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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hazing Leaves Scars on Proud Army

Sergeant Sergei Ivanov, a handsome 21-year-old with a deep indentation over his left brow, has gotten better in the half year he has spent in military and civilian hospitals. He can answer simple questions now with a yes or no. He can tell his mother when he is tired and when he wants to walk the hospital corridor.

He has never asked how he ended up like this, and his mother, Tatyana Ivanova, is afraid to bring it up. The doctor warned her that recalling the incident might trigger a setback for Sergei.

She can't forget it, not for a moment. As his fellow soldiers explained it to her, Ivanov, of military unit 25654 stationed in the central Russian city of Georgiyevsk, was sick that day. He was lying on his cot in the barracks, nursing a fever, when the commanding officer, a major, walked in. Music was playing on a cassette player near the bed. The major ordered it turned off, but Sergei did not hear him.

The major beat him so badly he was in a coma for three days. The doctor warned his mother he might not survive. It was Oct. 21, two weeks before he was to complete his two years of army service and be discharged.

As ruinous as his condition is, it could have been far worse. On condition of anonymity, military officials acknowledged in interviews this month that roughly 500 servicemen are killed every year by officers or comrades. By comparison, in the U.S. armed forces, with 40 percent more people, there were 28 murders in 1998, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

The real murder rate among the military is suspected to be even higher because, as military prosecutors concede, some killings are falsely reported as suicides. Some parents discover the truth by opening the sealed coffins delivered to them for burial.

The spread of violence in army barracks is part of a much larger tale of the military's decay. If military budgets are divided by the number of personnel, Russia ranks at the bottom of major countries, behind even Turkey and India, according to Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the defense committee in the State Duma. The military budget is equivalent to about $4,000 per serviceman per year, compared with $180,000 per serviceman in the United States, according to Arbatov. A soldier's pay is about a dollar a month.

"Any other army under these conditions would have rebelled," said Dmitry Trenin, deputy director of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

The army doesn't, in the view of Trenin and others, because of a vestige of Soviet-era military pride.

Alexei Dolnev, a tall 19-year-old with wide-set blue eyes, had heard some appalling stories about the army before he was drafted two years ago. He was still willing to go, even maybe to become an officer. His grandfather, father and mother all served in the army. His mother, Galina, was all for it. "I wanted him to get wiser, to become a real man," said the 47-year-old bank employee in an interview in her Moscow apartment.

In his training unit, Dolnev said, his supervisors warned him of what was to come: Once transferred to a regular division, he would have to confront the "grandfathers," second-year soldiers renowned for their practice of dedovshchina, or physical abuse and humiliation of younger conscripts.

In the worst units, the grandfathers create a prison-style atmosphere, minus the guards. Conscripts are stripped of their watches, money and packages from home. And when the officers aren't around, they become punching bags, either for the older soldiers' entertainment or as a crude form of discipline.

Colonel Sergei Deineko, of the military prosecutor's office in Moscow, said every reported case of dedovshchina is vigorously investigated. But many commanders cover up incidents. Even so, Deineko said, military prosecutors investigate about 2,000 cases a year.

Dolnev, the young recruit from Moscow, said he hadn't spent two weeks at the unit near Volgograd when a drunken second-year soldier woke him in the middle of the night, directed him to the washroom and beat him for an hour, dislocating his jaw. "I couldn't eat for two weeks. I couldn't speak. I could hardly drink water," he said.

Many more attacks followed, he said — once with the leg of a pool table, other times with shovels or rubber tubes.

His turning point came when, standing guard one day, he felt a powerful urge to shoot the first person he saw. He said he decided if he lived any longer "with the beasts and jerks with whom I was drafted," he would become one of them.

So in early September, he walked away from the base, flagged down a car and made his way home. He estimates about one-seventh of his division did the same.

About the time Dolnev was escaping from his unit in Volgograd in September, Ivanov was counting the days until his release from his unit in Georgiyevsk.

He shaved his head when he had 100 days to go — an army tradition. At home, in his little village of Vyzaniki, northeast of Moscow, his mother's birthday was coming up. A girlfriend was waiting; they had talked seriously of marriage.

When his mother got the telegram in October and rushed to the military hospital, she said the military doctor insisted her son was near death because of sinusitis — a treatable sinus infection. She didn't learn otherwise until three soldiers from Sergei's unit described the beating to her.

After two months of medical treatment, Sergei could say just one word: Tanya, his mother's name.

Military prosecutors first declined to look into his case, then opened an inquiry this spring after his mother's second letter. It is far from the worst incident in their files.

The case of Kostya Lavrov, an 18-year-old from a Moscow suburb, is still open. Kostya's parents never believed he committed suicide in the army, as the official documents claimed, especially when they opened the coffin and found his body covered with bruises and wounds.

The boy's letters, secretly handed to a kindly townswoman and delivered after his death three years ago, described how he suffered in his weeks in the army.

"I can barely write now," he said in his last letter. "It hurts everywhere. Dedovshchina is awful. When I got here, I was beaten up right away. They broke my nose several times. They beat me against the wall, and they beat my head against a table. … If you complain, then maybe they will be reprimanded, but then you are a dead man. … Mom, please do whatever you can to get me out of here. Don't write to the officers. If they ever find out about this letter, I am a dead man. … Mom, please do something. … Mom, PLEASE! I CAN'T STAND IT ANYMORE."