CHELYABINSK, Russia — Just before New Year's, army Pvt. Andrei Sychyov called his mother and asked her to come bring him home for the holiday. He had four days' leave, he said. Please don't make him spend it in the barracks.
But Galina Sychyova thought of the extra hours she had to put in at the market where she works. Conscripts are not allowed to go on leave unaccompanied, and it would take her 11 hours on the bus each way to travel roughly 120 miles along the east side of the Ural Mountains from her village outside of Yekaterinburg. For just four days?
"I explained to him, I said: 'Andryusha, please understand me correctly, it's the highest buying season now, and we can't leave the shop for a minute. And I will come and see you some other time.' He was very, very upset," Sychyova recalled. "I felt tears in his voice.... He said, 'I don't want to stay here for the new year with these drunken louts.' "
The next time Sychyova saw her 19-year-old son, it was at a hospital in Chelyabinsk. Doctors had amputated one leg, then the other, then his genitals, then the tip of his right ring finger. On New Year's Eve, her son said, his army mates tied him and forced him to squat for more than three hours, beating him repeatedly on the legs.
Gangrene had spread through his lower extremities and was threatening his kidneys, lungs and brain. He breathed with a respirator. His eyes only flickered when his mother peered anxiously into his face and repeated his name.
The Russian army is legendary for being almost as dangerous in peacetime as it is in war. Last year, 16 soldiers were officially listed as killed in brutal hazing incidents, and 276 others committed suicide.
But many believe those figures are misleading. A number of the 1,064 servicemen who died in various "crimes and incidents" were also victims of abuse, and many cases listed as suicides are faked to disguise fatal beatings, or occur because soldiers can no longer endure the torment, say military analysts and human rights organizations.
The small, two-room office of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee in Chelyabinsk is lined with files, most of them reports of violence committed against conscripts serving their two years of mandatory military service.
"Do you see those walls over there? They're filled with complaints. And it's one-millionth of what's going on," Lyudmila Zinchenko said.
Nearly every army in the world has initiation rites and means of informal discipline, some of it violent. In Russia it has evolved into an entrenched system known as dedovshchina, or the "rule of the grandfathers," in which senior soldiers force new recruits to conduct menial chores, give up their food, money and cigarettes and undergo sleep deprivation and humiliating rituals.
The punishment is beatings or, in a few cases, sexual abuse. So miserable has conscript service become that last year only 9.2% of the 1.7 million 18-year-olds subject to the draft were actually inducted. Families with money or connections won exemptions through educational, health or family waivers.
Human Rights Watch in 2004 concluded that "hundreds of thousands" of new recruits faced "grossly abusive treatment" that killed dozens every year.
The organization described a 2002 case in which recruit Dimitri Samsonov wrote his parents and grandmother urgently requesting money and cigarettes to offer senior soldiers during a 100-day period of intense hazing.
"Mama, this is what I need for the next four months: every week a transfer of 40 to 50 rubles, and a small package with Prima [cigarettes].... Mama, don't forget to send this immediately. Immediately!"
The letter was followed by another. "Today, the [period] is starting, and I haven't received anything from you.... I don't know what to do. It's 2 p.m. now. It will be lights out in eight hours. I don't think that I will survive this night.... You just don't understand how important it was for me." In any case, both letters arrived too late.
Two months later, Samsonov was hospitalized with a broken wrist. Eleven days after that, the family received a telegram saying their son was dead. He had slit his veins, authorities said.
In Chelyabinsk, an industrial city of 1.3 million in the southern Urals, Zinchenko said her group received about 300 hazing complaints a year, ranging from a young soldier who was hired out to dig graves while his supervisor pocketed his wages to soldiers who were beaten or driven to suicide.
"Here's a boy who was killed," she said, picking up a report filed by the parents of Oleg Afanasyev, 20, who was reported to have committed suicide by hanging himself on July 12, 2005, during service in the strategic rocket forces.
"The parents opened his coffin in the cemetery, and we have a list signed by 70 witnesses who saw the signs of beatings on his body," she said. "There were bruises under his eyes, the nose was broken, there was a stitch on his head, another ugly stitch on his neck, and blood in his right ear."