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Dedovshchina and Social Violence

Regimented Communities in a Civil Society*

Konstantin L. Bannikov

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1Commanders are quite right to refer to lawlessness, violence, xenophobia, etc. reining in civvy street as a strong argument in replying to the society’s claims on bullying. “Look at yourselves,” they say. Indeed, people joining up the army come from socium, not from cosmos, and they are people, not angels, with all human vices and virtues, merits and shortcomings. Being guided by higher officers, service regulations or military idealism, commanders try to convert a man into a perfect soldier, to say an angel.

2This comparison is arch-typical rather than metaphoric as the image of a perfect soldier reminds you of an angel, if anything, or at least a saint rather than an ordinary man. Judge for yourself : like an angel (saint), a good soldier is not an initiator, but an executor and transmitter of the will of God ; like an angel (saint), he is devoid of vices ; like an angel (saint), he is devoid of individual distinctions, up to sexual. According to the medieval Christian scholasticism, those who live in Heaven are all sexless, equally dressed and of equal height. That’s why Heaven is free of conflicts. Heaven is like a model army unit.

3The mission to transfigure “sinners” into “saints” in the army is assigned to commanders. The service regulations entrust the commander with responsibility for the soldier’s morale, expecting telepathic abilities from the former. “They came from civvy street, they are all different, some of them cannot speak Russian, so why should I be responsible for what is on their minds ? There is a safe in my office, with a stamp on it – this is what I may be responsible for,” says an indignant officer, a friend of mine. Both the Church and psychoanalysts have failed to serialize the transformation of sinners into saints. That depends on a person.

4Because of specific peculiarities of ideological work with troops in the Russian army, a moral and psychological aspect substitutes for the fundamental base of material incentives any professional army rests upon. The absence of real stimuli reduces the entire service motivation to “honorary duty”, “civil responsibility”, “patriotism” and other witch-words. Even the highest categories of civil consciousness require material and legal support. Dukhi (ghosts)1 experience mixed patriotic feelings when the state anthem, no matter how solemn the tune, catches them in a “crocodile pose” or scrubbing toilets for a twenty-fifth hour a day.

5It’s common pleasures of life - neither rank-and-file soldiers, nor officers seem to be averse to - that really stimulate service. You will find proof of that in any demob’s2 album3. But these pleasures are prohibited by service regulations and therefore unlawful. Allowed only to civilians, they are deathlike to soldiers. Service in general and its separate elements such as a “holiday cross-country race” or an “army song drill” are supposed to be the source of pleasure for model soldiers. But their real pleasures are on “that” side of the fence through which they go AWOL since on “this” side they are not supposed to be satisfied and there is no way to satisfy them. Can we really expect normal soldiers to satisfy their urge for alcoholic drinks with military training and their sexual instinct by putting a gas mask on? And as human wishes aren’t limited to that, deprivation strain is fairly high and leads to violations of service regulations.

6We agree that the pleasures of civil life are to blame for the deviant behavior of servicemen. But disciplinary standards set by service regulations can hardly be accepted as a norm, something officers working with troops actually mean when they say: “If you don’t want to live like normal people, let’s live according to regulations”, assuming that life according to regulations is incompatible with normal human life.  

7The experience of systematic violence young men acquire during 2-3 years of service, first as objects and later as subjects of hazing, is transferred to civil life, which is equally damaging both to society and the army. Hazing-related morals can be observed almost anywhere nowadays - at school, at work and inside one’s family, and we shall take a close look at it below. Despite the death-inflicting function of a serviceman, it’s not in the army that violence is born. Violence is inherent in human nature. But whereas in an open society aggression is rarefied, the army, by virtue of its isolation, accumulates psychophysical energy and eventually becomes a collector and transmitter of a social conflict. The army condenses rather than generates violence.

8Considering the educational and socialization functions assigned to the army, the general conflictogenic situation constitutes itself as a norm and participates in the building of life scenarios.

9The utopian nature of official law leads to dual-law mentality, which is on the whole a landmark situation for Russia when traditional Russian law consciousness is seen through a conflict between official truth and people’s truth. Steven Frank, who analyzed this phenomenon in his brilliant research of law foundations of a Russian commune of the second half of the 19th century4, explains the all-too-familiar Russian “mess” in the context of legal anthropology and attributes its phenomenology to dual-law mentality blaming the latter on a gap between official state laws and people’s law. But now let’s consider the political and public image of the Russian army and what happens when it is discredited.

Channels transporting dominant army relations to civil society

10Imagine that you are 19-20 years old but already wield unlimited power in your mini-society. Your word sets the surrounding human mass in motion. You inspire fear and awe. Nobody dares to say “no” to you, least of all offer resistance. And then you, great and almighty, are demobilized and find yourself in a new social environment where, the moment you enter it, you are nothing, and which is governed by other principles of winning authority, long-forgotten by you, so you have to start it all over again. You have to drop those simple and clear methods of self-assertion that enabled you to savor the sweet taste of power over people. And as you don’t feel like dropping them, you start thinking how to use them. There are three ways:

111. A civil society is miscellaneous, so you are looking for a suitable niche where your dominant ways would fit in. First, this is militia or police where military service is compulsory for getting a job ; second, these are private security firms, lots and lots of them, for the transitional period can be interpreted as disintegration of the totalitarian model, in the course of which violence stops being an exclusive prerogative of the state but remains a significant social factor. Demand for people with experience of violence is fairly high in transitional societies.

122. A civil society is labile, so you can transform some of its structures and instill the principles of organized violence acquired in the army. They will strike root there where people like you get together or in newly-formed closed sociums where time is a factor in social self-fulfillment as in hostels for students of higher schools oriented predominantly at young men with considerable enrollment privileges for demobs, for example, traditionally “male” departments of pedagogical institutes (departments training labor instructors for secondary schools) or the Moscow-based Mining Institute, etc.

133. Society reproduces itself in you, so you can build a new “cell” by creating a family of your own based on hazing-style relationship.

14By its attitude to forcible conscription as a principle of manning the army, society is divided into two parts with largely homogeneous sex and age structures. “For” are predominantly people of older generations with a patriarchal way of thinking, who perceive dominant army relationship as a useful necessity.  Their logic rests on the following arguments: “he who hasn’t served is not a real man”, “I served, so let others serve”, “I suffered, so let them suffer too”. The acceptance of violence as a life principle distorts the notion of normal social relations and spreads a belief that being fit for violence is a criterion of social success, while being a former victim justifies the violator in his own eyes, hence the brutal ambitions of all those “real” men living according to “real” concepts based on their knowledge of life they “spooned up” while “smelling powder” or “doing porridge”.  

15The majority of middle-aged and older men wish all young people to go through the army. Personal compensatory motives of their “well-wishing” clearly prevail over the idea of young men’s duty to defend their homeland. This idea appears only slightly or is totally absent. Social opinion polls conducted by VTsIOM5 in 1999 show that the majority of men of middle age and older support conscription, while the majority of women (except those who automatically share their husbands’ opinions) as well as draftees, first-year soldiers, junior officers inclined to retire from service, and especially students, who are given a deferment for a period of study, oppose compulsory recruitment.

16This divergence of views has nothing to do with widespread beliefs that young people are afraid of difficulties or that women are the “weak” sex. On the contrary, here women emerge as the “strong” sex capable of consolidating against the state machinery and protect the rights of their men, often risking their own career, health and even life.  As for the youth and students, they are driven by aversion to irrational actions that military service de facto consists of rather than by fear of problems. In civil life most young men have far more problems and responsibilities than compulsory service soldiers exempted, at least for two years, from the main problem - making responsible decisions.

17Young people are a social category whose energy and life position are crucial to society as a whole and their energy finds other applications, no less worthy than performing an “honorary duty”. They hate going to the army, not because they fear the “hardships and privations of military service”, but because irrationalized activity and interpersonal relations humiliate human dignity. Many young men challenge the recruiting machine by defending their right to alternative service despite the risk of being persecuted by the state, which signals a mature personality factor, a very important social indicator.

18The sex and age distinctions inside the two groups – supporters and opponents of a voluntary army – stem from different vectors of life force expansion. A total rejection of compulsory military service in the female and youth strata shows that women attempt to preserve life forces in the biological taxon and young men seek to achieve maximum self-realization in the social-information taxon.

19Demobs’ jargon abounds in associative parallels between hazing and patriarchal family relations and echoes the objectives of educational work in society and the army. “Regulations will stand you in good stead in civvy life! Think of how you will bring up your own children!” some officer admonished his subordinates.  Back in civvy street demobs successfully practice hazing in their families.

20Of course, none of them creates a disciplinary cell at home. The majority of demobs consciously try to drop barracks-style ways, seeing that they evoke a negative response in a civil society.

21A large percentage of young men marry in the first few months after being demobilized, while still having to re-adapt themselves to civil life, create a proper material base and acquire a profession that would enable them to occupy their place in society. Early post-demobilization marriages are motivated by an urge to set up a family as a means of self-preservation and of asserting one’s authority over this world, which semiotically corresponds to fatherhood, a role 20-year-old “dedy6 take too literally. That’s the morals reigning in the so-called “difficult families” fall within extreme group psychology.

22Every 6 months demobs with hazing-affected consciousness pour into civil institutions. Thanks to its powerful adaptive mechanism based on jargon and elements of collective subconsciousness, dedovshchina (hazing) successfully introduces itself into a civil society and imposes its own principles – systemic violence and aggression. Through diachronic transmission channels dedovshchina finds its way into teen-ager socializing. These channels are unlocked by many demob-oriented civil institutions as, for example, pedagogical schools offering enrollment privileges for demobs, especially in the 1980s. As a result, dedovshchina struck deep root at certain departments: future labor and sports training instructors reproduced the habitual hierarchy. Another example is police. You can’t get a job their unless you served in the army. The conduct of rank-and-file “cops”, even barely analyzed, shows how the force of law transforms into the law of force. In post-Soviet times legitimized aggression in mass consciousness became self-accomplished and malignant in character when the “law of force” equalized law-enforcement bodies and the criminal world in a perverted system of values, in which they equally control all spheres of social, economic and political life.

Extreme group values and big politics

23The “law of force” successfully exploited by politicians and intriguers at all levels became a measure of social prestige and social values. Once on the political orbit, having passed through all stages in its climb from micro to macro levels, it ends the institualization of violence on a nationwide scale.  National consolidation around the Chechen problem is not creative but destructive consolidation operated by the same mechanisms that guide a crowd consolidating around the abuse of an outcast. When recruitment of volunteers for the Chechen front was announced, hosts of marginals flooded army registration and enlistment offices, a fact that is both indicative and symptomatic: when a regular army resorts to help from marginals, it’s time to change the army.

24The Chechen problem highlighted the state of consciousness and the system of values in the army. From a conversation at a remote frontier post on the Russian-Mongolian border at the beginning of the second Chechen war :

- What do your guys think about it?

- Many say they would like to go to Chechnya.

- Why?

- Because there is a war there and we are who, we are soldiers. Look, I’ve been here for two years and not a single incident has occurred… I fired 9 cartridges before the oath, - that’s all. And there it’s different, there you can shoot to your heart’s content…

- Shoot? You mean at people?

- Sure, not at jars. But are Chechens people? They are bandits!

- How do you know? Have you been there?

- They say so on TV.

- You won’t shoot at everyone they point at on TV, will you?

- You know we are soldiers. If we came to the army, let’s serve and not paint that fence over there for the fifth time. Let commanders above decide who are people and who bandits. And we must defend Russia!

- At first you said you just wanted to shoot.

- And that too.

- Will your family be upset if you are killed?

- Well, most likely they will.

25The dialogue reveals destructive energy seeking an outlet and eventually finding it. The soldier started with verbalizing his psychological discomfort (boring routine, inconsistency between reality and status). Hoping that war will bring relief, he finds arguments to substantiate his destructive wishes but totally disregards the key factor of possible psychological discomfort – responsibility for killing other humans, leaving that to commanders. The dialogue with power embodying law and truth takes place in the soldier’s head. The moment he relieves himself of responsibility, official ideology fills a lacuna in his consciousness with quasi-patriotic ideas. The discomforting thought “to kill people” is replaced by a comforting slogan, “to defend Russia !”.

26Patriotic ideas in diffused consciousness are stimulated by the expectation of an arch-foe as a negative factor of consolidation. As a result, aggression erupts through unlocked frustration channels into one’s perception of foreign ethnicity.

27The above episode would seem unimportant, had we not observed similar trends elsewhere before when young people volunteered to fight in Afghanistan and other “hot points” just to show off their courage rather than out of patriotism. The analysis of some youth groupings shows how patriotic moods transform into extremism7. The political elite is trying to exploit the passionate energy of the youth in its own interests, and very seldom - in the interests of the youth. Reading materials from the State Duma with its powerful military lobby, one begins to doubt that the law on a professional army will ever get passed.

28Members of the Duma committee on defense believe that “a professional army is an anti-state affair”8.

29Judging by the lawmaking activity of Duma “defense hawks”, chances of anti-militarist organizations’ initiatives winning approval are bleak. Commander of the North-Eastern military force, State Duma deputy Vice Admiral V.F. Dorogin drafted a  “code of deputy’s honor” he thinks all deputies should comply with. “My code is based on Disciplinary Regulations of the Russian Armed Forces, which sounds logical as the majority of our deputies are servicemen, yes, they wear civil clothes but they are reservist officers and therefore must follow disciplinary rules”, he said in an interview published in the 30 May, 2000 issue of the Komsomolskaia Pravda by Olga Gerasimenko9. Incidentally, military units in the force he commands are notorious for exceptionally brutal hazing with a high percentage of death cases. These facts were reported by the press and are cited in the present research10. It’s hard to expect deputy Dorogin to back any lawmaking initiatives clashing with Civil Service Regulations into which he put his whole heart.

30 “It’s been already the third consecutive State Duma trying unsuccessfully to change the commander’s “investigative” status because the army brass apparently hates to let go of its “legal sovereignty,” argues Novaia Gazeta observer Anna Politkovskaia11. Unit commanders see this “legal sovereignty” as a guarantor of their independence from prosecutors when investigating crimes committed by their subordinates. Prosecutors play more of an advisory role here12. “This partially answers the question the soldiers’ mothers keep asking all the time, that is when all this hazing is going to stop. Well, as long as the unit commander retains his role of a “body of investigation” … this sadistic practice will continue unabated! … Dedovshchina is a powerful tool for keeping people under control and no one wants to let go of this tool. No one, except the privates.”13

31This organized violence as a “management tool” is finding its way from the army into big politics simply because there are people who want this happening. Marginalized political parties like, for example, the Liberal Democrats, are seeking freedom for military criminals such as Colonel Budanov who raped and killed a young Chechen woman. We can hear noisy demands coming from just about everywhere to let the Colonel go or else…

32Barkashov’s neo-Nazis14 have formally applied to supply the Russian armed forces with a well-trained cadre of their own. Add to this a wealth of similar developments and you will see how attractive the system of organized violence is to marginalized groups and how much support they are getting in the upper echelons of Russian power.

33Petty officers often fall victim to this systemic irrational violence too. All this, plus the disproportionate and ineffective use of force in Chechnya, experts say, is changing the “cultural genotype” of the previously “people’s” Russian military that is now quickly turning into a “Czar’s” own army.  As a result, many opposition-minded officers are now being phased out and the armed forces are gradually turning into a police force meant to stamp out internal dissent.  Another possibility is the army quickly morphing into a third political force poised to join in the political power struggle.15

The Ethnic Aspect

34There is every reason to see the ethnic side of violence that has gripped the Russian armed forces as stemming from domestic aggression being taken out on people of different ethnicity. The Russian society that, throughout the 20th century, went through a spate of ethnic and social metamorphoses in search for identity and unity, regularly seeks all sorts of metaphysical antipodes represented by a socio-ethnic cross section, from “enemies of the people” to the “enemies of the human race”. No other socio-professional group has so painstakingly been divided into “churbany”, “uryuki”, “khokhly”, “zhidy”, “ary”, “dagi16, “katsapy”17 and other “talabaitsy”18 than the army however. Even convicts appear to be totally “ethnic-blind”19. Outbursts of social frustrations within one ethnic group degenerating into chauvinistic outrages normally peak out at the start of military campaigns sparked by ethnic conflicts.

35In a peacetime conflict-ridden society the lack of an unconditional external  enemy encourages the search for a conditional internal one and multiple ethnicity and the quick personnel rotation is the only thing that prevents a steady domination by members of a certain nationality.  The principle of social supremacy is even more important here. Therefore, even in the case of ethnic hierarchies (the so-called “zemliachestvo”20), it is still reproducing the existing social structure. Each time you have a numerically prevailing and closely knit ethnic group they will invariably be the bosses and all others – the underdogs. Not all nationalities have such ethnic mafias though. East Europeans, unlike Caucasians and Central Asians, rarely form such “mafias”. Dagestanis or “dags” as they are normally called in the army, are particularly consolidated and aggressive21.

36This phenomenon speaks of certain peculiarities of a national temperament, outlook etc. One should also bear in mind that the originally compensatory functions of both these zemliachestva and dedovshchina in a vastly exaggerated form reflect the innate problems dogging the Soviet society. In many mono-ethnic units, for example, there is an a priori feeling of animosity towards Muscovites that eventually degenerates into a strong desire to humiliate one by hazing him. “CHMO22 for example, may stand for “Chelovek Moskovskoi Oblasti” (Moscow Region resident). This does not mean a certain trait of a Muscovite’s character, of course, but rather the socio-psychological imbalance resulting from Moscow’s traditional political, economic and informational preponderance in a multicultural Russia, let alone the USSR.

37The very same compensatory mechanism is at work within an ethnic community, but it works more on the socio-regional plane than along purely ethnic lines. Ethnic groups, which have actually suffered from metropolitan oppression, are particularly aware of their ethnic identity. Domestic xenophobia on the part of the Russian majority is perceived equally acutely as deportations and other acts of political repression. We know many cases of the so-called “reverse” racism. During my army days I served with a multiethnic unit and was occasionally derided as “churka” (Asian mug) by my non-Slavic colleagues.  “Churka” in the army means a member of any ethnic minority. If, for example, your company is largely made up of ethnic Russians, all non-Russians will be called “churkas”, if, say, Dagestanis are in a majority, then the term will apply to all non-Dagestanis, above all Slavs, etc.

38Here is an example of such harassment as taken from letters sent home by members of an ethnic majority.

39“…Today we helped a ”churka” clean up the quarters.  We poured some water, then grabbed him by his arms and hands and used him as a mop.  We then took him into the office. The whole idea belonged to our company commander. It was the first such experiment…”

40 And so on and so forth… I personally know the authors of such racist slur and you may rest assured that in their own cultural milieu they are nice and well-educated people all. Moreover, some of their close friends belong to the very same ethnic groups they so viciously derided in their letters.  A real paradox, isn’t it?

41To my mind, this paradox stems from the classless environment the military system is holding out for in its eternal quest for faceless uniformity. The human mind, however, rejects everything that is nondescript, just like Order rejects Chaos.

42The factor of different ethnicity is meant to concretize the chaos of alienation, to personify the sense of uncomfortably by defining the habitat as the immediate surroundings, which is off limits to aliens. The ego is placed inside a circle the boundaries of which are equally blurred and depend only on one’s ability to more or less clearly define his ethnic origin.

43Ethnic negativism is the product of the collective subliminal that is not affected by positive personal relations. The negative is the opposite of the positive construed in the field of the unknown through negative presentation of one’s own image. Therefore positive and negative ethnic identities form different mindsets. That’s why a decent Russian who has Chechen, Jewish and Kazakh friends, may, in a situation of an ethnic identity crisis, easily start using all sorts of racial slurs irrespective of his personal friendships.  Similarly, any Russian serviceman who finds himself within, say, a Caucasian environment, may suffer for his “Big Brother” status. In a different situation, say, during a vacation trip to the Caucasus, he would be welcomed by the very same people who once abused him in the army. This meaning that even though ethnicity may be of little relevance in personal relationships, it may come to the fore within the cultural vacuum of extreme group acquiring the features of a metaphysical archetype of “friend” and “foe” which might even lose it cultural properties.

Public perception of the military and the problem of a transition to a professional army

44The mere fact that most of the men who have served in the army have been talking about this all their life reflects the effect the so-called “dominance  relationship” may have  on the human mind.  The more so since this experience represents a phase of socialization and is extrapolated to other areas of human activity.

45In socially controlled societies (totalitarian and certain traditionalist societies too) people take a generally favorable view of the armed forces. Just like a marginalized mind regards military service as a good thing because it gives a marginalized person a much-wanted chance to integrate into the rest of the society.

46The militarization of the Soviet society started at an early age with the social and educational systems preparing the growing generations for war.  Therefore, military service was seen as the culmination of the socialization process, a sort of an initiation and access to the world of “real”, adult men.  This continued until clashes of the real and ideal eventually transformed the system of public values in the late 1960s which has since been drifting away from the “state-always-comes-first” priority towards the preponderance of the individual over the state.

47While in the West the need for a switch to a new-type armed force was realized in the early 1970s, the Russians’ perception of the draft army started changing in the early 1990s The reasons for this change of wind are as follows:

  • publication of systemic abuses and crimes against humanity in the military ;

  • the democratic process changed the individual’s role in the society and with regard to the state. It was probably the first time in Russian history that society realized that the state owes as much to the individual as the individual owes the state, and that if the state fails to meet its obligations to the individual, the latter has every right to respond in kind ;

  • the wars in the Caucasus laid bare the inefficiency of the “cheap”, nonprofessional army ;

  • the human rights groups were instilling in people the all importance of human right and liberties ;

  • that one’s right to alternative military service is guaranteed by the Constitution.

48The high degree of psychological and institutional openness in Russia, the people’s increasing involvement in the global educational and productive process and the liberalization of the mobile and global telecommunications system ushered in a wealth of new social values. While in the 1950s and 60s military service was a matter of prestige, draft dodging in the 1970s and 80s was increasingly loosing its immoral connotation while in the 1990s draft evasion was overwhelmingly seen as a matter of prestige (especially in the cities),  a chance to challenge the  society which is so characteristic of the young people’s mentality as a whole.  It’s not because young people are so bad these days, it is because youngsters are now taking a very different look at the society they live in and have to adjust to the modern lifestyles which are so different from what existed back in the 1950s and 80s.

49These days Success and Prestige depend more on one’s education and personal initiative, one’s openness to the outside world.  Therefore, two years of forced exclusion from normal life are hard to make up for. Each new generation is more integrated into the global process of information integration than the previous one, and is less constrained by all kinds of social clichés and biases.

50Hence the changing emphasis from fulfilling one’s duty to society to the prestige of choosing one’s own priorities A person with a competitive educational background is thus creating his or her own system of “unsinkability” irrespective of how “unsinkable” or “sinkable” the surrounding society may be.

51The armed forces provide a tale-telling picture of the growing social stratification of the Russian society where rural dwellers with secondary education account for the lion’s share of those being drafted.

52Whereas in a militarized society the armed forces are a centerpiece of the public attention, in an open, democratic society, the army is just one of many channels of social fulfillment. The continuously encouraged pragmatism of the young people’s mentality, along with a raft of socio-psychological changes happening in post-industrial societies have created new principles of building modern-day armed forces23. In Russia the past decade also witnessed a whole range of socio-psychological factors causing and resulting from the general downfall in both the role and prestige of the military.  “The hushing up of the causes behind the mass-scale loss of military and civilian life, a desire not to look for the culprits purportedly not to traumatize the society may only heighten the temperature of public wrath and indignation which, in turn, could  trigger  powerful social upheavals.”24.

53Such obvious problems eventually changed the public’s perception of the military as a whole.  According to a February 2001 survey conducted by the VTsIOM pollsters, 69% of Russians would hate to have their close relatives drafted into the army, including due to the high death and injury rate in Chechnya – 38%, hazing and violence – 30%, poor living conditions, inadequate food and health hazards - 18%, moral degradation, alcoholism and drug use  - 10%, useless loss of time – 6%, crime enhancing environment – 5%, etc…25 Considering the fact the Russian military’s traditional image of a people’s army, it is clear that such  dramatic changes  would be impossible without a fundamental transformation of the public mindset in favor of a leaner but meaner professional army. The need is dictated by a change in the very idea of war and peace, which originated with the start of the global spread of weapons of mass destruction.

54The public mind responds to reality faster than the political mind does with the society pressing the government to speed up the switch to a voluntary, professional army. According to a February 2001 VTsIOM poll, 84 percent of respondents opted for a professional, volunteer-based armed force.

55This pressing need for an effective military, however, goes ignored by the powers that be and openly rejected by the powerful military lobby.  Even competent analysts like V. Serebriannikov and Iu. Deriugin who fully realizes the objective need for a professional army admit this may not sit very well with certain moral principles of the so-called “enigmatic Russian soul.”  These questionable argumentation calls for a more detailed comment.

56“Unlike the Western armies where military service based on the liberal idea, legal norms and a clear-cut “patron-client” contract,” V. Serebriannikov and Iu. Deriugin write, “the Russian army has traditionally hinged on moral principles and collective psychology.” Add to this the so-called “patriarchal” tradition and you will get a complete list of principles that govern the Soviet/Russian army, a list that boils down to just one word – dedovshchina.

57The history of the Russian army so idealized by our respected analysts is replete with cases when the “conciliarism and collectivism, these two cornerstones of the old Russian army26 did not prevent it from “firing at its fellow citizens fighting for their rights”27. Neither conciliarism nor collectivism or any other pillars constituting the “moral basis” of the Old Russian army ever prevent it from effectively crushing the sprouts of separatism across the Russian Empire. Furthermore, was it not the Red Army whose high morals the authors are so sure of, that the Soviet government leaned on purging its own people ? And can we call any army (except a people’s militia) an army of the people, especially one that is run by a political party ?

58The authors believe that dedovshchina is actually a thing of the past decade and resulting from a clash between “the alien idea of individualism and the inherently collectivist nature of the Russian military community”28. Right ? Wrong !  The first official acknowledgement of  “barracks-floor hooliganism” came from the Soviet Defense Minister way back in 1962. But even before that, in the late 1950s, there already were witness accounts of old timers taking the newcomers’ uniforms and things like that.  The closed systems of total control are bound to destroy themselves by their own energy, which has no other way of releasing itself.  Therefore, it was Mikhail Gorbachev’s peterstroika that precipitated the end of this system but just the other way round: peterstroika was an attempt to hoist the armed forces and the whole society out of the systemic crisis that was fraught with irreversible consequences. The problem is that reforms started when these consequences were already very much visible.

59The above inconsistencies are enough to question the expediency of appealing to speculative layers of ethnic morality when analyzing the prospects of a transition to a professional army. In politics, the fine moral categories are better suited for making camouflage, rather than load-carrying structures.

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* This article is an edited chapter of K. Bannikov’s book, Antropologiia ekstremal’nikh grupp. Dominanthye otnoshenie sredi voennosluzhashchikh srocnoi sluzhby Rossiiskoi Armii, RAN, Moskva, 2002, published with the author’s authorization. Bannikov’s book is reviewed in this issue by Françoise Daucé.
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1 Dukhi : new recruits that have just been conscripted (literally “ghosts”, “souls”) [Editors’ note].
2 Demob for demobees, in Russian dembelia (from demobilizatsiia) : conscripts nearing the end of
their two years' service and already included in the demobilization order [Editors’ note].
3 Demob’s album, in Russian dembel’skii al’bom : a self-made album, a chronicle illustrated with comics and photographs [Editors’ note].
4 S. Frank, Popular Justice, “Community and Culture Among the Russian Peasentry 1870-1890”, in The World of the Russian Peasent: Post-Emancipation Culture and Society. Boston: Boston University Press, 1990
5 VTsIOM, Vserossiikii Tsentr Izucheniia Obshchestvennogo Mneniia, [Editors’ note].
6 « Dedy » (seniors, grandfathers) : soldiers of the « forth period of service » (from the 18th to the 24th months), enjoying all possible privileges [Editors’ note].
7 Molodezhnyi ekstremizm. Otv. red. A.A. Kozlov, SPb. 1996, p. 112.
8 Inostranets, 10 November 1999, #44(304), p. 5.
9 O. Gerasimenko, “Gosduma ukhodit v zaviazku”, Komsomol’skaia Pravda, 30 May 2000, p.7.
10 V. Iakovlev, “Komandir skazal “net” ”, Novaia Kamchatskaia Pravda, #19 (183), 27 May 1999, pp. 1 & 4 ; V. Iakovlev, “Na kontrakt cherez kontakt” Rassledovanie NKP, Novaia Kamchatskaia Pravda, # 23 (187), 24 June 1999, pp. 1 & 3 ; V. Iakovlev, “Tikhaia obitel’ dedovshchiny”, Novaia Kamchatskaia Pravda, #37, 7 October 1999 ;  V. Iakovlev, “Na myse Zheltyi ochen’ skuchno…”, Novaia Kamchatskaia Pravda, # 42, 11 November 1999 ; I. Sergeiev, “Oruzhie na zakusku…Kazarmy tankogo batal’ona mogli stat’ kamchatskoi “goriachei tochkoi” ”, Novaia Kamchatskaia Pravda, #5, 10 February 2000.
11 A. Politkovskaia, « Dedskie igry », Novaia Gazeta, #23, 15-18 June 2000,  p.3.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 A. Barkashov is the leader of the extreme nationalist Russian Nationalist Union (RNE) movement  [Editors’ note].
15 V. Serebriannikov & Iu. Deriugin, Sotsiologiia armii, Moskva, 1996, p. 204.
16 Derogatives for Asians and Caucasians,  Central Asians, Ukrainians, Jews,  Azeris and Dagestanis [translator’s note].
17 Ukrainian derogative for Russians [translator’s note].
18 Derogatory ethnic nickname for non-Europeans [translator’s note].
19 L.S. Klein, “Etnografiia lageria”, Etnograficheskoe Obozrenie, #1, 1990 ; V.R. Kabo, “Struktura lageriia I arkhetipy soznaniia”, Sovetskaia Etnografiia, #1, 1990.
20 Zemliachestvo : groups formed on loyalties derived from common regional origins [Editors’ note].
21 See I. Sergeiev, “Oruzhie na zakusku…Kazarmy tankogo batal’ona mogli stat’ kamchatskoi “goriachei tochkoi””, Novaia Kamchatskaia Pravda, #5, 10 February 2000.
22 Chmo : army pariah belonging to the lowest stratum in the army hierarchy [Editors’ note].
23 V. Serebriannikov & Iu. Deriugin, op.cit. p. 207.
24 Ibid. p. 204.
25 The sum of the answers exceeds 100% as respondents were allowed to give more than one answer. (see
26 V. Serebriannikov & Iu. Deriugin, op. cit., p. 226
27 Ibid. p. 222.
28 Ibid. p. 211 & p. 226.
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Electronic reference

Konstantin L. Bannikov, « Regimented Communities in a Civil Society », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 1 | 2004, Online since 29 September 2005, connection on 30 April 2017. URL :

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About the author

Konstantin L. Bannikov

Miklukho-Maklaia Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, RAS

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This text is under a Creative Commons license : Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic

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