The desertion of 74 Russians from one company last month caused a stir in Russia. The incident brought out a lot of interesting details about how the Russian army works, and has worked for nearly a century. The Russians who deserted were all Slavs (the population of Russia is 74 percent Slav, nearly all of them Russian). The young lads were fleeing the bullying of older Dagestani soldiers in their company. About seven percent of the troops in armed forces are from the Caucasus, about half of them from Dagestan. These guys make good soldiers. They drink and smoke a lot less than the Slavs, are in good physical shape and are quick and eager to obey their officers. For this reason, Caucasian recruits get promoted fast. The officers find them reliable, and don't much care how their Caucasian NCOs get things done.
The basic problem goes back to the disastrous war with Japan in 1904-5. Up until then, a small number of the male population was conscripted for 25 years. If they survived that, they were given a grant of land, much respect back in their village and other perks. These men also had ample opportunity to become NCOs. But after huge losses and defeat by the Japanese in 1905, the government went over to the West European form of conscription (nearly all young men taken for 2-3 years.) While at first there were lots of good NCOs from the old "25 year men" group, World War I destroyed those guys and in the chaos of defeat and civil war the idea of a professional NCO corps got lost. Instead, the Soviets decided to just have more officers. This was a mistake. Lower ranking NCOs live with the troops, officers never do. This means that officers are never with the troops 24 hours a day. Left to their own devices, the troops established their own pecking order in the barracks. The new guys were bullied, abused and made to do all the dirty work by conscripts who had been in service a year or more. This was made possible by several additional quirks of the Russian system. A new bunch of conscripts were brought in every six months, unlike other nations where new men are called up every day, and sent to special training centers for several months of training. When such European and American recruits finally get to their unit, they have already learned a lot about military life and are not so green. But in Russia, most new conscripts were sent right to their unit, where they received their training. This means a company of 120 Russian soldiers would, every six months, see two dozen of the most senior guys leave (usually after a raucous celebration) and two dozen civilians brought in. While officers would supervise and train these new recruits during the day, at night and on weekends, the soldiers who had been in six months or longer used the new guys as servants, or objects of nasty abuse.
The degree of abuse varies. In some units, the tradition is one of mild abuse. But other units, especially when you have non-Russian senior soldiers (especially from the Caucasus) and a lot of Slav Russian recruits, things can get very unpleasant. The Caucasians dislike Russians more than the other way around. Caucasian young men also tend to be tougher and more aggressive than their Slav counterparts. Moreover, Caucasians see military service as necessary rite of passage to adulthood. To most Slavs, it's something to be avoided if at all possible. For decades there has been a rule to never put more than five Caucasians in a company (of a hundred or so troops.) Experience showed that all it took was five tough Caucasians to take control of a company. The Caucasians would cut a deal with the tough Slavs to dominate everyone else. Often the domination was little more than getting someone else to do your barracks chores and run errands. But sometimes it descended to robbery and sadism. With the end of the Soviet Union, there was a higher proportion of Caucasians in the population and, gradually, the "five Caucasians" rule faded away. This made renewed attempts to eliminate bullying more difficult. Many senior officers, especially those who have spent time with European and American military units, have urged that the Western system be adopted. Few disagree with this, but that would cost a lot of money. The army doesn't have the cash, and will have to live with the bullying in the meantime.