Hazing in the army put on contract basis


One of the motives for reducing the conscript-service term was that it would put an end to hazing (dedovshchina) in the army. Summing up the interim results of 2010, however, the Chief Military Prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky said in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta that while the overall crime rate in the army has dropped, the number of abuse-related crimes, on the contrary, increased by almost a third, claiming more than 3000 victims among servicemen. Nine soldiers died and 96 have been severely injured. Over the course of eight months last year, more than 1400 soldiers and sergeants serving under conscription have been convicted of beating and manhandling new conscripts.

Most crimes have to do with economics, or to put it bluntly, extortion, having increased by more than 50%. Fridinsky attributes the growth to the increased number of conscripts and says that cutting the term of required service has failed to eradicate abuses in the Army.

That may be true, but it is important to understand that the causes of crime differ in an army where conscripts serve two years and an army where they serve one year.


Before drawing conclusions as to whether dedovshchina has gone up or down, one should take a closer look at the concept.

It would be very simplistic to reduce the term dedovshchina to mere extortion. Stealing money is secondary to the system, just a bonus for the dedy, or senior conscripts, but it is not the core factor. In my division, when Karas at night forced Polkovnik, a skinny new recruit, to climb the heating pipe to the ceiling and scream like a monkey, nobody derived any economic benefit from that.

The same was true when Andrei Sychev was tied to a stool.

It is commonly believed that dedovshchina dates back to the 1960s when former criminals began to be drafted into the Army. They brought with them to the Army barracks a prison system that is universal among groups of males locked up in a confined space. After all, there has to be someone to be bullied.

The methods used to enforce submission are also like in prison. The army conscripts are divided into four castes, each corresponding to six months of service, the dukhi (spirits), slony (elephants), cherepa (skulls) and dedy (grandfathers). The dedy lay down the law. The dukhi, or new conscripts, of course do not know these rules and nobody bothers to explain them. The slightest mistake, for example, a belt that is not tight enough or hands buried in pockets or an undone upper button immediately leads to night-time torture for the whole group of new conscripts. As a rule, the first beating is always collective and the cruelest. New conscripts are treated harshly in order to immediately break their will and force them into submission so as to continue to keep them in that state without allowing them to raise their heads.

A conscript army is slavery by definition. Dedovshchina is the quintessence of slavery. Individuality is crushed; a person is turned not just into a slave but into a piece of flesh that is ready to fulfill any orders. One is turned into a “devil”, “animal”, or “trunk”. A person can be beaten with a bedpost, have his jaws broken, have a brass button pressed into his chest until it plunges in (an operation called “punching the plywood”), be put through a “tapik” ( TA57 telephone), have an army cap tattoo burned on the wrist, or “thrown on a fang”. One can also be forced to rape another conscript (I know of such a case). The will to resist is totally lost. What is going on is taken for granted. That is the lie of the land.

All this is compounded by the typical cruelty of teenagers: teenagers have long been known to be much more sophisticated than adults in inventing different kinds of torture. After a while leaders appear among the dukhi, or new recruits, who start building up their own horizontal pecking order within the caste and naturally to suppress their weaker fellows who are least fit to offer resistance. As a rule they are physically weak and intellectually backward. But not necessarily so. A pretext may be provided by failing to measure up to the “male norm”, for example, having a thin female voice, a disproportionate egg-shaped head, a horse-like or ape-like face, a funny dialect or speech impediment, etc. or an “incorrect” or awkward last name. There are many pretexts.

Such people have more difficulty in adapting themselves to army life, are more prone to make blunders and end up at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Their life is unbearable. They practically do not sleep, they breathe only intermittently because their chest is a bloody mess, in the canteen they have to give their dried pieces of bread (sukhari) to their comrades because they cannot chew anyway. They stop washing themselves and prefer hiding in a basement somewhere to going to a bath… They are prevented from straightening up, they lead this kind of existence for the two years until they are discharged, unless, of course they run away or hang themselves before that.

These conscripts, called chumokhody, do all the dirty work: scrub the toilets, clean the spittoons in smoking rooms, put their arms up to the elbow into the can when it clogs up, gather used toilet paper in the bathroom, etc. By the way, they are not mined for money; that is the lot of stronger conscripts.

The goal has been achieved. A collective has turned into a pack whose members are ready to tear the weaklings to pieces in order not to find themselves in their place. That is dedovshchina in its classical form.

Violations of this setup either way are punished. A ded would rather spend all his time in the punishment cell or be beaten by his fellows than compromise. Otherwise other dedy would “do him in” so that he would hang himself.

Thus, dedovshchina is a rigid vertical hierarchy, typical of any caste society, in which the rules are to be strictly observed and which is aimed at totally suppressing the individual, total enslavement (not stopping short of the right to kill) of the members of the lower caste to ensure a relatively comfortable existence for members of a higher caste.

Breaking jaws and extorting money through beatings are not ends in themselves, but merely the mechanisms of the system.

Dedovshchina is a very effective system of control. Try to force your subordinates (or be forced by your boss) to bring a bunch of bananas at 2 am within the time it takes a cigarette stub to go out. In the army nothing could be easier: once the countdown begins a dozen of horrified dukhi, climb over the fence, beg and rob cars in order to keep their teeth and ribs from being broken.

Over the past half century the system has become so deeply entrenched in the army structure that the army itself has come to be based on dedovshchina. It is convenient and effective. As for soldiers occasionally hanging themselves, well, that can’t be helped.

What now?
The army is changing, change is noticeable. It has become more open and a measure of public control has been in evidence. There is more compliance with the law, the military prosecutor’s office, formerly a token institution, has at least been indicating its presence. Abuses in the army are being punished and on the whole there is a general trend towards building an army with a human face.

I would hazard a suggestion that the simple measure of reducing the term of service has proved to be very effective. The died-in-the-wool dedovshchina, which seemed to be ineradicable, has disappeared overnight. Not everywhere of course. And one can never be sure that it will not come back. But it no longer exists as an all-embracing system of slavery that swallows whole all new soldiers that enters it.

According to Fridinsky, a survey of 1500 soldiers revealed that one in every five conscripts was a victim of abuse. That is of course a high figure. But it is certainly an improvement from 100%.

There is no longer a rigid separation into service periods. In some places the periods last six months and in some, three months.

The destruction of the six-month hierarchy has been very important. Separation into four half-year periods was very convenient. Eighteen is the age when a youth turns into a man and his personality is shaped. At that age two years makes a world of difference. While the dukhi are still children, “mama’s boys”, the dedy are strong young men, complete personalities molded by the barracks and by violence.

Another important point. Talking with those who have served for a year instead of two years I see that with them the army has not left such grim “concentration camp” memories. It is no longer perceived as a “time warp”. People speak about army experience in the same casual tone as they would report going to a barbeque the day before.

Where are things going?
Nevertheless there are no grounds for questioning the data provided by the Chief Military Prosecutor. According to NGOs, the number of extortion-related crimes has indeed risen. The victims are recruits in the first period of service. Neither possessing cell phones nor being escorted by their parents saves the conscripts from bullying. What is the reason?

In the mid-1990s the army got a new caste of paid volunteers, or contracted soldiers. For a long time that caste stood apart without being integrated into the vertical hierarchy of conscripts. While contracted soldiers and conscripts lived in the same barracks, they formed different communities.

But as the caste of the dedy disappeared, contracted soldiers began to take their place. The replacement has not yet been completed, it has been sporadic and it has not created a new vertical hierarchy, but those who have served one year say with one voice that it is now the contracted soldiers who extort money from the new conscripts. The amounts extorted have increased and may run into tens and even hundreds of thousands of roubles.

The system of relations that existed only within the army is being replaced with a system of relations that permeates society as a whole. In place of a complicated, multi-tiered dedovshchina, there is now banal racketeering. The barrack room customs are being replaced with the customs of the street. Army crime has ceased to be vertical and has become horizontal. The rule of the senior is replaced by the rule of the stronger.

What next?
One hears more and more noise to the effect that the reducing the term of service has not yielded the desired results and that the old system when conscripts served a year and a half and even two years needs to be brought back. The chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, Viktor Zavarzin, has hinted that such amendments may be introduced.

In my opinion, that should not be done. The reform must continue. Any rollback will bring back dedovshchina with a vengeance. That is obvious. If one has to change the term of service, it should be reduced to 6–9 months and conscripts should be sent only to training units.

The two main problems of the army today are known: hazing by contractees and flocking together of conscripts of the same ethnic group. While the latter problem can be solved by having conscripts do their service in their own region, the problem of extortion by contracted soldiers can only be fully solved by reforming the whole country. The army in that sense is a crossroads of society: the weak get short changed not only in the army but across the country.

Non-combat related losses, nevertheless, can be minimised. The mechanisms and prerequisites for that exist. The main mechanism is differentiating the contingents. Conscripts should be switched entirely to training while all the regular soldiers should be paid volunteers. It is not very convenient and lopsided, but this is the best option under present-day conditions.

Veronika Marchenko
, Mother’s Right Fund.

— I disagree that dedovshchina has been eliminated. The timeframe has changed, but the caste system has remained, although it may be less noticeable now. But we fully agree that the extortion racket has become the main motive of all crimes, both by senior conscripts and by contractees and officers. Each of our cases involves extortion. It is universal. One can be forced to put 500 roubles on somebody’s cell phone account or to remit a certain sum. The standard rate is 1000–2000 roubles, but it may be tens of thousands. The problem is that this is not perceived as a breach of the law. During a trial of the case of the death of Alexander Usachev, who had been bullied into committing suicide, Lieutenant Frizin, who had been extorting money from him, genuinely could not understand what he was being tried for. He did not understand that he had committed a crime. Yes, I asked him for 500 roubles, so what? By the way, the Lieutenant was a fifth-year law student. As for the figure of nine dead cited by Sergei Fridinsky, that is ridiculous. Our group has been approached by several hundred, even though we are not an official authority. There are at least ten times more dead, that is for sure. And 88% of them are new conscripts.


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