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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.

Starvation Deaths

Every few years, Russian and international media report cases of conscripts dying as a result of complications from malnutrition.

  • Vyacheslav Turov died on October 10, 2001 after serving only three and a half months in a military unit in the Chita Province in Siberia. Prior to his death, the young man had complained about his diet in a letter to his parents, saying he had lost seven kilograms in the first few weeks of his service because of an inadequate diet. The forensic report states that emaciation contributed to Turov’s death, and identified as the immediate cause of death a general infection resulting from double pneumonia. Turov’s parents told Human Rights Watch that a criminal investigation into Turov’s death revealed that conscripts in his unit were not adequately fed.

  • In early 1996, Mikhail Kubarskii, a conscript serving in Russia’s Far East, died emaciated and severely undernourished. According to the Associated Press, Kubarskii had been drafted in the fall of 1995. By the time he died, the 180-centimeters (6 ft.) tall soldier weighed 42 kilograms (93 pounds).

  • In the course of a week in January 1993, four sailors stationed on Russkii Island in the Pacific Ocean died from complications related to malnutrition. According to Moscow News, “the diagnoses were ‘coma’ and ‘pneumonia,’ and all of them without exception had an elementary malnutrition or dystrophy.” Two of the men also had “bruises, and swellings, and abrasions from beatings.” An investigation into these deaths found that in the two military units stationed on the island 609 conscripts suffered from dysentery and more than 300 of malnutrition.

The military and procuracy conducted investigations into each of these incidents. One officer received a two-year suspended sentence in relation to Turov’s death. Human Rights Watch does not know whether anyone was held accountable for the other deaths.

Official Standards

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

21 Article 329 of the Military Code of Conduct. See: Obshchevoinskie ustavy vooruzhennykh sil Rossiiskoi Federatsii (Codes of Conduct for the armed forces of the Russian Federation), (Rostov-na-Donu, Feniks, 2002).

22 Human Rights Watch interview with Vasilii S., October 4, 2002, Uriupinsk, Volgograd Province. S. served in unit 2062 in the city of Kaspiisk, Republic of Dagestan. Vasilii S. is a pseudonym.

23 In fact, Vasilii S. was lucky; after a month he was transferred to a different military base, where he was fed slightly better.

24 Human Rights Watch interview with Sergei Podolskii, November 28, 2001, St. Petersburg

25 Human Rights Watch interview, July 31, 2003, undisclosed location. The former military procurator requested to remain anonymous.

26 Letter from V. Isakov, deputy minister of defense, to A. Neistat, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, dated June 25, 2003, No. 163/VNK/292.

27 Human Rights Watch interview with Denis Ivanov, April 17, 2002, St. Petersburg. Ivanov served in units 3526 (Lebiazhe, Leningrad Province) and 6717 (St. Petersburg) of the Ministry of Interior’s troops.

28 Supplement No. 1 to the Regulation on Ensuring Rations to the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in Peacetime, signed by then- Minister of Defense Igor Sergeev in Decree 400 of July 22, 2000. The ration lists vary for the different types of troops and different kinds of situation, including for special rations for air and sea borne troops, for troops on submarines, as well as for hospitalized military servicemen. In this report, we compare conscripts’ actual diets to the general ration (in Russian: obshchevoiskovoi paek).

29 See, e.g., United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization/World Health Organization, Handbook on Human Nutrient Requirements (Rome: United Nations, 2001), and National Research Council, Recommended Dietary Allowances: 10th Edition (Report of the Subcommittee on the Tenth Edition of the Recommended Dietary Allowances, Food and Nutrition Board, Commission on Life Sciences, National Research Council), Washington, D.C. United States Department of Agriculture. If, however, soldiers receive only cooked cabbage, bread and grain porridges for days at a time with no supplements, fresh fruits or vegetables, eggs or meat, as indicated by some of the men interviewed by Human Rights Watch, their diets would be likely to be deficient in protein, vitamins and minerals and possibly energy.

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November 2003