The Forgotten – Russia’s Veterans & Military Reform

Vitaly Efremov, a Lieutenant serving in Russia’s Armed Forces, wrote a  “Letter to the Minister of Defense” in the style of, “emenyem.” He painted a picture of a bleak, dismal experience in the service and asked for reforms. The Minister of Defense’s reply?

Lt. Efremov was posted to a distant Siberian base, Ussuriysk as punishment for his protest, in the Russian tradition of cracking down on dissent.  As former military myself, veterans issues are extremely important to me. Service is hard no matter what military you’re serving in and I find a common bond with people across all nationalities because of this. It’s simply a hard way of life and the majority of the people find that their time and efforts are better spent elsewhere. That’s why those that serve deserve special considerations from the government and I don’t think that there is a military anywhere in the world that compensates it’s troops enough for what they do. This particular case helps illustrate the challenges faced by members of my own family in Russia. My experiences in the military and training with the armed forces of eastern European countries have been largely positive and I’d like to bring your attention to the possibility of hope for these forgotten men.


Efremov’s video letter to the Minister of Defense (Emenim style)

Dmitry Choukline

My time in Fallujah, Iraq – Dmitry Choukline

I signed up for the U.S. Marine Corps when I was 18 and fresh out of high school. It was the best/worse decision I think I’ve made but the important distinction was that in the end, it was my decision. In some countries, the youth don’t get that choice. When I came back to civilian life, I was able to seek support from an over-burdened and faulty Veterans Affairs – but my point is that I was still able to get the help I needed. Most of my family is back in Russia. My three cousins whom I haven’t since I was 17, have grown up, married, had kids – and two have served in the Army. It was an interesting situation as we found ourselves on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, at least symbolically.

Both our armed forces had seen changes in their organization during our time in. The Russian government announced that the draft will now only be one year for those slotted to be in the Army. The United States Marine Corp have made radical changes in training, organization and equipment. The Veterans Affairs department is seeing the largest overhaul of it’s structure and benefits since the G.I. Bill was introduced post World War Two. I have honestly been surprised at what the new guys are dealing with, and humbled. My experience serving had been completely different than what my cousins went through. I was very interested to find out what it would’ve been like for me if my family hadn’t moved to the states. With such a change in the way the U.S. does business following it’s recent experience in the “Global War on Terror”, I was wondering if Russia, with it’s increased funding and following wars in the Caucasus, might experience a similar albeit fundamentally different progress of their own.

To give you a little background, the Russian Army is a fairly sizable force numbering roughly around a million souls. The vast majority of these are conscripts. Russia has a bi-annual draft that the majority of those coming of age would like to avoid.

The Hazing

Andrei Sychyov recovering in the hospital following operations to stop the spread of gangrene after he was beaten

Stories like that of Andrei Sychyov, a private who was hazed so badly by his fellow soldiers that he suffered amputation of his legs, genitalia, and part of his hand after gangrene, set in when he couldn’t go to the military hospital for help. The hazing has a formal name: Dedovschina (дедовщина) is the practice of systematic hazing and abuse of the new conscripts, the dukhs (ghosts) by the older “Deds” or grandfathers who are close to completing their military obligations. Dedovschina’s literal translation is grandfatherism and it is a symptom of a broken system. With no-one to maintain order and discipline in the barracks, the lack of a professional enlisted corps of NCO’s and the lack of funds and reluctance of reforms creates a situation where officers leave soldiers in charge of one another to self-govern. You can see how this becomes a problem with the new batch of conscripts being brutalized during their first year, only to find themselves in a position of authority for the second. The cycle continues.

Serving to death in the Russian army –

It’s not at all hard to find videos of conscripts being abused and hazed. A quick Google search brought up numerous Youtube videos of beatings and humiliation in the barracks. I am not going to put them up here but the point is – it’s widespread.


Vladimir Putin is trying to solve this problem. Specifically the problem of overall reform. The Russian military system is outdated and ineffective. Corruption runs rampant and the reluctance to change is deep-rooted in the belief that a numerically large military  – is a powerful one, and necessary to defend Russia’s large borders. Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg, a research scientist at CNA (a Washington, DC thinktank), is a prominent authority on Russia’s military and the state of their affairs. His blog: is a fantastic resource for almost any type of subject relating to Russia’s armed forces and their reforms. He has this to say about the need to downsize the military…

None of the arguments made in favor of maintaining an army of 1 million soldiers make sense. They are usually based on factors such as the country’s size or the length of its borders, rather than on an analysis of the realistic military threats that Russia might face in the foreseeable future.

The government is pouring in billions of rubles to try and close the gap between the military’s aging infrastructure and the current needs of the state. Dr. Gorenburg explains the intricacies of how difficult this problem is to solve:

My limited knowledge in this can only give a quick gist of what’s going on. In order to reform the military by scaling back the number of forces, modernize the existing ones, and professionalize the military – the state, specifically Putin in his agenda, has to ensure accountability across the board for the changes made.

The problem is that the Old Guard is generally opposed to reforms because doing so would decrease the amount of soldiers available for service. A conscripted army is a cheap army to maintain compared to that of professional volunteer military and a professional military cannot be used to perform farm labor for extra pay. The reforms would also tackle the rampant corruption endemic to the military. A lot of the funds originally slated to go to modernizing the military, have found their way into the back pockets of corrupt generals and officials. Putin, apparently, is on a warpath to get this done, and presently this is his third official try to do so.


Russia’s Armed Forces on Parade –

He may be succeeding. Having fired the generals opposed to reform and replaced them with those eager to see change, Putin is pushing ahead with his characteristic determination to get things done. And right now is his best chance to do so. Flush with funds from the nationalization of it’s oil and largely rebounded from the economic crisis of the 90’s, Russia has been pouring money into it’s military. So far, the changes have been largely organizational. This is important however, since it allows the military to contract it’s size and requirements in order to remain an effective defender of national interests.

Robert Haddick, in his article, “This Week at War: A Leaner, Cleaner Russian Army” outlines some of the challenges faced by this administration, as well as some of the changes already enacted. Specifically, Putin’s move to bring in civilian supervisors like Anatoly Serdyukov, the official government tax collector is paying off. The funds are finally starting to go where they were intended.

The Next Step

The benefits of a modernized military are clear to reformers and objectors alike. One of the biggest problems following the re-organization of the military is the building of a professional NCO corps. Non-Commissioned Officers or NCO’s for short, are known as the backbone of the western military doctrine. These professionals are enlisted volunteers responsible for the delegation of authority, the supervision of morale, discipline and training. They have come up through the ranks and provided the guidance and experience needed to make others carry out orders. In short, they are the ones that make things happen on the bottom line – and Russia has no such institution. Well it does – but it’s called Dedovschina and it’s clearly not working.

There is a sign of changing times. In the recent war with Georgia back in 2008, a visible shift was seen when the majority of units deployed – were contract soldiers. The need for incentives to attract service-members has been given some attention. Dr. Gorenburg provides a recent update of the proposed pay structure for the conscripts coming in this year, essentially doubling their pay – link here. While the amount is not necessarily significant, roughly around $200 a month, that’s still a really low figure when compared, for example, to a U.S. Private with less than 4 months of training who earns around $1403 a month. The contract soldiers and officers, on the other hand, may finally be able to find a salary that’s competitive to the civilian sector after their pay was reformed too. This might actually make the military a place that draws young people to it as viable career instead of as a sentence.

The point is that with rising salaries, the hopes for an increase in benefits seems likely to happen. According to the, veterans of Russia’s armed forces may see more relief coming. President Putin recently signed a decree stating that disabled veterans are entitled to social security, compensation, and medical care (all in various degrees).

 So What?

Training in Ukraine – Ukrainian Marine Corps Officers and my fellow Marines.

Does any of this really matter? Why do I consider this issue of reform all that important? Well besides having a personal connection to these problems, I think there is a great deal to be optimistic about. Just the fact that an institution of such magnitude in a country as historically closed off as Russia is trying to change gives people a lot of hope that things will get better. It seems that maybe “the forgotten” have finally become “the remembered” and the veterans lives will continue to improve. I especially hope this is the case for the disabled veterans, like Andrei Sychyov, or others wounded or hurt in one of Russia’s many brushfire wars.

A reformed Russian army has geopolitical consequences as well, and most of those are actually benificial to the U.S. Think about it this way: a military that is focused on policing it’s own backyard, tactics and equipment similar to those used by Western powers and a high degree of professionalism would make the ideal partner when cooperating on regional problems. The realization that the Cold War is finally over when the army is rebuilt might signal a reverse in the tendency to treat each other as opponents. In essence this could make the U.S.  military’s job easier, the borders a little friendlier, and people’s lives a little better.

– Dmitry

Interesting links on the subject:

Dr. Gorenburg’s blog on Russian military reform:

Dedovschina (Grandfatherism – the hazing of conscripts):

Miscellaneous Russian military photos (updated frequently) –

New Russian military uniforms: