General attacks 'catastrophic' level of Russian army suicides

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The Independent Online

Russia's top military prosecutor has shocked the country by revealing that 46 soldiers - the equivalent of an average platoon - died last week for non-combat related reasons.

Eight of the soldiers committed suicide and several had to be shot by comrades to halt drunken and violent rampages. There were two attempted suicides.

Russians have long known that their armed forces are ravaged by appalling brutality, crime and bullying but these revelations from General Alexander Savenkov have hit home particularly hard.

His outburst has also been interpreted as a damaging and personal attack on the Defence Minister, Sergey Ivanov, who is a hot favourite to succeed President Vladimir Putin in 2008.

Mr Ivanov has claimed the number of suicides, accidental deaths and murders in the army is decreasing but General Savenkov stated the opposite. An expanded meeting of the country's military prosecutors is to be held today in Moscow to try and understand why so many soldiers are dying off the battlefield.

"Without exaggerating you can call that quantity of peacetime deaths [46] a catastrophe," noted the daily Novy Izvestia. It quoted Veronika Marchenko, the chairwoman of the Mothers' Rights Group, which lobbies for better conditions in the army, as expressing little surprise that 46 had died in one week. "Last week does not differ from any of the other 52 which preceded it," she said. "They were exactly the same."

General Savenkov said the large number of soldiers dying for non-combat reasons was due to officers' unwillingness to deal with their subordinates' problems because there was no culture of mentoring or offering guidance. Instead young conscripts are subjected to systematic hazing known, in Russia asdedovshchina, or "rule of the grandfathers".

Military service is obligatory and lasts two years. First-year recruits are usually bullied by the second year ones who are known as "deds", or grandfathers.

The bullying is sometimes so mentally and physically harsh that many take their own lives. Earlier this year four soldiers hanged themselves on the branch of a tree near their barracks. What drove them to such extreme lengths remains unclear.

According to official figures, 376 soldiers died for non-combat reasons between January and May of this year, of which 99 were suicides. Last year the total number was 954 of which 246 took their own lives.

The unofficial figures, however, are thought to be much higher.