Abuser and abused: Human Rights and the Russian military

The Russian military faces (at least) two human rights problems: dedovshchina, the hazing of new conscripts in the Russian army (see book review below), and human rights violations by Russian military in Chechnya or other conflict areas.


In 1988, the publication of an article Komsomol'skaia Pravda, describing an incident in which a conscript who had been the victim of ongoing abuse in the barracks eventually snapped and turned his weapon against his fellow servicemen, killing eight, started the debate about dedovshchina. The practice of dedovshchina gave rise to another phenomenon more or less unique to post-Soviet Russia: the Soldiers' Mothers' Movement.

For many antimilitarists, it is difficult to relate to this movement. It can not really be classified as antimilitarist or pacifist ? the main concern for many of the activists is to protect their sons from dedovshchina in the military. Most Soldiers' Mothers' Committees promote the professionalisation of the Russian military as an answer to the problem of dedovshchina.

However, the Soldiers' Mothers' Committees were and are important when it comes to providing practical assistance to young men who do not want to join the military for fear of dedovshchina, and made many human rights abuses in the military public, thus putting the issue of dedovshchina on the agenda of Russian society, and contributing to the collapse of the Russian conscription system, and widespread draft avoidance. In spite of the activities of the Soldiers' Mothers', almost 20 years later, things did not improve, as the case of private Sychyov shows, who became a symbol of the brutal realities of Russian conscription at the beginning of this year.

According to reports by the Mothers' Rights Foundation, "three thousand soldiers on average die every year in the Russian army. [...] 23% of deaths in the army are attributed to accidents, 16% to military operations, 15% to other soldiers' aggressive acts and 11% to illness. Besides, in 17% cases the perished soldier was the only child in the family and 14% of parents, who lost their son in military service, are disabled persons. Parents of a perished soldier can get a pension, which amounts 70 dollars a month, but they receive it only if it was proved that the cause of death wasn't a suicide or an illness. In addition, investigation often doesn't take into consideration that in most cases a soldier was driven to suicide after everyday humiliation, brutal tortures and harassment. According to Veronica Marchenko, the last year is characterized by unusually cruel murders and numerous criminal cases." The Russian military is now responding with a shortening of military service (to 1 year from 2008 on), and increased professionalisation. However, it is unlikely that these steps will eliminate the problems mentioned above, as they are not accompanied by structural changes.


Chechnya marks the other side of human rights problems related to the Russian military: the systemic violation of human rights of Chechen civilians by the armed forces. And increasingly these practices spread to the neighbouring republic Ingushetia. Amnesty International writes: ?Serious human rights violations, including war crimes, continue to be committed in Chechnya by both Chechen and federal forces. Chechen security forces are increasingly implicated in arbitrary detention, torture and 'disappearances' in Chechnya. Women suffer gender-based violence, including rape or threats of rape, by members of the federal and Chechen security forces. There are also reports that Chechen armed opposition groups continue to commit war crimes, including direct attacks on civilians. Amnesty International is aware of only two convictions during 2005 for serious human rights violations committed in Chechnya. The majority of investigations into alleged violations are ineffective and in the few cases that come to court the prosecution is flawed.

Violence and unrest have also been reported in other North Caucasus republics, including abuses such as arbitrary detention, torture, "disappearances" and abductions. On 13 October 2005 a group of up to 300 gunmen launched attacks on government installations in and near Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, in which more than 100 people, including at least 12 civilians, are reported to have been killed. The raid was reportedly in response to months of persecution of practising Muslims in the region, including arbitrary detention and torture by law enforcement officials, and the closure of mosques. Following the raid, law enforcement officials detained dozens of people; many of the detainees were reportedly tortured.

While the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Russia on the disappearances and death of Chechen citizens in February and on 12 October 2006, the situation does not improve. In its February ruling, the ECHR first found Russia guilty of serious human rights violations in Chechnya, ruling that Russia had used disproportionate force in its military operations, indiscriminately targeted civilians, and failed to adequately investigate civilian deaths.

An anti-war movement?

In spite of widespread dedovshchina and the war in Chechnya, there is no anti-war movement in Russia to speak of. A few small groups ? some Soldiers' Mothers' Committees, Autonomous Action, Memorial, and a few others, work more or less isolated from each other within Russia against Russia's ?war on terror? in Chechnya. Many Russian activists place their hopes into the European and international institutions, and appeal to these to stop the war in Chechnya. However, this is unlikely to happen, especially as long as there is no public opposition to the war in Russia itself.

Andreas Speck

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