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‘Not a single step back!’ In a booklet issued to soldiers, the Russian authorities denounce the army’s ‘shameful’ retreat from Kherson and urge a return to ‘Stalinist methods’
Story by Lilia Yapparova. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
Meduza has obtained a copy of a pamphlet that was written by Russia’s military leadership shortly after the army’s retreat from Kherson in fall 2022. The document, which the military has begun issuing to Russian soldiers upon deployment to Ukraine, reiterates Moscow’s ideological justification for the war, condemns the Kherson retreat as a “shameful surrender,” and draws extensively from Joseph Stalin’s infamous Order No. 227, where the Soviet dictator called for “alarmists and cowards” to be “annihilated” on the spot. In English, Meduza summarizes the booklet and what we know about its origins.
‘This is Goebbels stuff’
In the fall of 2022, Russia’s Western Military District released a pamphlet titled “Memo to Russian Armed Forces Serviceman Participating in the Special Military Operation.” Military authorities have been issuing the booklet to Russian soldiers who deploy to Ukraine ever since.
Meduza has obtained a copy of the document. Its cover shows a map of Ukraine that omits Crimea and highlights the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in red (the country’s other occupied territories aren’t designated).
Among other things, the booklet tells soldiers about “additional awards” for various battlefield feats (50,000 rubles, or about $630, for shooting down a drone, or a million rubles, or about $12,600, for capturing a HIMARS rocket launcher) and explains how to apply for a disability pension in the event of injury. Most of the document, however, is devoted to ideological justifications for the war.
One section of the booklet lists arguments in favor of Russia’s “special military operation” and features a preface with a quote attributed to Galileo Galilei: “True knowledge is knowledge of causes.” The text goes on to assert that Western countries have always been engaged in the “enslavement of subjugated countries and peoples” and that Western ideals completely contradict the values of Russia’s “original and independent civilization.”
As evidence of this thesis, the document’s authors start with a narrative of the 15th century: “The West created its prosperity by turning the inhabitants of Africa into slaves, mercilessly colonizing India, committing genocide against the Indians, and consciously destroying the Chinese with opium.” A turning point, they continue, arrived in 1945, when the USSR “withstood the blow of a Europe united by Hitler” and forced the West to found NATO, which has been “actively carrying out subversive activities aimed at weakening Russia” ever since.
“Today, one look at a map is enough to see how Western countries have ‘kept’ their promise not to allow NATO to advance east,” Vladimir Putin said on February 21, 2022, three days before launching the full-scale war in Ukraine. The brochure makes the same argument: The countries on its map are numbered in the order that they joined NATO.
The purpose of the “Western worldview” hasn’t changed since then, the booklet notes: “Deprived of the ability to suck the sap from its [former] colonies,” the West began sustaining itself by “destroying the economies of the countries of the former USSR” and others.
“Oil-rich Iraq was destroyed,” the document continues. “The same fate befell Libya. The war of everyone against everyone on the resource-rich Black Continent is never-ending. The attempts to destroy Syria and Iran after Iraq and Libya failed. The West’s aspirations in Venezuela were also unsuccessful.”
Nonetheless, says the booklet, after encountering the latest in a long line of “resource shortages,” the U.S. decided to “destabilize” Russia, “plunge it into chaos,” and “suck all of its sap out.” Right now, says the text, the American government is trying to conquer Russia “by proxy,” “dismember” it, and “cancel” it:
Western countries will no longer be satisfied with an “honorable surrender” from Russia. Their goal is to plunge the country into chaos and anarchy, destroy its statehood, and dismember it. They did the same thing before our very eyes in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and they were close to doing it in Syria.
Western leaders speak unashamedly about dismembering Russia. They’re fighting not against our ruling class but against the country itself. Against our people. Their goal is to turn us into a resource that they can use to support their dying civilization.
The document’s authors conclude that the “active Nazis” and the perpetrators of the “numerous bloody crimes of the Kyiv regime” deserve nothing less than to “stand trial.” “Our power is in justice and truth,” they write, referring both to the Russian cult film Brother 2 and to comments by Vladimir Putin, who spoke about the “brute force” of the American “empire of lies” on the first day of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine: “You and I know that true power lies in justice and truth, which is on our side.”
Two contract soldiers told Meduza that Russian servicemen weren’t issued these kinds of booklets in the leadup to the full-scale invasion. One of them, a man who fought in the war last spring but has since left the military, called it “Goebbels stuff”:
What can I say? We didn’t get these kinds [of booklets]. We were supposed to enter Kyiv in 12 hours. On the evening of February 23, we were basically told that the Ukrainian people ‘should be happy to see us’ because they were supposedly ‘tired of the Kyiv junta.’ The Kadyrovites came behind us, and they weren’t given booklets either.
‘A patchwork quilt of regions’
One section of the booklet tells the “story of the creation of the Ukrainian state,” offering a version of Ukraine’s “history” resembling the vision Vladimir Putin laid out in the speech he gave upon signing decrees recognizing the Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” in February 2022:
Ukraine, as a matter of fact, has never had a strong tradition of true statehood. Modern Ukraine was fully and completely created by Russia, and specifically by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process began practically right after the 1917 Revolution, and Lenin and his comrades did this in a very crude way with regard to Russia itself: they divided it, tearing off some of its own historical territories.
This can be fully and completely confirmed with archival materials, including strict directives from Lenin regarding the Donbas, which was literally foisted onto Ukraine. Then, before and after the Great Patriotic War, Stalin annexed several territories that previously belonged to Poland, Romania, and Hungary, and gave them to Ukraine.
The booklet reduces Ukraine’s centuries-long history to its relationship with Russia. Its authors assert that, at the time of the USSR’s collapse, “Ukraine was a patchwork quilt of regions with different histories, cultures, and self-conceptions” (though this can just as easily be said of Russia). At the same time, according to the document, a significant number of the people living in Ukraine associated themselves with Russian culture and the Russian language.
Political scientist and international relations expert Mikhail Troitsky called the booklet’s portrayal of Ukraine’s history an “uncritical list of facts without any explanation of the logical connections between the narrative’s components.”
“You can use these same facts to create multiple narratives, [all of] which will sound convincing to readers who don’t ask questions about logic, missing facts, or the validity of your evaluations,” he told Meduza. “You could use these same facts to write, for example, an equally uncritical Kyiv-centric narrative, and you could use that to show that Moscow was on the far edges of Russian land, practically a part of the [Golden] Horde, while the real center of the East Slavic Civilization was in Kyiv.”
Troitsky also noted that the booklet’s logic would make it just as reasonable for Germany or China to claim territory in modern Russia such as Kaliningrad or parts of the Far East by citing “unjust” treaties or changes in circumstances. “You can take anything out of context,” he said.
‘The shameful surrender of liberated territories’
Judging by its contents, the document was most likely printed in mid-fall of 2022, immediately after Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive, when the Russian army abandoned a significant part of the territory it had occupied since the start of the full-scale war. Particularly painful was the retreat from Kherson, where the Kremlin had promised to stay “forever.” Sergey Surovikin, then the commander of Russia’s entire war effort in Ukraine, called the decision to retreat “difficult” and said it would save soldiers’ lives. “For us, the lives and health of Russian servicemen are always a priority,” agreed Russian Defense Ministry Sergey Shoigu.
The authors of the brochures given to Russian soldiers, however, characterized the retreat quite differently:
The people of Russia, of the Donbas, and of many other Ukrainian border regions view the Russian army with love and respect. However, our units’ shameful surrender of previously liberated territories, as well as the abandonment of people who trusted us with their lives, undermines their trust in us and our victory.
One of the booklet’s authors is a Russian Defense Ministry employee named Oleg Karetkin. According to the most recent publicly available information, he served as the acting head of a military contract service enlistment office in St. Petersburg in 2019. In a conversation with Meduza (in which Meduza’s correspondent introduced herself as an assistant to an employee of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Information and Mass Communications Department), Karetkin confirmed that he worked on this part of the document:
We should have [spoken] more roughly, more aggressively, when it happened! A retreat, the abandonment of territories and people who trusted us, can’t be heroic, can it? We need to be clear-minded about this, to admit our mistakes. This section — these two pages — [it] was fairly emotional.
Nobody [from the Russian Armed Forces’ Main Military-Political Directorate, or GVPU] asked us to [write these things], nobody instructed us. This was our initiative. Our creation. But [the final text was coordinated with] Colonel Vladimir Doroshenko. The GVPU also responded positively.
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When Meduza’s correspondent contacted Karetken again, this time introducing herself as a journalist from Meduza, he responded, “It’s hard for me even to talk about this creative process. Isn’t Meduza on the list of untrustworthy [media outlets]? You need to contact us through the Western Military District’s press service.” (The press service did not respond to Meduza’s interview request.)
Meduza also asked the Russian Defense Ministry if it views its retreat from Kherson as a “shameful surrender.” The agency did not respond.
‘Alarmists and cowards should be annihilated on the spot’
In addition to ideological lectures, the brochure also suggests “specific steps to rectify the situation on the front,” including a “return to Stalinist methods of warfare.”
In a section on the Russian army’s fall 2022 retreat, the booklet quotes extensively from Joseph Stalin’s Order No. 227, which is notorious for the line: “Not a step back!” The order was issued in the summer of 1942, when the situation on the Soviet-German front was critical: after defeats in Kharkiv and Voronezh, and encirclement in the Donbas, the Red Army retreated to the Caucasus and to Stalingrad.
The document that Stalin signed prohibited soldiers from retreating without explicit permission; ordered “alarmists and cowards” to be “annihilated” on the spot; and created barrier troops and penal units to be filled with soldiers accused of “cowardice or instability.” These units were sent to the most dangerous areas of the front; the order itself read: “Give them the opportunity to redeem their crimes against the Motherland by blood.” In total, more than 400,000 people served in these punitive units.
Recycling Stalin’s language
On enemy offensives
2022 Ukraine invasion booklet: “Nationalist battalions are rushing towards Luhansk, paying no regard to their heavy losses.”
Stalin’s Order No. 227: “The German occupiers are rushing towards Stalingrad” and “constantly [throwing] new forces at the front, paying no regard to their heavy [...] losses.”
○ ○ ○
2022 Ukraine invasion booklet: “The people of Russia, of the Donbas, and of many other Ukrainian border regions view the Russian army with love and respect. However, our units’ shameful surrender of previously liberated territories, as well as the abandonment of people who trusted us with their lives, undermines their trust in us and our victory.”
Stalin’s Order No. 227: “The population of our country, who view the Red Army with love and respect, are starting to become disappointed in it, losing faith in the Red Army, and many of them are cursing the Red Army for giving our people to the yoke of the German oppressors while fleeing to the east.”
○ ○ ○
On “alarmists” and “cowards”
2022 Ukraine invasion booklet: “Each of us has an obligation to aggressively counteract any expression of cowardice or panic.”
Stalin’s Order No. 227: “Alarmists and cowards should be annihilated on the spot.”
2022 Ukraine invasion booklet: “Not a step back! This should now be our main message.”
Stalin’s Order No. 227: “Not a step back, comrades!”
‘Nobody reads these’
“By taking back Ukraine, we’re taking the enemy’s last and most dangerous weapon out of their hands,” the booklet’s authors write, before quoting Soviet Premier Vyacheslav Molotov’s speech to citizens on the first day of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union: “Our cause is just. The enemy will be defeated. Victory will be ours!”
The Russian servicemen who spoke to Meduza about the booklet said they’re skeptical it has any effect. “I heard someone say, ‘Putin spent 20 years creating a professional contract army — then he pissed it away in a year,’” said one contract soldier. “Because it’s not actually professional. It’s all just on paper, in memos like this one.”
“I’ve had things like [this booklet] in my pocket for seven years, just because I had to. I’ve only ever opened it to update the command staff printed on the first page: when it changes, we’re supposed to glue a new page into the booklet, or at least mark the changes with a pencil. They watch us, to make sure we do it,” another former contract soldier told Meduza. “Nobody reads these booklets — ever!”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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