Yaichki Verblyuzh’yego’s population consisted of a few merchants, a variable number of randomly appearing nomadic herders, the soldiers of a recently augmented Border Guards post, and the members of a highly secret “scientific detachment” who had arrived some months ago. The order of the day among the Border Guards troops consisted primarily of heavy drinking, routine beating of the enlisted men by the officers, bullying of newcomers by the enlisted men, and smuggling of contraband by the more ambitious soldiers, including Private Golodyayev.
Are Russian soldiers really routinely beaten and hazed?
Or is the quoted passage from the novel Cronatos Hybamper just some smart-ass creative writing, tinged with a bit of smug Russia-bashing?
Well, yes. Russian soldiers are in fact routinely abused. It’s an institution called “dedovshchina.” It occurs on a scale and with a degree of brutality that makes the very worst flap about U.S. Marine Corps boot camp look mild.
This small detail, nestled in what is merely a descriptive passage, is an example of the research that underlies the characters, events, and asserted facts in Cronatos Hybamper. Yes, it’s fiction, but it’s grounded in and creatively spun from facts.
Russian army veteran Arkady Babchenko, who served in both Chechen wars, describes in detail the beatings that he and his buddies suffered routinely. (In fact, if Babchenko’s book has any flaw, it’s that he talks about the beatings so often that one is tempted to skip over the beatings to get to the routine fratricide parts.)
Here’s his vivid description of one beating he got from a veteran who was demanding (extorting) money from him:
He gets up and punches me in the nose, from below, hard. The bridge of my nose crunches and my lips become warm and sticky. I lick the blood from them and spit it out on the floor. The second blow hits me under the eye, then I take one in the teeth. I fall with a moan. I can’t say it hurt that much, but it’s best to moan loudly so the beating stops sooner.
This time it’s no joke the way Timokha gets worked up. He kicks me and screams: “Why didn’t you bring the money, fucker? Why didn’t you bring the money?”
He makes me do push-ups and when I’m on my way up he kicks me in the teeth with a dirty boot. He catches me hard and my head snaps back. I lose my bearings for a moment, my left arm collapses under me and I fall on my elbow. My split lip gushes onto the floor, and I spit out blood and the polish that I had scraped off Timokha’s boot with my teeth.
Arkady Babchenko, One Soldier’s War (New York: Grove Press)
You can also find confirmation in no less an authority than Russiapedia, which is an outlet of the flatulent Russian state organ, Russia Today:
Dedovshchina, or hazing, is rooted in the Russian word ded, or grandfather, and stands for the major form of internal violence in the Russian army. It is exercised by soldiers serving their last year of compulsory military service against new conscripts.
Dedovshchina is a set of painful, humiliating rituals, exploitation, torture, bullying and beatings for insubordination.
In 2006, the New York Times reported that at least 292 Russian soldiers were murdered whilst undergoing dedovshchina (officially the figure is 16, still a national outrage in most countries) and that there had been 3500 reports of abuse up until August that year. The brutality also has huge consequential effects. Hundreds of soldiers, terrified of when their next – and possibly last -beating will come, commit suicide.
Hundreds more attempt suicide, contemplate it or are reduced to nervous wrecks by the experience. Thousands desert. Some are armed and have shot other soldiers in revenge or shoot the ones sent to bring them back. Some trek months across Russia to try and get back to their families or to charities.
And here is a passing reference from a 2001 RAND report by Olga Oliker for the United States Army, titled Russia’s Chechen Wars 1994-2000: Lessons from Urban Combat:
The brutal hazing for which the Russian armed forces are infamous continued even on the front lines. One young Grozny veteran survived several battles unscathed, only to land in the hospital with a broken jaw bestowed on him by his “comrades.” (P. 59)
Human Rights Watch discussed the consequences in its report on the problem:
The Consequences of Dedovshchina
Dedovshchina has devastating and lasting consequences for the physical and psychological well-being of conscripts. Tens of thousands of young conscripts try to flee their units every year because of the abuses associated with it, some armed and ready to kill themselves and others if they are apprehended. Every year dedovshchina proves lethal for some conscripts, while many others sustain permanent physical injuries as a result of it. Hundreds of conscripts commit suicide each year to escape it, and many more attempt to do so.
Desperate for a Way Out
Every year, dedovshchina drives tens of thousands of first-year conscripts to desperation, reflected in the radical options they try to escape it. Consider, for example, Denis Ivanov. He told Human Rights Watch that he contemplated intentionally breaking a leg so that he would be hospitalized and could leave his unit for a while. Or Aleksei K.: He wanted to volunteer for Chechnya to get away from the dedovshchina at his unit. He told Human Rights Watch that he never thought what the situation would be like there: “I just thought: at least I won’t be here.” Other conscripts said that they became consumed by a desire to kill or seriously injure their tormentors. Stepan M., for example, said that he dreamed of getting up at night and hitting one of the dedy with a stool “with great force so he would never wake up.” Alexander D., as we have seen, contemplated suicide as an escape from the abuses. These four conscripts eventually chose to run away from their units, as do most conscripts who cannot stand life in their units any more.
If your stomach is up for it, there are videos of dedovshchina available online.
France 24 aired a 2011 report titled “Death by bullying: extreme hazing in Russia’s army.”
There are also a number of videos posted on YouTube that purport to be examples of the problem. I can’t personally vouch for their authenticity, but they look real to me. Here are some links: