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More on Dedovshchina

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Diederik Lohman, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and former director of its Moscow office (1997-2002) has an editorial in the Moscow Times on the issue of dedovshchina and conscript abuse in the Russian military. Lohman is the author of HRW’s October 2004 report on hazing, “The Wrongs of Passage.” This report is a must read for anyone concerned about the issue. I wrote about it months ago and you can find it here. What is good about Lohman’s editorial is that it does more than just condemn the prevalence of hazing in the Russian forces and its negligence by the government. He actually offers some solutions. They include:

  • The Defense Ministry should implement zero tolerance for officers who fail to carefully monitor their troops for evidence of abuses and address abuses. Officers who fail to do so should be consistently punished, including through demotion or dismissal. The Defense Ministry and other ministries should mobilize resources to monitor the conduct of officers in this respect.
  • The vast majority of soldiers who flee their units do so to escape abuses, but the military responds by returning these men to their units or punishing them for going absent without leave. No effort is made to document and address the abuse that drove them to flee. The joint working groups of the Defense Ministry and Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office should monitor not only problem units but should also investigate all cases of absence-without-leave to determine the reasons for flight. Officers in cases where soldiers fled to escape abuses should be properly punished.
  • The government should establish civilian oversight mechanisms that allow representatives from ombudsman’s offices, nongovernmental groups and the Public Chamber to monitor military bases. Information collected by these civilian monitors should be used in assessing whether officers are appropriately enforcing discipline in their ranks.
  • Professional noncommissioned officers should receive thorough training on preventing abuses. Their efforts to stop abuses should be closely monitored, and punitive measures should be imposed whenever they fail in this duty.

Lohman, like many, are doubtful that these changes will be made as long as the Ministry of Defense denies the fact that the root of the problem exists in the military itself. The most recent evidence of this denial is Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s speech on February 15.

Here is some of what Ivanov said:

Now on the causes of so-called “dedovshchina” and the measures the Ministry of Defense proposes for the eradication of this negative phenomena.

I purposefully turn your attention to the crimes (prestupleninie) which are connected to prohibited relationships (neustavnie vzamootnosheniia). As a general rule, they do precise damage to the prestige of the Military forces and provike outside social resonance.
Naturally, incidents of “dedovshchina” appear as objective and also subjective factors.

Here within there is no doubt that in its foundation as well as any other sort of military crime, rests, if I could apply such a definition, in the moral pathology of our society.

How is it expressed in it?

First, [it is expressed] in the crisis of objective ethical guidelines of a sizeable part of out population in a number of our servicemen.

Second, in legal nihilism which is institutionalized owing to the still considerable gap between the laws of the State and the real relations of our citizens to law and order.

Third, in the devaluation of traditional worth of the ideas of national culture in the mass social consciousness.

For evidence of the last thesis it is enough to simply look at the programs shown on many television channels.

Ivanov then described this culture of “catastrophe and blood” and its effects on the generation of soldiers who joined the military. While I have to agree with Ivanov that the culture of the Russian military exists within and feeds off of a wider culture, the relationship is not a simple one way street. The institution of the military and military culture plays a substantial role in Russia. Some, like historian Joshua Sanborn in his Drafting the Russian Nation, argue that the Russian nation was forged in partly through the beginning of mass military conscription in the 19th century and the experience and consequences of WWI and the Civil War. One need not also be reminded of the cult of the military and war that has developed since WWII.

Some might reject this idea of the military’s negative influence on Russian society with the argument that the military instills discipline and pride in the nation. That is true, but to a certain extent. This tends to work better in volunteer armies and in armies that don’t thoroughly exploit their soldiers. And I would argue that dedovshchina is not contradictory to the military’s overarching goals of instilling patriotism and discipline. In fact, I think that it helps foster them.

But still another thing is missing from all analyses I’ve read on the problem of dedovshchina—the culture of masculinity that all military cultures and predominately male institutions foster. It seems that the cult of masculinity needs commentary. One of dedovshchina’s “functions” is that it creates a right of passage where new recruits are transformed into soldiers. Put simply, it makes men out of boys. All one needs to do is look at the categories new and older soldiers are placed in. In addition, it reproduces the hierarchy that the military is predicated on.

So while Ivanov is correct to place the military in the context of a wider culture, the military’s culture has elements that are wholly separate from wider society. It acts, to follow someone like Foucault, as a technology of discipline at a micropolitical level. The problem is that this discipline is not always one which leaders like Ivanov desire.