Russian army 'riddled with sadists'

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Russia's once mighty armed forces are a haven for sadists, with senior soldiers subjecting their junior colleagues to vicious beatings, torture, sexual violence and death threats, a report said yesterday.

Russia's once mighty armed forces are a haven for sadists, with senior soldiers subjecting their junior colleagues to vicious beatings, torture, sexual violence and death threats, a report said yesterday.

After three years of research and more than 100 interviews with victims, Human Rights Watch, based in New York, said the problem of violent initiation ceremonies - known as dedovshchina or "rule of the grandfathers" - had reached horrific levels and was sapping morale and undermining combat readiness.

According to official figures 25 soldiers have died as a result of the rites presided over by older conscripts since the beginning of this year; 12 others have died from excess force used by their officers, while 109 have committed suicide. Independent analysts say the real figures are much higher, however, with many deaths being erroneously recorded as accidental or occurring outside military service.

Military service in Russia is obligatory and lasts two years; the first-year recruits are typically bullied by the second-year ones who are known as the deds or grandfathers.

Sitting nervously in a central Moscow café yesterday, his eyes haunted by what he has been through, a former conscript who would only give his name as Aleksei, described his own ordeal in the army. Aleksei, 20, was posted to a parachute detachment in the southern Russian town of Novorossysk last June; by February of the following year he had fled and been discharged on medical grounds.

"My problems began when my officer told me that my mother had got in touch [with him] and asked why her son was not writing and why he did not seem to be receiving his food parcels," he told The Independent.

Aleksei was being forced to give his food parcels to second-year conscripts. "After the letter my officer told all the other soldiers that I was an informer, that they could do what they wanted with me until the end of my term and that they could kill me and treat me like a dog. I was put to work cleaning the toilets every day."

In the following months Aleksei was routinely beaten up, had his nose and teeth broken, was woken at midnight every night and forced to perform back-breaking physical exercises (sometimes in a gas mask), was threatened with death and throttled, had his paltry monthly wage of 160 roubles (£3.20) stolen, was shaven with a lighter and was regularly humiliated.

"I would rather go to Chechnya than go back to that regiment," he said yesterday. "They [the deds] tried to break the soldiers who looked withdrawn. A soldier in the next regiment was raped. Dedovshchina is everywhere and yet we're human beings too." Aleksei's experience did not break him but it did push him to the edge.

One day, his reason crumbling, he took his Kalashnikov automatic rifle and pointed it at a sergeant who had been bullying him. "Then he be- came afraid. He was trembling."

The report itself, entitled The Wrongs of Passage, details several horrific cases; of a conscript being stabbed with a penknife for refusing to obey his ded and of another being forced to simulate homosexual acts. Humiliated in front of his peers and consumed with shame, the latter took his own life. Diederik Lohman, the report's author, told The Independent that dedovshchina was weakening the Russian army from within.

"An army of the sick and the beaten is not going to be the most effective. Nor is an army composed of victims and abusers. It [ dedovshchina] has created an almost universal desire not to serve.

"It's stunning that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, who is so preoccupied by national security, is ignoring this practice. It's not like he doesn't know about it."

A spokesman for Russia's Defence Ministry said that the authorities would refrain from commenting until they had read the report. The Kremlin does not deny that dedovshchina exists but is trying to reform the armed forces to make them leaner and more professional.

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