A Conscripted Army of the “Damaged”

One topic that was explored in Garrels’ book Putin Country that I would like to explore further in a discussion post is the relationship between Russian citizens and the military. Garrels points out that Russia’s military is still conscripted, meaning that there is a draft in place. While students may be apathetic towards politics, they surely are not apathetic towards the military, “Kids at Lyceum 31 were adamant that no one wants to go into the military, calling it ‘a waste of time’” (Garrels 110). She explains that this idea is cultivated early on with parents actively working to get their kids deferments and higher education being an incentive to dodge the draft. This relates to the military being so unpopular. Garrels uncovers some of the reasons why the Russian military is avoided. She claims that the military has an image of fighting “bad” wars, starting with Afghanistan and continuing into the Chechen wars (111). Stories and reports of ill-equipped soldiers who were sent into battle without proper care of their bodies or possessions. Furthermore, corruption runs rampant in the military as dedovshchina (military hazing), torture, and sexual abuse are common practices. Garrels claims that the Russian military “regularly has twenty percent fewer recruits than it needs” (110). As a result, the military is forced to conscript citizens who are in prison, “mentally unstable,” “suffered from alcohol and drug abuse,” or were “malnourished” (110). In a sense, Russia has a damaged conscripted army.

When reading this section, I could not help but think of the parallels with the American military. There was a similar relationship between citizens and the draft during the American War in Vietnam. Most people of privilege who could afford to go to college or dodge the draft was saved from fighting the unpopular war. This left the burden on many working-class citizens. Due to the drafts unpopularity, the military moved to an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973. However, due to economic incentives to get people to enlist, the military continued to disproportionately target lower-income minorities to fight America’s war. This led Noam Chomsky to famously claim that the AVF is a “mercenary army of the poor.” Today, America’s military continues to fight against that distinction. But understanding how a nation’s citizens relate to its military is crucial in identifying social relationships. As Russia continues on a path nationalistic fervor, a strong military presence comes hand in hand. But what if no one wants to fight? 

A Few Discussion Questions to Consider

Does this distinction of a damaged military make the Russian military seem “weak”? 

Why do you think that the government does not intervene in the abuses of the military? Does the government have control of the institution, or is it an independent, outside institution?

What do you think will happen if the Russian government gets rid of the draft and moves to an All-Volunteer Force like the United States? 

And finally, in comparing the development of the American military to the qualities of the Russian military, is the military as an institution just an unpopular idea in the 21st century?

Peter’s Cultural Revolutions: Redefining Russia

As we have learned, Peter the Great’s Revolutions were expansive and grand. His revolutions of Russian culture were no different. Peter made vast changes to the Russian culture, Europeanizing and Secularizing Russian art, architecture, and language. While some changes were practical in the sense of “modernizing” Russia, other changes were made for the likeness and personality of Peter the Great. Overall, Peter redefined the “look” of Russia. According to Hughes, Western images and ideas described Russia with words like “exoticism” and “otherness” (54). Peter sought to change this perception. By changing the way Russia “looked,” with respect to its buildings, language, and art, Peter was revolutionizing Russia. Please consider the following discussion questions. Due to the inconvenience of remote learning, it was easier for John and I to make two separate posts. Please review both of our posts and questions. Thank You!

Discussion Questions

  1. On page 75, Cracraft makes the claim, “A cultural revolution thus underlay and ultimately linked up all of Peter’s revolutionary projects…” (75). Recall the political and social revolutions of Peter the Great. Is Cracraft true in saying that Peter’s cultural revolutions (the architectural, visual, and verbal) are the foundation of his other revolutions? Could Peter’s political and social revolutions survive without a change to culture? Consider one of many cultural revolutions that Cracraft details in Chapter 4. Is there a connection with this change, whether explicit or implicit, to other changes that Peter enacted in Russia?
  2. In Chapter 6, Cracraft details the development of St. Petersburg. He includes Pushkin’s description of St. Petersburg, calling it the “Window on the West” (155). What does this description mean? What does this tell us as to why Peter the Great relocated to St. Petersburg. Cracraft later critiques this descriptor of St. Petersburg as “too passive” (155). Do you agree with his critique? Why or why not?
  3. View the portraits of Tsar Alexei and Peter the Great, as showed in Hughes’ secondary source. Recall that “the only surviving dated image of Aleksei to be signed by an artist appears in the lower left-hand corner of an icon, The Tree of the Muscovite Realm (1668), by the court icon-painter Simon Ushakov” (Hughes 53). Peter’s portrait was an oil painting by Dutch painter, Carel Moore. What do the differences in artists tell us about Peter’s visual revolution? Peter’s lack of Orthodox iconography in his portrait is significant. Do you have to remove certain cultural aspects in order to establish a cultural revolution?
  4. The final question deals with the images and video of the Grand Peterhof Palace. What was your original reaction to the images and video? How does the background music in the video add (subtract) to (from) your reaction? Compare your reaction of the Grand Peterhof Palace to the pictures of slides 3-5 in Dr. Goldman’s slideshow. How do you make sense of the websites’ presentations of the Grand Peterhof Palace with Peter’s development of St. Petersburg?

Help Wanted: Red Experts

After the end of the Russian Civil War, Communist dominance reigned throughout the Soviet Union. But in order to establish a true dictatorship of the proletariat, Soviet leaders to revolutionize Soviet society, particularly with work in the fields and in industrial centers. Since most of Communist membership came from the working class, they were not considered “experts.” As a result, the Soviet Union industrialized with the intelligentsia basically still in control of the means of production. In order to make this a true dictatorship of the proletariat, the workers (“reds”) needed to replace the “experts.” As explained by Fitzpatrick, “By using the word ‘intelligentsia’ for the administrative and specialist elite, Stalin was able to articulate a principle that had long guided Bolshevik practice – that the Soviet regime, like any other, needed its own elite, and that this elite should be recruited primarily from the working class” (155). However, Stalin carried this out by purging Old Bolsheviks and the elites.

Similarly, in the agrarian sectors of the Soviet Union, Pasha Angelina describes how she was able to become an expert. With the kulaks (rich peasants) how the means of production on farms, Pasha took part in Stalin’s campaign in dekulakization, “Dekulakize the rich. Take their land and implements away from them. Use those things to start the kolkhoz. Start the kolkhoz come what may, even if there are only seven of you!” (Angelina 311). In order to gain the means of production, the “reds” and to eliminate the “experts,” effectively becoming their own “Red Experts.”

As we then read in Ekaterina Olitskaia’s recount, the elimination of experts and party members to create a Soviet society of Red Experts was brutal. In order to fully create a Soviet society, was eliminating the intelligentsia, kulaks, and Old Bolsheviks necessary? Could there be a truly successful Soviet Union without integrating Communist ideals into society? Do you see Angelina and other Red Experts as heroes or opportunists?

The Dangers of Flirting with Change

The turn of the nineteenth century saw change across Europe, which included Russia. A new age of modernity was opened and revolution spread like wildfire. In December 1925, Russia witnessed this lust for change manifested in the Decembrist Revolt. Upset with the established order of the tsar and rigid societal issues, radial civil servants and many militants tried to take advantage of the interregnum crisis on December 14, 1925 (Saunders 89). However, this unrest took years to unfold and cultivate. Ironically, the reforms of Tsar Alexander I helped to influence this unrest. 

For the most part of his reign, Alexander I experimented with different reforms and further opened ties with the west. These reforms encouraged Russian civil servants, both radical and moderate, to demand further reforms. As historian David Saunders states, “The diversity of his political interests, unrest in western Europe, and an increasing awareness of the complexity of Russian society persuaded Alexander to abandon the cause of reform in the last years of his life, but by then it was too late to put the genie back in the bottle” (Saunders 88). Bet setting the course for reform, Alexander I influenced, and was unable to control, revolutionary movements who wanted more reforms. For example, Alexander I increased the availability of education. But this expansion of education enabled revolutionary ideas and literature to circulate among secret circles, like the Decembrists (Saunders 92). Additionally, by sending the military to occupy parts of western Europe during and after the Napoleonic Wars, the tsar enabled a military intelligentsia that “claimed that seeing western Europe had a profound effect on their political outlook” (Saunders 99). After enabling revolutionary ideas with his reform, Alexander I only angered and brought revolution closer when he tried to roll back the reforms.            

I found it interesting that Saunders compares the Decembrist Revolt to a genie being let out of the bottle. I would like to compare the tsar’s balancing act to a boiling pot. In reforming Russian society and politics, the tsar is heating up the pot, making ideas of reform more accessible and appealing to the Russian citizens. Eventually, the pot will boil over and ideas of revolutionary actions will come to fruition, like on December 26, 1825. Even if you try to cover the pot, it will still boil over. The tsar has to balance how much steam to let out before the pot of revolutionary ideas boil over. With this comparison in mind, do you think it is possible for the tsar to issue reforms, without the Russian citizens becoming overzealous with change? Is political change inevitable with an absolute monarchy? Is the only response to stop change, while still retaining the political status quo, to rule with an iron fist and regress on reforms? Why or why not?