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Why Russian Army Is a Completely Different Beast From Its Former 1990s Self

The biggest difference is not in equipment or even organization and training, but prestige, social status and personnel. Army has gone from employing only those too stubborn or too unskilled to seek a better job, to attracting the competent and the ambitious

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Military service in Russia has historically acted as a career boost. In Soviet times, the army was known as the Workers’ and Peasants’ Army and it acquired a certain prestige; compulsory service lasted just 2-3 years and was regarded as an obligation for men. With its opportunities to learn a trade, military service gave many – particularly those from villages – a start in life.

During the upheavals in Russia in the 1990s, however, serving in the military lost its value as the armed forces received little funding, new equipment was not purchased, practically no military training took place and many career officers resigned in order to support their families.

“In the 1990s, I remember that every officer, including me, tried to wear a military uniform as little as possible – it was embarrassing. The military officers then were losers – people who could not get a good job stayed in the army. So people attended military service in their civilian clothes,” recalls Colonel Vladimir K.

This difficult period for the Russian Army lasted more than 10 years. Following Sergei Shoigu's appointment as Defense Minister, military pay increased significantly, with the monthly allowance being raised six-fold from RUB 12,000 or $170 to RUB 50,000 or $720 for a lieutenant. The housing issue has been addressed and most military members that had been waiting on a list for 20 years have been given housing.

The staging of military exhibitions is now open to the public. The revival of DOSAAF (Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation and Navy), which trains young people approaching the conscription age in military occupational specialties and also develops and popularizes military sports, including target shooting and battlefield orientation, have also borne fruit. As a result, public attitudes to army service and a career in the military have started to change. Wearing epaulettes have become prestigious once again and military service, whether conscription or professional, have made a comeback as a sign of masculinity.

In a recent survey by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 64 percent of respondents said that the army was the best place for a young man to get a good moral and physical education, almost twice as many as the 33 percent that said as much in a similar survey in 1990 on the Soviet Army.

Another positive factor is that living conditions are also perceived as having improved significantly: 60 percent described them as “good,” compared to just 18 percent in 1990.

Being employed by the military has become more prestigious in contemporary Russian society, although often it is used as a springboard for a career rather than a demonstration of an interest in military affairs.

“I don’t want to connect my fate with military service in the future,” says Vladimir P., a sergeant in the military commandant's office in Sevastopol. “I plan to start a career in government service or the FSB. They take people there that are just getting out of the army.”

More often than not, the motivation is material.

“Like a lot of people, I was tempted by the high pay compared to civilian workers,” says Anna Z., a lieutenant serving in a Moscow-based unit. “That was my main motive for joining the armed forces.”

Apart from this revival of its social role and an increased interest in the military as a profession by young people, the Russian army has changed in many other ways over the last three years.

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