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Saturday, 21 March 2009

Spring Has Sprung - Conscription Has Begun

Photo: Alexei Petrosian
It’s that time of year again when no young man is safe from the roaming militia. Take a trip on the metro at the moment and everywhere you’ll see men aged between 16 and 25 being stopped, searched and questioned by the Militsia. And not, as per usual, just those from ‘the southern countries.’ That’s right, it’s conscription time, and this spring, following a series of military reforms, the army will take in more than 300 thousand young men - twice more than last year, making this year’s conscription period the largest in modern Russian history.

According to Russian law, all Russian men aged from 18 – 27 are supposed to serve a twelve-month period in the army, unless they are exempt for medical or educational reasons. In the past, men with pregnant wives or children under the age of three; doctors; students at specialised secondary schools; rural school teachers and those training to be priests were all officially exempted from military service, but new rules introduced from the beginning of this year mean that they are now all compelled to do military service. Students in full time education can still postpone until they have graduated and receive full exemption if they continue to PhD level.

The Ministry of Defence has justified the increase on the grounds that the army is currently suffering from a severe lack of non-commissioned soldiers, following the 2008 decision to cut the length of military service from eighteen to twelve months. Moreover, the army is also battling against the general trend of a declining population; during the l980s birth rates dramatically decreased, meaning that the number of Russian eighteen year olds is much smaller than 5 – 10 years ago. So to combat this the army will be stocked by masses of young men who don’t want to be there.

To put it mildly, the reputation of the Russian army is not great. In 2007, the BBC reported that 341 Russian soldiers committed suicide, which is about the same as one whole battalion. The practise of Dedovschina – literally rule of the grandfathers – a kind of ritual bullying where older soldiers ‘initiate’ newer recruits can in part be blamed for this. Myths and rumours abound within Russian society about this practise and are believed to different degrees depending on your viewpoint, but human rights groups estimate that it’s highly wide spread and has caused not only suicide attempts but also occasionally results in the murder of young conscripts. Moreover the psychological pressures of being a conscript are well known, however the Russian army offers no therapy or help to those entering or leaving the army.

The result? Logically, such a brutal regime will serve only to brutalise those who experience it, and social analysts and human rights groups have long commented on the fact that young men returning from conscription often find it hard to readapt to civilian life following the harsh demands of military life. Violence, alcohol and drug abuse are prevalent amongst Russian men and it seems probable that there is some sort of connection between this and the brutal regime of military service.

Of course, just because the state has decided that more people will join the army doesn’t mean that there aren't unofficial ways to get out of service. Bribing doctors and military officials in order to get out of military service has been commonplace for years (I’ve lost count of how many of my male friends have ‘flat feet’) although this is something that the authorities are trying to cut down on. Official statistics show that the number of arrests connected to bribe taking in order to avoid military service doubled from 2007 to 2008; however given the level of corruption and the popularity of bribery in all spheres of Russian public life it seems unlikely that it will stop completely any time soon.

What I find particularly scary about all this is the massive divide emerging between those who can afford to bribe (or educate) their way out of military service and those who are forced to enrol because economically, politically and legally there’s no way out. Russia is already a hugely divided society this two-tier system can only serve to accentuate existing social problems.

Some links about Russian military life:

At the end of this article the author prints some comments by Russians about military conditions. They’re pretty different from my (admittedly very Western) viewpoint, but also anything I’ve heard from my friends; but I guess they show the other side of the story.

The website of the Union of the Committee of the Mothers of Soldiers – a human rights groups that seeks to protects Russian soldiers lives.


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Caroline said...

I've wallowing in a pit of Moscow-slushy-dirty-snow-writer's-block sorrow and woefully checking the blog hourly in the hope that you would post something, you've made my day!