October 2, 2006

The shadow economy of Russia's Army

It is telling that in Russia, the largest women's association deals not with gardening, women’s rights, or education, but with the protection of its sons in the nation’s army. The Union of the Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia (USMR) has been fighting since 1989 to shed light on the topic of soldier maltreatment in Russian army camps.

Russia is one of the few countries in the developed world that still relies on the mandatory draft system. Every healthy male Russian 18 years of age must serve a two-year period in the army. Or so it seems.

In the country where corruption has been elevated to the degree of institutionalization, the practical meaning of any law is often dictated by one’s social connections and ability to pay. If this seems cynical, consider the following: One Russian columnist recently wrote that it is ridiculous to call it a “shadow” economy if the force in question comprises 60 percent of the entire Russian economy. A rather large shadow, don’t you think?

But let’s get back to the soldiers and their mothers. The case that has attracted public attention is stark in its brutality and lackluster official response.

On a New Year’s Eve in 2005, Private Andrey Sychyov was punished by his senior, Aleksandr Syviakov, for inadequately cleaning up after a New Year’s party in the barracks. As a punishment, Sychyov was ordered to remain in a squatting position for several hours. After the time of punishment expired, the private developed leg swelling, difficulty walking, and then an infection of the leg blood vessels called thrombophlebitis, which spread and turned into an advancing gangrene. The doctors treating Sychyov had to amputate both his legs below the knee as well as his genitalia to save his life.

To the Western reader, the case seems clear: Callous brutality and abuse of power resulted in a tragedy whereby a young man’s life was ruined without the setting of his foot (no pun intended) in any of the perilous regions of Russia or the Caucasus.

It is far from certain, however, that anyone will be held accountable for what happened to Sychyov. What is currently playing out in the military courts is a maddening parody of a due process by a system which has for years ignored, and sometimes encouraged, the systematic hazing of conscripts in the Russian army. The phenomenon is neither new nor unknown to the public, which has coined the term dedovshchina, meaning “the rule of grandfathers.” Dedovshchina, like other Soviet institutions, has systematized its methods, subdividing the hell that the conscripts must endure into four levels, each complete with its own privileges and rules. It appears that Sychyov’s punisher had been recently promoted to the next level of this hierarchy, which may explain his zest in exercising his newly augmented “authority.”

One of the most disturbing details in this case was the sentiment expressed by a witness called by the victim’s side. This man, a conscript himself, when questioned about dedovshchina, was doubtful whether it could or even should be eliminated from the army. He expressed a commonly held view that, despite occasional excesses, dedovshchina is not bad at all, and in fact is necessary to preserve order within the rowdy ranks of unwilling conscripts. It appears that far from disapproval, there is tacit support of dedovshchina and its brutal tactics emanating from the higher echelons of the military; a shadow economy of military discipline, if you will.

Yet the abuses, maimings, and deaths borne by dedovshchina are far from isolated cases. Earlier this year, a private died as a result of a single blow to the chest. As the pithy news brief reported, the senior officer was upset over the private’s conduct in a line, and, intent on setting an example for others, he delivered a powerful blow to the middle of the private’s chest. The medics who arrived on the scene found the victim pulseless and were unable to revive him. The senior officer involved was sentenced to three years in prison, the report concluded. The news report did not mention an investigation or a review of disciplinary procedures beyond that individual case.

And this is where the soldiers’ mothers come in. Since its inception, the USMR has been working to make the Russian public and the government uncomfortably aware of the plight of the conscripts. In Russia, where criticizing the government in any of its forms remains a risky enterprise, the USMR has been most successful not as a champion of soldiers’ rights but as a resource for those who have neither social nor financial means to avoid the draft. It is true that Sychyov’s case has created publicity, if not public outcry, but the inquiry into this incident alone may not be enough. As Russian and foreign media report, the Russian military has launched an internal investigation into the prevalence of such abuses in the ranks.

Sychyov’s court case will soon be concluded, as the official sentence was to be announced one day after this issue went to press. Meanwhile, the defendant pled not guilty. The state military attorney on the victim’s side asked for a six-year jail term for the abuser—the harshest sentence in the current military penal code.

So, it seems there is hope for reform of the Russian army resulting from Private Sychyov’s loss of limbs. Well, that depends on whether you are an optimist when it comes to Russian reforms in general. For my part, I am heartened that not only foreign but Russian media are covering this issue. It’s a start for moving dedovshchina out of the shadows.