Editor’s Note – Archives


Will Military Priests Save the Army?

Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski

Editor’s note, May 2006

The Orthodox Church views itself as an organisation that represents the religious interests of the majority of the Russian population. As such, since the early 1990s, it has requested permission to engage in pastoral activities in social spheres inaccessible during the Soviet era – notably those depending on the Army and Power ministries1.

However, while the Church has found a common language with military leaders insofar as “patriotic education” is concerned, it has had no positive effect on improving soldiers’ morale or in the fight against dedovshchina2.

There is a significant gap between the Church’s public support of the Russian army, its discourse in favour of patriotism, its support of the war in Chechnya, and the role priests in fact confine themselves to inside military units, which is strictly spiritual.

Indeed, interviews with soldiers show that one of their main problems is the fact that priests consider their role to be a uniquely religious one – soldiers coming to them with questions and problems of a social or psychological nature are sent back to the commanders. Therefore, as Joris Van Bladel puts it, structurally speaking, priests are not differentiated from commanders: they do not represent an alternative medium of communication with the officer corps or the external world as they do in Western armies3. (Nor, incidentally, do medical doctors play the psychological and social role that could be expected of them: first of all, because “respect for the soldier’s privacy” does not in fact exist; and secondly, because medical decisions can easily be overruled by the commander, thus placing physicians within the military hierarchy.)

Furthermore, another aspect of  priests/army relationships deserves closer scrutiny: in recent years, it has been observed that retired officers have been entering the priesthood in numbers after failing to adapt to civilian life. Many of them, although they officially condemn dedovshchina, seem  in fact – may be by analogy with religious obediance-,  to passively  support its system. Besides, members of the Orthodox Church are beginning to observe the dissemination of army mentality, of archaic violence produced by the Russian army among the religious community:

“we now have in the Church so many priests who once served in the military that army ways are being carried over into religious life; some monasteries are developing an atmosphere of that same sort of hazing, as our patriarch mentioned candidly in his report to Jubilee Bishops’ Council in 2000”((Archpriest Nikolai Golovachev, “Armiia net monastyr’!”, Moskovskie Novosti, n° 4, 3-9 February 2006, pp. 4-5 (http://www.mn.ru/issue.php?2006-4-3 ))).

What could then be expected from “militarized” priests?

Finaly, since surveys show that soldiers do not spontaneously go to church4, the Russian Ministry of Defense should perhaps take into account the fact that religious feeling is not very prevalent in the military.

All this makes the February 2006 announcement by the Department of Ideological Work of the Ministry of Defense – stating that the Russian Orthodox Church and the military have reached an agreement on the joint training of army priests, and that a nationwide experiment will take place reintegrating priestly services in the troops5 – a cause for concern.

Obviously, the announcement is in response to the brutal hazing of soldier Sychev, which resulted in the amputation of his legs and genitals.

Apart from the added risk of increasing inter-ethnic hostility within the army through the introduction of Orthodox priests (other religions are not represented in the armed forces)6, this new measure proves the absence of long term expertise in the Russian military today on very serious questions, among them dedovshchina.

This is confirmed by the recent disappearance of sociological research centres – whose recommendations were not followed anyway – inside the Russian Ministry of Defense.

[1] Approximately 2,000 priests are now attached to the military as guests.

[2] Nikolai  Mitrokhin, “Любовь без Удовлетворения: Русская Православная Церковь и Российская Армия », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies, www.pipss.org, Issue 3 (“The Military and Society in Post-Soviet Russia”), 2005.

[3] Joris Van Bladel, The All-Volunteer Force in the Russian Mirror : Transformation Without Change, PhD dissertation, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, June 2004, 248 pages, http://dissertations.ub.rug.nl/faculties/arts/2004/j.j.e.van.bladel/ ; on the role of chaplains in the military see also Dale Herspring, Soldiers, Commissars, and Chaplains: Civil-Military Relations Since Cromwell, Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

[4] Archpriest Nikolai Golovachev, “Armiia net monastyr’!”, Moskovskie Novosti, n° 4, 3-9 February 2006, pp. 4-5 (http://www.mn.ru/issue.php?2006-4-3 ).

[5] Victor Miasnikov & Polina Iudina, «Sviashchenniki v pogonakh i s mobylnymi telefonami», Nezavissimoe Voennoe Obozrenie on-line (http://nvo.ng.ru/),  17 February 2006.

[6] Kommersant, 14 February 2006.

[7] M. Pozdnyayev, “Muslims break ranks”, Noviye Izvestia, 13 March 2006, pp. 1, 7, translated in The Current Digest of Post-Soviet Press, Vol. 58, n° 11, pp. 12-13, 12 April 2006

The ABC  of Soviet Resurrections and the Militarizing of Society under Putin

Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski, Editor

Editor’s note n° 2, 28 January 2003.


With the start of a new year, a quick review of the start of the Putin era is in order.

The Russian military institution per se and the population as a whole are witnessing a return to functions and practices of the not so distant Soviet past. Not surprising, considering that Vladimir Putin’s fondness for Soviet values was evidenced from the start with his choice of the Soviet national anthem over a sweeter air by a 19th century composer.

These resurrections of the Soviet regime, some already under way in Yeltsin’s day, have been endorsed and put in place by V. Putin and indicate a clear determination to return to the old order. They are part of a social militarization project whose ideological framework was nailed down in the patriotic campaign launched in February 2001.

Thus, little known to the West, Putin is rapidly re-militarizing Russian society. In less than four months after his election (between December 1999 and March 2000), Putin issued 12 presidential decrees, six of them dealing with the army. The first legislative measure taken by his government re-established military training in secondary schools. As for alternative service, the first young man who claimed his right before a Putin court was sent to prison. Now finally adopted, civil service in fact resembles a prison term more than anything else. The return of military training for deputies and civil servants is Putin’s work, as are the frequent military training periods for reserve officers. Under Yeltsin, there had been practically no training for reserve officers.

Along with the large-scale implantation mainly under Putin of military-oriented vacation camps, the Putin era has also featured an effort on the part of the Education ministry to promote a reform (enthusiastically supported by the military leadership) that would have lengthened the 10-year school curriculum to twelve, with the result that boys would finish school at 18 without having had the time to try to integrate universities which could exempt them from military service.

The resurrection of political officers in the army and of an code of honor for officers are the latest in a long list of measures brought back to life from the panoply of Soviet practices.



In November 1997, the army embarked on a plan to take under its wing the thousands of orphans and children from single parent families left more or less to their own devices. This initiative on the part of the army was in answer to an appeal by the minister of Defense to the officers of the Russian armed forces. Aimed at the armed forces’ humanitarian tradition faced with the number of abandoned children, it called for the creation of sports clubs, music clubs, and the sponsoring of children by military units [Krasnaja Zvezda, 25 November 1997]. This measure was inspired by the project of Felix Dzerzinskij (head of the secret police), who in the 1920s and on the order of Lenin, created an Emergency Commission responsible for taking charge of orphans, who later came to form the majority of NKVD officers. This tradition became law by presidential decree in February 2000, and the units of the Minister of Defense, known as “force” units, can now adopt orphans or fatherless children aged 14 or over and keep them until they are of adult age by enrolling them as trainees in military units.[AP, February 19 2000, via JRL#4146, “Russia’s Putin decries rise in orphan numbers].


In September 1999, the reintroduction of Basic Military Training courses (NVP) in secondary schools was officially ratified. First set up in 1968, basic military training courses in the secondary schools had two functions: socialization (the reinforcement of lessons in Soviet patriotism and respect for the armed forces) and military training. They were suppressed in 1991 and replaced by First Aid courses. Today, although in actual fact the reintroduction of NVP has been only partially implemented, it nonetheless constitutes a significant stage in the Yeltsin-inspired social project.


It is quite remarkable that no sooner were the Cossacks rehabilitated than along with their integration into the army and force structures they took part in the military training of youth. In fact, decree number 341 of 13 March 1993, “On the reform of military structures, frontier and interior forces in the northern Caucasus region of the Russian Federation and state support of the Cossacks”, not only authorized Cossacks to participate in the maintenance of order, but gave them the right to organize youth training programs for the military service. Training camps, in other words summer camps with a military orientation, were quick to flourish in traditionally Cossack regions. At the end of 1999, Russia had more than 30 cadet corps (outside those of the force ministries) [Nezavissimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, n°48, 10-16 December 1999, p.3].


In November 2002, The Defense Ministry has developed a plan to create its own military media outlets to promote “the military-patriotic education and preparation of the citizens of the Russian Federation,” strana.ru and other Russian news agencies reported on 20 November. The Defense Ministry has asked the Media Ministry to “consider the possibility of allowing the use of the 57th television-radio channel for the interests of all the security agencies.” [RFE/RL 21 November 2002].


Revived in Autumn 2002, the first annual muster took place in the Ulianovsk region. It consitutes the first exercise of such a scale in contemporary Russia. It was revived to keep the population in constant mobilization readiness and enhance Russia’s defense potential. Governor Vladimir Shamanov (former commanding officer of the Russian troops in Chechnya), along with heads of municipal entities, large enterprises and organizations, and military commissars were involved in the muster. The muster was planned to help to draw new legislation to create a new mobilization system of the new Russia.


Governor Vladimir Shamanov: “I want to remind you once again that each enterprise, regardless of the form of ownership, should have mobilization plans, suiting an enterprise’s own opportunities and demands of the Armed Forces. The plans should obligatorily account for one of the main tasks – production facilities for prosecution of war (…)”. [Source : V. Silantyev, “If war comes tomorrow”, in Narodnaya Gazeta (Ulianovsk), November 15, 2002, pp. 1,6, Via WPS Defence and Security, No.136, November 25, 2002]


The army, which is now in need of an ideological basis , has created ties with the church, which offers an alternative to Soviet ideology due to its patriotic stance. Although the Ministry of Defense and the Church signed cooperation agreements in the early 1990s, there are no (to our knowledge) official agreements concerning specific joint action towards youth; nevertheless the church has been organizing, for already several years, hand in hand with the ministry of Defense, summer military training camps for children.


Metropolitan Pitirim, a senior figure in the Moscow Orthodox Patriarche was quoted in 2000 as saying that “children should be taught to love the smell of barracks and soldiers’ boots ” [The Electric Telegraph, 13 February 2000, Guy Chazan, « Putin restart military training for Schoolboys », selected by Johnson Russia List, # 4104].


Since 2001, a new fashion has been emerging among regional officers : doing active duty training stints. Nizhniy Novgorod, Bryansk and Maritime civil servants have begun (étreiner) their military training. They have not been called from reserve. A tradition has been revived that every year heads of local administrations, of districts and cities get together to do some firing practice, to talk to the military, to reminisce about their own service in the army…

The trend for high ranked civil servants to undergo military training was introduced in Automn 2000 by the commander of the Northern Caucasus Military District Gennady Troshin. Troshin ordered that all officials from Southern Russia attend training near Rostov-on-Don. ” The turn out was not impressive : only Aleksandr Chernogorov turned up. Chernogorov was preparing himself for the gubernatorial elections in the Stavropol Region and wanted to emphasize his ties with Vladimir Putin, perhaps the most devoted advocate of military training among Russian politicians”. [Source : Gazeta.ru 9 February 2001].


In April 2002, the military has offered the possibility for journalists covering conflicts zones to undergo military training to learn how to fire all types of weapons. The program of this training is, according to Anatoli Kvashnin, being worked out together with the Union of Journalists ans the Association of Military Press.


The practice of frequent military training of reserve officers was restored after Putin was elected president. There were almost no training exercises for reserve officers during Yeltsins presidency.


Since 2001, deputies are summoned once or twice a year. According to their number, they are trained separately, or sent to regular units. They are obliged to undergo training exercises, to practice shooting, throwing grenades and crawling under barbed wire, like the rest Russias male population. Only after training will they are promoted to higher military ranks. Nevertheless, the success of this measure is rather low. Only very few show up.


[Sergey Darkin, Maritime Territory governor] “I want our heads of administrations to be real men and to carry out a function that they have had from birth – that of being defenders of their motherland (…)”. [Source: TVS, Moscow, in Russian 1100 gmt 2 Oct 02, via BBC monitoring service]


In 1982, facing mounting casualties among inexperienced conscripts in Afghanistan, an experimental military unit (Kaskad) was set up where 10 years old troops were learning survival skills, shootings, and-to-hand combat. The war in Afghanistan is over but Kaskad still exists and many other camps have mushroomed. Since 1982, 8 000 children have passed through Kaskad alone.


Though it went unnoticed in December 1999, the re-establishment of the rank of “general-polkovnik” in the Educational Directorate heralded the return of the Zampolits to Russian military life. Victor Azarov thus became the first Head of Political Officers Head of the Educational Directorate) of the post-Soviet period. [V. Ermoline, “Armiou Povychaiout v zvanii”, Izvestia, 22 February 2000, p.3].

In August 2001, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov issued a directive calling for the re-establishment of the posts of Deputy Commander of Political Work (in charge of political work and human resources) in the various army corps. The Military University (formerly the military-political Lenin Academy, renamed The Humanitarian Academy of the Armed Forces), past experts in the field, would once again take charge of training these specialists.

The appointment on June 28, 2002 of General Reznik to the Directorate of Political Work (officially the Directorate of Educational Work) confirmed the return of an institution created during the civil war and abolished just after the attempted coup d’État in November 1991. Some 320 generals out of 345 had then quit their posts, and the post-Soviet army brought in a few “vospitateli” (educators)  officers in charge of dealing directly with problems of morale, socialization and motivation. At the time, the careers of these officers went no further than the rank of colonel (a function existing only at the divisions level and lower). Now they can become generals: 55 new posts at the rank of general are to be opened up in the army.


A senior officer told the INTERFAX news agency that “Reinforcement of the whole system of educational work is under way. This is an attempt to restore its former influence (!!! Author) in all spheres of life of the troops” [Source : Vadim Solovyev, “Politorgany Vozvrashtshaiutsia (Political bodies return), Nezavissimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, 6-12 September 2002, p. 1.]


The patriotic campaign launched by the government in February 2001 lay down the ideological framework drawn up in the preceding years. The six million dollar campaign aimed at promoting patriotic feelings thanks to a program (Program for patriotic indoctrination of the population for the years 2001-2005, [Izvestia, 23 February 2001]) spread over a five-year period and mobilizing the army, the schools, and the media for the purpose of helping Russians regain confidence in themselves and contribute to the “essential spiritual values of the Russian people” [“Russia’s school for patriots”, AFP, 15 March 2001]. According to Rossiiskaia Gazeta, the official government newspaper, the program will contribute to “the consolidation of society and the renewal of patriotism”, and at the same time “stimulate the interest of young people in military service” [Rossiiskaia Gazeta, 15 March 2001].


Interview of Duma Deputy Defense Committee Chairman on Need for Patriotic Indoctrination and Military Courses in Schools:

-Correspondent: “By the way, how do matters stand regarding military-patriotic indoctrination in Kurgan Oblast ? You are a deputy from that oblast.”

-Bezborodov: “In the oblast, the regional Program for Patriotic Indoctrination of the Population for the Years 2001-2005 is actively working. It is being realized by organs of executive authority, military commissariats, educational institutions, and social organizations. School museums, combat fame rooms, and classes with a military-patriotic orientation are all working for [the military-patriotic] indoctrination of the young people of Kurgan. (…) Moreover, classes with a military-professional orientation are in session in all rayons of the oblast and each rayon has a training center for military service training for young people who are unemployed and who are not students”. [Source : Krasnaya Zvezda, 16 December 2002].


In December 2000, Putin signed a decree restoring the red banner as the Russian Army’s official flag.


At the request of the Defense ministry, the restoration of the Red Star as the symbol on the military’s red banner is being currently examined by the Douma.


“Shevstvo” is a form of voluntary aid which consists in the donation of warm clothes, provisions, books and money. It was part of a campaign meant to promote “the unity of the army and the people”. It was “voluntary”, but refusal to participate led to unpleasant consequences which could go as far as losing one’s job. Beginning with the 1930s, these donations were made only to local sections of the DOSAAF (Society of Volunteers to Aid the Army and the Fleet), which also received a “symbolic sum of money” from all employees and students. In actual fact, this practice never stopped, though it did take on looser forms later on. However, when the Soviet Union broke up and regional units began having financial difficulties, the practice became intensified. Strongly encouraged today by the government and the military leadership, it is presented as a way of rekindling the patriotic flame, of enhancing the image of the army, and of strengthening the links between civilians and the military.


The failed attempt to revive the Komsomol in April 2000, with the creation of a youth league baptised Soyuzmol, constitutes the first attempt to create a mass organisation in 10 years, after the breakup of the Soviet Union. One of the slogans of the organization was : “Civic, patriotic and personal responsibility of each member of the union”. The date of the first congress was set for 29 October, the birthday of Komsomol. Supported by V. Putin, the idea of the organization was ment to unite the youth forces behind the new president whose policy it supported.


In some regions of Russia, attempts to restore “Dobrovlnye narodnye druzhiny” have been made since 2001. That body of auxiliary volunteers existed from 1958 until the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Given the absence of legal basis and the lack of material incentive, these variant of “neighbourhood watch” initiatives seem to remain very localised and not very popular, despite widespread claims of the need for more security and control. The development of neighbourhood committees has been giving the way to other form of grassroots policing, such as prevention committees (soviet profilaktiki) among local active people of one neighbourhood up to community centres aimed at ensuring public security in a broader sense than the sole law enforcement aspect” [Insight Vol. 2, Issue 3, Anne Le Huérou, “Questioning “ordinary policing” and local law enforcement in contemporary Russia”].


The Zarnitsa game was revived last year in Moscow (Zarnitsa-Orlenok 2002). During this military-patriotic game, (that lasted two weeks in the Soviet Union) kids are turned (voluntarily) into defenders of the Motherland, they live in the barracks, are blessed by the church. The 19th Regiment of the Internal Troops near Moscow hosted and trained the participants and organized the first post-Soviet Zarnitsa.


To judge by the minimal amount of protest, such resurgences of the Soviet past seem have made little impression on civil society. Putin does not face significant opposition to its program to militarize Russia’s educationnal system and public sphere. One is forced to admit that Soviet era practices remain deeply entrenched in the mentality of civil and military players alike, and that what we are seeing in Russia today — above and beyond strategies for “consolidating society and restoring patriotism” or “stimulating young people’s interest in military service” (in other words : save the draft system through indoctrination), — is a project for an armed society ready to be mobilized as a whole and defend itself against half the world.

Foreign to the idea of a professional army, as to the western idea of modernity, Russia still clings to mobilization principles as they existed in the USSR. And to practices, among which that of keeping count of the number of horses on Russian Federation’s soil.

However, it must also be said that the return of political workers in the army and the resurrection of an officer’s code of honor (strongly reminiscent of the Communist code of honor) are more than just the sign of a Soviet comeback: both are an indication that the military leadership is powerless faced with an army that is falling apart.

At the same time, despite the limited effect of certain measures (financial problems hinder the setting up of NVPs in schools and the holding of “Zarnitsas” ; few deputies in the end having answered the call), the spirit of general mobilization is a cause for concern, as is, with the war in Chechnya still on, the militarizing of young people.


“President Putin has spoken out publicly about the need to improve civilian attitudes toward – and participation in – the Russian military. In comments relayed by RIA Novosti, Putin affirmed his support for the introduction of “military preparation” into school curricula, calling such a move both “necessary and useful.” He added, however, that in order to make people less fearful of joining the army, it would be necessary to carry out military reform and to use volunteers for service in dangerous spots. The Russian president also revealed that, following the August 1999 incursion into Dagestan by Islamist rebels from Chechnya, the Russian government was “one step” away from ordering a total mobilization of troops for a large-scale war (Editor ESK)” [Russian Reform Monitor, 5 October 2002, “Putin presses for support of military].

  1. Approximately 2,000 priests are now attached to the military as guests. []
  2. Nikolai  Mitrokhin, “Любовь без Удовлетворения: Русская Православная Церковь и Российская Армия »,The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies, www.pipss.org, Issue 3 (“The Military and Society in Post-Soviet Russia”), 2005 []
  3. Joris Van Bladel, The All-Volunteer Force in the Russian Mirror : Transformation Without Change, PhD dissertation, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, June 2004, 248 pages,http://dissertations.ub.rug.nl/faculties/arts/2004/j.j.e.van.bladel/ ; on the role of chaplains in the military see also Dale Herspring, Soldiers, Commissars, and Chaplains: Civil-Military Relations Since Cromwell, Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001 []
  4. Victor Miasnikov & Polina Iudina, «Sviashchenniki v pogonakh i s mobylnymi telefonami», Nezavissimoe Voennoe Obozrenie on-line (http://nvo.ng.ru/),  17 February 2006. []
  5. Kommersant, 14 February 2006. []
  6. M. Pozdnyayev, “Muslims break ranks”, Noviye Izvestia, 13 March 2006, pp. 1, 7, translated in The Current Digest of Post-Soviet Press, Vol. 58, n° 11, pp. 12-13, 12 April 2006. []