The Soviet military was a hollow colossus

  • Themes: Russia

After the fall of the Soviet Union, some of its military conscripts from former republics ended up in NATO countries. Their personal stories are not only compelling accounts of recent history – they also offer valuable insights into the former superpower's ‘five-million man’ martial might and even today’s Russian military.

Darius Semaska in the Soviet Orienteering Championships, bottom right.
Darius Semaska in the Soviet Orienteering Championships, bottom right.

One day in 1985, an eighteen-year-old named Riho Terras turned up at the Soviet armed forces’ large conscript assessment facility in Tallinn, some two hours from his hometown of Kohtla-Järve in northeastern Estonia. It was not his choice: like all other Soviet men, Terras was obliged to complete military service. But uniquely in modern history, some have ended up not in Russia or its affiliated former Soviet republics – but on the other side, as citizens of NATO member states. Though young when they served as Soviet conscripts, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian men have insights into the Soviet-turned-Russian military that no other Westerners will ever have. Their stories are compelling and insightful accounts of recent history.

On that day in 1985, young Riho didn’t know what to expect. He came from an ordinary Estonian family without any connections. Boys with influential parents, he knew, had a chance of being posted close to home. ‘You had no idea in which service you’d serve, and as a result you didn’t know how long you’d serve,’ Terras told me. He was assigned to the navy, which meant a three-year stint. (Army conscripts served for two years). Soon he was on a train to Kaliningrad for six months of initial training.

Rhio Terras as a navy conscript.

Around the same time, a twenty-two-year-old semi-professional basketball player named Maris Riekstins arrived for conscription assessment in his home city of Riga. When Riekstins turned eighteen, the Soviet Union exempted university students from military service, but now, in 1985, Riekstins – who had just graduated from Riga’s Academy of Sports – knew there was no avoiding assessment anymore. ‘Everybody knew that when they got the papers from their local military office it was their turn to serve, but lots of people also tried to get out of it,’ Riekstins said. ‘Some people smoked silk in order to get lung damage. The risk everyone was particularly worried about was being sent to Afghanistan.’ Riekstins decided to attempt to avoid conscription too, by trying to get accepted to SKA Riga, one of the Red Army’s elite basketball teams.

His plan failed. Straight after being assessed, Riekstins was sent to an artillery regiment on the other side of Latvia. Better than East Germany, he thought, and probably better than the Far East too. ‘People say, “oh, that’s excellent, you got to stay close to home,”’ Riekstins told me. ‘Sure, it was better than Siberia, but it didn’t really matter because you were not allowed to go home anyway. And there was always the risk of being sent to Afghanistan after the initial training.’

Riekstins subsequently came to understand that the lack of information was a psychological tool. ‘The system told you that you had no say about your future, that you were nobody,’ he said. ‘You simply don’t know where you will end up. It might be the navy, it might be an airborne division in Afghanistan, it might an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] base in Siberia or a regiment guarding convicts.’ After the Chernobyl nuclear accident some six months after Riekstins’s arrival at his regiment, Soviet authorities started sending soldiers to help with the clean-up. Once again, he had to worry about an exceptionally dangerous assignment.

Around the same time as Riekstins became an artillery soldier, another student in Riga, eighteen-year-old Maris Selga at the Latvian State University, was instructed to turn up for a journey to a military unit, having no idea where he was headed or what he’d be doing. The only thing Selga knew was that he’d be serving in the Red Army. ‘I was hoping to go to Volgograd [the city once known as Stalingrad, located near the Caspian Sea] because I knew they usually sent conscripts far from their home republics and I felt Volgograd was the best I could hope for,’ Selga told me. ‘But that didn’t happen.’ He was sent to Tashkent, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. It was his first time on an aeroplane.

In Tashkent, Selga learnt he’d been assigned to what was known as the interior army, the part of the Red Army guarding domestic installations, ranging from government agencies to prisons. And when he discovered the military base located next to his, he realised two years of military service in Uzbekistan wasn’t so bad: that base trained conscripts headed for Afghanistan, so he surmised he wasn’t destined for the same fate. When the Chernobyl nuclear power plant collapsed, Selga – like Riekstins – knew his unit could be sent to help with the clean-up. But he too was lucky.

The year of 1985 was an eventful one. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and immediately set about tackling his country’s dismal economy, but found himself unable to end its Afghan nightmare. That same year, yet another eighteen-year-old, Matti Maasikas, reported for military service at the enormous facility in Tallinn. After two days, he and some others were put on a train. After a stop in Leningrad [today’s St Petersburg], officials put the young men in Maasikas’s group on a train to Murmansk. ‘On that journey I realised where I might be going,’ Maasikas said. ‘I knew that in Murmansk there was a slave market [Soviet conscripts’ term for a regional distribution facility from which military units selected their conscripts]. Some officers there told me I’d be going to the sergeant’s school in Severomorsk, which was the headquarters of the Northern Fleet and remains so today.’ Being selected for the sergeant school was extremely good news. ‘In the distribution facility you could also be sent to the navy, and that was everyone’s worst fear after going to Afghanistan,’ he said. His fellow Estonian Terras had just been acquainted with that reality.

Matti Maasikas during his military service.

Another Soviet reality was the possibility of circumventing iron-clad rules such as military service for all mentally and physically fit men. While schemes such as smoking silk were mostly doomed to fail, well-connected parents often managed to engineer exemptions or lenient postings. Physicians, for example, were known to declare their sons unfit for service. And some ingenious attempts by young men themselves succeeded too, especially if they related to elite sports, an area in which the Soviet Union invested great effort; athletic battles between the Soviet Union and the United States were nearly as ferocious as geopolitical ones. Soviet policy was otherwise to send conscripts away from their home towns, often to other Soviet republics, both to engineer national cohesion and to make sure conscripts served in areas to which they had no personal links. This was an effort to ensure conscripts remained fully committed to their regiments.

So when, in 1985, yet another Baltic young man reported for his assessment, he carried with him a letter from his coach. Lithuanian Darius Semaska was one of the country’s very best orienteering athletes, and he succeeded where Riekstins had failed. ‘My coach had established links with the military training district in Minsk and arranged that I’d be drafted by the commander there,’ Semaska told me. ‘The agreement was that as soon as I was called up by the military assessment office in Vilnius I’d contact this officer and he’d get me assigned to his district. I was sent there, had a two-hour chat, and then they sent me home to my parents to train. The idea was obviously that I should train hard so I could bring good results in the competition between the military districts. The suggestion was I should bring my unit’s commander some presents – some Cognac, some Lithuanian sausages – when I came back. It was an arrangement between two officers.’

The duties these five young men ended up carrying out were disparate and seemingly random, as we will see. One hard-working sailor, one guard, one slightly under-utilised artilleryman, one bread distributor, one athlete: the Soviet armed forces found a vast variety of uses for its millions of conscripts. Western analysts and governments saw the Soviet armed forces’ massive manpower during this period and considered it a mighty threat. The Soviet Union was a phenomenal adversary, for sure, but its five-million-man military was in many ways a hollow colossus. ‘I assume that in some units, things like missile defence, the level of professionalism was high,’ Riekstins said. ‘But in my unit morale was low. Officers drank pretty heavily and stole or “got” [dostatj] things they needed. I know now that people sitting at NATO in Brussels saw immense Soviet military might, but that doesn’t correspond to what I saw.’ Semaska marvels at how military ID identified him as a machine-gun shooter driver when, in reality, ‘I never handled a machine gun or drove a military vehicle’. Even so, he counted as one of the five million men in the mighty Soviet armed forces the West was so concerned about.

Conscription was vital to the Soviet armed forces. Like other European countries – with the notable exception of the UK, which ended national service in the 1960s – it drafted all able men. Until 1982, students at universities with military studies departments were exempt; obliged to take academic military studies courses instead. But by then, the Soviet armed forces were in such dire need of soldiers – especially because of the toll of the Afghanistan war – that students too were conscripted. The result was a six-year period featuring large numbers of academically gifted conscripts. By the time Terras, Selga, Maasikas and Riekstins served, and Semaska did elite sports as a pro forma conscript, two million conscripts joined the Soviet armed forces each year. Because they all served for three years in the navy or two years in the Red Army, (though in some cases this was shortened to 18 months) at any given time the Soviet military had around four million conscripts – making up the vast bulk of the mid-1980s Soviet armed forces’ manpower of five million. They were crucial not just for military capability but to the self-image the Soviet Union projected to the world, especially to its adversaries. Five million men at arms at any given time, and many million more available to be called up: it was a mighty machine, used to intimidate other countries, and sometimes to invade them.

This mighty machine still exists today. The country is, of course, called Russia, and its armed forces’ equipment has changed quite a bit in the past thirty years, as indeed has NATO member states’ military hardware. But Russia’s military structure has changed very little. It still drafts every mentally and physically fit young man, albeit for one year rather than two or three, and mentally and physically fit young men still try to get out of serving – an estimated 50 per cent successfully. With university students once again exempt, many students stay on for PhDs. Books and reports are regularly written about Russia’s armed forces and their capabilities. These are fine analyses, but they’re written from afar by residents of other countries who cannot be expected to have a view from inside the Russian military.

The West, however, has a priceless tool at its disposal. Those Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian men who served as conscripts in the 1980s and earlier are now part of the Western alliance. Rarely in world history has one part of a country voluntarily switched to the other side during a tense but non-violent standoff. (Countries and regions have, of course, switched sides during wars). That makes their experiences singular and vital, both as documentation of the Soviet armed forces but also as a tool to help the West better understand its preeminent military adversary. A conscript may not gain strategic insights into the armed forces – but the grassroots perspective can be every bit as valuable. ‘What we saw and experienced very clearly was how rotten the Soviet system was,’ Maasikas said. ‘We saw that this system didn’t work.’

Some of these young men now hold important functions in their countries’ foreign ministries and armed forces. Some hold political office, and some serve at NATO. Terras went on to become a general and Estonia’s chief of defence; he’s now a member of the European Parliament. Riekstins became a politician and diplomat and has served in a dizzying array of positions: foreign minister, ambassador to NATO, ambassador to the United States, state secretary. He’s now Latvia’s ambassador to Russia. Selga, a diplomat, is now Latvia’s ambassador to the United States. Maasikas, too, is a diplomat who has served as Estonia’s ambassador to the EU; he’s currently the EU’s top representative in Ukraine. Semaska is also an ambassador, most recently posted in Germany and now serving as an ambassador-at-large. Strangely, though, their unique insights haven’t been collected, let alone put to use to help the West better understand Russia’s armed forces.

Immediately after Terras’s assessment in 1985, ‘slave traders’ – the term used by conscripts for the officers in charge of placing them – dispatched him to Kaliningrad. Within a few months it became obvious that his post, that of a navy artist, painting propaganda posters, was a waste of time. Terras was reassigned to a frigate in the naval base of Ura Bay above the Polar Circle, and his service time reset to zero. He was to remain on the ship until his conscription ended three years and three months later, on 30 December 1988. ‘From age eighteen to twenty-one, I was allowed to leave the ship for only ten days,’ he told me. ‘One hundred people, 120 metres long, fourteen metres wide.’

At least Terras was busy and doing productive work. During the initial six months of training, he had a total of four hours on shore. His ship then went on two major voyages from its Arctic base: a six-month one to the Mediterranean, with stops in the Syrian port city of Tartus and Benghazi in Libya, followed by one to Cuba. A regular day on board was divided into four-hour shifts. ‘You had four hours’ readiness, meaning work, then four hours off, and so on, starting at 1800 hours,’ he says.  ‘My task was to walk through the ship and make sure that the ammunition depots were intact, clean and dry. Whatever the weather, I had to pass through thirteen decks, the whole ship, every hour. But everyone had their duties.  Everyone also had to clean the ship twice a day and on Saturdays the whole day. I’ve never seen as clean ships as those of the Soviet Navy in the 1980s.’

The crew also did the repairs themselves. ‘That’s very different from NATO ships, which go to the harbour where repair teams come in and do the work,’ he noted. ‘During the times when we’d just done three weeks in storms off the Faeroe Islands, I hated it. The Soviet ships never went to port because there were so few friendly ones, so we were completely exposed to the weather. In the Atlantic, we had no port at all to go to.’ The home base of Uba Bay was so remote that the nearest habitation was a village for officers’ families some 30 kilometres away—and even there, there was nothing for conscripts to do.

Like others, Terras had heard plenty of stories about brutal hazing of junior conscripts at the hands of both senior conscripts and officers. Such hazing, known as dedovshchina, ranged from having to give their food to older soldiers to being forced to do demeaning or meaninglessly harsh work, or being beaten, raped, sometimes even killed. One post-Cold War German investigation estimated that of the up to 500,000 Soviet soldiers who served in East Germany, some 4,000 – mostly conscripts – lost their lives each year as a result of hazing or suicide.

But Terras reports that on his frigate, conscripts were treated professionally. ‘If you did your job well, if you didn’t sleep while on duty, if you kept your equipment in good order, then you had no problems,’ he explained. ‘The command group of officers actually supported the conscripts.’

But at his artillery regiment in Latvia, Riekstins experienced a different reality as senior officers instilled discipline through fear. ‘The commander of the regiment regularly humiliated the officers in front of the soldiers for small things like not wearing their uniforms properly, for example if the distance between the insignia and the edge of the collar was 17mm rather than, say, 19mm’ he says. ‘And afterwards, with the commander out of sight, the officers felt the need to assert their authority by being brutal with us. That happened regularly, a couple of times a week.’ Another popular method of hazing involved the all-important readiness drills. ‘During the regular night-time readiness drills you were woken up and had to be dressed in your uniform within 45 seconds,’ Riekstins said. ‘It’s doable. But then within minutes you had to line up outside your barracks with your bedside table next to you and show to the officers the items a soldier has to have in this cabinet: the military regulation book, your own book (though not more than two), a pen, sheets for writing letters, a boot brush, a tooth brush, a cleaning kit for your belt buckle and sewing supplies. Nothing more, nothing less.’ If there was a purpose to soldiers regularly lining up outdoors next to their bedside tables, commanders never told them.

To instil discipline, commanding officers also regularly informed conscripts about criminal cases in other military districts, including the punishment meted out to those involved.  To this day, Riekstins gets the shivers thinking about an incident that occurred during his military service, at a regiment in Siberia. One night, as everyone was asleep, a group of severely hazed conscripts broke into the weapons storage, commanded everyone to get up and, in front of the regiment, shot some of the worst offenders.

Such incidents continue, even though the Russian armed forces instituted, in 2008, a reform supposed to end dedovshchina. Last year a conscript killed three officers with an axe and a gun, and the year before another conscript shot and killed eight fellow soldiers. The latter, now serving a twenty-four-and-a-half-year prison sentence, testified at his trial that fear of rape by other soldiers had driven him to commit the murder. ‘That day, [the officers] promised to turn me out. They warned me that … they’ll rape me,’ a Russian news site quoted by the Moscow Times quoted Shamsutdinov as saying.

Selga, too, arrived at his unit fearing the worst, but to his relief saw no systematic hazing: ‘Sure, there was discipline, and if you didn’t follow your orders you were beaten. Military service is not about camping at a lake.’

What military service is, however, is learning the basics—weapons use, drills, equipment, the armed forces’ set up, how the country’s enemies operate, and, in the case of the Soviet Union, political training as well. That took six months. But unlike Western nations, the Soviets then systematically put the conscripts to work. Terras did his naval duties. Selga handled vehicles going in and out of a military depot. Riekstins was on readiness alert in his motorised brigade, though like many Red Army conscripts, he felt the time was often wasted. Maasikas, meanwhile, was given a rather tolerable duty at his base in Severomorsk: daily distribution of bread to the warships in the harbour. ‘I was spending my days in this normal bread factory,’ he said. ‘I would receive requests for bread for the next day and then arrange a car, saying “you go to this quay and deliver so and so many loaves” and so on. Our drivers were civilians. It was a strange system even for the Soviet Union. We all lived on the base, all according to military rules, but it was nothing like the battle units or the navy.’

At home in Kaunas, meanwhile, Semaska kept perfecting his orienteering. ‘On average I came back to Minsk for a day or two every month and was then sent back home for another fake sports camp,’ he said. ‘I enjoyed the freedom and achieved quite good results.’ Semaska’s efforts paid off. In 1986, he won the Soviet university championships in orienteering, competing in his capacity as a student – albeit on military leave – from the University of Vilnius. But in his enjoyment of military-service-at-home, he’d forgotten to ask the regiment’s permission to compete. ‘There was a short piece about my winning the gold medal in a newspaper,’ he said. ‘The commander of the military district in Minsk read the paper and went to my coach and asked why I was in the university championships when I was a conscript. My coach couldn’t give a good answer. I immediately had to go to Minsk and do regular military service there for a month or so, minor things like guarding the food store, working in the kitchen.’

After that, Semaska was allowed to return home—strange, perhaps, considering other conscripts were often brutally hazed for minor or non-existent infractions. ‘When I talk to my friends, some of them had such an awful experience,’ he said. ‘Some served in Afghanistan. Some were beaten by older conscripts. It was a weird psychological thing. Older conscripts, having survived hazing, then treated first-year conscripts the same way.’ But as an elite athlete, Semaska was useful to the armed forces, and to his regiment in particular. In fact, the Soviet armed forces and a number of other national security organizations in the Warsaw Pact had elite sports clubs associated with certain units or branches. CSKA Moscow and the Red Army’s other elite clubs – especially SKA Riga and SKA Leningrad – produced hundreds of Olympic medallists. Some Western armed forces, too, have sports soldiers. Many of Italy’s top athletes, for example, are former Carabinieri officers, assigned to its sports command. As for Semaska, his commander’s arrangement paid off: in the summer of 1987 he won the Soviet junior orienteering championships in Chechnya. That autumn, he completed his military service. Today, Semaska thinks of his military service as a bit like the studies of US college athletes, whose main contribution is not academic prowess but athletic success.

Maasikas, too, formed grass-roots insights which not even the cleverest Western intelligence analyst could have made:  ‘I came back home in the autumn of 1987, and we Estonian conscripts who had just finished our service were much more optimistic than other Estonians that the Soviet Union wouldn’t last,’ he said. ‘We saw how things didn’t work, how items such as food and equipment were stolen. We felt much better informed than some Sovietologists who read the signs at military parades to try to figure out who was falling in and out of favour.’

Today, too, Russia experts try to read the tea leaves at military parades and analyse any comments made by the chief of the general staff, General Valery Gerasimov. As during Soviet times, however, the bulk of Russia’s military are conscripts. Aside from news stories involving murders by bullied conscripts, the West knows precious little about how they’re put to use: a vast and consequential gap in knowledge.

Terras and Gerasimov in fact have a remarkable link: between 1987 and 1993, Gerasimov commanded a tank regiment in Estonia. During 1993, the final year before the Red Army withdrew from Estonia, the fast-rising Russian officer was serving next to – though not with – a young ex-Soviet conscript at the time rising fast through the newly independent Estonia’s nascent military ranks. A Soviet military installation in Riga, meanwhile, now hosts NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence.

Russia’s armed forces today are not the same as the Soviet Union’s armed forces in the 1980s — but they also haven’t been fundamentally reformed since. ‘Based on my own experience, I wouldn’t trust that those thousands of thousands of conscripts who serve in the Russian armed forces today are put to productive use,’ Selga said. ‘Yes, the specialised forces are good, and they’re professionals. But the bulk of the conscripts? I’m not so sure.’ Like many other non-Russian conscripts, Maasikas credits military service with having forced him to learn Russian properly. He says that without conscription he wouldn’t have met Russians and other Soviet nationalities. ‘That was a huge experience in the positive sense of the word.’ Today he uses his two years serving in an army he didn’t want to be in, for a country he didn’t want to be part of, in his work as the EU’s envoy to Ukraine. ‘Under international law, the occupying power is not allowed to conscript, but the Russians are doing it in Crimea just as they did in the Baltic states,’ he said. ‘The EU regularly points it out and is criticised for only making statements. Then I say, “I was conscripted in the same breach of international law and would have been very happy if someone had made statements regarding it”.’

In late 1988, Terras’s military service was nearing its end. With no access to news, and letters arriving only every few months, he’d no idea that at home people were staging a ‘singing revolution.’ ‘The politruk [political commissar] was my main source of information’, he recalled. ‘It was the politruk who told me, “you’ll be getting independence”. An Armenian! A politruk!’

As an officer, eventually leading the defence of his country against the very military in which he’d previously served, Terras has made particularly good use of the insights gained from what seemed, at the time, to be the worst possible destiny short of being sent to Afghanistan. ‘I’ve seen the Kitty Hawk, the Dwight D. Eisenhower, you name it,’ Terras said, referring to US aircraft carriers. While chief of defence, he was once invited to the US aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush. ‘The lieutenant who showed me around couldn’t understand how I could know everything on that ship so well,’ he told me. ‘But I had followed that type of ship for so many months as a conscript.’

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea. When other Western observers were perplexed by Russia’s sudden move, the experience from three involuntary years in Uba Bay and on the high seas allowed Terras to see the logic – albeit of a sinister kind – in Russia’s actions. ‘Russians don’t have good access to the seas, so they really fight for their ports and for access,’ he told me. ‘Yes, they have Vladivostok, but it’s far away in the east.’

Crimea allows Russia access to the open seas. ‘They feel they need to be present in all seas around the world because they see Russia as so enclosed that it would suffer more attrition than NATO in a conflict,’ says Terras. From a Russian perspective, having the Crimean port of Sevastopol was thus absolutely necessary. And, he says,  ‘since they had the feeling that they were about to lose it, that the Ukrainians were not playing along, they decided they had to seize it. That’s why Tartus is so important to them as well, and it’s the same thing in the Benghazi area, from where they now have direct control over what’s happening in the Mediterranean’.

Perhaps the most common mistake world leaders and their advisers make is also a fundamentally human one: they fail to see a situation from the other side’s perspective, helping them anticipate potential actions and prepare for them. Having been part of the other side, men like Terras, Selga, Riekstins, Maasikas and Semaska can help the Western alliance better prepare for Russia’s actions. And as Russia’s behaviour grows increasingly aggressive, it would be foolish not to consult them.


Elisabeth Braw