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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Russian Army: Out of Control and Terrifying (but only to its own people)

Writing in the Moscow Times, columnist Alexander Golts exposes the horrifyingly barbaric nature of the Russian armed forces:

"Did a car come?"


"What kind of car?"


"What kind of license plate?"


This was not a conversation between a teacher and a particularly dim child. It took place in a Chelyabinsk military court between the judge and Alexander Anupriyev, the commander of a military unit called as a witness in the Andrei Sychyov hazing case.

Sychyov, a first-year conscript serving at the Chelyabinsk Armor Academy, was the victim of a brutal hazing incident in January that left him with gangrene in his feet and legs. Sychyov's legs and genitals were subsequently amputated.

Before the trial began, the judge had moved the prosecution witnesses to Anupriyev's unit. One by one the soldiers began to recant testimony they had given after talking with a Moscow general, dressed in civilian clothes, who came to the unit.

The judge was trying to ascertain the man's identity from Anupriyev. But the commander sounded like an idiot. Anupriyev couldn't remember the visitor's rank or name even though the visitor's confidential talks with the soldiers had taken place in his own office. There was no paper trail. The visitor's documents were not checked at the gate, supposedly because he arrived in a car with military plates.

In addition to the epidemic of stupidity that has afflicted officers connected with the case, there have been cases of almost saintly forgiveness. Several soldiers who had been the victims of hazing, told the court that they were beaten "for good reasons and not very hard." Prosecution witnesses disappeared for a few days and then reappeared, accompanied by people from the Ministry of Defense. The press had no trouble finding out the mystery man's identity: General Rybakov, chief of the department of information and public relations.

The Defense Ministry is shamelessly interfering in the trial, and the military court doesn't dare put the generals in their place. The same thing happened during the pretrial investigation. Colonel-General Alexei Maslov, commander of the infantry forces, swore to journalists that there was no proof Sychyov had been beaten. Military doctors averted their eyes as they testified about Sychyov's "congenital blood disorder." Sergeant Alexander Sivyakov, who is on trial in the hazing incident, was immediately provided with several lawyers, who are trying to prove that all of Sychyov's problems stem from improper treatment in a civilian hospital.

At first glance, the Defense Ministry doesn't seem to be behaving rationally. Why are high-ranking officers, who cannot possibly be acting without the Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's sanction, trying to save a sadistic sergeant whose actions cost Sychyov his legs and genitals? From the point of view of public relations it would be wiser to call the incident an unfortunate exception to the rule and hold a fair trial. This would be in keeping with the promises for a just trial given by Ivanov and President Vladimir Putin.

Instead, the military has openly compromised the integrity of the investigation and the trial. Why do the generals care so much about Sivyakov?

They don't. This seems to be a matter of principle. The military bureaucrats know perfectly well that cases like Sychyov's happen every day. But they want to send a message to the public: Don't you dare fight for soldiers' rights. No matter what you do, you'll never be able to prove anything. That's why Sychyov's mother was offered money, why the witnesses are being intimidated, and why officers are made to behave like idiots.

It's not surprising that the Defense Ministry is acting so ham-handedly. The authorities' goal is not to convince the public that they are right and just. No matter how many times Ivanov insists that there is no hazing in 80 percent of military units, the public knows the truth about life in the barracks.

Their goal is different: to intimidate, to show that the top brass have the power to ignore testimony, and enough clout to bury Sychyov's case with impunity. The more obvious the ministry's interference is, the better. The people need to understand that the current system of military slavery will never end.

No one seems to notice that the military bureaucrats are also destroying the basic principles of their profession. How will a subordinate relate to a superior officer who was so scared of his bosses that he acted like a fool? What will anyone who has watched the trial in Chelyabinsk think of the Army?

The brass couldn't care less. They just want another victory over their own people.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

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