves.
Tatyana Znachkova is head of the Moscow office of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, an NGO founded in 1989 to help young men facing difficulties in the military. The group offers legal assistance to draftees who are seeking to defer their service or to abused conscripts who have filed complaints or -- in more extreme cases -- deserted their units.
Znachkova tells RFE/RL that she often hears from junior officers who tell her they cannot cope.
"Sometimes you speak to an officer serving on a base where hazing is taking place because of the presence of these uncontrollable soldiers. And sometimes you even feel sorry for the officer, because he tells you: 'I have no levers. How can I control these soldiers? They should be put in prison, not called up to serve in the army. They are basically criminals,'" Znachkova said.
According to the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, some 4,000 conscripts die every year in the Russian military as a result of hazing. That statistic is disputed by the Russian military, which says that in the first half of this year, 25 soldiers died as a result of hazing, while another 60 committed suicide because of bullying.
Nevertheless, the cheapness of a recruit's life in the Russian military is illustrated by an incident in January, in which one conscript froze to death and 50 others were hospitalized with pneumonia after being forced to spend a day in Arctic temperatures -- without proper clothing -- at an airfield in the Far Eastern Magadan region. The case caused such an uproar that President Vladimir Putin ordered an investigation.
But Lohman says for every case that is uncovered, there are many others that are never investigated. The government, he says, has no strategy for stamping out abuse in the military.
"The problem with the Russian government's policy towards hazing throughout recent years has been that all steps that have been taken have been ad hoc [for specific cases, without general application]. Really, what you need here is a much more structural approach. The government needs to take systematic steps to eradicate the problem and not deal with just one individual case. There are many other cases that are similar -- maybe they're not as egregious as this particular one was, but they're still there, and Putin isn't talking about them, nor is anybody else," Lohman said.
Human Rights Watch is calling on the Russian government to create a task force to design and implement a comprehensive strategy for combating the abuses. It is also calling for the creation of a special ombudsman for military servicemen under Russia's general ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin.
Znachkova notes it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between acts of hazing and the general misery of a soldier's life in the Russian armed forces.
"There are, of course, military bases where the food is decent and living conditions are OK. But unfortunately, there are other bases where once the cold weather hits, the barracks will have floors covered with ice, where the walls will freeze through, like in a prison, like in the gulag," Znachkova said.
Activists fighting for better conditions in the Russian armed forces say no country that treats its soldiers like prisoners in a forced labor camp can expect to have a strong, capable military.