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Thursday, 14 October 2010

Russia’s army, notorious for its brutal hazing rituals

He ignored their letters, refused to answer their calls, and finally resorted to a medical report. The draft board was unconvinced, and eventually declared him fit to serve.
“I’d rather do time in jail, than in the army,” says Anton Trukhochov, 23, who spent four months in the Russian military before gathering enough paperwork to prove that he does not meet the minimal health requirements to serve.
“From the start, I had the paperwork with a stamp on it, confirming I had a heart condition,” claims Trukhochov. “They still made me join the army. Less than halfway through my time, I managed to get out.”
His battle to escape the draft is far from unique.
Many young men enroll in universities, bribe military officials or forge documents to avoid serving in Russia’s army, notorious for its brutal hazing rituals. Some even go as far as moving overseas to avoid the one-year compulsory military service.
“I paid $5,000 dollars for a piece of paper that says I served,” claimed Roman (who chose not to give his last name), 24, whose medical condition was not severe enough to deceive the draft board. “That’s not even that expensive. I know people in Moscow who paid $10,000.”
With fall recruitment underway, in theory about 300,000 young Russian men should serve. But General Vasily Smirnov, deputy chief of the General Staff of the Russian Army, says he expects half of the recruits to evade the draft.
“It is ridiculous what people will do,” says Dmitry Pislar, a representative of the For Human Rights movement and an expert on military conditions in the Russian army.
“People come into my office every day, asking how I can help them avoid conscription,” he says.
So, if the country once considered itself a nation of Soviet patriots, ready to give their life in the line of duty, why aren’t its modern-day men ready to serve the Motherland?
“The army is a ghetto,” says Pislar. “That’s the problem. It is a real ghetto, where the people don’t have any rights.”
Hazing became a high-profile issue in Russia after an incident involving Private Andrei Sychyov, who had both legs amputated after being beaten and tortured on New Year's Eve 2005 by fellow soldiers in the south Urals city of Chelyabinsk.
The soldier’s struggle is far from an isolated case. The Russian Soldiers' Mothers Committee has estimated that around 1,000 soldiers die every year as a result of non-combat situations. A significant minority of these are murders and suicides.
Some servicemen want Russia to have a professional military, with men who actually desire to serve their country.
“If a person wants to serve, they should. I just don’t understand why we all have to do it,” says Roman. “I don’t see a future for myself in the army. I would just lose a year of my life there.”
The head of the defense committee announced this year that the number of professional soldiers in the Russian army should be increased. To date, officers account for about 15 percent of the armed personnel, while 25 percent are professional servicemen. The rest are conscripts.
But experts say the switchover is not so simple.
“The state cannot simply support the transition to a professional army,” head of the main directorate for morale in the Russian Armed Forces, Yuri Dashkin, told RIA Novosti in May. “Our Armed Forces, while accomplishing a great number of tasks, have to rely on conscription due to the current economic situation in the country and limited resources,” he said.
The discussion on whether the country’s army should mostly consist of conscripts or professional servicemen has been held in Russia since the mid-2000s, when large-scale military reforms were launched in the country.
Since then, the discussion has been put on hold.
“They tried to make a professional army, but just like everything else in this country, it self-destructed,” says Pislar. “The salary was low, the conditions were bad. Why would anyone want to serve?”

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