Pokhorony okurka (Russia and USSR)

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Pokhorony okurka 🇷🇺
Russia map.png
Location: Russia and USSR
Definition: Type of physical and psychological punishment for violating non-smoking prohibitions in the Russian and Soviet army
Keywords: Russia FSU Army Military Public service Hierarchy Euphemism Punishment Community
Clusters: Informal governance Lock-in effect Community lock-in
Author: Kirill Melnikov
Affiliation: Institute of Philosophy and Law, Ural Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia

By Kirill Melnikov, Institute of Philosophy and Law, Ural Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia

Pokhorony okurka refers to a type of informal punishment in the Russian (and previously the Soviet) army and can be translated as ‘a cigarette butt funeral’. The punishment is imposed upon soldiers caught smoking in prohibited areas. If such a violation is identified, the guilty soldier and his unit are ordered to carry out a march and dig a metaphorical grave for the cigarette. The commander gives a sarcastic funeral speech about the cigarette butt, soldiers shovel soil onto it and march back to their base. Depending on the gravity of the misconduct, its frequency, the discretion and creativity of the commander, particular scenarios may vary. The punishment can be intensified by its suddenness; for instance, the unit can be woken up in the night by an alert. A forced march can be complicated by the request to undertake it in full uniform (with helmet and bulletproof vest). The length of the march and the size of the pit can vary as well. The ritual can be accompanied by the appointment of guards of honour, the three-volley salute and other ceremonial procedures inherent in military funerals. The diversity of these scenarios emphasises traditional, informal and entrenched nature of this practice.

Tracing the origins of pokhorony okurka is complicated. The analysis of blogs and memoirs shows that it has been taking place at least since the 1980s, and practices of informal punishment were an exemption rather than the rule in the 1950s (Manolin 2004: 46-87, Zirtran, 2014). Most likely, the penetration of informal punishment into the Soviet army is associated with the general spread of the non-statutory relations (neustavnye otnosheniia). While some practices of non-statutory relations can be traced to the army of the Russian Empire (Tutolmin 2007), the proliferation of informal relations as a general trend began in the 1960s and is often seen as a result of several overlapping trends.

In 1960s, veterans of the Second World War began retiring from commanding positions. During their tenure, they avoided hazing or punishment that could humiliate a soldier, because for war veterans, the question of mutual respect and a healthy atmosphere among soldiers was a matter of life and death. The veteran retirement coincided with a shortage of recruits caused by the losses of the USSR in the war. In order to compensate for demographic losses, the Politburo resorted to conscripting men with criminal backgrounds (Tutolmin 2007). This measure was introduced as a rehabilitation of former prisoners, but in fact, prison subculture saturated the army. The proliferation of informal disciplinary techniques was enhanced by the degradation of the system of sergeant education. After reducing conscription from three to two years in 1968, regimental schools for sergeants were abolished. As a result, any qualitative distinction between soldiers and sergeants was erased and posts for junior commanders began to be allotted to conscripts. The lack of competence of the new generation of sergeants and the continuous necessity to manage the army collective have brought to life informal ways of getting things done.

Different forms of informal punishments have a long story in the Soviet and Russian army. What makes them so durable and why, despite the vast variety of formal penalty options (Konsul’tant Plus 2007: 55), do informal punishments still thrive?

The first reason is that applying informal punishment allows commanders to avoid responsibility. The formal penalty requires proof that a soldier had committed misconduct, as stated in the Disciplinary Bylaw (81). If misconduct lacks proof, the commander himself can become subject to investigation. Informal punishment allows superior officers to circumvent this hazardous procedure and to disguise punishment as a physical exercise.

Secondly, informal punishment allows commanders to apply it collectively. Sticking to the formal order of disciplinary action assumes compliance with the principle of personalisation of punishment. Collective punishment, in turn, shapes the mechanism of krugovaia poruka (joint responsibility) (also see Ledeneva 2006: 91-114), where everyone looks after everyone else in the unit. Pokhorony okurka, in which the entire unit of the guilty soldier must collectively undertake the forced march, induces guilt in the culprit toward the team. Informal punishment employs one of the most potent fears – the fear of social isolation. Given that the harsh conditions in the army require friendship and support, potential deprivation of such support leads to strong self-censorship. Collective punishment is not unique to the Russian army. The same mechanisms are present in the US, for instance. A US Infantry Officer reported that ‘mass punishment has been a part of the military for many years’ (Soler 2015). Scholars analysing the mechanisms of collective sanctions in the US military point out that manifestations of joint responsibility are often quite cruel. Recruits whose violations have frequently provoked the punishment of their peers are sometimes beaten in an institution known as the ‘blanket party’ (Heckathorn 1988: 538). These practices are reflected in iconic films such as ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘Hacksaw Ridge’.

The third reason is that informal punishment is an element of laughter culture or the culture of ʻarmy absurdityʼ (Bannikov 2002: 191-204). The practice of pokhorony okurka is ostentatiously absurd and grotesque. Besides the fact that it is disproportionately severe to the misconduct committed, it also represents a parody and a social oxymoron, which combine the incompatible – funeral (something meaningful and even sacred for an army) and a cigarette butt (something minor and mundane). Humour and absurdity fulfil several essential functions in the army. First, absurdity is the vehicle of initial army socialisation. In his book ‘Asylums’, Erving Goffman (1961: 14) states that every total institution, and the army in particular, ʻmortifiesʼ the self by, among other things, destroying the perception of causality and logic upon entering it. At the same time, humour and irony are ingredients in socio-psychological relaxation. ‘Humour saves a person from the oppressive awareness of his subordinate position and is given to man as a moment of inner freedom’ (Bannikov 2002: 203). While in the first months, absurd humour can play a ‘socialising’ role, it can be a tool of relaxation later on.

The fourth reason is that the role of informal punishment is not only to punish but rather to normalize the subject in a ‘disciplinary institution’ (Foucault 1979) or to disrupt self-perception in a ‘total institution’ (Goffman 1961). Besides breaking the link between cause and effect, informal punishment also uses more subtle ways of disruption of the self. As Goffman states, ‘one of the most telling ways in which one’s economy of action can be disrupted is the obligation to request permission or supplies for minor activities that one can execute on one’s own on the outside, such as smoking, shaving, going to the toilet, telephoning, spending money, or mailing letters’ (Goffman 1961: 41). Being once subjected to the practice of pokhorony okurka, the soldier will act more carefully next time – he will ask his commander for permission to smoke.

Informal punishment is a natural element of total institutions. As long as the army retains the basic features of total institutions, practices of informal punishment will persist. An all-volunteer military can significantly limit the scope of such practices since it disrupts the central feature of total institutions – the inability to choose where, when and how to work, to sleep and to relax.


Bannikov, K. 2002. The anthropology of regimented societies. Relations of Dominance in Social Interactions among Russian Soldiers. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Nauka

Foucault, M. 1979. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books

Goffman, E. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. New York: Anchor Books

Heckathorn, D. 1988. ‘Collective sanctions and the creation of prisoner's dilemma norms’. American Journal of Sociology, 94: 535-562

Konsul’tant Plus. 2007. ‘Distsiplinarnyi ustav vooruzhennykh sil Rossiiskoi Federatsii’, 10 November, http://www.consultant.ru/document/cons_doc_LAW_72806/c401b0ba6064c7e607a9ea1b9aeb05e4d7e20fdf/

Ledeneva, A. 2006. How Russia really works: The informal practices that shaped post-Soviet politics and business. Cornell University Press

Manoilin, V. 2004. Bazirovanie VMF SSSR. Saint Petersburg: Neva

Soler, K. 2015. ‘The failures of mass punishment’, U.S. Patriot Tactical, 17 June, https://blog.uspatriottactical.com/the-failures-of-mass-punishment/

Tutolmin, S. 2007. ‘Dedovshchina: retrospektiva’, Fond Imperskogo Vozrozhdeniia, 22 October, http://www.fondiv.ru/articles/3/189/

Zirtran. 2014. ‘Pokhorony bychka v armii’, Pikabu.ru, 26 March, https://pikabu.ru/story/pokhoronyi_byichka_v_armii_2111061