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HUMILIATION IN CHECHNYA : From Hero to Heel, Russian Army Stuck in Trenches of Incompetence

January 15, 1995|Steven Merritt Miner | Steven Merritt Miner, a professor of Russian history at Ohio University, is a contributor to "The Diplomats," edited by Gordon Craig and F .L. Loewenheim (Princeton University.) He is also working on a book, "Selling Stalin," about Soviet propaganda

ATHENS, OHIO — During the mid-19th Century, the Caucasus became known as the "graveyard of the Russian Army." The Russian conquest of this wild, mountainous region and its fierce tribes required decades to accomplish and cost the czar's legions thousands of lives. Several of Russia's great authors, notably Mikhail Y. Lermontov and Leo Tolstoy, fought as soldiers in these brutal and protracted campaigns of conquest and cut their teeth on tales of the exotic Southern mountains. Sadly, Russia's current entanglement in this same region has already replicated the brutality of these historic wars, so far without any literary compensation. The fighting in Chechnya has exposed deep rifts between Boris N. Yeltsin's government and the military. These rifts did not emerge overnight; they have deep roots in Soviet history. Civil-military relations were always a problem in the Soviet Union. Since the communist state relied more on force than on the consent of the governed, ensuring the loyalty, or control, of the armed forces was always a major concern. Bolshevik leaders were students of revolutionary history, and so they feared "Bonapartism"--they worried that some officer would, like Napoleon, emerge from the army to become the "gravedigger of the revolution."

Immediately after the Bolshevik revolution, therefore, the communist government struggled to find methods to control the military. During the Russian Civil War of 1918-21, the Bolsheviks, lacking a proper military, were forced to employ czarist officers to man the new Red Army. To ensure the loyalty of this obviously reluctant group, Leon Trotsky, the communist war commissar, resorted to two effective expedients: He held the officers' families hostage and, of longer-lasting importance, he salted the army with political commissars loyal to the new regime. Later, the Soviets further ensured that the army would not act against the state as a unified body by creating armed forces under the secret police and Interior Ministry whose command structure was entirely separate from the regular army.

Such expedients did not solve the problem entirely. In 1937-38, Josef Stalin moved violently against the military leadership, purging some 40,000 army officers. Most were shot outright; others perished in concentration camps. The lucky ones survived until 1941, when the Nazi invasion once again put their talents at a premium.

The reasons for this extraordinary self-inflicted wound, during which more Soviet officers perished than the dead of both sides in the battle of Gettysburg, remain unclear even in this time of archival revelations. Vyacheslav M. Molotov, Stalin's closest comrade at that time, would later claim, unconvincingly, that the condemned soldiers were "rightists . . . having ties with (Adolf) Hitler."

The Soviet victory in the World War II, and Stalin's death in 1953, transformed the position of army officers. The triumph over Hitler, achieved at the cost of more than 25 million lives, was the single event of Soviet history about which most Soviet citizens could be justly proud. So, the Soviet authorities created a cult of victory in which the great marshals and generals of the Red Army were celebrated as heroes. Stalin's purge of the military was denounced publicly, and Red Army officers, instead of being terrorized, became part of the pampered Soviet elite. They received good pay, country dachas , the best food and drink, as well as scarce Western consumer goods.

Stalin's heirs learned that co-optation worked better than terror in ensuring the army's loyalty. The Soviet military-industrial complex received anything it wanted, even as Soviet consumers languished in squalor. Whatever worked best in Soviet industry--as much as one-quarter of gross national product--was channeled into the military sector, and the prestige of the army rivaled that of the Communist Party. Overstuffed Soviet marshals stood complaisantly beside Politburo members during those half-forgotten May Day displays of Soviet Army might.

This cozy situation began to crumble, 1989 being the pivotal year. Already reeling from defeat in Afghanistan, the empire collapsed when communism evaporated in Eastern Europe. The 500,000 Soviet troops stationed in what had been East Germany suddenly found themselves cut off, an island of the dreary communist past in a newly reunified capitalist Germany--a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Military morale collapsed. Central Berlin became one huge yard sale of Soviet uniforms and weaponry; desertion and alcoholism ran rampant.

Nor was the situation better at home. Beginning in the Baltic republics, then spreading to the non-Russian areas of the Soviet internal empire, draft resistance became endemic. Even before the Baltics regained their independence, 80% of draft-age males in parts of Lithuania refused to appear for military service.

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