In his May 9 Victory Parade speech, Russian president Vladimir Putin likened the war in Ukraine to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, saying “real war” had been unleashed against Russia.
He is reported to be planning to mobilise an extra 500,000 troops in 2023. In April he passed new legislation introducing electronic military draft papers, which will make it much harder to avoid conscription.
The last wave of conscription in September 2022 prompted an exodus of hundreds of thousands of young men to neighbouring countries. So to encourage men to enlist, the Kremlin has launched a massive media campaign appealing to the notion of “warrior masculinity”.
Russian news outlets and social media platforms as well as billboards and lampposts in big cities have been filled with adverts explaining that a man who joins the military is a hero – a real man deserving respect and admiration.
The advertising videos tell the stories of men who volunteered to join up. It’s a familiar tale of how signing up drastically improves men’s lives. Their children and wives admire their heroism, their ex-girlfriends fall in love with them again and they gain the respect of their communities.
Those who have left are portrayed as selfish cowards, as with one advert in which a woman says: “The boys left, the men stayed.” Another advert, which ends with the caption “You’re a real man, be one,” emphasises the good wages on offer to men who join up. Enlisting is presented as a means to improve one’s financial standing – pay off a debt, buy a car, move out from a small town into a large city.
But how effective are campaigns like this? My research on Russian masculinities suggests that the themes of “be a man” and “make more money” play into two of the most common anxieties among Russian men. But the problems experienced last September when – according to some reports – up to 700,000 left Russia to avoid conscription (something the Kremlin has denied) suggests that these messages haven’t worked very well.
Two paradoxes, which are legacies of the fall of the Soviet Union, can help explain the lukewarm response to the call to arms.
Unwilling to serve
The first is a structural contradiction which has persisted since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that military service remains a constitutional duty for men aged 18-27, only a minority of men in the draft pool end up serving in the armed forces. The rest avoid military call-up via legal and illegal means.
According to Canadian researcher Maya Eichler, compared to the Soviet era when 70% to 85% of draft-age men were conscripted, in the first post-Soviet decade or so the Russian state was only able to call up about 10% to 30% of men in the draft pool.
Secondly, my research has found that while Russian men tend to support the military as an institution, they are very critical of the way it is run in Russia. Men I spoke to – across several generations – called the Russian army “corrupt”, “venal”, “deeply damaged”, “rotten”, “discredited”, “severely underfunded”, and “a shameful place based on dedovshchina” (hazing and bullying).
I conducted these interviews in 2012-2014 and found the majority of men I spoke with expressed personal unwillingness to serve in the Russian army and were strictly against their own sons serving.
My research comprised in-depth biographical interviews with 40 Russian men of different ages and highly varied socioeconomic and professional backgrounds living in Russia and in the UK. In almost half of those interviews, militarised notions of masculinity and heroic fantasies were expressed. For 17 participants, the idea of being a man was first and foremost linked to the notion of a “warrior” or “defender”.
Conversations about the military were one of the main grounds where Russian men negotiated and established their masculinity, as well as that of other men. A lack of military experience was explicitly or implicitly perceived as a lack of respectable masculinity. This was evident whether or not the men I was interviewing had done military service.
Despite Putin’s military reforms, my interviewees regarded Soviet and post-Soviet Russian armies as two completely different social institutions. The former was seen as a social lift, a place where masculinity is forged and where ordinary men become heroes. The post-Soviet army, by contrast, was often seen as a corrupt and dangerous place, a waste of time, and a place for poor people with no other life prospects.
In 2004, a Human Rights Watch report found that the transition to a market economy had a serious impact on conscription. Young men from relatively privileged backgrounds can buy their way out of the army or get a draft deferment to attend university, so the majority of conscripts in Russia “come from the most disadvantaged, least affluent parts of society”.
In her 2012 book, Militarizing Men: Gender, Conscription, and War in Post-Soviet Russia, Canadian scholar Maya Eichler asserts that army service has become “increasingly tied to a marginal masculinity differentiated by class”.
The Russian army in Ukraine is overwhelmingly made up of soldiers from the poorest regions of the country. Mobilisation has also disproportionately targeted ethnic minority regions such as republics of Buryatia and Dagestan, where for many, signing an army contract is the only way to make a living.
The breakdown of the Soviet social contract on which men’s soldiering rested (guaranteed employment, housing, and other state-funded benefits) and the failure of the Russian state to provide similarly tangible rewards radically undermined men’s willingness to serve in the military.
The transition to capitalism and free market created new notions of masculinity tied to financial success. This new masculinity entered into conflict with the patriotic, self-sacrificing militarised masculinity of the Soviet times.
In his work on the contradictions in modern militarism, US scholar Michael Mann likens public interest in the national use of armed forces to a “spectator sport”. I found this in my research, where it became clear that the Soviet-era citizen-soldier has turned into a citizen-spectator. Individuals may vocally support militarism while refusing to personally engage in any military practices.