Monday, June 15, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Gave Four Times More Hero Medals in Chechen War than in Afghanistan

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 15 – The Russian defense ministry has named 322 of its soldiers a Hero of the Russian Federation for their actions in the two Chechen campaigns, nearly four times as many Heroes of the Soviet Union (85) that its Soviet predecessor handed out in Afghanistan, a product of the intensity of the Chechen war and of awards inflation in post-Soviet times.
According to an article in the current issue of “Sovershenno Sekretno,” the Russian defense ministry presented 559 soldiers and officers with the title Hero of the Russian Federation between 1992 and the end of 2008. Of these, 322 were awarded to participants in the army’s role in Chechnya (
In addition to those in the military receiving this distinction, personnel from the FSB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and Ministry of Emergency Situations also were named Heroes of the Russian Federation. Like the military until December 2008, few of these organizations have provided exact numbers.
The FSB has never given them out, but the number of Heroes there must exceed 40, the magazine said, given that the names of 34 of them are known. And for the MVD internal troops, the number is at least 81 for the fighting in the North Caucasus, of whom 54 received the award posthumously.
Thus, for the Chechen campaigns, more than 500 Russian personnel received this award, nearly six times as many received the distinction of Hero of the Soviet Union for Moscow’s effort in Afghanistan in the 1980s but of course far fewer than the 11,739 who received that award during World War II.
In addition to the dramatic increase in the number of awards, “Sovershenno Sekretno” suggested, two other aspects are troubling. On the one hand, the percentage of senior people who did not directly participate in combat seems to have gone up as well, a situation that recalls the medal mania of Brezhnev’s time.
And on the other, some of the awards went to officials like FSB deputy director Vladimir Pronichev who was named a Hero of the Russian Federation for his role during the Nord-Ost terrorist incident, a case where as “Sovershenno Sekretno” recalls, 129 of the 130 who died were victims of the use of lethal gas by people under his command.
The general inflation in the number of medals the Russian authorities have handed out is obvious, according to the article, but the exact numbers are impossible to check given that information about awards given even during the first Chechen campaign (1995-96) remain inaccessible to investigators, with officials refusing all requests for their release.
The reason for that, the article continues, is that such statistics would be embarrassing either because they would allow people to see just how serious that conflict was, something the Kremlin did everything it could to conceal, or how commanders had used the conflict to hand out medals and thus the basis for advancement to its members.
Despite official efforts to keep the lid on such information, some of it has leaked out. There is a reference in once order that in February-March 1995 alone, “almost 1600” Russian officers and men were given the Order of Courage, a statistic that suggests the fighting was extremely intense.
That would mean some 21,500 such orders were given out during the first campaign. And given that the numbers on the medals for March 2000 ranged from 42,000 to 46,000, there must have been more than 20,000 such awards given between the two Chechen wars, yet another indication of either the seriousness of the conflict or medal inflation.
The situation with regard to the awarding of medals appears to have become worse during the Russian campaign in Georgia, even though overall statistics remain classified. During that effort, which Moscow has called “the five day war,” the magazine reported, at least 19 officers and soldiers were named Hero of Russia and 263 were awarded the Georgian Cross.
But it is not only in the military were the “golden rain” of orders appears to be intensifying. Last Friday, on the Day of Russia, Interfax reported, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, was awarded the star of the Order of St. Aleksandr Nevsky “For Labor and the Fatherland” (
While giving awards to church leaders has become increasingly frequent in post-Soviet Russia, this presentation is in some ways anomalous. While he has been declared a saint by the Orthodox Church, Aleksandr Nevsky in fact formed an alliance with the Muslim Mongols to oppose the expansion of Catholic influence into Russia.

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