More on Sychyov and Dedovshchina

The more information that comes out about the Sychyov Case, the more disgusting it becomes. As I wrote the other day, almost all of the prosecution witnesses have recanted their testimony and Sychyov’s mother and sister are claiming that officials from the Defense Ministry has tried to bribe them into submission.

In an opinion piece in the Moscow Times, Alexandr Gol’ts, who is also the editor of ????????? ?????? and writes for several Russian language and English media, provides more information about how unknown officials from the Defense Ministry have intimidated witnesses. During the investigation phase of the trial, the presiding judge moved one of the witnesses to a unit under the command of Alexander Anupriev. Shortly before the trial began, one of the witnesses began recanting his story after meeting with an unknown general. Gol’ts provides a snippet of the exchange between the judge and Anupriev as the former tried to ascertain the general’s identity:

“Did a car come?”
“What kind of car?”
“What kind of license plate?”

Someone wake up Kafka. He’s missing an example of bureaucratic evasion par excellence. Nothing obscures more than one word answers. According to Gol’ts, “Anupriev couldn’t remember the visitor’s rank or name even though the visitor’s confidential talks with the soldiers had taken place in his own office. There was no paper trail. The visitor’s documents were not checked at the gate, supposedly because he arrived in a car with military plates.” It is clear from Anupriev’s testimony, of I should say lack thereof, that the general also gave him a talking to too. And one seriously doubts that he will sacrifice himself for justice for Sychyov and other victims of dedovshchina.

But government intimidation and cover-up wouldn’t be complete without some stage performance. After Anupriev left the stand, the military trotted out its own hazing “victims,” who obsequiously explained their beatings as “for good reasons and not very hard.” So I guess we are also supposed to conclude that the amputation of Sychyov’s legs and genitals was for “good reasons” too. Gol’ts goes on to provide more examples of military interference and malfeasance. These include the aforementioned bribing of Sychyov’s mother, claims by military doctors that there was no evidence that he was beaten or that his injuries were a result of a “congenital blood disorder.” To add insult to injury and clearly revealing where the military brass’ interests lie, Sergeant Alexander Sivyakov, who is on trial for the incident, was immediately provided a team of defense lawyers. His lawyers are basing their defense on claims that Sychyov’s injuries were from improper treatment in a civilian hospital. Next thing we’ll probably hear is that Sychyov really ran into a wall or fell down some stairs.

Some claim that dedovshchina can be solved by eliminating the conscript army, improving the conditions and pay for military personnel, and strictly enforcing rules and harsh punishments to offenders. There is a lot of support that these measures would work. While hazing in the Russian military has Soviet roots (though I wouldn’t doubt that it extends to the Tsarist period, but I don’t have any concrete evidence), it is clear that incidents have substantially increased since 1991. The economic and psychological shock stemming from the collapse of the USSR, the weakness of Russia in the 1990s, and the brutality of the Chechen War has had profound effects on the conditions and morale within the military. Conditions are undoubtedly ripe for such a violent military culture.

But with all this intransigence, it seems that policies that improving life in the military, though absolutely necessary, wouldn’t change the culture in which dedovshchina exists. The problem is that like in many male centered cultural spaces and institutions, hazing is seen as integral for building unity between men. Boys are transformed into men. Those who can take the abuse are not only accepted into the fold of the worthy, they are also given the right to dole it out to their subordinates. The prospects of payback regenerates the process. In addition, the fact that there exists a whole set of terms that indicate a conscripts place within the rank and file hierarchy—dedy (grandfathers), dukhi (ghosts)—and the rituals they are expected to make to senior conscripts, suggests that dedovshchina is more than a material problem. It is also a cultural one.

And with all of that and the politics behind it, Gol’ts concludes that the message to the public is clear:

Don’t you dare fight for soldiers’ rights. No matter what you do, you’ll never be able to prove anything. That’s why Sychyov’s mother was offered money, why the witnesses are being intimidated, and why officers are made to behave like idiots.

And people wonder why many Russians fight tooth and nail to get their sons out of military service. In many ways it’s like a prison or worse a death sentence.