Russia's Army faces battle within its ranks

We'll call him Ivan, because he's afraid someone will kill him if his name is revealed in this story.

He's been lying low in his mother's Moscow apartment since running away from the Russian Army last week.

Ivan's crime, as seen by the law, is desertion. He had had enough of being beaten in hazings that are commonplace in his regiment near the town of Nizhny Novgorod, 240 miles east of Moscow.

When we first met him at the offices of an advocacy group, his cheek was bruised and he was exhausted, having walked all night in the woods after deserting his post.

"The seniors said they'd kill me if I squealed on them," he says of his tormentors, who regularly battered him with fists, chairs, and stools for such offenses as running errands too slowly.

"They said it's nothing personal, that it happens to all the new recruits to show them their place. But I couldn't take it anymore," Ivan says.

As in many nations' militaries, hazing has always been present in Russia's Army, even when it was renowned for discipline during the Soviet era. But the violence has been aggravated by a lack of food and months-long wage arrears - problems which have grown worse since the economic crisis erupted in August. A good portion of Russia's 1.2 million enlisted men have been reduced to foraging for berries or mushrooms in the woods or begging for potatoes from villages near their regiments. Abuse, murders, and suicides are on the rise. And with them desertions - thousands of them.

According to the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, a Moscow-based advocacy group for servicemen, morale and conditions have sunk to their lowest level since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

THIS fuels the sort of stress that can make a man want to shoot someone, or himself, says committee leader Valentina Melnikova. "Since the crisis began in August the problems have worsened. The number of people appealing to us has doubled."

Vladlen Maximov, military correspondent for Moscow's Novaya Gazeta newspaper, says the low spirits of officers are partly to blame. "These guys are not paid their salaries for months and literally lack food. So of course they don't care about the soldiers."

When it was first set up, the committee was dedicated to helping mothers find sons missing in action in Afghanistan and then Chechnya. Now its task has shifted to advising men on dodging the draft or seeking legal recourse if they are caught when they run away. The organization's dingy headquarters in Moscow is filled each week with dozens of youths and their mothers who sit waiting to tell their tales.

Typical among them is Alexei Pushkarsky, who ran away from his regiment in Vladimir, east of Moscow, Jan. 5. He says he could no longer endure the beatings by older soldiers when he could not afford to meet demands to buy chocolates, bread, and cream. After a particularly severe thrashing he took refuge in an Army clinic, but doctors made him leave.

"After that I knew I was through. They said I was 'too clever' by hiding in the hospital. They hit me on any pretext. Once, it was because I sang badly. Another time I couldn't find them cookies. Sometimes it was just 'because,' " he says.

Ms. Melnikova says besides hazing and poor conditions, another increasing problem is that many of the 150,000 youths recruited every six months are physically unfit. Underweight, drug-addicted, and ill boys are being drafted and cannot perform their duties properly.

The government denies this is the case, but it does concede disturbing figures pertaining to abuse. The Military General Prosecutor's Office reports that 57 soldiers died and 2,735 were injured from hazing during the first 11 months of last year. Nearly 500 committed suicide.

It is less precise on the total number of conscripts who have gone AWOL, although some experts put the figure at about 10,000 a year. Since a partial amnesty was announced last March, 11,478 deserters turned themselves in to authorities.

Many of those still on the run are armed. Unable to get proper jobs, they often join criminal gangs. So alarmed are authorities about this threat that they organized a massive sweep across Russia in mid-January. But only about 400 deserters were rounded up in the operation, which spanned 50 cities and 46 regions.

Ivan insists he will not give himself up, and says he prefers to remain underground if the committee can't help him.

"I had thought it was every man's duty to serve the Army. But I would not have signed up if I had known the conditions. Joining the Army was the biggest mistake of my life."

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