by Katherine Bayford
Tuesday, 29
March 2022
Behind the news
17:57

The Russian army’s number one problem? Hazing

Conscripts are poorly trained and face endless abuse
by Katherine Bayford
Russian conscripts in the snow. (DANIL SEMYONOV/AFP via Getty Images)

The Russian army has a conscript problem. With a military that measures in at under a million strong, just over a quarter did not volunteer. These soldiers operate for a fixed, twelve-month term, resulting in little training and roughly five months (at best) of utilisation. Until the invasion of Ukraine, conscripts had generally not been deployed abroad, and suggestions to change this are deeply politically unpopular in the country.

Why is the foreign deployment of Russian conscripts so politically sensitive? Why is their training so basic, and why does Russia not just re-introduce a longer conscription term to inevitably create a better quality of troops? The answer to all of these questions lies in hazing.

Notoriously, the Red Army was beset by an extreme form of brutal, hierarchical hazing (named dedovshchina) that continued to haunt the post-Soviet army. The complete domination of junior soldiers by their elders resulted in a widespread culture of robbery, torture, and sexual assault. Fearing that the torturous conditions of military service would result in catastrophic levels of troop retention, Moscow offered significant incentives for draftees to re-enlist. Only 1% did so.

But after the Soviet Union’s fall, dedovshchina only increased in both prevalence and intensity.

During a twenty-four month conscription term, sleep deprivation, forced labour, theft, beatings, starvation and rape were imposed on new conscripts by their seniors. Junior officers, concerned with maintaining their livelihoods, were inclined to either ignore the hazings or, at worst, participate in the exploitation of their men. The poor amount of pay given to officers often meant that those who didn’t moonlight would rent out their conscripts as labourers or, in some extreme cases, as prostitutes.

Fear and resentment towards military conscription (and the wider Russian army) became increasingly prevalent. By the new millennium, nearly 90% of men eligible for conscription had some form of exemption from military service, with the remaining 10% often too poor to bribe their way out of the draft. Between January to March of 2004, fifteen soldiers were killed by extreme hazing, and two years later, 40% of deaths in the Russian military were attributed to suicide. That same year, one soldier was beaten so badly that the resulting gangrene resulted in his legs and genitals being amputated.

While the Russian army leadership maintain that dedovshchina is now all but wiped out, just eighteen months ago one conscript shot eight of his fellow soldiers dead after claiming that they had made his life “hell” and were planning to sexually assault him. In an effort to curtail dedovshchina, 2008 reforms reduced conscripted soldiers’ terms from two years to one. Such changes may have limited physical and sexual violence, but they have simultaneously created different problems for the army.

In contrast to the enlisted troops in Russia, who tend to have well-developed technical skills (if little broad leadership ability), their conscripted counterparts are generally less capable. They are often utilised in roles that require less training and expertise, such as logistics — a notable obstacle of progress in the Russian advance and one likely to be a deciding factor in the outcome of the invasion.

That conscripts have been deployed in Ukraine suggests that all might not be well for Russia, and President Zelensky has attempted to capitalise on the ghost of Russia’s historic problem by directly appealing to conscripts to surrender. For Russia, re-introducing a longer conscription period would result in a better quality of conscripted troops, but would also run the risk of the intra-troop brutality that could drain all cohesion and morale from within the military. Still, with so many ill-trained, nervous young conscripts seemingly contributing to Russia’s notorious logistical issues, Russia may find itself reconsidering its strategy.

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Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
7 months ago

They are often utilised in roles that require less training and expertise, such as logistics — a notable obstacle of progress in the Russian advance and one likely to be a deciding factor in the outcome of the invasion.

This is a strange sentence, the two halves seem to contradict; either it doesn’t need expertise and so less trained solders are ok in the role, or it does and less trained solders are making a pig’s ear of it. I’m of the opinion that good logistics are a necessary, but not sufficient, factor in winning a war, whilst bad logistics will lose a war,

Last edited 7 months ago by Linda Hutchinson
Tom Watson
Tom Watson
7 months ago

Perhaps ‘perceived to require’ would have been a better way to put it – as a million armchair generals have learned to say in the last month, amateurs talk strategy and tactics, professionals talk logistics.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
7 months ago

As described in the article, some of the Russian conscripts are hazed to death. That’s the kind of thing you are supposed to do to your enemy, not to your own side. It’s the military equivalent of an own-goal.

Dominic A
Dominic A
7 months ago

I think that flagging a comment leads to temporary suspension of the comment. Secondly, there seems to be something mischievous about the flagging – I wonder who might be upset by this article?

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
7 months ago

Raping and pimping out your conscripts is not a good strategy!

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
7 months ago

Eh? There used to be a thriving comments section here, now they’ve all been deleted. What’s going on?

Last edited 7 months ago by Philip Stott
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
7 months ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

I think what happens is that one comment gets “moderated” and all the replies linked to that comment go when the comment itself disappears, so it looks like a lot of comments have gone but often it’s only one.

Guy Aston
Guy Aston
7 months ago

Your understanding of what makes a quality soldier is sadly lacking. Have you ever served?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
7 months ago

This is a radical intertextual interpretation.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
7 months ago

6 comments yet only 2 visible?

Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
7 months ago

It’s a good rule, to understand your adversary’s weakest points. The Russian’s weakest is troop morale, and President Zelensky understands this well, in speaking to them directly and encouraging them to surrender.

Fred Stephens
Fred Stephens
7 months ago

A similar issue with Argentina, a large percentage were conscripts during the Falklands war. To some degree I felt sorry for them, though some did fight well they were no match for the like’ of the RMC or Para’ and other units who were highly trained and motivated.