Desertion and political protest

Konstantin Pakhalyuk
July 22, 2023

How did the Russian and then Soviet state and society change their attitudes towards desertion during the two world wars? How do today’s pro-war Telegram channels talk about desertion? Historian Konstantin Pakhalyuk gives a broad overview of desertion in modern Russia and explores its political meaning

Of all human activities, war is perhaps the one most associated with the establishment of norms, i.e. perceptions of propriety. Can war be considered righteous if it meets certain criteria of justice? Who is a hero? Above all, does someone’s behavior  in combat live up to the proper norm? The hero can be contrasted with the deserter, the ultimate case of neglecting proper norms during war. Desertion is a violation of the military oath and a breach of discipline. In various historical circumstances, it can be construed as betrayal of God, king, or nation. Desertion from the battlefield causes condemnation from other soldiers because it can jeopardize the lives of the deserter’s companions. A moral dilemma arises: is it acceptable to save one’s own life by making others worse off? There is, however, an inextricable link between desertion and the broader issue of how soldiers react to the state’s right to send its citizens to death, or to its abuse of this right.

What follows is a brief overview of changes in the views of the Russian state and of its citizens  on the phenomenon of desertion in the two world wars. It was during the First World War that desertion became widespread enough to provoke extensive public debate, whereas it is attitudes towards deserters developed during the Stalin era that are used by contemporary Russian propaganda. In the final part of this article I will show how the subject of desertion is treated by pro-war Telegram channels justifying the war in Ukraine.

Desertion and WWI

Desertion from the Russian army existed long before the 20th century. One example is from the era of Peter the Great. The Northern War with Sweden (1700–1721) required the creation of a regular army. The introduction of recruiting duty in 1705 was one of the responses to that challenge. However, many soldiers could not endure the training and fled to the Don to join the Cossacks. It would seem that despite all the freedoms enjoyed by the Don Cossacks they defended the southern borders of the Moscow state, and thus also served their country. But Peter was not particularly fond of freedoms and attempted to limit Cossack self-government. This caused a revolt led by Kondratiy Bulavin, which was brutally suppressed. Here we can already see in desertion not just a violation of oaths and discipline, but also a quiet and spontaneous protest of the “weak” against certain policies.

The real challenge in terms of the scale of desertion and its conceptualization was the First World War, the war of “fighting nations.” All major participating countries faced the need for a total mobilization of the economy and society for military purposes. The search for cultural mechanisms that would ensure such a transformation was a separate challenge. In Russia (though not only), the situation was complicated by unfinished modernization and the absence of a really formed civilian nation, which made the invention of the meanings of war problematic — even if it was defensive, and thus just. Another related question is even more complex: if the state sends a man to risk his life, what can he expect in return? Can moral recognition of merit and individual payments (for example, for military decorations) be considered adequate to the services rendered? This question inevitably becomes more acute with the transition from a professional to a conscript army, and in Russia it became particularly acute in 1914.

Numerous and rather unusual cases of desertion in the first year of the war indicated the limits of the officers’ control over the army masses and the arbitrariness of the propaganda cliché “the nation rises to fight.” Already on the fields of East Prussia it became apparent that not everyone was ready for the psychological pressure of industrial-scale warfare. Some units simply fled from the trenches after shelling and had to be brought back by force of arms. In the fall, with the arrival of the first units to the Western front (second order divisions, state militia, etc.), it became clear that the soldiers were poorly trained and insufficiently resilient and therefore would quickly retreat when the enemy struck. In November 1914, a major scandal occurred on the Northwestern Front when a company of veterans of the Russo-Japanese War simply surrendered, saying: “We sat it out in the rear then, so we’ll sit it out again.” During enemy offensives some officers would feign illness to be sent to the rear. Lower ranks also did not necessarily desert directly: they could literally walk around in the nearest rear area, having “lost their unit” or “gone away for a great need,” lose or sell items of clothing; pay bribes to stay in the reserve rear battalions, etc. Quite a few actions, including those caused by circumstances, could fall under the notion of desertion.

Desertion, then, manifested itself in various practices involving the indirect avoidance of fulfilling a soldier’s or an officer’s military duty (these phenomena have been superbly described by historians Aleksandr Astashov and Yuri Bakhurin). In 1915, against the background of heavy defeats and disruptions in the supply of weapons, these behaviors became widespread. Considering that at that time the Russian army was fighting very intense and bloody battles, holding back the onslaught of the enemy, desertion can be seen not only as a manifestation of cowardice, but also as the refusal of the lower ranks to become “cannon fodder” for the command that did not bother to provide them with adequate supplies. In total, by February 1917, seven to eight hundred thousand deserters had been detained, and the total number of “evaders” could be even higher.

It should be noted that the very practice of gathering deserters together, sending them to the rear, and then back to the front line in forced-march battalions gave contradictory results. It has been estimated that several tens of thousands of deserters were in Petrograd in February 1917 who wanted to avoid being sent to the front by any means and became one of the drivers of the February Revolution. Its roots, of course, go much deeper and have to do with a full-scale crisis of imperial power, yet the link between the revolution and deserters again indicates that we can understand desertion as a form of social protest. To call it antimilitarist would be too bold: yesterday’s deserters could quickly become agents of revolutionary violence.

To illustrate the contradictory nature of desertion, let us cite a few examples from the history of the First World War.

The attitude toward those who chickened out was not always harsh; on the contrary, many commanders understood all the psychological difficulties of participation in industrial-scale warfare. A good case in point is provided by an episode from the memoirs of Aleksandr Verkhovsky, at the time of the events described, a senior adjutant of the staff of the 3rd Finnish Rifle Brigade, becoming in the fall of 1917 Minister of War in the Kerensky administration. The incident occurred around the beginning of September 1914 on the border of East Prussia. One captain panicked and fled the battlefield. Then Lieutenant-Colonel Nikolaev, as Verkhovsky recalls, received him calmly, giving him tea and saying:

“Go now, such weakness can happen during the first minutes of fighting. But it doesn’t happen twice to an honest man. I am sure that your company will fulfill its task with honor.

The officer turned and walked quickly back to his company. He was killed a year later in Galicia, but never again did anything happen to him that could cause even the slightest reproach.”

We can identify two approaches to the problem of desertion existing within the army leadership. The first was to blame the deserters (personally or collectively), to criticize their “rotten kind” and to look for tough measures to prevent desertion (which provoked speculations about low fighting qualities of “Russian muzhiks”). The other approach was to link the combat effectiveness of lower ranks and junior officers to the question of whether the conditions are provided to achieve victories; this approach, thus, implies looking for ways to systematically improve the situation.

An illustrative example of the issue’s complexity is the case of the Osovets fortress’s garrison. Although the story is largely overblown in Russia today, it is still worth recognizing that a relatively weak garrison in a position of advantage and with strong artillery accomplished all its combat tasks. On the one hand, the commandant of the fortress, General Brzozowski, constantly complained about the absolutely inadequate fighting qualities of the militia and reserve soldiers given to him. On the other hand, he had about half a year to make up for their training and thus preserve the garrison’s fighting ability during the gas attack on August 6, 1915. However, as soon as the garrison retreated from the fortress and became a regular field corps, the commanders saw all the same things that were observed in other army formations: withdrawal of units against their superiors’ orders, abandonment of the battlefield by individual soldiers under the pretext of carrying the wounded, allegedly getting lost, etc. The former commandant was so disappointed that he ordered the establishment of “a cavalry anti-retreat unit behind the frontline in order to wrestle against ‘voluntary orderlies’ and ‘wanderers,’ whose commander was instructed to catch all self-appointed orderlies and rear-guards, to give them 50 lashings each on the spot, and to send them back into the ranks” (1). Similarly, regimental commanders were ordered to have at least a company to “keep the battle area in order.”

However, the subject of desertion during the First World War goes beyond the state of the Russian army. Russia was trying to position itself as “the center of the Slavic world” and set a goal to disintegrate the Habsburg empire, ostensibly in order to “liberate the Slavs.” Correspondingly, desertion of Austro-Hungarian soldiers of Slavic origin (and there was a substantial number of such incidents) was painted by propaganda as “vivid proof” of why the declared “mission” was justified. The memoirs of Aleksandr Trushnovich, who would later become a participant in the “White movement” and an active figure in the Russian emigration, shed light on the motivation of those who defected intentionally. Although the Russian authorities were willing to bet on the unwillingness of some groups of Austro-Hungarian subjects to die “for the glory of the Habsburgs,” the military leadership was suspicious of such defectors and hesitated in forming ethnic units.

Particular attention should be given to anti-war defeatist intellectuals, in particular the Bolsheviks, for whom the refusal of soldiers to fight in an imperialist war was morally justified and thus turned into a gesture of resistance to imperialism. This position, however, was not always genuinely anti-militarist: later on, the Bolsheviks themselves would not shy away from armed violence, even if it was justified by a different cause. The 1920s and 30s even saw memoirs of some voluntary prisoners of war published; however, this strand of international education did not fit into the agenda of Soviet patriotism and was eventually forgotten.

The history of Russia’s participation in World War I is inextricably linked to the crisis of 1917, and therefore the phenomenon of desertion is treated by Russian historiography as an indicator of growing negative trends that brought down the state, rather than an independent problem. The particular issue of Christmas and Easter fraternizations (seen on the Russian front as early as December 1914) is an indication of that. While in other European countries these incidents have become a symbol of the pan-European idea, in contemporary Russia they still have a purely negative meaning due to the association with the mass fraternizations of 1917, and thus with the collapse of the army and the country as a whole (in which we can see an uncritical adoption of the White military emigrants’ views into contemporary Russia’s historiography and the public sphere).

Desertion and WWII

By the Second World War, Soviet Russia was a much more modernized society with a highly repressive state apparatus. Given that the war’s character was existential, desertion was now seen by the authorities as an even worse crime than before, as well as a direct challenge to Soviet patriotism.

According to published NKVD reports, in total 2.2 million deserters and evaders were detained during the war years (among them 1.46 million deserters), including 760,000 in 1941 alone. Even in the victorious 1945 their number amounted to more than 270,000 people (2). In other words, during World War I (before the February Revolution), about 5.1% of conscripts (800,000 out of the total number of 15.5 million mobilized) fled from the army and were detained, and according to modern estimates (!), the total share of “evaders” of different kinds was up to 10% of those drafted. During the Great Patriotic War, the number of captured deserters was 4.5% (of 32 million draftees), and 6.8% including evaders. Due to the lack of dedicated studies, it is difficult to estimate a total figure of all “shirkers from fighting at the front” during 1941-1945 by analogy with the First World War.

The number of deserters/evaders is comparable to that seen during the First World War. This challenges the intuition that the harsher and more repressive Soviet state machine would be much more successful in controlling the population; and that the “Soviet citizen” would be less likely to shirk his “sacred duty” than a subject of Nicholas II—even though the Great Patriotic War’s defensive character was much more obvious to contemporaries than that of the First World War! Adjusting for the scale of mobilization, the Soviet system faced roughly the same scale of desertion, but for different reasons (including tight control over personnel within the army) and managed not to allow the situation to get to the point where desertion affected the Red Army’s strategic situation.

In terms of the political content of desertion as well, the situation was significantly different during the Second World War. First, the demand for unquestioning self-sacrifice, which was absent during WWI, gave rise to much discussion about the fairness of the authorities’ response to specific facts of desertion or what might have looked like such. One can recall Konstantin Simonov’s The Living and The Dead: early in the novel, its decisively patriotic protagonist is in constant fear of being seen as a coward for particular actions on the frontline (such as getting surrounded or captured or having his party membership card destroyed). It would be impossible to imagine a similar narrative in the Russian army during WWI.

Second, ideologically motivated desertion (military collaborationism) intensified, which represented both the defection of individual units to the enemy’s side and the flight of individual servicemen (up to 1943-1944). Although the war was clearly one of annihilation and despite the Nazis’ evident mass crimes on occupied territories (which was no secret on the other side of the front line), a number of Soviet citizens considered Hitler “the lesser evil” compared to Stalin’s rule, making their collaborationism “ideologically justified.”

The Great Patriotic War became one of the “foundational myths” of the Soviet and eventually Russian (Putinist) civic nation. In the latter case, this led to absolutely unique historical events becoming a source of normative historical views and attempts to extend the norms appropriate for a “state of emergency” to apply to “peacetime.” This, in turn, has led to an underlying assertion of the population’s absolute submission to any demands and actions of the authorities during an external conflict (as long as it can be deliberately described as “decisive”), and therefore a total rejection of anything that even resembles “collaborationism,, “treachery,” and “desertion,” even if it isn’t essentially that. For example, the Russian authorities have tried to describe citizens’ participation in international humanitarian activities or promotion of liberal political views in such terms. The increasing emphasis on images of Nazi crimes in the 2010s only reinforced this symbolic construction, although it also led to the rise of opposing views, where the subject of Nazi crimes was conceptualized from a different perspective, that of individual guilt and responsibility for one’s actions under the conditions of subordination to a repressive political regime.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine (from 2022)

From the very beginning, the aggression against Ukraine was rhetorically framed in terms of historical continuity with the Great Patriotic War. Here we are interested, above all, in the reemergence of other normative notions that make it easier for Russian citizens to accept what is happening as inevitable. These include the “duty” of every person to rally around the government in a global conflict, the rejection of any divisive actions or anything that can be described as criticism of the authorities, including “criticism by action.” Three concepts — “betrayal,” “collaboration,” and “desertion” — have come to be used to describe such situations.

There are two important aspects that characterize how the very notion of desertion is being used in the context of the war against Ukraine. First, it has undergone semantic expansion to include actions of political opponents to the war (i.e. civilian life has been discursively militarized). Second, desertion from the Ukrainian army has become an object of close media attention with the aim to demonstrate the “weakness of the enemy.” Concurrently, the “home deserter” is being deprived of agency and the right to a moral stance, i.e. to refuse to participate in an unjust war (which raises the question of whether the state really has the right to use troops at will and in any way it pleases). Opponents of the war who have left the country are also sometimes called deserters: the implication is that those who refused to leave (i.e., those who “did not desert”) have, by their inaction, supposedly already committed an honorable act.

The way the word “deserter” is used today for propaganda purposes can be traced in the reports by the “voyenkors,” or “war correspondents” on Telegram: journalists who are in the war zone and run their own channels on the app, where the number of subscribers sometimes exceeds one million. Over the past year and a half, they have gained quite a serious influence, becoming a mechanism for symbolic consolidation of the Z agenda’s most active supporters.

During the first days after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, voyenkor channels were already overflowing with calls for the Ukrainian army to surrender and for the population not to resist. It is unlikely that in those weeks of February and March 2022 many Ukrainians were reading Russian propagandists, so it was the active supporters of the aggression that were more likely to get immersed in the echo chamber of a quick victory that never came to be. As early as February 15, nine days before the invasion, a major voyenkor channel titled WarGonzo published a statement by the commander of the Sparta battalion, Vladimir Zhoga: “You deal with your deserters and massive defection first, deal with your panic attack prone drug addicts, and after that, if there’s anyone left in your ranks, we’ll see if you can handle the Donbas separatists.”

Such calls became rarer with time, although there were some discussions about a prospect of Ukrainian generals switching sides. In July 2022, voyenkor Roman Saponkov put forward a pragmatic argument: deserters from the Ukrainian side are not ideological deserters, but “people who were put under the gun against their will and sent ‘over there to that forest to hold out until the tanks come.’” This means that we should temper our turbo-patriotism and rejoice that “our social security infrastructure will not be burdened by dependents without arms/legs or children without a breadwinner.” Next, Saponkov rushed to advise on the best way to switch to the Russian side (buy civilian clothes, use local cab services, etc.). From time to time, some Telegram channels published videos of interrogations of Ukrainian deserters (by Russians or Ukrainians themselves), which serve only one purpose: to prove the alleged “disintegration of the Ukrainian army.”

It is usually Ukrainians and, on rarer occasions, emigrants and celebrities with an anti-war position who are described as deserters by the voyenkors on Telegram and employees of state-run and state-influenced media. Komsomolskaya Pravda’s correspondent Dmitry Steshin, who runs the channel Russian Tarantas, first used the word “deserter” to criticize the singer Alla Pugacheva, who emigrated, and then to label those who left Russia right after military mobilization was announced. In his turn, journalist Aleksandr Sladkov (1 million subscribers) labeled the anti-war elites, including emigrants, simply as traitors. Aleksandr Rudenko (293,000 subscribers), Evgeny Poddubny (879,000 subscribers), and Aleksandr Kots (663,000 subscribers) also prefer “traitor” as their term of choice, while only Ukrainians are being called “deserters.” Notably, ordinary propagandists who are in the rear are much more willing to apply the concept of desertion to the newest emigration wave than those who are in the war zone. This is probably due to the much more politicized and loose language of those who simply serve the information flows of power.

The blogs of the “Donetsk voyenkors” reveal a much more diverse picture. For example, the word “deserter” is never used by Aleksandr Khodakovsky, deputy head of the Russian National Guard for the “Donetsk Republic,” who is sometimes called a “philosopher of war” in sympathetic Telegram channels. On February 22, 2022, he urged that those men of the self-proclaimed republics who evaded mobilization not be labeled traitors. For him, these are people devoid of a patriotic feeling—and why would they have such a feeling, wondered the author, after years of “dividing spheres of influence and squeezing out the 2014’s leaders and activists from the echelons of power”? Conversely, other Donetsk voyenkors are more worried about the Russian army’s low morale. For example, Vladlen Tatarsky in May 2022 criticized the decision of a Nalchik court to dismiss 120 National Guard members who refused to be sent to the front because he considered it too lenient against “deserters.” In August 2022, the “Donetsk Republic’s” 1st Deputy Minister of Information, Daniil Bezsonov (381,000 subscribers), wrote about the weak motivation of Russian soldiers, which he linked to the problem of desertion.

Notably, channels with direct links to the Wagner group (such as “GreyZone” or “Codename Bruce”) hardly ever use the word “desertion,” although the former achieved particular notoriety after releasing the video of the deserter Yevgeny Nuzhin executed with a sledgehammer. The story received wide media coverage and led, among other things, to a bump in this channel’s popularity (552,000 subscribers). In mid-February 2023, the subject was revisited when the channel first hinted at an execution of a different deserter but, after a backlash, claimed that the man had been given a chance to redeem himself. Exploitation of the subject of desertion was aimed at demonstrating that Wagner’s attitude to personnel was “tougher and fairer” than in the regular army. For Wagner, this was a way to contrast itself with the Ministry of Defense and to respond to accusations of a lack of military morality and driving former prisoners to slaughter.

Correspondent Yevgeny Topazov (100,000 subscribers), who has links to the neo-fascist Slavic-Pagan PMC “DSHRG Rusich,” isn’t fond of the word “deserter” either. The term appeared only once in his Telegram channel in fall 2022 when, in the wake of the chaotic mobilization, he expressed indignation at the fact that draftees suffered more from it than responsible officers and contract soldiers who deserted. A month before that, Rusich’s own channel published a harsh critique of General Lapin, who pointed a handgun at draftees who were thrown into battle without training or equipment, and therefore retreated. The story itself was preceded by an unambiguous comment: “These generals want a lot from the personnel, but often do little to provide adequate conditions. And by the way, no one has been jailed for failures in the SMO [“special military operation”] (and they should be)!”

The Z-community does not like to talk about deserters. For some, this topic represents an “inconvenient truth” about the war, while for others it is one of the few contexts in which to criticize — not too loudly — the state of the Russian army. One of the only people who attempted to speak out on the topic in a more detailed way was Semyon Pegov, who on April 1, 2023, published a long post about deserters on the major channel “Wargonzo.” Desertion was called a poison worse than betrayal: according to the blogger, betrayal is a stance and a choice, while desertion is self-deception based on a supposedly valid reason: “The deserter in reality turns step by step into a slave of circumstances, the vortex of doom sucks him irrevocably away, leaving only wisps of meaningless emptiness melting in the spring sun. I thought about it and goosebumps ran down my soul. Perhaps there is nothing more terrible than to perish from illusions. Poor deserters….”

On the other hand, conscientious objection to participating in the aggression has become a civic duty for opponents of the war, and this in turn undermines one of the symbolic foundations of the modern Russian regime: unquestioning political loyalty. Virtually all anti-war rhetoric is imbued with this conviction, but the key difficulty is to understand practically what “non-cooperation” with the regime might mean for a person living in Russia.

It will take time and serious effort for a simple idea to become apparent in the Russian cultural space: refusing to support the unjust actions of one’s government is a basic civic virtue. As can be seen from our brief historical overview, desertion does not come down to cowardice of individual soldiers: it increases when citizens do not share the political goals of the war, and becomes a form of “passive resistance.” In some cases, there may be a moral justification for desertion (e.g., during a change of political regime), but this may not last long, since any elite needs a loyal army. For most historians, desertion is seen as an “army issue” or a “discipline issue” outside of the broader context of the right and ability of the state to send its citizens into battle as well as the citizens’ reactions. This indicates, at the very least, that some researchers, in immersing themselves in documents produced by the military bureaucracy, are too ready, mildly speaking, to accept its perspective.

In outlining possible normative visions for the future, I would like to emphasize that the very principle of strict subordination of soldiers to their command hardly makes sense to question today. Where a group of people are given arms, there needs to be a system of moral restraints, such as “non-interference of the army in politics” and “unconditional obedience to orders,” that prevent potential military coups. However, any attempt to interpret these principles broadly in relation to the entire civilian community must be resisted. With regard to the army, two other long-standing principles remain important: “there is no military glory in a criminal war” and “obeying criminal orders is also criminal” (the latter was notably confirmed at the Nuremberg Trials, which the Russian authorities are so “fond” of). The cult of the army, which is based on the celebration of unquestioning obedience to orders, must be reconsidered in the future, making it unacceptable for politicians to use the mass army for any purpose (except defense). Equally, another talking point of propaganda deserves a more detailed examination: the state’s moral justification to demand self-sacrifice from its citizens in order to defend or advance “national interests.”

In this sense, a broad and multifaceted discussion of desertion can serve as a reminder of how soldiers react to orders to kill and die in contexts where there is either a lack of agreement on the objectives of war or the political system itself does not seem fair to all. The issue of desertion is important because it provides a window into the “black well of power” of any state, highlighting the limits of its right to use the lives of citizens as it sees fit.

  1. Russian State Military History Archive. F. 2266. Op. 1. D. 138. S. 12. The Russian State Military Historical Archive (RGVIA).
  2. Nevsky S. Activity of the NKVD agencies and forces to combat desertion and evasion of military service in the USSR during the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) // Bulletin of the All-Russian Institute for Advanced Training of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation. 2021. № 3. Pp. 137-145.