Tough Obedience: How is Militarized Masculinity Linked with Violence in the Army?

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In 2005, the case of private Andrey Sichyov, who was subject to violence while serving in the Russian army, became known as one of the most cruel cases of “dedovschchina[1] in the world. Officers had forced him to crouch on his feet for hours and had severely beaten him, as a result of which, Sychyov suffered multiple injuries leading to the amputation of both legs, along with the removal of his reproductive organs. These kinds of brutalities, as well as sexual abuse, suicide, forced food and water deprivation, denied healthcare are all widespread occurrences within the armies of different countries. Academics mostly reflect on military institutions, such as the army and its structure, in order to understand cases of violence within them. However, militarized masculinity has never been subject to research for the purpose of identifying the root causes behind violence within the army. It is not surprising that the concept of masculinity is so normalized within the army that it is not being questioned at all. In most societies, masculinity is generally not perceived as something, which needs to be scrutinized.

This study attempts to raise issues related to militarized masculinity within the army and understand the extent to which militarized masculinity influences levels of violence within the same institution. For this purpose, a small scale case study of the Russian and Swedish armies has been conducted. More than 10 interviews have been implemented with conscripts from the Swedish and Russian armies who served in the time period between 2006 and 2011. These interviews have been followed by a comparative analysis. The study in its entirety is based on feminist and constructivist theories. More specifically, the concept of structuration theory was applied as a tool for analysis in order to understand the link between militarized masculinity and violence within the army. The theory of structuration is concerned with conditions that regulate continuity of institutions (structures) or their transformation, and thus, the reproduction of systems. These structures can be divided into sections, i. e. relations between actors and collectives (groups), which in different systems are organized as regular social practices.

Henceforth, this study reflects on structures of masculinity and violence. By dividing those stuctures into smaller parts, the study makes those power relations, which determine factors and actions of masculinity and violence within the army, more comprehensible.    


Militarized Masculinity

In order to define militarized masculinity, the term has to be split into parts and understood within the framework of production and reproduction of gender roles, gender relations and gender performativity

And what do we mean when we say gender? Many people consider gender to be the socially constructed sex of a person based on their biological sex. In this kind of thinking gender is perceived as one’s social sex, which in a sense differentiates between biological and social concepts. However, according to gender theory, biological sex is just as much a construction as social sex. This means that the sex of a human being does not carry any essential significance, whereas gender is the expression and revelation of bodies, identities and experiences of human beings. Academics who study this issue[2] refer to individuals who are intersex, transgender and beyond the gender binary, whose mere presence within society problematizes the concept of biological and social sexes as such.  

Coming back to the theory of structuration, gender can be considered one of the factors, which validates masculinity. However, since gender does not operate in a vacuum, it is important to understand how masculine gender roles and the relations, which stem from those roles, operate within a given context.


Gender Roles: How is Gender Expressed?

Gender roles are those behaviors, which society expects from individuals based on the social reality that they live. In many societies it is assumed that, for example, a woman has to occupy the spheres of family, education, fostering and care, whereas a man has to be active in the public, political and leadership domains. Closer to the topic of the military, two examples relate men to having to assume the role of a protector in times of war, as soldiers, while women ought to be caring nurses.

Certainly there are exceptions. There are a number of examples in the world, where individuals disrupt masculine or feminine roles, which would otherwise fit the imagined sexual and gender specific behaviors society expects of them. Since gender roles are not in fact fixed, all individuals - regardless of their defined gender identity - challenge these seemingly permanent masculine and feminine gender norms from time to time. However, there are a number of punitive measures taken within society, which function as methods to prevent transgressions from the hegemonic gender systems in place. This study shows examples from the Swedish and Russian armies, where men who do not conform to the behaviors of militarized masculinity are subjected to humiliation, harassment, and other forms of violence inflicted by their peers. It can be concluded that gender roles are directly linked with relations, which exist between individuals. 


Gender Relations: What is Done with Gender?

In order to understand how power relations impact the gender system and thereby, to be able to understand what is done with gender, it is importnant to clarify how people reproduce gender relations in their everyday lives. When we speak of the gender binary, it becomes clear that masculinity and femininity are simultaneously contradictory and complementary concepts. In order for masculinity to exist, it has to confront femininity. As a result, relations stemming from gender are expressed through gender roles and the exaggerated differences of those gender roles. If being feminine means being passive, then being masculine must entail being active. If femininity is associated with peace, masculinity is associated with war. In this duality the functioning power relations are such that those attributes linked to masculinity are more valued than the ones linked to femininity. Thus, in the gender power system, masculinity is privileged over femininity. As it was already mentioned, gender is not fixed. Thereby, one can disrupt the gender role he or she is ascribed. But when one understands the rules of gender, it becomes clear that when a man challenges the gender role assigned to him, he deprives himself of the privileges of masculinity. Henceforth, men perform masculinity in order to reproduce those power relations, as a result of which they will have the possibility to continue maintaining power and all privileges stemming from it.


Gender Performativity [3]: How is Gender Done?

To perform or do gender is both dependent on power relations, as well as reproduced through power relations. Gender performativity does not account for having or being a gender. This theory considers gender a tool of power, which is applied in social reality based on needs, expectations and desires. Hence, even if we were to insist that gender is a construct and thereby it can be deconstructed, we will without a doubt come face to face with a system of power - such as the gender power system - where not performing gender as it is accepted within society would entail being deprived of certain privileges, especially for men. Consequently, by performing the gender roles we are expected to perform, we continue reproducing the gender power system.

Seeing how power relations are reflected in gender relations between men and women, it is not surprising that such power relations also exist between men themselves. In different contexts acceptable masculinity is expressed through the dominant men and the dominating masculinity of that context. Hegemonic masculinity[4] refers to the type of masculinity, which is deemed the most successful and beneficial in a given context. In other terms, the type of masculinity that a man should aspire to is the kind that dominates and through which it is possible to dominate. On a global scale, the current form of hegemonic masculinity is directly linked with the kind of power, which can be obtained through material resources, political power, markets, territories and most importantly, control over identity discourse. In many contexts this means that belonging to a dominant masculinity does not automatically translate to being positioned at the top of the hegemonic masculine power pyramid. 

Hegemonic masculinity plays an important role in the construction of subordinate masculinities. Since masculinity is constructed in relative antagonism to femininity, its hierarchy is configured in such a way where the types of masculinity, which have traces of femininity, are humiliated and devalued, as a result of which they end up on the bottom of the pyramid. Hence, if you are a man that has deviated from your assigned gender role (voluntarily or not voluntarily), then you become a weakling, feminine, “not a true man.” Thus, subordinate masculinity is a feminized form of masculinity, which does not fit into the accepted gender system in such a way as to harness the same value as other forms of masculinity. This is how homosexual, transgender, non-white and other marginalized masculinities are perceived within the hegemonic masculine hierarchy.

Militarised masculinity  is a form of hegemonic masculinity. This term is applied to those masculinities, which have been shaped through the military institution or establishment,  and are built and constructed as a result of military service. Many societies believe that boys become men through initiation into the military institution. Militarized masculinity aspires and contributes to the accomplishment of power and violence, while the army is an institution, which produces violence. It is important to note that constructivist theory does not consider men to be inherently violent. Instead, masculinity is violent not by nature, but by being produced as violent through military service.

In order to understand how militarized masculinity is constructed as the oppositve of femininity in the context of the army, it is importnant to recognize gender differences and power relations stemming from those differences. Heather Höpfl[5] uses the term “cancellation of the feminine” in order to highlight one of the key features of militarized masculinity. Since one of the key goals of the military is to defend women and children, particularly mothers - who embody the nation and the motherland - women and feminine qualities are perceived as disruptive elements to military logic and practice. In the same vein, subordinate masculinity is also considered an unacceptable performance of gender within the military, a system which rejects and expels such expressions of masculinity that do that conform to the norms of masculinity within the army. According to militarized masculinity the “true man” has to be devoid of any feminine attributions.

In order for it to be possible to eradicate femininity from within the army, it is crucial to separate the peaceful civilian from the conscript. According to militarized masculinity, a peaceful civilian is someone who has feminine traits, from which it is required to move away if one is to acquire a “true” masculine image. As a result, one of the main focuses of military training is the destruction of a soldier’s civilian identity. Most of the preparatory training of military service is an effort to eradicate any and all traits of femininity from within the men serving.

Militarized masculinity is dependent on the construction of an enemy. Gender theory makes use of comparisons to construct the binary opposition between masculinity and femininity. Just as the soldier is conditioned to consider the enemy as the “other” - someone who does not deserve to live – and thereby justifying the destruction of the enemy through violence and killing, so is the same logic used to justify eradicating femininity to make it possible for militarized masculinity to occur. It follows that the army is a system in which the soldier is being taught to use violence as a means of destroying the ‘other’, where that ‘other’ can be just as much perceived as the enemy both within the same army unit or beyond it. Femininity - perceived as the total opposite of masculinity - becomes the “enemy other”, which needs to be dominated and destroyed.

In reality, if we are to accept that the ideal of masculinity to which a soldier needs to aspire is impossible to attain, then it becomes clear that militarized masculinity is, in fact, impossible. This idea says a lot about the military institution:  as a soldier you are not only required to show strength and command, but you are also required to obey superiors with higher rank, such as officers, sergeants and commanders. Henceforth, if you are to attain this impossible masculinity in order to be considered part of the system, then you are constantly forced to be confronted with the process of eradicating femininity.



This study does not consider violence as something that is natural. Quite the contrary, violence is a construct within social reality, which is produced in human relations and reproduces violent humans. According to Hanna Arendt, violence in essence performs a function, and it is not an end in itself, but a means[6].

If we come back to the theory of structuration, which concerns the conditions that regulate the continuity of structures, and thus, contribute to the reproduction of systems, then we can say that violence is the most influential and powerful condition and means, which ensures the reproduction and continuity of not only the military system, but also the gender power system.

This study defines violence within the army both as direct and indirect. If we are to consider that the army as an institution of violence already carries within itself the qualities of indirect violence, then direct or physical violence is the consequence of this indirect or latent violence[7].

Dedovschchina is one of the most widespread types of violence within the military. Although, the military institution claims that this kind of treatment helps new conscripts bond and develop close relationships, preparing them to overcome the difficulties and cruelties of war, in fact, these initiation rites serve the purpose of preparing newly conscripted soldiers to get used to using violence as a means. In other words, practices of dedovschchina use violence as a means to produce soldiers who will reproduce this system of violence. In this context, it is important to reflect on how militarized masculinity uses violence within the army as a tool to produce men as violent.

Observing the existence of militarized masculinity and violence within the Swedish and Russian armies, this study identifies the link between militarized masculinity and incidents of violence occurring within the military. As a result, it is impossible to distinguish between violence, such as dedovschchina occurring within the army, and military training.


Examples from Russian and Swedish Armies

In order to identify the link between militarized masculinity and violence within the army, a series of interviews with conscripts who served in the Swedish and Russian armies from 2006-2011 were conducted. The Swedish and Russian armies were picked as cases of study, since they are quite distinct from one another, which allows for a comparison of the types of militarized masculinity present between these armies, including their impact on violence within their military institutions. In both cases the interviewees were chosen from a pool of soldiers drafted into the army. The interviews were mostly directed at identifying expressions of militarized masculinity within each army. Simultaneously, the violence within Swedish and Russian armies, documented between 2006-2011, were studied and later combined with the stories of militarized masculinity taken from interviews with conscripts.


Militarized Masculinity in the Swedish Army

In interviews with Swedish conscripts competitiveness was the main attribute molding militarized masculinity within the Swedish army. This was a type of competitiveness, which was associated with the possibility of the soldier to become superior in all spheres. One of the conscripts was saying: “You exhibit solidarity with the group in which you are included, thus, entering into competition with the other groups within the regiment… then on a larger scale, the regiments compete within the unit and so on.” All this was being conditioned and encouraged by the commanders and was viewed as something healthy to do for a soldier in order to advance within the army ranks. Another conscript said: “In our regiment we had soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and were quite arrogant, they used to tell us that we were sissies…” By calling soldiers who had not served in Afghanistan “sissies”, those soldiers became perceived as more feminine. Thus, a soldier who had not done military service in Afghanistan became the bearer of a subordinate masculinity, which made it possible for those soldiers who had served in Afghanistan to compete and confirm their type of militarized masculinity as the dominant one.

These interviews also revealed that there was an aversion to feminization within the Swedish army’s type of militarized masculinity. This was revealed, for example, through bullying, which targeted soldiers with long hear, big hips or traits that deviated from the norms of masculinity. In this context, disgust of homosexuality was common practice. In a similar vein, anything that was seen as negative was labeled as “gay”. One of the conscripts, however, believed that this phenomenon was not so different from derogatory expressions occurring regularly within society at large.


Violence within the Swedish Army

Violence within the Swedish army carries a more indirect form. Dedovschchina, or hazing, as it is known in the English speaking world, is prohibited by law and cases are not officially documented when they do occur within the Swedish army. However, when cases do occur, it is more likely that they will find internal solutions. “It speaks more to informal norms and regulations… as hazing performs certain social and cultural functions” and for that reason it is very hard to prohibit these practices in reality. Often it takes on the form of psychological violence, such as bullying, mean jokes, humiliation through words and emotional pressure. The lack of direct and physical violence within the Swedish army can be explained by the fact that human rights are more protected in Sweden than in other countries. It follows that the rights of soldiers are protected as well.

Although there are no cases of hazing recorded in Sweden, other forms of physical violence surfaced from interviews with conscripts who served from between 2006 and 2011. One of the conscripts who served from 2010 said: “I can tell clearly that many things, which took place did not seem like drills or exercise, they more resembled hazing. Everything was extremely strict and the commanders were very proud that mostly we did not have anything to report…they forced us to compete… For example, they told us to crawl for 100 meters here or there and whoever endured it fully was going to get a coca cola in return.” Another conscript told his commander when he and his fellow soldiers were forced to stay up for long hours into the night: “This is not legal; we are supposed to have 6 hours sleep.” And the commander replied: “What makes you think that I care about what is legal?” Linking militarized masculinity with the violence within the army, one can think of this commander’s attitude as resembling the hegemonic masculinity of the given context, according to which the militarized masculine commander who uses violent means of oppression is above the legal framework of the human rights meant to protect the soldier.

Militarized Masculinity in the Russian Army

During interviews with soldiers who had served in the Russian army the main forms of militarized masculinity prevalent were aversion to feminization and tough obedience. Aversion to feminization related to disagreements within the army in terms of qualities of femininity and anything related to women, which would be acceptable within the military. The main way this became obvious within the Russian army was through expressions of homophobia. One of the conscripts said that “according to my opinion the army is not a place for gays…this relates to what we were saying about masculinity…men who have female qualities… well, it’s weird and goes against nature.” In another interview the former conscript told about one of the tactics employed in the Russian army: “Officers used to call us “fags”. They yelled the word at us, but in reality it did not mean that they thought we were homosexuals. I think it was more a move to show us who was the man in charge and to show us that we were only soldiers obligated to do everything under their command.” Just as gender theory explains: positioning all feminine qualities on the bottom of the hierarchy contributes to the construction of militarized masculinity. In this case, by calling conscripts “fags” the superior commanders confirmed their masculinity within the dominant gender system, where those that rule humiliate others and resort to violence, thereby securing their position at the top of the hierarchy.

The Russian army’s aversion to feminization is strictly linked with tough obedience. This means that the soldier must be tough in order to reach the ideal of the militarized masculinity, while at the same time he must submit to the hierarchy of the military establishment. On the one hand, the soldier tries to reach this ideal of militarized masculinity; on the other hand, he is forced to obey commanders. As a result, the conscript develops aversion toward feminization as a means of resistance to submission.


Violence within the Russian Army

Violence within the Russian army is directly linked to the type of militarized masculinity, which is practiced within the Russian military. Within the Russian army the objectification of homosexuals, or perceived homosexuals, is used by other men to reinstate their dominant position over their peers, who are either homosexual or perceived to be homosexual. This not only entails psychological pressure, but rather more direct means, such as physical violence. According to gender theory, in order for militarized masculinity to exist there is a need to eradicate all feminine attributes from inside a person. Therefore, sexual objectification or direct rape towards homosexuals or perceived homosexuals is an attempt to eradicate femininity from within the ranks of the Russian army. One of the findings of the study is that this type of a militarized masculinity is linked to the use of more direct violence, which is not covert and is quite physical. Therefore, in the Russian military the attempt to eradicate any traces of femininity is strongly linked to direct violence, resulting from the need to resist unconditional subordination in order to achieve the ideal of militarized masculinity.

Unlike the Swedish army, in the Russian army incidents of violence are being registered by different organisations that protect the human rights of soldiers. Only in 2008, 1239 soldiers have been convicted on the grounds of dedovschchina [8], and already in 2009-2010 cases of dedovschchina have increased by 15%[9]. The direct violence of dedovschchina exercised within the Russian army takes on forms of torture, beatings, depravation of food, sleep and shelter, and denial to health services, especially when the soldier has acquired injuries as a result of dedovschchina. In many cases the soldier can undergo amputation, become disabled and in the most severe cases violence within the Russian army can lead to murder and suicide.


How is militarized masculinity linked with violence within the army?

Militarised masculinity exists in all armies, as long as military institutions continue to base their ethos on violence by teaching and producing it. By propagating and utilizing violence, masculinity becomes produced in a militarized form. By opposing femininity and other subordinate forms of masculinity, the violence toward soldiers exercised within the army contributes to the reproduction of militarized masculinity.

Two types of militarized masculinity were identified upon studying violence and militarized masculinities within the Swedish and Russian armies. In the Swedish army militarized masculinity mostly occurs through competition and expresses itself through competition between soldiers, units and regiments. In the Russian army militarized masculinity depends upon tough obedience. The latter makes it much more difficult for a soldier attempting to reach the ideal of militarized masculinity, which rejects all forms of submission. In response, an aversion toward feminization develops.

In both cases, aversion to feminization plays a key role in the development of militarized masculinity, but in the Russian army it takes harsher forms and is the main reason for the more overt forms of violence. If we were to compare the Swedish and Russian armies in terms of types of violence occurring within its ranks, the first one has more indirect violent incidents, whereas the second one is more based on direct physical violence.

As a result, it becomes possible to assume that the violence applied toward a soldier is more cruel and direct when the development of militarized masculinity is based on the eradication of femininity in response to tough obedience. It follows that when militarized masculinity simultaneously requires that a soldier be tough and obedient, then the eradication of femininity becomes a means through which to reach the ideal of militarized masculinity, which is impossible to obtain in reality.



[1] In Russian the word Dedovschchina literally translates to 'rule of grandfathers' where the higher ranking officers in the army (dedy or grandfathers) enforce violent initiation acts upon new conscripts.

[2] The theme is explored by different feminist scientistis, such as Judith Butler, Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway, etc.

[3] Judith Butler, the person that introduced the concept of gender performativity, writes about it in her book on  Gender Trouble

[4] In order to learn more about hegemonic and subordinate masculinities read Connell, R.W. (1995): Masculinities.

[5] Höpfl, Heather J (2003): "Becoming a (Virile) Member: Women and the Military Body"

[6] Hanna Arendt, About Violence (1970)

[7] Johan Galtung. Violence, Peace and Peace Studies, (1970)

[8] Nepravitelstvennoye Soobshenie: O Situacii s Pravami Cheloveka v Sfere Voyenno-Grazhdanskikh Otnoshenii v 2013 Godu (2014). Soldier's Mothers St. Petersburg.

[9] U.S. Department of State (2011): 2010 Human Rights Report: Russia, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.


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