Saturday, May 06, 2006

A Russian Soldier's Story

I subscribe to The Atlantic Monthly and my June copy landed in my mailbox today. One of the better articles this month was "A Russian Soldier's Story, which I am linking above and reprinting below. The Atlantic Monthly tends to be an enjoyable and interesting read each month, and the article on Vladimir Putin, "The Accidental Autocrat" by Paul Starobin in their October 2004 issue, was part of how I arrived at the name for this blog.

Being a child of the US Army, I find the plight of the Russian Army a very sad condition of life in modern Russia. The Russian government is making some slow attempts at reforming the Russian Army, but I question the effectiveness of their efforts. A smaller all volunteer Army would seem to be one obvious choice, but it seems an unrealistic option for Russia.

I'm posting the entirety of the story below, after weighing several other options. I hope everyone finds it an interesting article, particularly coming only a few days before May 9th.

PS ~ The Atlantic Monthly has written and asked me to crop this reprint of Gregory Katz's article down to a paragraph with a link to the original. I'm doing this as much as I can, while still leaving something of interest to read, and to provide a teaser for the entire text. I encourage everyone to visit The Atlantic Monthly website to read the original and entire text. There is nothing earth-shatteringly new with the story, but it does provide a human face to the problems of
dedovshchina in the Russian Army.

A Russian Soldier’s Story

by Gregory Katz, June 2006, The Atlantic Monthly

Two years in the life of Kiril Bobrov — a parable of the once-proud, now-rotting Russian army

... When Kiril thought of joining the Russian army, he dreamed of excitement, of shooting real guns, of making friends, of being part of something he believed in—even though the army was bogged down in a terrible, endless war in Chechnya. He saw little downside to joining the army. His life was stalled anyway. He wasn’t going anywhere with his education. He had never excelled in school [..] he had tried but failed to learn welding at a trade school. His only marketable skill was preparing food [..] having cooked for his grandmother since he was ten ...

So Kiril stepped forward willingly. In this he was bucking a trend. The draft has become wildly unpopular throughout Russia, in part because of harsh, cruel conditions in the ill-equipped and underfunded army, where conscripts are paid the equivalent of about $3 a month, and in part because of the war in Chechnya, which has sapped the military of the prestige it enjoyed in the Soviet era. [..] Kiril was influenced by a childhood spent near a military base but without a man in his life: his father had left the family when he was seven. For years Kiril had looked out his bedroom window onto the base and watched the soldiers train. He watched them go through their drills, admiring their precision. He watched them play sports and lift weights and joke around in their off-hours.

“From my windows I could see that the atmosphere was really friendly,” Kiril says today in his soft, shy voice. “The soldiers were really friendly. They were not bullying each other, and they were laughing. It was like a family.” He thought they would be his family too.

Kiril’s misery began on the day he arrived, when he made a seemingly minor mistake in military protocol. He addressed an old soldier who had attained the rank of sergeant with the formal term “Comrade Sergeant,” which had been mandated at the Yeysk base. But soldiers at Kamenka had been told to use a more familiar approach—to call their sergeants by name. The sergeant, angry at Kiril’s mistake, pummeled him, hitting him everywhere except on the face (so that no bruises would show). Kiril eventually smoothed things over with the sergeant, but he was beaten for weeks by various old soldiers whose demands he failed to meet. His idea of the military as a family evaporated.

“That first night I realized this was hell,” Kiril says, his eyes going blank as he describes Kamenka.


Kerry Kubilius said...

It seems as though joining the army in Russia is similiar to going to a gulag. Russia, unfortunately, still secretly clings to the abuses of power that gained their greatest momentum during Soviet times.

La Russophobe said...

I particularly liked the issue of Atlantic that had a cover story predicting that Russia's fate was to become "Zaire with Permafrost."

Lyndon said...

Hazing is perhaps the single most screwed-up large-scale phenomenon going on in Russia that the government could change if it wanted to. On the other hand, they can't stamp out corruption in the MVD, and that's been a stated policy goal for some time now.

The solution? As (sadly) in many situations, money could probably go a long way toward making a meaningful change. Pay servicemen a living wage (this is the most critical thing), discipline them for engaging in hazing, and eventually the "tradition" will fade. But of course the fish rots from the head, as they say, and even if the gov't does find the petrodollars to raise enlisted mens' compensation, they'll have to make sure that officers of various ranks don't just try to pocket the delta. Very sad.

And as an aside, albeit one that turned out to be rather long, LR, you keep on talking about "Zaire with Permafrost." (I've seen you use it in comments on other forums)

First of all, the article you're talking about was published five years ago and less than three years after the 1998 financial crisis. Many things have changed in Russia since then, some for the worse (press and political freedoms, certainly) but some for the better. I'm not aware of any serious analyst of Russia who has applied this phrase recently - indeed, I doubt if anyone who thinks seriously about Russia's situation would ever have used this characterization except to then discredit it. Here is the "money quote" from Tayler's 2001 article:

"Within a few decades Russia will concern the rest of the world no more than any Third World country with abundant resources, an impoverished people, and a corrupt government. In short, as a Great Power, Russia is finished."

I haven't read the whole article in, well, years (uh, since the last time it was relevant), but since I've never seen you make any articulate point about its thesis - you just crow about "Zaire with Permafrost" as though you delight at the idea of such a fate for Russia - I don't feel the need to rebut its finer points, whatever they may have been.

I'm sure we all thought this phrase was catchy when we first heard it - after all, those Atlantic Monthly writers are master wordsmiths. But it has never really rung true. Regardless of the many changes in Russia during the past five years, it was as true in 2001 as it is true today that Russia is unlike Zaire in at least one* critical way: the nukes.

After all, that is one thing Russia undeniably has which Zaire (for example) does not - a large, albeit rusting, nuclear arsenal. That is why Tayler's comparison holds exactly zero water, and why you are insane (or support massive proliferation of WMD) if you desire to see Russia turn into a Zaire-like failed state.

And while back in 2001 one might have forecast the terminal rusting of this arsenal within 20 years, now that a militaristic government in Moscow has the resources to modernize or at least maintain the "strategic" weapons, I don't think anyone's predicting that anymore. Russia will maintain at least a semblance of a nuclear threat. I'm not saying this turn of events (militarism, etc.) is a great thing. But it is better for global security than the collapse of Russia, with all of its nukes (not to mention the hydrocarbons), into a totally failed state.

I think a better comparison would be "Saudi Arabia with nukes" - I was sure I'd heard that one before, though it wouldn't take too much imagination to come up with, and Google tells me this comparison was used by CSIS back in late 2004, and was used most recently by a Heritage Foundation commentator (not that I would put too much stock in their Russia commentary) in March of this year - and she didn't find it to be a flattering picture:

"Russia rather seems to be on a path toward becoming something like Saudi Arabia with nukes -- repressive internally and in overall economic decline, but wielding clout in the relationship with the West because of its vast energy wealth."

So, you see, LR, I am helping you out by giving you a better comparison - one that still reflects poorly on Russia but which you can use without inducing laughter from people who know anything more about Russia than where it is on the map (you might also employ "Venezuela with nukes" if you feel the need for variety, though I haven't seen evidence that you feel the need to vary your punch lines). Obviously, this is not quite the current reality, and no "Russian patriot" or anyone who wishes Russia well would hope to see this comparison become reality, either, but if you want to engage in bumper-sticker debating tactics, at least come closer to the truth than the worn-out, 5-year-old, never-actually-correct "Zaire with Permafrost."

*We could get into other things, such as a centuries-old tradition of contributing to world culture - e.g., your own beloved Lermontov - which also separate Russia from countries like Zaire, but these are less relevant because past cultural contributions do not force the international security community to pay attention the way warheads do.

Apologies to Mr. Shedd for using his blog as a forum for this...

W. Shedd said...

Lyndon - this is as good a place as any for such a conversation.

Saudi Arabia (or Venezuela) with nukes isn't a bad analogy, although Russia has some societal self-healing to accomplish. They have other issues that Saudi or even Venezuela does not, that pull at the social fabric. I think that makes Russia rather unique, both in its promise for the future and the possibility for collapse. It seems to be poised on a bit of a razor's edge - at least in my mind.

I like to think that the future will be bright for Russians, but there are many problems yet to overcome. Russia-watchers talk about these issues all the time - from alcoholism to corruption to national identity - and all points in between.

Of course, if there is any nation in the world that has historically overcome problems - or at least succeeded in some measure despite problems - it is Russia.