<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

Executive Summary

Throughout the first year of their military service, hundreds of thousands of new recruits in the Russian armed forces face grossly abusive treatment at the hands of more senior conscripts. Under a system called dedovshchina, or “rule of the grandfathers,” second-year conscripts force new recruits to live in a year-long state of pointless servitude, punish them violently for any infractions of official or informal rules, and abuse them gratuitously. Dozens of conscripts are killed every year as a result of these abuses, and thousands sustain serious—and often permanent—damage to their physical and mental health. Hundreds commit or attempt suicide and thousands run away from their units. This abuse takes place in a broader context of denial of conscripts’ rights to adequate food and access to medical care, which causes many to go hungry or develop serious health problems, and abusive treatment by officers.

This report, which documents these abuses, is based on three years of research that have allowed Human Rights Watch to analyze the dedovshchina system, its consequences for the physical and mental well-being of conscripts, and the extent to which treatment under dedovshchina is inconsistent with Russian and international human rights standards. During 2002 and 2003, we conducted research in seven regions across Russia, including Cheliabinsk, Moscow, Novokuznetsk, Novosibirsk, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, and Volgograd. We interviewed more than one hundred conscripts, their parents, officials, lawyers, NGO experts, and former military servicemen. The conscripts served on more than fifty bases in more than twenty-five of Russia’s eighty-nine provinces. We also extensively studied the archive files of several soldiers’ rights groups. In February 2004, we had a meeting to discuss our findings with officials of the Ministry of Defense in Moscow.

Dedovshchina exists in military units throughout the Russian Federation. Itestablishes an informal hierarchy of conscripts, based on the length of their service, and a corresponding set of rights and duties for each group of the hierarchy. As in militaries around the world, newcomers have essentially no rights under the system—they must earn them over time. At the beginning of their service, conscripts are “not eligible” to eat, wash, relax, sleep, be sick, or even keep track of time. Thus, any restrictions placed on these functions are considered permissible. The life of a new recruitconsists of countless obligations to do the bidding of those conscripts who have served long enough—a year or more—to have earned rights in the informal hierarchy. Second-year conscripts, called the dedy1>, have practically unlimited power with respect to their junior colleagues. They can order them to do whatever they like, no matter how demeaning or absurd the task, while remaining beyond the strictures of the Military Code of Conduct or any other set of formal rules. If a first-year conscript refuses to oblige or fails in the assigned task, the senior conscript is free to administer whatever punishment he deems appropriate, no matter how violent.

Dedovshchina is distinguished by predation, violence, and impunity. During their first year of service, conscripts live under the constant threat of violence for failing to comply with limitless orders and demands of dedy. Many conscripts spent entire days fulfilling these orders, which range from the trivial, like shining the seniors’ boots or making their beds, to the predatory, such as handing over food items to them at meal time, or procuring (legally or illegally) money, alcohol or cigarettes for them. First-year conscripts face violent punishment for any failure—and frequently not only for their own individual failure, as punishment is often collective—to conform to the expectations of dedy. As a rule, punishment happens at night after officers have gone home. Dedy wake the first-year conscripts up in the middle of the night and make them perform push-ups or knee bends, often accompanied by beatings, until they drop. First-year conscripts also routinely face gratuitous abuse, often involving severe beatings or sexual abuse, from drunken dedy at night. Dedy sometimes beat new recruits with stools or iron rods.

Dedovshchina has all the trappings of a classic initiation system; indeed, it likely emerged as one several decades ago. Such systems, which exist in many social institutions around the world, including schools, athletic clubs, and especially the armed forces of many countries, can play a legitimate role in military structures by enhancing  group cohesion and esprit de corps. Initiation systems license the group to erase a certain degree of individuality in its members, and the possibility of abuse is inherent in that license.

While dedovshchina may once have served the purpose of initiation, it has in the past twenty years degenerated into a system in which second-year conscripts, once victims of abuse and deprivation themselves, enjoy untrammeled power to abuse their juniors without rule, restriction, or fear of punishment.  The result is not enhanced esprit de corps but lawlessness and gross abuse of human rights.  The collapse of dedovshchina as an initiation system has occurred at both the command level and at the conscript level.

At the command level, abusive practices associated with dedovshchina have persisted due to an almost universal failure on the part of the officers’ corps to take appropriate measures. Our research found that the vast majority of officers either chose not to notice evidence of dedovshchina or, worse, tolerate or encourage it because they see dedovshchina as an effective means of maintaining discipline in their ranks. Indeed, we found that officers routinely fail to send a clear message to their troops that abuses will not be tolerated, reduce existing prevention mechanisms to empty formalities or ignore them altogether, and fail to respond to clear evidence of abuse.

The perversity of this attitude toward “maintaining discipline” in the short run is that it so clearly undermines the effectiveness of Russia’s armed forces over time.  Horror stories about dedovshchina motivate tens of thousands of Russian parents every year to try to keep their sons out of the armed forces. As the most affluent and educated families do so most successfully, the armed forces increasingly draw recruits from poor segments of the population, and many of the recruits suffer from malnutrition, ill-health, alcohol or drug addiction, or other social ills even before they start to serve. Moreover, as mentioned above, thousands of the young men who are drafted each year run away from their units, and hundreds commit suicide.

At the conscript level, the degeneration of the system is more contemptible than perverse: instead of initiating new recruits into their new role of soldiers, dedy use dedovshchina primarily as a means of avenging the abuses they themselves faced during their first year of service and of exploiting new recruits to the fullest extent possible, both materially and otherwise. The comment of one ded to Human Rights Watch was typical:

When we arrived as first-year conscripts, nobody spared us, we slaved for the dedy, and were beaten much more than this [new recruit] now… And we did not complain, we did not run away, and eventually we became friends with the dedy. Now it’s our turn. That’s the law here. We didn’t put up with a full year here so that some dukhi [a derogatory term for new recruits] can now ignore us. Let them take it, and then their time of compensation will come.

As such, dedovshchina is more a system of vengeance than a means of building esprit de corps or forming a disciplined army, as initiation systems can be in other armed forces.

Yet, there seems to be nothing inevitable about the situation at either the command or conscript level.  We found evidence suggesting that officers who provide strong leadership can stop the abuses associated with dedovshchina. Six conscripts told Human Rights Watch that they served both in units where dedovshchina was rampant and where it was practically absent. They uniformly stated that the officers in units without dedovshchina sent a consistent and clear message to their troops that they would not tolerate abuses, maintained a certain closeness to their troops, meticulously implemented existing prevention mechanisms, and acted decisively on evidence of abuse.

Although international law requires the Russian government to take immediate measures to end these abuses, it has thus far failed to take the appropriate steps. Instead of taking a clear and public stance against the abuses, government officials have largely ignored the issue in their numerous speeches about military reform. The government has yet to adopt a clear and comprehensive strategy to deal with the abuses. Instead of vigorously examining the reasons why first-year conscripts flee their units, military officials routinely threaten runaways with prosecution for unauthorized departure from their bases. Military commanders and the military procuracy routinely shield their perpetrators from justice, rather than investigate reported incidents of abuse.  The government’s position is all the more puzzling because dedovshchina so clearly undermines the military effectiveness of Russia’s army. 

Human Rights Watch calls on President Vladimir Putin to create a task force to design a comprehensive strategy for combating dedovshchina abuses and to implement that strategy. We also call on the government to create a special ombudsperson for military servicemen under Russia’s general ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin. We urge top Russian leaders to make a firm, public commitment to ending these abuses, and to take steps to prevent them, in part by reinforcing existing prevention mechanisms, training current and future officers, and studying best and worst practices. The government should establish a meaningful accountability process for the perpetrators of dedovshchina abuses as well as officers who tolerate them.

[1] Dedy means grandfathers. Its singular is ded.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>October 2004