Major-General Serebrenikov (military reform), 1992

Maj. Gen.Serebrenikov i/v at Russian Parliament, Jun 16 1992
Interviewer — Metta Spencer. Alexander Kalinin was present and commented.

MS: What are the achievements of the military reform committee so far?

Serebrenikov: The achievements are moderate, but there are a lot of different approaches. There are initiated approaches to military reforms — approaches that have been elaborated by the groups of people, military, scientists, representatives of the public. The most famous approach is known as the Approach of 17, but this group of 17 people was headed by Major Lopatin, who was formerly a people’s deputy of the union. The group consisted of _________ but in the process of elaboration, many people and institutions were involved. The project was published in the USSR, as well as abroad. There were other groups that elaborated projects of their own, and even individuals. So the first move in the military reform movement was made by groups or individuals who acted on their own. Moreover, there was an approach to military reform elaborated by the Minister of Defence of the Union, under Yazov (though I doubt that Yazov himself was involved in the elaboration). The project of the Minister of Defence was interesting and innovative too.

For three years, until the last year, the discussion revolved around these different projects. The projects were published but until August, 1991, nothing was done in practice. My opinion is that the former leadership didn’t want to have reform. President Gorbachev was not a practical man but a man of ___225 word. Though Gorbachev was General Secretary of the Communist Party then, the President of the Union, and the Commander in Chief of the armed forces of the union, he had no expertise in defence matters and he probably didn’t want to acquire the necessary knowledge. In 1990 I criticized Gorbachev for his ignorance in defence matters. Probably an indicator of his ignorance and indifference to military affairs is that for five years he couldn’t find time to meet with the officers. The degree of his incompetence in military affairs can be judged from the fact that in autumn, 1990, Gorbachev spoke to the military commanders in Odessa military district and said there that the military reform had been underway for 3 or 4 years already, but 2 or 3 months later, Gorbachev admitted that the project of military reform hadn’t yet been discussed, and would be discussed at the Supreme Soviet and only then would be implemented.

MS: Were documents already ready at that time or had nothing been prepared?

Serebrenikov: Well, Gorbachev was not serious about military matters and he simply didn’t know the state of affairs. In my opinion, Gorbachev performed his duties as president and commander-in-chief in this particular respect extremely badly. So, util August 1991 there were only elaborations, discussions, but no practical matters had been taken.

MS: Had he authorized particular groups to do this preparation or were groups doing it independently?

Serebrenikov: The initiative groups did work independently without authorization and there were persecutions against such groups. They were sacked.

MS: By whom?

Serebrenikov: It was done by the orders of the former Minister of Defence, Yazov. But despite the low opinion expressed earlier, I should like to emphasize that it was under Gorbachev that military matters were opened for analysis, discussion, and it was exactly at that time when the specialists and to a lesser extent, the public at large, could get aware of what had been obsolete, what had to change. Before Gorbachev, the armed forces constituted a closed field, untouchable field, and it was impossible to make any critical remarks about the military forces, to say nothing about thorough analysis. So the period of glasnost unleashed a wave of criticism of the military forces and launched the movement for the changes. But the practical measures were taken only after August 19, 1991. But the course of history is too brief and ____ to make general statements. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify several stages after August. The executive editor of _________ Gazette was ______. The second stage was the stage of euphoria. AT that time, all leaders, political as well as military leaders, were extremely enthusiastic and were able to promote thorough military reform.

MS: This is just after the coup?

Serebrenikov: yes. Some very significant measures were ______. The most important among these measures were depoliliticization and departicization of the armed forces. Deputy commanders on political issues were _______. In three days over a million of the communists in the ranks of the army quit their party membership. They had choice. They could keep their party card or they could leave their party card in the unit and these cards were sometime afterwards eliminated. In a similar way, all the young communist organizations were dissolved. About 300 generals who occupied different positions in the political departments were sacked, and a special commission was created that selected ____. Some were sacked and some were relegated to some other positions. Instead, the new organs were created. Now it’s called Departments of Personnel. So it was in effect a purge of the military _____________. But two months later, euphoria disappeared and instead complacency has come.

MS: There was, you say, a purge. Was this strictly on the basis of their position in the party or was it on the basis of some other views of theirs — a conservative view of military doctrine versus a more progressive view?

Serebrenikov: The purge predominantly was on the basis of the support that the generals or officers had given to the coup. The generals and officers who had been exceptionally eager to fulfill the orders of the putschists were sacked, but if a general or an officer simply obeyed orders but was not exceptionally diligent or eager in fulfilling ordrs, he was pardoned. The time since November of 1991 is wasted time. The president wasted time, the government wasted time, and all other structures wasted time. Someday a historian will explain to us why this time was wasted, why the complacency. And then the dissolution of the union practically cancelled all steps toward military reform. The disintegration of the state, the disintegration of the armed forces started and surely it was not the time to discuss or implement military reform.

MS: Was this because it was no longer clear to whom the military was accountable — whether to Russia or to the CIS (whatever that is) — or for some other reason?

Serebrenikov: It is difficult to point out any single reason. The political reason, which you mentioned, was really important. The disintegration of the armed forces has been a tragedy for servicement and for the people at large and this still causes insomnia and terrible pain. The blunder that the politicians made is great. It was possible to avoid the disintegration, to retain the union state, to retain the army, and to democratize.

MS: As the CIS and not just as Russia?

Serebrenikov: There are other reasons, among them the conservative mood of a certain part of the military leaders is quite significant. This is not because some generals are bad generals. The majority of them were excellent generals, professionals of high quality. As professionals, ex-Soviet generals are second to none. But many of them, probably a majority of them, are accustomed to old ways of organization and old customs. For example, the transition to the fully professional army granted more freedom to the soldiers and servicemen ____ — they are perceived painfully by the generals. And my personal journey to my present ideas was a painful one, for I had to reconsider my own personal experience, the experience of the Soviet army, and the experience of the military forces of the other states. So finally I accepted the idea of the professional army. There is a strong psychological resistance, a longing for the past. Historical experience counts much. It is the fact that the Soviet army had been an army based on conscription. It is very difficult to break this custom.

MS: What were the differences between the different projects of military reform?

Serebrenikov: The crucial issue is the position of an individual. Changing of the position of an individual, independently of his rank — independently of whether he is a general, officer, or soldier.

MS: I’m not clear about that.

Serebrenikov: It is a matter of the rights and freedoms.

MS: Of everybody?

Serebrenikov: Yes. And the second issue is the issue of the control of the armed forces and the power of the army. In totalitarian system, the power is focused in a single point and the power over the army is organized in the same way. That’s why the army can be used arbitrarily, even against their own people. Lenin and Stalin used armed forces against their own people, to harass people, to make them move to some other way of life. And finally, the aim of any military reform is to prevent the possibility for a dictator, strong man or any party, to used armed forces against ____. And certainly there is an international dimension of the problem. The army has to be controlled. So it is extremely important to organize control and power over the armed forces.

MS: Does this mean a change in the rules — say, the oath of allegiance, or the promises that regulate the behavior of soldiers so they may disobey orders under certain conditions?

Serebrenikov: We are moving toward acceptance of this. There is an old custom to consider the commander’s order to be a command, in fact, and many commanders are suspicious about the idea of a criminal order, for they are afraid that many orders would not be obeyed. But it is a simplified version of the discussion. It has to be formulated as a duty of a serviceman not to fulfill a criminal order. A duty. But it is probably one of the most sensitive issues, for it is closely connected with the position of the individual within the military structure.

MS: Will the hierarchy or structure be reorganized if you have your way?

Serebrenikov: Doubtlessly. There will be dramatic changes. The military have to leave all structures of power.

MS: You mean, leave legislative bodies and other non-military positions as well?

Serebrenikov: Exactly. From legislative bodies, from executive structures, and from any non-military structures. And the political leadership of the military, say Minister of Defence, has to be a civilian person. It is a sine qua non of the successful military reform. Only then the army will be an instrument of the state, as it should be. Now, thanks to the many connections with the legislative bodies, with the government and so on, the army is involved in the political struggle.

MS: You mentioned that there were several different groupings that were trying to get military reform, including public opinion. What were some of the forces in the public that were trying to have an impact on military reform? Is this organized, articulated, or not?

Serebrenikov: It is difficult to remember names now. For example, Blagovolin. But there were a lot of people, of groups, who produced proposals for military reform, not only in Moscow. They sent their documents and reports to the state committee on military reform that was created after August of 1991. It was supposed that all those projects would be analyzed there and maybe summarized and processed in some other way, but I cannot say for sure what has been done to those materials. Probably we can talk to Lapatin, who was the head of that committee. It is noticed that not a single high-ranked official — . All high ranking officials do not account to anybody. President Gorbachev left his position without account. Former Prime Minister of Russia, Selayev, left without account, and General ___, who was appointed as chairman of the committee on military reform, left without account. It’s time to demand account from Yeltsin, for this state of things is obviously his responsibility. A president has not to pardon the responsible people, but make them account.

Kalinin: I explained once more that you want to trace the ideas that emanate from individuals. And was it or is it possible for an idea that emenates from a humble person to make an influence on the military? And Mr. Serebrenikov is rather skeptical. He says that unfortunately, our society and our political structures, are very rigid and very unresponsive to such influence. It is like throwing a bean at an elephant.

MS: I don’t know that it is very different in other societies.

Serebrenikov: It is our aim to create such a system that a single voice could be heard.

MS: Hallelujah! That is a wonderful objective.

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books