In her introduction to a special thematic file of the Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies, historian J. Cadiot formulates one of the key questions to which the authors have endeavoured to answer: In what way did non-Russians have a specific relationship with the Imperial and Soviet Army and how did the military institution maintain a specific relationship with these recruits? Several articles address in particular Muslims in the Tsar’s regular army and the contemporary army of the Federation of Russia.
In the aftermath of its late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century conquests, the Russian Empire formed national regiments within the regular army (Muslim cavalry of Dagestan, Crimean Tatar squadron, etc.) and other served as auxiliary forces or national militias. A large number of non-Orthodox subjects, particularly Jews after the reign of Nicholas I, were enlisted for regular military service. J. Cadiot reminds us that in the later half of the nineteenth century the model of a homogenous national army became the norm in Europe: Following the abolition of serfdom Alexander II introduced compulsory military service in 1874. However, the 1874 statute did not apply to the outlying parts of the Empire, where the population was deemed unfit for military service. Continuity between the Tsarist and early Soviet period is underlined: A policy of creating or institutionalising national units was introduced in the USSR from 1924 onwards, though till the late 1930s part of the population was largely excluded from military service. In the meantime, the Red Army was given “the capacity to transform society socially and politically on an unprecedented scale” within the Soviet project of modernisation. The articles in this issue cast light on the ways in which the Imperial and Soviet states managed cultural and cultural differences within the army, and attempted to organise uniformity and military efficiency.
The first contribution examines the place given to the Muslim faith in the land units of the Tsar’s regular army after the reforms of the late eighteenth century. The author notably shows how the religious requirements of Muslims were coped with in the imperial Army: inadequately in the case of food rules, though Muslim religious institutions and Muslim soldiers gradually pressed to have their rights respected (Zagidullin I. K., “Osobennosti sobliudeniia religioznykh prav musul’man v rossiiskoi sukhoputnoi reguliarnoi armii v 1874-1914 g. [The Peculiarities of the Observance of Religious Rights of Muslim Servicemen in the Russian Imperial Army, 1874-1914)]).” As for the early Soviet period in Central Asia, the hundred or so Kyrgyz Muslim soldiers in the Kyrgyz national units of the Red Army had to adjust to particular standards of hygiene far remote from traditional practice. The author of this particular study reminds that the creation of these national units of the Red Army was following concerns extremely different from those which had presided over the creation and maintenance of the national units of the Imperial Army: requests from national republics to maintain the semblance of a national army; respect of the nationality policy; and criticism of the Army as an instrument of cultural and linguistic assimilation to Russia (Ohayon Isabelle, “Commentary – The Early Days of Central Asian Military Integration: The Kyrgyz National Division of the Red Army in 1927-1928).”
Few inhabitants of Central Asia and of the Caucasus were enlisted in the Red Army. The national units were designed to be transitional arrangements for training national military élite. However, if in the Caucasus locally-based regiments were disbanded by Stalin in 1938, as potential rear bases for an attack on the USSR, national divisions were rapidly reintroduced after the Soviet Union was drawn into the Second World War. The study on the Caucasian National Formations of the Red Army during the Defence of the Caucasus in 1942 also describes in detail how the various levels of hierarchy analysed events ― desertion in large numbers, in particular ― according to a certain conception of nationalities. It shows Moscow came to play a mediating role between a military command critical of Caucasian soldiers and the republic authorities. The author of this study stresses in particular the action of the Party First Secretaries of Azerbaijan and Dagestan and their links to soldiers who were telling them of their harsh daily lives and the difficult relations they had with Russians (Bezugol’nyi Aleksei, “Kavkazskie natsional’nye formirovaniia Krasnoi Armii v period oborony Kavkaza v 1942 g.).” To be mentioned also: a study on the introduction of the military service in Lithuania from 1940 to Stalin’s death, with transfer to the Baltic countries of the 1920s practices to integrate “less Sovietised” (i.e., less reliable) population groups of the Soviet Union (Leclère Yvan, “L’Imposition des obligations militaires en Lituanie soviétique, 1940-1953 [The Imposition of Military Obligations in Soviet Lithuania, 1940-53]”); and an evocation of the consequences of the closure of the Russian Akhalkalaki base in Georgia in 2007, which caused no major disruption nor massive departures, evidence of the population’s ability to find other sources of income (Øverland Indra, “The Closure of the Russian Military Base at Akhalkalaki: Challenges for the Local Energy Elite, the Informal Economy, and Stability”).
This excellent collection of article is still enriched by substantial appendixes including the publication of captivating primary materials by the journal’s Editor Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski (“The Relations of the Post-Soviet Army to Muslim Minorities – Conversations: Introduction – The Relations of Post-Soviet Army to Muslim Servicemen;” ibid., “There is Discrimination in the Russian Army against Religious Minorities,” interview with Abdurashid Saidov, surgeon, writer and Moscow correspondent for Dagestanskaia Pravda, Moscow, 7 October 2008; ibid., “Serving the Homeland is a Sacred Duty for All Religious Muslims,” interview with Marat-Khazrat Arslanov, Imam, Head of the Department of Military-Patriotic Education of the Council of Muftis of Russia, Moscow, 2 November 2009), as well as a rich selection of secondary sources (Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski, “The Integration of Non-Russian Servicemen in the Imperial, Soviet and Russian Army: A Selected Bibliography”). In all, this innovative volume of the Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies tends to suggest that difficulties in the imperial, Tsarist and present-day armies of Russia were sporadic and loomed only at times of major political upheavals. Perhaps the solicitation of oral history as far as the post-WWII period is concerned and the devotion of a study to the institution of the dedovshchina, a curious absent of this volume despite its significance for public life in Soviet Central Asia, for instance, during the last decades of the Soviet period, would have brought the authors to qualify their position.