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The Creation and Re-Creation of National Armies in Post-Soviet and Post-Communist Countries - Introduction


Masha Cerovic, Paul Lenormand and Ben McVicker

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1The Russo-Ukrainian War has highlighted the importance of the topic of this special issue, the creation and re-creation of national armies in post-Soviet and post-Communist countries, although it was chosen prior to 24 February 2022. From the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020 to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the onset of full-scale wars in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus has prompted NATO’s renewed enlargement. The process has brought to the forefront the importance of the alliance’s Eastern members’ response to Russian aggression. Not only do NATO countries face the immense transformation of geopolitical and institutional realities, but also of the role of military institutions, their political and economic basis, and their relations to civilian authority in the former members of the Warsaw Pact. These military transformations have not been linear; complex, halting, they reflect difficult, sometimes conflicting processes of democratization, nation- and state-building, and transnational alliance integration. As political scientists, sociologists and increasingly, historians, look back on these aspects, they stress not only their unpredictability and uncertainty, but also the wide range of issues and actors involved, with at times contradictory objectives and effects.

2Authors are also using recently opened archival sources to renew their analysis, complementing the interviews and open-source data that continue to be important for the study of these contentious topics. In spite of Russia’s authoritarian turn and military aggressiveness, the ebb and flow of declassified documents from the Cold War had continued at least until the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, be it the opening of the State Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine (Galuzevii derzhavnii arkhiv Sluzhby bezpeki Ukraini) following the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, or the availability of Andropov and Chernenko fonds at the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv noveishei istorii). Sophie Momzikoff highlights the greater range of documents available to scholars in 2023 in her study of the Soviet Union’s Western Group of Forces’ withdrawal from East Germany from 1990 to 1996. Drawing from documents of the Boris Eltsin and Egor Gaidar Foundations, the Political Archives of the German Foreign office (Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts) and the United States’ Department of State Archive, Momzikoff focuses on the availability of housing for military personnel upon their relocation to the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Russian Federation. In doing so, she touches on the unique challenges faced by President Mikhail Gorbachev in the final year of the Soviet Union, the renegotiation of housing plans between the Russian Federation and its neighbors, and how soldiers’ social-economic welfare in newly independent countries affected the re-imagining of national armies in the 1990s.

3While the withdrawal of Soviet forces from East Germany to the Russian Federation highlights the complex range of setbacks that contributed to the turmoil of the 1990s, Amélie Zima offers a different perspective on military reform in Central and East European countries. In a comparative study of civilian and democratic control of the military in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, she argues that existing Soviet structures such as the Warsaw Pact and COMECON (the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) and indeed, decisions made by communist and former communist actors, formed differing blueprints for civil and democratic control of military forces prior to the clear definition of NATO standards for candidates to meet. The paths to NATO membership differed in each of the three countries despite their sharing a common past. With the questions of NATO taking a uniform position on Russia’s War in Ukraine and a new wave of membership in process, a re-evaluation of domestic contributors to the alliance’s expansion is timely and welcome.

4Léa Xailly’s contribution offers an in-depth analysis of the transformation of the Polish armed forces. She focuses on the military feature of this transition, explaining how a second-in-importance European communist army had to adjust to the new context and requirements of NATO candidacy in less than ten years. This article deals with post-Cold War purges, civil-military relations, the reduction in size and the professionalization of the army. Like in most military forces of the era, budgetary constraints prevented a complete transformation of the Polish army. Despite the limitations in the reformation of its military, Poland applied to NATO membership, a primarily military alliance expecting interoperability and the respect of certain standards, notably civilian control over the armed forces. Western and Polish actors had to cooperate in order to enforce limited organizational and technical change and to allow for the NATO candidacy to succeed. It emphasizes the entangled political and military processes: even without fulfilling all the military criteria for membership, accepting Poland in the alliance was politically welcomed by NATO members – as was the case for other former communist countries of Eastern Europe.

5In a different temporality, Bertrand de Franqueville and Adrien Nonjon discuss the links between the Ukrainian State and the Azov movement, including the military aspect of this cooperation. This study is primarily based on interviews with Azov members who had a military and political experience as soldiers and activists during the 2014-2022 period, but also on printed and press material to show both Azov members’ and state representatives’ viewpoints. In the context of a challenged post-Soviet state, political and military leaders found good use for the nationalist volunteers, notably in the military realm. Conversely, Azov members received resources in form of weapons, financial support and legitimacy. Above all, this article reconsiders the definition of what a state is in the post-communist context: not just an operator above the society, but also a resource-provider for private actors able to mobilize financial support and recognition, contributing in return to reinforcement of the state by interiorizing its importance and domination.

6How Soviet history left an imprint on the armed forces and public consciousness of post-Soviet and post-Communist countries is another question of significance as Russia’s renewed War in Ukraine nears two years in duration. Mark Edele's Stalinism at War highlights how for Soviet citizens of the Far East, the Great Patriotic War was a primarily Asian conflict dating to the USSR’s involvement in the Chinese-Japanese War of 1937 and its consequences resonated in the redrawing of borders. Allen J. Frank explores the how Kazakh conscripts framed the conflict in Central Asian values in Kazakh Muslims in the Red Army, 1939-1945, leaving a significant impression on the country’s postwar culture and indeed, national identity after 1991. How memorialization of the Great Patriotic War differed between 11 countries based on differing politics of memory revised by the state and adapted in localized contexts is the focus of Mischa Gabowitsch’s edited collection, Pamiatnik i prazdnik: etnografiia Dnia Pobedy. How public belief in state narratives is shaped in the critical period of transition between pre-war and wartime framing of events is a key focus of Anastasia Shesterinina's Mobilizing in Uncertainty: Collective Identities and War in Abkhazia. Yaacov Ro’i’s The Bleeding Wound: The Soviet War in Afghanistan and the Collapse of the Soviet System is a detailed study of how domestic response to the war gradually diverged between Soviet republics, leading to different public perceptions of the conflict in Russia, East Europe and Central Asia. Lastly, Olga Khromeychuk’s The Story of a Dead Soldier Told By His Sister offers a thoughtful reflection on how the lines between the personal and the professional become blurred by a sense of loss as one struggles to record a rough draft of history at a time of war.

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Electronic reference

Masha Cerovic, Paul Lenormand and Ben McVicker, “Introduction”The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 23 | 2023, Online since 25 September 2023, connection on 23 February 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Masha Cerovic


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Paul Lenormand

Université Paris-Nanterre

Ben McVicker

University of Toronto

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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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