According to a former Soviet soldier, hunger, cruelty, and exploitation are so rife in the army he served in that if war broke out with the West, "one-half [of a company] might shoot the other."
And that's not all. Should disorder erupt in the USSR itself, Soviet troops "will start killing everyone ... letting loose all the tension built up inside [ them]," he predicts.
In 1974 Kirill Podrabinek was posted to a motorized rifle regiment in the Turkmen Republic, in Soviet central Asia. With his fellow conscripts he alleges that he was subjected to fearsome brutality, torturing hunger, and degrading exploitation.
Now, seven years later, his account of life in the unit will be published in Russia, a New York-based quarterly edited by Igor Birman and Valery Chalidze. The manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union.
For many Western experts on the Soviet armed forces, Podrabinek's allegations have the ring of truth. Igor Birman says he believes the young man's experiences are "reasonably typical" of Soviet Army life, "especially in areas remote from Moscow." Indeed, he adds that conversations "with recent emigres confirm that nothing has ... changed." According to Birman, Podrabinek has since been exiled to a Soviet labor camp for publishing his recollections of Army life and for other dissident activities.
In his 1980 book "The New Red Legions," Richard A. Gabriel, professor of politics at St. Anselm's College in Manchester, N.H., writes that incidents of brutality and extortion are "commonplace" in the Soviet Army.
But Harriet Fast Scott, coauthor with her husband, William F. Scott, of "Armed Forces of the USSR," is not so certain. "Of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers we've seen, none looked like they were starving or had been beaten," she says.
While not all agree on the extent to which Soviet soldiers suffer privations, few of those who study Soviet forces professionally deny that the Kremlin's legions are beset by problems that could seriously undermine their combat efficiency.
Podrabinek claims that he and his fellow recruits suffered, not at the hands of sadistic officers, but at the whim of second-year soldiers who, he charges, regularly beat recruits, particularly at night.
"Maybe they beat them for some fault, maybe they just beat them," he says. If any conscript committed a "serious fault," he was beaten "with special harshness" in the washroom.
According to former KGB officer Aleksei Myagkov, some years ago men in the 20 th Guards Tank Army in East Germany "so beat a young soldier called Ivanchenko that he died the next morning."
As Podrabinek tells it, any second-year soldier can order a conscript to clean his boots, polish his insignia, or find him a cigarette. Such demands are usually accompanied by a threat to knock a man's teeth out if he does not speedily comply, he adds.
Second-year soldiers sometimes inflicted such ferocious physical exercise on recruits that they collapsed.
For the young soldier and his fellow conscripts the "torture of hunger" was every bit as unbearable as the "exercise torture." With warrant officers bearing away food from the regimental warehouse in "big bags" and cooks throwing "feasts for their friends among the second-year soldiers," conscripts seem rarely to have received sufficient sustenance.
Moreover, at mealtimes, soldiers sitting at one end of the table hogged all the food, Podrabinek declares. "If there is something worth looking at in the pot, let's say potatoes, not just barley soup, nothing at all would reach the other end of the table. But even if it's just barley soup the person at the foot of the table may not even receive any of that."
He claims that "with courage born of desperation" conscripts often begged for food. "Sometimes the cooks condescend to grant their prayers, sometimes the cooks beat them."
According to Podrabinek, theft in his unit was endemic. "Veterans steal from everyone ... Nothing can be left out. Everyone tries to hide his things -in a combat vehicle, in a radio, in the guardroom." Some even bury them, he adds. That theft on such a scale pervades the Soviet Army forces was borne out in 1976 by Lt. Viktor Belenko, who defected to Japan at the controls of a MIG-25 Foxbat. On being given a fleece-lined leather flying jacket when he visited a US aircraft carrier, he refused to let the coat out of his sight. "All life had taught him that, left unguarded, such valuable apparel certainly would be stolen ," writes John Barron, in "MiG Pilot" which relates Belenko's flight to freedom.
All the conscripts in Podrabinek's unit wore old, soiled clothes -old because second-year men forcibly exchanged their worn clothing for the new issue conscripts recevived, and dirty because the conscripts were kept constantly toiling.
Podrabinek and his comrades earned 3 rubles and 80 kopeks a month, of which second-year soldiers seized two rubles. "What can you do ... with the remnant?" he asks. "It's not even enough for a pack of smokes."
Podrabinek says that officers are well aware of what he dubs "the master system," but do nothing about it. "Why should they? It's easier the way it is." To root out the "masters," he says, would take "drastic measures. Who wants to admit that such things go on in his battalion or company or platoon?"
"The system's defenders claim that it develops endurance in the soldiers," Podrabinek says. "Nonsense! It makes soldiers cowards. A slave who has accepted his lot is always cowardly."
In his opinion, "the chief evil of the master system is that it corrupts human souls. A young man enters the Army. Here they break him and force him to experience the supreme degree of humiliation and deprivation of rights. He goes home, having lost his human dignity, empty of soul. And millions of young people pass through the Army! Before their eyes are forever the days spent in the barracks. They are incapable of being citizens and can only submit."
Only in two military districts, the Moscow and the Leningrad, "are matters a little better," notes Podrabinek, observing that the Army is a microcosm of Soviet society. "One part lives at the expense of the other. The axis of all relationships is fear."
In "The New Red Legions" Richard Gabriel claims that one reason for the harsh quality of Soviet military life "is the traditional Russian doctrine that the troops will only perform well in combat if the conditions of training and military life in peacetime are even more rigorous than the conditions that they can be expected to meet in war."
In an analysis of Podrabinek's article, the journal Russia concedes that his account "may seem hard to swallow," but insists that "every element in it can be verified by generalizing from cases reported at frequent intervals in the official Soviet military press."
The magazine explains that Soviet officers are disciplined "if the slightest deviation from regulations takes place in their commands. As a result off this excessive strictness [they] regularly collude to cover up misdemeanors and even serious misconduct by enlisted men."
According to Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, "If [Soviet] officers really conceal disciplinary problems because they're afraid their careers will suffer if the truth gets out, then Soviet leaders cannot trust readiness information their high command supplies." Hitler knew he could rely on the German Army, he says. "Brezhnev doesn't know whether he can rely on his Army or not. It makes a big difference."
Stressing that soldiers win battles rather than equipment, Representative Aspin declares that "no army will hold together in combat if half the conscripts abuse and exploit the other half and the officers don't care."
The editors of Russia contend that Podrabinek's account of life in a motorized rifle regiment "puts the lie to the fearsome image of the Soviet Army."
Reports of widespread drunkenness within the Soviet ranks have long caused Western experts to ponder Soviet efficiency and reliability. "One-third of the men in the Soviet Army are alcoholics," a congressional source tells the Monitor. Although conscripts are forbidden to drink, second-year soldiers even trade their boots and coats for vodka, he says.
When Vikto Belenko reached the West, he related how officers and men often drank the alcohol used for the coolant and braking systems in aircraft. In fact, he told John Barron that the MIG-25 base he was assigned to north of Vladivostok was often immobilized, so rampant was the consumption of aircraft alcohol there. Observing that the MIG-25 needs half a ton of alcohol, Barron notes that in the Soviet Air Force it is popularly known as the "flying restaurant."
Harriet Fast Scott, though pointing out that soldiers the world over are prone to intoxication, concedes that drunkenness is a "major problem" for the Soviet Army.
"Articles in official Soviet journals complain of the Soviet soldier's eagerness to spend most, if not all, of his meager monthly pay on vodka," Richard Gabriel notes.
Also, according to one source interviewed by the Monitor, the Soviet Army may be experiencing drug problems, most notably in Afghanistan. "I hear stories of Russian soldiers selling their rifles for hashish there," this source notes.
Analysts concur with Podrabinek's assertion that Soviet Army life drives many to desertion. One claims that KGB border guards "do it right and left because they're the ones who know where the mines are." In his book "Inside the KGB," Aleksei Myagkov, who was responsible for internal surveillance of the 20th Guards Tank Army in Berlin, asserts that Soviet soldiers regularly desert in East Germany, particularly during the summer when they can sleep outdoors. According to a source familiar with the Soviet Army, soldiers are allowed only 10 days leave during their two-year service. "But only 10 percent ever get a 10 -day pass," he says.
Professor Gabriel believes the number of Soviet soldiers who go absent without leave (AWOL) "may constitute a considerable problem for the Soviet military." His researches show that troops go AWOL to get vodka and to meet women.
Suicide also worries the Soviet high command, say experts. Myagkov recalls that approximately 75 men killed themselves over a three-year period when he was attached to the 20th Guards.
The Soviet Army also suffers from ethnic problems, drawing, as it does, on youths from 100 nationalities. Officers find the multiplicity of languages particularly trying, it seems. In a book just published in England the former commander of a Soviet tank company recalls that during the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 his soldiers "not only didn't understand me; they didn't understand one another."
The author of "The Liberators," who goes by the pseudonymn of Viktor Suvorov, reveals a Soviet Army considerably less impressive than the one Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov recently bragged about to the world.
Fearing that its soldiery could not perform a sufficiently flawless exercise to mark the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution (one that was to be watched by the general staff and Politburo) the Soviet high command created a division of 10,000 officers, Suvorov claims.
To ensure that the division's 5,187 tanks crossed the Dnieper without coming to grief, steel matting was laid on the riverbed and 100 concrete furrows were built to prevent them from lurching off course, he says.
But not all went according to plan. The armored personnel carriers were unable to land on the opposite bank of the river because a mishandled artillery barrage had chewed it up. With the top brass watching, the crews of the personnel carriers were forced to abandon their vehicles and wade and swim ashore.
Though aware of the weaknesses in the Soviet Army, the Pentagon is not predisposed to talk about them -particularly at a time when it is determined to stress the Kremlin's military might. To do so, say defense analysts, might lead Congress to deny it some of the weaponry it is pressing for. But if the Pentagon can take some comfort from the problems besetting the Soviet Army -and other branches of the Soviet military as well -it probably can ill afford to entertain any illusions about the tenacity of the Soviet soldier.
In apprising GIs and generals of the foe they may someday meet, the US Army's handbook on Soviet ground forces quotes French Marshal Henri Jomini's declaration that "the Russian Army is a wall which, however far it may retreat, you will always find in front of you.