A Russian Soldier’s Story

Two years in the life of Kiril Bobrov—a parable of the once-proud, now-rotting Russian army

The Kamenka base is set deep in the forest near a small village of wooden peasant cottages. The village has no restaurant, no bar, no café, no movie theater—not even a name. Along the road leading to the base, a Soviet-era T-80 tank sits on a pedestal; a plaque commemorates the tank’s role in Russian history. The base sprawls over hundreds of acres and is surrounded by a high yellow wall and barbed wire.

New arrivals are at the bottom of a well-defined hierarchy. Just above them are so-called “old soldiers” or “grand-fathers”—second-year conscripts serving out their final months. Most are no longer willing to make their beds or shine their boots or find illicit booze; they get the new arrivals to do these things for them. Once the officers leave the barracks for the night, the old soldiers take charge.

That is when trouble starts. An old soldier may wake up a new one and demand cigarettes or vodka or rubles. If the younger soldier comes up empty, he may be beaten. Hazing has been a problem in armies throughout the world for millennia, but in post-Soviet Russia it has become a crisis. Some units of abused recruits have mutinied or marched off base en masse. Some soldiers have shot and killed their tormentors. Thousands of conscripts have run for their lives. The incidence of suicide among draftees has increased, and officials cite bullying as the chief cause. President Vladimir Putin has called for an end to the hazing, and dozens of officers have been disciplined for allowing it (and in some cases for abusing or even killing their men themselves). But the beatings, known as dedovshchina (“rule of the grandfathers”), persist. The young soldiers live in collective terror, not of combat but of their comrades.

Kiril’s misery began on the day he arrived, when he made a seemingly minor mistake in military protocol. He addressed an old soldier who had attained the rank of sergeant with the formal term “Comrade Sergeant,” which had been mandated at the Yeysk base. But soldiers at Kamenka had been told to use a more familiar approach—to call their sergeants by name. The sergeant, angry at Kiril’s mistake, pummeled him, hitting him everywhere except on the face (so that no bruises would show). Kiril eventually smoothed things over with the sergeant, but he was beaten for weeks by various old soldiers whose demands he failed to meet. His idea of the military as a family evaporated.

“That first night I realized this was hell,” Kiril says, his eyes going blank as he describes Kamenka.

I was not simply hit once; I was beaten up. First the sergeant—he hit me in the stomach several times, and in the head, and after I fell he kicked me in the stomach. He didn’t aim, he just kicked and kicked and was swearing at me. Starting the very next day, the old soldiers would give us thirty minutes to get cigarettes with filters (which is impossible on the military base), or say, “Get me this much money in an hour, and if you don’t bring it to me in an hour you will be beaten to a pulp.” Which always happened, because we had no money … The base is not in a city, it’s in the woods, so you can’t go and ask for things. You can’t ask the trees for money and cigarettes. The old soldiers and even the officers would get drunk, and to entertain themselves they would wake you up in the night. I remember all the stools were broken through beating and hitting. They would make us do push-ups and just beat us for entertainment.

The worst offenders in Kiril’s unit were Ruha and Max, who generally operated out of the boiler room—it was always comfortably warm, and officers rarely went there. Ruha and Max never abused conscripts from their own part of the country. But everyone else was fair game. One officer on the base could keep Ruha under control, but when this officer was off duty, nothing could make Ruha stop. The young soldiers tried to stay out of his way, but there was no escape when his friends came for them in their bunks at night.

Most draftees have to deal with dedovshchina at one time or another during their hitches. Usually the old soldiers test the new arrivals, leaving those who are physically and psychologically tough alone after a beating or two. They focus on the weak, the timid, the fat, the mentally troubled, the effeminate. There is also a strong regional bias: the ethnic divisions that bedevil Russian society are reflected inside the barracks, with second-year soldiers from a given region often establishing a safe zone for arrivals from their own ethnic group and attacking newcomers from another. The beatings are worse during the long nights of winter, when the soldiers’ drinking escalates.

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Gregory Katz, a foreign correspondent based in London, is the Houston Chronicle’s bureau chief for Europe and the Middle East.

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