Political commissars get their marching orders

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The Independent Online
'WHY DO political officers go around in threes?' runs an old joke. Answer: 'One who can read, one who can write, and one to keep an eye on the two dangerous intellectuals.'

The Russian army is firing or transferring 40 generals - political commissars who used to be responsible for keeping the army faithful to the Communist Party line. This is the second attempt - it was tried two years ago, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when the commissars were reassigned to duties described as 'management' and 'social work' under the new Institute of Humanitarian and Social Studies for the Armed Forces.

But yesterday the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, said the leopards had not changed their spots, using 'old approaches in new conditions': in other words, they had concentrated on keeping their rank and privileges. So now the generals are to be retired or 'reassigned'.

The political officers - formerly political commissars - arose from an earlier leopards and spots problem. After the 1917 revolution the Bolshevik regime, besieged by the rest of the world, employed up to 50,000 Tsarist Russian officers, including some top generals. But the Bolsheviks did not trust men it saw as class enemies, however much it needed their professional expertise; so commissars were installed to keep an eye on them in military structures which otherwise replicated those of Tsarist Russia.

The need for commissars to countersign operational orders proved impossibly clumsy, and during the Second World War the system was revised. But political officers remained to maintain the morale and loyalty of military units, and to instil Communist values into the armed forces.

With the end of the Soviet Union and abolition of the main political directorate, its journal Communist of the Armed Forces was renamed Armiya. It became a forum for discussing management, sociological and counselling matters. But the problem with transferring political officers to such work was simple: they were not qualified.

For centuries Russia has used Western expertise. Now the Italian company Olivetti is setting up 15 centres across the country to train 16,000 officers in managerial skills. And who better - an Italian architect designed the walls of the Kremlin.

MPs seek a home, page 10