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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hazers Fill Officers' Void

Last week there was another case of mass desertions by Russian conscript soldiers -- this time from a unit of the Federal Railroad Troops near St. Petersburg. Similar to a recent mass desertion from a unit near Moscow, the soldiers took a train to the city and went directly to the St. Petersburg office of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee to complain of abuse by their commanding officers.

The mass desertion got lots of publicity on national television channels. A representative of the railroad troops -- once part of the Defense Ministry before becoming an independent armed force in the 1990s -- claimed the soldiers were "hooligans" who had attempted to consume alcoholic beverages in the barracks to celebrate the New Year and, after being disciplined by officers, deserted to escape punishment.

Abuse of conscripts has long been a feature of Russian military service. In most cases, newly enlisted conscripts are hazed by their longer-serving comrades -- so-called grandfathers -- who have served at least 1 1/2 years of the two-year term. This abuse often leads to desertions, shooting incidents and widespread suicides by conscripts who are physically and sometimes sexually assaulted, according to evidence gathered by Soldiers' Mothers and other human rights groups.

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But the recent mass desertions from units near Moscow and St. Petersburg seem to be a special case. Many of the deserters were in fact grandfathers -- conscripts with only several months left to serve who, according to military tradition, enjoy unofficial privileges in barracks. Apparently it was the grandfathers themselves who organized the mass desertions, a sign that the hazing system is beginning to break up.

Unlike in the West, Russian military units do not have professional noncommissioned officers. After World War II, the number of experienced corporals and sergeants tumbled. By the 1960s, they had virtually disappeared as a breed. The few who remained -- the praporshchiki -- mostly occupied administrative and logistics positions. Units were run by young conscripts who became NCOs after just five months of sergeant school.

These half-baked sergeants in most cases were not ready to be true leaders of detachments. Nor were they experienced enough to keep discipline and order in conscript units. Today, unit commanders concern themselves with battle strategy and, wanting not to be bothered with supervising troops' daily life and discipline, delegate to grandfathers the dirty work of keeping order among their peers in the barracks, while they, the professional officers, return home to their families at night.

From the 1960s, grandfathers began to take on the roles of the nonexistent professional NCOs -- safeguarding discipline, order and unit traditions. Commanding officers tended to turn a blind eye to the grandfathers' methods of disciplining younger soldiers -- as long as there was some sort of order in the barracks. As the conscript saying goes: The first year, the grandfathers beat you; the second year, you, in turn, beat up the newly enlisted.

Hazing has allowed the preservation of a semblance of military order, but only while allowing terrible abuse and sadistic outrages. Since the late 1980s, the press has exposed military hazing. Soldiers' Mothers committees were formed to help stop the abuse. Defense Ministry chiefs publicly acknowledged the problem, promising to eradicate it.

Of course, hazing has not disappeared. Instead, it has worsened in many cases. The Defense Ministry steadfastly refuses to consider plans to create a professional NCO corps, but as long as there are no professional NCOs, grandfathers will remain indispensable as an organizing force in the barracks, and officers will continue to permit hazing.

But now, with grandfathers' desertions, it seems this seemingly stable, inhumane system is beginning to fall apart from the inside. Discipline, morale and professionalism of Russian officers are at an all-time low. Career officers work second jobs to feed families and neglect their service duties. They steal and sell military hardware. They extort bribes from soldiers and their parents in exchange for favors, while the grandfathers hold things together in the units.

The Russian officer corps is losing respect and authority from among the rank and file. The grandfathers are organizing mass protests in the form of desertions to defend their rights and privileges. If officers are often drunk on the job -- why can't soldiers?

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst and Moscow Times columnist.