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Background: The Story of One Conscript

At the age of eighteen, Alexander D. was a high-school drop-out, had a criminal record for a burglary, and had once attempted suicide.2 He grew up in a poor and dysfunctional family—his mother was an alcoholic and his father was altogether absent—in an economically depressed town in northern Russia. He was raised by his grandmother who survived on a meager pension. In Russia, Alexander D.’s background was typical of the average conscript. And so, in November 2000, he was drafted into the Russian armed forces.

* * *

Modern Russia has had a conscription army since 1918. In recent years, approximately 400,000 young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven are drafted each year for two years of service in the regular army, the Ministry of Internal Affairs forces, border troops, or other branches of Russia’s vast armed forces.3

Russia’s approximately 800,000 conscripts are the core of its armed forces. As in other conscription-based armies, draftees make up the vast majority of the rank-and-file soldiers.4 However, in Russia, where only officers are career soldiers, all non-commissioned officers are conscripts. As even low-ranking officers are considerably removed from the day-to-day life of the rank-and-file soldier—their positions involve a lot of bureaucratic and managerial work in offices or away from the unit—Russian conscripts play an exceptionally large role in the day-to-day running of their bases.

Text Box: The Official Hierarchy
Ranks of Conscripts	Ranks of Officers
Private First Class
Junior Sergeant
Senior Sergeant
Starshina	Junior Lieutenant
Senior Lieutenant

In-Between Ranks	
Senior Ensign

The majority of these conscripts come from the most disadvantaged, least affluent parts of society, as for years young men from middle and upper class families have successfully found ways, whether legal or illegal, to avoid the highly unpopular military service. In 2002, Ministry of Defense statistics reportedly indicated that that year every second conscript had an alcohol problem prior to entering service, and that every fourth had been a drug user.5 Military officials have complained about the decreasing level of education among new conscripts and the increasing number of new conscripts with a criminal record.6 In September 2002, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov bluntly characterized the conscripts drafted in the fall of that year as a “pathetic lot, afflicted with drug addiction, psychological problems and malnutrition.”7

The situation of Russia’s officers’ corps, especially with respect to junior officers, is also bleak. For years, the military has had serious problems recruiting new junior officers and cope with high turnover. As a result, according to one expert on the Russian armed forces, 40 percent of platoon commanders are graduates from civilian colleges with no more than “the most primitive training.”8 Because of this shortage, the commander of every tenth platoon does not even have an officer’s rank.9 Second-year conscripts thus end up performing duties that should be officers’ responsibilities. Considering the harsh realities of the life of junior officers, the recruitment problems are not surprising. Alexander Golts, a leading expert on the Russian military, has compared the plight of the junior officer with that of a serf.10 The salaries of junior officers are low, their living conditions under which they live are harsh, and for professional growth and social benefits they depend on the whims of their immediate superior and officials at the personnel department. At a government meeting in March 2004, Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov stated that the families of 136,000 officers or ensigns do not have their own apartments, and that those of another 28,000 are of such poor quality that they need new apartments. More than half of these officers and their families live in dormitories.11

* * *

After being drafted, Alexander D. was assigned to the railway troops. In keeping with an old Soviet tradition that conscripts should not serve in their native provinces, he was sent to the village of Mga in Leningrad province.12 Alexander D. spent his first two months in basic training—popularly referred to as the kurs molodogo boitsa, or the “the young fighter’s training course.” During basic training, conscripts, among others, practice standing in formation and marching, undergo physical training, learn to shoot, and study the Military Code of Conduct and other relevant documents. While officers are supposed to lead many of these training sessions, due of the officer shortage, second-year conscripts often do. At the end of basic training, Alexander D. took the military oath, becoming a full-fledged soldier.

* * *

A key element of basic training is the study of the Military Code of Conduct, the Disciplinary Code of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and other documents relevant to military service. These documents outline the basic principles of engagement and behavior expected of members of the armed forces. For example, the Military Code of Conduct requires that “soldiers must constantly serve as an example of high culture, modesty and firmness,”13 and that “relations among soldiers are built on the basis mutual respect.”14 They require commanders to be firm but just. For example, commanders must be “close to [their] subordinates, know their needs and requests” and should “not tolerate rudeness or humiliation of the personal dignity of [their] subordinates” so that each soldier “feels the commander’s concern for the inviolability of his personal dignity….”15 The documents also describe in great detail the military’s hierarchy, the rules of engagement in the armed forces, and rights and duties of soldiers. They also provide for an exhaustive list of types of disciplinary punishment, and state exactly who can assign what punishment to whom, and what procedure is to be followed.

After basic training, conscripts take the military oath. From that moment on, they participate in the day-to-day management of their unit. The everyday life of conscripts at military bases consists of numerous assignments: standing guard at the entrance of the unit, the officers’ building, the weapon depot or elsewhere; doing kitchen duty; doing construction and painting on or off base; cleaning bathrooms, sleeping quarters, or the mess; working in the vegetable gardens; or tending to the territory of the base.

* * *

After taking the oath, Alexander D. was integrated into a regular railway troops company, also in Mga, and started participating in the day-to-day management of the base, with little training and endless assignments. There, Alexander D. soon realized that the rules he had studied during basic training were a far-off utopia. In practice, he found, an entirely different set of rules dominated his life—rules that, though informal and unwritten, set up an elaborate parallel order and hierarchy. In this order, the exemplary behavior, mutual respect, and careful oversight by superiors required by the Military Code of Conduct did not apply. To the contrary, these informal rules allowed second-year conscripts to treat new recruits like slaves whom they could order around with utter arbitrariness, punish in whatever way they saw fit for invented infractions, or abuse for no particular reason at all. As a first-year conscript, Alexander D. found himself at the bottom of this informal hierarchy.

* * *

At the beginning of their military service, new recruits are disparate groups of strangers. Conventional army training, with its strong emphasis on the need for teamwork, strenuous physical exercise, and basic skills training, seeks to mold these strangers together into tight military units, in which the capabilities of each individual member are marshaled for the pursuit of a common goal. In armies around the world, informal initiation practices have also traditionally also played a role in building team spirit.

For example, until it was banned in 1997, an initiation practice called “Neptune” or “shellback” was prevalent in the U.S. Navy and helped develop unity among recruits. In this ceremony, veteran sailors, called seafarers, initiate new sailors, or pollywogs, when they first cross the equator. The pollywogs dress up, sometimes in drag, eat inedible food, perform silly and demeaning tasks, and crawl on the deck covered in repulsive substances.16

In the Canadian Airborne, new recruits of Two Commando faced cold shoulder treatment during the first six months of their service.17 As one recruit described it,

See when you come to the Commando, you’re an FNG, you’re not a new guy, you are a fucking new guy, that’s how you are treated for six months. No one talks to you, no one is your friend, you do what you are told and you carry on. You’re told to do this, by whoever, you do it. Now, if people want to get in, what they generally do, in any circumstance, they try their best to please.18

Academics who study initiation practices in armed forces have found that they indeed promote group cohesion. In the words of Donna Winslow, an anthropologist who has studied initiation practices in the Canadian Airborne, “the bonding of initiation pulls them [new recruits] together in a very short time.”19 Other studies have shown that the more severe the initiation the greater the bonding within the group, and the greater the loyalty and devotion to the group.20 Interestingly, Winslow points out that bonds forged through initiation can be so strong that they undermine military effectiveness: in such cases, soldiers place group interests above those of the armed forces as a whole.21

In the same study, Winslow identifies several different types of initiation.22 Some of these involve symbolic initiation rites that occur at specific times during a new recruit’s military service and signify the transition of the initiate from one status to another—the pollywog who is accepted as a full-fledged sailor after the Neptune ceremony. Another type involves the “cold shoulder” treatment described above, which, she argues, constitutes “hazing.”23

Winslow has observed that recruits generally voluntarily submit to initiation practices, no matter how humiliating, as they are keen to prove their readiness to participate in the group regardless of the personal cost. She interviewed soldiers about an initiation ritual, later investigated by an official commission of inquiry, that took place in an elite Canadian Airborne regiment in 1992, which was partially recorded on video. The footage shows how corporals initiate fifteen to twenty initiates. The initiation involved, among others, initiates vomiting and urinating on a piece of bread prior to placing it in their mouths, doing push-ups on a piece of cardboard with feces, splattered on it, and a black initiate doing push-ups with “I love KKK” written on his back while an initiator urinated on his back.24 When interviewed by Winslow and officials investigating the incident, the initiates confirmed the voluntary nature of their participation. One said that “it’s the pride of belonging to a group…but no one makes you do it. No one gets beaten or shaken up.”25 The black initiate said he was willing to tolerate having KKK written on his back in order to be accepted by the group.26 Winslow also observes that investigators of the incident had had difficulty obtaining information on what had happened because the initiates refused to provide details.27

In recent decades, the armed forces in many Council of Europe countries, as well as in the United States, Canada and Australia, have taken steps to ban harsh initiation practices. These efforts are not seen to undermine the ability of the armed forces in these countries to mold new recruits into cohesive groups. To the contrary, the United States military has prohibited a number of initiation practices noting that severe methods of initiation undermine rather than help esprit de corps. For example, an October 1, 1997 policy statement of the United States Department of the Navy on hazing states that “Hazing degrades and diminishes the ability of victims of function within their unit. It destroys members’ confidence and trust in their shipmates and is destructive to a unit’s cohesion and combat readiness.”28

* * *

An elaborate, informal system of initiation of new conscripts, known as dedovshchina, or “rule of the grandfathers,” has existed in the Russian armed forces for decades. This system establishes 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. Essentially, newcomers, also known as dukhi (ghosts), have 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 dukh consists of countless obligations. They must at all time do the bidding of those conscripts who have served long enough—after a year of service dukhi are graduated to the elite by way of a rite of passage—to have earned rights in the informal hierarchy. Second-year conscripts are called the cherpaki and dedy, or grandfathers.29 The dedy, the elite of the system, have practically unlimited rights with respect to first-year conscripts. They can order dukhi to do anything beyond the strictures of the Military Code of Conduct or any other set of formal rules, no matter how demeaning or absurd the task. If a first-year conscript refuses to oblige or fails in his task, under this informal system the ded is free to administer whatever punishment he deems appropriate, and punishment is frequently violent.

Konstantin Bannikov, the author of the most in-depth sociological study of dedovshchina to date, has observed that the informal status of conscripts is far more important for them than their official military ranks, “[b]ecause the former, not the latter, determine the life of the person in the army and his place in the group.”30 Indeed, dedovshchina dominates every aspect of the life of the first-year conscript.

During day time, first-year conscripts must do the most physically demanding and filthiest work on the territory of the base, in the kitchen, in the barracks—due to their low status in the informal system. Bannikov describes soldiers’ messes as places where the dedy “demonstrate their power” and associates them with “great stress” for first-year conscripts.31 Dedy restrict eating time for first-year conscripts and confiscate many food items they are entitled to under the official rules, frequently leaving first-year conscripts hungry. At bathing time, Bannikov observes, “the youngest are pushed away from the best faucets, and have to crowd around one single faucet with boiling or, to the contrary, icy water coming out of it. They don’t get tubs, body scrubbers, soap.” Indeed, he says, in the armed forces “cleanliness of the body is a sign of belonging to the elite.”32

As first-year conscripts have not yet “earned” the right to free time or sleep, dedy can place unlimited and arbitrary limitations on their free time or nightly rest. Bannikov observes: “[D]uring their first year soldiers sleep considerably less than the eight hours they are entitled to under the military code of conduct.” He states that, “as the daytime schedule is fully filled, young soldiers have to fulfil the majority of their informal duties at night.”33 In the evening hours and at night, dedy make first-year conscripts work for them: make their beds, clean, dry, and repair their uniforms, tell them “fairy tales.” Also, as the absence of officers gives them a free hand, this is the time that the dedy “clarify relations, settle scores and abuse young soldiers.”34 They routinely wake up first-year conscripts and make them perform army “traditions and jokes,” or impose collective punishment for “violations” that occurred during the day.

A dukh does not even have the right to be sick. Bannikov observes that, prior to seeking medical care, a first-year conscript should “remember his place in the informal hierarchy. After all, the health of a dukh and the health of a ded are not equally important. As the status of the patient determines the attitude of the group to the illness, a soldier better not be ill before he becomes part of the elite.”35 The dedy tell first-year conscripts not to seek medical care and punish them if they do.

Personal belongings are also not for first-year conscripts. Bannikov observes that “spring and fall in any military unit [when new draftees arrive] are a time of general expectation of the new dukhi… anyone with any power sees in the dukhi an opportunity to improve their material situation.”36 Thus, the dedy confiscate the belongings and money of first-year conscripts, confiscate their salaries, and frequently make them beg for money from relatives or on the street.

Bannikov argues that most conscripts submit voluntarily to the rules of dedovshchina. He observes that the dedovshchina system, in contrast with the official system, allows everyone to move up the social ladder and become part of the elite.37 The system is based on a “ruthless but logical agreement:” the newcomer endures acts of initiation at the hands of dedy on the understanding that, at the end of the year, he will himself make the transition to the elite, and will receive “compensation” for his suffering during his second year of service.38 This compensation consists of the right to subject new dukhi to the same treatment he endured himself. Dedovshchina is self-perpetuating, as “the harsher the cherpaki [conscripts who have just entered their second year] will abuse (in Russian: goniat) the dukhi, the more fully they overcome their earlier humiliation.”39

While the suffering of those who accept this system may be somewhat mitigated by the prospect of future “compensation,” the suffering of those who reject it is all the greater. Bannikov observes that these conscripts deeply fear that they may, over time, lose their own human dignity. He cites the letter of a conscript to illustrate the point:

I look at those who have served for two years. Probably in two years I will become such a psycho, idiot myself, or I will go crazy as some have.... They can beat someone up for no reason. For them, hitting someone is no problem… Oh well, I will survive. Let them beat, humiliate even their own, but I will make it through, and remain a human being… I am not a bastard, I can’t beat a person for no reason, just like that, take him and beat him… Mother, here you can become a bastard, a beast, they are almost like animals here, they…are proud when they beat someone up. I am afraid that I may become like them.40

While officers know of the dedovshchina system, they rarely intervene and have very little to do with conscripts generally. Joris van Bladel, the author of a PhD thesis on reform in the Russian armed forces, has observed that the absence of a non-commissioned officers’ corps in the Russian armed forces has caused a radical split between soldiers and officers.41 This split makes communication between officers and soldiers “limited and very formal.” The soldiers’ collective, he maintains, perceives the officers’ corps as an adversary and lives by an unwritten “rule of silence” that prevents soldiers from reporting to officers incidents among conscripts. According to Van Bladel, even a conscript who becomes “even sporadically involved with the officers” is viewed with suspicion by the others.42

The Informal Hierarchy

In this report, we use the terms dukhi and dedy to refer to first and second-year conscripts. While the most important divide in the informal system is between first-years and second-years, dedovshchina actually establishes an unofficial, five-level hierarchy. During the first eighteen months of their service, conscripts move up the informal social ladder every six months, gradually attaining rights and shedding duties. Finally, one hundred days before the end of their two-year military service, they reach the highest level in the informal ranking. Bannikov describes the five steps on the social ladder, and the corresponding rights and duties of the conscript, as follows:43

Time of Service

Informal Rank

The Rights and Duties

0 to 6 months

Dukhi (spirits or ghosts). According to Bannikov, the word dukhi is used because the more senior conscripts “see something ephemeral in them.” Conscripts in this group are also called: ptsury, zelenye (greens), salagi (plebes), solobony, slony (elephants), and chizhi (siskins, a small bird).

“The new recruit, the lowest caste. These are the people who have just been conscripted and have no rights whatsoever.”

6 to 12 months

Molodye (youngsters). Members of this group are also called fazany(pheasants)and stazhery (interns).

“The next step along the social ladder. The spectrum of their obligations is very wide. Representatives of this group have a few insignificant rights (mostly the right to apply psychological pressure on the dukhi). The molodye are responsible for the socialization of the dukhi in the “right” direction. At the end of the first year, the molodye “graduate” to the next step, as a result of which they enter the class of the elite.”

12 to 18 months

Cherepa. Members of this group are also called cherpaki.

“The first privileged layer in the system of regimented groups. Their primary function is to control the fulfillment of the obligations by the molodye and dukhi. Cherepa have the entire bouquet of rights: they keep track of their time, i.e. they are allowed to count the days until their discharge, they can discuss issues related to the discharge. Their differences from the higher castes are observed mostly in the area of symbols of the hierarchy and in the more active, executive domination.”

18 months to 100 days prior to discharge

Dedy (grandfathers).

“Full-fledged subjects of regimented groups. These are servicemen of the “fourth period” (18 to 24 months, [or] the final six months of their service) who have all rights. Their main obligation is to guard themselves, maintain the reputation of the elite and prepare for discharge.”

Last 100 days of service

Dembel (the word is a reference to demobilizatsia, which means discharge).

“The dembel is a person of a special status. He is a transcendent subject of the army system who is eligible to associate himself with a civil community… Although he has all possible privileges in army terms, he is already beyond them.”

A number of sociologists, including Bannikov and Van Bladel, believe that the origins of dedovshchina lie in the structure of the Soviet military organization and its Russian successor.44 They point out that the armed forces fit the description of a “total institution,” a model first developed by Erving Goffman to describe places where “a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from wider society for an appreciable period of time, together form an enclosed, formally administered round of life.”45 This model has been used to explain inmate subculture in the Soviet Gulag and Van Bladel considers this subculture to be the inevitable result of the dynamic between the staff of the closed institution and its inmates. Thus, Van Bladel concludes, dedovshchina is a “perverse effect” of the exceptionally closed nature of Russia’s military organization.46

Over the past fifteen years, the nature of dedovshchina has changed. In his study of the Russian armed forces, Van Bladel observes that “the system in the 1950s and 1960s was less brutal and criminalized than it was in the 1990s.” In his analysis, scarcity is a key factor in subcultures of total institutions, and ∙the economic crisis of the 1990s increased scarcity of essential goods for the armed services and resulted in a harshening of dedovshchina.47 Comparing their own experiences with dedovshchina in the 1960s and 1970s with those of their sons now, the fathers of a number of conscripts told Human Rights Watch that their sons had endured far harsher practices than they ever had.

A more complicated informal hierarchy exists in units that have a high percentage of Caucasians or other persons of non-ethnic Russian background.48 In such units, soldiers belonging to the dominating ethnicity form a tight group and superimpose a hierarchy based on ethnicity on the dedovshchina hierarchy. Dozens of conscripts told Human Rights Watch that the Caucasians—universally referred to as the Dagestantsy, after the inhabitants of the largest region in the Caucasus—form a tight group that behaves abusively toward all non-Caucasian conscripts without necessarily differentiating between first and second years. They said that in these units first-year conscripts of Caucasian descent are immediately accepted as part of the Caucasian group. As a result, even Russian dedy, untouchable in other units, face abuses. For example, Andrei D. said that although he was a sergeant himself, the Dagestantsy abused him nonetheless: “They don’t care. They live as one family… They know that there are more of them and that no-one can protest.”49 Another conscript said the Caucasian first-year conscripts would blend in with the second years “as if they had served forever.”50 In parallel, the division between first- and second-year conscripts of non-Caucasian origin continues to exist in these units. As a result, non-Caucasian first-year conscripts suffer abuses not only from the dedy but also from the Dagestantsy, and many said they feared the Dagestantsy most. Vladimir Z. told Human Rights Watch that the Dagestantsy in his unit were in charge: “The Dagestantsy even humiliated the [non-Caucasian] dembeli… You just have to do what they say.” He said the non-Caucasian dedy also abused him, but mostly the Dagestantsy.51

* * *

No sooner was Alexander D. assigned to the Third Company at his unit, than the rules of dedovshchina became apparent. While he described the abuses during the first week as “not all too strong,” after about a week, Alexander D.—a young man with a strong sense of personal dignity—came into serious conflict with the dedy when he refused to comply with one of their orders. He told Human Rights Watch that “the one way to avoid physical abuse was complete submission—turning into a ‘lackey’ (in Russian: shesterka) who does whatever he is asked no matter how humiliating or senseless.” And Alexander D. was not willing to become one. While Alexander D. was standing guard at night, the dedy ordered him to sew collars on their jackets, and went to bed themselves. Alexander D.  did not do any sewing that night. The next morning, when the dedy found out, they made it clear his refusal would not go unpunished. One of the dedy told Alexander D. he would be better off “hanging himself.” Later that morning, one of the dedy took Alexander D. to the storage room and started beating him on the arms with an iron bed post wrapped in a towel. When Alexander D. tried to resist, the ded twice beat him with full force on the thigh. Alexander D. fell and the ded hit him on the back and head. The ded then told Alexander D. that the worst would follow at night. Indeed, that night, after Alexander D.  had gone to bed, the dedy hit him over the head with a stool to wake him up and took him to the sergeants’ room, where they beat him for a while and then told him to do push-ups. Alexander D. initially refused but after more beatings he did push-ups until around 2:00 a.m. when they told him to dust and themselves went to bed. Alexander D. again refused. These incidents early in his service set the tone for Alexander D.’s time in the armed forces.

On a regular day during day time hours, Alexander D. and his peers were routinely assigned the most unpleasant and heaviest physically demanding tasks at the base. At mealtimes, the dedy confiscated their tea, as well as their white bread and butter, leaving them “only 100 grams of potato and a piece of black bread.” At dinner, the dedy also took their meat or fish away: “You wouldn’t even get to the table before they take it from you.

The dedy took away Alexander D.’s belongings, and sent him and his peers out to beg for money to buy vodka: “They forced us to walk around the [train] platform and ask for money from people. We were supposed to say that we need money to call home: ‘Please give us some change.’” Alexander D., however, refused to beg: “I just couldn’t make myself go up to people and beg for money.” As punishment, one of the dedy hit Alexander D. over the head with a fire extinguisher, leaving a gaping scar on the top of his head.

Nights were infinitely worse. When the officers had gone home, the dedy had complete free reign over the barracks. The dedy regularly deprived the first-year conscripts of sleep and made them sew collars into their uniforms or wash their clothes. Alexander D. said: “There were many of them [dedy] so they’d wake five people up at night, and you would sew for them. 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.” The dedy also used the nights to punish those who had broken the rules or failed to comply with their orders during the day.

Gratuitous abuse was possibly the most widespread at night, especially when dedy got drunk. Sometimes, the dedy woke up first-year conscripts and made demands that were impossible, as a pretext for abusive punishment. For example, Alexander D. said he was once told, in the middle of the night, that he had fifteen minutes to get a ded a plate of fried potatoes. Another time, the dedy demanded to know where the keys to a tank were: “You’re supposed to answer the question. If you don’t know, they beat you.” Other times, the dedy would intentionally dirty a linoleum strip in the barracks with their tarpaulin boots, and force first-year conscripts to clean it up at night. The dedy also sometimes forced first-year conscripts to act out an old army joke called “dried crocodile.” The conscripts had to put their hands and feet on the posts at the head and feet of the bed and remain in push-up position for extended periods of time. “They [the dedy] lie down on the bed [beneath you] and God forbid you fall. They beat you up and then start from scratch. Sometimes they even burn your leg from down there… when they were drunk they could make you hang all night.”

The abuse even continued when Alexander D. was sick. After a ded hit him over the head with a stool, Alexander D.’s temperature spiked to 39 or 40 degrees Celsius (102.2 to 104 Fahrenheit) and he was admitted to the sickbay. Two dedy accompanied him there and, after getting drunk in the evening, “forced me to serve them: take away plates, prepare soups for them. Once, they forced me to clean up even though I was on an I.V.”

The daily grind of harassment, humiliation and abuse gradually wore Alexander D.  down. One incident put him over the edge. He told Human Rights Watch:

I received a letter from home informing me that my mother was seriously ill. Sergeants and officers…open our letters. Sometimes, someone sends money and they immediately take it away. When my letter came, they read that my mother was ill and said “Well, what are you going to do to yourself now?…Your mommy got sick. Maybe she’ll die.”… They sat down and started to laugh about the letter before they gave it to me.

Two days later, Alexander D. went to the sickbay. Second-year conscripts joined him there and continued to harass and humiliate him. He made a request for short-term leave—to visit his mother in the hospital—but was denied. Then he decided to attempt suicide. He told Human Rights Watch:

At night, when they had gone to bed, I wanted to insert air into my veins and took a syringe… A guy from my draft had gone to the bathroom and came into the kitchen to drink some water. He noticed the syringe in my hands. He took it from me and said: “Are you crazy, or something? Don’t do that. You’re going to kill yourself because of someone. You should just run away.”

And so, after about two and a half months of service, Alexander D. tried to run away for the first time. When his section was going to the smoking room, he pretended to be going to the bathroom and tried to run. However, a fellow conscript noticed him and informed his sergeant. He was captured before he reached the railroad tracks. That night and the next morning the dedy beat Alexander D. and told him that he would “never manage to run away.”

Alexander D. endured the situation in his unit for another six weeks, but then another incident made him decide to try to escape once more. Sick of the abuse in the unit, he pretended to have a fever and went into the sickbay. As before, a second-year conscript accompanied him. For three nights, the ded did not allow him to sleep before 4:00 a.m., forcing him to make tea and clean the floors. Alexander D. escaped. Near the base, he found a deserted house, where he hid for the day. In the evening he walked to the train station, hoping to be able to catch a train to St. Petersburg. But as he approached the station, he noticed a military patrol. After hiding from patrols for five days, Alexander D. got help from a few civilians who gave him regular clothes, and advised him what train to take to avoid the military patrol.

In St. Petersburg, a hungry and exhausted Alexander D.—he had not eaten for five days and slept very little—went into a church, believing no police officer would dare to bother him there. A fellow conscript had told him about the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg but he did not know how to find them. Alexander D. was lucky: a priest at the church happened to know the organization’s address and an elderly man in the church offered Alexander D. a bed and eventually helped him make contact with the organization.

* * *

For years, Russia has faced a true epidemic of thousands of first-year conscripts who flee their military units every year—according to soldiers’ rights groups, the vast majority run away from dedovshchina.52 These young men realize that they may face prosecution for unauthorized departure from their units. And they can vividly imagine the treatment they will face if a military patrol captures them and returns them to their units. Yet, their desperation is so great that they take the risk. Many of them are captured by military patrols, and many are returned by parents who fear that their sons may be imprisoned for desertion otherwise. But thousands every year make their way home and, more often than not, they end up in the offices of one of the many soldiers’ rights organizations active around Russia.

In 1989, groups of women, often mothers of victims of dedovshchina, began to organize all over Russia. Their aim was to help young men avoid being drafted arbitrarily when they had legitimate grounds not to serve, and to protect conscripts who fled their units due to dedovshchina, ill-treatment, malnutrition, and other abuse. These groups, popularly referred to as the soldiers’ mothers’ committees, quickly became one of Russia’s most widespread and effective grassroots movements, and throughout the years have helped tens of thousands of young men, literally saving lives every day.53

Most soldiers’ rights groups follow two basic models to help abused runaway soldiers avoid returning to their units. Initially, they try to establish whether there are any grounds for discharge from the armed forces on medical grounds, whether acquired pre-conscription or during military service. When soldiers’ rights groups cannot find medical grounds for a discharge from the armed forces, they seek the transfer of the conscript to a different unit.

* * *

Alexander D. reached the office of the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg one day in late March 2002. He filled out a form with basic details about himself and his military service, wrote a statement about the treatment he had faced, and filled out a questionnaire about torture. Soldiers’ Mothers staff then discussed his situation with him and subsequently set in motion an effort to get Alexander D. discharged from the military on medical grounds.

In the next few days, Alexander D. underwent several medical examinations. While Alexander D. had no significant physical problems, a former military psychiatrist, who now cooperates with the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg, found that he had a personality disorder. At the request of the Soldiers’ Mothers, military officials at Alexander D.’s unit referred him to a military hospital for observation in the psychiatric ward. After three weeks of observation, doctors at the hospital ruled that Alexander D. was not fit for military service for psychiatric reasons, and ordered him to be discharged from military service. It was unclear whether Alexander D. was drafted with the disorder or acquired it during his military service.

Toward the end of his stay at the military hospital, one of the dedy who had abused him came to the hospital and tried to take him back to the unit. He threatened Alexander D.  with violent revenge for running away and for giving an interview to a journalist about the abuses he had endured during his service. Alexander D. managed to escape and made his way back to the office of the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg.

Upon discharge, Alexander D. learned that his ordeal in the armed forces would complicate his life for years to come: On his military identity card, officials indicated that he was discharged for psychiatric reasons. As many employers demand to see a prospective employee’s military identity card, he expected this to complicate his search for work considerably. He told Human Rights Watch, his former employer, with whom he maintained good relations, would not take him back with it.

After his release from the military hospital, Alexander D. went back to his military unit together with an employee of the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg and a Human Rights Watch researcher to pick up some documents. The three met with the unit’s commander, who did not seem at all concerned about the abuses Alexander D. had faced and displayed no inclination to investigate what had happened to him. Soldiers’ Mothers and Human Rights Watch representatives also met individually with each of the four dedy whom Alexander D. had identified as his main tormentors. The dedy did not deny that they had beaten Alexander D. They maintained that without beatings it was impossible to maintain discipline in the company. They also appealed to what they clearly saw as their “right” to humiliate and abuse first-year conscripts. One of them said:

When we arrived as first-year conscripts, nobody spared us, we slaved for the dedy, and were beaten much more than this Alexander D. 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 endure a full year here so that some dukhi can now ignore us. Let them put up with it, and then their time of compensation will come.54

The dedy felt that Alexander D. was just a “weakling,” who needed to be turned into a man. The fact that Alexander D. had broken the “rule of silence” by complaining about his treatment, including to the press, particularly outraged the dedy. They called it an act of “betrayal.”

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all information on Alexander D. stems from an interview a Human Rights Watch researcher conducted with him on April 10, 2002 in St. Petersburg, materials collected during a trip to Mga military unit on April 17, 2002, as well as on archive files at the office of the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg. Alexander D. is a pseudonym.

[3] Article 2 of the Law on the Conscription Obligation and Military Service of March 28, 1998 contains a full list of all branches where conscripts may serve:

Military service is a special kind of federal state service, which citizens perform in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, as well as in the border troops of the Russian Federation, the interior troops of the Ministry of Interior of the Russian Federation, the railway troops of the Russian Federation, troops of the federal agency for government communication and information under the president of the Russian Federation, civil defense troops (hereinafter–other troops), engineering-technical and road construction military formations of federal executive organs (hereinafter–military formations), the foreign intelligence service of the Russian Federation, the organs of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the organs of the Federal Border Service of the Russian Federation, the federal organs for government communication and information, the federal organs of state security (in Russian: gosudarstvennoi okhrany), the federal organ for ensuring mobilization preparedness of the organs of state power of the Russian Federation (hereinafter–the organs) and in special formations created for time of war.

[4] The Russian armed forces also employ soldiers on short-term contracts. They make up the remainder of the rank-and-file soldiers.

[5] “Umstvenno ogranichenny kontingent” (An Intellectually Challenged Lot),, July 3, 2002 [online], (retrieved September 30, 2002).

[6] “Osennii prizyv sobiraet dan,” Utro, October 1, 2001 [online], (retrieved September 3, 2002).

[7] Natalia Yefimova, “Lawmaker: Defense Ministry Plans to Slash Draft Deferrals,” The Moscow Times, September 12, 2002.

[8] Alexander Golts, The Russian Army: Eleven Lost Years  (Moscow, Zaharov, 2004), p. 11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 10.

[11] “Zhilishchnoi probleme, gosudarstvennoe reshenie” (A State Decision for the Living Quarters Problem), Krasnaia zvezda (Red Star), March 31, 2004. At a meeting in late March 2004, President Vladimir Putin ordered his government to work out a state-sponsored mortgage system that would gradually resolve the living quarters problem in coming years.

[12] In Soviet times, conscripts were generally not allowed to serve in their home provinces. Although that rule is no longer applied strictly, many still serve away from home. In fact, serving close to home is seen as a privilege and many people are willing to pay significant bribes to relevant officers to ensure their sons serve at nearby units.

[13] Article 64 (1 and 2) of the Code of Conduct of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Article 7 of the Disciplinary Code of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

[16] Description taken from Donna Winslow, “Rites of Passage and Group Bonding in the Canadian Airborne,” Armed Forces and Society, Vol. 25 (April 1999), No. 3, pp. 425 – 457. The author of this report used an emailed copy of Winslow’s article and therefore does not reference exact page numbers in subsequent citations.

[17] In 1995, the Canadian Airborne Regiment, to which Commando Two belonged, was disbanded, after a number of scandals shocked the Canadian public. These included the release to the media of video materials showing soldiers of Commando Two involved in racist behavior in Somalia and another portraying hazing practices in Commando One. Ibid.

[18] Description taken from Winslow.

[19] Winslow.

[20] Aronson, E. and J. Mills (1959), “The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 59, pp. 177-181.

[21] Description taken from Winslow.

[22] Winslow and others also identified three stages in initiation practices in armed forces. In her study on initiation practices in the Canadian Airborne, Winslow wrote:

The rites of passage occur in three stages. The first stage occurs when the initiates’ former identity is stripped away. They are set apart and made alike to one another. They are “leveled” into a homogeneous group and effort is put into the suppression of individuality, thus encouraging investment in that group. Initiates then enter the liminal phase of the rite where events become parodies and inversions of “real” life. In this stage group bonding is reinforced as the initiates undergo similar processes of testing and humiliation. In the final stage, the initiates are incorporated into the group as members of the Regiment.

The initiation model was first described by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in his classic The Rites of Passage (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960).

[23] Winslow.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Secnav Instruction 1610.2 ASN (M&RA) of October 1, 1997

[29] Conscripts who have served from twelve to eighteen months are called cherpaki. Cherpaki derivesfrom the verb cherpat, or to “scoop.” The term most likely refers to the fact that cherpaki have half-way through their service and are gradually “scooping” away their last year. Those who have served more than eighteen months are called dedy. See text box below for a full explanation of the various informal ranks.

[30] Konstantin Bannikov, Antropologiia ekstremal’nikh grupp. Dominantnye otnosheniia sredi voennosluzh ashchikh srochnoi sluzhby Rossiiskoi Armii (The Anthropology of Regimented Society. Relations of Dominance in Social Interactions among Russian Soldiers), (Moscow: RAN, Institut Etnologii i Antropologii im. N.N. Miklukho-Maklaia, 2000), p. 14.

[31] Ibid., p. 57. See also: Human Rights Watch, “To Serve without Health. Inadequate Nutrition and Health Care in the Russian Armed Forces,” A Human Rights Watch Short Report, Vol. 15, No. 9 (D), November 2003.

[32] Ibid., p. 66.

[33] Ibid., p. 180.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid,, p. 69.

[36] Ibid.

[37] According to Bannikov, dedovshchina follows the three phases of the anthropological model for initiation rites (Ibid., p. 19). In the first phase, the individuality of the conscripts is taken away—upon conscription, they are shaved bold, dressed uniformly, and stripped of their belongings. They then enter a year-long liminal phase, during which they are neither civilians nor full-fledged soldiers. This phase is often characterized by parodies and inversions of “real life,” testing and humiliation. The third phase involves a right of passage to the elite—in the Russian army, this rite of passage generally involves dedy hitting initiates twelve times with a belt or other object. According to Bannikov:

The entire first year of service is a preparation for this rite–the ‘gradual killing’ (in Russian: umershchvlenie) of the boy for the sake of his ‘rebirth’ in a new quality–that of a man and warrior. During the first year, the person is destroyed as an individual… (Ibid., p 45.)

He adds that, with that transition, the former dukh takes on the role of his tormentors and “he himself destroys the individuality of another person.” (Ibid.)

[38] Ibid., p. 39.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., pp. 53-54.

[41] Joris van Bladel, “The All-Volunteer Force in the Russian Mirror: Transformation without Change” (Groningen: University Library Groningen, 2004). The author of this report used an electronic version of the manuscript and can therefore not reference page numbers.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Bannikov, pp. 31-34.

[44] Another school of thought traces the origins of dedovshchina  back to 1967, when military service in the Soviet Union was reduced from three to two years. Supporters of this school of thought believe that soldiers in their third year of service were so resentful of this decision that they started abusing junior conscripts, thus planting the seeds for dedovshchina. See: Van Bladel.

[45] The concept of total institutions was developed by Erving Goffman in Asylums, Essays of the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates  (New York: Doubleday, 1961), p. 13.

[46] Van Bladel.

[47] Van Bladel.

[48] The Caucasus is a mountain range in southern Russia. People from the areas immediately north and south are called Caucasians.

[49] Human Rights Watch interview with Andrei D., November 3, 2002, Cheliabinsk. Andrei D. served in unknown units in Chebarkul (Cheliabinsk Province) and Verkhnaia Pyshma (Sverdlovsk Province). Andrei D. is a pseudonym.

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

[51] Human Rights Watch interview with Vladimir Z., November 4, 2002, Cheliabinsk. Vladimir Z. served in unit 69771 in Sverdlovsk Province and in an unknown unit in Shadrinsk, Cheliabinsk Province. Vladimir Z. is a pseudonym.

[52] All young men Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report, with the exception of one, said that they ran away because of dedovshchina. The one conscript, a woodworker by profession, told us that he ran away because he was sure that as soon as the officers found out about his profession, they would make him work at their homes and dachas.

[53] Throughout Russia it is overwhelmingly the mothers of recruitment-age males who actively seek to prevent their conscription.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with a ded who asked to remain anonymous, Mga, Leningrad Province, April 17, 2002.

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