Who Needs It

The Russian sociologist Aleksei Levinson argues in this article, that the Russian society has learned to live with the Chechen war. Medical doctors, university professors and others benefit from it in indirect ways.

I hear the noise; it does not hear itself
A.K.

The Banner

The walls of the Sakharov Museum in Moscow display a banner saying: “The war in Chechnya has been going on since 1994. Enough!” The place is deserted. Thousands of cars speed by every day. Nobody stops to object, to tear down the banner. Nobody stops to approve, either.

The majority of Russians have for a long time been speaking out in favour of an end to hostilities, and the beginning of talks. Right now six out of ten adult citizens of the Russian Federation are supporting negotiations. Only three out of ten want the campaign to go on. But the “unpopular war” is continuing. And, according to majority opinion, it will not end soon.

The Most Frequent Reply

I am writing mainly on the basis of group discussions I have conducted, where I asked why the war in Chechnya is continuing. The structure of people’s reactions is amazingly stable. Usually, the first person to reply is someone serious and well-read. He gives an answer that follows the Zeitgeist, i.e. a “geopolitical” one: oil, pipeline and the like. But it instantly turns out that this interpretation of the causes of the campaign does not satisfy the other participants: all this could be sorted out without war. Then there is the person who reads other kinds of newspapers and who is ready to blame secret motives: They’re laundering money, they’re selling arms, they’re controlling the drugs business. He names the profiteers: oligarchs who make money out of the war, army bosses, the government.

For a brief span of time, these disclosures impress everyone. But then it turns out that even they are not seen to account for a phenomenon that has come to occupy such an important place in our lives. (According to polls, this war has been Russians’ No. 1 worry for months on end.)

This is when the principal answer is pronounced. It almost invariably sounds the same: Surely, someone needs it.
This formula is taken to express something that is vital and secret, but at the same time undisputed. Everybody immediately agrees with this conclusion, and there is nothing more to discuss. Further questions – who needs it, and why? – do not usually lead anywhere. All is said.

The popularity of this stereotyped reply, along with its opacity, attract the researcher’s attention. Indeed, dear reader, who needs it?

Obviously, the word “someone” stands for a subject far more powerful than a mere oligarch or minister. By the way, there is never an attempt to name any of these people. My experience of group discussions shows that contemporary Russians are not afraid of accusing any person or administration of the gravest sins. This is why the refusal to point to a specific culprit is so significant. For if war is an evil, and there are persons responsible for it, these persons should bear responsibility. But the deliberate indefiniteness of the pronoun shows that people do not want to name, and consequently punish, the culprit.

Wrong Guess!

So who is this subject protected by mass consciousness? It would be tempting to say: oh we know him, we know him! Indeed, Russia’s first president1 was publicly and popularly blamed for the first Chechen war. Logically, one would assume that the public should blame the second war on the second president2. And as a matter of fact, there have been such statements. Not to mention the fact that without the second war, he would never have made it so far. This has been attested by many students of public opinion, including myself. If one sees, further, that the current leader enjoys a tremendous popularity, it would appear that we have found the solution. This would be that public opinion takes the president to have an interest in the war, but, not wishing to embarrass itself, it places a taboo on his name and replaces it with an indefinite pronoun.
How neat. But it does not work out. Putin’s notoriously high and stable rating does not indicate a charismatic situation. A charismatic situation, in the sociologist’s understanding, is when society sees the leader’s power and abilities as having a strength and origin “transcending the ordinary”, to quote Weber. Which is why they are not questioned. Here we have a different case.

In polls made by the All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (WCIOM) the very interviewees who, with a unanimity and steadfastness that astonishes themselves, approve of “Vladimir Putin’s actions as president of the Russian Federation”, invariably point to the failure of his policy in Chechnya. Thus, in March 2002, when 72% were supporting him, almost the same number – 67% – replied that, for the past two years, Putin has been dealing with the “problem of defeating the fighters in Chechnya” “not very successfully” or even “totally unsuccessfully”. A similar 66% thought that he has also dealt unsuccessfully with the “problem of finding a political solution in Chechnya”.

Thus the person thought to need the war to continue is not the president. We are talking about an even larger-scale subject. Dear reader, who is even tougher than the president? Maybe the smithy that forged him?

But the Town Thought That These Were Just Drill… Line from a popular 1970s song about two pilots who sacrifice themselves to prevent their defective plane from crashing into a town. [translator’s note]

Well, in general, society is not averse to this hypothesis – at least where the causes for the beginning of the war are concerned. Only 6% are prepared to maintain that “the explosions in Moscow and Volgodonsk were organised by the Russian secret services”, but 37% chose the reply “the secret services’ involvement in these explosions is not proven, but should not be excluded” – nearly as many people as those “excluding any involvement of the secret services in these explosions” (38%). Meanwhile a great majority of Russians (53%) state that Berezovsky’s documentary3 should be shown on central television (35% being against).

To be sure, the early stages of both wars were orchestrated in a way that makes many people wonder. But here we’re talking about another aspect of the story – the impossibility to stop it. Here people think that all “power ministries”4 are equally interested in it to go on.

Public opinion does not classify the Federals making war in the Caucasus by administrations. That’s why those films which are designed to give people the “truth of the trenches” by showing camouflaged soldiers drinking vodka and cursing FSB agents (all the while saving Chechen girls, children and old people), are overly sophisticated.

They Never Let Us Defeat Them

Blaming the persistence of the war on disgraceful and contemptible motives only does not satisfy interviewees. Still, I have not heard one of them ever name noble aims such as protecting the constitutional order or stopping terrorist activity. At most, people mention the aim of preserving Russia’s territorial integrity, and her mission of being a bulwark against Islam.

Those who make out such historic aims equally ask themselves why the war is dragging on and who is interested in it to drag on. They often talk about how someone stopped the federal forces each time they were just about to deal a decisive blow; how from somewhere came an order forbidding to capture the main enemy field commanders, although everyone knew where they were, etc. These explanations were heard most often during and after the first war. This is also how these people relate to the Khasavyurt agreements, saying they were due to someone’s betrayal.

Part of these people would like the enemy to be crushed as quickly as possible. They are not happy about the fact that the war is dragging on, and in this they do not differ from those demanding an end to the pointless death of our soldiers, or those wanting the country to stop this shameful colonial war.

They Should All Be…

Of course, there are also outright supporters of the continuation of the war – as they say, down to the last Chechen. One of them told me it would be best and fastest to solve everything using weapons of mass destruction, but the West would start clamouring, and that’s why we are forced to continue the war, simply in order to destroy all Chechen men.
Those individuals upholding such opinions whom I’ve had the occasion to meet in the course of my interviews, were innocent ordinary people. For the time being, their thirst for genocide remains their own problem. They do not have any effect on the course of the war. Maybe there are such people among the higher army ranks. But we know that no army staff consists of “hawks” only, and it is unlikely that they will turn their plan into state policy, or reduce politics to their plan. In other words, there is no way to blame the tendency to prolong the war on the will of a definite individual subject.

The Strongest of All

So what about the Chechens, the separatists, the terrorists, the Wahhabites – isn’t it due to them that the war is dragging on for so long?
Interviewees are happy to point to their century-old hostility towards us and to the fact that it took even Yermolov 50 years to subdue them (so his contemporary heirs will need at least 100). They say that the Americans didn’t get anywhere in Vietnam either. But even the authors of such historical analogies, just like almost all the other participants in our discussions, are unable really to believe that the Russian army should not be capable of defeating such an adversary. So for them the question remains of why victory doesn’t come about. And the only reply remains the one about the enigmatic someone who needs it.
So who is he, who is stronger than all administrations and all people? Who is most important, who is the cause of it all? I hasten to preclude one possible reply. Despite its own declarations to the contrary, our public is mostly godless in a Soviet fashion, at least when thinking about reasons and causes. Not one person ever mentioned the idea of war as a punishment sent from above.

This is why, dear reader, our research about who people mean when blaming the war in the Caucasus on someone who needs it, is producing a very disappointing result.

Cui Prodest

They mean – us. This someone is us. But we’re not allowed to talk about this. This is our society such as it sees, and doesn’t want to see, itself. Russian society (if it be permitted, dear reader, to refer to it as an entity endowed with consciousness) understands that it is waging an unrighteous war, that something disgraceful is going on.
Yes, society understands this. But it does not blame itself.

This is why the Chechen war resembles the first years of the Afghan war. This is also why it is different from the final years of that war, when Sakharov’s invective was publicly pronounced, and heeded. I’m not talking about a mass peace movement. But society turned its back upon the war. Draft-dodging increased and was being publicly approved of. Those returning home after “fulfilling their international duty” weren’t greeted by the public with honours or respect. Even when they were trying to obtain promised or expected benefits, the bureaucrats in charge told them: “I didn’t send you there.”
Maybe this is what awaits the veterans of Chechnya. For the time being, however, the general attitude to the war is different – there is no attitude. It is best expressed by what we have just discussed: the gesture of not telling names, of passing things over in silence.
Why didn’t the authorities like Kisselev’s team? According to public opinion, it was because they showed the Chechen war in a light that didn’t suit the authorities. What was society’s reaction to the closing-down of TV-6? Silence. What accompanies the war itself? Silence. The banner on the museum wall just keeps hanging there.

Mother War

If we go on to probe the hermetic and enigmatic nature of the answer, we find that here the discussion turns into a conflict of values. Its essence is that bad means appear appropriate for reaching noble aims. The war turns out to be functional, instrumental, i.e. useful for society. The war is not “a people’s war, a holy war”, not even a “small victorious” war. It is a shameful, unsuccessful and dirty war. What’s more, it turns out that in order to serve certain socially approved-of aims, this is what this campaign needs to be like – rather than being a war that noble hearts strive to fight in.

I would like to stress that this idea about the instrumental nature of the war does not crop up in political or ethical discourse, but in discussions of everyday issues, where people use the concepts “better” and “worse” rather than the categories of good and evil.
Thus, speaking about those officers who volunteer to go to Chechnya, interviewees may remark: Where else can they earn money? They go there for flats, for higher ranks. This is usually said in the context of discussions about the economic crisis, the government’s bad treatment of the army, etc.

Interviewees from defence-sector factories may say, on occasion: Thank God, there are orders coming in for Chechnya, the factory is getting back on track. Here the context is a discussion of how all factories in town are idle, how in the nineties everything was pulled down, and how now, it seems, things are slowly starting to get better.

More Boys for the War

Dear reader, you graduated from a university. Most of your fellow students were girls. This is how things were for decades. Higher education, especially in the humanities, attracted women more than men. In some institutes, preferred treatment was introduced for men in order to raise their percentage among students.
After the beginning of the Afghan war the male half of the population queued up for higher education – at least for those institutions that allowed to waive military service. Then a decree was issued to limit acceptance of male students.
The Afghan war ended. It ended with the “Afghan syndrome”. A stable negative reaction surfaced in society against the idea of sending our lads (a loan from English used by journalists) or our boys (the word used by the “soldiers’ mothers”) anywhere to fight for no-one knows what. (By the way, this syndrome lived on throughout the first Chechen campaign and transformed itself into the “Chechen” syndrome. If there was someone who wanted to unleash the first and then the second war, he would have to have had recourse to extremely powerful means, among others because of this syndrome.)
At the same time, since the beginning of the 1980s, hazing increased in the army, and since the end of that decade, public fear of it started growing. The army became a scarecrow for the majority of mothers having sons aged one to 28. And for most sons, too.

The Results of a Poll

Why, in your opinion, do many young men not want to serve in the army nowadays? (WCIOM, February 2002. Number of interviewees: 1600. Representative selection of people aged 18 and more. Results given in % of total number interviewed. The sum total is higher than 100% since multiple answers were possible.)

1 “Hazing”, bullying on the part of recruits having served more years, or officers 60
2 The threat of being sent to Chechnya and other hot spots 51
3 Difficult living conditions, bad diet 26
4 Effeminacy, fear of the strains and trials of army life 17
5 Lack of consciousness of one’s duty to the Fatherland 16
6 The mass media’s slander of the army 11
7 Loss of two years on studies or career 11
8 Separation from home, friends and family 9
9 The spread of pacifist moods in society 6
10 Lack of female company, separation from girlfriends and fiancées 3
11 Other 4
12 Don’t know 6

In analysing these data we should first note how little difficulty people had in replying to this question (line 12). It’s also clear that the options given virtually exhaust the range of public opinion (line 11).
We may further note that longing for home or, even more, longing for one’s girlfriend, are insignificant factors (lines 8, 10). Ideology and “moods” are also of little relevance (lines 6, 9). It’s obvious that explanations in the spirit of the army command are accepted by less than one fifth of Russians (lines 4, 5, 6). The strains of everyday existence and the universally known poverty of army life are not considered all that important (line 3), and the loss of two years of life even less so (line 7).
Knowing all this allows us duly to appraise the fact there are two replies (line 1 and 2, totalling 111%) that outweigh all the others taken together (line 3-10, totalling 99%). In other words, these two factors alone would be more than enough to explain “many young men’s” lack of desire to serve in the army. In the opinion of an overwhelming majority of Russians, military service means either hazing or Chechnya plus hazing. Hazing means that if they don’t trample you down morally, they will kill or mutilate you. Chechnya means that even if they don’t kill or mutilate you, you will return a complex-ridden psychopath. After all this is a dirty war.

So, the war in Chechnya is factor No. 2, it is pointed out by more than half of all Russians. So who is interested in the war in Chechnya scaring young men off military service?

A Lot of Money

Since the beginning of the Chechen war those higher institutions of higher education that allow to waive the draft have experienced a huge preponderance of male. (Now there are no more restrictions on their acceptance.) As experienced parents told me in interviews on this topic, getting into a university costs a lot of money, but that’s still cheaper than waiving or delaying the draft.
I should note that those who deal in places at university make such good money precisely because of those lads with war in their back. They are the ones who make the competition harder and raise prices for all other candidates.
Really, though, the first bribes are paid out twelve years before the entry exams, when placing the boy in a “good” school (i.e. one that offers a perspective of admittance to university). Interviews with mothers show that sometimes they pay for their son being schooled at the age of five – this way he will have an extra year to prepare for university, otherwise he’ll be drafted…

But the really big money is paid in the year of application for university – and most of it is pocketed by university officials or special university accounts. According to the calculations of education specialists, families spend a total of up to 1.5 billion dollars just to make their children get into university5.

Based on these data, one can surmise how much money universities earn through the “threat of war” under discussion. Let’s imagine the war has ended, and the army is turned into a professional, contract-based one. This means that those who had applied for university exclusively to dodge the draft, are off the market. The proportion of male school graduates returns to the culturally determined norm. The demand goes back by approximately 5%. Meanwhile the total number of places in the first year of university, according to T. L. Klyachko’s calculations, is about equal to the number of school graduates. Consequently, the demand would become lower than the offer. Who would go on to pay those 1.5 billion?
Next: out of the two main menaces, the Chechen factor accounts for just less than half. So we can say that as long as it creates a run on universities’ admissions committees, the war in Chechnya pays about 700 million dollars per year. Even if only, say, 300 million of them go into the pockets of ordinary higher education employees and their families, this still means that with this money, about 1.5 million souls have breakfast, lunch and dinner, feed their children and buy good books. 500 dollars per family per year is no mean bonus, given our poverty.

If this money should suddenly disappear (due to peace and a successful army and educational reform), the bosses of the education system will need to find it somewhere. If they don’t, the system will either lose staff or quality.

Everything is for the Best

Aside from teachers, the other category of people who profit from the war are doctors. First of all those who, in the year of the draft, put people in hospital and issue a diagnosis that allows to waive or delay service. But in fact, as mothers explain, medical certificates need to be prepared from childhood. Concussions, infectionsŠ one needs either to have or to buy them.

I don’t know how much recruitment officers earn. In focus group discussions, parents state that the system is well-tuned, everyone knows the rates. They even talk about benevolent attitudes. A recruitment officer told me: “Why would you and me want to send such a good lad to Chechnya, what’s the point?!”

Thus it turns out that things are the same here and in that sphere of society which would appear as the exact opposite of war and army. Dear recruitment officers, doctors and teachers, you have all been made war addicts. Dear higher education, your public role has been raised using this ghastly lever. We can’t even call these measures superfluous: after all, we do need to raise these groups’ salaries, we do need to cut the draft and extend higher education to all school graduates. It turns out that war and death do have a purpose.

The Three Roads of Socialisation

But not all lads get into university. Where is the rest?
Some of those young men who are of draft age but have been granted delays, work somewhere. But they are a small part. Another part do not work but hide from the draft commissions. Some are in gangs, others are in prison, still others are drug addicts. (Drugs became a mass-scale problem due to the Afghan war. We shall not discuss the role of the Chechen war in the increase of crime and drug use.)

Finally, some were drafted into the armed forces and, after their first or second year, part of them volunteered for Chechnya, as they say. Those who survived, those who weren’t drawn in, returned. Where are they to go now? They can go to university, they get preferred treatment there thanks to the war. They can join the police or private security services. Some bosses appreciate fighting experience. But there aren’t enough places in the police and security services for everyone, and anyway there wouldn’t be enough work if they were overstaffed. So they have to join the ranks of those that the police protect us against. There, too, the skills gained in the army and at war are in high demand. According to young men who tried to find a job where they could make use of their experience, sometimes it’s impossible to see the difference between the organisations I mentioned.

One way or the other, the three main roads of the socialisation of young men bear the mark of war. A war that none of them started; that, they think, it is not up to them to end. So they will have to live with it.

Maybe Enough is Enough?

War-faring Russia is gathering a certain kind of prestige. Among my interviewees were those who said that, say what you will, it is thanks to this war that we managed to get on a level with America (and pat their backs, too: see, now, what terrorists are like?). Israel, too, understands us, and lately this has become fashionable to respect.
We may note a certain spiritual growth, too. My interviewees from among the military like to say that the army makes men out of boys. It seems that with this war, society has started feeling grown-up. Like a young delinquent after his first big coup. See, the war is going on, and we are safe and sound.

Indeed (if it is understood), war makes people and society grow up. It is E. Soloviev, I think, who said that in order for society’s mind and soul to mature, it is especially important to realise one’s defeat. We had a chance to do so after the Afghan war. But we hastened to start the Chechen campaigns. There was another chance after the first of them, but we started a second one.

Time will come to think hard about this second war. Meanwhile, though: Haven’t we made ourselves too comfortable at the fireside of this “domestic” war?

Boris Jelzin [translator's note]

Vladminir Putin [translator's note]

A French documentary co-financed and distributed by Boris Berezovsky, the outlaw and exiled 'oligarch', accusing the Federal Security Services (FSB) of having attempted to blow up a residential building in Ryazan. [translator's note]

A standard expression to describe those ministries and government agencies that organise the use of force: the Ministry of the Interior, the Federal Security Services, the Defence Ministry etc.

Otechestvennye zapiski No. 2/2002, p. 14

Published 5 August 2002
Original in Russian
Translated by Mischa Gabowitsch

Contributed by Neprikosnovennij Zapas © Neprikosnovennij Zapas / Eurozine

PDF/PRINT

Read in: EN / DE / FR / RU

Published in

Share article

Newsletter

Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.

Related Articles

Cover for: Varieties of antifascism

Varieties of antifascism

Russian notes towards a global debate

Controversies over whether there has ever been a true antifascism are ultimately irresolvable. Understanding the varieties of Soviet and post-Soviet antifascism can de-parochialize this debate and add to a conversation appropriate to the global challenge of authoritarian ultra-nationalism.

Discussion