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HomeThe Journal of Power Institutions...Issue 11Book Reviews - General (2 titles)Andzhei Belovranin, Chernaia Knig...

Book Reviews - General (2 titles)

Andzhei Belovranin, Chernaia Kniga [Black Book]

Saint-Petersbourg, Norma, 2010, 150 pages
Françoise Daucé
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Andzhei Belovranin, Chernaia Kniga [Black Book], Saint-Petersburg, Norma, 2010, 150 pages

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Research Fields:

Anthropology, Sociology
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1This book, edited by Andzhei Belovranin, is the result of a collaboration between the Saint Petersburg Organisation of Soldiers’ Mothers and the independent newspaper Novaia Gazeta. It is based on the documented presentation of concrete cases of violence in the Russian army, but over and beyond precise facts, proposes more general considerations concerning overall rationales of violence in the state’s armed forces. In the introduction, the author  considers the nature of the changes that have taken place since the fall of the USSR. During the Soviet period, the army was an “institution of masculine socialisation”. This myth was useful to the state machine, which above all inculcated a sense of hierarchy in citizens through the intermediary of the army. After the fall of the USSR, all efforts at reforming the army ran up against strong hostility on the part of heads of the military. The gap between “capitalist” society and the pro-Soviet army widened. The situation of officers and soldiers deteriorated. According to the author, after a 20-year “natural selection” process, only corrupt officers remain in the army (this being the only way to survive). Dedovshchina (violent hazing of recruits) has become commonplace in everyday military life. With Putin’s coming to power, the army has not been reformed in depth because the Soviet military model as an ideal has implicitly remained in force.

2The book is divided into two main parts, the first, “The Rationale of Protest” (crimes, impunity, resistance and assistance) and the second, a “Panoptic” (xenophobia, repressive psychiatry, southern Ossetia, officers). Both are illustrated by concrete cases brought to the attention of the Organisation of Soldiers’ Mothers in 2008 and 2009. In the first part, the author gives examples of recent crimes committed in the Russian army. They describe at length an incident involving five soldiers in a Karelian unit who were victims of violent acts on the part of their sergeant and older recruits. The Organisation of Soldiers’ Mothers was able to come to their aid and looked into their unit, where dedovshchina was common. Thanks to their intervention, the officers responsible for these acts were dismissed from the armed services – despite which, dedovshchina continues to exist in that unit. Soldiers’ Mothers believes that violence is part and parcel of the system, rather than linked to particular persons. Those who are subjected to these acts of violence generally want to flee the army. The book gives several cases of young soldiers who were victims of violence and who deserted, with the support of their parents. Desertion however does not necessarily go along with claiming one’s rights. Families often renounce going to court once their son has obtained the right to leave the army. Most often, perpetrators of crimes go without punishment, which only encourages the persistence of acts of violence. The fact that commanders support these criminals and that sometimes, military courts implicitly do so as well gives soldiers the impression that the system is all powerful and that nothing is to be gained by fighting. Instances where victims decide to fight the military machine are rare, but they can however have positive results, and several examples are given. The author presents the case of the mother of a young conscript who managed to open a criminal case, as well as that of a young man, Mikhail Agapov, who decided to fight the army on his own. His family had to overcome its own fears in order to assist him, with the support of the Organisation of Soldiers’ Mothers. Having taken such initiatives against the army, some parents, though few, become members of the association. Soldiers’ Mothers insists on the need for collective action and gives concrete examples of its support of individual cases. In one instance, a petition for a young victim of dedovshchina in a unit of the Interior Ministry near Saint Petersburg in 2009 was signed by 1300 persons. The case received significant media attention and military authorities were forced to answer. Soldiers’ Mothers believes that public opinion has weight and that despite the loyalty of most media to the authorities, some journalists continue to work freely. In that sense, prevalent assertions concerning the dependence of the press and social anomie in the face of abuse of power deserve to be somewhat nuanced by these experiences on the ground. Though few and far between, concrete initiatives on a local level can have positive outcomes and are worthy of note.

3The second part of the book, “Panoptic”, examines overall pathologies of the Russian army and administration. Chapter one is devoted to xenophobia. The two Chechen wars and the prospect of a third in Ingushetia have greatly intensified xenophobia in Russia. In the army, this xenophobia is expressed by the determination to subjugate anyone dark-skinned. There too, many concrete examples exist. Muslims are discriminated against, but discrimination is only a religious pretext to oppress those who are different. Despite this, the economic and social situation in the Caucasus is so disastrous that many young men see the army and security services as the only way to have some kind of prospect for the future. Some even bribe their way back into the army if they have been discharged for medical reasons. They then have to contend with the racism of those who represent the majority nationality. Soldiers’ Mothers regret not being approached more often for cases of xenophobia; victims of racism rarely contact them. Chapter two is devoted to repressive psychiatry. The author states that post-Soviet Russian psychiatry has undergone as few reforms as the army. Psychiatry is used to “treat” soldiers who wrong their corrupt superiors. Soldiers’ Mothers reports several cases of soldiers who were victims of violence in the army and who, having fled their unit, were confined to psychiatric hospitals and subjected to forced treatment. Hospitalisation aims at preventing legal action against those responsible for acts of violence. The third chapter is devoted to South Ossetia. The war revealed the army’s lack of preparation and problems of commandership, as well as its incapacity to avoid problems of dedovshchina and corruption in conflict situations. Soldiers’ Mothers evokes the case of Russian soldiers having fled towards the Georgian enemy to escape acts of violence in the army. After the conflict, the Organisation received many testimonies from recruits who had been sent to fight in South Ossetia, which was then against the law (until Medvedev’s 30 September 2009 oukase authorising post factum the despatch of soldiers outside the borders of the Federation). Soldiers’ Mothers also received numerous testimonies from soldiers who had not received the compensation due them for their participation in the war. Finally, the last chapter in this part is devoted to officers and their difficulties. Russian law stipulates the right to a flat for officers having served at least 20 years (or 10 years if they are obliged to leave the army for reasons of health or staff reduction). This right is usually not granted because of the lack of available flats. The state avoids its obligations towards officers in all ways possible. Soldiers’ Mothers thus intervened to defend the rights of officers requesting housing.

4The book concludes with three long interviews. Ella Poliakova, president of the Saint Petersburg Organisation of Soldiers’ Mothers, recalls the beginning of her commitment to soldiers in the effervescence of perestroika. She explains her determination to inform people of their rights, but stresses the fact that in Russia, defending one’s rights is often difficult because of corruption – people prefer to pay bribes rather than deal with law and justice. However, its insistence on upholding the law is the basis of the Organisation’s recognition by the military authorities themselves. Poliakova describes the links of cooperation Soldiers’ Mothers has put in place with officers in the Saint Petersburg region. The second interview is with Vitaly Tsymbal, in charge of the Military Economy Laboratory of the Institute for the Economy in Transition. He describes the reforms introduced by the Defence Ministry in 2009 and the limits of the staff reductions they entailed. These reforms are still based on massive conscription, the cost recruits being less than that of soldiers under contract. Tsymbal emphasises the fact that recruits are always less efficient than professionals. The Russian army remains massive (close to one million men, of whom 150,000 officers and 170,000 professional soldiers and the remainder recruits). However, these reforms do not seem to have favoured greater efficiency. In the third interview, Aleksandr Golts, assistant editor-in-chief of the electronic review Yezhednevny Zhurnal, claims that the four military reforms introduced after the fall of the USSR have failed because they have retained the model of the Soviet army as an ideal. Golts also underscores the aberration of the reforms now being introduced and aimed at increasing conscription at the expense of professionalism, whereas contemporary conflicts no longer require the massive mobilisation of reserve forces.

5This book, based on the daily experiences of the Saint Petersburg Organisation of Soldiers’ Mothers, offers very numerous concrete examples which show that the well documented difficulties of soldiers in the army during the 1990s have not disappeared with the Putin reforms. These actual cases are useful for an understanding of the social realities of the contemporary Russian army and additionally, provide insight into other “total” Russian institutions. Several comments underline similarities between authoritarian practices in the army and in prisons. A number of terms in the military lexis in fact originated in prisons, as for example, the term “red” in military jargon, which stems from prison jargon and refers to those who collaborate with superiors to improve their situation. The concluding interviews both further our understanding of military realities and lead us to question the nature of the reforms introduced by the Defence Ministry, their economy and often unforeseen consequences. The book is less convincing when it attempts the use of overall political typologies to explain the daily workings of the Russian army, presented as a “feudal institution”, functioning in reality according to the rules of “Oriental despotism” and “serfdom”. These considerations, more of a militant than analytic nature, do not lessen the interest of a book which gives us a good description of the lives of soldiers in today’s Russian army.

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Electronic reference

Françoise Daucé, “Andzhei Belovranin, Chernaia Kniga [Black Book]”The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 11 | 2010, Online since 03 March 2011, connection on 19 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Françoise Daucé

Université Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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