27 August 2020
Pictured: Sergei Krivenko, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and coordinator of the Human Rights Initiative “Citizen and the Army”
Deputy Minister of Defence Andrei Kartapolov recently declared that the Russian Amy has eradicated ‘Dedovshchina’ – the informal practice of extreme bullying by officers or veterans against new recruits – from its ranks. Despite his confidence, many experts believe this declaration to be a premature one.
It seems then that the 2020 Army Forum will not just be remembered for priests in camouflage robes or khaki-coloured candles, but the final victory over ‘Dedovschhina’ – well, at least in the words of Deputy Minister Kartapolov.
However public figures, activists, and recently retired service personnel interviewed by Business FM highly doubt the Deputy Minister’s statement is true. You don’t need to dig deeply to find recent examples of the continued existence of Dedovshchina; there is the 2019 case of Private Shamsutdinov, who shot and killed eight fellow servicemen for bullying him. Then in 2006, there was the infamous case of Private Sychev, who was beaten with such brutality that he was left with horrifically life-changing disabilities.
Meanwhile, desertion from military units, fights, and bullying are all regular occurrences, but society doesn’t often hear about these smaller-scale incidents. That’s according to Sergei Kirenko, coordinator of the Public Initiative ‘Citizen and Army’ and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group:
“In Russia, there is a lack of civic and public oversight of the army and what happens in military units. In the last several years, soldiers have had phone access restricted. Indeed, after the 2008-2012 reforms there was a ‘humanisation’ of military service; the length of service was reduced to a year, for example. The Army began contracting servicemen, which was a major blow to Dedovshchina practices. However, violent and criminal incidents associated with Dedovshchina haven’t disappeared completely. Society is deeply concerned about and interested in the living conditions of active servicemen and with how military personnel treat one another, which is why information on these incidents should be made freely available. Moreover, the law states that cases involving the violation of rights cannot be defined as state secrets.”
The Serdiukov era reforms did the army a lot of good; according to RBK the number of convictions for violating statutory rights has decreased since 2008. However, “Dedovshchina” and “Barracks Hooliganism”, as Kartapolov described it, have manifested themselves in alternative ways. I saw this for myself in 2014 while I was serving. Money was stolen off of payroll cards, guys were extorted for their cash, phones had nails knocked through them, young conscripts were taken to the barrack toilets and beaten, the traces and marks of which were ignored. Aleksandr Timartsev, creator and host of the Internet Show ‘Versus Battle,’ tells us about his experience while serving in 2010: “I read about the Shamsutdinov case. I read not too long ago about how a contract serviceman was arrested and in his possession he had 360 payroll cards. Allowing servicemen, direct access to their salaries encourages Dedovshchina. There are no SIM cards or phones allowed. We are allowed one ten-minute call a week, conditional on conduct, and that’s it. But Dedovshchina isn’t just new recruits being bullied by veterans, it’s by officers too. Dedovshchina becomes a form of corruption the moment the officers started issuing SIM cards for money. Their set up is watertight, and in my experience, FSB employees who may have the responsibility of investigating such cases turn a blind eye 90% of the time. Sometimes though, when someone is asked where the bruises they have are from, the response ‘I fell’ isn’t always appropriate.”
The idea of army service and the risks associated are perceived very differently now in Russia. In the ’90s and 2000s, the prospect of being sent to serve in a Chechen War was very real, the length of service was much longer, and back then there were no mobile phones allowed in the units. Dedovshchina practices were at their very worst around then.
If you read the statement from the Defence Ministry as a sort of play on words, you can’t find fault with it. The statement is true in a few respects; for 12 years now the length of national service has been one year instead of two for young conscripts. There are no brutal ringleaders or Dedovshchina practices. But so far as ‘informal relations’ are concerned – they remain. After all, there can be a lot of reasons why conflicts arise between new recruits. Just take rivalry between different regions for one thing.
Translated by Fergus Wright