Private Andrey Sychyov, a 19 year old soldier, was forced to squat for four hours with his hands tied behind his back while his fellow colleagues brutally raped and beat him. As a result, he suffered leg fractures, which subsequently led to amputation. The Sychov case was one of many in the Russian military that has been brought to public attention by the women-led NGO Union of Soldiers Mothers Committees of Russia (CSMR).
The Russian military system is in urgent need of reform as it has become dangerous for soldiers’ health and lives to defend their own country. Gen. Alexander Sorochkin, head of the Military Investigation Department at Russia’s Investigation Committee, reported that more than 5000 crimes related to subjection of juniors in Russian army were committed by soldiers in the first half of 2012. In addition, the Defense Ministry reported a total of 149 Russian soldiers committed suicide from January to November of 2009. According to the Rossiyskaya Gazeta [Russian Newspaper] most of the suicides were committed because of a spectrum of subordinating and humiliating activities and legally defined as “incitement to commit suicide.” However, the official statistics do not reflect the real numbers because military officers are threatening soldiers and ordering doctors to keep silent in order to hide most of the cases from the Military Investigation Department. Young soldiers defending the country are constantly threatened by violence coming from their fellow peers. Russia’s military needs reform, but making it happen won’t be easy.
It is women, and particularly CSMR, who should lead the Russian military reform. The only role the Russian government saw for women’s participation in war was the sacrifice of their husbands, boyfriends and sons. Women were frustrated with an exclusive role of soldiers’ mothers, “producing” children in order to replace the soldiers killed in Chechnya. In order to empower themselves these mothers created an NGO that focused on peace-building efforts and used a bottom-up approach in ceasefire negotiations and prisoner exchanges. CSMR’s volunteers – mostly elderly women, entered rebel-controlled areas and established contacts with village elders and rebel commanders. Their “straightforward” approach helped to organize massive prisoner exchanges and secured release of captured Federal soldiers and officers. Moreover, their efforts during the Chechen war helped them to gain the trust and support from all levels of Russian society.
I believe that CSMR has enough experience and support to end the humiliating activities performed by the senior ranks, address the militarizing of the justice system, and assist civil control over the military and legislation. If CSMR changed their agenda to lobbying for military reform, they would not just stop the violence in the military but also empower themselves through political participation. The Soldiers Mothers Committees of Russia has pushed Russians to confront their armed services on the democratic basis of military law – an action utterly unthinkable a few years ago.