Rights group details brutal hazing of Russian conscripts

Young draftees suffer beatings, humiliation, death as virtual slaves

October 21, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - He was humiliated, robbed and beaten. All because he was drafted into the Russian army.

Like thousands of conscripts, Andrei Baryakin had looked forward to serving his country.

"I always wanted to be a paratrooper," said the 20-year-old from Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial city about 200 miles east of Moscow. "They are brave and courageous people."

But the first morning Baryakin awoke in his barracks, he found that someone had stolen his shoes. Other draftees in the barracks had also been robbed by longer-serving comrades.

What followed were months of theft, extortion and brutal hazing, part of an institutionalized system of abuse called dedovshchina that greets the majority of soldiers inducted into the Russian military each year.

It is a military tradition that dates to the Soviet era but has now grown criminal, critics say. According to the group Human Rights Watch, the brutal hazing kills dozens of conscripts and injures thousands more annually.

"There are two places Russian soldiers are killed every day - the war in Chechnya and in the army," said Steve Crawshaw of Human Rights Watch.

With 1.1 million soldiers, Russia has one of the largest standing armies in the world. And 800,000 of them are conscripts - young men in their late teens or early 20s who are too poor, too ill-educated or, like Baryakin, too idealistic to dodge the draft.

Draftees face violence in the barracks every night for most of their first year of service. They arrive at their barracks after basic training to find that they are considered virtual slaves.

During the day, these novice soldiers - called dukhi, or "ghosts" - must perform their regular duties. At night, they fall prey to the grim pranks and vicious whims of the longer-serving soldiers, called dedy, or "grandfathers."

The "grandfathers" help themselves to food, clothing and money. They force new soldiers to perform menial chores - from making beds to sewing clothing to reciting bawdy "fairy tales" to lull their tormentors to sleep. Meanwhile, the raw recruits are permitted perhaps an hour of sleep a night.

If a novice fails to follow orders or breaks some arbitrary barracks rule, he is punished - anything from performing push-ups to being punched, kicked or savagely beaten.

The practice of violent hazing in the Russian armed forces - all but ignored by the military leadership - has been widely reported. Human Rights Watch released yesterday perhaps the most comprehensive independent study of the problem to date.

Researchers said they interviewed more than 100 conscripts, parents, officials and others in seven regions across Russia, from St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.

What they found was a tradition run amok. Embittered by low pay and wretched housing, officers no longer seem to care much what happens to recruits and often let conscripts with more experience run the barracks, inflicting whatever sadistic punishments they wish.

Hazing in the Russian military is now less a rite of passage, the report says, than a system "distinguished by predation, violence and impunity."

"The result is not enhanced esprit de corps but lawlessness and gross abuse of human rights," the report says.

Diederik Lohman, the author of the report, said the conscripts who survive months of brutality are eager to inflict similar pain on those who follow. The result is a cycle of increasing brutality.

A draftee identified in the report only as Aleksandr D. told how he would be roused every night to perform menial tasks.

"They'd wake five people and you would sew for them," he told researchers. "If you sewed badly, you paid for it. [Once] I sewed and they beat me badly with a mop, then took me to the bathroom ... and beat three of us with the handle of a shovel."

Eventually, with the aid of the Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg, the young soldier won a medical discharge.

When a representative of the mothers group confronted one of Aleksandr D.'s tormentors, the soldier dismissed Aleksandr D. as a "weakling."

"When we arrived as first-year conscripts, nobody spared us, we slaved for the dedy, and were beaten much more than this Aleksandr D.," said the soldier. "And we did not complain, we did not run away, and eventually we became friends with the dedy. Now it's our turn."

Two years ago, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called the draftees "a pathetic lot, afflicted with drug addiction, psychological problems and malnutrition."

Human Rights Watch says the humiliation, threats and violence drive dozens of young soldiers to suicide each year.

Baryakin chafed at the system from the start. He and the other draftees were roused at midnight and forced to do calisthenics until just before reveille.

"I was so tired that even when I was standing guard I was sleeping on my feet," he said.

All his monthly pay went to the "grandfathers."

After his mother wrote his commanding officer to complain, a captain called Baryakin into his office. The officer punched him in the nose, breaking it. The captain also sent word to the rest of Baryakin's unit. "You can do with this guy whatever you want," Baryakin quoted the officer as saying.

Regular beatings began. Finally, Baryakin's mother appealed to the military prosecutor's office, which intervened. Baryakin was given a medical discharge in May after just nine months in the service.

Two others in his unit suffered spleen injuries because of repeated assaults, Baryakin said. Both received discharges.

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