Sunday, February 17, 2013

Some Observations on the Russian Army and Egyptian Pacifism

 The Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers in Russia is one of the most important civic institutions in Russian society.  The movement is driven by the natural desire of Russian mothers to protect their sons against the brutal human rights abuses which are tragically a rampant problem in the Russian army.  These women are acting on their maternal instincts for a higher cause: liberating their sons from all forms of institutional abuse in the Russian military. 
In studying the history of this organization’s achievements, the close connection between the progress of Russian democracy and the efforts to reform and humanize the Russian army became very obvious to me.  The movement actually began during the latter stages of the Soviet Union, when the political space created by Glasnost, or openness, allowed for public discussion of previously taboo and suppressed issues.  In 1988-89, Maria Ivanovna Kirbasova started a national protest against the practice of taking young men directly from their classrooms into the military.  Such a policy represents a grave human rights violation against men, who are deprived of their liberty without any due process simply because they are males who reached a certain age.  This policy is a form of legalized kidnapping which should be banned worldwide. As a result of the mother’s protests against this grave injustice, some 17,600 young men were able to return from the army a year early in order to continue their studies. Thus, these young men were effectively freed from captivity and allowed to return to the civilian world of freedom and dignity.   

Critical additional steps to protect the lives of Russian young men were taken in late 1990 and early 1991 just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In November, 1990, “A special commission to investigate deaths and trauma occurring in the army was established.” Such a step would have been unthinkable during the prior repressive Soviet regimes.  The mere fact that such a commission was established at all to discuss these issues represented an enormous step forward.  It symbolized an official recognition of the necessity of turning the Russian army from an instrument of systematic official brutalization and militarism into a civilized institution which respects basic human rights. 

In December, 1990, a more important and far-reaching development occurred.  “The efforts of CSMR led to the creation of a special assembly point for military men who have voluntarily left their military units in order to save their own lives and dignity, which still operates today.” In a country where hundreds of men die and tens of thousands more men are gravely wounded every year by an infamous and barbaric military system of hazing known in Russian as dedovshchina, such a step is essential to saving the lives of Russian young men.  The existence of these assembly points literally represents the difference between life and death for defenseless conscripts who are being severely beaten almost to the point of death by their officers and who are most likely contemplating suicide to escape their captivity.  10,000 men have received help, and undoubtedly such services have saved many lives.
In 1991, the protections for abused soldiers were dramatically expanded.  The Russian army began implementing a policy of amnesty toward soldiers who had fled their units to escape the control of oppressive commanders. As a result, soldiers were no longer sitting ducks for abusive officers, and now they had options to defend and protect themselves from human rights violations.   

Soldiers gained two additional and critical rights in 1991.  Russian military servicemen were granted health and life insurance for the first time in history, a change which represented an increasing recognition of the humanity of members of the Russian military. In response to soldiers’ complaints about being forced to serve in the Caucasus, the rules were changed to require that soldiers had to agree voluntarily to such service.  In 1993, a new democratic law on army service containing all the requested amendments of the women’s committees. Yeltsin even promised to end conscription during the 1996 Presidential campaign, but he did not keep this promise.

Unfortunately, the first post-Communist Russian invasion of Chechnya in December, 1994, marked the beginning of the end not only for the rights of Russian soldiers but also for the whole project of political democratization in Russia.  During this war, 500 Russian soldiers were granted the right to conscientious objection for the first time in Russian history. However, this war also represented yet another act of Russian genocide against the Chechen people.  This war set in motion the conditions which ultimately led to the total collapse of Russia’s democratic institutions and the restoration of a highly authoritarian regime which systematically violates human rights in all arenas of Russian life, including the military. 

In 2002, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report documented that every year in Moscow and St. Petersburg alone, hundreds of young men are forcibly kidnapped and shipped straight to military bases to begin their army service.  Every year during conscription periods, Russian citizens witness the horrifying sight of hundreds of young men being forcibly detained for military service without even being allowed to phone their families.

The detention procedures themselves are fascistic in nature.  The conscription board sends a list of young men who have not complied with their draft summons to the local police in every city and region.  The local police then systematically hunt down the young men, arresting them at their homes, metro stations, and other public locations, and shipping them straight to the nearest conscription office.  Such conscripts are typically sent to a military unit on the same day as their detention. 
HRW documents several specific cases of such terrible practices. On the morning of May 16, 2002, Stephan O was arrested at his home and sent straight to military service. On the morning of December 27, 2000, Dmitri K was arrested at home.

Some young men were even detained as a result of random checks of young men of military age at metro station. For example, Alexander B was arrested in the Moscow metro system on his way to work.  He was placed on a bus specifically chartered to send young men to the draft board, and once 15 additional young men had been rounded up, they were driven forcibly to the local conscription office.

These forcible detentions of young men for purposes of conscription show that the conscription system in the Russian military is based upon brute force and lacks a legitimate moral and ethical basis.  Any conscription system that is built upon organized kidnapping lacks a moral validity.
Such a conscription system should be abolished because it subjects young men to so many nnecessary and barbaric human rights violations. But of course this conscription system is simply a symbol of the methods of totalitarian control which underpin the Putin FSB regime.  As long as the Putin FSB regime remains in power, talk about reforming the Russian military is a waste of time.  The full restoration of Russia’s democratic institutions is an essential prerequisite for ending conscription and reforming the Russian military.  Russia’s liberals need to make the abolition of conscription as a central plank in their political program and to treat it as a major goal of their movement.  Naturally the Putin FSB regime will not fall easily, but as long as this regime remains in power, Russian conscripts will remain at the mercy of a horrifying and abusive military system. 

Dedovshchina is responsible for truly horrific practices which represent institutionalized human rights violations in the Russian army.  Dedovshchina means “rule of the grandfathers” in Russian.  Under this system, second year soldiers, known as dedy, or grandfathers, have  absolute authority over the lives of new conscripts, who are subjected to systematic bullying and abuse at the hands of their immediate superiors.  Conscripts suffer from sleep deprivation as a result of being force to work throughout the night.  Conscripts are routinely beaten to death by their superiors, and they are also denied medical attention and given spoiled food.

In 2005 alone, 450 soldiers were murdered as a result of such conditions in the Russian army.  In August, 2011, alone, 3 conscripts committed suicide.  And according to official Ministry of Defense statistics, 149 soldiers killed themselves in 2009. Most likely the real numbers are much higher.  In addition, official military statistic indicated that 2,270 conscripts had run away from their units in the first half of 2002.  But again these numbers are way too low because they don’t include the thousands of cases in which conscripts are recaptured and returned to their units within ten days of attempting to escape.
Thousands of conscripts suffer physical injuries at the hands of the Russian system every year.  Official statistics indicated that 2,500 soldiers were physically hurt as a result of dedovshchina in the first 8 months of 2003 alone.  Such official statistics are undoubtedly an underestimate, but if these numbers are correct, then at least 3,750 soldiers are injured by dedovshchina every year.
Some injuries are serious and lifelong.  For instance, Denis Ivanov suffered a spinal injury for the ‘crime’ of drinking his superior’s tea. Even after leaving the military, Petr R. still suffered bad headaches from the beatings he endured while in the Russian army. Vladimir P broke his jaw and temporarily lost his hearing in one ear from beatings. Andrei S suffered additional injuries to his childhood limp from beatings.

The case of Andrei Sychyov illustrates the horrific suffering of many hapless conscripts.  Sychyov was forced to squat, presumably for hours, until he lost all blood flow to his genitals and legs; he was also required to undergo several ampuatations.  Sychyov got more justice than most conscripts in his situation, as one of his immediate abusers received a 4 year prison sentence.  However, the senior officers who allowed these abuses to occur on their watch ended up unscathed. Failing to hold senior officers accountable for abuses committed by their subordinates fosters a climate of impunity within the Russian army which endangers the lives and safety of Russian conscripts. 

The case of Andrei D. in late 2001 and early 2002 also illustrates the systematic human rights abuses which routinely occur in the Russian army.  Andrei D. was repeatedly and brutally beaten for refusing to sew collars on the jackets of his superiors. His superiors also confiscated his food during mealtimes, thus subjecting him to starvation.  Page 18 After one of his bosses beat him over the head with a stool, his temperature spiked to a dangerously high level of 102.2 to 104 degrees Farenheit, and he was taken to the sickbay.  But the dedy accompanied him even to the sick bay, where he was forced to continue serving them, ibid, pg. 20

In reaction to such abusive conditions, Andrei D tried to escape after two and a half months of services.  He was recaptured because a fellow conscript informed on him, and he was of course beaten for his escape attempt.  Ibid, pg 20  Thankfully, his second escape attempt six weeks later was successful.  But escaping was not easy. He had to hide from military patrols who could have recaptured him for five days, during which he barely ate or slept.  Ibid, pg. 21
He received aid from compassionate and brave civilians who gave him regular clothes so he could shed his military uniform and told him which train to catch to avoid the military patrols. He took a train to St. Petersburg, where he obtained further help from a church in the city.  An elderly male church member gave him a bed and helped him reach the Soldiers’ Mothers in St. Petersburg.  Ibid, pg. 21

A former military psychiatrist diagnosed him with a personality disorder which allowed him to gain a medical discharge from the army.  However, this psychiatric diagnosis automatically appears now on his military identification card and greatly impedes his job search.  His former employer from his pre-military service days would not re-hire him once they learned of his diagnosis. Thus, having escaped one abusive system in the military, he is now at the mercy of another oppressive employment structure which excludes him on account of his mental illness. Ibid, pp. 21-23   
One conscript, Aleksei K., was so brutalized by the practices of dedovshchina and so desperate to escape these abusive conditions that he was willing to volunteer to serve in the Chechen war zone.  The fact that a conscript would prefer service in the often genocidal Chechen war zone shows how desperate he was to escape from the abuse in his unit.   

Many conscripts will literally walk for months to escape their units and walk home. Alexander O left his abusive unit in Novorosiissk and spent two months finding his way home, primarily on foot.  He spent time with homeless people and rode a cargo train home part of the way.  Vadim Kh lived in the mountains of Karelia for three months before a villager found him and contacted his mother, thus allowing him to return home.

Sadly, some mothers will send their terrified sons back to their units even when they see clear evidence that their sons are being physically abused.  Vadim Kh’s mother allowed him to return to his unit even after seeing multiple bruises under his knees while on a home visit. Similarly, Alexander Sukhanov’s mother twice sent him back to his abusive unit, and she only allowed to remain at home once he returned with burn marks on his back from torture.
In addition, conscripts remain at the mercy of the military even after they flee from abusive units. The military system is structured so that conscripts must return to the very environment that terrorized them in the first place in order to obtain their freedom.  In order to gain a medical discharge from the army, they must return to the military’s control by entering a military hospital. Such procedures seem structurally designed to terrorize already frightened conscripts who fear for their lives if forced to the environments in which they were beaten and psychologically abused.

For obvious reasons, many brutalized runaway conscripts had panic attacks when officials of the Soldiers’ Mothers organization tried to persuade them to return to the military’s control. Such a move places already traumatized young men at risk for being returned to their abusive unit or even imprisoned for desertion.  Such barbaric procedures symbolize the extreme degree of totalitarian control which the Russian army inflicts upon the bodies of Russian men.  Such men are effectively prisoners and slaves for the duration of their service in the Russian army – where they are subjected to the risks of systematic beatings, starvation, intentional deprivation of medical attention, and even death at the hands of their commanders.     

The main reason why such abuses occur with such impunity is that only members of the lower socioeconomic classes are forced to serve in the military in the first place.  Less than 10% of Russian men eligible for military service actually fulfill this obligation, and most wealthy Russians pay bribes to avoid serving in the military.  As a result, wealthy Russians feel no moral responsibility to take any action on behalf of powerless conscripts, who are typically from poor families and often from rural areas.

In his book Putin’s Labyrinth, Steve LeVine writes, “But even the shocking stories of Russian soldiers mistreated by their own military didn’t seem to move most people; the main thing was to pay the necessary bribes so that your son was not conscripted or sent to fight there. Only the poorest, dullest, or most rural Russian youths seemed to end up in Chechnya” (page xix).
Similar conditions prevail in Egypt, where middle class youths commonly bribe their way out of military service.  In light of this reality, the courageous efforts of Dr. Maikel Nabil Sanad in founding the No for Compulsory Service Movement in Egypt in 2009 greatly stand out.  This movement was established with the worthy, ambitious, and brave aim of ending conscription in Egypt. Sanad received a medical exemption from military service as a result of his heart condition, and thus he had no need to found this movement.  He was acting on behalf of voiceless Egyptian youth who lack the resources to obtain the media attention they need to address comparable human rights abuses in the Egyptian army.   And he also served 10 months in prison in 2011 and early 2012 for challenging the military, including 4 months on a hunger strike. 

I am greatly moved by the courage of Egyptian conscientious objectors.  They raise many of the same objections against forcible conscription in a totalitarian regime that I myself feel in relation to the Russian army.   For example, in his public statement explaining the reasons for his conscientious objection in April, 2012, Emad Dafrawi states, “Conscription is slavery because it coerces me to do something I didn’t choose, as well as it violates my basic freedoms of movement and travel. I refuse that someone chooses for me my thoughts and my beliefs by coercion.” Obviously the Russian army conscription system does not allow young men to travel and move freely, detaining them at home and on their way to work and forcing them to do things that they obviously disagree with and do not wish to participate in.   
Similarly, an Egyptian Muslim pacifist Mohammed Fathy declares, I’m also against conscription because it robs from humans the natural right to bodily freedom, freedom of choice, expressing opinions and beliefs, and mobility. It discriminates on the basis of gender, religion, the geographic origin.” Naturally the whole Russian army initiation system of dedovshchina violates the rights of young men to their bodily freedom, subjecting them to beatings, torture, starvation, deprivation of medical care, and even death.

On its web site, the movement explains the reasons for their rejection of compulsory military service:
“1- Because it's just a shape of slavery. It takes away freedom of the citizens and forces them to do what they never wanted or choose
2- Because it's a forced labor system. It forces conscripts to work against their will and without charge
3- Because it's a violation of Individual freedom. We believe that every citizen is free to choose and decide everything belongs to him, and this of course includes his choice to join armed forces or not”

These three conditions almost perfectly describe the realities of life in the Russian army.  Conscripts in the Russian army are effectively slaves who are deprived of their freedom and forced to service their superiors against their will.  They are also effectively subjected to forced labor, including personal service to their immediate superiors under abusive and inhumane conditions and sometimes being sold into actual slavery for the financial benefit of higher-ranking officers.  The forcible detentions of hundreds of young men for military service on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg every year represent an obvious and grave violation of individual freedom.

The reasons for their objection to military service include the fact that only men are subjected to forcible conscription.  They state that they oppose conscription is a form of “sex discrimination, because military service is compulsory for males, while females are exempted from it.”

These brave young Egyptian male feminists have helped me to understand that forcing only men to serve in the military is a grave form of sex discrimination against men.  After all, only men are forcibly arrested in the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg for compulsory military service.  Only Russian men are subjected to beatings, torture, starvation, denial of essential medical attention, sleep deprivation, psychological abuse, and even death at the hands of their commanders.  Only men are deprived of essential bodily and psychological freedoms in the name of military service.  In both Russia and Egypt, traditional gender roles are enforced by subjecting young men to unnecessary and severe brutality in the form of forcible military service. 
In addition, they state, “Military service restricts the right of citizens to travel, which undermine freedom of movement and the right of emigration.”  Obviously kidnapping young men and forcing them into the army violates their right to travel and movement.  In addition, many conscripts are effectively slaves in their units, who are unable to move freely and to protect their bodies against grave human rights abuses. 

And the Soldiers’ Mothers in Russia and the Egyptian pacifists have the same goal: protecting the safety and humanity of the young men in their societies by ending conscription and reducing the human rights abuses in the armed forces. Egyptian pacifists have the following goals:

“3- Allowing the press to monitor military performance, exposing any corruption in the army (Repeal of the law of: prohibition of the dissemination of any information on the armed forces)
4- Guarantee conscripts right in Egyptian army, by all means and ways, to ensure their safety, dignity and freedom”

Allowing the press to freely monitor military performance and expose corruption in the armed forces in Russia would be a great step forward in challenging the most flagrant human rights abuses.  In addition, the Egyptian pacifists specifically seek to protect the conscripts’ right to safety, dignity, and freedom, which are clearly lacking at even the most basic level in the Russian army.  As long as the Putin regime remains in power, the bodies of Russian young men will be in danger of torture, beatings, and starvation.  Thus, removing the Putin regime is essential for protecting the lives and safety of Russian men who are being systematically brutalized by the thousands every year in the Russian army.  Similarly, the bodies of Egyptian young men are at risk of grave human rights abuses under both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood regimes.  The only way to protect the lives and safety of Egyptian young men in the military is to promote democratic change which will guarantee the human rights of all Egyptian citizens.       

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