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Teaching torturers. How a Russian education and upbringing engender murderers, looters, and sadists

Jozef Davidovski

The massacre of civilians in Borodyanka, Bucha, Mariupol, and other cities and towns in Ukraine shocked many: few expected that soldiers and officers of the Russian army would behave so brutally. In reality, it is not so surprising – the family, school, and army in Russia have been transformed into a system of violence.

  • The Decline of Military Education

  • Village guys

  • Family, school, and the army as sources of violence

Читать на русском

There remains no doubt about the systemic nature of war crimes after the publication of the “genocide manifesto” in Ukraine by RIA Novosti, the Russian military command's confession as to shooting dozens of people in civilian clothes (dozens in Mariupol alone) and the publication of numerous radio intercepts. Yet, even ideological indoctrination and the Kremlin's deliberate policy of killing civilians do not in themselves explain why these crimes are made possible. After all, even the military has free will and, like all human beings, must have an understanding of the law and must be guided by ethical norms, both universal and professional. When we see that all these restraints stop working, we should pay attention not only to the political course, but also to the institutional and social peculiarities of the Russian armed forces.

The Decline of Military Education

One of the most important factors contributing to the Russian army's tendency to quickly turn into marauders and rapists at war with the civilian population is the quality of its officer corps. For decades, ever since the Soviet times, the quality of the officer corps has been very uneven across the various divisions and branches of the army, a consequence of the leaders' distrust of their own army. But in post-Soviet Russia, this distrust has been exacerbated by the two coup attempts involving the army in 1991 and 1993, and the relatively strong popularity of the army generals Alexander Lebedev and Lev Rokhlin. As a consequence, the Kremlin has constantly faced the dilemma of how to make Russian officers capable of effective warfare while preventing them from becoming overly influential and turning into political actors within the framework of authoritarian rule.

The Russian army tends to turn into looters and rapists at war with civilians because of the quality of the officer corps

To a large extent, it explains why military reform, outlined back in the late 1980s and implying qualitative changes in military education, reliance on contract service (voluntary recruitment), computerization of the armed forces and the use of precision weapons, was postponed for decades. Even back then there was an understanding that the real modernization of the armed forces is possible only as part of an overall democratization.

Generally speaking, in a democratic republic the politicization of the army is constrained by the procedures and political subjectivity of citizens. The authoritarian system restrains the politicization of the army through the fragmentation of the security apparatus (numerous paramilitary special services), and through party and/or political-police control, etc. But at the turn of the decade 2000-2010, the Kremlin faced yet another challenge: the cost of war against Georgia, which was largely driven by the market and democratic reforms undertaken by then-President Mikheil Saakashvili, turned out to be too high: it was time to get serious about upgrading the armed forces. The military reforms, which subsequently began, were the successor to the perestroika plans, and hence they also involved reviewing the system of military education. Although this time adopting the Western, mainly US, system as an example was seriously considered, and in any case, the use of modern weapons, huge volumes of information, and the military experience gained through the wars of 1990-2000 required better military education than two decades earlier.

However, the Russian authorities quickly realized the danger of forming an officer corps that would be simply incompatible with the corrupt nature of the government itself, as well as with its overall organizational and intellectual potential. As a result, attempts at reforming military education in Russia were abandoned in the early 2010s. Russian officers continued to be trained as «military workers» capable of handling only the weapons systems they know, either modernized or newly created. However, due to their lack of fundamental scientific and humanitarian training, they are poorly equipped to learn throughout their careers, to think outside the box, and to devise appropriate ways of commanding their own troops as well as interacting with civilians in the conflict zone. This was aggravated by the authorities' desire to increase control over officers through bureaucratization of all processes and the practice of imposing harsh financial penalties on them in court for explicit or imaginary violations, which further discouraged their independence and willingness to take responsibility for their decisions.

Russian officers continued to be trained as «military workers»

Moreover, in an attempt to keep the size of the army close to the nominal one million, the Russian leadership has greatly underestimated the requirements for applicants to military universities. For example, at the end of 2020, the average scores of applicants to all military universities were as follows: 76.3 points in Russian language («excellent»); 63.1 points in mathematics («good»); 60.9 points in social studies («good»); and 58.7 points in physics («good»). Considering that admissions to military schools, institutes, and academies usually require three exams, plus physical education, the average score of admitted cadets was 198-200 points, which is equal or even lower than that year's minimum passing score for many specialties at regional civilian universities.

If we talk about the minimum pass scores for the total of three exams (Russian language, mathematics and social studies) in the Army and Airborne Forces in the specialization «personnel management in the armed forces,» today they are as follows: 109 for Kazan Higher Tank Command School; 112 for Novosibirsk Higher Military Command School; 105 for Far East Higher Combined Arms Command School; 110 for Ryazan Higher Airborne Command School. Simply put, it is sufficient to score «satisfactory» or «C» on the classical 5-point scale. It turns out that anyone who belongs to the appropriate health group and formally demonstrates at least some residual school knowledge is admitted into the future officer corps. Obviously, with such an education system, the ultimate quality of training is a priori low.

Anyone who belongs to the appropriate health group and formally demonstrates at least some residual school knowledge is admitted into the future officer corps

Thus, the Russian officer corps fighting in Ukraine today - which mostly consists of junior and mid-level officers trained in the 2010s - has limited professional capacity and low intellectual and moral qualities. After getting used to constantly delegating responsibility for decision-making to superiors and acting under constant control of those superiors an officer tends to act irresponsibly and with impunity when direct control disappears. And then all bets are off.

Village guys

A separate factor is the system of selecting soldiers for the Russian ground and airborne troops, which have the main responsibility for what happens on the battlefield.

The Ground Forces, whose strength is estimated at 270,000-280,000 soldiers, the largest military force in Russia, have traditionally imposed minimal requirements on the intellectual, moral, and psychological qualities of their soldiers. The key to understanding this is the peculiarities of the conscription system. The most educated, developed, adequate, or at least simply intelligent recruits get intercepted by the Navy, the Strategic Missile Forces, and the Aerospace Forces, and then those branches of the armed forces recruit them as contract servicemen.

The ground forces settle for those who remain, but still they are forced to rank the recruits. They try to select the most capable of them for the missile troops, artillery, anti-aircraft missile units and control and communications units. As a result, ordinary motorized rifle units receive young men who are by no means outstanding soldiers and whose level of education and culture is often quite low.

This level directly correlates with where these recruits come from. The fact is that the education system in Russia has been institutionally degrading for years: bureaucratization, loss of flexibility, low incomes of teachers, shortage of personnel, and an almost complete absence of freedom and trust - all this leads to the imitation of the educational process at secondary schools, vocational schools and even universities. It is true that this process is partially mitigated in big cities by a more developed social and cultural environment, economic activity, and competition among public schools, private schools, universities and technical colleges. As for small towns and villages, the problems of the education system are particularly acute. Access to cultural institutions is absent or extremely limited, and they can barely be called prosperous or affluent. Incidentally, the same is true for the poor republics in Siberia and the Caucasus.

That is why natives of such places are predominant in the land forces, which is confirmed today by the information about soldiers killed in action and taken prisoner. Combat operations and severe stress strip away the thin layer of culture from such people, and their archaic mindset and biological nature become exposed.

Similar processes, despite the halo of «elitism,» have been unfolding in the Airborne Forces, whose strength is estimated at 45,000 servicemen. Here the key selection factors include very good physical health, a more stable psyche and sports training. The requirements as to the intellectual and moral potential of the Russian paratroopers are not significant per se but are derivative of the need to observe much stricter discipline during service and to learn complex things. As a consequence, the human capital of the Airborne Troops is seemingly more valuable than that of the Ground Forces, despite the fact that the majority of recruits also come from small towns, rural areas, or from among sports school graduates or, less frequently, from physical education institutes in big cities, which do not actually provide adequate humanitarian training.

Even the «elite» airborne troops do not have adequate humanitarian training

However, the flip side of the reliance on physical training and strict discipline is an inherent lack of flexibility in thinking. And if a combat task is not clearly set or its execution does not go according to plan, such a situation leads to disorientation and failure on the part of the «elite» soldiers and officers.

It is especially noteworthy that the Russian airborne troops are traditionally trained to engage regular forces (and raids behind enemy lines) or at least large and well-organized enemy detachments and are ill prepared for urban combat operations, counterinsurgency operations or adequate interaction with civilians. Even during the Syrian campaign, the Russian airborne troops played an auxiliary role, which mostly involved airlifting supplies to units loyal to Damascus fighting on the ground. As for the peacekeeping operations with the participation of airborne troops in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 and in Kazakhstan in January 2022, they were not supposed to engage at all. Thus, the character of the current war and the active, if unarmed, resistance of Ukrainian citizens to the Russian aggression make war crimes by Russian paratroopers inevitable.

The character of the current war and the resistance of Ukrainian citizens to the aggression make war crimes inevitable

Thus, Russian war crimes in Ukraine are a consequence of the overall intellectual and cultural decline in the Russian provinces, multiplied by the policy of Russian authoritarianism which has little interest in developing education but is interested in loyal and minimally competent performers.

Family, school, and the army as sources of violence

The third basic social source of Russian military crime is the proliferation of a culture of violence in Russian families, schools, and the military itself. Very often Russian families embody a cycle of regular physical and psychological violence among family members. This is multiplied by the lack of communication within families. The result is young people who have grown up in conditions that are close to anomie, that is, the breakdown of social ties and cultural relationships. The line between the norm and crime is not always obvious to them.

The same thing happens in Russian schools, with psychological violence prevailing over physical violence. There is systematic bullying by teachers, who suffer regular humiliation from their superiors or their students, while students bully each other, and teachers as well. When yesterday's students enter the military, they also encounter a steady hierarchy of psychological and physical abuse exercised by superiors upon subordinates and mutual violence among soldiers.

When yesterday's students enter the military, they face a steady hierarchy of psychological and physical abuse

Incidents involving armed attacks by teenagers and young adults (18-19 years old) on their schools, technical colleges and universities in Russia are isolated and cause social resonance and incomprehension. Meanwhile, the number of horrific incidents in the army during peacetime, such as the murder of a local Armenian family by a Russian conscript from the military base in Gyumri, Armenia, or the shooting of a fellow soldier in response to bullying in one of the nuclear supply units, seems to have decreased> However,regular below-the-radar violence goes unnoticed by Russians. The military unit from Knyaz-Volkonskoye (Khabarovsk Krai), whose servicemen turned into executioners and marauders during the Bucha massacre, has a long-standing grim reputation among soldiers and officers across the Far East. Even a few days before the start of the war, with many soldiers having been transferred to Belarus, there was an incident involving mass beatings in Knyaz-Volkonskoye.

Such violence generates stress, which most people «digest» within themselves and which manifests only occasionally in peacetime. However, during war, all social restraints are removed, and years of humiliation, cruel treatment and powerlessness in the face of parents, teachers, commanders and the authorities in general manifest themselves on a mass scale. And even if a soldier, regardless of rank, does not commit war crimes himself, he chooses not to notice such crimes committed by his comrades-in-arms.

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