By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 30, 2006 2:21 PM
MOSCOW, Jan. 30 -- A horrific case of hazing at a Russian military academy has catapulted the issue of the brutal treatment of conscripts back into the public eye and led to demands that the Defense Ministry finally deal with a problem it has been accused of ignoring for years.
A 19-year-old private was allegedly tied to a chair and beaten on his legs for three hours by drunken superiors on New Year's Eve. The conscript, who was unable to stand after the beating, received no medical attention until Jan. 4, but by then gangrene had set in. Doctors were forced to amputate his legs and sexual organs.
Eight other recruits were also allegedly assaulted, but not as badly as Private Andrei Sychyov, who remains in critical but stable condition in a hospital. Senior officials in Moscow said they were not made aware of the incident until last week.
On Monday, President Vladimir Putin called the assault a tragic event and a crime. In televised remarks, while speaking to government ministers, he ordered Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov "to submit proposals on legal and organizational matters to improve educational work in the army and navy."
Human rights groups have for years complained about violent bullying in the Russian army. "The vast majority of army officers either choose to ignore evidence of the abuses or to encourage them" because they see the attacks as "an effective means of maintaining discipline in their ranks," Human Rights Watch said in 2004, when it issued a major report on the problem. "Throughout their first year, new recruits live under the constant threat of violence for failing to comply with second year conscripts' arbitrary demands from polishing their shoes to procuring food and alcohol."
All Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 are supposed to serve two years in the armed forces, a requirement that will be reduced to one year by 2008. Many parents go to enormous lengths, including bribery, to shield their sons from the draft. Only about 9 percent of eligible men are actually drafted, according to the Defense Ministry.
The army insists that it is tackling the issue of violent bullying. It said last week that 16 soldiers were killed as a result of hazing incidents in 2005. But human rights groups argue that the figure is much higher if soldiers driven to suicide by hazing are included. According to the Defense Ministry, 276 soldiers killed themselves last year.
"The fact that this latest case has become so well known gives us some hope that the situation will have to change," said Anna Kashirtseva, a representative of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, an advocacy group that monitors the military. "There is only one real solution, however, and that is to get rid of the conscript army, which is useless and harmful, and replace it with a professional army with professional officers."
Doctors in the city of Chelyabinsk, where Sychyov was beaten, called the local branch of the Committee of Soldier's Mothers to alert them to the incident, but it only became fully public last week. The soldier's family was not informed until he had already undergone the first of a number of amputations.
Defense Minister Ivanov, who is seen as a possible successor of Putin, at first played down the incident when reporters asked him about it during a trip to Armenia last week. "There is nothing serious there, otherwise I would certainly have known about it," said Ivanov. But he backpedaled as the scale of public revulsion in Russia became known.
Ivanov dispatched a senior general to the scene of the assault, the Chelyabinsk Armor Academy about 1,200 miles east of Moscow, to investigate the incident and why it apparently was not reported up the chain of command. Ivanov fired the academy's head and officials said the Defense Ministry would accelerate the closing of the academy, which was to be shuttered this year.
Eleven servicemen, including several officers, are under investigation and two soldiers remain in custody, including the man Sychyov identified as his main tormenter. The wounded man "tries to speak, but he can't, and he can't eat," his mother, Galina Sychyov, told the Russian media. "When we come to visit, we just stand and try to caress and soothe him."