Why Is the Russian Army So Cruel? (Part I)
Since the war in Ukraine began, those lacking on-the-ground experience in the countries of the former Soviet Union have been shocked by the brutality of the Russian army. Murder, rape, violence visited upon children, these and other crimes have all been documented by United Nations inspectors in more than two dozen once occupied towns and villages throughout Ukraine.
Now, cruelty and war are no strangers to each other and by writing what I want to write below I don’t mean to say that other armies are somehow cruelty-free institutions. Our own army could have taught a master class in battlefield atrocity following the Vietnam War. But the particular vehemence of the violence witnessed during the Ukraine invasion has led many to ask me about my years working in Russia and whether I had any insight into the particular nature of the cruelty Russian troops are inflicting upon their next door neighbors.
Debasing the enemy becomes both the means for the common foot solder to get through his day and the pathway for the officer to move his troops forward.
The answer is, yes, I do have some thoughts and they basically come down to three “P’s”: Prison, Peasantry and the act of Pissing on others.
Why Prison? Prison culture is in a sense endemic to the culture of the Russian/Soviet army. Much of this may have started with the Second World War. Following the blitzkrieg known as “Operation Barbarossa” Russia experienced such massive troop losses in the opening round of the German invasion that they were forced to create “penal battalions” — groups of soldiers drawn directly from the Gulag system. As one learns from Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, and the other documenters of the Gulag Archipelago, key to the organizational structure of the Soviet prison system were individuals of the criminal class who were put directly in charge of the intellectual/political prisoner class. And how did common criminals control political prisoners? Through violence and humiliation. The snuffing out of basic human kindness was not just a symptom of prisoner-on-prisoner rule, it was a means to an end. Sadly, this dominance-based cruelty culture…