Soviet Navy - Enlisted Personnel
Between two-thirds and three-fourths of the men and women on active duty served in the enlisted ranks, where their privileges were next to non-existent. For the most part conscripted, they earned meager wages, endured miserable living conditions and an ingrained system of vicious hazing imposed by only slightly more senior conscripts, rarely received leave, and upon completion of their active-duty requirements, were transferred into the reserves until they reached age 50. Although there was some disagreement as to whether the caliber of Soviet conscripts tended to be higher for the navy than for other services, it was incontestable that Soviet naval personnel formed a more inbred society, one that had fewer non-Slavic recruits who speak little or no Russian than three of the four other arms of the military (Ground Forces, Air Defense, and Air Force).
Irrespective of his ability, the average sailor in the Soviet Navy is a short-termer, desiring little more than to complete his duration of service without incident. Prior to the reduction in naval conscript service time, each year as many as 100,000 men were inducted into the Navy, indicative of a turnover rate that taxed training programs to their limits. (This also meant that every six months about 17 percent of experienced sailors were replaced by recruits: under the 1991 reduction in conscripted service time, over a third of the crew several would be replaced every six months, exacerbating an already difficult situation).
Navy inductees predominantly underwent a nine-week basic training period, after which about 75 percent are selected for specialist training (roughly six months of predominantly theoretical and rote instruction in a narrow specialty or piece ot equipment). The other 25 percent of the conscripts are sent directly to fleet or shore commands where they are typically assigned to billets for the unskilled.
Sailors received the majority of their training on the job after they had reported aboard ship, primarily under the tutelage of the sailor he will replace. The new recruit began a four-phase - training program designed to make him proficient at his narrow skill. A sailor initially could qualify as a 3rd-class specialist, and with independent study and further experience could advance to a 2nd- or even 1st-class specialist in less than two years. But this rapid advancement infrequently translated into deftly skilled individuals. Indeed. the brisk rate at which conscripts were channeled through the system denied the Soviet Navy the kind of technical expertise commonplace among the US Navy's professional enlisted "bluejackets." Only about five percent of the Soviet conscripts reenlisted as career sailors.
To meet these challenges, the Soviet leadership explored a number of new programs. They e recognized that the operation and maintenance of complex modern equipment required a level of expertise that cannot be achieved in two years by conscripts and that a professional petty officer corps was needed to provide specialists in some crucial areas.
Perhaps the most revolutionary program was an experiment, scheduled to begin in 1991, to be carried out in a limited number of surface ships and submarines. The plan was to have volunteers sign a contract with the Defense Ministry for a three-year period. During that time, they will be treated as servicemen on active duty-they will live in barracks and on ships. will discharge all duties required of Soviet sailors and will enjoy all the rights, benefits and advantages granted to seamen, petty officers and their families.
There were two main differences, however. First, they will serve three years instead of the two years served by conscripts. Also, after six months of training, they will be paid as extended servicemen with extra allowances for special service conditions (e.g.. grade, combat duty hours, remote assignments). Thus, overall monthly pay could be as high as 200 to 380 rubles, compared with conscript pay of only 40 rubles per month.
According to Deputy Chief of the General Staff Krivosheyev, the program would provide an opportunity to have "first-class' profesonsionals from among the enlisted men, which equated to a higher level of readiness for the armed forces while the young man who signed the contract lived and served for three years fully provided for by the State, learned a useful specialty, and then got an honorable discharge with enough money in his pocket to provide financial freedom during his college years or to use for other opportunities. If the young man decided to stay on as an extended serviceman, he can become an NCO or petty officer, attend a service academy to obtain a commission, or take advantage of other opportunities which will be open to him.
On-board training is viewed as the major method of "perfecting skills and knowledge" to maintain a high level of combat readiness. Training at sea revolves around "socialist competition," which entailed the achievement of specific goals and objectives set by higher authority and, then "unanimously" subscribed to by the crew under the leadership of the commanding officer and political officer. Some objectives and goals were prescribed in terms of the number of men achieving a new or higher class specialization and the number of men rated as outstanding.
Competitive drills and exercises were conducted aboard ship. These involved the usual variety of situations from damage control to simulated or actual firing of weapons. Fleet and fleet exercises involved units competing each other. All competition was characterized by the great emphasis placed upon obtaining set quantitative goals. This resulted a number of abuses. Aside from outright cheating, other abuses involved the setting of unrealistically low goals which were easily achieved, or the more serious problem of "formalism" in which, after the goals are set, promises are made to fulfill them, all the required speeches are made, then the whole competition is just forgotten. A further problem involves drills and exercises conducted in routine, mechanical manner, thereby lacking realism and constructive value.
Obviously, the true extent to which these western problems existed in Soviet training cannot be fully determined, yet, if the reports of the Soviet press can be considered an indication, it appeared that such problems were severe.
In practice, life aboard a Soviet vessel could be an austere experience for the new seaman, who must endure not only the standard rigors of sea duty but also a widespread system of "non-regulation relations" or hazing. Although hazing is reportedly not as rampant as in the Ground Forces, senior conscripts in the Soviet Navy wield unusual power over juniors through the appropriation of food, clothing, and possessions, or through beatings and assignments undesirable details. While this system is not officially sanctioned at higher levels, it was ignored at lower levels of command because it served to maintain the system; in particular, the illegal hazing permitted officers to distance themselves from the need to mete out harsh discipline.
Pay and living conditions were equally spartan for the Soviet sailor. A fresh recruit received a mere 10 rubles (roughly $15) per month. In time, he could add a few extra rubles per month for achieving 2nd- or 1 st-class specialist or for holding positions of responsibility. The maximum pay for an enlisted man, however, was capped at 40 rubles per month, or about $60. The enlisted sailor, moreover, was refused leave during his first year of service, and then received no more than 10 days plus traveling time in later terms of service. Furthermore, as a means of maintaining control over Soviet nationalities, conscripts seldom are allowed to be stationed in proximity to their native areas, and it was not uncommon for a sailor to fulfill his conscription obligation without a single visit to see his family. When Soviet ships call at foreign ports, liberty is granted only rarely for brief periods and always restricted to supervised groups.
Finally, housing - whether at a Soviet naval base or aboard a ship - was characteristically stark, although probably no worse than civilian houseing generally in the USSR.
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