Under Western eyes: reflections on Tolya’s letters

In conversation with oDRussia’s Deputy Editor, a former British Army officer reflects on Tolya’s experience as a conscript in the Russian army. To what extent will the proposed military reforms help with dedovshchina, or institutionalised bullying?
Felicity Cave
29 March 2010

Russia has always had a conscript army. In the nineteenth century serfs had to serve first for 25 years, later reduced to 20.  With the abolition of serfdom, the period of service for every Russian male was set at 6 years. Over the years this was reduced to 18 months.  After the start of the first Chechen war in 1994, military service was extended from 18 months to 24. In 2006 it was reduced from 24 to 18 months and from 2008 to 12 months. Tolya was conscripted in 2006, so he is doing 18 months. 

It is important to remember that very few conscripts want to be soldiers and will spend much of their time doing as little as possible, keeping their heads down, whingeing, and counting the days to demob (like many British National Servicemen). In the absence of much inspiring leadership (or any real leadership at all; they don’t have professional NCOs), a dose of dedovshchina is often considered essential to get them moving. But, of course, it can be counter-productive and excesses were until recently all too common.

Most army units have a mixed recruitment system but this does not enhance combat readiness.  The current military reforms do not envisage the professionalisation of the Russian Army though the role of conscripts is to be reduced, but they do include the introduction of professional NCOs.   It is planned that they will undergo a 2 year 10 month course at the Higher Airborne (VDV) School in Ryazan with a view to becoming platoon commanders, and company and battery first sergeants. It has been suggested that, once qualified, these professional NCOs will be paid roughly the same amount as a major general. This might be expected to upset junior officers who will be giving them orders.

The fact that Tolya has written these letters (despite the language!) suggests he has a certain level of intelligence and education. In addition to this, he must have been reasonably fit. It is the fittest and toughest conscripts that are assigned to either the Spetsnaz (Special Purpose Forces) under the control of the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate), or the VDV (Russian Airborne Troops). They are regarded as elite troops and should be well motivated, though there was little evidence of anything much in the way of motivation where Tolya was concerned.

Tolya appears to have been a member of a Guards Airborne Artillery Regiment in the division in Tula. This is 106 Guards Airborne Division. Some of its units were involved in the failed coups in Moscow in August 1991 and October 1993. Airborne artillery regiments are usually equipped with tracked 120mm howitzer/ mortars called the 2S9.  Once Tolya had been posted to his operational unit at Tula (and out of a training unit such as those in Omsk and Ryazan,) living conditions improved and man-management became more benign.

Togetherness and training

What was surprising was that crew training seemed to be non-existent. From his letter on 11 September Tolya seems decidedly vague about what he would do in case of an emergency, though he seemed to think, in a typical Russian way, that things would all work out in the end (все образуется).  This alleged lack of crew training appears highly unlikely, although perhaps the Russians don’t do as much of it as the British Army does. You simply cannot go into battle as part of a team if you don’t know the other members and have not trained with them. And this is an elite unit!

There is a realisation that individuals don’t count, except as a member of a tank or gun crew, or infantry section. Most soldiers will fight for their colleagues much more intensely than they will fight for anything else.

However, in Tolya’s Letters there is a surprising lack of any real mention of camaraderie. When the going gets tough, people usually hang together and you would think the new recruits would do so.  Tolya refers to this in his letter of 5 May:

About friends:  many people say (and I think this myself) that you have no friends in the army.  You have comrades, who help you in return for you helping them.  In combat forces under fire it's probably different, but that's how it is here.  It's dog eat dog – and in spades! …..During our first weeks here, when we hadn't yet worked out who the losers and tough guys were, everyone helped each other and shared things.  But it didn't last long

Tolya mentions jumping, but sadly gives no details. It would be interesting to know how many jumps he made a year, day, or night, from what height, and whether they were tactical as part of an exercise or just to improve jump techniques; and how often he went on exercise with this 2S9 and actually fired live shells.

Although he was a reluctant soldier, Tolya was probably quite well trained through endless repetition and would have been able to accomplish any of the battlefield tasks he was given under most conditions. The Russian military have always been good at recognising the limitations of their soldiers and their training: they don’t set them tasks beyond their capabilities, so they are less likely to fail. As equipment becomes more sophisticated and complicated, however, the level of training is going to have to be stepped up.

Rural, if not urban, Russians are used to long and harsh winters, and are inured to hardship and suffering. Consequently, they are tough, do what they are told, and are reasonably capable (within a rather narrow band of skills). They do what they are taught, the only initiative required being to decide which drill will meet the prevailing battlefield conditions. Initiative, as such, is not a characteristic one usually associates with the lower ranks in the Russian Army. Combat operations against guerrillas and insurgents can be extremely unpredictable and a much greater degree of initiative these days is required of junior ranks: Afghanistan (1979-89), Chechnya (1994-).  Nevertheless, they should never be underestimated.


Equipment serviceability is a problem in any army and is usually caused by a lack of spare parts and trained mechanics. Most major Russian items of ground equipment (tanks, helicopters, artillery, armoured fighting vehicles etc.) are left out in the open and their condition inevitably deteriorates quite quickly, particularly in inclement weather and if not used regularly. The state of the equipment in Tolya’s unit is not difficult to believe. There seems to be less incentive to care for equipment in the Russian Army than in Western armies. Nevertheless, the Russians have a talent for improvisation and their equipment is designed to be rugged and simple to operate.

The Russians have always emphasized the importance of maskirovka ‘camouflage, concealment and deception’ and he writes about his ‘tank’ in a hull-down position (letter of 22 July). Airborne units do not have tanks, which would be much too heavy to drop from an aircraft, but many people think that anything with tracks is a tank. In the case of a 2S9 it can go  ‘turret-down’ because it is not usually used as a direct fire weapon i.e. firing in a straight line, but lobs shells upwards.


Within days, even hours, of arriving in his first barracks the new recruit gets an inkling of what is in store for him. His head is shaved, he is deloused, and he is given his uniform – probably ill-fitting. Who cares? It is the start of six months of hard physical training, an absence of any creature comforts, and some dedovshchina or bullying by senior conscripts thrown in for good measure.

The first few nights are hell. He is roundly abused by his seniors. His officers know what is going on, but they do not interfere. The recruit has no rights. He has three aims in life: to keep out of trouble as far as that is possible, and to sleep and eat as much as he can (despite the disgusting food). The daily programme gives him virtually no time to relax. The majority of recruits are rather weedy. However, the intense physical activity that they undergo builds them up and over the months makes them more aggressive. This all comes in handy when they have completed their first six months because then they are able to dominate the new intake – by their superior physical strength, knowledge of the Army, by tradition and the support of their colleagues.

He will very quickly grasp that there are different classes of conscript soldier: what Tolya calls ‘bitches’, the lowest of the low, the ‘pheasants’ who have more than 100 days of service still to go and the ‘dembels’ (the dedy or grandpas) with 100 days or less to serve. As we saw from Tolya’s letters, dembels and pheasants guard their self-claimed status jealously. Their rule may be constrained now that the last 18-month conscripts have completed their service (in 2009). No doubt a new form of dedovshchina will emerge, carefully honed to meet the new 12-month period, but it must be highly unlikely that it will disappear.

Since many young men have served in the Armed Forces, there is no lack of knowledge about dedovshchina, but it does not appear to be a problem that concerns most Russians (except the mothers and the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee). Senior officers are concerned, but they claim that the Army is not an organisation separate from the rest of society.

Tolya thinks differently:

In many ways the army is a paradox.  For instance, every year a huge number of lads are called up and every year about the same number are demobbed.  But the army remains a very closed organisation.  I think that anyone who hasn’t served in it is unlikely, very unlikely to understand anything about it at all.  After all, I had read all kinds of books, visited internet forums, read newspapers, looked at TV, talked to people….but when I got here I was staggered at how different army life is from life outside.  The difference is unimaginably huge.

He quotes Konstantin Bannikov’s The Anthropology of Extremist Groups, in which the author compares the army with primitive human society and writes about the hierarchy and the bullying.  In his letter of 3 April Tolya writes:

That's what got me thinking that the bullying is an essential part of army life.  Now that I'm here, I'm absolutely convinced of it.  And although I'm on the lowest rungs of the hierarchy (only 3 months in, after all), I can see that it couldn't function without the bullying…..Bullying in the army is best way of organising the collective, or of it organising itself.  Whether one likes it or not (and I don't!).

The senior officers and Tolya are both right. Young men are drafted into the Army and continue to behave in the way they always have – no different, therefore, from the rest of their level of society where violence and criminal activity are common. So how can dedovshchina actually be eradicated – and in fact is there any real desire, except from the new recruits, to eradicate it? As conditions slowly improve, the murder and suicide rates, although still quite appalling, are falling (helped, no doubt, by a contracting army). In October 2009 Roger McDermott wrote (in Bi-Annual Draft Begins in the Russian Military, Eurasia Daily Monitor):

The defense ministry is convinced that after reducing the term of service to twelve months that dedovshchina or institutionalized bullying within the armed forces is now in decline, and offers statistics to support this assertion. Colonel-General Vasily Smirnov the Chief of the Main Organization and Mobilization Directorate of the General Staff claimed that the recorded instances of bullying had declined over the past year by 93 percent. Nonetheless, the Chief Military Prosecutor Sergey Fridinskiy said that more than 800 servicemen had been convicted of such breaches of regulations in 2009. Violent crime is gradually declining; which offers little comfort to those petrified by the prospect of conscription. In the first eight months of 2009 compared to the same period last year, there were 13 percent fewer cases related to bullying and an 11.5 percent drop involving violence. According to the chief military prosecutor’s office the share of crimes against young conscripts in the army “is not too high,” accounting for 15 percent of all recorded crimes (Interfax, September 30).

The Ground Forces suffer more from dedovshchina than the other branches of the Armed Forces generally speaking, because the most highly educated conscripts go to the Strategic Rocket Forces and the Air Force while those with few or no educational qualifications end up in the Ground Forces and Construction Troops.

Russian soldiers seem to be able to cope with dedovshchina - just – and a degree of neglect because in general terms Russians could be said to be passive, resigned and fatalistic and are still prepared, under duress perhaps, to offer blind obedience to their superiors. They have a higher tolerance of abuse, injury and death than soldiers of most other armies.

Russian officers are well aware that high morale is absolutely crucial to battlefield success.  How they go about achieving this and how they motivate their men is a study all of its own. Courage, obedience and ‘hardness’ are what they are after. It is easier to motivate them in defensive warfare, particularly when they are fighting for Mother Russia. It would be interesting to know how their officers geared them up to fight in Chechnya.

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