(Russian) military virtues

As well as my article on Putin’s rhetoric, another piece of my academic writing has appeared in print this month – a chapter on the subject of ‘Discipline’ in a new book entitled Military Virtues. In this I note that discipline has two meanings – first, ‘measures, including, but not limited to, coercion, used by those in authority to ensure desirable behaviour among subordinates’, and second ‘a state of mind manifested in certain forms of behaviour.’ I conclude:

The ideal is soldiers who can be relied upon to exercise self-control and self-restraint, and to act with precision, exactitude, and timeliness. The ideal of discipline, therefore, is not soldiers who merely obey out of fear of punishment, but soldiers with the spirit to discipline themselves even when authority is weak or absent.


Many military organizations have official lists of the virtues they wish their members to display. Sometimes they have instead lists of ‘values’, and sometimes they mix up the terms virtues and values. Regardless of the terminological confusion, however, in all cases the lists lay out either certain things which military personnel are meant to defend or certain traits of character which they are meant to display in their behaviour. The Military Virtues book examines 14 virtues: justice, obedience, loyalty, courage, wisdom, honesty, integrity, perseverance, temperance, patience, humility, compassion, discipline, and professionalism. Some, but not all, of these appear in the official lists I mentioned above. In a book I edited a few years ago entitled Ethics Education in the Military, I included the following graphic which showed several of these lists:

mil ethics

The most common virtues in these lists are loyalty/comradeship, courage, self-sacrifice, and discipline. On the whole, the focus is very much inwards – that’s to say that the virtues in question are by and large those required to make a soldier effective in a purely functional sense. There’s very little which is outward looking – i.e. about how soldiers should treat others outside the military. The Israelis are unique in including ‘respect for human life’ in their list (Israeli ethicist Asa Kasher, who was responsible for this, told me that he had to fight hard to get that included, as there was a lot of resistance, but he eventually succeeded).

What I didn’t have when I drew up the table above was any example of a Russian set of military virtues. Today, though, I was directed to an article by the head of the military-political directorate of the Russian Armed Forces, A. Kartapolov, in which he provides such a list. I thought, therefore, that it was worth looking at it by way of comparison. According to Kartapolov, the ‘spiritual values’ with which the Russian soldier needs to be inculcated are:

Statehood (gosudarstvennost’) as the bulwark of sovereignty, the guarantee of social-economic progress and of the spiritual flourishing of all Russia’s peoples.

Civic spirit (grazhdanstevnnost’) as someone who belongs to the great Russian people and is responsible for its historic fate and social wellbeing.

Patriotism as a feeling of love of the Motherland, caring for its interests, and being ready to defend one’s Fatherland against aggressors.

Military duty as a sharpened sense of responsibility to oneself and one’s collective, expressed in a desire to fulfil one’s professional responsibilities as well as possible, in one’s attitude towards getting the respect of one’s peers, controlling one’s actions, and showing self-restraint and self-control in any critical situation.

Courage (muzhestvo) and heroism as strength of character, obedience to moral principles in times of danger, and also deeds carried out in the name of the highest ideals.

Military honour as fulfilling one’s military duty, unity of word and deed, an ability to take independent decisions and be accountable for them, and knowing how to take sensible risks.

Self-sacrifice as a readiness to take risks and sacrifice oneself in time of need.

Strength of will as an ability not to withdraw in the face of difficulties, but carry on a job until it’s done; overcoming one’s weaknesses and lack of self-confidence.

Holiness (sviatost’) and sobornost’ as time-honoured expressions of the Russian Idea, defending the rights and freedoms of believers among one’s comrades while in the process of fulfilling one’s military duties.

For the most part, these fit in pretty well with the values and virtues listed by other countries above. The demands of military life are such that military virtues are pretty much the same wherever you find soldiers. There are some differences, though. Kartapolov’s article is full of references to the Great Patriotic War and the glories of the Soviet Army. At the same time, it makes regular reference to ‘traditional values’ and ‘spiritual ties’ (dukhovnye skrepy – a phrase which supposedly dates back to the émigré Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev). As such it’s a somewhat typical post-Soviet mishmash of Soviet and pre-Soviet values and traditions. This can be seen in the last item on Kartapolov’s list – ‘holiness’ and ‘sobornost’ (the latter an almost untranslatable word, having to do with a sort of spirit of religious collectivism). Western armies have become almost entirely secular. References to religious values are entirely missing. But the Russian Army, while looking to its atheistic predecessor, insists on ‘holiness’ and ‘sobornost’. It’s a curious combination which reveals much, I think, about how the post-Soviet Russian state is trying meld all the aspects of its past into a coherent whole.

What really struck about Kartapolov’s list, however, was item no. 1 – ‘statehood’. Again, this is something one just doesn’t find in the Western equivalents. It’s an outward looking value – expressing why the military exists, not just how it’s meant to operate. A lot has been written in recent years about the ‘conservative turn’ in Russian politics, how Putin is allegedly stoking Russian nationalism in order to legitimize his ‘regime’, and so on. The sense is that the Russian state has become increasingly ideological. But actually what Kartapolov’s list shows is that the core of the Russian state’s ideology is what it was throughout the Imperial period (and arguably for large parts of the Soviet period as well) – namely, itself.

Thus we see that the ideology of the Russian state isn’t conservatism or nationalism, or anything like that. The state’s ideology is, simply put, the state. Everything else is just window dressing.

17 thoughts on “(Russian) military virtues”

    1. Loyalty is vaguer and broader – loyalty to what? To the state perhaps, but also to some set of moral principles, or at a lower level loyalty to one’s comrades. By putting statehood so prominently at the top of the list, one is making a clear statement about where loyalty lies. The primary value is the state, not moral principle (human rights, whatever), not abstract ideals (democracy, etc), not comrades – the state.


  1. The emphasis on statehood is also clearly a shift from Soviet times, when the focus of loyalty was expected to be on the Party. Back in the Civil War, ‘statehood’ (gosudarstvennost) was very much part of White not Red, ideology. The Whites complained that the Reds subordinated the interests of the state to those of the Party, that with communism loyalty to the state was thus replaced by loyalty to narrow political interests. By contrast, the Whites considered themselves ‘state-minded people’ (gosudarstvenno-mysliashchye liudi). The post-Soviet military is thus a mish-mash of Soviet symbols and traditions and anti-Soviet ideas. Anyway, the point is that one can’t take statehood as a primary principle as a given. The fact that it’s listed as such is significant.


  2. You’re over-analyzing, I think. I like this one:

    This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

    My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.

    Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will …

    My rifle and I know that what counts in war is not the rounds we fire, the noise of our burst, nor the smoke we make. We know that it is the hits that count. We will hit …

    My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strength, its parts, its accessories, its sights and its barrel. I will keep my rifle clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will …

    Before God, I swear this creed. My rifle and I are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life.

    So be it, until victory is America’s and there is no enemy, but peace!


  3. “The Israelis are unique in including ‘respect for human life’ in their list…”


    Moshe Dayan: “It was an outrageous irresponsiblity on their part to place children at the exact location where my planes drop bombs!”

    – “A Responsible Monster” (1970), by Herluf Bidstrup.


  4. Great Patriotic War and the glories of the Soviet Army.

    Maybe Lyttenbourgh can help me out here. I recently realized I did not know all about the British Civil War. At least not as much as I would like to know. Meaning I may not perfectly grasp more ‘allusionary’ parts of an author’s text, at the time that mattered to me in the here and now.

    Was I too concentrated on the revival of the stage for the public, or “worse” (for some) the introduction of female actors on stage at the time? Ignoring the larger political context. Anglicans, Puritans, Catholics and all? May well be.

    Semi irony alert. I do understand though, by now the American Civil Way has left traces on people’s mind,

    Nitwit Question: What traces did the Russian Great Patriotic War leave on the Russian Mind? And where exactly do I have to put it in time and space? That’s WWII? No? Help me train my synapses.


    1. Great Patriotic War encompasses the time period between German invasion (22 June 1941) and the Victory Day (9 May 1945).


  5. I suppose I see the military as a necessary evil. On the other hand, I have always struggled to understand why intelligent, well adjusted men, and women, would want to join the officer corp in peace time. Who would want to be an officer in any Western army just now. On the other hand, I am struck, from time to time, that some individual officers appear to be perfectly intelligent and civilized, to the extent that I especially wonder why they ever chose the military career path. So I am rather puzzled that you, Paul, initially chose the army. What don’t I understand?


    1. if I may?


      Why not?

      Personally, as elder, I would at best have had a chance to become a female medical officer in the German Army. But curiously enough, I admittedly wondered a while ago, how it would have changed my life to be forced into discipline and semi-irony-alert loyalty at a tender or more likely not so tender age.

      Minor bits and pieces of WWII family lore:
      I would guess my emigre granduncle who died in the Pacific part of WWII may have felt a need to show loyalty to his new country, his then already American uncle may have supported him. His best friend died on the German side off the coast of Norway. They were close to the same age, but the one dying in the Pacific was the uncle of the one dying off the Norwegian coast. the latter was drafted of course. The one dying in the Pacific was the eldest brother of my mother, the one dying off the Norwegian coast was her uncle, the youngest brother of her own mother.

      There are more interesting but mostly ignored tales in my family. One haunted me as young adult. The peculiar circumstances, including a further dead by accident in rather curious circumstances, surrounding the dead of an uncle, a late returnee from Russia.


      1. Ok, wrong, not that it matters. I may have shifted perspectives. I find these family matters confusing: Correction anyway:
        The one dying in the Pacific was the uncle of my mother, the one dying off the Norwegian coast was her eldest brother, the one dying in the Pacific was the youngest brother of her own mother.


  6. The Russian state for all of its faults has consistently protected us from western imperial aggression for centuries. We therefore must be loyal to it as it has been loyal to us


  7. I ordered the book, since it may be one of the sources of reigning double standards. Haunted me for a while.* I have to admit I only suspect this as absolute nitwit on matters. But I surely hope one or the other contributors reflects on “Just War”. Or at least ‘drops the issue’ (misused here) in passing. Leaves traces of what it meant over the centuries from Sun Tsu via von Clauswitz to today. (Irony Alert!)

    Only after that i have to reflect which library other then my home library I could donate it to. Maybe I leave it up to them to decide. The editors have raised awareness no doubt.. in one or the other place.

    But yes, a theoretically interesting topic. It feels for this utterly bloody outsider on matters.

    * defended and looked a bit into Martin van Crevald against what felt like a vicious conspiracy theory along the way. Didn’t help though. At one point he interrupted an email exchange. I had dared to suggest he may have triggered the larger conspiracy theory with a not so well reflected remark in an interview with a Dutch paper.


  8. Fascinating! I note that some countries fail to include honesty or integrity or fairness in their lists, at least directly. I cannot tell if that just means they are less hypocritical than some other countries (such as my own) or if it actually indicates a different valuation of virtues (something of one and something of the other, I suppose). I think it is helpful to consider each country’s values in the light of German historian Ute Frevert work on the history of emotions. I like, for instance, her distinction between trust and fidelity: http://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/11258/MWP_LS_2009_01.pdf;jsessionid=2A927F61FC5676C0D5202928D74E0164?sequence=1


  9. Some other translations of государственность, besides statehood, include nationhood, and even sovereignty. It is derived from the root word (noun) государь, meaning


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