It’s Army Draft Day here in Russia, which means 270,000 young men are supposed to be reporting for duty somewhere. It also means that some 100,000 eligible young men are either not in the country, enrolled in unnecessary PhD’s, or have already arranged the kind of exemption that costs a certain amount of money. They aren’t running because Russia is at war — it’s not — but because there are few things worse — and physically, psychically more dangerous — than serving in the Russian army.
Russia’s army has been rusting steadily since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and, like in Soviet days, there is still a draft for young men between 18 and 27. (The only difference is they are now required to serve one year instead of two.) Because so many escape the draft through various loopholes, the army makes up the tally by taking in people with medical problems and criminal histories. This year, 10,000 criminals will enter the ranks of the Russian army, and they join many tens of thousands who are already waiting for them.
And then come the fun parts: the starvation, the disciplinary beatings, the murders, the slave labor, the attacks on ethnic minorities, the hazing that, in one notorious case, was so brutal that it resulted in an 18 year old recruit losing his legs and genitals to amputation. This is called “dedovshchina” — or “rule of the elders” — and it makes any military-aged Russian man seize up in panic. It also makes life in the military so bad that thousands of recruits commit suicide every year. In 2006, a 19 year-old named Radik Khabirov was pulled from a noose and returned to his father. By that point, Radik was in a coma and weighed 62 pounds. (You can see what that looked like here.) He died 14 months later, when he had already technically finished his army term, and so was not counted in the official suicide statistics.
“Dedovshchina” is also a huge blight on the fighting strength of a Russia that desperately wants to be seen as a modern military power capable of holding its own against America and the West. And so every year, the military stages a massive PR campaign to keep draft dodging to a minimum and defend its former glory. In late 2006 and 2007, a new army prosecutor was appointed and the Russian parliament formed a celebrity-studded commission to look into abuses. Suddenly instances of “dedovshchina” started to plummet by up to 40% a year. And just yesterday, for example, just before today’s big day, an army chief announced that incidents of “dedovschina” had decreased 15%.
These numbers, many believe, are rubbed, massaged, or just pulled out of thin air, because no new reforms were introduced to precipitate such a plunge. Despite the insistence of Army Prosecutor Sergey Fridinsky that, in some units “dedovshchina” “doesn’t exist at all,” the phenomenon is still alive and well and it often looks like this: