Category Archives: Hazing

Death of a Conscript

Authorities are investigating the murder of a 19-year-old Russian conscript in his motorized rifle regiment near Voronezh. The Western MD at first reported he died of a heart attack, but he was apparently beaten to death.

The regiment is a troubled unit where other servicemen have been murdered, died under suspicious circumstances, or committed suicide in recent years. 

Stepan Tsymbal

Last fall Stepan Tsymbal was called up to the army from his home near Korenovsk, Krasnodar territory. He was sent to military unit 91711 — the 252nd Motorized Rifle Regiment of the 3rd MRD in Boguchar, Voronezh region.

He served in the regiment’s material-support company, possibly as a cook. The regiment was deployed to a field encampment on the Pogonovo range for training in early February.

Tsymbal was found dead on February 10. The commanding officer informed his family the next morning. They were told his heart stopped. The Western MD initially and inexplicably reported no signs of violence on Tsymbal’s body. However, the death notice from his regiment even indicated he was the victim of a violent attack.

Stepan Tsymbal's death notice

According to Yuga.ru, the Investigative Department for the Voronezh garrison opened a murder investigation on February 11.

The military returned his body on February 13 but his family wasn’t allowed to view it completely. But they didn’t need to see much to see Stepan was beaten to death.

His stepfather Dmitriy told Yuga.ru:

“They didn’t show us the body fully. We saw his face a little. His mouth was all bloody, as if his teeth had been kicked in. It was also like he had no eyes, gauze was placed on them. And his entire face was wrapped [with gauze] and poured over with some kind of glue. In the temple area, we also saw a hematoma, a dent. And his hands were also very strange. Some kind of black like they hadn’t been washed.”

Dmitriy told the regional news agency that, in regular calls home, Stepan hadn’t complained about military service or mentioned any hazing or abuse.

His body came back without his documents, mobile phone, or the crucifix and glasses he wore, according to his stepfather.

His family said Stepan had no previous heart ailments. He passed through the normal  medical exams prior to entering the service and the doctors had found nothing to keep him out of the army, according to the Kuban edition of Komsomolskaya pravda.

According to KP-Kuban, Stepan’s other relatives said:

“His mouth was bloody, near the temple there was a dent and hematoma. It was like he didn’t have eyes, gauze was on them, and his entire face was simply wound with bandages poured over with some kind of glue. The impression is as if they tried to hide something.”

His hands were reportedly purple in color right up to the wrist.

KP-Kuban reported that it obtained part of an investigative report saying:

“They found Tsymbal in the dishwashing tent, on the floor. He was in a sitting position with legs and arms taped together and stretched out in front. And there was a plastic bag on his head, wrapped around his neck with adhesive tape.”

The news agency’s source said his head was beaten. There was a large abrasion on the back of the head, so it’s possible he died from a closed head injury.

Relatives said they’d heard a lot about his unit, and other guys who died there. So, they won’t let the case be hushed up and want the guilty to be found and punished to the extent of the law.

According to Lenta.ru, the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers says two servicemen have already been arrested on suspicion of involvement in his death while four others who found the body are being detained by base security.

It seems likely the law and order situation in Russia’s military has improved over the past five or six years since the armed forces have received greater funding and political attention. But the savage killing of Tsymbal shows it’s still not exactly safe for young Russians to serve in the army.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to gauge how frequently conscripts are dying today because the Kremlin and MOD have made a concerted effort to suppress bad news whenever possible. Their next step will be to lean on Tsymbal’s family or pay them off to stay quiet about what happened to him.

Today’s press said Tsymbal’s parents have created a petition addressed to the MOD, Main Military Prosecutor, and Main Military Investigative Directorate demanding punishment for the unit’s commander and the disbanding of the regiment.

Reports on the condition of the boy’s body have become more graphic and gruesome saying that half his face was gone. It certainly sounds like something more than a murder in the heat of the moment. It seems like someone was trying to send other soldiers a message.

See this old post covering Gazeta.ru’s reporting about this troubled regiment where Stepan Tsymbal served.

Officers reportedly often extorted money from conscripts for the “needs of the unit.” They also used soldiers from the material-support battalion as enforcers to keep other troops in line. The unit canteen was supposedly used as a “mobile trading post” for the financial benefit of officers. Perhaps something akin to this had some part in Tsymbal’s death. But there are likely plenty of men in the unit who know what led to this if they aren’t afraid to talk and are allowed to.

The case of Stepan Tsymbal might be galvanizing like that of Andrey Sychev. At least, it could take considerable effort for the Kremlin and military to quash it.

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An Ordinary Conflict

Broken glass in the barracks (photo Ura.ru)

Broken glass in the barracks (photo: Ura.ru)

Some may have seen this picture of the aftermath of a massive brawl which occurred on August 2 between 60 Tuvan contractees and 100 soldiers at the Russian Army’s 437th District Training Center (v/ch 31612). The incident says much about the Russian military effort to recruit large numbers of volunteers to serve as soldiers on contract.

The center is near the village of Yelan, 200 km east of Yekaterinburg, and belongs to the Central MD. It trains junior specialists — conscripts and contractees — to be NCOs or operate particular weapons systems.

According to Ura.ru, the Tuvans just completed three months of survival training at the center and got booze to celebrate the occasion. That particular training course comes early, so the men were relatively new contractees.

At some point, their party turned into a rampage with drunken Tuvans wielding knives and other sharpened implements and fighting 100 contractees permanently assigned to the Yelan garrison.

In the end, one officer and 13 contractees from the garrison were hurt and required hospitalization. So the Tuvans got the best of them in the melee.

What started the fight is fairly unclear. Vzglyad postulates possibilities including revanche for insults or mistreatment or a dispute between a single Tuvan and Russian officer with the rest of the Tuvans intervening for their coethnic and the garrison’s 6th company for the latter.

For its part, the MOD officially denies alcohol or knives were involved. According to TASS, several unidentified soldiers received light injuries and scrapes. But Lenta.ru point out that the MOD didn’t deny it was a large-scale fight, and it subsequently admitted that two soldiers are in serious condition.

Deputy commander General-Lieutenant Khasan Kaloyev heads the Central MD’s investigation into the disturbance. The Central MD says the disturbance wasn’t massive and calls it an “ordinary conflict.” But the district military prosecutor has opened a large investigation of his own.

Vzglyad reports that Tuvan troops were involved in a fight with a Spetsnaz unit near Irkutsk in 2015.

The news portal also cites former Main Military Prosecutor Sergey Fridinskiy who said, as early as 2010, investigators first observed the phenomenon of servicemen from the same ethnic group, or from the same locality, imposing their rule on the everyday life of certain military units.

Recall a 2012 post in which a newly-demobbed soldier described something worse than dedovshchina:

“The non-Russians, Tuvans and Dagestanis, in the unit and their petty exactions were worse.  Even officers feared them, according to Ufimtsev.”

Vzglyad spoke with long-time observer of the situation inside the Russian military Sergey Krivenko, who’s also a member of the RF Presidential Council on Human Rights.

Krivenko said it’s difficult to monitor the observance of the rights of servicemen inside a closed organization like the military. But he believes the level of army violence is still very high, but significantly lower now than in the 1990s and early 2000s.

He notes that soldiers come from the same regions, republics, oblasts, and cities and unite on this foundation, then act like they are welded together in any conflict. In this way, zemlyachestvo has replaced dedovshchina to some degree.

Zemlyachestvo

Zemlyachestvo (землячество) means belonging by birth or residence to one republic, oblast, or village.

It can refer to a group of natives from one place living outside its borders. The term also describes a “foreign” community or society for mutual aid somewhere other than its members’ place of origin. It is a group of Russian Federation citizens of the same nationality (in the internal RF sense) living as a minority among people of a preponderant nationality, usually ethnic Russians.

In an American sense, think of a bunch of homeboys joining a gang to defend themselves from a perceived or real external threat.

Contrast this with dedovshchina — the rule of the “grandfathers” — senior conscripts nearing demobilization lording it over younger, newer draftees, generally without much regard to ethnicity.

Krivenko blames commanders who fail to work with subordinates arriving from various cultural levels, regions, and societies. He concludes:

“If the commander worked professionally with them, he would succeed in avoiding such excesses.”

He recalls similar problems with conscripts from the North Caucasus:

“So here our command, to avoid this, simply cut sharply the call-up from the regions of the North Caucasus. This again shows there haven’t been structural changes in working with personnel.”

Despite the presence of psychologists, sergeants, and deputy commanders for personnel work, the commander ultimately has to do everything in indoctrinating his charges properly. According to Krivenko:

“The commander answers for everything. Really now among the troops there is no one to work with personnel in maintaining discipline, in the prevention of similar violations. If the commander is good, he manages to do all this, then such incidents don’t happen in his unit.”

But some of the problem may lie with attitudes toward contractees:

“Often officers treat men on contract service like conscripts. They almost see them as serfs.”

Krivenko says officers are currently trained to deal with a mass of conscripts, not large numbers of contractees.

The commander often ends up investigating incidents and he has little incentive to find something wrong in his own unit. He asks where the newly-created Military Police are in all this since it seems to be a perfect mission for them. There is always the issue of why senior NCOs and warrant officers can’t be responsible for good order in battalions and lower-level units.

Krivenko concludes the brawl reflects the existence of a criminal attitude among some contractees on one hand, and the fact they don’t feel safe in their units on the other. It’s the commander’s task to make sure this isn’t the case.

From this incident, two broad conclusions might be drawn.

First, the whole thing is bad for Defense Minister Shoygu who, though thoroughly Russified and one of the Moscow elite, is still Tuvan. Tuva got the 55th OMSBr (G), and possibly considerable infrastructure as well, with Shoygu at the helm of the military. Troops from the 55th were almost certainly the ones involved in the fight at Yelan. It’s possible the brigade is mono-ethnic, so this would highlight recent MOD laxness on the old Soviet practice of extraterritoriality — sending conscripts and recruits far from home to serve and not overloading units with men of the same ethnicity (unless they’re Russians). One can imagine Tuvans “feeling their oats” with a Tuvan as Defense Minister and some Russians perhaps resenting their new impudence as a result.

Second, the brawl also reflects the state of the massive effort to enlist contractees. As the MOD searches for more volunteers, the more marginal the candidates are likely to be. The military may be increasingly reliant on less qualified men. It could be recruiting more non-Russians than in the past. Finally, what happened at Yelan demonstrates simply that many Russian Army contractees are professionals in name only. It’s often hard for a 24-year-old junior lieutenant to handle a platoon of 19-year-old conscripts let alone an unruly assortment of older and tougher would-be contractees.

The Ayderkhanov Case (Part II)

According to Newsru.com, Aleksandr Vlasov concluded the traumas on Ayderkhanov’s body were inflicted while he was still alive, and the GVP’s statements about hitting the tree are a fiction without objective confirmation. 

Meanwhile, Ayderkhanov’s relatives organized a round-the-clock vigil at his grave to prevent anyone from stealing his body [i.e. the evidence].  Apparently, some people came looking for his grave on October 18, according to IA Rosbalt.

Ayderkhanov’s aunt told Radio Svoboda that he was full of life and not the type to commit suicide.  Nor was he likely to have conflicts with other soldiers.  She described what happened to her nephew as not just a beating,  but torture.  She said she knew the Yelan garrison had a bad record of conscript abuse.

Post-Mortem Photos

Ura.ru writes that this is the third army tragedy in the last six years for Ayderkhanov’s home village Araslanovo and its 800 inhabitants.  The grandson of a local reportedly hung himself while serving in 2005, and another boy ran away from his unit and was found frozen to death in 2008.

In late September, 500 people from Araslanovo (as well as nearby Shemakha, Mezhevaya, Tashkinovo and Skaz) signed an appeal asking President Medvedev to get to bottom of Ayderkhanov’s murder, and accusing his officers of concealing it.  The appeal asks if someone can really commit suicide after such savage punishment?  It notes Ayderkhanov wanted to serve, and even considered staying in the army as a contractee. 

The appeal asks when disorder in the Armed Forces will end, and claims everyone knows such a state of affairs exists not just in Ayderkhanov’s unit but in many others as well.  Finally, the appeal says the people of these villages are stopping the fall draft until order’s established in Ayderkhanov’s unit, and those guilty of beating and killing him are punished.

Despite some sympathy with the cause, the local military commissar has warned that draft evaders will be punished.

According to Ura, some locals believe Ayderkhanov was killed because he was Tatar.  Others who previously served in V / Ch 55062 say the unit was rife with nationalism, dedovshchina, and extortion.

It’s interesting and sad (perhaps not surprising though) that no wider social or political outrage — similar to what occurred in 2006 after the Andrey Sychev case — has developed over Ayderkhanov.

The Ayderkhanov Case (Part I)

Ruslan Ayderkhanov

Here’s what looks like a case where the beating death of a conscript is being passed off as another suicide in the ranks.  We addressed this here, and the tragic Ayderkhanov case broke into the news just 11 days later.  This sad story deserved attention sooner than your author was able to give it.

Thursday Newsru.com reported Ayderkhanov’s body has been exhumed for additional medical examination to determine the cause and circumstances of his death.  Official examiners as well as one independent expert, Aleksandr Vlasov, will take part in the process which, according to RIA Novosti, should take two weeks.

Newsru recapped the basic facts.  On August 31, the 20-year-old Ayderkhanov went missing from V / Ch 55062, part of the Yelan garrison, located in Poroshino, Chelyabinsk Oblast.  His body was found hanging from a tree in nearby woods on September 3.

The military authorities were quick to label this an obvious suicide, but his relatives were suspicious about injuries all over Ayderkhanov’s body.  He had teeth knocked out, a broken leg, a missing eye, a knife wound in his chest, and burns, bruises, and abrasions.

The Yelan garrison’s military prosecutor opened an Article 110 “Incitement to Suicide” investigation, but just as quickly announced there were no facts indicating violence or the “violation of the regulations on mutual relations” [i.e. abuse] against Ayderkhanov.  The prosecutor concluded the soldier was simply depressed about the death of his mother last winter. 

The Main Military Prosecutor stated categorically there was no evidence of a beating, and any injuries on Ayderkhanov’s body were from banging against the tree on which he hung himself.  The GVP categorically rejected the idea of exhuming and examining the body again.

Radio Svoboda quoted GVP directorate chief Aleksandr Nikitin:

“There is evidence that his death was not a result of violent actions.”

RIA Novosti continued from Nikitin:

“A close examination of the place of death and Ayderkhanov’s body was conducted.  The investigation established that there are not any traces of violence which could have caused the serviceman’s death on the body.”

Ruslan Ayderkhanov

Nakanune.ru quoted a Central MD spokesman:

“According to preliminary data, no facts of nonregulation relations have appeared.  But if the guilt of officials is proven, they will be punished in the most strict way.”

According to Radio Svoboda, after the GVP proved no help, Chelyabinsk’s human rights ombudsman approached Aleksandr Vlasov.  Vlasov has stated his professional opinion that Ayderkhanov was struck at least 18 times while he was still alive.

Part II tomorrow.

Suicide Watch (Part II)

Let’s look at more unusual suicide cases (or reported attempts).  Recall the story of Albert Kiyamov – beaten by a sergeant and pushed to his death from a barracks window in May 2010.  There’s still no word on the investigation or charges against the sergeant.  And there was a similar case reported in the same brigade after Kiyamov was killed.

While these seemed like isolated incidents, defenestrations apparently aren’t aberrations.  The authorities are hard-pressed to determine whether young soldiers are jumping or being pushed to cover up other crimes and violence. Suffice it to say the line between suicide and murder in the Russian Army is blurry. 

In late August, a conscript was beaten and thrown from the fourth floor of a barracks in the 35th Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade.  According to Newsru.com, the victim’s father, rights defenders, and other conscripts say two soldiers tried to take his personal items, uniform articles, and boots before beating and pushing him off the building.  He survived the fall, but broke his arms and legs. 

The military prosecutor determined there were “nonregulation relations” in the unit, and charges have been filed against the perpetrators.  But the prosecutor claims the victim jumped to escape his attackers, according to IA Regnum.

In mid-July, a conscript in a Railroad Troops brigade in Stavropol apparently argued with a major before the officer hit him several times with the butt of a rifle, according to Newsru.com.  The soldier then, according to the prosecutor’s account, jumped from the fifth story of his barracks sustaining numerous injuries including several broken bones.  His parents said he’d told them about this particular officer.  In somewhat uncharacteristic fashion, the major quickly acknowledged using force against the conscript, and was relieved of duty.  But no charges of forcing someone to attempt suicide.

In late May, a conscript hung himself in a unit in Mari El.  He was beaten before this because he refused to give other soldiers 1,000 rubles.  The victim’s parents believe these men killed their son.  The case is being investigated under Article 110 “Incitement to Suicide.”

In early February, a conscript in a unit near Orenburg was found dead in his bunk with a knife in his chest.  Two junior sergeants apparently killed the young man in a fight, then tried to make it look like suicide.

In mid-January, a conscript shot himself twice on a firing range at the training center in Yelan.  The confused incident has been classified variously as an accident, suicide, and murder.  According to Komsomolskaya pravda, the victim told his family he’d been forced to sign a request to serve in a unit in Tajikistan.

While most Russian Army suicide victims are conscripts, there are other cases, and other circumstances.  In mid-March, a warrant officer from a Moscow unit shot and killed his wife before turning the gun on himself.

Finally, a last poignant case, in early September, a young man jumped from the roof of a nine-story apartment block in Orel just days before he was due to report to his unit near Moscow.  It’s unknown why he killed himself or what he felt about going to serve.

Despite reducing conscription to one year and “humanizing” military service, the Russian Army remains a violent, dangerous place.  Conscription keeps it a lumpen army in which there are few limits, and the strong prey on the weak pretty much without restraint.  The violence remains a significant reason why those who can still avoid serving.

The Defense Ministry no longer publishes its monthly and yearly statistics on “noncombat losses,” crime, and accidents in the Armed Forces.  But it seems the suicide rate is as high as it was two, three, or four years ago – 20 some per month, and 200 or 250 suicides annually.  Still basically a full “suicide battalion” every year.  There’s just not enough public or political outrage to change the situation.  

Suicide Watch (Part I)

Russia has a high suicide rate by world standards.  And a significant number of 18- and 19-year-old Russian males are prone to suicide for various reasons – everything from problems with girlfriends to drug abuse and psychological or behavioral disorders.  But subject them to the stresses of compulsory military service and suicide appears to become more likely.

Russian Army service is dangerous even without suicides.  “Noncombat losses” result from training mishaps, infectious diseases, ordnance explosions, transportation accidents, and murder. 

Though intended to, the shift to one-year conscription has probably not reduced dedovshchina – the catchall term once connoting petty hazing of younger conscripts by their elders but now encompassing a wide range of barracks violence, abuse, and crime against soldiers.

Dedovshchina has always had potential to drive desperate conscripts to take their own lives to escape it.  Hence, the majority of Russian Army suicide cases are investigated under Article 110 of the RF Criminal Code, “Incitement to Suicide.”  Western legal tradition has long experience with incitement, but “incitement to suicide” is a little unusual.  Not so for Russian military prosecutors and criminal investigators.

With only a little digging, here’s a sad list of some recent Russian Army suicide (or attempted suicide) cases:

  • In late August, a conscript on guard duty in Volgograd shot himself, leaving a suicide note blaming dedovshchina in his unit.  The case is being investigated under Article 110.
  • In late August, a conscript from a Krasnoyarsk unit was detailed to the Railroad Troops brigade in Abakan to help prepare for Tsentr-2011.  With only three months left to serve, he went AWOL, and  apparently hung himself.
  • In mid-August, a conscript in Kaliningrad jumped off the boiler house roof and sustained a number of serious injuries, but survived.  He had left a note asking that no one be blamed in his death.
  • In early August, a conscript in the 735th Missile Regiment, 62nd Missile Division in Uzhur killed himself while on guard duty at night.  He had served six months.
  • In early March, in Belogorsk, a conscript due to demob in a few days shot himself to death.
  • In early February, a conscript in Sergeyevka shot himself to death.  The case was being investigated under Article 110.

It’s rare for the Russian press to publish much follow up on what exactly happened with these young men.

Tomorrow we’ll look at some less routine cases.

Malfeasance, Mayhem, and Murder

We haven’t looked at the military crime blotter for a while.  And the last two weeks have been particularly rich with various types of incidents.  The sentences handed down in recent days are, of course, for crimes committed earlier.  While some criminals in shoulderboards are getting caught, it leaves one wondering how many offenses go unknown and unpunished.

  • A conscript named Sergey Avdeychik was beaten severely on the parade ground of the Pechenga-based  200th Motorized Rifle Brigade (v / ch 08275).  The Murmansk School of Music graduate’s had surgery twice, his spleen removed, and he’s still too critical to relocate to a better hospital.
  • A negligence case is being brought against the ex-commander of the Space Troops’ Command Center, Colonel Aleksandr Karpenko.  He apparently forwarded the name of an officer with a “severe reprimand” along with a list of other officers slated to receive monthly bonuses [i.e. Order 400A premium pay] for excellent performance.  As a result, Karpenko’s subordinate received 470,000 rubles illegally last year.
  •  Conscript Nikolay Dorin apparently died of meningitis in Vladivostok.  He complained of a headache, and medics treated him with some pills, but they wouldn’t admit him to the military hospital in Vladivostok because it was already overflowing with patients.
  • The Eastern MD military prosecutor tells the media he’s worried about the rise in “nonregulation relations” [i.e. dedovshchina and other violence and crime], and the deaths of servicemen.  He says his experience shows it’s not the shortening of the service term that’s to blame, but rather the more than doubling of the number of conscripts [actually, two sides of the same coin], as well as serious shortcomings in the work of some commanders.
  • Then there’s the somewhat stunning case of the former chief of the Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate for Indoctrination Work (GUVR or ГУВР), General-Lieutenant Anatoliy Bashlakov.  Now Bashlakov wasn’t some old washed-up political officer.  He’s an ex-RVSN missile regiment commander turned Space Troops officer.  Apparently while commanding the Defense Ministry’s Plesetsk cosmodrome, Bashlakov accepted a 700,000-ruble bribe from a company interested in getting the base’s radioactive waste disposal contract.  Bashlakov received a pretty steep 7-year sentence.
  • An officer of the Chelyabinsk voyenkomat got caught taking a 200,000-ruble bribe for falsifying someone’s military service record.
  •  A conscript got crushed under BMP treads in Amur Oblast.  The armored vehicle’s commander has been charged with “violation of the rules of armored vehicle operation resulting in the death of a person through carelessness.”
  • A VDV Warrant Officer named Ayrat Akbashev received a 3-year sentence for killing of one of his subordinates, a contract soldier named Artem Ovechkin.  While they were repairing a BMD, the two argued, and Akbashev threw a log being used as a prop in Ovechkin’s direction.  It hit the latter in the head, and he never regained consciousness.
  • A cellphone video showing two Khabarovsk conscripts abusing a third made its way to the Internet.  You can view the somewhat sanitized version here.  Or the grittier original here.  The two guys are apparently from the Eastern MD headquarters’ security company and the guy whose head they put in the floor urinal is a conscript cook who hadn’t paid back money they lent him.  A little military loan sharking.
  • A conscript from Dagestan, one Esedulla Navruzbekov, got 3.5 years for killing another conscript in the unhappy 200th Motorized Rifle Brigade in Pechenga.  Both men were in the hospital at the time, and got in a fight when Navruzbekov butted in line in the dining hall.
  • A former VDV company commander in Ryazan (v / ch 41450, the 137th Parachute-Assault Regiment), Captain Mikhail Sevastyanov received a 60,000-ruble fine for extorting money and valuables from his subordinates in exchange for not reporting them to military investigators.
  • A soldier named Aleksey Samokhvalov got a 50,000-ruble settlement from a court for damages after being beaten by his sergeant in a unit in Novosibirsk last year.  He originally asked the court for 400,000.