Fresh Russian army inductees. Let the torture begin! Photo by Reuters
Over the recent New Year’s holidays, Private Andrei Sychyov’s superiors tied him to a chair and beat him continuously for hours and hours, taking breaks only to sustain their drinking binge. When it was over, Sychyov was told not to say a peep. He didn’t complain, and the doctors who examined him reported that he was fine.
A few days later, gangrene appeared in his most badly beaten areas. He was rescued from death only by having both legs and his genitalia amputated.
While this example of savage hazing in the Russian army made headlines everywhere, one detail too gruesome yet all too common was left out: The officers also repeatedly raped the shit out of the poor young conscript.
The word “hazing” doesn’t come close to capturing the terror of dedovshchina, or the “rule of grandfathers,” in the Russian army. Dedovshchina isn’t some prank where the victims are forced to shotgun cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon until they puke. Dedovshchina is what happens when the officer corps loses authority and 19-year-old conscripts start making the rules for the 17- and 18-year-olds. It is so bad that draftees fear it far more than Chechnya. One former soldier, Vlad, told Vice, “On our first day in the barracks, everybody yelled at us, ‘Hang yourselves now, it’s too much shit to handle.’”
Many soldiers sooner or later take that advice: The Russian army averages some 500 suicides a year, or about 45 per 100,000 soldiers. The U.S., by contrast, averages about 17 per 100,000. Military prosecutors say that dedovshchina is the primary reason for suicide. More than 10,000 soldiers desert every year, for the same reason. Others go nuts, like two conscripts in 2002 who shot dead eight fellow soldiers at their outpost in Ingushetia, in southern Russia. When they were captured a couple of days later, they claimed they did it “to avenge dedovshchina.” Indeed, incidents of AWOL soldiers heading into the forests and leaving a few corpses behind are incredibly common.
The abuse starts from day one, when older soldiers seize the recruits’ newly issued clothes and replace them with used, ill-fitting rags. This isn’t just an intimidating gesture; it helps identify the new recruits, who are called dukhi, or “ghosts.” Recruits are drafted to serve two years, which, according to the rules of dedovshchina, are broken up into four six-month segments. Second-year soldiers, who are usually 19 or 20, are referred to as “old-timers,” and soldiers with less than half a year left are called dedy, or “grandfathers.” The dedy have more authority than even officers, and they are eager to get their turn after the abuse they suffered. Besides, the system of dedovshchina has a built-in mechanism to make sure that it perpetuates itself: If old-timers aren’t harsh enough on new conscripts, they themselves will be “demoted” back to the level of dukh. Last year, at least 16 soldiers died from abuse at the hands of dedy.
Both physical and psychological abuse continue nonstop. While there are no statistics on it, Valentina Melnikova, who runs the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees, says that rape is endemic. She mentions sleep deprivation, beatings, starvation, and forced labor as some of the other tactics used to break dukhi. One particularly foul type of torture is forcing a dukh to scrub the toilets with a toothbrush. These toilets are shit-splattered holes in the ground with barely running water, nothing like those spotless tile johns in Full Metal Jacket. Using a toothbrush to clean them is like asking an elephant to wipe his ass with Q-tips.
We asked Lyosha, another former soldier, about dedovshchina. He showed Vice a scar as thick as a thumb running from his navel to his Adam’s apple. While he refused to elaborate on the circumstances behind the scar, he did say, “I served the rest of my term in the hospital.”
The roots of dedovshchina go back at least to the 1960s, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union it mutated from a ritual of breaking in new recruits to a sadistic system of torture and abuse. After 1991, the army descended into chaos and it became possible to buy your way out of conscription. It currently costs around $5,000 to escape the draft and, given the horrors of dedovshchina, anyone who can afford it pays. Only the poorest ten percent of Russians end up serving. They tend to be the dregs of society, often the children of raging alcoholics or petty criminals. As a rule you won’t find any Muscovite or Petersburg kids serving in the army.
Dedovshchina is exacerbated by the fact that Russian petty officers only get around $200 a month. Even in a country as poor as Russia, that’s not nearly enough to live on. Officers quickly realize that one of the best ways to supplement their income is to convert the only resource they have into cash. They start renting out their conscripts as cheap day laborers. The system of dedovshchina lends itself to this by putting the responsibility for running the business on the old-timers.
The dedy force the dukhi to cough up money regularly. Ragged soldiers begging for money are a frequent sight in Moscow, and conscripts are often “rented out” for use at construction sites.
Meanwhile, dedy are also expected to maintain discipline. “If the dedy caught you unshaven, they had two ways of handling it,” Vlad said. “Sometimes they’d rub off your beard with a towel, giving you rope burn. You can’t imagine how much it hurt, but it was better than the second way, when they’d burn it off.”
Still, all of this is child’s play compared to when the dedy start drinking. The few constraints that the dedy have evaporate once vodka’s thrown into the mix. It’s no coincidence that the Sychyov incident took place during a New Year’s binge. In the wake of the that scandal, a veritable menu of dedovshchina methods has been made public.
So move over, Lynndie England! If you really want to know how to torture, just study this guide to the Russian army’s top ten hazing rituals:
The Elephant: This one gets its name from Russian gas masks, which come with trunklike tubes through which you breathe. The ded forces a dukh to put on a mask, seals the end of the “trunk”—cutting off the dukh’s air supply—and makes him recite army regulations, sing patriotic Soviet war songs, or run laps till he passes out. Sometimes, when the soldier starts turning blue, the ded opens the air duct and, as the soldier takes a gasp of air, slams him in the solar plexus.
The Batman: The dukh lies down on the bottom bunk of a typical army bed, grasps the top bunk with his arms and legs, and holds on. For a really, really long time. Generally, several dukhi do the Batman at once, with the last one to let go being spared further punishment.
The Crazy Deer: This one is self-flagellation, pure and simple. The ded orders the dukh to cross his hands over his forehead and bang his head against a wall. As often as not, this one ends with a concussion.
The Television: While it might not seem particularly brutal to the layman, this form of torture was what led to the amputation of Sychyov’s legs and balls. The dukh sits on a stool and is handed another stool with a cup of water balanced on it. The stool he’s sitting on is pulled out from under him and, if the water in the cup on the stool he’s holding spills, he gets a serious beating. The name comes from the fact that the dukh watches the stool in his hands with deadly seriousness while he’s waiting for them to yank the chair out.
The Bicycle: This might take place more often except for the fact that the dukhi are only allowed to sleep a few hours a night. The ded places rolls of paper between the sleeping dukh’s toes and lights them on fire. The resulting motion as the dukh tries to put out his flaming feet is reminiscent of Lance Armstrong in the homestretch.
The Confiscation: This one is exactly what it sounds like. Whenever a dukh’s relatives bring him food or supplies, the deds confiscate all of it. You might think that this would be easily remedied by the dukh telling his relatives not to bring anything… except that deds often place new orders which, if unfulfilled, mean more abuse. So there’s no choice—the starving dukh has to suffer the pain of seeing his grandma’s borscht confiscated and eaten in front of his face.
The Dried Crocodile: For when the Batman just isn’t intimidating enough, enterprising Russian sadists invented the following variation: The dukh suspends himself, face-down, between two bunk beds. A Kalashnikov with the bayonet pointing up is placed under him and the soldier hangs there indefinitely “drying” himself. Deds sometimes whack him with pillows while he clings on for dear life.
The Birdie: This, probably the most sadistic form of dedovshchina, gets its name from a diminutive of the Russian abbreviation for a field telephone. Hard as it is to believe, the once-feared Red Army still relies on field telephones that are charged by cranking, à la telephones circa 1930. The ded wraps a wire from the phone around each of the dukh’s big toes and then starts cranking. The faster he cranks, the more shocking the experience.
The Pheasant: It might be an exaggeration to say that dukhi look forward to the Pheasant, but if they get through it they’re no longer dukhi. The dukh has to crouch on the legs of an upside-down bench while the deds line up and whip his naked ass with a metal belt buckle. It varies according to unit, but dukhi can expect at least 100 blows. If at any point the dukh falls off the bench, the process starts from the beginning. “My ass was as big as a basketball by the time I passed,” Vlad remembered. “But I couldn’t have been happier.”
Billiards: Even in the savage world of dedovshchina, some forms of cruelty are so brutal that they can only be employed on rare, special occasions. Billiards is one of them. It consists of two parts: The ded first sticks a pool ball in the dukh’s mouth and then starts whacking it with a cue. At best, the dukh can expect some chipped teeth. At worst the game progresses to the anal level and everyone laughs while a teenager gets raped with a pool cue.