A high-profile military hazing trial in Chelyabinsk ended yesterday, September 26. Private Andrei Sychyov had his legs amputated last January after being abused in the barracks and is still hospitalized today. Three conscript soldiers were on trial in Chelyabinsk, though only Junior Sergeant Alexander Sivyakov was directly charged with abusing Private Sychyov. The others faced charges of hazing other conscripts. Sivyakov got a four-year sentence, while the other two defendants received a one and one-half years suspended sentence with one year of probation. Sychyov’s lawyer, Evgeny Belov, told reporters that the sentence was too lenient (Strana.ru, September 26).
Last January Private Sychyov’s case shook the nation and was extensively reported by all the media, including Kremlin-controlled television. The chief military prosecutor, Alexander Savenkov, called it the most “cynical and audacious crime” he had seen in his career. President Vladimir Putin urged a thorough investigation. There were public calls for the resignation of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov (Moscow Times, August 16). But it was Savenkov, not Ivanov, who lost his job in a July shake-up of the Prosecutor General’s Office.
Each year the Russian military suffers over a thousand non-combat casualties as a result of accidents, suicides, and hazing. On August 4 the new prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika, announced that the number of reported cases of hazing had increased by 25% in the first half of 2006 (Moscow Times, August 16). The authorities do not seem able or willing to tackle the problem.
Abuse of conscripts is a constant feature of Russian military service. In most cases newly enlisted conscripts are hazed by their longer-serving comrades — the so-called grandfathers. This abuse often leads to desertions, shooting incidents, and widespread suicides by conscripts who have been physically and sometimes sexually assaulted.
Russian military units do not have long-serving professional sergeants or other non-commissioned officers. There were some NCOs in the Soviet military after World War II, but by the 1960s they had virtually disappeared. Those that still stayed — the praporshiki — mainly occupied administrative and logistics positions. In the USSR as well as in Russia today 18-year-old conscripts become NCOs after five months of sergeant school.
In most cases these half-baked sergeants are not ready to lead detachments or experienced enough to keep discipline and order, so since the 1960s Russian unit commanders increasingly promoted the system of hazing. The “grandfathers” began to play the role of the nonexistent professional NCOs — safeguarding discipline, order, and unit traditions. The commanding officers tend to turn a blind eye to the grandfathers’ methods of disciplining younger solders, as long as there is at least a semblance of order in the barracks. As the Russian conscript saying goes: In the first year of service the grandfathers beat you; in the second year of service you beat up the newly enlisted.
This system promoted terrible abuse and sadistic attacks. Beginning in the late 1980s the press, freed from Soviet censorship, exposed the Russian system of military hazing. Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers were formed to help stop the abuse. Defense Ministry chiefs publicly acknowledged the problem and promised to eradicate hazing.
There has been talk in the Defense Ministry for some 15 years about the need to create a professional NCO corps as a backbone of discipline in the Russian military. But nothing is being done to create a system to choose good men and women to become NCOs, promote, train, and provide them significant career incentives. So long as there are no well trained and well paid professional NCOs, the grandfather solders are indispensable as an organizing force in the barracks. Hazing continues while commanders do their best to cover up the abuse.
Private Sychyov’s case apparently received special attention because of an ongoing political feud. According to many observers in Moscow, a coterie of top officials led by presidential administration deputy chief Igor Sechin, and including former the prosecutor general Vladimir Ustinov and the chief of the Federal Security Service, Nikolai Patrushev, colluded to undermine Defense Minister Ivanov (Rossiiskie vesti, June 8).
Ivanov is considered a contender to be chosen as Putin’s designated successor as president of Russia. The Sechin clan wanted to secure its position by appealing to Putin to stay on after 2008. The Sechin clan reportedly used Ustinov subordinate Savenkov and the Kremlin-controlled media to expose hazing incidents, and Private Sychyov’s case in particular to hurt Ivanov (Rossiiskie vesti, June 8).
Now the battle is apparently over. Putin seems to have firmly decided to leave the Kremlin in 2008 and continue to rule Russia from behind the scenes. Therefore Putin will need a controllable, puppet president after 2008, someone as loyal, incompetent, and weak as Ivanov. The Sechin clan has been disciplined and ordered to stop its mischief, and Ustinov and Savenkov have been replaced.
Private Sychyov’s case has lost its political significance. Low-ranking abusers received lenient sentences, while Ivanov and the Defense Ministry brass got off scot-free. Meanwhile, military hazing continues and may get worse.