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Book Reviews : The Dedovshchina Issue

V.V. Savel’ev, Kak vyzhit’ v neustavnoi armii. (from the series Psychological Practice), Rostov-on-Don, Feniks, 2003, 224 pages.

Dale Herspring

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1This is one of the most interesting – and from the perspective of one who is interested in the phenomena of harassment (dedovshchina) in the Russian military – one of the most important works this reviewer has encountered in some time. It is clearly written, although it does contain some Russian military phrases and words. It is not intended to be an academic study. Rather, it is written from the vantage point of someone who dealt with such problems for many years.

2In contrast to many works dealing with the topic, Savel’ev meets the issue head on, explains it, and is very critical of the senior ranks of the Russian military for permitting it to continue. Furthermore, while the author attempts to provide suggestions for dealing with it, this reviewer would argue that like most Russian officers, he fails to understand the key reason for dedovshchina – in this reviewer’s opinion, the failure of the Russian military to create the kind of a non-commissioned officers corps that exists in the American, British or German militaries. Until there is significant movement in that direction, I believe this debilitating phenomena will continue.

3The Author. First, something on the author. Savel’ev introduces himself as a psychologist, who served more than twenty years in the Russian/Soviet military “in the field.,” which he believes gives him a good understanding of the inner-workings of the Russian military at the unit level. Furthermore, he maintains that Russian commanders at all levels are aware of the phenomena and understand its negative impact on the Army. He notes that considerable attention has been given to dealing with it.  Indeed, he notes that “officers in military academies have defended tens of dissertations on the topic, and created hundreds of theories dedicated to understanding the phenomena of ‘dedovshchina’”(p. 9).

4Dedovshchina. Savel’ev’s (a pseudonym) explanation of the process of dedovshchina – how it develops over the two year period recruits serve in the military – will come as a shock to many Westerners because of its detail and bluntness. To begin with, everyone who is being called to the colors has heard of dedovshchina, and they are aware of what awaits them. Fear of serving in a military beset by dedovshchina is one of the main reasons that young Russians avoid military service. To many young Russians joining the Army “creates a feeling of doom” to use.Savel’ev’s phrase. Once they are called up, military service (with regard to dedovshchina) can be divided into four stages.

5The first stage (or six months) begins when the young soldier arrives at the unit and is placed in quarantine. Savel’ev calls this a “chaotic, unsystematic reception of information” which not only confuses the recruit, but tends to confirm his perception of the military as a disaster (p. 10). In fact, most of the recruit’s information about what lies ahead of him comes not only from sergeants, and instructors, but from those from his home town who are already serving in his unit. The second part of the first stage begins a few weeks later when the recruit is let out of quarantine and arrives at the unit to which he is assigned. During the first two weeks, little pressure is exerted on the young soldiers. In fact, during this time he is sized up by those who have served for some time. The older soldiers are involved in teaching the youngsters “how to behave.” The concern on the part of those who have served longer is to identify those who are psychologically weaker, while at the same time spotting those who will be reliable – in carrying out the instructions and supporting the interests of the more senior soldiers. Those identified as “weak” are given the name “sisters.” These individuals are constantly picked on and forced to perform a wide variety of unpleasant duties.

6As one would expect from the vantage point of a psychologist, Savel’ev considers the reaction of these recruits to dedovshchina to be more complex than many might think. In fact, he breaks up their response into six categories; a feeling of resentment, a belief that the process is positive, a feeling of silent protest, anger, fear, and hatred. By and large, however, regardless of what the senior soldiers do, the vast majority of the new soldiers go along with them because they see no other alternative.

7Then comes the second half of the first year. By and large those who were not harassed during the earlier period are more than happy to keep quiet – to let others suffer the kinds of humiliations they had to put up with. After all, why shouldn’t the younger soldiers have to put up with the same kind of harassment they experienced?

8By the beginning of the third period, i.e., the first half of the second year, the soldier is in a position to demand that the new “sisters” work for them. In essence, Savel’ev argues, the soldier in this category faces a moral decision. Will he harass the recruits or will he focus on passing on the traditions of the unit – as he gets involved in training them? This is the group most involved in harassing new recruits.

9Finally, there is the fourth period – the last six months of service as soldiers begin to think about becoming civilians again. They are careful to avoid getting into trouble – anything that could lead to a lengthening of their service time.

10Interestingly, Savel’ev does not stop at this point.  He further breaks down conscripts into sub-groups; something this reviewer has not observed previously. First, are those who fight against dedovshchina. They are few in number. Second, are those who are good soldiers, avoid harassing younger soldiers, but who never speak up against abuse. Then there are what he calls the “passive-positive micro-group.” These soldiers are good natured, avoid harassing junior soldiers, but they will not challenge senior soldiers. Fourth, Savel’ev identifies those who fill leadership positions trying to get others to perform their duties while violating military discipline and hiding it.

11Another sub-group involves those who frequently violate discipline but who are more than prepared to act in a positive manner when the issue furthers their interests. Finally, there are those who carry out their duties, but go along with violations of discipline – having as their code of behavior “I don’t know anything.”

12The bottom line, according to Savel’ev is that dedovshchina is not an isolated phenomena. Rather, it exists throughout the military and it draws all soldiers into it.  It could not exist were it not for the kind of support from soldiers as noted above. He also notes that this arrangement not only leads to problems within the military, it also can and has led to suicide on the part of recruits.

13Savel’ev’s Solution. Now comes the question, to quote Lenin, “what is to be done?” The rest of the Savel’ev’s book is devoted to a number of what one might call “case studies” efforts to explain and highlight the problem of dedovshchina. The author’s discussion of these problems – drawn from real life cases do an excellent job of explaining how the process works.

14Lest the reader get the wrong impression, many of these suggestions are not just a repeat of what those of us who followed the actions of old Soviet Main Political Administration were used to.  Indeed, in one chapter, Savel’ev discusses a Baptist preacher, who apparently came to his town sporadically, but who must have been one of the most charismatic individuals he ever encountered.  He writes about how this individual (he identifies him as Aleksandr Ivanovich) came to town and how he witnessed Aleksandr’s ability fundamentally to change lives – on the spot.  He spoke and people listened. Savel’ev argues that he is not interested in religion per se, but that he tried to interest his superiors in having Aleksandr come to the unit and work to bring members to recognize the importance of a moral foundation in dealing with others.  He proposed to his commander that Aleksandr be invited to address the troops, but the commander was “categorically oppose.” (p. 213).

15Indeed, according to Savel’ev, one of the main problems facing the Russian military and one of the primary reasons for dedovshchina is the lack of a sense of morality when it comes to dealing with others. Soldiers are not taught the importance of morality, and commanders shy away from such things. In this context, he is very critical of “social-state education” – what in Soviet times was referred to as political training. According to Savel’ev, “Most of the time is concentrated on learning historical facts from the battle of Kulikovsky to the Great Fatherland War” (p. 215). Students memorize dates, but learn nothing about the importance of patriotism. Equally significant, in his opinion, is the failure of this education program to deal with current topics such as the wars in Afghanistan, or Chechnia. The military brass is apparently too afraid to permit in-depth discussions of such events.

16The result of this lack of moral education means that about all educational-patriotic officers can do is to help the soldiers avoid performing “unsatisfactorily,” by placing primary emphasis on physical training. In essence, he accuses the military command structure of acting like an ostrich by sticking its head in the sand and ignoring a major ethical problem – the one that he believes is the key to solving the problem of dedovshchina.

17Savel’ev concludes his book by asking the rhetorical question – “Why a book on such a current issue,…if it does not appear under my name?” (p. 217). He answers his question by noting that he is confident some senior officers will read the book, perhaps that will lead them to realize the depth of the problem and the steps that need to be taken to deal with it. As he put it, “why during peacetime do soldiers lose their lives, desert, kill themselves and their colleagues ? Why ? Where is your answer, comrade High Ranking Military commander ?”(p. 218).

18Will it work? It is always difficult for an outsider to pass judgement on solutions for dealing with internal problems in other armies – after all, Savel’ev spent 20 years in uniform, presumably first as a political officer and later as a psychologist in the Russian military. However, having spent 32 years (active and reserve) in an American uniform, and having had extensive contacts with the Soviet and later the Russian military, I feel qualified to at least suggest that as sincere as Savel’ev’s suggestions are, even if they were adopted, they would not comletely solve the problem of dedovshchina. Why do I say that ?

19In my opinion, the key to dealing with problems like dedovshchina is the NCO or non-commissioned officer (or serzhant as the Russians call what they consider to be the equivalent). It is no exaggeration to suggest that the contemporary American, British and German militaries are run by seasoned, professional NCOs. Indeed, any general or admiral who really thinks he or she is personally running the troops is deluding himself or herself. Unfortunately, that is not the Russian practice. Permit me to provide a few examples.

20Several years ago I was part of a party taking Soviet officers around a US Navy ship.  When we came to a missile mount, the Soviet admiral asked the young enlisted missile technician (an E-5) about his job.  His answer, “I repair and fire these missiles, Sir.” The admiral could not believe his ears and asked for a re-translation.  When it had been translated again, the admiral simply shook his head and said, “I don’t understand, in the Soviet Navy, that is a job performed by two junior officers.”

21Then there are Savel’ev’s comments relative to the training of new recruits – in particular the observation that most of it is done within the unit, by soldiers who have served a year or so. To an American, this is unbelievable. To cite only one example.  When new recruits show up for boot camp in the US Marines, they are met by seasoned NCOs – all of whom have been through a second boot camp – one aimed at making sure they can take the pressure they are about to put the recruits under, and to show them how to train them.  These NCOs stay with them 24 hours a day throughout their 12 weeks of boot camp. The “drill instructors” or DIs as they are called, are in turn carefully supervised by company level officers. Indeed, I can remember taking Russian admirals through both a Marine and Navy boot camp and hearing them remark in amazement about the professionalism of the DIs and how well trained the recruits were after only 12 short weeks. “If we had such a program, we would not have many of the problems with sailors that we have at present,” was the way one admiral put it to this reviewer.1

22The fact is that NCOs are critical when it comes to running a military. In the West, they are the ones who work, eat and sleep with enlisted personnel, while in the Russian military, officers and warrant officers tend to ignore what is going on at the unit level. They apparently see recruits, who will only be around for two years as cannon fodder. Besides, the kind of work done by NCOs in the West is a job for officers in the Russian military.

23All indications are that the Russian High Command is paying little attention to the problems raised by Savel’ev. The moral problem is not new. In 1989 the senior political officer of the Northern Fleet told this writer the following: “In 1917 we destroyed the old Gods and replaced them with communism. Now the God of communism is dead and we no longer have a moral compass. We need something to give our lives meaning.” In fact, senior Russian officers are afraid to deal with moral questions. For awhile it appeared that they would include chaplains in the military, but this was rejected as too “divisive.” As a consequence, the generals have side-stepped the issue thereby making it difficult for officers like Savel’ev to deal with dedovshchina from a moral standpoint. Indeed, in reading Savel’ev’s discussion of the need for a moral foundation, I was reminded of the East German experience. While former members of the East German military faced the same kind of problems in delegating authority, they have also had problems in efforts to personalize the major changes that took place after reunification2. This led to what the West Germans to argue that the East Germans have what they call  “Die Mauer im Kopf”, or the wall of the mind. To a large degree, the Russian High Command is suffering from a similar problem – they find it difficult to make the critical psychological changes that are needed to deal with a post-communist Russian military that is living in a more democratic environment.  The psychological revolution has yet to take place. Recently, however, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov purportedly remarked that dedovshchina will disappear as a problem once service by conscripts is limited to one year – an planned for 2008.3 While this planned change will eliminate two of the four categories outlined by Savel’ev, what guarantee is there that the problem will disappear ? How will these new recruits be trained ? By the kontraktniki ? By those recruits who have served six months ? In fact, the problem could get much worse as unit cohesion decreases. After all, one of the things that Savel’ev notes that helps keep some of the problems under control is unit cohesion. The Russian High Command apparently fears the kind of delegation of authority that is common to Western militaries. While this refusal to delegate authority may be cultural, this reviewer would argue that failure to embrace it will extract its price, because, without a dedicated group of professional, authority wielding NCOs, I suspect the problem will only get worse. If anything, sweeping the problem under the rug will not solve it. If anything it could make matters worse.

24 Savel’ev’s book presents one of the best insights into the problems faced by the Russian military in trying to deal with the age old problem of dedovshchina this reviewer has encountered. It is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the nature of such problems in the Russian military. That is especially true for those who think Moscow is on the way to resolving some of the key problems like dedovshchina.

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1. For a discussion of boot camp in the American Marine Corps, see Thomas E. Ricks, Making the Corps, New York, Touchstone, 1997.
2. For a discussion of the East German case, see Dale R. Herspring, Requiem for an Army: The Demise of the East German Military, Boulder, Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.
3. “Conscription Will Never be Abolished”, Gazeta, 3 June 2004 in Johnson’s List, 3 June 2004.
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Electronic reference

Dale Herspring, « V.V. Savel’ev, Kak vyzhit’ v neustavnoi armii. (from the series Psychological Practice), Rostov-on-Don, Feniks, 2003, 224 pages. », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 1 | 2004, Online since 10 July 2004, connection on 29 March 2017. URL :

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Dale Herspring

Kansas State University

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