Videos have circulated online in recent weeks showing Russian soldiers complaining about the lack of training they’ve received, as well as the poor state of their equipment. Throughout history, it has always been seen as a soldier’s right to complain – at least to a point.
During the Soviet era, soldiers often knew not to complain too loudly. So, it has actually come as a surprise that the Russian soldiers are complaining so publicly, but even in the Second World War, some Red Army soldiers weren’t exactly shy about their feelings.
“The negative comments included hints of the desperate military situation, accounts of hunger, cold, homesickness, poor weapons, insomnia, and the like,” explained Dr. Matthew E. Lenoe, associate professor of history at the University of Rochester, and author of the book Closer to the Masses: Stalinist Culture, Social Revolution and Soviet Newspapers.
Diaries from those soldiers present the same overall picture as what is being shared today on social media.
“A lot of patriotism, but also discouragement,” added Lenoe. “Remember, discouragement and complaining does not necessarily mean a lack of readiness to fight. In short, the situation with soldiers’ complaints about bad conditions was more similar in WWII to today than one might think.”
Many of the complaints aren’t really all that different today from what the Soviet soldiers grumbled about during the “Great Patriotic War” – the term the Soviet Union essentially described the conflict to its people. In addition to overlooking what was said, military intelligence and other branches produced reports based on them that recommended various measures for improving conditions at the front, some of which the army even acted on.
“Complaining about bad food, poor supplies, and even incompetent officers would not usually get you serious discipline, much less a death sentence,” Lenoe continued. “You might have to have a talk with your unit political officer, who would explain your errors and suggest you change your attitude.”
There were still lines that couldn’t be crossed of course.
“Outright anti-Soviet and anti-Stalin comments would be run down by the NKVD and the (supposed) perpetrators punished, whether by execution, a GULAG sentence – often suspended until war’s end – or assignment to a ‘penal battalion’ that would be given the most deadly combat tasks,” Lenoe suggested. “Typically the soldiers today do not complain about Putin’s rule directly. Nor do they often express open discontent with the invasion. Rather they say they want to be properly supplied, supported, etc. and they want competent leadership.”
Could Complaints Even Be Stopped?
It may seem to observers that the Russian soldiers are voicing their opinions on the situation more than their counterparts in the past, but it must be remembered that during World War II, Americans in uniform also had their correspondence censored – and there were limits on what was tolerated when it came to soldiery grumbling in almost all armies.
Today, social media has just made it all the easier for the world to hear how every individual apparently feels at any time. As a result, it may be shocking that the Russian soldiers and even Russians in general, are so vocal. One issue is that Moscow really has no way of truly limiting access to social media.
“Putin didn’t build a Chinese-style firewall around the Russian Internet,” said Dr. Matthew J. Schmidt, associate professor of political science at the University of New Haven.
“Those videos come and go because Putin didn’t understand the web and left gaping holes in the IT infrastructure that allows videos of embarrassing and horrifying battlefield outcomes, and critiques, to get posted to Telegram every day,” Schmidt explained.
By not shutting down Internet access sooner, the Kremlin essentially allowed a culture of expectation to evolve where the Russian public would see a lack of such news as a sign of weakness, or even a confirmation of failure.
“So the Kremlin is in a bind,” suggested Schmidt. “It has to allow some measure of critique of the military, but not Putin, to come off as authentic — but not of the sort that might undermine the narrative for the war. It’s an impossible balance to try to keep.”
It is also unlikely that those who have called out the military leadership should expect an NKVD-style response, where soldiers are shot for being too vocal.
“Modern authoritarian states have to use the language of democracy and they have to exist in the era of social media – so blanket comparisons to a past without those constraints isn’t fair,” said Schmidt. “You could crush local communities for dissent and reasonably expect to contain the knowledge and blowback from it. That’s nearly impossible now, and so Putin’s regime has to operate with a big constraint the Soviets didn’t have to deal with.”
Moreover, the complaints are likely to only grow louder, even if there are some crackdowns on what is said. In addition to having access to a medium that can share their thoughts with the world, there is the fact that this conflict is quite different from the Great Patriotic War. The Red Army tolerated the grumbling as the country was fighting for its very survival. By contrast, the Russian soldier today likely isn’t sure why he is fighting.
“This is quite different from the situation today – Russian soldiers know that this is not a war for Russia’s existence,” added Lenoe. “This makes them less willing to die.”
A point they’re now making known to the world via social media.