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Monday, February 18, 2008

All in All, He's Just another Brick in the Barbaric Wall

The St. Petersburg Times reports:

Months of humiliation, beatings, and bullying. Despair and a suicide attempt. A final punch in the stomach that was nearly a deathblow. Contradictory medical records, secrecy, and a suspended sentence for the attacker. The case of St. Petersburg conscript Roman Rudakov seems to incorporate every worst-case scenario that serving in the Russian army can possibly involve. The story has come to a tragic end this week.

Rudakov, 21, died at Moscow’s Burdenko hospital on Wednesday. He had been awaiting a partial intestine transplant since mid-January, 2007. Rudakov was kept in the emergency ward of military hospital No. 442 in St. Petersburg after doctors removed his small intestine on Sept. 30, 2006, following a severe beating to the abdominal area.

The Defense Ministry estimates that between 500 to 1,000 recruits die from non-combat-related causes each year in Russia.

Speaking to reporters in Moscow on Thursday, Vladimir Shappo, head of the Chief Military Medical Board of the Defense Ministry of Russia, said 410 recruits and officers died from non-combat causes in 2007. Suicide accounts for more than half of the deaths, he added. Human rights groups contest the official statistics and claim actual numbers are much higher.

“The Rudakov case is a compelling illustration of how corrupt and lacking transparency the Russian army is,” said Ella Polyakova, chairwoman of St. Petersburg-based human rights group Soldiers’ Mothers. “His medical files were censored over the course of his treatment, with the information about a severe beating in the abdominal area — which ultimately led to his death — being at some stage whitewashed from the case.”

On top of that, relatives of the conscript and human rights advocates complained about receiving contradictory or contrived reports from the military authorities about the state of his health, the need for a donor and possibilities of an operation, Polyakova added. A rapid investigation into Rudakov’s case established that fellow recruit Maxim Lomonin was responsible for the beating. He received a three-year suspended sentence in the resulting trial. However, no officer was punished or reprimanded in the case. No investigation was held into the alleged manipulation of Rudakov’s medical records.

Ruslan Linkov, head of the liberal political organization Democratic Russia, accused the military of being scared of publicity. “They typically try to hush things up and therefore avoid, whenever possible, dealing with civil doctors because it would bring to light mishaps in treating and handling patients,” he said. “Germany, France and Israel offered to help with Rudakov’s operation but Russia rejected all the offers.” Linkov also emphasized that no officers were brought to account in the Rudakov case. He said that the military authorities often try to “make a scapegoat of another recruit.” “Look at all recent hazing scandals and you will see that officers routinely escape punishment,” he said. “It has become a trend. Recruits are more vulnerable and deprived than the officers and burdening them with full responsibility kills two birds with one stone: the corrupt system is protected, while the human rights groups and the relatives are presented with a nominal figure to blame.”

A native of the town of Velikiye Luki in the Pskov region, Rudakov was drafted to serve in the Leningrad Oblast in 2004. “In his letters home, Roman even contemplated suicide; he considered slitting his wrists, so bad had the bullying become,” Polyakova said. “Food rations were so meager that in one of the letters Roman recalled finding a biscuit in the garbage and eating it.”

Rudakov’s story is not unique. His case received nationwide publicity, but hundreds of other instances of soldiers being mistreated cruelly and even being driven to suicide remain hidden from the public. Half of the soldiers who contact Soldier’s Mothers say they have tried to commit suicide. Stricken mothers listen to their sons confiding that they once tried to slit their wrists, throw themselves from windows, or hang themselves using their own shirts.

“Three people deserted from our platoon, and one other guy ran away from another platoon,” Roman recounts in a letter dated May 28, 2005. “His father brought him back but the guy deserted again three days later.[...] I am in despair. I haven’t slept for two nights because we are being forced to work on a construction site at night.”

In his annual report on human rights, released Thursday, Russia’s ombudsman Vladimir Lukin accused the state of “being unable to protect recruits from either the arbitrariness and waywardness of their commanders, or hazing and bullying by senior conscripts.” Lukin linked the hazing problem with the general underfunding of the army on all levels from housing for the officers to food rations and equipment.

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