The Russian army today, like any other army, is an institution for organising and channelling violence in the pursuit of some concept of the national interest. But violence is not easy to control, and all armies have to cope with atrocities against the enemy and the civilian population; and with various kinds of military and civilian crime. They need to limit these excesses, lest they lead to a breakdown of discipline and a loss of function. They therefore all have military policemen and military courts to enforce order with greater or lesser severity. In Afghanistan the Soviet military authorities imposed severe penalties for looting, rape, and random violence against the population. By the end of that war over two thousand five hundred Soviet soldiers were serving prison sentences, more than two hundred for crimes of premeditated murder.
But commanders also have to preserve the morale of their men and their own idea of the “honour of the uniform”. Time and again, and in all armies, this leads to evasion and cover-up to prevent the stories of military crime emerging or to limit their consequences. That is what happened after the massacre of civilians by US troops at My Lai in Vietnam in 1968. And public opinion is often on the side of the military. There was a popular outcry in the United States against the sentence imposed on Lieutenant Calley, the only officer to be court-martialled for My Lai. The Russian military today and the Soviet military before them are of course no different. Both the Soviet government and the government of President Karzai passed amnesties for those imprisoned for the crimes committed on both sides during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
Bullying and violence as a way of enforcing discipline can happen in all armies. It was common in the Tsarist army that preceded it, and indeed it was formalised in the British armed forces up to the middle of the nineteenth century. It is not unknown in the US Army. There was a great deal of it within the Red Army that won the Second World War. Though in theory the authorities disapproved, physical assault was a common means for enforcing discipline, used by many in authority from Marshal Zhukov downwards. It can be very difficult to eradicate.
Most armies have rites of passage for new recruits, this can degenerate into abuse, and scandals erupt from time to time even in the best-regulated armies. But most observers agree that the ritualised bullying, dedovshchina, the “grandfather system”, which emerged in the Soviet army in the late 1960s is an aberration from an unfortunate norm. Russian commentators give various reasons for that. By then the conscript army was demoralised. It was too large, and the soldiers were underemployed. The better off and better educated managed to evade service, so that many conscripts fell below the standards needed by a technically sophisticated force. Some were recruited from the prisons, and brought with them the bullying rituals of the criminal world. Under the “grandfather system” conscript soldiers were divided into four categories, depending on their length of service. In his last six months the soldier was known as a “grandfather” (ded). The new recruits were made to clean the barracks, look after the grandfathers’ kit, get them cigarettes from the shop and food from the canteen. Their few personal possessions and their parcels from home were taken from them. They were ritually humiliated, and beaten sometimes to the point of serious injury or death.
How bad it was depended on where you were. The Soviet army could not afford to employ substandard soldiers in the elite strategic rocket forces, where the grandfather system was much less brutal. It was the same in the KGB’s frontier forces, who had a real job to do. It was largely true among the soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. In the elite special forces and parachute units, morale was usually high. When the soldiers were not on operations, all they wanted to do was eat and sleep. Even in the less prestigious motor-rifle units, where the grandfathers still gave their juniors the run-around, it was hard to preserve the distinctions in battle: a bully risked being cut down by a bullet from his own side, as well as from the enemy: in the heat of the fight no one would bother to investigate. People who were there will tell you that the seasoned soldiers taught the new arrivals to keep clean, obey orders, and care for their equipment; and they looked after the juniors in battle. New recruits were kept from the difficult missions until they had acquired some battle experience. Some evidence supports this benign interpretation.
Most conscripts endured, and consoled themselves with the thought that they too would be grandfathers one day. Some broke under the strain: they deserted, mutilated themselves, or committed suicide. Some, of unusual physical as well as moral strength, stood up for themselves and were eventually left alone. Soldiers from the same republic or region stuck together in self-defence: the grandfathers in one unit serving in Afghanistan were warned that if anything happened to the only two Chechen soldiers serving with them, their other countrymen would take a merciless revenge.
Though there is a great deal of well-attested anecdotal evidence, reliable figures are hard to come by. Towards the end of the war in Afghanistan a senior officer told his fellow generals that the most common crime in the Soviet army there was “military bullying”. More than 200 soldiers had suffered in one year: some had been killed and others severely wounded. This appalling figure needs to be kept in proportion: it is 0.25% of the number of soldiers serving in Afghanistan at any one time. But that gives no idea of the overall level of dedovshchina in the Soviet army at that time, or in the Russian army today.
Though it pays to be cautious - not least because the appalling incidents reported in the Russian press today would not have seen the light of day in Soviet times - most observers agree that things have got worse since the war in Afghanistan, fuelled by the demoralisation that accompanied the break-up of the Soviet Union, the bungled war in Chechnya in the middle of the 1990s, lack of money for new equipment and proper training, and the failure to carry through a well thought-out and properly funded reform which would adapt the Russian armed forces to the threats and tasks of the twenty-first century.
Even some of those who experienced Dedovshchina at first hand believe that despite its obvious negative features it has helped to maintain order and discipline. But in other armies the task of mentoring, controlling, helping and disciplining young soldiers is the task of experienced long service NCOs, sergeant majors, sergeants, and corporals. These used to exist in the Tsarist army, where military service lasted a lifetime. They did not and do not exist in the Soviet and Russian armies: the so-called praporshchiki, the professional warrant officers, are mostly employed on administrative tasks, and sergeants are selected from amongst the conscripts themselves. Until 1968, when the period of conscript service was reduced from three years, it was still possible to train up a reasonably competent sergeant and make use of him before he was demobilised. That became harder when conscription lasted for only two years, and is harder still now that the term has been further reduced. Until something is done about that, people argue, Dedovshchina fills a necessary gap.
That is why people pin their hopes on the military reform which is currently under way and includes measures for the proper training of long-service professional NCOs. That reform, too, is dogged by inadequate funding and dissension among the senior military. So far it seems to be making better progress than its predecessors. But however well it succeeds, it will take time before the presence of professional sergeants significantly changes the ingrained culture of dedovshchina.
Rodric Braithwaite is a writer and former diplomat , who has spent much of his career dealing with Russia. He was British ambassador in Moscow from 1988-1992. In 1992-3 he was Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister Major and Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.
He is currently Chairman of the International Advisory Council of the Moscow School of Political Studies and is working on a new project “Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan”, to be published in 2011.