In June 1921, after the Civil War had been won and Soviet power consolidated, Mikhail Frunze, one of the leading Red commanders, urged that a military doctrine be formulated, in order to give direction to the development and training of the Red Army. Trotsky, still the commissar for war, rejected Frunze’s argument, on the grounds that doctrine would degenerate into “doctrinairism.” For him the immediate tasks facing the Red Army were more mundane and practical—“to teach how to oil rifles and grease boots”—than the abstractions of doctrine.

Trotsky lost the argument, and Frunze’s view of military doctrine and its role is accepted in the Soviet Union today. But Trotsky’s warning proved correct. In the 1930s a huge gulf opened up between the pretensions of doctrine and the performance of the Red Army. On the eve of the German invasion of June 22, 1941 the three basic principles of Soviet military doctrine were: readiness to repel any aggressor; defeat of the enemy on his own territory; victory with little bloodshed. But when the Germans attacked, the Red Army was not ready and could not stop their advance. By the end of November the Soviet state had lost control of 40 percent of its population and grain production, and 60 percent of its coal, iron, and steel output. Millions of Soviet soldiers were killed or taken prisoner before the end of the year. The German invasion had exposed, in a cruel and brutal fashion, the gap between doctrine and performance.

The Soviet Union pulled itself together and stopped the German advance. By the end of 1942 arms were beginning to pour out of Soviet factories, and a high command of great ability emerged from the early battles. The arms and the men were now available to put into practice the military concepts that had been adopted before the war. The Red Army pushed the German forces out of the Soviet Union, and back to Berlin. After 1945 Stalin ignored the early disasters and claimed that the war had demonstrated the superiority of the Soviet social order. Despite this, the failure to translate doctrine into practice in 1941 has troubled the Soviet leaders ever since.

Since 1945 a “revolution in military affairs” (to use the Soviet expression) has transformed the armed forces. The Ministry of Defense has published thousands of books and articles to expound the Soviet conception of war in the nuclear age, and of the methods by which it should be fought and won. But Trotsky’s question is still valid. Is Soviet military doctrine doctrinaire? In his reply to Frunze, Trotsky quoted Clausewitz’s warning that “in the practical arts the theoretical leaves and blossoms must not be allowed to grow too high, but must be kept close to experience, their proper soil.” There is evidence that the Soviet High Command worries about the armed forces’ ability to put doctrine into practice. The victory over Germany may have allayed some doubts, but Soviet forces have not had enough combat experience since 1945 for the Soviet leaders to be wholly confident of the answer to Trotsky’s question.

Soviet military writings are frequently quoted (and misquoted) in our defense debates, while the names and numbers of Soviet weapons have become familiar through constant repetition. But we have paid curiously little attention to the Soviet soldier, even though it is he who would have to put the doctrine into practice and to use the weapons. Andrew Cockburn notes in his book that United States intelligence agencies have shown little interest in the thousands of former soldiers who have left the Soviet Union in the latest wave of emigration. Even when they do interview these men, they tend to concentrate on the order of battle—which units are where, and what equipment they have—but ignore the things that largely determine the effectiveness of a military unit—morale, discipline, cohesion, and leadership.

This neglect springs from a traditional military concern with identifying the strength and disposition of enemy forces. It is rooted also in a technological conception of warfare that underestimates the human element in modern war. But it also reflects the pervasive view that in the Soviet Union only two institutions—the army and the police—work well. The Pentagon devotes much of its public relations effort to portraying the Soviet armed forces as a highly efficient and effective organization that is somehow free of the failings that are to be found elsewhere in Soviet society. (It is not idle, I think, to ask whether we would have a different attitude to Soviet agriculture if its performance could be measured not in terms of annual yield, but only in terms of the area cultivated and the numbers of workers and tractors employed, and if the US Department of Agriculture did as much for its image as the Pentagon does for the military’s.) Because the Soviet armed forces are judged to be effective, the question of a mismatch between doctrine and performance is not given much weight.


Some years ago the political scientist Herbert Goldhamer, in a study based on the Soviet military press, suggested rather cautiously that the Soviet armed forces might not in fact be any more efficient or effective than Soviet civilian institutions.1 He concluded that there were important features of Soviet military life and organization that would limit—though not eliminate—the soldier’s effectiveness in combat. Goldhamer was able to identify serious problems of morale, discipline, and leadership. But since he drew his evidence from the military press, he had to view these problems from above, from the perspective of those who were trying to deal with them. With the recent wave of emigrants it has become possible to see Soviet military life from the point of view of those who have recently served in the armed forces. Andrew Cockburn and Viktor Suvorov both try to provide inside accounts of the Soviet military machine. Cockburn draws extensively on interviews with former soldiers now in the US, while Suvorov is the nom de plume of a former tank officer.

The change of perspective is revealing. Here we find neither the ruthless hordes of Western fears nor the dedicated and ideologically committed defenders of socialism to be found in Soviet propaganda. These two books show us frail men who are trying to make out from one day to the next in a harsh but sometimes anarchic system. Recruiting officers take bribes of a few thousand rubles to grant young men exemptions from military service. A few of the officers, who have evidently overstepped the mark by taking too many bribes, have been shot. If a young man is conscripted, and well over half are, he will encounter a brutal, degrading, and often unhealthy life. Both authors describe how the soldiers in their second year of military service terrorize the newcomers to the ranks, while the officers turn a blind eye.

Commanding officers, from lieutenant to general, spend much of their time trying to pull the wool over their superiors’ eyes. Because a commander is held responsible for every infraction of discipline and every deficiency in training in his unit, he tries to cover these up, in the interests of his career. Strict norms are set from above to try to ensure effective combat training, but commanders resort to various ruses to fool the inspection commissions, with harmful results for overall combat preparedness. These commissions are given lavish entertainment, in order to dull their critical faculties. Pressure from above is resisted and deflected by “family groups” of officers who cover up for one another.

As in civilian life, a successful career depends upon powerful patrons. Cockburn provides an entertaining account of the rise and fall of Lieutenant General Ivan Dimitriyich Yershov, whose career was floundering until his wife became friendly with the wife of General (now Marshal) S.L. Sokolov, then chief of staff of the Moscow Military District. Sokolov helped Yershov get to the General Staff Academy, and then into the general staff itself. In 1969 Yershov went to the Kiev Military District as chief of staff, and while he was there he developed his ties with the chief of the general staff, General (now Marshal) Viktor Kulikov, by putting his soldiers at the disposal of Kulikov’s daughter when she was moving to Kiev.

Yershov’s career went into decline when his son-in-law (Cockburn’s informant) began to spread dissident ideas at the Armored Forces Academy. Besides, Yershov’s patron Kulikov suffered a setback when his patron, the minister of defense Marshal Grechko, died in April 1976. Kulikov apparently hoped for the job, but the Politburo moved quickly to install Dmitri F. Ustinov, an old associate of Brezhnev’s, and a defense industrial manager rather than a professional soldier. Within a year the new minister had replaced Kulikov at the general staff with his own protégé, Marshal Ogarkov, Kulikov’s rival. Yershov ended up as chief of staff of the civil defense troops, a much less attractive posting than he might have had if Kulikov had made it to minister of defense. Yershov now had fewer dachas than he had had in Kiev (though presumably more shelters).

The Soviet armed forces do not emerge from these pages with honor, but they come across as not very different from other Soviet institutions. Many of the forms of bureaucratic behavior the émigrés describe are instantly recognizable from other spheres of Soviet life. Rigid hierarchy and centralization encourage evasion and quasianarchy at the bottom of the bureaucratic structure. Moreover, many of the ills of Soviet life—alcoholism, corruption, and tension between ethnic groups, for example—are to be found in the armed forces too. It seems that Trotsky was right when he said that “the army is a copy of society and suffers from all its diseases, usually at a higher temperature.”


Cockburn’s aim is to show that the Soviet armed forces are very different in reality from the way in which they are portrayed by the Pentagon. From his conversations with émigrés and with people in the American intelligence community he has compiled an extremely negative assessment of the Soviet military machine. He points to numerous failings, not only in morale and training, but also in technology and design of weapons, including tanks and helicopters. The overall impression he gives is of a force that is very ill prepared to defend the Soviet Union, much less launch an attack on the West. Not that he has a very high regard for the United States armed forces either. Indeed, his argument can be summarized by paraphrasing the old joke about capitalism and socialism: Q. What are the American armed forces like? A. Bureaucratic, incompetent, inefficient, and corrupt, with troops that lack military skills and are armed with weapons that are too complex to be useful. Q. What are the Soviet military trying to do? A. Catch up with and overtake the Americans.

Cockburn’s book is a polemic against the way in which the Soviet threat is presented in the United States. As an exercise in “threat deflation” it scores many hits in its attack on the image of the Soviet armed forces as ruthlessly efficient. The stories of incompetence and foul-ups bring a human dimension to what is usually presented as a faceless machine. As an assessment of what kind of threat the Soviet Union poses to the West it has to be read, in the context of the American debate, as an antidote to such publications as the Department of Defense’s recent pamphlet Soviet Military Power. Like any antidote, it derives its meaning from the substance it is trying to counteract, and has to be taken in conjunction with it.

Cockburn gives little attention to the policies of the Politburo. His picture of military life shows it to be rather anarchic, and runs counter to the widespread view of the Soviet Union as a highly regimented totalitarian society. He seems to infer from this that no direction is provided by the Party leadership, and that policy is really the outcome of bureaucratic intrigue within the armed forces. There is no doubt much truth in this view, but it underestimates, I think, the degree of central control. The combination of confusion at the lower levels of organization and strong control at the top is in fact a characteristic feature of Soviet society, for the confusion follows precisely from the effort to evade control from the center.

For example, Kulikov’s failure to become minister of defense in 1976 and his subsequent removal from the general staff to become commander in chief of the Warsaw Pact should be understood not only as a matter of factions and personalities, but also (as Cockburn briefly notes) as the result of policy. It was only after Marshal Grechko’s death and his replacement by Ustinov that Brezhnev began to spell out a new rationale for Soviet strategic forces based on deterrence. In January 1977 he declared that parity, not superiority, was the Soviet goal. This statement and later elaborations of it have been widely dismissed in the West as “disinformation,” but they may in fact have coincided with an important change of policy. If the recently revised CIA estimate of the rate of growth of Soviet military expenditure is to be believed (and there is considerable uncertainty about these estimates), the annual rate of growth fell from 4 or 5 percent a year to 2 percent after 1976. This suggests that the Soviet military effort has been moderated in line with the reassessment of the strategic relationship with the United States. The deterioration in Soviet-American relations during the last three years has put considerable strain on this policy, and Ogarkov, the chief of the general staff, has been putting forward arguments that read very much like a call to increase the rate of growth of defense expenditure once again.

Although the view from below seems chaotic, the Party leaders do exercise control over the direction of policy. The history of major Soviet weapons decisions—to develop the atomic bomb or to build up strategic forces in the 1960s and 1970s—suggests that Soviet leaders take American actions into account in deciding their policy. Consequently the development of Soviet military power cannot be explained solely by domestic bureaucratic pressures.

Viktor Suvorov has already published a satirical account of life in the Soviet army.2 The discrepancy between Suvorov’s earlier book, The Liberators, and the general image we have of the Soviet armed forces made many readers wonder whether it was a work of disinformation, designed to mislead Western readers about the nature of the Soviet threat. The mystery about that book’s purpose is not dispelled by Suvorov’s latest work, which portrays the Soviet armed forces not as an opera buffa army, but as a huge, brutal, and ruthless machine. In his foreword General Sir John Hackett laughs off the earlier book as “highly informative in a painless sort of way and often very funny”; in this book, he says, Suvorov writes “in deadly earnest.” Apparently someone convinced Suvorov—or perhaps he decided himself—that the first book had given the wrong impression of Soviet military power.

Suvorov’s first book was not a memoir, but a satire on Soviet military life during the late 1960s. Parts of the work are either fiction or speculation: he tells, for example, what Grechko was thinking when watching a maneuver, although there is no reason to suppose he actually knows. As long as it is taken as a satire, rather than as a literal report, the book has much to say about life in the Soviet army that is corroborated by other accounts, including those cited by Cockburn.

Suvorov’s second book is not a memoir either, which is a pity. He tells us that he served on the general staff. An account of his work there would have been of great interest, for that is a powerful institution about which too little is known. What he has written instead is some sharp but uninformative political analysis; a detailed commentary on the Warsaw Pact order of battle, with discussion of the composition of regiments, divisions, armies, and fronts; a brief survey of Soviet strategy and tactics; some rather inconsequential comments on equipment. The most interesting part of the book deals with the life of the soldier and the officer.

Suvorov does not go back on what he said about military life in The Liberators, but he does try to convey a much more threatening picture of the Soviet army. The brutality of army life, he says, makes the soldiers tough and aggressive; the rigid organization and lack of initiative are advantages because initiative would only interfere with the execution of plans for military operations. But the picture Suvorov gives is not wholly consistent, for he claims that if this powerful and intimidating machine were to be caught up in a war with the West, “Soviet soldiers would surrender by the million.”

The evidence that émigrés can give us about the Soviet armed forces provides a new and immensely valuable insight into Soviet military power. It is, however, based on vivid personal impressions of former recruits and can have a heady effect; and there is a danger that its novelty will lead to rash conclusions, to a switch from the myth of the ten-foot Russians to the equally harmful myth that they are no more than two feet tall. The Soviet armed forces are bound to look different from this new perspective, but the evidence needs to be weighed very carefully before one concludes, for example, that the cohesion of Soviet army units is so low that they are likely to fall apart in combat. The new accounts need to be set against the evidence of Russian military history with its impressive record of victories.

Nevertheless enough evidence has emerged about the inefficiency of the army to suggest that the Soviet military authorities are right to be worried by the possibility that the performance of their forces would not live up to the demands of their doctrine. The Soviet military press shows a real concern about the training of the Soviet soldier, and about his lack of combat experience. Moreover, Soviet doctrine calls for the execution of very complex operations. The Soviet conception of an offensive in Central Europe, for example, would require very precise timing in the movement and concentration of hundreds of thousands of troops, and the success of the operation would depend on the precision with which this could be done.

Cockburn notes that the Soviet authorities have been as eager as the Pentagon to portray their forces as powerful, dedicated, and efficient. The reason is clear. The war with Germany showed that it is dangerous to appear weak and vulnerable. Hitler thought that he could smash the Soviet state with one blow. The Soviet leaders want to discourage anyone else from having the same thought. There are, however, people in the West who seem to think that the Soviet Union might collapse under the pressure of war. In The Third World War, for example, General Sir John Hackett ends his imaginary conflict by having the Soviet Union fall apart after a nuclear attack on Minsk.3 This is a dangerous fantasy, not only because it suggests that a nuclear exchange might end without escalating to a general war, but also because, as Hitler’s fate showed, it would be foolish to underestimate the resilience of the Soviet system.

We have a tendency in the West to oscillate between seeing the Soviet Union as immensely powerful and threatening, and viewing it as being on the verge of collapse. This tendency is epitomized by a US Army colonel whom Cockburn quotes. The new evidence from émigrés, this man says, means that “Western analysts can now speculate whether the man of steel has entrails of straw.” Not, it should be noted, flesh and blood. That, it seems, is too difficult an idea to grasp.

This Issue

June 2, 1983