An interview with sociologist Sergei Belanovsky

The case of Private Andrei Sychev grabbed the headlines in late January, leading to unprecedented public debate about the problem of abuse in the military. Sychev, 19, was brutally beaten on New Year’s Eve, then denied medical treatment; both of his feet had to be amputated.

The tragic case in Chelyabinsk has drawn particular attention to a problem which has long been understood by the public, but carefully concealed: violent bullying and abuse, known as “dedovshchina,” in the Russian Armed Forces.

Sergei Aleksandrovich Belanovsky, a sociologist, is the author of “Dedovshchina in the Army” – the only serious study of this problem to date.

Question: What is your view of the Chelyabinsk tragedy?

Sergei Belanovsky: What’s extraordinary about this case isn’t what happened to Andrei Sychev – unfortunately, there are many such incidents in the Russian Armed Forces – but the fact that the situation has caused such a great public stir. In Russia, at that. Until now, even if reports of similar tragedies in the military did break through to the Internet or the newspapers, they soon faded away – without accumulating the critical mass of public opinion that might lead to concrete action. But the Chelyabinsk case has been reported on national television, and the newspapers are keeping track of it. I do think there has been some sort of breakthrough. In the wake of this tragedy, I think the prosecutors and the courts will treat such cases differently and investigate them more honestly, with input from human rights groups and all other public resources.

Since such tragedies and disasters are inevitable, let’s hope they will generate pressure on the courts and the authorities, with demands for honest investigations and punishment of those responsible. The time has finally come for the military to become the object of substantial public criticism – not only by a few human rights groups within central Moscow.

Question: What have you learned from your research?

Sergei Belanovsky: One of our major findings was that the Russian Armed Forces have more soldiers than necessary. They are conscripted under the law on military service, and maintained by the military. Quite often, they don’t get anything besides an automatic weapon, a bunk-bed, and canteen meals; they aren’t given any real work to do. No combat training, no combat duty. At best, they get a pretense of combat training or they’re used as construction labor. As early as the 1980s, this turned into the practice of soldiers used to build vacation homes for generals, or provding labor for various commercial activities. A military unit receives funding for maintenance and repairs, but the work is done by the soldiers themselves.

Question: Where do these “surplus” soldiers come from?

Sergei Belanovsky: The problem is that the law on universal military service is applied mechanically and irrationally. After all, Russia has experienced great changes in numbers between generations, due to the demographic echoes of World War II. The consequences are obvious to demographers, but they come as a surprise to most ordinary citizens: the number of conscripts fluctuates drastically between generations.

So when there was a demographic boom, the mechanical application of the law on military service led to more people being conscripted.

To accommodate them, new military units were established and new barracks built. And all these units were nominal to some extent, with only the most basic equipment: barracks, a canteen, a parade ground, and a weapon for every soldier – that’s all. But since the units had been established and now existed on paper and in personnel calculations, each subsequent wave of demographic decline led to immediate outcries over personnel shortages. But they were only shortages in comparison to the situation at the demographic peak. Still, the outcries led to university students being conscripted.

So it was as if the Armed Forces split into two parts: the first being the military proper, whether good or bad – the second just a reservation into which conscripts are herded and mechanically maintained.

There’s something else we concluded from our research – I wouldn’t say we discovered it, since it’s obvious, but it so happens that I was the first to write about it. The military is not homogenous; it has elite units and less elite units. Somewhere at the top are the spetsnaz commandos and the Missile Forces; at the bottom are the construction battalions and motorized artillery units, inflated due to excessive numbers of conscripts passing through during demographic boom periods. Conscription offices are perfectly well aware of what these units are like, and I think they’ve been given instructions about assigning personnel to units that vary in priority and prestige. The best conscripts are sent to the elite units; the worst go to the construction battalions.

Question: Could these “surplus soldiers” be the cause of bullying?

Sergei Belanovsky: The lack of any real work to do has a corrupting effect, of course, and generates a great deal of ugliness. If soldiers aren’t engaged in any substantial work, whether military or civilian, and their entire combat training is reduced to firing an automatic weapon only twice in two years of service, with ten rounds of ammunition each time – that’s ridiculous. Yet there are also submarine crews, for example, who work very hard to enable submarines to sail – but bullying is still present there, in rather brutal forms.

Question: What is the essence of “dedovshchina” – what kind of phenomenon is it?

Sergei Belanovsky: It’s about status. Older soldiers, who have a higher status in that community, order younger soldiers around and often torment them.

However – and this is another result of my research – military discipline in the 1980s was held together by dedovshchina. And that is still the case, I think. Many people have told me that without dedovshchina, it would be impossible to keep military hardware in working order – tanks wouldn’t start, planes couldn’t take off. And I agree with those assertions.

Question: But people are no longer prepared to tolerate maintaining discipline at such a cost.

Sergei Belanovsky: Well, imagine what would happen if the dedovshchina situation was eased: manageability would be lost. Or some sort of clans would form to replace the older soldiers – and they’d fight on the principle of all against all, rather than status principles. But then a new hierarchy would arise, with a different kind of subordination. And the remnants of military discipline would be held together by that, once again.

Question: What is the remedy for this problem?

Sergei Belanovsky: It’s no easy task. For example, if the promise to reduce the term of military service from two years to one as of 2008 is kept, dedovshchina in its present form might actually disappear – but this would be followed by the complete disintegration of the Armed Forces, which aren’t in the best shape as it is.

The authorities have also stated their intention to extend conscription to young men who are exempt from it at present – including the better-educated ones and the richer ones who buy their way out of military service now. In that event, however, we can expect a flood of appeals to the European Court of Human Rights. And since those appeals would be lodged by people who can afford lawyers, this could lead to a real battle between the public and the military. And the military is not the only crisis point in our society.

Question: Where should military reforms start?

Sergei Belanovsky: The number of articles on that topic has declined, but there’s a very interesting and substantial proposal I’ve come across twice in the comments made by defense analysts. They say we should simply start establishing a different kind of military, from scratch – in parallel to the existing Armed Forces. We need to start afresh in establishing what is called “military culture.”

If I had to sum up the chief error made by the authorities, I wouldn’t stress that they’re not making the military transparent or disbanding it entirely. I’d point out that they are not establishing a new military. As yet, there are no visible signs of a new kind of military.