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Russia Profile
February 1, 2006
A Highly Resistant Strain
The Sychyov Case is a Reflection of a Broad Malaise in the Russian Army

Comment by Victor Litovkin

The tragedy that befell Private Andrei Sychyov and that has been at the center of discussion in Russia, right up to President Vladimir Putin, took place on New Years Eve. Military prosecutors are still investigating the details, but what we do already know is that that a number of drunken older enlisted men and NCOs, led by Corporal Alexander Sivyakov, spent several hours tormenting Sychyov, who had only joined the Logistics Battalion at the Chelyabinsk Tank Military College two days earlier. He was forced to crouch for with his arms stretched out in front of him for an extended period, and was then tied tightly to a stool. There have been reports unsubstantiated as of yet that the 19 year old soldier was also raped.

The result was severe swelling of Sychyovs legs, the death of some of the muscle and, ultimately, gangrene. He turned to military doctors for help only four days after the attack, and then only because he was unable to get out of bed. The doctors not only failed to diagnose his condition properly, they failed to treat him at all. Sychyov ultimately had to call the emergency service of a municipal hospital where, in order to save his life, doctors were forced to amputate both of his legs, his genitalia and one finger. He remains in a critical condition, with no guarantees from the doctors that he will survive.

The case raises a slew of questions. The simplest is: How could something like this happen in the army? Another: How could this horrifying story only come to public attention a full 24 days after it took place? Not even Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, to his ultimate embarrassment, had been made aware of what had happened. During a trip to Armenia, two days after the story first broke in the Russian press, Ivanov was asked what had happened. Calmly, he answered: Nothing terrible. Otherwise Id be informed. The unknowingly heartless phrase only added to the strength of public outrage.

The worst thing about the case, despite how cynical it may sound, is that there is nothing unusual in todays Russian army about the ministers cold reaction or, for that matter, the tragedy in Chelyabinsk.

According to official figures, 1,064 people serving in Russias Army and Navy died last year. There were also 20,390 crimes and incidents of disciplinary action. Meanwhile, according to the military, 16 of these deaths were the result of hazing activities. If Sychyovs case, which was covered up for almost a month, is any indication of how things are, this number is even higher. Simply put, the generals and other senior commanders diligently conceal these murders even from each other ostensibly in order to defend the positive image of the Armed Forces but, in reality, because they are more concerned about their own careers and well being. No one is held responsible for successfully concealed incidents and this attitude stretches from top to bottom in the military.

Hence, most of these cases are registered as suicides (there were 276 suicides registered in the Armed Forces last year) and accidents (which, strangely, also numbered 276 in 2005). Any honest person who has served in the army for a few years will tell you that, in most cases, suicides and accidents are the results of life becoming so unbearable that a soldier hangs or shoots himself.

If the officers of the Logistics Battalion officers had realized the kind of resonance Private Sychyovs tragedy would have nationwide, they would definitely have reported it to their superiors. But, as usual, they decided to cover up. A civilian doctor, not wanting to be responsible for someones death, had to report it.

But the questions here go beyond those concerning timely and accurate reporting. Why dont military commanders or the top military brass appear to be fighting the hazing problem seriously? Unfortunately, the answer here is all too obvious. In direct contradiction to their professional duty, the officers are not interested in installing order in the units. In order to battle hazing effectively, there has to be an officer present in the barracks around the clock. The salaries paid today to junior officers are not enough to encourage this type of commitment.

Platoon or company commanders (ranking from senior lieutenant to captain) are paid less than escalator attendants in the Moscow Metro 8,000 rubles (about $285) per month. The salary of a streetcar driver in Moscow, 18,000 rubles, is beyond even their dreams. Add to this the lack of guaranteed housing and much prospect of promotion, and the dire nature of the situation becomes obvious.

Someone whose mind is occupied entirely by thoughts of his own survival and finding ways to feed his family doesnt have much time left over to look out for the welfare of the personnel in his charge, no matter how much you try to pressure or force him. This is even more likely to be the case when half of these soldiers come from a lumpenproletariat with which the officer has no connection and who, should something go wrong, wouldnt think twice about knocking him off. Even if the officer tries, he has few weapons against the barracks hooligan. You cant jail them all, and reporting them to the Military Prosecutors Office means the end of any chance of career advancement and, by extension, any hope of raising your social status. As a result, many officers go about their work in a slipshod manner, opting to just go along with the way things are that is, the way it happened at the Chelyabinsk Tank College.

You can only correct the situation by getting officers to value their profession, and there will be no order as long as officers view dismissal from the army as a blessing rather than punishment. There will be no order if commanders continue to be able to bury information about accidents and crimes. There will be no order as long as organizations like the Soldiers Mothers are unable to gain access to the barracks. There will be no order until every garrison is patrolled by military police who do not report to the local commander, but higher up, and which are able to take decisive action against hooligans and sadists in uniform.

Last but not least, you can install order in the army with, and only with, the presence of professional sergeants. This does not mean a bunch of no-neck thugs and skinheads wearing stripes, but what used to be known as uncles in the old Russian army long serving, experienced members of the ranks, who know and understand the psychology of the military as an institution and who operate according to the law and respect for the individual soldier. Until these conditions are brought into being, any legal and organizational measures to improve educational work in the Armed Forces, of the kind that President Vladimir Putin has demanded will prove to be useless.

Russian Army Colonel Viktor Litovkin (Ret.) is a military commentator for RIA Novosti. He contributed this comment to Russia Profile.