By comparison with the situation in the west, the theme of institutional critique in contemporary Russia is complicated by several essential factors. The problem is that we are always a bit behind Europe-by a hundred years or so on average. This gap, however, is not quantitative in nature, but qualitative. It is therefore difficult for us, say, to assess the merits of Foucault’s provocative idea that the system of social disciplinary control that replaced public executions, corporal punishment, and the sovereign form of power in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries placed even greater restrictions on the liberty of the individual. For analogous changes have still not been made in Russia, and maybe they will never be. We must keep in mind that the institution of the prison itself was established in Russia only in the mid-twentieth century. In the Russian prison, however, the form of punishment that still predominates is not the restriction of liberty, but violence that is controlled only by the unwritten rules of prison life.
This fact requires us to take a somewhat different take on the perspectives for institutional critique in Russian society. Given the near-total absence of horizontal linkages and non-state sources of authority within the society, when a Russian intellectual, for example, loses contact with academic institutions, this is tantamount to his ejection from the social order altogether. Therefore, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of depending on alternative, independent institutions, for they simply do not exist in Russia. Hence, in the case of Russia, we need to talk not about an external critique of power, but about the possibilities for immanent critique, from the other side of the institutional barrier, so to speak. This, however, does not mean agreeing to their rules, but rather pointing up the hazards involved in not recognizing the essential role these institutions play in determining the face of contemporary Russian society as a whole.
Our focus on the inefficacy of an external critique of such institutions that is based on the idea that certain rights are violated within them is not connected to the fact that rights are not violated there, but with the reality that this violation is itself a condition of their very existence.
In order to elaborate this thesis, I would like to analyze the phenomenon of the Russian army.
Like the Soviet army, the Russian army exists thanks to the exploitation of the slave labor of soldiers in their first year of mandatory service. This exploitation is accompanied by the most brutal form of nonformalized violence on the part of their “seniors”-that is, soldiers who have already served the first year of the required two years of service. The violence proper consists in coercing soldiers to perform this labor, as well as in a whole system of informal crimes and punishments that are partly autonomous in nature, but which have a significant effect on the entire structure of army life and, more important, on the later civilian lives of young men.
This violence is not some discrete instance of violation of the law or the internal military code, but is rather the very condition of their observance. Moreover, the “mandatory service code” is a quite meaningful instrument in the realization of “non-regulation” interactions. To put it briefly, without the double bind that is effected in this way, the Russian army could not exist as a system of microsocial relations that mirror the fundamental relations within the Russian macrosocial order.
The principal source of “non-regulation” interactions in the army is the labor necessary to service various built structures, communications networks, and military equipment (barracks, mess halls, transportation)-meaning that they have to be cleaned and maintained, guarded, and so forth. (The strictly combat component of army service provides practically no grounds for such violations.) The problem lies not in the fact that the “senior” enlisted men have no desire to share this mandatory labor with their “juniors,” but in the fact that it is impossible to imagine a “democratic” division of labor that would also ensure the necessary level of productiveness because soldiers have no normal motivation to work. Fraternal violence in the army is to a great extent explained by the need to ratchet up the intensity with which one class of soldiers works in order to perform quite banal household tasks (including the maintenance and running of barracks, kitchens, and other facilities). Officially, this violence is represented as “discipline,” “training,” and the control of “greenhorns” on the part of officers and experienced soldiers. It is clear that these practices have nothing to do with combat training as such. We are dealing, rather, with the intentional www of a theater of cruelty in the very heart of society-a theater whose purpose is anything but cathartic.
Technically speaking, it would be relatively easy to solve the problems of the Russian army. It would be sufficient to introduce paid civilian employees and the corresponding technologies into designated work areas. This isn’t done, however, for a variety of reasons. The reasons are both economic and political. The principal reason, however, is the quite specific form of compulsory social initiation that, in this instance, state power forces the greater part of the active male population of Russia to undergo. What I mean is that the prison camp model of the world is installed in the consciousness of young men. This model is founded on violence, fear, and hatred, and on the criminal moral values that correspond to these practices and emotions. Our theme is of central interest because there is an absence not only of critical reflection within this closed institution (the army), but also of a broader debate in Russian society over the (albeit occasional) testimony that points to its indubitably repressive nature. Evidence of the state of affairs in the Russian army is extremely scant and mostly surfaces in connection with excesses-incidents where civil law has been violated and criminal investigations have thus been undertaken
I am intrigued by the question of why most demobbed soldiers do not talk about these experiments performed on human beings, and of why the “stories” that are told emerge within fiction and the low genres. There can be only one answer to this question: this experience has the traits of prison camp trauma, which blocks not only reflection, but also any form of non-fictional narrative.
This circumstance explains the reasons why the legal and rights-based (secular) critique of the Russian military system is ineffective. Neither the victims nor their executioners see in this critique the therapeutic means for dealing with the aftereffects of their experience of trauma, especially because it is symbolically fueled by state ideology and society’s moral codes. This is what makes it easy for the discourse of power to handle this form of critique: the state relegates it to the corporate interests of human rights organizations, who allegedly don’t understand a thing about army life.
Therefore, in this case an external humanitarian critique has to be supplemented by realistic, practical training and instruction for young men preparing to enter the army. This sort of work wouldn’t involve an abstractly humanistic critique of the army, but a detailed phenomenological description of how it functions. Because it is precisely the mismatch between the phantasmic expectations for the army of patriotically and militaristically minded recruits and the real state of affairs there that generates the confusion and passivity that young soldiers typically experience when confronted with the conditions of their first year of service. They perceive the reality of army life as an isolated episode in their personal biographies, not as an objective system of relations in which what lies in store for them is the status of slaves. It is only as they enter their second year of service that they began to understand the sense of the pseudo-seigneurial initiation that we have described above-that is, when it is already much too late to change anything. Given power over the incoming class of recruits, they are willingly or unwillingly corrupted by the system. With the direct connivance of their commanders, they transfer the violence done to them onto the next generation of soldiers. This precedent of social corruption-which gives soldiers the right to commit acts of violence against ignorant and defenseless new recruits with impunity-has far-reaching consequences for the society at large. The army violently draws young men into the circle of criminal practices, and this collective guarantee later enables the state to achieve its ends unimpeded.
After he is demobbed, the ex-soldier projects the effects of his violent initiation onto civilians. Moreover, his trauma (deeply displaced into the “social unconscious”) makes itself felt when he encounters analogous (albeit less stark) problems in civilian life. To solve them, he applies the preset scheme of particulate passivity and group aggression he acquired in the army. This is the source of the xenophobia, nationalism, and sexism that characterize large swaths of Russian society-a mindset that flourishes against a backdrop of total social passivity. This passivity is vouchsafed by a naïve faith in the authorities, who sometimes share with their underlings their unlawful power and a piece of the social pie, which they have robbed from others.The prophylactic instruction outlined here could provide young men with an effective instrument of resistance within the army system. The understanding that the army is a prison camp system of communal life could aid them in navigating its customs and regimes and undermining them from within-or, at very least, in developing the means to resist the army’s organized violence.
To begin with, however, we must recognize that the link between the state and the punitive institutions isomorphic to the army is not one of cause and effect. These institutions are, rather, weak spots in a state machine that only aspires to totality. They are constructed on ruptures in the social body and are controlled by state ideological apparatuses that, nowadays, are suffering from serious malfunctions. In this sense, they constitute an immediate object for the application of critical thought.
Ànd the absence of the institutes of civil society in Russia is, paradoxically, a source of hope for the revolutionary transformation of these repressive institutions.