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What to say about dedovshchina, its roots are deep, they date back to Soviet times. The issue can be resolved radically, by transferring the armed forces to voluntary recruitment basis. But let me tell you: that isn’t going to happen any time soon.
- Comment by Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov, March 2003.273

Sergei Ivanov’s comment sums up the Russian government’s approach to dedovshchina: while it recognizes dedovshchina as a problem, it has essentially accepted it as a fact of life—at least until an all-volunteer army is created and that, according to a more recent public statement by Sergei Ivanov, may not happen at all.274

Human Rights Watch believes that the Russian government cannot wait for the creation of professional armed forces in order to successfully fight abuses linked to dedovshchina, and that it does not have to do so. However, it does need to substitute its haphazard approach to the problem with a carefully designed, multifaceted strategy, and implement that strategy as a matter of priority. In an August 16, 2004 letter to President Vladimir Putin, Human Rights Watch proposed the creation of an interdepartmental task force to spearhead such an effort. We suggested that such a task force be headed by an independent prominent individual with relevant expertise and authority in the armed forces, that it be charged with developing the strategy in consultation with relevant government officials, military officials, nongovernmental organizations, and other relevant groups, and that it oversee the strategy’s implementation. We stressed that the task force would need strong, publicly stated, support from and regular access to the president, minister of defense, and other relevant top officials.

In the letter, we recommended that the government mandate the task force to consider, at minimum, the following five issues when developing a strategy to combat dedovshchina: public commitment, prevention, accountability, independent monitoring, and structural reform.

Public Commitment to Combating Dedovshchina

When fighting entrenched problems, such as crime, racism, or soccer hooliganism, widely circulated public statements of commitment by officials at the highest level are a necessary first step for success. Such statements make it clear to the public and officialdom that the issue is a priority for the government; they empower officials and public actors already trying to address the issue; they empower victims to step forward and lodge complaints; and they deter perpetrators and those who shield them from punishment. These public statements need to send a clear message and must be repeated regularly to reinforce the message.

Unfortunately, to date, public statements on dedovshchina by top government officials have been few and far between, and have sent mixed and inconsistent messages. For example, while addressing the priorities for the armed forces in 2003 and 2004, neither Sergei Ivanov, in an extensive interview with Rossiiskaia gazeta in January 2003, nor Vladimir Putin in his 2004 state-of-the-nation speech, mentioned the issue of dedovshchina even once.275 Comments occasionally made by top officials unfortunately fail to convey a clear message. This comment by Sergei Ivanov is an example:

One other thing that concerns me are the runaways, sometimes hundreds of kilometers, to so-called committees of soldiers mothers... In fact, there are hundreds of such committees, or even thousands. Who supports them, how they live, that remains a big question.276

Instead of focusing on the main problem—why conscripts run away from their units in such large numbers—he insinuates there is something suspicious in the sources of funding for soldiers’ mothers groups. While soldiers’ rights groups and the government may have an understandably adversarial relationship, these organizations could be a very useful resource for the Ministry of Defense in fighting dedovshchina.

The government’s public message on dedovshchina should convey that dedovshchina abuses are wrong; that they will not be tolerated; and that officers who tolerate them will be punished.

The creation of the above-mentioned task force would be a natural moment to launch a public outreach effort to send this message and emphasize the government’s commitment to eradicating initiation abuses. The government should make use of its significant control over television media to promote the work of the task force and report on its progress. Regular meetings between top government officials and the head of the task force would underscore the continued importance the Russian government attaches to its work and would reaffirm the government’s commitment to eradicating these abuses.


A significant part of the government’s strategy to combat abusive practices should focus on prevention, including the training of current and future officers on initiation practices, strengthening enforcement of existing prevention mechanisms, and examining best and worst practices.

Training of Officers

In a number of developed countries special training programs on preventing abusive initiation practices are a standard part of the curriculum at officers’ schools. These programs seek to sensitize future officers to initiation practices; teach them what initiation practices are banned and why; how to spot such practices; and how to take steps against them. A similar training program should be part of the curriculum at officers’ schools in Russia. The government should also strive to hold such training sessions for current officers.

Enforcement of Existing Prevention Mechanisms

Existing prevention mechanisms requiring officers regularly to monitor the health of soldiers in practice are not preventing dedovshchina. This report shows that officers frequently ignore these mechanisms altogether or reduce them to empty formalities, and suggests that officers’ compliance with these requirements is checked only superficially.

Top officials at the Ministry of Defense and other relevant ministries should reinforce the importance of these prevention mechanisms. This could be conveyed in a written instruction from top officials to officers around the country explaining the importance of these mechanisms, and insisting on their rigorous implementation, and in articles in publications widely read by officers. Finally, the government should consider developing a mechanism for surprise inspections, to complement routine checks, that would not only examine the official records on prevention mechanisms but would also involve one-on-one interviews with randomly picked first-year soldiers about the way these mechanisms are implemented in practice. Any finding that officers failed to rigorously implement prevention mechanisms should have consequences for the officers.

Learning from Best Practices

Studying best practices can yield valuable information on effective strategies to address dedovshchina. Human Rights Watch’s research provides a number of clues as to possible best practices, in particular the following findings:

  • The testimony of conscripts from units without significant dedovshchina suggests that their officers consistently sent a clear message to soldiers that they would not tolerate initiation abuses, maintained a certain degree of closeness to rank-and-file soldiers, were alert to signs of abusive initiation practices, and were willing to address the occasional incidents immediately and forcefully whenever they occurred.
  • Dozens of conscripts described serious abuses that took place at night in the barracks, and uniformly observed that the absence of officers at this time left second-year conscripts free to be particularly violent. Several conscripts from units without significant dedovshchina told Human Rights Watch said that one of the reasons why they did not face abuses at night was the routine presence of an officer at the barracks during night time. The mere presence of an officer at night is no guarantee—we found some examples where officers were at the barracks at night but abuses still continued. Officers would have to have specific instructions to prevent initiation abuses while in barracks at night.
  • Several conscripts from units without dedovshchina observed that officers there kept them active for the entire day every day. They contrasted that with the boredom and inertia they faced in units where dedovshchina was prevalent, and suggested that the boredom bred the abuse.


While some of the most serious abuses are investigated and perpetrators prosecuted, accountability has been almost completely absent for less severe abuses that are so typical of everyday life in the barracks. This lack of accountability, for perpetrators and officers who tolerate abuses, is one of the key factors that have allowed abusive practices linked to dedovshchina to persist.

The government should reverse this by making a public commitment to accountability, stressing that not only the perpetrators of dedovshchina abuses but also officers who tolerate them in their ranks are liable for disciplinary or criminal punishment. The Ministry of Defense and other relevant ministries should start a concerted effort to establish a meaningful accountability process for abusive practices, specifically instructing commanding officers around the country that they must take the following steps:

  • Whenever any evidence of abusive practices comes to their attention, whether ex officio or through a complaint, they must thoroughly investigate the incident. The instruction should specify that commanders should vigorously question any potential witnesses, and that implausible explanations should not be taken at face value.
  • In responding to absences without leave, commanding officers should always investigate whether the conscript had been the victim of dedovshchina abuses.
  • Commanding officers should offer any witnesses willing to provide testimony about the abuses protection from retaliation—through transfer to a different unit, temporary leave, or otherwise.
  • Commanding officers should strictly and consistently apply disciplinary punishment in all cases where such punishment is warranted.
  • If commanders come across evidence that dedovshchina abuses may have constituted a criminal offense, they should forward the materials to the military procuracy.

The government should specifically remind officers of their duties in this respect, and make it clear that failure to live up to these obligations will result in punishment. The government should, after a certain period, review the effect of its instruction by analyzing statistics on the use of disciplinary punishment.

The military procuracy should designate special officials to deal with complaints related to dedovshchina. These officials should investigate complaints from conscripts, their parents or soldiers’ rights groups, as well as all cases of unauthorized departure from military units. It should also collect specific statistics on complaints about dedovshchina.

The Ministry of Defense and other relevant ministries should develop formal mechanisms to protect soldiers who complain about abusive initiation practices, as well as potential witnesses.

Independent Monitoring

A meaningful government effort to eradicate abusive initiation practices requires reliable information about the prevalence of dedovshchina. Although current monitoring procedures of the Ministry of Defense and other ministries that maintain armed forces could provide some relevant information on initiation abuses, investigations by independent, outside monitors are more likely to yield a full picture of the situation. Human Rights Watch therefore recommends the establishment of a special ombudsman for the rights of military servicemen, under the existing ombudsman’s office of the Russian Federation. The ombudsman should be authorized to:

a)          access military bases without prior arrangement;

b)         move around inside military bases without restrictions;

c)          speak to any serviceman in private;

d)         have access to any documents relevant to the mandate, both at military bases, at the relevant ministries             and other government agencies, and at military procuracy;

e)          receive mail from any serviceman without intervention of the military censor;

f)          receive information from nongovernmental, professional and other organizations.

Structural Reform

Our research has identified at least one structural problem: while in most armed forces around the world a professional non-commissioned officers corps is responsible for discipline—and thus for keeping initiation practices in check—in the Russian armed forces this duty lies with second-year conscripts, who themselves are the dedy and thus function as a check on themselves with respect to dedovshchina. Our research leaves no doubt that that set up has not worked. While in Soviet times low level officers were closer to the day-to-day life of the rank-and-file soldier, and were thus in a better position to keep initiation practices from degenerating into abuse, low level officers in the present Russian armed forces are too far removed from that daily life to effectively keep these practices under control.

This structural problem needs to be addressed. As President Vladimir Putin suggested in his 2003 state-of-the-nation speech, one option for resolving this issue is the creation of a professional non-commissioned officers’ corps. Alternatively, steps need to be taken to decrease the distance between officers and the day-to-day life of rank-and-file soldiers.

Recommendations to the International Community

The European Union, its member states, the United States, and other countries should make the eradication of dedovshchina abuses a key piece of their dialogue with the Russian government. They should support the establishment of the ombudsman and the task force, and offer technical assistance on these issues to the Russian government. They should also support soldiers’ rights organizations in Russia.

In the context of its Partnership for Peace program, NATO should share with the Russian government lessons learned on the eradication of initiation abuses in the armed forces of member states.

Constituent parts of the Council of Europe should engage the Russian government on the establishment of the special ombudsman and the task force. The monitoring mechanism of the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) should consistently raise the issue of dedovshchina abuses in its contacts with Russian government officials and in its reports. The office of the human rights commissioner should offer technical assistance on the establishment of the special ombudsman. Council of Europe countries should support PACE rapporteur Alexander Arabadjiev in his efforts to develop guidelines on the treatment of conscripts.

[273] Komsomolskaia Pravda, March 31 and April 1, 2003.

[274] “S. Ivanov: v Rossii ne budet otmenena prizyvnaia sistema” (S. Ivanov: the conscription system in Russia will not be abolished), June 1, 2004 [online], (retrieved August 4, 2004).

[275] “Sergey Ivanov Eyes Army Priorities, Reform, Contract Manning,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 14, 2003.

[276] Goltz, p. 9.

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