The political commissar in the Russian armed forces seems back. In September, President Putin signed a decree to introduce ‘military-patriotic (political) work’ inside the National Guard. But what kind of ideology? It's nothing more than a mash-up of memes that seeks to instil national obedience through national flattery, says our columnist Mark Galeotti. The decree is above all an expression of the mood of vicious paranoia in the Kremlin.
Picture Ofitsery Ru
On 21 September, Vladimir Putin signed a decree amending the law on the National Guard to introduce ‘military-patriotic (political) work.’ This follows the decision back in 2018 to re-establish a Main Military-Political Directorate (GVPU) within the Defence Ministry. Inevitably, this was interpreted by some as the first step in the reintroduction of the politruk, the ‘political leader’ or more colloquially the ‘political commissar.’ An unsigned piece from RFE/RL’s Russia Service, for example, called this ‘the latest signal of a return to the indoctrination of troops with political ideology and propaganda, a practice that began in 1919 in Soviet Russia but ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.’ But the truth, as ever, is rather more complex. The politruky are not coming back, but there is meaning in the renewed interest in ‘military-patriotic work.’
Soviet ‘military-patriotic work’
Even through Soviet times, the forms and priorities of military-patriotic work changed over times. In the very early days of the Red Army, when Trotsky was having to depend for expertise and specialist skills on former tsarist army officers, the so-called ‘military specialists,’ the role of commissars was often to be their shadows and virtual jailors, to ensure they were loyal to the Bolshevik cause. Under Stalin, they would become fearsome watchdogs to ensure that the military – a force he never truly trusted, even after his vicious purges of the officer corps in 1937-38 and 1941 – would never challenge the Party. In extreme cases, this might be enforced with a bullet to the back of the head.
As with all aspects of Soviet state and society, the zampolit – deputy commander for political affairs – would become a rather less hostile force after Stalin. Increasingly, they became more like personnel officers and secular chaplains, delivering turgid, compulsory lectures on Marxism-Leninism (a great opportunity for overtired conscripts who had mastered the art of sleeping while sitting upright on an uncomfortable bench), but also arranging home leave on compassionate grounds and generally attending to morale. That said, they were usually not popular as such, but in my own research on the Afghan War, I encountered veterans who spoke warmly of their zampolity, as having been both ‘proper soldiers’ and also assets to their units.
Strikingly, although the Soviet General Staff’s Main Military-Political Directorate (GlavPUR) was notoriously conservative, there were very few cases in which the zampolity and other political elements embedded within actual combat units played much of a role in supporting the hard-liners’ coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991. Indeed, some actively opposed it. Ten days after the coup, GlavPUR was abolished, replaced simply with military-educational and personnel departments, and almost all its more senior officers were discharged.
Political work in a post-political age
The Defence Ministry describes duties of the GVPU in terms of maintaining the morale of the armed forces and ‘the formation of an ideologically-convinced personality of a serviceman.’ But what ideology?
It is the familiar mix of carefully-curated, triumphalist history (all the victories, none of the costs), statism, and patriotism, in a new take on the ‘Official Nationality’ to which the tsars turned in the nineteenth century, to try and cohere and inspire their empire, with the credo of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.
It is Russian Orthodoxy, but as pageantry rather than proscription. After all, given that a growing proportion of Russia’s young men come from Moslem regions such as the North Caucasus, pushing Christianity too hard into soldiers’ lives might well be dangerous. Instead, embedded priests – now with camouflaged cossacks – sprinkle holy water on missiles, and the huge new Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces is as much a statement of self-confidence as a place of worship. Indeed, there are also a handful of Muslim chaplains and even at least one Buddhist.
Autocracy as a statement of the necessity of strong central rule and national discipline: in a dangerous and unpredictable world, Russians must set aside their discords and stand together behind their lords.
Nationality means patriotism, an expression of Russia as a nation with a unique mission and role in the world, whose distinctive state-building path demonstrates its virtues and those dangers – disunity, weakness of resolve – to avoid. Put together, this is not an ideology in any meaningful sense, so much as a mash-up of memes that seeks to instil national obedience through national flattery.
It is noteworthy that the first head of the GVPU, General Andrei Kartapolov, is an experienced operational commander, not a political hack in uniform. After all, the armed forces have no fears about their continued existence and benefit for a consistently high level of national support. In those conditions, they can be quite inclusive, professional and even relaxed in their interpretation of ‘military-patriotic work.’
This may well not be true of the National Guard, the Rosgvardiya.
Created from units sequestered from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in 2016, the Rosgvardiya is essentially a public order force, the stormtroopers of the state. Its head, Viktor Zolotov, is a Putin loyalist, but not a close friend or ally and he must know that his future and that of his force is by no means certain: what Putin creates, he can as easily disband. (He created the FSKN drug police service in 2003, for example, but disbanded them in 2016 when they became a political liability.)
Needing constantly to demonstrate their loyalty and utility to the Kremlin, lacking deep public support, and with a role that inevitably puts them in confrontation with parts of society, Zolotov and the Rosgvardiya may well be adopting a rather more aggressive approach.
The perceived need for some kind of ideological basis for the Rosgvardiya has been a continuing theme since its creation. Early on, Zolotov had engaged journalist turned United Russia parliamentarian Alexander Khinshtein as his ‘ideological’ and media adviser (he surrendered this role in 2018, shortly after the thuggish National Guard chief made an ill-fated video challenging Alexei Navalny to a duel). Then, this March, Zolotov announced that the service would create an ‘an institute of military-political instructors.’
Despite dramatic headlines about how ‘Putin Recreates Soviet-Era Political Supervision Over National Guards,’ they are no more accurate than earlier claims of ‘The Return of the Commissars’ in the military. This is not about bringing in political officers so much as finding new ways to do two things: motivate the stormtroopers and maintain Zolotov’s position.
The unfolding events in Belarus underlines the importance of keeping your stormtroopers, the OMON riot police – whose counterparts are subsumed within Rosgvardiya – isolated from the wider dissatisfactions and regicidal passions of society. A combination of political indoctrination, unit cohesion and tough discipline so far has been working in Belarus, but the experience of past risings and ‘colour revolutions’ is that this can be brittle and quickly collapse once defections reach a critical mass.
Rising tide of dissent
To this end, the Rosgvardiya’s ‘military patriotic work’ will be less about creating a broad vision of Russia’s place in the world, and much more about the next stage in the insulation of the force from the rising tide of dissent within the country. The very creation of the force, after all, was in part a response to disquiet within the police about being associated with the stormtrooper role. Now, Zolotov will want to ensure that organisational separation is accompanied by an ideological one.
This may not be quite to blunt as ‘incitement of hatred in the riot police against protesters’ as Andrei Kolesnikov has suggested, but it is likely to turn the military’s relatively bland version of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality into a much less inclusive and militant form. Orthodoxy will mean intolerance of alternative views; autocracy, the discipline of the chain of command; and nationality the demonisation of dissent as unpatriotic and subversive. This is already evident in the statements of Zolotov and his commanders, but prejudice will now be codified and cultivated.
And in the process, Zolotov mobilises his force to maintain his own position. The more he appears to have created a force capable of providing Putin with security in even difficult political circumstances, the more useful he is to the boss. Either way, it is yet one more sign – of which Navalny’s poisoning may be the most striking – of a new mood of vicious paranoia gripping the Kremlin.