NOTE: I recognize a lot in this article, though I’m no Russian expert. What’s familiar are the parallels with my own generational experience, and one of its central traumas: the Vietnam war.
Yes, I was an antiwar protester. There were lots of us; we repeatedly filled Washington’s main streets with our anger. I have friends who went to Canada, and considered it myself.
But while noisy and self-important, we peaceniks were always a minority. Most of our peers who were summoned to war complied; some relished the chance.
Their motivations, like ours, ran the gamut from noble to cynical. But among the compliant, for many, war and veteran status offered steps up the class ladder — assuming you survived — or at least into honorable public memory — your name on the stunning Vietnam Memorial, if you didn’t.
The costs, personal and generational, were high. But the ladder worked for many, particularly those who weren’t finishing college, as I was. And the cultural fissures thus highlighted are with us still, even as the last of our contingents straggle toward the exits.
I searched for an appropriate gesture of regret, respect and remembrance, for those of us here in the Vietnam years, and the many facing their fate in Ukraine and Russia. Then I remember these lines from Carl Sandburg; maybe they’ll suffice:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. Shovel them under and let me work— I am the grass; I cover all. And pile them high at Gettysburg And pile them high at Kherson and Kyiv Shovel them under and let me work. Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: What place is this? Where are we now? I am the grass. Let me work.
From the perspective of a Russian soldier, the war in Ukraine must look nightmarish. In over a year of combat, nearly 200,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded, according to American officials, in a military operation that has proved both incompetent and ill equipped. Morale is reportedly low and complaintscommon. And yet a significant number of Russian men are still keen to fight — more, in fact, than at the war’s outset. What explains the disconnect?
One obvious reason is fear. Men called up to the army have no choice but to obey, because opposition to the war has effectively been outlawed. In such a stifling atmosphere, fed by wall-to-wall propaganda, it’s perhaps unsurprising that discontent seems thin on the ground. Yet while fear and repression shape responses to the war, that doesn’t explain the readiness — willingness, even — of some Russian men to serve at the front. About 36 percent of Russian men are content to be conscripted, with the most supportive group being men age 45 or older.
That’s no accident. In the three decades since the end of the Soviet Union, those men have faced industrial collapse, the disappearance of millions of jobs and declining life expectancy. The war promises to change that downward trajectory, transforming the losers of the past three decades into new heroes — even if dead or wounded. For many Russian men and their families, the war may be a horror. But it’s also the last opportunity to fix their lives.
First, there’s the money. The federal base salary for a soldier is about $2,500 a month, with payment of $39,000 for wounding and up to $65,000 in the case of death. Compared with a median monthly salary of $545, this is a handsome reward — even more so for the approximately 15.3 millionRussians living below the poverty line.
But there’s much more on offer, too. For those coming back from the front, the state promises fast-tracked entry into civil service jobs, health insurance, free public transportation, free university education and free food at school for their children. And for those who were imprisoned and joined the Wagner private military company, the state grants freedom.
Those promises aren’t entirely fulfilled, of course. Many troops have not been paid in full, and their wives often complain about nonpayment in public forums. Interviews with three wounded service members and their families on the anti-Kremlin network TV Rain painted a parlous picture of life at the front: no pay, no training and high casualties. Even so, the interviewees still considered the war just and wanted to return to the front or support the war efforts as volunteers.
Another war provides the reason. Today’s troops live in the shadow of the generation that won the war against Nazism. In Russian public culture, no honor is higher than to be a veteran of the “Great Patriotic War,” something the regime has capitalized on by framing today’s war as a kind of historical re-enactment of World War II. The conflation clearly works. As one soldier wrote on Telegram in February, the war confers “a sense of belonging to the great male deed, the deed of defending our Motherland.”
The phrase is revealing. By allowing men to escape the difficulties of everyday life — with its low pay and routine frustrations — the war offers a restoration of male self-worth. These men, at last, matter. (For women, made to suffer the brunt of the war’s fallout, it’s more vexed, but despite the difficulties, many understand and support men’s decision to serve.) Feelings of inferiority, too, are swept aside in the fraternal atmosphere of the front. “It doesn’t matter who you are, how you look,” as one soldier put it. In the communal life of conflict, many of the distinctions of civilian life dissolve. War is an equalizer.
That surely explains its appeal to those from lower social classes. While some of the urban middle and upper classes have expressed their discontent with the war by emigrating, the poorer sections of Russian society see things differently. Mistrust of the rich, belief that sanctions actually strengthen the economy and disdain for émigrés all attest to a class-based experience of the conflict. By participating in the war, millions of Russians at the bottom of the social ladder can emerge as the country’s true heroes, ready for the ultimate sacrifice. The risk may be grave and the financial reward uncertain. But the chance to rise in esteem and respect makes the effort worthwhile.
Such support, of course, is contingent. The longer the war drags on, bringing more casualties, loss and broken promises, the harder it may become to sustain such levels of acceptance. Then again, it may not. Collective emotional turmoil could deepen the feeling that the war must be won, no matter what. In the absence of an alternative vision of the future, Vladimir Putin and his war will continue to hold sway.