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The Consequences of Dedovshchina

Dedovshchina has devastating and lasting consequences for the physical and psychological well-being of conscripts. Tens of thousands of young conscripts try to flee their units every year because of the abuses associated with it, some armed and ready to kill themselves and others if they are apprehended. Every year dedovshchina proves lethal for some conscripts, while many others sustain permanent physical injuries as a result of it. Hundreds of conscripts commit suicide each year to escape it, and many more attempt to do so.

Desperate for a Way Out

Every year, dedovshchina drives tens of thousands of first-year conscripts to desperation, reflected in the radical options they try to escape it. Consider, for example, Denis Ivanov. He told Human Rights Watch that he contemplated intentionally breaking a leg so that he would be hospitalized and could leave his unit for a while.171 Or Aleksei K.: He wanted to volunteer for Chechnya to get away from the dedovshchina at his unit. He told Human Rights Watch that he never thought what the situation would be like there: “I just thought: at least I won’t be here.”172 Other conscripts said that they became consumed by a desire to kill or seriously injure their tormentors. Stepan M., for example, said that he dreamed of getting up at night and hitting one of the dedy with a stool“with great force so he would never wake up.”173 Alexander D., as we have seen, contemplated suicide as an escape from the abuses. These four conscripts eventually chose to run away from their units, as do most conscripts who cannot stand life in their units any more.

Runaway Shoot Outs

Dedovshchina literally drives some conscripts over the edge. Human Rights Watch interviewed one such conscript, Andrei S. He told Human Rights Watch that the dedy at his unit deprived him and his fellow first-year conscripts of sleep for two weeks, abusing them severely every night: “In the end I couldn’t stand it, took a metal rod and broke a senior conscript’s head…”174

Russian news media periodically report on conscripts who shoot their fellow soldiers or run away from their units armed and shoot their pursuers or themselves out of fear of being caught and returned to their units. For example, in August 2002, two conscripts shot dead eight fellow soldiers at the outpost where they were based in the Caucasus mountain range in Ingushetia, southern Russia. They then ran away but were captured in a neighboring province a few days later. The conscripts later confessed to the murders, reportedly telling investigators that they had killed them “to avenge hazing.”175


Most conscripts do not take the decision to run away lightly. They know that unauthorized departure from one’s unit is a criminal offense and that they may face prosecution. In the first days after their escape, military patrols and police capture many of them and return them to their units, where they often face violent repercussions. Others spend months making their way home across Russia’s vast expanses. Alexander O., for example, ran away from his unit in Novorossiisk because of constant abuses at night. For two months, he walked home, rode a cargo train part of the way, and spent some time with a group of homeless people before he was finally able to reach his family and ask them to pick him up.176

Some reach their homes but their parents send them back to their units either because they are unsympathetic to their son’s plight, panicked at the prospect of their son being jailed for what they believe is desertion, or feel strongly that he must do his patriotic duty.177 For example, Alexander Sukhanov’s mother (see above, Drunken Abuse) returned her son twice to his unit until one day he came home with burn marks on his back. Each time, she appealed to the commander of the unit, believing that that would be sufficient to make the abuses stop.178 One man told Human Rights Watch that he told his nephew that he would “stop respecting you as a man” if he ran away because of dedovshchina.179

Those who make their way home to sympathetic parents or reach the offices of a soldiers’ rights organization face a difficult battle with military officials before they are discharged from the armed forced or transferred to a different military unit. In the first few days, representatives of the military unit actively look for runaway conscripts and return them to their units if they apprehend them. Disturbingly, military officials generally do not seek to establish the reasons for conscripts’ escape and thus take them straight back to the very environment they fled. When a conscript succeeds in escaping and his parents or soldiers’ rights groups make contact with the military unit or the military procuracy, the search usually ends.

Naturally, the runaway fears the mere thought of contact with military structures. They potentially face prison, return to an abusive unit, and encounter no understanding or redress from the military. Yet, the only way out of the armed forces runs through its structures: In order to be discharged on medical grounds, the runaway must spend several weeks in a military hospital for observation. And in many cases, reasons for a discharge on medical grounds do not exist and the conscript can only hope to be transferred to a different unit. While working in the offices of soldiers’ rights groups, Human Rights Watch researchers repeatedly witnessed the panic attacks of runaway conscripts at the prospect of contact with military officials. For example, in both St. Petersburg and Volgograd we observed how the staff of local soldiers’ rights organizations spent hours and days trying to convince absolutely terrified conscripts to go to the military hospital.

Apart from the battle to be discharged or transferred, some runaways also face a court battle over criminal charges of unauthorized departure from their unit.

Statistics on Absence Without Leave

The exact numbers of conscripts who run away from their units every year are not known, and estimates range from more than ten thousand to several thousand each year.180 In August 2004, an anonymous source in the armed forces told Interfax news agency that “every month between 200 and 250 cases of absence without leave are registered in the armed forces.”181 In July 2002, the General Staff of the Armed Forces made public its statistics: in the first half of 2002, it had registered 2270 cases of servicemen who ran away from their units; most of those servicemen had been tracked down since but 860 remained missing. Furthermore, 2265 servicemen who ran away from their units since 1992 remained missing.182

The official statistics are artificially low, as a variety of categories of runaway conscripts are never recorded as such. Under Russian law, when a conscript is missing, a military unit initially conducts its own inquiry.183 If, after ten days, the soldier has still not been found, the unit is obliged to inform the military procuracy. Thus, conscripts who return to their units within ten days—whether on their own, captured by military officials or police, or are returned by their parents—are never formally recorded as having run away. Commanders must also report these incidents to their superiors in the armed forces.

However, military commanders are reluctant to formally report a runaway conscript even after these ten days expire because runaways shed a negative light on their units. Valentina Melnikova of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia estimates that commanders formally report a soldier missing in only 30 percent of unauthorized absence cases. She told Human Rights Watch:

There are cases when a young man hasn’t been in the unit for a year or more. Their parents come to us, or the youngster himself, and we call the military procuracy and ask politely: “Could you tell us please, do you have a criminal investigation regarding soldier X?” [They respond:] “For what?” And we say: “He hasn’t been in his unit for eighteen months.”184

For example, after Aleksei L. ran away, the commander of his unit repeatedly sent soldiers to the family’s home to try to apprehend him and bring him back. But he formally informed L.’s mother, by telegram, that her son had runaway only after a month.185 In another case, the commander of a conscript’s company kept information about his escape from his superiors for more than a month, while trying to track down the conscript. The company commander apparently feared repercussions for having a runaway conscript.186

Runaway conscripts who contact their military unit, for example through a soldiers’ rights organization, and receive a referral to a military hospital for a review of their fitness for military service are also not classified as absent without leave.187

Suicide Attempts and Suicidal Thoughts

Suicide is a form of self-defense. What happens there [in the units] is much worse than just hanging yourself or cutting your veins. After suffering those pains [from the abuses], you do not feel the physical pain you cause yourself.—Vasilii S.188

At least eight of the conscripts whose cases Human Rights Watch documented for this report contemplated or attempted suicide. Several of them wrote to their parents about their suicidal thoughts in apparent attempts to have them take action to remove them from their units. In these cases, the conscripts or their parents volunteered the information to Human Rights Watch; we did not ask any of the conscripts interviewed directly whether they had contemplated or attempted suicide. It is thus possible that other conscripts we interviewed also contemplated or attempted suicide but chose not to share that information with us. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, the military does not gather statistics on attempted suicides and it is not known how many conscripts attempt suicide every year during their service.

Vasilii S. endured standard abuses by the dedy in his unit: they forced him and his peers to beg for them, locked them up for hours in a safe, and subjected them to sleep deprivation. Vasilii S. was also one of the conscripts who volunteered to Human Rights Watch that he made a half-hearted suicide attempt before finding a way to run away from his unit. He told Human Rights Watch:

If you consider the people I was with, I got off easily. I’m the kind of person who never touches anybody. I always avoided conflicts and excesses… In the army it was difficult for me to see all that [violence], even if I got less than my share. It seemed to me that I had a harder time bearing it than others. They considered it a necessary [part of military service], that you need to endure, that will pass… And then “we will be like them ourselves.” I simply knew that even if I endured it all, I would never be like that. I’m simply not such a person… I even wanted to kill myself in the army.

I did not try. In fact, maybe I would not be able to. We went to the sea on an assignment: catch poachers. We selected nets… I was so sick of everything that I thought: “I’m going to hang myself.” I had already cut of a sufficient amount [of rope], chosen a place where I would do it so no one would notice me… Then an ensign noticed me…he started laughing and said: “Haha, that piece of rope is just what I needed.” With that joke he pulled the rope out of my hands, turned around and walked away. But I think he understood… I became hysterical. I started crying, fell onto the net, I don’t know how long I lay there. When I woke up, it was dark already, and they were looking for me. That’s when a new goal was born: to go home.189

Vasilii S. said that his unit was based in the mountains of Dagestan and that running away was dangerous and difficult due to its proximity to Chechnya. Vasilii S. managed to get away when he was hospitalized and met a local representative of a soldiers’ rights organization. He said a number of other conscripts from his unit tried to commit suicide, in part because running away was so difficult.

Vadim Kh. told his mother that he had tried to hang himself in a deserted house where conscripts went to smoke in the summertime. He told her that he “did not see any other way out” to escape the abuses, and that he “did not want anything else.” The noose, however, snapped and after this failed attempt Vadim Kh. decided to run away. He spent three months in the forests of Karelia in north western Russia before a villager picked him up, and contacted his mother. Earlier, while on a visit home, Vadim Kh.’s mother had noticed that her son had multiple bruises below the knees. He explained that the sergeants regularly kicked them with their tarpaulin boots.190

The mother of another conscript told Human Rights Watch that her son cut his left wrist with a razor blade. However, other conscripts found him and took him to the unit. His mother said: “The cut was not big and did not threaten his life but it was a sign of protest.”191

Several conscripts wrote to their parents warning that they would commit suicide. For example, Evgenii Grushko wrote to his mother that “if I can’t manage to run, I will do something to myself.” He expressed hope his parents would take him away from the unit so he would not have to commit suicide.192 Andrei T. wrote to his mother that “this is my last letter to you, I’m going to hang myself.” His mother panicked when she received the letter two weeks later but soon learned that her had not attempted suicide. She told Human Rights Watch, however, that he had severe psychological problems for some time after she brought him home.193

Suicides, Deaths, and Suspicious Deaths

According to official statistics, twenty-five conscripts died as a result of abuses associated with dedovshchina in the first half of 2004. 109 soldiers committed suicide during those six months, an increase of 38 percent compared to the same period a year earlier. Russia’s main military procurator suggested that dedovshchina had driven many of these soldiers to suicide. In his words, sixty of these soldiers killed themselves “not by their own will.”194 Human Rights Watch has received information on a number of suspicious deaths but, in the absence of access to investigation materials and witnesses, has not been able to determine whether these deaths occurred as a result of dedovshchina.

As part of its research for this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed relatives of eight conscripts who, according to officials, committed suicide. Typically, these relatives knew few details about the problems their sons were having. The young men often told or wrote their parents about the general situation. For example, Andrei Kostrykin wrote to his parents that he had a difficult time because the dedy were “pressuring” him.195 Vadim T. asked his parents to send him money in several letters, suggesting he had to “share” it with the dedy.196 Aleksei Andruishchenko told his mother that there were many Caucasians in his unit “who control everything” and that many conscripts run away due to abuses but he did not complain about his own treatment.197 None of the young men conveyed in their letters the troubled mental state they must have been in when they wrote them. Several of the parents believe, for exactly that reason, that their sons were accidentally killed by dedy.

As investigations into suicides are often perfunctory, in many of these cases it remains unclear to this day what exactly drove these conscripts to commit suicide. However, in a number of cases there is substantial information on the treatment of the conscripts prior to their deaths. For example, Dmitrii Samsonov wrote about dedovshchina extensively in a series of letters to his parents, describing stodnevka and repeatedly urging his parents to send him money and cigarettes.198 The military procuracy conducted a thorough investigation into the death of Aleksei Andruishchenko and found that several dedy had severely abused him in the days before his death. A court eventually found four fellow conscripts guilty of driving Andriushchenko to suicide.199 Andriushchenko’s father believes that the cause of his son’s death was not suicide as the official report claims, but abuse by dedy, but he was unable to provide conclusive evidence for this conviction.

Physical Consequences

Many conscripts sustain short-term or lasting injuries because of the practice. Between January and August of 2003, the main military procuracy recorded around 2,500 physical injuries among first-year conscripts due to dedovshchina.200 During its research, Human Rights Watch documented a number of permanent and temporary injuries.

A number of other conscripts reported other long-term injuries, ranging from chronic headaches to spinal injuries. For example, when Denis Ivanov was punished for drinking a ded’s tea (see above, Individual Punishment), he sustained a spinal injury. He told Human Rights Watch:

It hinders my life. I can’t lift heavy items. If I were to lift this table [a low, wooden table], I will displace a disc or something, my legs will start to feel numb, and by the evening I will feel very bad. I will have trouble sleeping… I sought treatment, and went to a chiropractor. The chiropractor made it better: I could bend my back and straighten my shoulders without pain. But after a week [the pain was back].201

Beatings during his military service worsened Andrei S.’s childhood limp. He told Human Rights Watch: “If, in Anapa [his first place of service], I still ran, after these beatings I can only limp. I can’t lift my leg.” At the time of the interview in April 2002, Andrei S. was preparing for surgery. Doctors hoped the surgery would improve his limp but warned him that he would probably never be able to run again.202

Petr P. told Human Rights Watch that he suffered from bad headaches as a result of the beatings he endured during military service.203 Indeed, a military medical commission found that Petr P. had received a head injury during his military service, although it declared him fit to continue to serve.204 Subsequently, a higher military medical commission ruled that Petr P. should be discharged on account of the head injury.

As described above, Vladimir P. temporarily lost his hearing in one ear after being hit on the ear. Dedy also broke his jaw. He told Human Rights Watch that a ded became angry with him because he had not left him enough potato for dinner. The ded beat all five first-year conscripts but beat Vladimir P., the newest of all, more than the rest, including on his jaw. For about a month after that, Vladimir P. said, his jaw hurt. Finally, when he told his mother, she took him to a hospital for an X-ray and he learned that his jaw was broken.205

Psychological Consequences

[He wanted] to defend the motherland. But the things he saw [in the army] crushed and ruined his entire psyche. We do not just need to cure his bruises but also his psyche—and quickly too.—Anton E.’s mother206

During its research, Human Rights Watch repeatedly witnessed the arrival of fresh runaway conscripts at the offices of soldiers’ rights organizations. Typically, these young men looked deeply traumatized, their heads and shoulders bent forward as if expecting to be hit at any moment, their eyes radiating fear and suspicion. While some recover from their trauma soon after they leave the oppressive environment of their units, many others carry the psychological scars around for years.

A number of conscripts and their parents told Human Rights Watch about the psychological problems they had after their discharge from the armed forces. For example, when a Human Rights Watch researcher asked Aleksei K. how he had adapted to civilian life after the traumatic experiences of his military service, he sighed: “Oh, it was difficult.” He said that he did not understand the freedom of civilian life, that he did not want people to touch him, that he avoided people, and that he did not want to talk about his service.207 K.’s mother told Human Rights Watch that his army experience had changed him permanently. She said that ever since he ran away from his unit in Orenburg he had not been able to keep steady relationships and hinted that he was abusive in them. She said that he had become very explosive. For example, she said, “he can work on a radio or something very quietly in his room and then suddenly explode and start throwing things around in anger [when something goes wrong].” She said that he did not have such problems prior to his service. She also said that her son refused to talk to anyone about his military service and predicted he would refuse to speak to the Human Rights Watch researcher.208 To her surprise, her son spoke very openly in a long one-on-one interview about the abuses he endured.

Another conscript, Aleksei Koshelev, who served in a Ministry of Internal Affairs unit near St. Petersburg, acknowledged changes in his behavior following his military service. He said:

Now I can’t go work normally where I worked before. I’m not the same as I was. I…sleep more, eat less, and I constantly have [problems] with my girlfriend. Before, I worked in a disco as a disc jockey. I would…drink with my friends, dance with my girlfriend. When I came home [from the army] – that was over. I don’t know [what exactly changed]. I have become unbalanced, angry, people say. They ask me [something], and I respond with force, bad force. That’s what my parents say.209

Soldiers’ rights groups frequently send runaway conscripts for full physical and psychological examinations to private clinics, which usually find that they have psychological and psychiatric problems. However, the absolute majority of conscripts who return from their military service with symptoms that may indicate post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychological abnormalities never seek professional care. Only one of the young men interviewed for this report said he did. Vasilii S. said that when he left the armed forces, “this world [the civilian world] was like a dream, and that one was real… It all boiled and raged inside me. I lived it… Wherever I went I thought about it.” Unable to come to grips with his life without uniform, he sought help. He said that over time a psychologist helped him reverse his feelings. In the interview, he told Human Rights Watch that civilian life feels real again and his army experience has now become like a “bad dream.”210

Disclosure of Medical Condition upon Discharge

Military medical commissions discharge numerous conscripts every year on neurological and psychiatric grounds, as was the case with Alexander D. Although Russian and international law protect the confidentiality of medical information, military commanders routinely include specific information about the type of medical condition that led to the discharge in the military identity cards of these young men.211 As Russian labor law allows employers to check the military identity cards of prospective employees, this disclosure can severely complicate the professional life of these young men.

[171] Human Rights Watch interview with Denis Ivanov.

[172] Human Rights Watch interview with Aleksei K.

[173] Human Rights Watch interview with Stepan M.

[174] Andrei S., to his great fortune, avoided criminal charges for his loss of self-control. When he learned of the incident, Andrei S.’s commander sent him to a military hospital for an assessment of his fitness for military service. The commander evidently wanted to avoid an investigation into the incident, which would no doubt have uncovered the conditions that led to Andrei S.’s outburst and could have reflected badly on the commander’s further career. The medical examiners found he was not fit on psychiatric grounds and Andrei S. was discharged. The fate of the ded is not known.

[175] Yuri Bagrov, “Two Russian border guards confess to killing eight comrades, Putin urges military discipline,” Associated Press, August 28, 2002.

[176] Human Rights Watch interview with Alexander O., October 2, 2002, Volgograd.Alexander O. served in unit 42091 in Krasnodar Region. Alexander O. is a pseudonym. In this case, the abuses were perpetrated by so-called Dagestantsy.

[177] In quite a few other cases documented by Human Rights Watch, it was the parents who, on the contrary, took the initiative to take their children away from their units. For example, Galina F. told Human Rights Watch that after she learned of the hazing her son had suffered her husband brought him home. He went to the unit and asked the commander to give their son a few hours of leave. The officer later complained that the father had broken his word of honor to which the father replied: “Yes, I did but when I saw his condition… What do you think, my word of honor is more important than my son?” Human Rights Watch interview  with Galina F., the mother of Alexander F., November 5, 2002, Cheliabinsk. Galina F. served in a training unit in Elan and in unit 69771 in 32d Gorodok (both are in Sverdlov Province). Galina F. is a pseudonym.

[178] Human Rights Watch interview with Alexander Sukhanov and his mother.

[179] Human Rights Watch interview with the uncle of Igor U.

[180] Thousands of runaway conscripts seek the help of soldiers’ rights organizations every year. For example, between 700 and 1,000 come to the Moscow-office of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia every year; around 1,000 to the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg; more than 300 to Right of the Mother in Volgograd; around 150 to the Association of Soldiers’ Mothers in Cheliabinsk; and around 100 to the Nizhnii Novgorod Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers.

[181] “In Russia, arrest warrants are out for 1600 soldiers who have left their units,” Interfax news agency, August 5, 2004.

[182] Vladimir Mukhin, “Minoborony: po Rossii guliaet dva batal’ona desertirov” (Defense Ministry: Two Batallions of Deserters are Wandering around Russia),, July 11, 2002 [online],  (retrieved September 3, 2002).

[183] According to Russia’s criminal procedure code, military commanders are responsible for conducting an initial inquiry into potential criminal offenses (Article 40(1)). This inquiry must be finalized within ten days, after which the case must be transferred to the military procuracy (Article 93 of the Main Military Procuracy’s Instruction to the Investigative Organs of the Armed Forces and Other Military Formations of the Russian Federation of August 1, 1994).

[184] Human Rights Watch interview with Valentina Melnikova.

[185] Human Rights Watch interview with the mother of Aleksei L.

[186] Human Rights Watch interview with the parents of Rem P.

[187] When unit commanders refuse to issue a referral to a military hospital, conscripts can appeal to the military procuracy for a referral. In such cases, the absence without leave is registered officially.

[188] Human Rights Watch interview with Vasilii S.

[189] Ibid.

[190] Human Rights Watch interview with the mother of Vadim Kh., April 9, 2002, St. Petersburg. Vadim Kh. served in Ministry of Defense unit 37551 in Sertolovo and unit 01480 in Pechenga, Leningrad Province. Vadim Kh. is a pseudonym.

[191] Human Rights Watch interview with the mother of Alexander K., April 18, 2002, St. Petersburg. Alexander K. is a pseudonym.

[192] Human Rights Watch interview with Olga and Nikolai Grushko, parents of Evgenii Grushko, April 18, 2002, St. Petersburg.

[193] Human Rights Watch interview with the mother of Andrei T., November 4, 2002, Cheliabinsk. Andrei T. served in a ministry of interior unit in Lesnoi (Sverdlovsk Province) and at a unit in Ozersk. Andrei T. is a pseudonym.

[194] “Suicide rate on rise in Russian army,” Associated Press, July 28, 2004.

[195] Human Rights Watch interview with the parents of Kostrykin, October 27, 2002, Chistogorsk. Kostrykin served at a unit in Birobidzhan (Jewish autonomous province).

[196] Human Rights Watch interview with the mother of Vadim T., November 4, 2002, Cheliabinsk. Vadim T. served in ministry of interior unit 3468 in Snezhinsk (Cheliabinsk Province). Vadim T. is a pseudonym.

[197] Human Rights Watch interview with Ivan Andriushchenko,

[198] Human Rights Watch interview with the parents of Dmitrii Samsonov.

[199] See above footnote 123.

[200] See: Sergei Ovsiyenko, Alexander Shashkov, “Russian Prosecutor Says Cases of Hazing in Army up 30%,” Itar-Tass news agency, September 3, 2003; Dmitrii Iurov, “Prestupniku mesto v tiurme (Criminals should be in jail),” Krasnaia Zvezda (The Red Star), September 5, 2003; and “V rossiiskoi armii uvelichilos chislo neustavnykh otnoshenii,”, September 3, 2003.

[201] Human Rights Watch interview with Denis Ivanov.

[202] Human Rights Watch interview with Andrei S., St. Petersburg, April 13, 2002. Andrei S. is a pseudonym.

[203] Human Rights Watch interview with Petr P.

[204] The examination report is on file with Human Rights Watch.

[205] Human Rights Watch interview with Vladimir P.

[206] Human Rights Watch interview with the mother of Anton E.

[207] Human Rights Watch interview with Aleksei K.

[208] Human Rights Watch with Aleksei K.’s mother, October 4, 2002, Volgograd.

[209] Human Rights Watch interview with Aleksei Koshelev.

[210] Human Rights Watch interview with Vasilii S.

[211] Article 30(6) of the Principals of Legislation of the Russian Federal on The Protection of the Health of Citizens of 1993 states that a patient has the right to “confidentiality of information…about the condition of his health, the diagnosis and other information received during examinations and treatment.” The disclosure of medical information also violates Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to respect for a person’s private life.

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