The once-mighty Russian Army is in a state of disarray. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it lost much of its substance and all of its moral bearings. So far, nothing has replaced the latter. To compound matters, the citizenry, once proud of its armed forces, tends to look on them with disdain or even hostility, especially the young. Meanwhile, Russia’s woeful economic state has made the ruble almost worthless and seriously affected military pay, causing a drastic decline in living conditions. Field grade officers up to the rank of colonel are living with their families in boxcars, while many company grade officers have been reduced to tents—tents, even in the Russian winter. We do not yet have reliable figures on the death toll of infants and small children under these conditions, but they must be enormous given the severe shortage of pharmaceuticals and medical facilities. The senior officers of the army are not faring so poorly. The generals’ access to military resources that can be sold on the open market has enabled some of them to survive quite well. Not all of them are crooked, of course, but the temptations are great.
It is against this background that some of the army’s responsible leaders speak of “the spiritual rebirth of the Russian armed forces.” As the leaders put it, the armed forces have lost the old ethics (of the Communist Party) while a new ethics has yet to appear. To aid in “giving birth to the spiritual rebirth,” the Russians have held several meetings in Moscow over the past three years that have included Westerners (mainly, but not entirely, civilians) experienced in troop morale and social welfare. By invitation as a national director of the Navy League of the United States, I attended one of these meetings, on the “Social Dimensions of Military Reform,” this past May. In addition to a large American contingent, delegations from Britain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland were there. Much to my surprise, I learned upon arrival that I was appointed cochairman of the section on “Military and Social Work in Troops.” Despite the language barrier, I was able to follow (with the aid of two young interpreters) the proceedings quite well and even to contribute in a small way.
I asked, for example, if Russia’s armed services would be interested in sending a delegation to the United States to learn how the American military deals with personnel problems and how defense-related organizations like the Navy League and the Air Force Association offer support to the services. The Russians were quite interested.
In seeking the “rebirth of the armed forces,” the Russians are casting about for an anchor and have shown a renewed interest in religion. They appear to have reestablished firm relations with the Orthodox Church, and military authorities are seeking ties with other faiths, although they do not know exactly how to incorporate them. The Orthodox Church wields great moral authority even among nonbelievers, in spite of its former ties to the KGB. The Russian Orthodox Church is, of course, a nationalist church, which provides it with a firm basis in Russian culture at the very outset. Unthinkable a few years ago, there is now a magazine called Vera i Muzhestvo (Faith and Mankind) and billed as a “military Christian illustrated journal.” Unsurprisingly, the Orthodox Church is prominently featured, although the first quarterly issue for 1993 contained a photograph of a cardinal addressing a group. Father Gleb Yakunin, a priest of the Orthodox Church, is a former political prisoner and the 1992 recipient of the Religious Freedom Award of the Washington-based Institute of Religion and Democracy. He has been active in military reform both as an elected member of the parliament and as a cleric and has developed considerable credibility among the officer corps. On two occasions, I have heard estimates that about one-third of the officer corps is Christian, with perhaps five to ten percent strong believers. Indeed, I have met two colonels who appear to be in the latter category.
Despite the strong interest in establishing religious ties with the Orthodox Church and various other denominations, there is no move to introduce a chaplain corps. The military leaders apparently wish to establish close contact between troops and clergy, but with the latter in civilian capacity. Under the Russian plan, the secular duties (counseling, welfare, etc.) of chaplains in Western armed forces would be taken over by a corp of welfare workers in uniform, roughly the successors of the old political officers.
Meanwhile, the Russian armed forces seem to have embarked on rebuilding their “military-industrial complex.” According to the June issue of Sea Power (a monthly journal of the Navy League of the United States), the Russians have announced plans for the immediate resumption of naval construction. Although construction for foreign sales has been going on for some time, this is the first announcement of such major rebuilding for the Russian armed forces.
A major problem from the perspective of the armed forces is the lack of interest in the military among Russian youth. Only half the annual draft shows up at the recruiting stations. This figure, incidentally, comes from the Russian military leaders, not the Western press. A young business agent for my daughter served two years in the Russian army during “Soviet times” (as he puts it) and hates the military services, largely because of their brutal nature. I heard from a Russian colonel that many, perhaps most, of the officers in the new regime want to rid the army of such practices. I told this young man that the American Armed Forces do not work that way but was never able to convince him. This low opinion of the armed services is exacerbated by rampant corruption. Sales of army property in order to maintain something approaching their former life-styles have reached catastrophic proportions. Much of the stolen property gets into criminal hands, to either the Russian Mafia or rogue states like Iran.
In concluding, a word of caution about current missionary efforts. Most Russians appear to resent Western missionaries, who often act as if they must convert a nation of heathens. The Russian people are not irreligious. Indeed, they seem to be far more religious than most Western nations. Missionaries who enter the country with nothing more than themselves and religious literature seem generally unwelcome. More appreciated are religious folk who come to relieve human suffering and who do not “wear their religion on their sleeves.”