Russians Don’t Want to Serve in the Army

Three polls are better than one.  Three different opinion polls find Russians prefer their sons and brothers not serve in the army by a margin ranging from fully one-half to nearly two-thirds of those queried.  Press reporting on these polls didn’t do them justice, so here’s another take on them.

Look first at Levada-Tsentr, the most independent and well-respected Russian polling firm.  Levada’s published numbers on yes-or-no to army service date back to 1998, when 84 percent said they’d prefer their relatives not serve in the armed forces.  This no-to-service number declined to 77 percent in 2004, and to 53 percent in 2008, before increasing again to 57 percent of respondents indicating a preference against service this year.  The corresponding yes-to-service numbers start from a low of 13 percent in 1998, rising to 35 in 2007, 36 in 2008, and 34 percent this year.

So, in late January-early February 2010, 57 percent said don’t serve, 34 percent said serve.  Presumably, 9 percent just didn’t answer either way even though that wasn’t a choice in Levada’s survey.

Levada also asked, ‘if not, why not?’  Respondents could choose from multiple ‘why not’ reasons.  ‘Dedovshchina, nonregulation relations, violence in the army’ was the top ‘why not’ answer with 40 percent in 1998 and still 37 percent in 2010.  It’s interesting that the 2006 number spiked to 49 percent, probably because the poll came right after the notorious Sychev abuse case broke.

Levada’s next top 5 ‘why not’ answers:

  • ‘Death/injury in Chechen type conflicts’
  • ‘Denial of rights and humiliation of servicemen by officers, commanders’
  • ‘Difficult living conditions, poor food, health dangers’
  • ‘Moral decay, drunkenness, drug abuse’
  • ‘Collapse of the army, irresponsible policy of the authorities in relation to the army’

The number of those picking these declined by nearly, or more than, half over the 12-year period, 1998-2010.  But dedovshchina, hazing, abuse, violence, whatever you call it, persisted.

Since 1998, Levada has also asked whether Russians prefer conscript or contract service, and they’ve consistently answered contract, but the gap has narrowed since the mid-2000s to 54 percent for contract and 39 for conscript in 2010.

Similarly, for three years, Levada asked Russians whether a family member should serve, or seek a way to avoid serving, if drafted.  This one’s pretty much a toss-up this year, with 46 percent saying serve, and 42 percent saying find a way to avoid serving.

Levada also published two years of responses on whether Russia should preserve a million-man army or cut it and use the savings to equip the army with the newest weapons.  The gap on this question went wider this year with 36 percent favoring the million-man army and 50 percent the smaller, better equipped one.

Levada always asks about threats to Russia and the army’s ability to defend the country.

On threats to Russia from other countries, the poll tends to go up or down by 10 percent from year to year, but has still been pretty consistent over the last decade.  In 2010, 47 percent said there are definitely or likely threats to Russia (48 percent said this in 2000).  This year 42 percent said there are most likely or definitely not threats to Russia (vs. 45 percent in 2000).

On the army’s ability to defend Russia, the number also goes up or down by 10 percent from year to year.  In 2010, 63 percent said definitely or most likely yes it can defend Russia.  This figure was 60 percent in 2000, and 73 percent in 2008 and 2009 (perhaps still high from victory in the war with Georgia).  So it seems the number returned more to the norm this year.  Those who said it definitely or most likely can’t defend Russia was just 22 percent this year.  It had been 38 percent in 2005, and 31 percent in 2000.

But back to the mainline question on serving or not serving in the army . . . .

The All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM or ВЦИОМ) asks the same basic question as Levada—effectively, would you want your son or brother to serve in the army?  It’s the same question because Levada and his close associates went on their own when the Russian government moved to assert control over this inconvenient organization in 2003.

In VTsIOM’s mid-February poll, 50 percent said no-to-service and 36 percent yes-to-service.  Unlike the yes-no on Levada’s survey, VTsIOM allows for ‘I find it difficult to answer’ and 14 percent indicated that (but in Levada’s poll 9 percent didn’t answer, so there’s not a great difference here).  VTsIOM also breaks its responses out by sex.  Women were not surprisingly less likely to say yes-to-service than men and somewhat more likely to say no-to-service. 

VTsIOM also cross-referenced responses to its yes-or-no-to-service question by the respondent’s evaluation of the Russian Army’s condition.  So, of those who said the Russian Army’s condition is ‘very poor,’ 67 percent also said no-to-service.  But 54 percent of those who said its condition is ‘very good’ still favored no-to-service.

VTsIOM’s ‘if not, why not’ data is a little different from Levada’s.  It only gives data for 2000, 2002, and 2010.  Like Levada, in 2010, the number one reason was ‘Dedovshchina, nonregulation relations, violence in the army,’ but with 75 percent of respondents picking it in this closed, multiple choice question.  Otherwise, its list of top ‘why not’ answers tracked closely with Levada’s.

VTsIOM also collected data on responses by geographic region and educational attainment, though it didn’t fully publish it.  For instance, Russians in Siberia and the Volga basin are more likely to say yes-to-service than the average Russian, according to VTsIOM.  Poorly educated [undefined] respondents said yes-to-service slightly more than half the time.

Educated [undefined] Russians said no-to-service at a 57 percent clip.  And southerners and northwesterners said no at 56 and 55 percent respectively.

Early last October, SuperJob.ru conducted a poll on the issue of service.  But it limited its respondents to Russians with sons, and its question to whether they would want their sons to serve in the army.  SuperJob.ru also broke out respondents whose sons have already served (6 percent) and it also allowed for a ‘I find it hard to answer’ option (11 percent).  That said, this poll’s responses were 63 percent no-to-service and 20 percent yes-to-service.

SuperJob.ru also broke out its data by sex, age groups, and educational attainment.  The age group data was interesting for the 45-55 and the above 55 groups.  Respondents in those groups reported that their  sons had already served at the rates of 22 and 23 percent respectively.  This is a good indication of the general rates at which young Russian men serve (about one-fifth) or manage to avoid serving (about four-fifths) one way or the other.

Russians with higher education were more likely to say yes-to-service (25 percent) and those with only secondary or technical degrees were more likely to say no-to-service (66 percent).

Some of what SuperJob.ru’s respondents said:

‘Yes, I would’ – 20 percent.

  • ‘All men in our family served, and he is no exception.’
  • ‘I myself am an officer.’
  • ‘Why not?’
  • ‘A good school for life.’
  • ‘Let the lad grow.’
  • ‘Yes, I would.  But in my region, so there’s a chance to see him more often.  And on the condition that there’s access to the Internet and mobile phones.  Even more desirable would be if there they taught some kind of profession:  telephone operator, driver, draftsman, etc.’
  • ‘Of course, this is the obligation of every man.’
  • ‘Avoiding army service is shame for a man.’
  • ‘My first son didn’t serve, and should have.’
  • ‘Who can’t survive the army won’t survive in life.’

‘No, I wouldn’t’ – 63 percent.

  • ‘My husband and I gave 30 years to the service, and now don’t have anything.  And we raised two sons without the state’s help.  And now when they are grown, it turns out, they have a debt to the state!  When will the state pay its debts to us?  Enough, we’ve already served ten years for each child.’
  • ‘My brother served, after which he said he would never send his son to the army.’
  • ‘I’m afraid for my child.’
  • ‘I served 25 years myself.  Today year-long service in the army is wasted time for a man with higher education, even during [financial] crisis conditions.’
  • ‘I prefer to get a higher education in a VUZ with a military faculty.’
  • ‘Service needs to be on contract.’
  • ‘What we have is not an army.’
  • ‘There’s still no order in the ranks of our army even among officer personnel, so I wouldn’t want my sons to serve.’
  • ‘I’m afraid for his life and health.’
  • ‘To lose a year of your life is too expensive a present for Russia.’
  • ‘Why put a moral invalid in my family?’

‘I find it hard to answer’ – 11 percent.

  • ‘I want my son to go through training for life, but I don’t want this experience to consist only of beatings.’
  • ‘My son is still young.  And I don’t know what will be in 12 years when he will have to go into the army.  It could be they won’t be conscripting any longer and everything will be volunteer, but it could be, to the contrary, they could ‘shave’ everybody no matter what.’
  • ‘Every young man needs to go through this school to feel like a man and, if necessary, stand up for his country.  However, when kids come back from the army with ruined health, even in peacetime, you begin to think, is this necessary?’
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