Last year, the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the assassination by polonium of spy Alexander Litvinenko made headlines around the world. However, neither was Russia's top news story in 2006. That honor, according to a year-end survey conducted by the Moscow daily Vedomosti, belonged to a subject little discussed outside Russia: dedovshchina.
Translated literally, dedovshchina (pronounced ded-uv-shEEna) means "rule of the grandfathers." It refers to the longstanding practice within the Russian military in which senior non- commissioned soldiers "initiate" the first-year conscripts under their command through physical punishment and beatings. On those rare occasions when the subject appears in US news reports, dedovshchina is typically translated as "hazing." A more accurate translation would be "torture."
Dedovshchina has existed for years as a tacitly sanctioned system of instilling "discipline" that routinely results in human rights abuses such as extortion, forced labor, beatings, and starvation. This past year, however, it emerged as a major domestic issue in Russia as the result of a particularly disturbing case involving Pvt. Andrei Sychev, a conscript formerly assigned to the Chelyabinsk Tank Academy (1,200 miles east of Moscow).
On Dec 31, 2005, the then- 19-year-old Mr. Sychev was subjected to a brutal night of torture. At the direction of his commanding sergeant, he was tied to a chair and beaten on his legs for more than four hours by fellow conscripts. Although he was unable to stand following the ordeal, he received no medical attention. By the time he was finally taken to a hospital four days later, he had to undergo several amputations.
In the vast majority of instances, dedovshchina goes unreported. But in Sychev's case, an anonymous doctor contacted the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers: a private organization devoted to exposing human rights violations within the Russian Army. The Soldiers' Mothers mounted a vocal public campaign to bring Sychev's torturers to justice. Even so, during the course of the ensuing trial, Federal Security Service agents attempted to bribe Sychev's family members, offering them a choice of $100,000 or an apartment to drop the case. In a telling case of Putin-era irony, the reporter who broke the story involving the attempted bribe was the subsequently murdered Ms. Politkovskaya.
Despite the government's bid to quash the incident, the main defendant in the case, Sgt. Alexander Sivyakov, was found guilty this past September of "exceeding authority." The sentence? Four years imprisonment, less time served. Two codefendants received suspended sentences of eighteen months.
Amazingly, Sychev's case is hardly unique. Earlier in 2005 in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk, Evgenii Koblov was likewise forced to undergo the amputation of his legs following a brutal beating inflicted by fellow soldiers. Mr. Koblov lay for 23 days in the basement of the officers' quarters before being treated. Only one of the three soldiers implicated in the beating, Sgt. Dmitrii Nagaitsev, was convicted. He received a five-year sentence, one year less than what the prosecution had requested.
As Human Rights Watch documented in its recent report, "The Wrongs of Passage: Inhuman and Degrading Treatment of New Recruits in the Russian Armed Forces," dedovshchina is a widespread phenomenon within the ranks of the Russian Army. As a result of it, "dozens of conscripts are killed every year, thousands sustain serious – and often permanent – injury, while hundreds commit or attempt suicide."
The scourge of dedovshchina has not gone unnoticed by the Russian government and military.
However, while President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov have managed to push through some major reforms within the armed forces, their efforts to end the torture of new recruits have met with little success. The continuation of dedov- shchina threatens to derail the most important task of all: the ongoing transition away from a conscript army to a professional all-volunteer military. Young Russians are understandably unwilling to enlist voluntarily when the odds are good that they will end up beaten, starved, raped, or mutilated as a result.
That dedovshchina persists in the face of official efforts to end it speaks volumes about the difficulties of bringing rule of law and respect for basic human rights to Russia. Ultimately, the development of a new generation of professional junior and non- commissioned officers is crucial to ending the "rule of the grandfathers." But that will take considerable time and a concerted state effort.
In the meantime, organizations such as the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers are essential to keeping attention focused on the abuse and demanding accountability from political and military leaders. Whatever the final outcome, their efforts have already demonstrated that public opinion can make a difference, even in Putin's Russia.
• Scott W. Palmer is the author of "Dictatorship of the Air: Aviation Culture and the Fate of Modern Russia."