Shocking images have been filling our TV screens, YouTube and other social media with allegations of war crimes carried out by Russian soldiers in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns. We have seen images of people murdered, heard stories of looting, rape and general misbehaviour.
This is not what one would expect from a professional military force. What is going on? Are these the actions of a few bad apples? If so, there seem to be a lot of them. Is the bombardment of apartments and homes, hospitals and shelters, theatres and kindergartens a series of errors? Impossible. No trained artilleryman above the rank of lance corporal could mistake blocks of flats for enemy troop positions or schools for hull-down armour. It has to be deliberate.
Why would a professional army (albeit with mainly conscript lower ranks) act in a manner that would bring shame to any soldier?
The answer lies in the history of the Soviet armed forces, and goes back even further, to Tsarist Russia. Jack Watling of Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) explained in an article in The Telegraph (UK) that collective punishment did not begin with Stalin. Russian peasants lived in communes and were expected to police themselves. If they didn’t, everyone suffered.
But if that’s the case, does it mean it’s a “Russian thing” and no one can do anything about it?
The answer is surely no!
Studying the Russian military during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) there are no reports of widespread rape or looting. And this army included Cossack, Bashkir and Kalmyk mounted archers who might not have had the discipline of the regular Russian army. Even later, during Hungary’s independence war of 1848-49, Russia sent 200,000 soldiers to fight the newly minted Hungarian Honvédség (home defence force). The outnumbered and outgunned Hungarians had no chance, and in defiance of Austria, laid down their arms to the Russians. There were no reports of widespread looting, rapine and murder.
The brutality of Communism
It does seem that the inherent brutality of Communism had much to do with shaping Soviet soldiers’ behaviour. In an August 1919 publication, the Cheka (secret police) journal proclaims:
“To us, everything is permitted because we are the very first to raise our swords not to oppress and enslave, but to release humanity from its chains… Blood? Let blood be shed!”
And there’s much more in that bloodthirsty vein. The Russian Civil War (1917-23) is estimated to have cost 10 million lives, plus Lenin’s extra-judicial killings, estimated at three million. Watling quoted a British diplomat from 1919:
“The number of innocent civilians brutally murdered by Bolsheviks at Argo and other Ural towns runs into hundreds; some of these people have been found with eyes pierced out, others without noses… girls have been raped.”
The right to do anything in the struggle to liberate people from their chains certainly continued under Stalin at the end of World War II and thereafter. Besides the huge population “transfers” (i.e., ethnic cleansings) involving millions, the Red Army looted, raped and murdered its way to Berlin and Vienna.
Silence from fellow travellers
I am not a conspiracy theorist, but the total lack of interest in this behaviour amongst Western academics, journalists and politicians could be called a conspiracy of silence. This is not to imagine people in smoke-filled rooms planning to keep the British, American, or French public ignorant, but rather a combination of lack of access to records, a fond remembrance of WWII Allied propaganda which portrayed the Soviets as “our heroic Russian allies” and a dislike of what they thought of as “Eastern Europeans”. After all, Britain, the Commonwealth, and the U.S. had hundreds of thousands of Poles, Ukrainians, “Yugoslavs”, Hungarians and other refugees they could have asked about these reports but preferred not to. There was also the evidence for Soviet looting and rape from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and neutral sources like Sweden and Switzerland.
We should also not overlook the attraction that so many in the West found in Marxist rhetoric, or even Communism. In the 1940s and 50s, the KGB used this sentiment to recruit spies like the famous Cambridge Five (and hundreds of others). The French 1968 riots and other Western student movements used Che Guevara and Mao Zedong as their ideals. These were all radical left-wing movements and the student uprising would open the way for terrorist groups like Germany’s Baader-Meinhoff gang or the USA’s Weathermen.
It is worth noting that while Western protesters in 1968 risked arrest and a slap on the wrist, the Czechoslovak Prague Spring demonstrators risked death. They were calling for the kind of rights the French and other 1968-ers already had.
Nonetheless, the Western rebels’ influence was widespread in academia and politics. Two examples are the former president of European Union Parliament, Nicole Fontaine, and EU Greens leader and fanatical EU federalist, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. An example from academia would be American historian Lynn Hunt. In her book History, Why it Matters in which she points to how politicians like Donald Trump use lies to push their agendas. She lists numerous evils in recent history, from Turkey’s genocide of the Armenians to South African Apartheid to America’s treatment of Blacks and Native peoples to the Nazis. However, nowhere in the whole book is there a single mention of Communist crimes! That doesn’t make Professor Hunt a Marxist or Communist, but she is certainly helping their cause, even unconsciously.
There can be little doubt that the self-proclaimed revolutionaries of 1968 worked hard to cover up Communist crimes, resulting in works like that of Dr Hunt. Attitudes like this meant that very few Western historians challenged Soviet historians.
Terror from Russian ‘liberators’ in 1945
It took until the 2000s that books such as Antony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall 1945, appeared, which discusses Soviet mass rape in depth. Beevor writes: ”The subject has been so repressed in Russia that even today veterans refuse to acknowledge what really happened.” In 2009, a film appeared based on a German woman’s diary, title A Woman in Berlin, according to National Public Radio. Since then, a grudging acknowledgement exists in the West that their Russian allies were, well, not perfect (but they quickly remind you the Nazis were worse. By what measure, I’ll never know.)
The rapes and plunder are well-remembered not only in Germany, but in the Baltic States, Poland, Hungary and indeed, all the countries supposedly “liberated” by the Red Army. A report by the Swiss Legation stated:
“During the siege of Budapest and also during the following weeks, Russian troops looted the city freely. They entered practically every habitation, the very poorest as well as the richest. They took away everything they wanted, especially food, clothing and valuables… every apartment, shop, bank, etc. was looted several times. Furniture and larger objects of art, etc. that could not be taken away were frequently simply destroyed. In many cases, after looting, the homes were also put on fire, causing a vast total loss… Bank safes were emptied without exception — even the British and American safes — and whatever was found was taken.”
A final example of this list of horrors, which underscores that what we are seeing on our media is not some aberration, is the 1945 murder by Soviet soldiers of Blessed Vilmos Apor, the Catholic Bishop of the city of Győr in Hungary. He was protecting some 100 women and girls from rape when Soviet soldiers burst into the building. He tried to protect them but was shot at close range with a submachine gun.
Unlike most people in the West, I grew up on stories about the Soviet Red Army being the enemy. From my father and his Hungarian, East German, Polish and other refugee friends I heard stories of the Second World War. From my mother and her friends, I heard stories of “when the Russians came.” These stories, like my late mother’s description of the Red Army’s entry into Budaörs, and of how young women like herself dressed as grandmothers and avoided the Soviet soldiers’ gaze, as well as friends who were raped, told exactly what I have written above, and this made me begin to wonder, “why doesn’t anyone care about this?”
This was back in the 1970s, when respected publications like Purnell’s History of the Second World War wondered whether the Katyn massacre of Polish officers and leaders had been committed by the Germans or the Soviets?
There was a moment when the USSR was questioned with the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in 1973. But it was soon overtaken by “cool” themes and forgotten.
And finally, when the Warsaw Pact finally collapsed, there was a historical moment when Soviet behaviour was revealed. In the late Gorbachev era, and during the Yeltsin era in the 1990s, books, TV documentaries and other publications appeared that described Soviet crimes, which naturally included Russian ones, and war crimes among all the other crimes.
Yet, in this period, Western leaders still hung back from condemning the USSR and Communism, which had spawned the behaviour seen in 1944 and 1945, and in Afghanistan in the 1980s. First, they strongly resisted former Warsaw Pact nations putting Communist criminals on trial, warning darkly of witch hunts and McCarthyism. A concrete example of this is something Central European nations fought tooth and nail for, an EU condemnation of Communism. Here’s what they got: “The European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism” on August 23. By only condemning Stalin’s crimes, the EU in the most cowardly way gave Lenin, Khrushchev, Andropov and the rest a pass.
The simple point is that had Lenin’s Red Guards not overthrown the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky which was in the process of writing a modern constitution for Russia in the former Winter Palace of the Tsar, the violence and brutality of not only Tsarist Russia but also Soviet Russia – which was also reflected in the Red Army’s behaviour – might well have been brought to an end.
The Russian way of war
Which brings us back to the modern Russian army. It is clear from its doctrine that it is the direct follow-on from the Soviet Army. Besides combined arms tactics and a strategy that is based on an imaginary threat from the West, there is also very little leeway given to the junior ranks. This is important as it robs frontline soldiers of flexibility. For instance, in Western armies, if an infantry platoon arrives at the bridgehead that it has been ordered to hold in its written orders, but the commander, a second lieutenant, observes that the target is undefended, he would send a small reconnaissance team to the other side and possibly check to see if the bridge was mined. If all was clear, the unit would cross and take up a position on the other side of the bridge. This would greatly help follow-up units to cross the river or other obstacle.
By contrast, a Russian junior officer or sergeant would wait for orders from higher up the chain of command before acting, thus allowing the enemy to counter-attack and retake the bridge.
But why the looting, murders and rapes? The collective punishment tradition is one likely reason. The Russians appear to be “collectively” punishing Ukrainians for not wanting to join “Mother Russia”. Poor morale and leadership would no doubt be another, and there is another, rather uniquely Russian reason. This is the unique relationship between what is “moral” and what is “legal” and how these ideas are interpreted by Russians versus Westerners.
According to numerous Western sources, such as the US Army Foreign Military Studies analysis, The Russian Way of War and Georgetown University’s study on the Soviet legacy in Russian ethics, Russians think quite differently about “right” and “wrong” than Westerners.
One well-known element of the Soviet military legacy is corruption in the higher ranks. Everybody in the former East Bloc knows a story or two about the Soviet colonel or similar rank building his dacha (holiday home) using stolen materials and conscript soldiers’ labour, who were simply given orders to fetch and carry bricks, wood or whatever as part of their military service. It should not be surprising that corruption was endemic in Communist societies, because there was no oversight and free media, nor a parliamentary opposition, and therefore no checks and balances.
The authors of the Russian Way of War point out that: “In Russia, whatever is considered ‘morally right’ is usually interpreted to be ‘legally right’”. They give the example of the Crimea, which was transferred from direct Soviet control to Soviet Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. The Russian leadership believes this to be wrong, and therefore their occupation of it was “legal”.
It’s only fair to acknowledge some allegations that Ukrainian soldiers have committed war crimes. In feverish atmosphere of war, it is bound to happen. Some of the Ukrainian top brass served in the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan; about a quarter of the troops there were Ukrainian. No doubt Ukrainian Afgantsy learned a thing or two about waging war according to Soviet methods.
However, in the current conflict, the Russians are the aggressors. Given that they have never acknowledged their criminal behaviour, whether in the Civil War, World War II, or their more recent actions in countries like Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria, it is not surprising to see them failing to face up to their actions yet again in Ukraine.
Had Western scholars, diplomats, students and journalists faced their Soviet counterparts with hard questions about their rapes, looting and plunder in Belgrade, Budapest, Vienna and Berlin, perhaps we would not be hearing about Russian soldiers doing it all over again today.