Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.
The Hard Life of a Conscript
When one signs up for the military, things aren't easy. Enlistment means preparing for war, physically and emotionally. One may have to fight their way out of enemy gunfire, and perhaps see many deaths and destruction. Hence, military training isn’t for the weak of heart. People entering bootcamps must undergo brutal physical and emotional training to prepare for the ravages of war. Being shouted at by the drill sergeant is just the beginning. As a vet once told to me, you enter bootcamp as a boy, and you exit as a man.
And things are about to get harder if you plan a career in special forces.
But consider yourself unlucky, if the branch of the military you enlisted in offered something as a bonus. Bootcamps are hard enough, but imagine bootcamps with newbies being brutalized?
Outside the military, hazing is always frowned upon by various institutions. Hazing is identified with fraternities, and people reckon they should stay there. Though it's claimed to promote cohesion and brotherhood, a number of neophytes have died during the brutal initiation rites. And beyond fraternities, people can’t find any practical or logical use for hazing. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop various sporting teams and martial arts clubs from adopting such practices. And much to the horror of recruits, it also found its way into the military.
And the Russian military has a proud tradition of brutalizing its conscripts, though some wonder if it has contributed to the poor morale of its soldiers during its invasion of Ukraine.
The Dreaded Military Conscription
There is an online joke that in Russia, a man will weep twice in his life: when his mother dies, and during conscription. Because some men simply dread going to mandatory military service. Aside from a few exemptions, all male citizens in Russia ages 18 to 27 are obliged to go into the military. Imprisonment of two years awaits anyone avoiding the draft.
Conscriptions in the Russian army date back to the Russian Empire, and it went on in the Soviet Union and during the present Russian Federation. It used to be that a Russian male must render service for two years, but in 2007 and 2008, it was reduced to one year only. One could avoid getting pushed into the military by going to college, heading abroad until he passes the mandatory age of conscription, or simply evading the summon and the law. But one might wonder why young men dreaded the call of the army. During the war in Ukraine, they feared being thrown on the frontline as disposable bullet fodder. But some agree that they feared something else.
They will line up to be brutalized in what appears as traditional military hazing. They even have a name for it: the Dedovshchina.
This was practiced way back in the days of Soviet Russia and is still being practiced today in the Russian Federation military units. Dedovshchina literally means "reign of grandfathers." Whereas conscripts in their advanced year of compulsory service were referred to as grandfathers (ded for Russian slang “grandfather”). But whatever it’s called, Dedovshchina is simply a systematic and traditional brutalization of new conscripts by older ones.
It was said that the problem originated due to the conscription of people with criminal records in post-World War II Soviet Russia. Over time, the method of hazing became systematic, and it includes a variety of physical and emotional abuses. Videos about the cruel practice were smuggled out, and they showed trainees being kicked after performing a set of pushups. And this isn’t just any simple punt. The trainees were given martial arts jump kicks that could rupture organs. The soldiers are basically turned into punching bags for no apparent reason. When they show what is perceived as weakness, the punishment intensified.
And that's just the physical torture. Conscripts are also brutalized emotionally and sexually.
No Practical Purpose
Many fraternities, martial arts clubs, and other forms of brotherhood often boast that hazing solidifies bonds among members, provides a symbolic acceptance to a group, or signifies passage to adulthood. Nevertheless, people still frown upon these practices and see them as unnecessary sadism.
Dedovshchina also seems to have no clear purpose. It’s just senseless beatings and bullying by senior conscripts on the newer ones. Proponents argue that it will help toughen a soldier, though critics pointed out that basic military training is enough to prepare a conscript, and hazing is just an unproductive waste of time. Worse, the injuries caused by the hazing could impair a soldier, hence affecting his performance during training. And recently during the War in Ukraine, the dismal performance of the Russian army (to be discussed below) further supports the notion that Dedovshchina serves no practical purpose.
Dedovshchina also promotes brutal acts and cruelty.
It was once said that the traditional beatings being endured by the Russian draft would kill a normal person. But trained soldiers are as human as any average civilian, so it’s no surprise if someone gets seriously injured, or killed during the act of hazing. Being hospitalized due to the effects of beatings (like ruptured organs) is a real possibility. Deaths also happen, as in the case of a draftee who was tortured to death, with the witness gunned down in the military base.
Psychologically, systematic torture also leaves mental scars. PTSD is a serious problem for returning Iraq and Afghan war vets in the U.S. But the problem with the Russian soldiers is that they are already traumatized before the war even begins. The lifetime trauma left by Dedovshchina could also lead soldiers to take their own lives.
The problem is that the Russian government did little to curtail the systematic hazing in the military, and in fact, it’s getting worse. In 2019, there were 51,000 cases of brutality and 9,890 reports of sexual abuse in the military.
Again, proponents insisted that the traditional hazing would toughen the soldiers, enforce discipline, and the acquired violence would be channeled during combat. But the performance of the Russian army during the Ukrainian war tells a different story.
The Blunders in the Ukrainian War
"Sloppy" is the word that best describes the Russian army during the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. And the result speaks for itself. The war continues to drag on, with Russia achieving no significant gains and suffering massive casualties. It appears that Russia is losing its war of aggression, and poor planning, lack of coordination, and misinformed troops were just a few of the reasons. The Russian army is also prone to dumb mistakes, like troops shooting down their own aircraft and leaving their intact vehicles for Ukrainian farmers to drag away.
And the failures could also be attributed to the lack of morale among the troops.
Overall, conscripts are enduring a miserable life in the Russian military. They are fed with misinformation, lack supplies, and clear orders, and are facing fierce and motivated Ukrainian defenders. And the beatings they endured in the barracks also affected their will to fight. Instead of producing toughened and fierce soldiers, the soldiers marched out demotivated and traumatized by the treatment they endured. In other armies, positive reinforcement helped instill discipline and a fighting spirit. But there is nothing positive or motivating when the life you have in the barracks is nothing but humiliation, beatings, and bullying. The loss of morale in the Russian army is so widespread that there are reports of soldiers shooting themselves in the leg, or sabotaging their own equipment, so they have excuses not to fight. Some people even wondered if the low morale of the troops could lead to mutiny.
Nevertheless, it was the Ukrainians who benefitted greatly from Dedovshchina. Thanks to the systematic hazing in the Russian army, they have substandard enemies to fight.
1. The Consequences of Dedovshchina, Human Rights Watch report, 2004
2. "Hazing Trial Bares a Dark Side of Russia's Military". The New York Times. 13 August 2006.
3. Braithwaite, Rodric (09 March, 2010). "Dedovshchina: bullying in the Russian Army". Open Democracy.
4. "Russian family alleges 'suicide' conscript tortured to death". London: Telegraph. 21 September 2011. Retrieved 1 August 2013.
5. Demoralised? Russian troops shoot selves with Ukrainian ammo in legs to avoid fighting, say reports (20 March, 2022). Retrieved from https://www.wionews.com/world/demoralised-russian-troops-shoot-selves-with-ukrainian-ammo-in-legs-to-avoid-fighting-say-reports-463966.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.