Hazing was supposed to be dead in the Russian military. Now, a soldier who shot eight fellow servicemembers is bringing the issue back into the spotlight.
On October 25, Ramil Shamsutdinov killed eight of his fellow soldiers. The shooting took place on a secret military base in Russia’s Zabaikalsky region that specializes in nuclear equipment operations. Both Shamsutdinov’s father and the soldier himself, who was serving Russia’s mandatory military term and was not a professional servicemember, said the motive behind the mass murder was hazing at the hands of Shamsutdinov’s fellow soldiers and officers. The Defense Ministry has categorically denied that claim. Meduza summarized what journalists have learned so far about the mass shooting and hazing in the contemporary Russian army.
What we know
On the evening of October 25, Ramil Shamsutdinov returned with a group of fellow servicemembers from a shift standing guard on their base. He then pretended to disarm his automatic rifle while waiting for the other soldiers to finish turning in their pistols. With those around him unarmed, Shamsutdinov opened fire, killing eight officers and soldiers on the spot and severely wounding two more. Shamsutdinov fired 58 shots in total.
A rapid response team soon arrived on the scene and fired into the air to force Shamsutdinov to give up his weapon and submit to arrest. A court ordered the soldier to be held under guard until December 27 at least, and he is now located in the Chita Pretrial Detention Center. Shamsutdinov has been indicted on charges of killing two or more people. According to his father, Salim Shamsutdinov, the defendant is due for a psychiatric evaluation in Moscow in December.
Was Shamsutdinov’s shooting triggered by hazing?
That is the soldier’s own claim, and it’s one Russia’s Defense Ministry has refuted. “What could have driven him to this? It’s obvious — hazing: constant, extended harassment against him,” Salim Shamsutdinov said after visiting his son in jail. Private Shamsutdinov himself said in an interrogation session published in part on the Telegram-based outlet Baza that his officers had threatened to “put him down” (a euphemism for rape) immediately after his guard shift on the day of the shooting. “They’d already put down all the other young guys before me; I knew that. So that meant that evening was my turn. There was nothing I could do. What could I have done?” the soldier explained.
An anonymous source told the newspaper Kommersant that Shamsutdinov only wanted to kill a single officer. According to 72.ru, that officer may have been Senior Lieutenant Danil Pyankov: Another of Pyankov’s former subordinates had also come forward with accusations of extended harassment.
The Defense Ministry denied that hazing or harassment played a role in the shooting immediately after it occurred and long before either of the Shamsutdinovs pointed to those motives. “According to preliminary reports from the site of the incident, the servicemember’s actions may have taken place following a nervous breakdown that was triggered by personal circumstances unrelated to his military service.” Ministry representatives called Baza’s reporting on the shooting “a complete lie.”
If it wasn’t hazing, what was it?
Neither the Defense Ministry nor the investigators in Shamsutdinov’s case have announced an official position with regard to his motives. According to RBC, however, a Defense Ministry commission has unofficially concluded that “the heightened psychological stress servicemembers experience in the course of guard duty may have led an interpersonal conflict to grow into the actions that led to this tragedy.” The commission reported that nobody had physically humiliated the private, who simply broke down in the face of stress.
Alexander Sherin, the vice chair of the State Duma’s Defense Committee, gave a similar explanation after visiting the base where the shooting occurred. “Judging by what I was able to learn through conversations I had at the base, I believe the young man was unable to bear the conditions of military service. He came to serve in the heart of the taiga from a city where there were dance clubs, movie theaters, young women. Here, all you’ve got is a double-layered fence,” Sherin said. The relatives of the soldiers Shamsutdinov wounded have also said there was no hazing in his division.
In a joint press conference held by the public organizations “Officers of Russia” and “The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers,” advocates for Russian servicemembers also argued that the Internet and video games may have affected Shamsutdinov’s behavior.
Didn’t Russia’s military reforms eliminate hazing?
That’s the Russian government’s official position. “There was a time not very long ago at all that brought no honor to the army because there was hazing and so on. There’s nothing good in that. Now, to a significant degree, that has been eradicated,” President Vladimir Putin said in a 2017 speech to a group of schoolchildren. Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu seconded those sentiments. In September interview that was Shoigu’s first in his seven years on the job, he said, “Now, there’s just no reason for hazing in the army.”
The Defense Ministry has argued that it rooted out all hazing in the Russian military after the country’s 2008 military reforms, which decreased the mandatory term of service for men from two years to one. “It’s one thing when somebody has already served three tours, and they’re setting out on their fourth and naturally feeling as though they already know everything and can do anything. Now, that person can practically only have served half a year longer than somebody who’s just come in from the civilian world, as they say,” explained Russian military draft director Alexey Knyazev.
In 2017, Meduza published a report in Russian detailing what human rights advocates described as a decrease in military crimes following the reforms. However, that decrease was not as radical as the improvement the Russian government reported. When it comes to the number of Russian military servicemembers killed in peacetime, there is no reliable data to be found: Putin made those figures confidential in a 2015 order.
How can we estimate hazing levels if all the data is confidential?
By turning to other, indirect evidence. First and foremost, we can look to statistics on the number of cases brought forward in Russia under Article 335 of the Criminal Codex, which penalizes violent harassment committed by military servicemembers against each other. That figure declined steadily from 2013 through 2016 and has since remained relatively stable. However, Article 335 only addresses conflicts between soldiers who are not subordinate to one another. If violence is committed by a higher-ranked individual against a subordinate, that behavior can be addressed through Article 286, which penalizes the abuse of authority. The catch is that Article 286 can be used to prosecute state officials outside the military as well, and there are no specific statistics on its application in cases involving soldiers.
Do you have a Russian background? Want to help us learn more?
You can read more about harassment and hazing in the Russian military in these articles written by human rights advocates for soldier support organizations:
If you or somebody you know has encountered hazing while undergoing military service in Russia, tell us. Harassment remains a regular cause of soldiers’ deaths in peacetime, and we will use your stories to create a realistic picture of the state of this problem in Russia. To share what you know, click here to find the Russian version of this article and scroll to the bottom of the page.
Translation by Hilah Kohen