Wartime Corruption: We’ve seen it all before – just read the classics

28 January, 01:04 PM
Thomas Le/unsplash

Thomas Le/unsplash

I really hope that, if not from real stories, then at least from literary classics, all those involved in corrupt dealings and or those who see them occurring draw conclusions in favor of victory – including victory over corruption in wartime.

The scandal around food procurement by the Ministry of Defense during the war is rightly called the most unpleasant of those which have emerged since the beginning of the year, as if deliberately, one after another. However, the facts at hand, attempts to hush up this scandal over charging 17-hryvnias-per-egg ($0.46), and the claim that this was the per-kilo price, which practically exploded all over social networks, prompted me to get my reach for the top of my bookshelf and refresh my memory on very similar incidents.

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The first thing that came to my mind was the ordinary head of the canteen at an American air base, 27-year-old Milo Minderbinder. In a short time, thanks to various, even sometimes insane corruption schemes and deals, he was able to create a transcontinental food syndicate by redirecting the cash flows intended for his canteen’s food purchases.

He began - don’t laugh - with the purchase of eggs. Milo bought them in Malta for 5 cents each and managed to have combat aircraft available to supply eggs 24/7. At the same time, he immediately resold them at 7 cents each, pocketing the difference for himself. He boasted that the soldiers and officers in his own canteen eat eggs for free three times a day. With the starting capital earned on Maltese eggs, Milo would purchase veal, fresh ducks, lobsters, ice cream, strawberries, and artichokes for officers.

Milo did not hide his taxpayer-financed deals on food purchases. He was proud of them. First of all, he was able to ensnare everyone in his scheme, including the generals, with everyone getting to take their share. Secondly, he sincerely considered himself a patriot. After all, the ultimate goal of the food chain is for soldiers to be fed during war. If this requires using corrupt schemes, then these schemes are called patriotic, because bribes and kickbacks are being given for the sake of being able to feed the military on time during wartime.

However, this is all a story. Milo Minderbinder is one of the most colorful characters in the famous anti-war novel by American Joseph Heller, Catch 22. Published in 1961, the work does not so much describe World War II as it shows the general absurdity of wars, where front-line heroism shares an incomprehensible, annoying, shameful coexistence with corruption in the rear, all boiling down to making profit on supplies, mainly foodstuffs. The Russian translation made in the mid-1960s was half-censored, and later the novel came under an unofficial ban in the militaristic USSR with its cult of senseless wars. The Ukrainian translation, written and published in the early 1980s, did not go through censorship, though it was released under the title Trap for Fools.

Next to this novel, I have another, written a quarter of a century earlier and brilliantly translated into Ukrainian in the 1950s: The Good Soldier Schweik, written by Yaroslav Hasek. Ironically, I decided to re-read it this year and finished it on the eve of the egg scandal. Among the characters is Sergeant Major Vanek, who is responsible for supplying his marching company. Bear in mind that this novel takes place during the First World War, in which Hasek himself was a participant. Therefore, one can suppose that everything was described fairly realistically as this talented and intent professional journalist saw with his own eyes. It is not surprising when Vanek explains to the naive Schweik: “Mr. Colonel only in his fantasy imagines that there are tins of food in the warehouse. They never existed,” says Vanek.

This is not only about tins of food, but about the supply of provisions to the army as a whole. The counter knows perfectly well the difference between the price paid by the imperial treasury and the real value of each unit of production. This quantity of canned food, listed in financial documents, was not physically produced. Therefore, management calculates the ration based on the presence of a non-existent amount of food. Result: each company has to provide for itself.

Of course, one should not directly compare the work of the Czech author, written after the First World War, which destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the novel by an American who was a participant in yet another war, World War II. He was born in a country that did not disintegrate as an authoritarian empire, but confidently rose to its feet and developed democracy. The common thing here is corruption as an unfortunate component of any war. You can look for more examples in world literature. But all of them, one way or another, will echo the content of recent Ukrainian news.

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For those who are convinced that a strong Stalinist hand is needed here, otherwise nothing will get done, there is a separate example – no longer from fiction, but from real life: the story of Nikolai Pavlenko, a native of Kyiv Oblast. When his family was dispossessed in 1928, he fled using forged documents, disappeared into the Russian wilderness, and worked in various construction crews until 1941. In 1941, when he was drafted into the Red Army, Pavlenko managed to escape, crafted a seal of a non-existent state organ, printed forms of invoices, orders, and contracts in exchange for bribes, and joined the system of military construction units with the Kalinin Front.

At first, the trust managed by Pavlenko spent millions from the defense budget for the repair of roads, bridges and airfields, and other such large construction projects. Then it expanded and encompassed food supplies. In the Stalinist USSR, where everything was under control, no one noticed anything until 1952. There is no information about the wartime period. But in the post-war period, Pavlenko joined the great restoration. In four years, using forged documents, he concluded 64 agreements for a total amount of almost 39 million rubles.

This story could please us: for more than ten years, a Ukrainian led the Soviet government by the nose and, with impunity, legally stole from the budget which itself was stolen by the communists and was not being used for the benefit of the country and people. But there is a nuance: what allowed Pavlenkoto carry out these corrupt schemes was his secret cooperation with the NKVD. He wrote denunciations, so his illegal deals were ignored before the war. And when the war began, they took him for one of their own, so the war wiped the slate clean.

The bad news is that people live according to this principle, live by it now, and will continue to do so during wars – not so much officials as those close to them. They are in the model of Hasek's Vanek, Heller's Milo, and analogues of the slippery Pavlenko. I really hope that, if not from real stories, then at least from literary classics, all those involved in corrupt dealings and or those who see them occurring draw conclusions in favor of victory – including victory over corruption in wartime.

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