Youth taught draft dodges

July 25, 1997

Ivan, a 26-year-old ecologist from Moscow State University, has 12 months to go before he is safe from military service.

By managing to stay in higher education since the age of 18 he has avoided conscription.

But his immunity expired when he got his doctorate this year and his current course at the university's new ecology centre does not give him the same protection.

The coming year offers him perhaps the most serious challenge in his life so far: how to avoid being drafted into an army where brutality is rife and armed conflict is a distinct possibility.

The civil war in Chechnya may be over, but last year 2,117 soldiers died as a result of murder or accident and a further 543 committed suicide, according to the Russian Military Prosecutor's Office.

Investigations into as many as 5,000 cases of death and injuries among conscripts were carried out last year, with 4,000 going to court and charges brought against 200 officers.

Kremlin promises to end conscription within three years seem unlikely to materialise. The idea of creating a smaller, professional army in Russia has gone no further than a presidential soundbite.

The grim reality is that military life is underfunded and harsh. Brutal beatings of conscripts are estimated to have doubled in the last year. An Amnesty International report recently dubbed the Russian army, "a prison-like Gulag-style institution."

This is the prospect which brings Ivan and 200 other young men, mothers, fathers, girlfriends and wives, to weekly meetings in Moscow on how legally to avoid or postpone the draft.

The meetings are held in a cramped, stuffy, central Moscow hall by the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, a charity which came to prominence as protests over the loss of life in Chechnya mounted. They offer detailed information on dozens of legitimate ways to dodge the draft and resist bullying by local conscription committees which are under pressure to meet their draft targets.

Men between 18 and can be drafted during two periods each year, from April to June and from October to December. Being organised and having documentation to hand on everything from medical histories to proof of educational status is essential.

Ivan listened attentively as Ludmila Obraztsova listed the constitutional articles, military laws and civil rights that make up the armoury of the draft dodger, before concluding that his circumstances needed special counselling.

"I did not see the person I needed to, so was unable to find out everything I wanted. I need to speak to someone in detail about my specific situation.

"The law says that if you are learning in a university or institute or on a postgraduate course, this exempts you from the draft. But my course (at the ecology centre) is not discussed so I need more specific information."

Tatiana Nikolayevna, a doctor, fears for the health and safety of her youngest son, 17-year-old Andrei, if he is drafted. His elder brother, now 30, returned an alcoholic, scarred psychologically and physically after two years.

"He was in Khazakstan and tried drugs and drank a lot. It took me seven years to cure him of alcoholism. You understand that I do not want this for my younger son. My older boy went to the army completely healthy and came out like this. It's only in recent years he has begun to return to normality."

Andrei, who plans to begin studying at night school, simply wants to find a way to avoid his brother's fate.

The best way, the Soldiers' Mothers say, is to get into college and stay there. "Remember what Lenin said: 'Study, study, study!'," Ludmila Obraztsova urges her audience. "Everyone here who reads papers or watches the television - if you're 18 years old you are risking your life! Study! It doesn't matter what sort of education it is, just study!" Hands shoot up from the rows of hard wooden seats and troubled voices break out: "What about private colleges?" one shouts. "My son is at a non-state university, is he exempt?" another asks.

Ludmila soothes the voices and directs them to Georgi Musatov, a committee member specialising in this area. The law says there is no difference between state and non-state universities. "Our military committees believe that if there is no state accreditation of the institution then it is not covered by the privileges. But there have been a lot of court cases which confirm the right of these students to postpone service, but the military is the military."

Other questioners strain to have their cases heard: the mother who fears the military would take her son after graduation is told to go to ground. "Disappear from Moscow as soon as he finishes his exams. Don't answer the telephone or go to the door. If the military ask you where you were, just say you were at the dacha!" Ludmila counsels.

Sobbing mothers fear the loss of only sons and breadwinners while girlfriends scribble down details on rights such as legally being able to refuse entry to draft officials between 10pm and 6am. The strained faces tell of the emotional turmoil prompted by the prospect of conscription into Russia's army.

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