A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jan 23, 2023

Russian Recruiting Ads: "Escape Your Worthless Life, Join the Army For Sex, Money"

The heroic appeals to patriotism are gone. Now it's all about reducing family debts, cancelling prison sentences and (implicitly) raping Ukrainian women. 

For many from rural provinces living in communal apartments without running water or hope, that might be a reasonable risk. JL 

Nick Cohen reports in his substack:

Recruitment ads show there’s no appeal to patriotism or idealism. They do not present the war as a heroic struggle. They sell the army as “an exit from the misery of the Russian provinces”. The main appeal is to ordinary Russians' lack of money. One video shows a man being treated with contempt by his daughter because he cannot afford to buy her an iPhone. Another shows an old man telling his grandson he must sell his Lada to make ends meet. The grandson signs the contract - and may die in a suicidal assault on Bakhmut, but gramps gets to keep the Lada. "Go to war, free your family from debt." Westerners seeing the conspicuous consumption of Russian oligarchs, forget how poor the real Russia is.

Russia is a poor country that thinks it’s a superpower. Nowhere is the gulf between the imperial aspirations of the rulers and the weariness of the ruled exposed more ironically than in the regime’s attempts to persuade men to join its invading forces in Ukraine.

The émigré photojournalist Dmitri Beliakov has an eye for clashes between rhetoric and reality. He has written a blistering dissection of his native country’s propaganda efforts[i].


Beliakov’s theme is the vulgarity and desperation of an “idiotic” regime that enlists prisoners and tries to bribe men by promising sex and money if only they will throw themselves into the army’s “meat grinder”.

Instead of looking at Putin speeches, from the rare occasions he condescends to explain himself to the Russian public, or the bombast of state television’s podgy hawks, Beliakov’s “The Aesthetics of Russia’s Official Militarism” examines the tawrdiness of the Russian empire in what may be its last days.  

Westerners, used to seeing the conspicuous consumption of Russian oligarchs in New York, Paris and London, forget how poor the real Russia is. If we thought harder about how the looting of Russia’s resources and the lavish corruption of the Putin regime helped make the oligarchs’ fortunes in the first place, we would be better informed.  Putin’s wars have driven down per capita household income from a peak of $9860 just before the Crimean war of 2014 to about $6500 just before the invasion of the Ukraine.

On 20 January, Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist at the IMF, said that the Russian people face "incredible poverty" as Western sanctions bite. Putin is turning the country into a new Cuba, Venezuela or "a giant Iran".  The kitsch glamour of metropolitan Moscow distracts visitors’ from the shabbiness of the federation.

Russia, like all states, recruits foot soldiers from poor regions. Its remaining independent journalists report that the Russian regions experiencing the highest rates of poverty – Dagestan by the Caspian Sea and Buryatia in southern Siberia – contributed the largest share of conscripts after Putin’s partial mobilisation in October.

Recruitment ads, made in the hope of finding volunteers to fight alongside the conscripts, show how little the state thinks of the men they try to push into uniform. There’s no appeal to patriotism or idealism. They do not present the war as a heroic struggle against Nato Nazis. As Beliakov says they sell the army merely as “an exit from the misery of the Russian provinces”.  The implicit message is: “solve your apartment problems become a soldier and leave behind those annoying relatives or neighbours in the communal flat. Volunteer now! Look after yourself and your family through benefits from the State, free medical treatment for yourself and family and veteran combat status.”

There’s another attraction. Men will join the army, the propagandists think, if the state tells them that women can’t resist a man in uniform.

In one ad, a married woman looks with lust at a stranger who has signed a contract with the conscription office. She exclaims with envy in her eyes: “Well, you cut the mustard in military service! You’re the real deal, not like my klutz at home.”

In a second, a good-looking married woman meets her very ordinary-looking ex. The sight of him in combat gear is enough to persuade to revise her opinion and beg him to get back together with her and father her children.

So much for the Orthodox Christian values of Holy Mother Russia. States have always used images of women to shame men into fighting [ii]. But only the Putin regime, so admired by the western alt-right for its defence of traditional family values, tells men that wives will break their marriage vows and jump into the beds of soldiers.

Sex is a sideline, however. The main appeal is to ordinary Russians lack of money. One video on Russian social media shows a put-upon man being treated with contempt by his daughter because he cannot afford to buy her an iPhone. Everything changes when dad signs up and collects the money to pay for the phone of her dreams.

Meanwhile a grotesque advert gives viewers an old man unable to afford meat in the supermarket. He tells his grandson he must sell his beloved Lada to make ends meet. When a thuggish buyer turns up, he mocks the old man and says he will give just half the agreed price. It’s that or nothing. The old man is about to agree when his grandson appears in uniform, and sends the thug on his way.

"Grandpa, I signed the contract,” he cries. “Now we’ll definitely be safe."

The grandson may die in a suicidal assault on Bakhmut. But at least gramps gets to keep the Lada. The message that enlisting makes you a real man able to take on the bullies who threaten you and yours, is commonplace in Russian military propaganda. In another advert, two gangsters back away from a weedy man they had been persecuting when he shows them his recruitment contract.

The Moscow Times reported that veterans thought the adverts were so bad they must be the product of a Western plot. (If you live your life under the rule of a conspiracy theorist, everything is a conspiracy.)  They reasoned that only Nato or Ukrainian intelligence would want to pretend that middle-aged Russians were going to war because signing-up was the only hope the state gave them of living a decent life.

But the ads were genuine and so was their appeal. As Dmitri Beliakov, says “for millions of Russians, participation in this criminal war is the only avenue not only to avoid paying debts, but also to earn money (for example, the allowance paid to the family of a dead soldier). It’s even a chance to get out of jail by becoming one of the many freed prisoners now fighting in Ukraine. Go to war, kick the bucket in Ukraine, free your family from the debt headache!” 

More conventional Russian propaganda shows muscular men with steely eyes training to fight for their country. Ted Cruz and other representatives of the US far right showed their true loyalties when they circulated images of the tough Russian soldiers (played by actors) and used them to damn the “woke, emasculated”  armed forces of the USA.

One response is to gently point out that the woke and emasculated West is supplying democratic Ukraine with the weapons to blast the macho Russian army to pieces. The only real complaint against us is that we are not supplying enough weapons fast enough to finish the job.

A second is to look at the propaganda the Russian state produces for domestic consumption. There’s no hint of manliness here; just the sordid and decadent appeals of a state that has always failed tens of millions of its citizens.


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