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Notes on militarization in Soviet society 

The deep militarization of Russian society, rooted in Soviet history and perpetuated in the Russian Federation, has shaped not only the country’s internal structure but also its approach to foreign policies and international conflicts. The evolution of the role of the military and the siloviki, from key actors in internal governance to protagonists on the political scene, has directly influenced Russia’s posture towards Ukraine. The current crisis between Russia and Ukraine can be seen as an external manifestation of this long tradition of militarization and political activism of the armed forces. The decision to undertake military actions against Ukraine reflects not only geopolitical considerations but also the enduring influence of military and security structures in defining Russia’s national priorities, highlighting how internal dynamics can have significant repercussions on regional and global stability.

The structure of Soviet society was inherently modeled on military principles, aiming at population control and productive efficiency, reflecting a typical approach of armed organizations. The roots of this structuring go back to the history of the USSR, with Lenin’s Bolshevik Party embodying the ideal of a group of revolutionaries wholly dedicated to the conquest of power, governed by strict military discipline. Following the 1917 revolution, the party ethic promoted total personal sacrifice for collective objectives, comparable to a soldier’s unconditional obedience to superior commands. Party cells, spread in every aspect of social life – from factories to schools, through the army – emphasized organized collective work in “brigades” or “assault teams”. Even the political lexicon was inspired by military terminology, with expressions such as “pioneer front” and “mobilization of reserves”, and the world of work adopted symbols and decorations similar to those of the military environment. The Soviet army served as the main agent of socialization and “Sovietization” for the Union’s broad ethnic mosaic, with almost 70% of young people involved in military service in the ’80s. Before enlisting or entering military academies, young people were prepared by organizations such as DOSAAF and Komsomol, which replicated the structure and discipline of the army, playing a crucial role in military training and national defense.

The impact of the army and security forces, collectively known as “siloviki”, extends well beyond their visible presence in the social and political fabric of the Russian Federation, perpetuating a Soviet-era tradition. These individuals retain the right, shared with all Russian citizens, to actively engage in political life, participating in parties and running for elective office. This inclusion dates back to the Soviet period, when their status did not preclude participation at the highest decision-making levels, such as the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Politburo, the latter traditionally including the Defense Minister as a full member until the Gorbachev era. During the ’80s, the armed forces were well represented within the main governing bodies and the Communist Party, with a significant percentage of officers and non-commissioned officers also being party members, signaling a deep politicization of the military institution.

In the early ‘90s, the Russian political arena saw the significant entry of military figures, urged by the main political actors of the time, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, to act as mediators in their disputes. This phase marked the beginning of a new power dynamic, with Yeltsin rewarding the siloviki for their support in the tumultuous events of 1993, placing military figures in key state positions. Unlike the USSR, where the influence of the military was counterbalanced by that of the KGB and the Party, in post-Soviet Russia, it concentrated around the figure of the president. Yeltsin sought to mitigate this influence by strengthening alternative “structures of power” and maintaining a balance between the army and other security forces, under the oversight of the KGB’s successor services. Concurrently, with the dissolution of the USSR, some military personnel took prominent roles in the formation of new political parties and the economy, capitalizing on their skills and knowledge acquired during the Soviet period.

With the rise to power of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, at the end of 1999, the Russian political landscape had already seen a significant presence of the military and siloviki in its decision-making ranks. This transition from the Soviet era is distinguished by the passage of the military from mere representatives of their institution to active protagonists of Russian political life. However, the idea that Russia has been subjected to complete “militarization” under Putin is a reductive interpretation. Although some ultranationalist movements and elections have projected an image of strong military support for extremist ideologies, it’s important to recognize that the military, like the rest of the Russian population, does not form a homogeneous block and their political affiliations span a wide spectrum.

The deep institutional crisis that shook Moscow between September 21 and October 4, 1993, originated from the clash between President Boris Yeltsin and the Parliament, still rooted in the old Soviet structure and led by Ruslan Khasbulatov, with the support of Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi. This tension culminated when Yeltsin, responding to the systematic opposition of the Parliament, decided to dissolve it, provoking an immediate reaction that led to armed conflict. The situation degenerated into violence when the supporters of the Parliament, led by Rutskoi, overcame the security forces. On October 4, after indecisions, the army was authorized to act against the Parliament, leading to a tragic toll of victims. This episode risked profoundly dividing the armed forces, highlighting the complexity of the relationship between political power and the military in a critical transition period.

During the 1995 legislative elections, the political activism of the siloviki became particularly evident. This period saw the Defense Minister, Pavel Grachev, initiating a campaign in the barracks, aiming to consolidate an influential military block. At the same time, key figures from the armed forces launched into the electoral competition supporting various parties, from nationalist right to communism, reflecting the wide range of political orientations within the military establishment. Yeltsin’s reaction to this massive presence of the military in politics was the introduction of laws that regulated their electoral participation, although these regulations seemed to be largely ignored in the 1999 elections. These latter were marked by a renewed and broad candidacy of siloviki and by violations of the restrictions on electoral campaigning in military facilities, underlining the challenges in maintaining a clear separation between the military and political spheres.

Despite the reduced presence of the siloviki in the Russian legislative bodies compared to the Soviet period, their influence remains significant. In 1991, almost a fifth of deputies came from this group, but such proportion has decreased after the collapse of the USSR. However, the 1999 legislative elections saw an increase in military and ex-military candidates, with about twenty of them elected. Recent analyses indicate that siloviki constitute about 9% of the deputies in the current Duma, although their actual number may be higher. This scenario highlights how, despite a reduced numerical presence, the impact of the security forces on Russian politics remains relevant, reflecting a continuity with the Soviet tradition of interaction between the military and politics.

In the context of the political and social transition from the end of the USSR to the current Russian Federation, the figure of the military and the siloviki has undergone a significant evolution. If during the Soviet era the presence of the military in state institutions was seen as a stable component of governance, the post -Soviet phase has seen these actors become active participants in political debate and in the formation of new power structures. The 1993 crisis represented a turning point, marking the transition from indirect political participation to a more direct and visible role. The subsequent proliferation of military candidacies in elections highlighted the challenge of balancing the needs of an evolving civil society with the historical weight of the armed forces.

The 1995 and 1999 legislative elections underscored this trend, with a significant presence of siloviki among the candidates and their active participation in political life, despite legal restrictions introduced. This phenomenon not only reflects the continuity of military influence in Russian politics but also the ability of these groups to adapt and remain relevant in a rapidly changing political context. The presence of siloviki in the Duma and the Federation Council, although reduced compared to the Soviet era, demonstrates a persistent intersection between the military and political spheres, highlighting the complexity of Russia’s transition to post-Soviet governance structures.

Through these changes, contemporary Russia reflects the challenge of integrating the traditions of security forces into the construction of a civil society and a political system that seeks to balance Soviet legacies and modern aspirations, while maintaining a dialogue between the different components of its social and political fabric.

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