Soldier Slaves

Two articles in today’s Moscow Times concern the Russian military and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s attempts to get a handle on it. The first, “No More Free Labor for Soldiers” reports on Ivanov’s decree forbidding officers from using conscripts to perform work outside their military service. Forcing conscripts to build dachas, collect harvests and other labor is a common practice in the Russian military. Some of these tasks fall under dedovshchina, or hazing, where new conscripts are forced to perform all sorts of laborious and humiliating tasks for older soldiers and officers under the threat of violence. According to the article, the Defense Ministry has recorded 662 non-combat deaths since January to August this year. This number is disputed by the soldiers’ rights organization Mothers’ Rights Foundation. Veronika Marchenko, the head of MRF claims that non-combat deaths, including deaths from hazing, number around 3,000 per year. This number would presumably include other types of deaths from abuse such as suicide and mental illness.

Conscript abuse is a serious problem in the Russian military. Human Rights Watch released a report late last year chronicling the abuse associated with the hazing of new recruits. In one of its most horrific passages, the report summed up dedovshchina with the following incident:

“No sooner was Alexander D. assigned to the Third Company at his unit, than the rules of dedovshchina became apparent. While he described the abuses during the first week as “not all too strong,” after about a week, Alexander D.—a young man with a strong sense of personal dignity—came into serious conflict with the dedy [short for ???????, or grandfathers. In this context senior conscripts—Sean] when he refused to comply with one of their orders. He told Human Rights Watch that “the one way to avoid physical abuse was complete submission—turning into a ‘lackey’ (in Russian: shesterka) who does whatever he is asked no matter how humiliating or senseless.” And Alexander D. was not willing to become one. While Alexander D. was standing guard at night, the dedy ordered him to sew collars on their jackets, and went to bed themselves. Alexander D. did not do any sewing that night. The next morning, when the dedy found out, they made it clear his refusal would not go unpunished. One of the dedy told Alexander D. he would be better off “hanging himself.” Later that morning, one of the dedy took Alexander D. to the storage room and started beating him on the arms with an iron bed post wrapped in a towel. When Alexander D. tried to resist, the ded twice beat him with full force on the thigh. Alexander D. fell and the ded hit him on the back and head. The ded then told Alexander D. that the worst would follow at night. Indeed, that night, after Alexander D. had gone to bed, the dedy hit him over the head with a stool to wake him up and took him to the sergeants’ room, where they beat him for a while and then told him to do push-ups. Alexander D. initially refused but after more beatings he did push-ups until around 2:00 a.m. when they told him to dust and themselves went to bed. Alexander D. again refused.”

Despite this, the Ministry chose to tackle the problem of conscript labor. At a press conference this week in Lisbon, Portugal, Defense Minister Ivanov said this, “The myths that exist in society say that soldiers do nothing else but collect harvests and build generals’ dachas. As of today, if such a case is recorded, the commander that gave such an order will be fired and may even land in prison.” Ivanov also warned in June that the names of dead soldiers would be published monthly on the Defense Ministry’s website for all to see.

Not everyone is optimistic. In an editorial accompanying the article, Alexander Gots doubts that Ivanov’s decree will make a difference.

“Whatever lofty sentiments the brass might express about their concern for the average soldier, disdain for the grunts is the foundation of any large conscript army. Our military leaders can’t understand why they’re being made to answer for the lives of individual soldiers. If there’s one thing our generals are good at, it’s calling up huge numbers of young men, providing them with the most primitive combat training and then using them as cannon fodder. This is why the generals require a ready reserve that comprises the entire male adult population of the country. This is why they bitterly oppose the creation of a professional army. By vowing to investigate and publicize all deaths of military personnel in an attempt to force the generals to see conscripts as human beings, Ivanov has infringed upon one of the armed forces’ basic operating principles.”

The use of conscripts for labor has a long history in Russia. Before the Revolution, soldiers were forced to build roads, bridges, and collect harvests. After the revolution conscript labor was used to build railroads and work in coal mines. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gots claims that conscript labor became a “full-blown industry.” Soldiers were hired out to local factories. The money was used to supplement local military budgets, while some “good” commanders invested the money back into his units. Gots adds that since things have gotten worse. “In the North Caucasus,” he writes, “things have reached the point where soldiers are sold into slavery. And for officers who earn meager salaries and enjoy few rights, control of this pool of free labor is the last thing that ensures them a measure of social status.”

It is because of this, that Gots thinks that Ivanov’s decree will not be met with much praise within the command structure. The ban seeks to undo a long standing, yet unwritten privilege of Russian military commanders.

The decree does not, however, address the severe problem of dedovshchina. Even if it did, it probably couldn’t do much to alter its pervasiveness. Dedovshchina is too embedded in military culture. It allows older conscripts to regulate and dominate new ones, giving the military a self perpetuating code of conduct that has no written rules and functions according to the laws laid down by rank and file soldiers. As one ded interviewed by Human Rights Watch put it,

“When we arrived as first-year conscripts, nobody spared us, we slaved for the dedy, and were beaten much more than this [new recruit] now… And we did not complain, we did not run away, and eventually we became friends with the dedy. Now it’s our turn. That’s the law here. We didn’t put up with a full year here so that some dukhi [ or ghost, in this context a derogatory term for new recruits] can now ignore us. Let them take it, and then their time of compensation will come.”

As Gots correctly titles his editorial, slavery is not reformable.