One of the main responsibilities of commanders in enhancing the conditions of service is to ensure timely and full provision of the prescribed norms of nutrition to every serviceman.21
For the first month of his military service, Vasilii S.’s typical meal consisted of water-based millet porridge with fish, mashed potato, some bread, butter, and a cup of steaming tea.22 In the three meals per day he got, there was no meat, vegetables, or eggs, all required by internal military regulations. Frequently, the eighteen-year-old and his fellow conscripts were forced to gulp the hot food and tea down in a matter of minutes. That was all the time senior conscripts gave them to eat, leaving them the choice between “swallowing boiling food” and “collapsing under the severe physical strain [of military service].” Often, senior conscripts also confiscated the butter. The food itself was of inferior quality, as Vasilii S. soon discovered. The mashed potato was made of expired, and sometimes moldy, instant potato mix and water. Vasilii S. avoided it whenever he could because it gave him heartburn. One day, when he had kitchen duty, Vasilii S. was asked to prepare the fish for the porridge. As he cut up the pike and catfish, he discovered that they were worm-infested. He stopped eating the fish after that but could not bring himself to tell his fellow soldiers.
Vasilii S.’s diet clearly fell short of the Russian military’s internal regulations that prescribe a detailed daily diet for soldiers, but his experience was not exceptional.23 In 2002, Human Rights Watch interviewed thirty-one conscripts from military bases across Russia about their diet in military service. Nineteen of the young men told Human Rights Watch that they were badly fed throughout their first year of military service. Repeated claims by these and other conscripts of weight loss during military service appeared to confirm that the meals these men received were nutritionally insufficient. Ten conscripts, who all served on more than one military base, said they had mixed experiences. Only three young men said they had been fed well throughout their military service. Interviews with experts at conscripts’ rights organizations in regions across Russia, and extensive research in their case records strongly suggest that malnourishment is a problem at military bases throughout the country, and has been for years. The diet generally described does not appear to meet nutritional standards and the food is often inferior or pest-infested. Worse still, younger conscripts often have too little time to consume their meal as senior conscripts impose rules on first-year conscripts that force them to practically inhale their (sometimes hot) food or leave half their meals behind. Senior conscripts also frequently compel first-year recruits to hand over choice food items to them.
Two retired military officials identified corruption as another reason why the quantity and quality of food items that reach the conscripts’ plate do not meet the official standard. They said corrupt officers at warehouses and kitchens sell off food products for their own profit, sometimes replacing the food items with inferior products. According to a retired colonel, now the head of the St. Petersburg-based NGO For Military Reform, large quantities of food are lost in the regiments. He said officers in charge of regimental warehouses, the heads of the canteens, and the cooks, routinely steal food to sell it on the market or for their own consumption.24 A former military procurator confirmed the existence of these corrupt processes and said that “everyone is complicit” (in Russian: Ruka ruku moet) making the official mechanism to check the quality and quantity of the food conscripts get an empty formality.25 In a letter to Human Rights Watch, the Russian Ministry of Defense stated that it exercises “strict control” over all levels of the provisions service. It stated that, as a result, “individual facts of losses and failure to deliver material funds are uncovered, which are the result of ill-faith of individual officials to their official duties.”26
For most conscripts, the lack of adequate food results in hunger; in the words of one conscript we interviewed, “a feeling of hunger haunted us all the time.”27 Undoubtedly, inadequate food intake among many conscripts also makes them more susceptible to illnesses, including nutritional deficiency disorders. In some cases, complications related to malnourishment led to the premature death of conscripts.
Russian official standards are consistent with the government’s international obligation to provide adequate food to conscripts. A Ministry of Defense order on rations and the Military Code of Conduct (in Russian: Ustav vnutrennei sluzhby vooruzhennykh sil Rossiiskoi Federatsii) provide a detailed legal framework for the diet of soldiers. The order, which is legally binding, establishes standard daily rations for all troops, including conscripts.28 It contains a list of foods that conscripts should receive every day, and specifies required amounts per product in grams. These include, among others, white and dark bread, cereals, pasta, meat, fish, milk, butter, sugar, and vegetables (see Graph 1 for the full general ration). This official diet appears to be close to international dietary recommendations and to national recommendations in, for example, the United States, with respect to energy and protein content. It is not possible, however, to evaluate the dietary recommendations completely without more information about the content of the recommended daily vitamin supplement and about the assumptions behind the recommendations on the quality of the grains and meat for which specific quantities are suggested.29