By Taylor Marvin
Today I stumbled upon an interesting used book: The Soviet Union Today: An Interpretive Guide, edited by James Cracraft and released in 1987.
I’m just beginning to work my way through the volume, but Mikhail Tsypkin’s chapter on Soviet conscripts is both fascinating and depressing. In a system that put little value on the individual, the two year term of service for conscripts in the Red Army was miserable and dangerous, even in peacetime. A brutal hazing culture where veteran second-year conscripts brutalized their younger comrades functioned as an officially-sanctioned method of enforcing discipline and passing on skills. Drunkenness was a constant problem, and punishments were brutal. Soldiers accused of transgressions like drinking, challenging officers, or going AWOL for less than 24 hours were sent to the guardhouse for up to 15 days, where freezing cold, starvation diets, and being forced to stand for 18 hours a day were normal. Up to 15 percent of Soviet conscripts possessed only a basic grasp of Russian. Soldiers were prevented from owning civilian clothes, both to discourage them from going AWOL and make it more difficult for soldiers to illegally acquire alcohol, which shopkeepers were forbidden to sell to soldiers in uniform.
Conscripts were deliberately stationed far from their own communities, both to combat the rampant problem of unmotivated soldiers going AWOL and decrease soldiers’ sympathy for the local population in the event that they were called out to put down civilian unrest. Soldiers stationed in the Eastern European satellites were in effect confined to quarters for their entire terms of service to avoid “cultural contamination”.
Soviet officials went to great lengths to keep conscripts isolated. Radios were often confiscated, soldiers often had no understanding of the global conflict they were an unwilling participant in. From the text:
“The political indoctrination system often fails to provide plausible explanations of international crises that result or might result in the use of Soviet military might. Thus, at least some Soviet soldiers during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia thought they were in West Germany or even in Israel. During the 1968 crisis a Soviet infantry division was alerted and moved to the Sino-Soviet border, but its enlisted men were not told why. Similarly, neither enlisted men or officers of a surface-to-air missile battery alerted during the 1973 US-Soviet showdown were offered any explanation of the international situation.”
The Israel anecdote, in particular, seems incredible, and it’s easy to mock ignorant conscripts for not knowing the obvious differences between Central Europe and Israel. But it makes perfect sense upon reflection. Soviet citizens had the strength and unity of the Warsaw Pact drilled into them all of their life, and the idea that a Communist ally could turn away from the Soviet Union would not be initiative. Of course, to a conscript from a small Siberian town with little knowledge of external politics and no access to images of the outside world, the differences between Czechoslovakia and Israel would not be obvious.