On October 3, Alexander Korzhych, a 21-year-old conscript, was found dead in the basement of his military unit, located in Borisov, a city in the Minsk region of Belarus. Korzhych was stationed at a training base devoted to five-month courses that transform ordinary soldiers into ensigns (a separate career group between non-commissioned officers and officers, comparable to OR-9). The incident was initially classified as a suicide. However, this qualification was called into question by the fact that Korzhych’s feet were bound with a shoestring and a T-shirt was covering his head. Moreover, he had earlier complained to his parents about hazing. So-called dedovshchina, a particular kind of hazing whereby petty officers and older conscripts mistreat younger draftees, has long been a known scourge of the Soviet army and was apparently inherited by some Armed Forces of the successor states (Tut.by, October 14). Now, dedovshchina is often exacerbated by extortion, whereby younger conscripts are forced to pay a ransom in order to avoid beatings. This practice allegedly flourished in Korzhych’s unit.
Some observers were quick to suggest dedovshchina is so difficult to fight because it is part and parcel of an authoritarian political regime that itself is based on strict hierarchy and expected unconditional subordination of the bottom to the top. A person with damaged willpower and a fear of superiors is easier to manipulate and subjugate (Svaboda.org, October 13). While such an opinion is not without grounds, it may rest on a classic case of spurious correlation. Both dedovshchina and a popular demand for a particular type of top–down leadership may simply (though separately) be integral to the social fabric of some national communities. To be sure, proponents of cultural universalism would militate against this point of view, arguing instead that everybody inherently wants to embrace Western behavioral norms just as much as everybody wants a clean environment. This perspective, however, defies cultural studies. Incidentally, at the October 17 plenary session of the First Belarusian Philosophical Congress, in Minsk (Philosophy.by, October 18), Luca Maria Scarantino, the secretary general of the International Federation of Philosophical Societies, criticized Western universalism by casting doubt on the assertion that all cultures would behave identically if bestowed with freedom (Conference attended by author, October 17).
Returning to Korzhych’s tragic episode, it has generated an unusually broad debate domestically—unusual because his is by no means the first death of a young conscript in Belarus. Indeed, six months ago, Artyom Bastyuk, yet another Belarusian draftee, died under suspicious circumstances (Naviny, October 12); but at that point, no public discussion followed. Either a critical mass of outrage had not yet been reached or his military unit was more insulated from public scrutiny than Korzhych’s. Be that as it may, it was not until the news of Korzhych’s death prompted a stern rebuke by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (and that took ten days), that the suicide qualification of the incident was dropped and a full-scale investigation launched. To date, ten people have been placed under arrest, and criminal proceedings were initiated against eight of them, including two officers (Tut.by, October 17). “Dedovshchina” and “racket” are the most frequently used words in conjunction with the case.
Several viewpoints shared during the ongoing media debate deserve attention. Thus, Valer Karbalevich of Radio Liberty opined that a deficiency of horizontal ties extending beyond close relatives and friends has long been a bane of Belarus. When this is the case, only top–down coordination becomes the glue that makes a society out of individuals. No wonder then that many people worry about the weakening of the vertical chain of command (the so-called “power vertical”) in society, as to them such a weakening spells debacle. According to Karbalevich, the problem has been somewhat mitigated by the Internet. Today, 70 percent of Belarusians use the Web regularly and half of them have online social network accounts. This has propped up weak horizontal ties. As of October 25, 11,540 people signed a petition on the website zvarot.by, devoted to public petitions to the authorities, to fire the minister of defense (Zvarot.by, accessed October 25). Such a situation would have been unthinkable without the popularity of Internet-based social networks among Belarusians (Svaboda.org, October 18).
An interesting twist in the discussion is associated with the personality of Defense Minister Alexander Ravkov. Uncharacteristically, the voice against his resignation emanated from the newspaper Nasha Niva (NN). The publication was once associated with the opposition Belarusian Popular Front. Now that the Front is but a shadow of its former self, the association is loose; still, NN’s pro-Western and anti-“regime” orientation remains quite strong. NN offers five reasons why Minister Ravkov should not be ousted. First, according to the paper, he gives the impression of a responsible leader who might be the best person in the government to clear the Augean stables of Belarus’s Soviet legacy. Second, Ravkov is “pro-Belarusian.” Unlike some other high-ranking military personnel, he stopped thinking in terms of the extinct great power (i.e., the Soviet Union) and learned to perceive himself as a Belarusian. To justify this idea, NN, quotes Ravkov’s published confession of how saddened he was when, right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many Belarusian officers decided to plead allegiance to Russia and Ukraine. Surely, NN suggests, such personalities as Alexander Goura, the Belarusian army’s chief ideologue, and Vladimir Makarov, its press secretary, represent a breed different from that of Ravkov (i.e., being Russian/Soviet rather than Belarusian patriots). Third, Ravkov was one of the authors of the new Belarusian military doctrine, which envisions resistance to any external threat, no matter where it is coming from (see EDM, June 28, 2016). And indeed, the Russian airbase in Belarus failed to materialize under Ravkov’s tutelage (see EDM, December 9, 2015; May 3, 2016). Fourth, as NN notes, Ravkov confessed he carefully studied the experience of the Ukrainian army at repelling external attack. Fifth, Ravkov forcefully and in a timely fashion disavowed the rumor that a survey was underway among Belarusian army officers about the unification of Russia and Belarus (Nasha Niva, October 16).
It is hard to wholly accept reasoning like this at face value. In fact, the article in question may actually seek to compromise Ravkov; things like this are not uncommon in Belarus, after all. Nevertheless, there is hope that the latest tragic death of a soldier will finally become a hallmark to fight dedovshchina and other birthmarks of Soviet legacy in the Belarusian army and beyond.