During the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya the Soviet Army was highly unpopular. Putin completely recreated the image of the military with slick army games, the young patriotic soldiers of Yunarmiya and swift military actions in Ukraine and Syria. Minister of Defense Shoigu is now the most popular person after Putin. And plans to build a huge Army Cathedral near Moscow. Andrei Soldatov on the growing political clout of the military, unheard of in the history of Russia.
Members of the ever growing youth army Yunarmiya (picture Russian ministery of Defense)
On a sunny July morning in 2018, the Alexander garden – a green small park which sits along the western wall of the Kremlin – was suddenly blocked by the military. The confused crowd of Muscovites and tourists was gently pushed to the far edge of the garden when an armoured personnel carrier headed into the garden towards the tomb of the unknown soldier and eternal flame, the two most cherished Russian military shrines.
Servicemen in the uniform of the Presidential Regiment - a mix of tsarist and Soviet tradition: the red chest lapel of the Russian army during the Napoleonic wars and the collar borrowed from Stalin's army uniform – formed two lines aside the eternal flame and stood to attention. Next, the flame was extinguished.
A soldier with a torch approached the armoured vehicle and took a new spark from a mobile burner. It was solemnly passed on to the tomb to refresh the eternal flame. The ceremony was an exact re-enactment of an event in 1967, when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, twenty years after the victory over nazi-Germany, kicked off a nation-wide propaganda campaign. Pragmatic Brezhnev understood that the country urgently needed a grand idea, as hardly anybody in the 1960s still believed in the coming of Communism.
This new idea was to use the enormous suffering of the Russians during the Second World War and the military victory to prove Russia’s unique place in the world – essentially, Russians saved the planet from fascism. This idea could bind people together, as the memory of 1941-1945 united all Soviet citizens. Every family lost relatives during the war.
It was a powerful image, that served Soviet leaders well. But it also appeared to be useful to post-Soviet leaders, most spectacularly, Vladimir Putin, who immediately after his inauguration as president reinstalled the Red flag of the Red Army.
The repetition of the ceremony of 1967 in 2018 was but a small part of a far-reaching strategy to assert the new role of the Russian army in society.
There was more to come. In June, the army introduced a new ceremonial uniform – almost a total replica of the ‘uniform of the winners of 1945’. It was essentially Stalin’s army uniform, and the adaptation was reportedly ordered by Defense Minister Shoigu personally. It coincided nicely with a car sticker, that became popular in Moscow since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Syria, saying: 1945 – We Can Repeat. The Russian army, it meant to say, can get to Berlin (and the West) again, whenever it wants.
In August 2018, the army sent a batalion to Karelia, the region bordering Finland, to dig up mass graves in the woods where thousands of victims of the Great Terror were killed. The human rights group Memorial spent decades identifying Stalin’s victims in Karelia – but the army had a different objective. Once the batalion started digging, the military announced that in the mass graves they didn't discover the remains of Stalin’s victims, but of Soviet soldiers executed by the Finns during the war.
Military games like the yearly Tankathlon are becoming very popular (picture ministry of Defense)
In September, the Army announced plans to build a giant Orthodox Church of the Army in Moscow’s suburbs. With a height of 95 meters high, it will be the third tallest Orthodox Cathedral in Russia. And yes, it will be painted in khaki colors.
That same month Defense Minister Shoigu presented his ideas about Yunarmiya (The Young Army), the officially ‘non-government’ nation-wide youth movement to encourage patriotism among the young, provide physical training and teach them basic military skills.
‘We sometimes don’t like what is going on in certain regions with young people and what is shown on television screens. Therefore, we have set ourselves a number of tasks,’ said Shoigu and he urged to bring the Young Army to schools. Church, schools and the framing of the historical narrative are crucial elements for everybody who wants to have a say in Russian society.
The Army’s offensive continued in 2019. In March of this year Shoigu said that the army plans to start a film production company. Its only objective is to make movies about the Russian army. A month later, First Channel, Russia's largest state-controlled television network, launched a new 24/7 tv-station called ‘Pobeda’ (Victory). Its kick-off took place on the same date as the start of the Russian attack on Berlin in 1945. Its goal is to ‘preserve the memory of the war’, as if one tv channel of the Defense Ministry (Zvezda, Star) is not enough).
Deputy Minister of Communications Alexei Volin made clear that its real intentions are much more ambitious. ‘Victory is [also] Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Latin America and much more,’ said Volin at the ceremony. The list of countries was, not surprisingly, identical to the list of the countries whereto the Soviet Union during the Cold War had sent troops and military advisers, projecting Moscow’s power and the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions. This time, the channel was meant to show the ambitions and growing assertiveness of the army.
A new role
Unlike Central and Latin America or Southern Europe, Russia’s army never played a big role in politics, apart from a few exceptions, as during the Decembrists rebellion in 1825.
That didn’t change under Communism. Stalin made sure to crush all political ambitions of the Red Army, killing off the most popular military leaders during the Great Purge. The army took a kind of revenge helping to overthrow his top henchman Lavrenti Beria after Stalin’s death, but even then, it played a subordinate role, taking orders from the group of plotters in the Politburo.
The post-Stalin Communist Party of the Soviet Union kept people in uniform - the army, and also the KGB - firmly under Party control. The Communist Party presided over every KGB section, department, and division; the party had cells in every army unit as well.
When that firm grip weakened, as happened during the last years of Brezhnev, it led to disastrous consequences like the decision to send troops to Afghanistan, forced upon Brezhnev by KGB chairman Andropov and Defense Minister Ustinov.
Minister of Defense Shoigu (left) is after Putin the most popular Russian official (picture Kremlin.ru)
Vladimir Putin apparently never learned those lessons. During his first two terms in the Kremlin he was busy reinvigorating the successors to the KGB. When he returned as president in 2012, he started promoting the army under the command of his most loyal minister Sergei Shoigu. Money poured into the army and the military industrial complex.
Putin also made the military untouchable – while he unleashed selective repressions to strengthen his control over the elites, sending governors and ministers to prison, the army was spared. So far, no single high functionary in Shoigu’s ministry was prosecuted. The FSB, apparently, was not given a go to start repression in the army.
Renaissance of a World Power
In return, the army became Putin’s effective foreign policy instrument – in Crimea, in the East of Ukraine, in Syria and now in Africa. The army best facilitated Putin’s ambitions to make Russia a world power again. But at the same time, it was commissioned to cement popular support for the political regime in the country and this is, essentially, a new political role for the army.
Western sanctions have had a sobering effect on the Russian oligarchs, those super rich citizens of the world, and the Russian corporations that only recently globalized during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. After the annexation of Crimea they were forced to reduce their ambitions. But the Russian military industrial complex was quick to come to their help by providing military contracts to a wide range of corporations, from metallurgy to information technology.
That had a double effect. First, the Russian oligarchs, the only force the Kremlin had to take into account since the 1990s, became more loyal and obedient to the authorities. Second, the Russian technical intelligentsia, once the largest in the world, turned friendly to the military. That has a historical explanation.
The explosive growth of the Soviet community of engineers was caused by Stalin’s vast military industrial complex and security services. It explains the competence and high skills of the technical intelligentsia, and the way it was trained. For many decades Soviet engineers were schooled intensively in technical subjects but rarely in the humanities; their education was extremely narrowminded. Unlike medical doctors they were not schooled in ethics. Rather they were taught to be technical servants of the state. As a result, generations of engineers during their entire career functioned with little understanding of politics or trust of politicians. Rather, they were suspicious of any public activity.
In the 1990s they were left in the cold when the Soviet military complex collapsed. Many found new jobs and opportunities in the fast-growing IT industry, but they kept sending their children to the same technical schools, once part of the military industrial complex. Starting from 2012, the military returned to the technical schools.
The Army plans to build this huge Church of the Army near Moscow and is collecting money (picture Ministery of Defense)
The army tightened the rules of conscription, making it almost impossible to avoid for young Russians. But students in technical universities were given a choice – they could either serve their time in some distant military base or join the newly formed ‘science companies’ and cyber troops. That smart move gave the army the best and brightest, at the same time improving the army’s capabilities in cyber warfare and hacking.
Future engineers were also reminded what it was like to work for the military in the old days, a feeling familiar to their parents and grandparents. In combination with the effects of a massive propaganda campaign – from state-sponsored war movies to spectacular military parades to the army rations for sale in Moscow’s petrol stations – it was no surprise that the attitude of the public towards the army significantly changed.
The reputation of the army was constantly improving and in 2018, according to pollster Levada Center, trust in the armed forces surpassed even the confidence in president Putin (66 to 58 percent. The disastrous Chechnya war with its ill-famed returning sink coffins with dead Russian soldiers was long forgotten, replaced in public perception by the pictures of efficient green men in Crimea (the socalled Polite People) and Russian airstrikes in Syria.
This doesn’t sound good for Putin, as he has been always very sensitive about his image in the country. His idea to strengthen the army in order to boost his own popularity looks sensible and many regimes choose this path – until the army takes over the country. So the question remains: has Vladimir Putin the power to contain the ambitions of the army, or is his only strategy to rely on his ever-loyal Defense Minister?
Russian army after the capture of Aleppo in Syria (picture ministery of Defense)