During my research of other aspects of the Cold War I was not directly involved with, I began to speak with customers that I visit frequently, most of whom are from former Soviet republics. Weekly visits to them to try and sell products has allowed a level of familiarity that has opened the door to more personal conversations. Once past the drudgery of trying to sell them something, some of my customers, over a period of years, have opened up about the “old country”, and their military service there. Most of these men who I speak with are from Lithuania and Ukraine, some are from Belarus and Russia itself. I am beginning to compile their stories into a collection that I will publish. Their stories are far ranging and interesting; everything from Russian navy personnel watching Rambo on a warship for entertainment, to one man who is Lithuanian, but had German and Soviet citizenship because his parents were sent to a gulag for “re-education” after World War 2.
Although the experiences of these former Soviet soldiers are varied, there was one constant among them that I found interesting. The fact that animosity between the various Soviet republic’s soldiers towards one another was not only present on military installations, but rampant throughout all branches of the Soviet military. The common denominator I discovered was the attitude that the European soldiers in the Soviet military felt “superior” to those from the Caucasus and Central Asia. As was explained to me by one former Soviet soldier, his army installation was divided between the Russians and Europeans (The Baltic States, Moldova and Belarus) and the soldiers from Armenia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, etc. This division was cultural, as the Russians and those from Eastern Europe considered themselves culturally linked, whereas the others from Asia and the Caucasus were “different” and “culturally backwards”. It was explained to me that fights broke out often amongst the soldiers, and a kind of tribalism took place in which one group of soldiers from the same Soviet republic would stick together and exclude themselves socially from the other groups. They trained together, of course, and performed routine military exercises as a unit, but outside of military related functions, they tended to divide themselves by cultural lines.
In retrospect, I wonder if NATO and the United States attempted to exploit these divisions, if they were even aware that they existed. The collapse of the Soviet Union was going to come about eventually, but I still think that it may have come about more rapidly if NATO focused on individual republics that were dissatisfied with the USSR since it’s inception, especially the Baltic States and Ukraine.