Is “serving your country” all it’s cracked up to be for young people?

Опубликовано: 29-09-2008, 21:39
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Журнал "Переправа"


№ 5. 2007

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Serving in the army still remains unpopular among young people. Even the cult of power, military uniforms, massacres and an international antiterrorist campaign does not change the fact that a Russian teenager remains strongly negative to the idea of joining the army. We, the children of the seventies, have had our own problems with the military. At the time, events in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were still a topical subject. It goes without saying that we (and I’m saying this as a member of the Russian intelligentsia) never shared the official regime’s idea that it’s possible to occupy sovereign nations simply because they are hosts to political processes which are inconvenient for the Kremlin. The lengthy invasion of Afghanistan was similarly unpopular, though it was different in the respect that for the first time our generation unambiguously saw (rather than stay indeterminate) the actions of Soviet troops as an intervention of an independent state. Of course, comparisons are the key to understanding certain events, and today we unhesitatingly give the same label to NATO’s and the USA’s globalist Blitzkriegs in Afghanistan (again), Iraq and, in the near future, Iran. We’ve simply begun to call things by their proper names, something that was not always possible in the USSR for obvious reasons.


Still, that wasn’t the corner-stone of our civic position towards military service. Rumors of dedovshina (and the accounts of eye-witnesses who have served in the army) were proof that the army had been experiencing a crippling internal crisis for a long time. The latter could be seen clearly in the absence of a concrete patriotic concept, the lack of mutual respect between the privates and the officers, the moral degradation of the officer corps and the complete freedom for criminal elements to develop in the barracks. Unregulated relations between the “young” and the “old” had turned into a prolonged criminal despotism in which a young man, a private, could not consider himself a person, let alone a citizen. He could be “lawfully” violated, humiliated, beat up, compelled to perform the most demining tasks at any given moment. And all this occurred before the very eyes and with the silent consent of the commanding personnel! In fact, commanders had almost completely lost their authority over their soldiers during the Brezhnev stagnation (ideological chaos, a very approximate perception of reality, loss of contact with the past’s heroic traditions, alcoholism, depravity, only highlighted by a superficial magnificence and a distinctively false drum-beat, were all too common among officers). Discipline was mainly supported by “mediators”, such as sergeants and the ever-present “old boys”. A form of a criminal self-government, if you will.


Sometime in the beginning of the eighties I found myself drafted for half a year as an Arabic translator into an air defense unit located on the border of sunny Turkmenia and Afghanistan where military operations were still carried out. My responsibilities included translating theoretical and practical lessons on how to use the quadruple ZSU-23-4 for Arabs who were undergoing contractual service in our unit. The Arabs (mine were from Libya) were paying money to master the weapon’s intricacies and were living in tolerable conditions in a city hotel. I dutifully translated everything for them. In my free time I lived in the barracks where the toilet with a shabby bed-sheet for a door was right across from the common room. I familiarized myself with the life of the unit by watching the drilling of young soldiers, the behavior of the sergeants and the habits of the “old boys”. And what I saw wasn’t pretty. On the contrary, it filled my whole being with a ghastly cold. It was unconcealed slavery, hopeless humiliation, an ever-present fear of punishment and an obedient expectation of your face to be smashed in. Young nurses worked in the medical unit where Arabs were treated. Their eyes were completely devoid of anything human, only a gaze belonging to a constant rape victim of practically everybody, beginning with officers and ending with the patients themselves, was left.


I kept a slightly idealistic diary during my stay with the unit but I still managed to record some episodes. Let me quote one small psychological portrait:


“On arrival we were settled in an empty barrack, a single-storey, gloomy building with bars on windows the mere sight of which caused my heart great distress. An asphalt road followed the length of the wall past the dining hall to the training buildings. Rare high trees were growing slightly further away; the shadows of their branches were throwing a shadow onto a pool with a steel two-storey diving board and mere remembrance of water. All around us – silence, Karakum sands, heat, broken glass (which caught the rays of the omnipresent sun) cemented, according to Eastern tradition, into the highest point of our training camp’s wall. Time was virtually frozen.


Inside the barrack the picture wasn’t hardly better: the sad sight of the empty faces of military translators’ who would lose their consciousness during wild bouts of drinking, who would spend the nights swearing and who would dream only of pale horrors and grey monsters with heavy snoring and shrouds-sheets lighten by the moon light as a background. The neighboring barrack was occupied by recruits who were being held in quarantine and who marched endlessly under the criminal commands of a fat-faced sergeant with two elephant wrinkles above cracks he called eyes in the place where his forehead should have been. Before going to bed these exhausted boys would aimlessly and tensely navigate their secluded rooms with nothing but underpants on them. Their faces would tighten into fierce grimaces from the many horrors they had faced as if they were expecting something awful to happen the next minute. And outside the night was lighten up by the bright moon, cicadas chattered, a light breeze passed through the leaves making for a very serene backdrop to the young men’s’ torments.


Gradually I got used to a life style that was completely foreign to me and tried to lose myself from its’ painful contradictions in solitude, with only nature and the sky as my companions. That was especially true on Sundays while the Turkmen heat falling from the blue sky had not yet finished its’ rounds to fire up everything in sight and when there was no translating to do for the Arabs.


Before going to sleep, I often wandered into the darkness outside and walked along paths while looking into the smoldering windows of my own barrack. The sight was always the same: translators (all of them reserve officers) either fighting or caressing in a drunken stupor their guests, the regular lieutenant-translators of the unit; empty vodka bottles scattered around the corners of the room; and a single light bulb glowing above the broken table on which the completely drunken translators played cards under the accompaniment of comments from the “white officers”. Secretly sympathizing with the “Great Empire” of yesteryear, I was horrified by this dreadful parody.


The commanding officers were inaccessible to us, mortals, but we did talk with lieutenants, majors and so forth, and they all were die-hard alcoholics. They were all family men, constantly short on cash and had virtually no chances of rising above their ranks in that “nowhere”, and thus their anguish was drowned out by cheap vodka and local wine, “Chemen”, and varied slightly by cards and affairs. Not all of them were like that, completely off the rack, some of them were decent people. But almost everybody was drinking. A certain lieutenant colonel, about 50 years old at that point, got into a conversation with me when we were checking how the Arabs were enjoying themselves in one of the city’s restaurants. We even sat for a while in his office after our shift was over. The cycle continued, of course: vodka, drunken confessions, injustice, depression... But then he suddenly said: “I have only one source of hope”. And, after ransacking the inside of his suit, fished out a small aluminum Orthodox cross. “It’s a nightmare here without God, remember that. We need a Suvorov, so that the soldier could be loved and cared for like a son. And what do we get? Our own soldiers are treated like the enemy, they are driven to despair. But, Jesus Christ, they are our children!» He began crying. I remember him to this very day: thin, tall, consumptive, with big blue eyes which were imprinted with a hopeless but dutiful pain.


But there were other officers... I still remember a chance phrase coming from one of them. It happened on the parade-grounds of the camp where soldiers were periodically driven together by the Libyan commanders for inspection. It should be noted that Libyans seemed especially cruel amongst themselves: wrong-doers from their own ranks would be punished publically. Our officers would assemble on the aforementioned grounds and would watch these terrible executions take place before their very eyes, without even trying to get in the way of the executioners (“no, it’s another country”). The following thing happened (in a Soviet State, during the supposed triumph of “socialist democracy”): some eighteen-year-old Libyan was caught while stealing alcohol from a city store. He was tied up, a large stick was placed between his legs, and then he was jerked up upside down, while the executioners began beating his bare feet with clubs that were “decorated” with barbed wire. How horrible were his screams: “Reedjleiah, reedjleiah!!!” (“My legs, my legs!!!” – Arabic), how he twisted his body (after such procedures the poor men were treated in the same medical building where they’d spend months unable to move from the festering)... Another practice involved the executioners breaking glass bottles on the parade grounds (I was a witness to this), throwing a soldier (with nothing but underwear on) on his belly to the asphalt and then rolling him (while applying their boots to the genitalia of the “wrong-doer”) in the broken glass, making him crawl and even somersault to cut his back. Now for the phrase... While looking at this barbaric ceremony, a Soviet officer of vague age said dreamily: “I wish we’d do the same! Imagine how disciplined the soldiers would be!”


All in all, these are my personal observations. Perhaps, they are subjective to a degree, but, sadly, not so subjective to hide how horrible the situation was.


Another question arose towards the decline of the Soviet State: who should we fight against on the international arena? What could have possible moved my country and my people to fix its’ stare on Afghanistan? I just can’t see the goal. The only thing we did manage to attain was the complete disgrace we came across by becoming invaders. We! The Soviet people! With our glorious history of freeing Europe from fascism! How was it possible to defile that reputation? Thus a logical question had arisen: what interests are we to serve? Should it be the ambitions of the soviet protégé, Babrak Karmal, who nobody knew neither wanted to get to know? Create another soviet regime? What was the point?


Our inner communist ideology wasn’t a safe haven either: to it man was a historical remnant and a simple screw that was to be tightened and bent for the sake of class struggle, so that everyday life could be even more depressing. God was officially killed by the communist party and replaced by arrogant idols placed on the mausoleum – members of the Politburo – Lenin’s mummy – a parody of sacred relics – and slavery without any prospects. It’s obvious that communism wasn’t exactly light in the dark, a point that quickly became the main idea of our protesting ideology.


After the collapse of the USSR and the party, the situation changed drastically: no more communism, no bringing troops into Afghanistan or Czechoslovakia. Afghanistan was occupied by Americans who were no different from the soviets that had been there in the eighties. Typical invaders. But inside the borders of Russia the Chechen problem, barely resolved to this very day, had appeared. Dedovshina was still very much in evidence, unregulated relations between the commanders and their troops still remained; the army crisis had only been intensified by the beginning capitalistic turnover. During the entire “Perestroika” (which, just like the director Govoruchin, I prefer to label “the Great Criminal Revolution”), many soldiers from the Russian armed forces were secretly used by oligarchs as laborers on the construction sights of unending villas and cottages. The feudal generals who would exploit privates on their personal patches of land were next in line. Arms were sold, ammunition was embezzled, and officers sold machines. The defenders of our homeland quickly accepted the idea of easy money, a most despicable and horrible practice. The traditional list of our army’s sins – alcoholism, depravity, dedovshina and swearing – was made even longer with the addition of mercantilism and cynicism. These are well-known facts. In these conditions patriotic education of teenagers, the future soldiers, is impossible.


Today we see a slow return to a more positive past. But many problems still remain. The soldier is still treated cruelly and inhumanely, although there is plenty of talk about the prestige of military service and about the necessity of conscious and willing fulfillment of one’s duty. There is no way we can get away from our duty to our Homeland. But treat the kids like human beings, care for them, both morally and materially! Don’t crush their spirit; don’t humiliate them from the very beginning. It’s bad enough that they have to live in a morally inhumane market-state where everything is sold and bought. It’s understandable that the new reinforcements aren’t ideal: junkies, sick or mentally unbalanced young men, frail intellectuals with a cosmopolite state of mind, awkward country boys. But they are our children, and it’s our fault that they have become like this. Don’t finish them off with cruelty and inhumanness in the barrack and on the marching grounds, but give them back their dignity as individuals and citizens. That is our first priority. We shouldn’t mistake cruelty with strictness or discipline; the last two are a foundation of any normal social system. But the soldier must be treated with love and fatherly care.


After all, that very same soldier, yesterday’s schoolboy, will be the one defending us, as well as his commanders, from imminent threats. And we are living in a time when without the recovery of high moral standards in the army with the supporting hand of Russia’s sacral tradition and without the upbringing of love and trust in teenagers towards the commanders of the armed forces Russia’s future seems not only problematic, but tragic. Even if we were to mobilize all young men, the effect from such efforts would be inexistent, as a demoralized, low-spirited army would be crushed by the first few blows. And international policy doesn’t treat the weak with kindness but with an ever-present aggression by conquering the latter. History knows no exclusions in this respect. The same will happen to us, if we will not grow to love our soldiers and will not create optimal conditions, so that our defenders would be able to fulfill their sacred duty. 


Should the situation change for the better (but this is only possible with a systematic and, moreover, thoughtful effort which takes into account each and every young man), then military registration officials won’t need to shamefully chase students and young specialists in case of a troops’ shortage. I was told recently about a young doctor who worked in a village almost for nothing. He was the only doctor for miles. He was assigned to the village and he treated patients with love and kindness. He was visited by crowds of people, as there is too much sickness nowadays. And what do you think? A military official came to the village, rumbled a bit about “sacred duty” and mobilized the doctor, leaving the whole district without a doctor and the people to die out. Is that normal? It’s a classical situation where the official is formally correct in his actions which, nonetheless, are morally a crime. Perhaps, it’s high time to solve these problems with a clear head and heart and for the advantage of society?


To all appearances, the first step in recovering the urgent military service’s prestige is the replacement of heartless bureaucrats with responsible specialists and steadfast patriots who really do love their people and the youth.




перевод на англ. Кирилла Батыгина


Метки к статье: Переправа, Протоиерей Михаил Ходанов, на английском
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