MOSCOW, 27 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- If doctors had not braved the army's code of silence, the fate of 19-year-old Private Andrei Sychyov would probably never have been brought to light.
The Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, a nongovernmental organization seeking to protect the rights of draftees, says a doctor treating Sychyov had called the group anonymously to report the case. According to the committee, doctors had been instructed to keep silent about the young man.
Sychyov remains in grave condition after his legs and genitals were amputated following vicious hazing at the tank academy where he served in Chelyabinsk, in the Ural region.
On New Year's Eve, older servicemen had forced Sychyov and at least seven other conscripts to squat for several hours and had brutally beaten them.
As a result, Sychyov developed gangrenous infection -- but he was only hospitalized on 4 January, when he was already in critical condition and unable to stand. The other conscripts sustained less serious injuries.
The Russian media picked up on the story following the doctor's testimony this week, and news of the incident quickly reached top military leaders.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov at first sought to play down the incident. "I think nothing serious happened," he told reporters on 25 January,"otherwise I would have certainly known about it."
On 26 January, however, Ivanov struck a considerably tougher tone, pledging to bring the culprits to justice and to "hide nothing."
A Russian conscript undergoing a medical examination in 2005 (TASS)
Today, he publicly slammed military officials for failing to report the incident: "How come that we in Moscow found out about this incident only two days ago? These disgraceful facts actually happened on New Year's Eve, So our first question to our own officers and generals is: why did you fail for 25 days to report to Moscow about what had happened?"
Ivanov has ordered an inquiry into the events and said that seven people have already been arrested, including officers. Aleksei Maslov, the commander of the army's ground forces, traveled to Chelyabinsk today to supervise the investigation on the spot.
The Defense Ministry has also announced that the Chelyabinsk Armor Academy would be disbanded.
But this has done little to soothe public outrage. Valentina Melnikova, the head of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, today called on Ivanov to resign.
And human rights campaigners have widely lashed out at military commanders for denying Sychyov immediate treatment.
Sychyov's mother herself was not immediately informed of her son's condition. She was shown in televized reports wiping away tears and saying that the authorities contacted her only after her son had undergone his first amputation.
The Russian Army's chief of General Staff, Yury Baluyevsky, joined the chorus of accusations.
"I am deeply indignant at the fact that all this time, from 31 December , the leaders of the military institution, including the Chelyabinsk tank academy, the regional administration, and -- I am not afraid of saying it -- the leaders of the ground forces, were not aware of the real situation in this case. A Defense Ministry commission has been sent to investigate there. I think the conclusions will be most severe," Baluyevsky said.
Human rights groups, however, say Sychyov's case is sadly common.
Rights campaigners have long accused military commanders of turning a blind eye to the brutal hazing practices that plague the Russian Army. The Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees says 80 percent of cases of violence against soldiers go unreported, adding that the few incidents that do come to attention are usually reported by relatives of victims, doctors, and rights groups.
According to the Defense Ministry, 16 soldiers died last year as a result of bullying, although rights groups say the real number is much higher. Official figures put the number of suicides in the army in 2005 at 276 and the number of noncombat deaths at 857.
The practice of hazing in the Russian Army is often known as "dedovshchina," the informal subjugation of new recruits to older soldiers. Roughly "dedovshchina" translates as the "rule of grandfathers."
Rights groups are hopeful that those who mistreated Sychyov and his fellow conscripts will be harshly punished. But Melnikova tells RFE/RL she doubts the current investigation will help curb hazing practices in the armed forces.
"What's the use of the investigation? Yes, they are investigating, they've made arrests, they'll punish the culprits. So what? While they are investigating in this place, they are abusing thousands of other people elsewhere," Melnikova says.
Besides, the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees says officers brought before court for violence against soldiers tend to be handed only suspended sentences.
Lev Ponomarev, a leading human rights activist, says hazing will continue unabated until the army starts bringing military top brass to justice.
"Considering that 'dedovshchina' is not ending, the current Defense Ministry or, at any rate, the head of the Ground Forces, obviously hasn't found a mechanism to fight 'dedovshchina,'" Ponomarev says. "I think these people should be dismissed -- only then will things truly start changing nationwide. It's true that cases are sometimes followed through to the end and the culprits are punished, but 'dedovshchina' as an institution continues to exist."
All Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 are required to serve two years in the armed forces. In 2005, 140,000 conscripts were inducted into the Russian armed forces, which number over 1 million men and women. But low pay, corruption, violence, and the war in Chechnya are pushing growing numbers of young men to dodge service.
Last October, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report that new conscripts faced what it described as grossly abusive and humiliating treatment. Russia's military command reacted by saying the report overplayed the problem and pledged to stamp out abuse.