PRAGUE, 14 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Old habits, it seems, die hard. A cloud of secrecy has descended on Ufa in the wake of the death of 23-year-old Private Nursullah Dautov.
A phone call to the Bashkortostan clinical hospital where Dautov died brought a curt response. "It's a closed matter...end of story," a doctor who declined to identify himself said.
In Ufa, at least, nobody appears to be listening to President Vladimir Putin, who had some strong words to say on the subject of hazing less than two weeks ago.
"We should seriously heighten our attention to the protection of the personal rights and social guarantees of military personnel and react in the firmest way to any facts of violence and hazing and attempts by commanders to cover up such incidents," Putin said.
Putin spoke as Russia reacted in horror to the fate of Private Andrei Sychyov, an 18-year-old soldier beaten so brutally by six fellow soldiers that his legs and genitals had to be amputated.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov ordered a military commission to look into the attack and said its findings would be made public.
Fifty-four service personnel died in January as a result of crimes and accidents in the Russian armed services -- 14 of them allegedly through suicide, according to mil.ru,a Defense Ministry website.
Dautov's mistake was to refuse to wash the Ufa barracks floors on the morning of 8 February, a fatal act of insubordination that led to his death three days later in a city hospital.
Doctors subsequently confirmed that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage, damage to his abdominal organs caused by a blunt instrument, and facial damage.
'Rule Of The Grandfathers'
The abuse of conscripts -- known in Russian as the "rule of grandfathers" ("dedovshchina") -- has become endemic in the Russian military as conditions in the armed forces have deteriorated over the last 10 years.
Poor morale, a shortage of qualified officers, low pay, and the demoralizing effects of a long and brutal war in Chechnya have all played their part.
Precise figures on the problem remain elusive because of a military establishment that is still reluctant to admit that it exists at all. Yet even the armed forces concede that 6,000 soldiers were victims of abuse last year alone and that 1,170 soldiers died as a consequence of crimes and accidents.
The Soldiers' Mothers Committee, which has done more than any other organization to bring public attention to the degeneration of life in the Russian military, insists the Defense Ministry is concealing the true extent of the problem. The committee claims as many as 3,000 conscripts die from hazing each year.
No Longer Acceptable
Yet social attitudes are clearly changing. What was accepted without comment a few years ago today causes a nationwide furor to which even the president must respond.
"When you speak with generals they claim the army is just a mirror of the whole of Russian society, which is basically not true anymore, because the army is lagging behind the changes society is going through," says Aleksandr Petrov, the Moscow representative of Human Rights Watch.
That may also be the conclusion of Putin, who has said that ending the practice of hazing is one of the keys to raising morale in the armed forces, and the State Duma, whose Defense Committee today discussed what measures need to be taken.
In March, the Defense Ministry and the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office are to work together on a joint action plan.