Russian Military Cuts Leave Soldiers Adrift
Col. Oleg G. Malgin and other Russian officers are housed in a former flophouse near Moscow.
KUBINKA, Russia — Next to a parking lot here is an orphan of a building that could be mistaken
for a large toolshed. It was once used as a flophouse by transient workers who put up nearby
apartments, but was then deemed by health inspectors to be unfit for humans. Mold coats the
walls like graffiti, ceilings are crumpling and rats skulk about. Yet for the last seven years, the
building has been home to several high-ranking Russian Air Force officers, their wives and their
children. “In truth,” said one of them, Col. Vyacheslav V. Solyakov, “the military has turned us
The dismal condition of the assigned housing for the officers is a telling sign of the state of the
armed forces nearly two decades after the Soviet Union’s fall. And now, the officers are facing
what they view as a final humiliation: they are to be discharged in the coming months as part
of the most significant military overhaul in generations. The Kremlin wants to revamp a top-
heavy institution by sharply cutting the number of officers and carrying out a long overdue
transition from a cumbersome military machine designed for a land war in Europe to a lithe
force that would handle regional wars and terrorism.
Though praised by military analysts, the plan seems likely to create a corps of tens of thousands
of disgruntled former officers who are entering an economy suffering from the financial crisis. With
Russia’s economy strong in the years before the crisis, the Kremlin tried to improve the military by
increasing spending on equipment and training. But senior officials acknowledge that the war in
Georgia last August exposed severe deficiencies, despite Russia’s easy victory.
The armed forces have 1.1 million people now, including 360,000 officers, and the plan is to cut
the officer corps to 150,000, officials said. The reductions, first announced last year, have stirred
sporadic demonstrations by officers, and some longtime generals have resigned in protest or been
pushed out. Officers who served in East Germany or fought in Afghanistan in the last days of the
Soviet empire, who waged Russia’s ferocious campaign to suppress a Muslim insurgency in Chechnya
— no matter, they are being let go.
And the men here in Kubinka said they were convinced that the government, which had already let
them down by housing them in the shed, would completely abandon them by refusing them the benefits
that they deserved. “Everyone is very upset,” said Col. Yevgeny S. Ugolnikov, 49, an aviation engineer
who joined the military in 1983. “There are no prospects for our futures. We have no apartment, no
possibility of finding a job. How are we going to get by? It’s totally impossible to know.” His neighbor,
Col. Oleg G. Malgin, 46, said, “Everyone feels that way in our generation of officers.”
The defense minister, Anatoly E. Serdyukov, has become a particular target of officers’ ire across the
country, in part because he once ran a furniture company and has little military background. Officers
in Kubinka, 40 miles outside Moscow, referred to him as the “stool salesman.” Some of the officers
conceded that the military overhaul had merits because Russia must contend with threats far different
from what the Soviet Union faced. Yet they said their housing situation, which their superiors had
repeatedly promised to remedy, showed that the military could not be trusted. They said they had
been forced to spend their own money to make the place barely habitable. Each family has two small
rooms, with showers and other facilities shared.
The officers, who are assigned to an air force base in Kubinka, said they were no longer reluctant to
speak out, despite military restrictions on going public with their problems. They said they suspected
that the only way they would receive proper benefits would be to pay bribes. Corruption is widespread
in Russia, and the military is considered to be especially afflicted.
Salaries in the Russian military have long been low — some of the officers here said they were paid
$600 a month — but one perquisite that seemed to compensate for the pay was a rule that long-serving
officers received a proper apartment when discharged. Col. Anatoly N. Zhuravlyov, 46, a tenant in the
building until recently, said his superiors told him that he would get an apartment only if he paid a
kickback of $18,500. “It’s like this: an officer, some stooge, approaches you and whispers in your ear,
‘Do you want to get an apartment? O.K., just pay a certain amount of money and you’ll get it,’ ”
Colonel Zhuravlyov said.
Colonel Zhuravlyov said he had sent evidence to prosecutors proving that apartments were being kept
empty so that bribes could be collected, to no avail. Now on disability because of hypertension, he said
he finally received an apartment recently only because the military wanted him to stop complaining.
Military officials and prosecutors did not respond to written questions about the housing in Kubinka or
military reform. In April, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin said the overhaul was clearly necessary,
though he emphasized that the government would abide by its obligations to officers.
“Everywhere in the world there is a triangle: at the bottom are soldiers and junior officers, and higher
up the pyramid there are fewer positions, generals, admirals, etc.,” Mr. Putin said. “In this country it
is an inverted pyramid. At the lower level, those who fight and make critical decisions on the battlefield,
there are not enough people, and the top is overcrowded.”
Military analysts said the government was taking no chances about the possibility of a backlash. They said
it was sparing an elite division, the airborne troops, from reductions in order to have a loyal group of
soldiers. “These reductions could create a lot of social instability,” said Pavel Y. Felgenhauer, a military
analyst who writes a column for Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper. “They are making a pragmatic
move to single out the airborne as a Praetorian Guard, to have no serious discharges there. They then can
have those troops put down any resistance from inside.”
Most of the officers in Kubinka dismissed talk of revolts, saying that they wanted only a proper discharge
and to move on. Still, some of the officers and their wives said they would never forget the shock of being
transferred here and ending up in a shack next to a parking lot. “For two weeks, I cried when we arrived,”
said Nina V. Solyakova, 54, Colonel Solyakov’s wife. “And here we have lived, without any help from them,
without anything. Can you imagine it?”