Annals of Russian Patriotism

U.S. News & World Report reports on Russian military service and displays of patriotism:

Misha, a subdued, blond 21-year-old, recently sat in the run-down Moscow office of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, an advocacy group that offers advice to soldiers and men of draft age. After ignoring a draft summons, police had come to his mother’s apartment to seize Misha, who declined to give his surname for fear of reprisals, and cart him off to a conscription office, from where he’d be sent to his barracks, possibly somewhere distant like Siberia or the Far North. He wasn’t home.

Tatyana Znachkova, the teacherlike head of the committee in Moscow, advised him to hide at his grandmother’s. She also told Misha’s mother, as she has told thousands of other mothers, how to deflect the police without making them think he was dodging the draft, a criminal offense. “You say, ‘Oh, how unlucky! He sent a text just yesterday saying he was spending the night at his girlfriend’s.’ ”

Each spring and fall, Russian men ages 18 to 27 are drafted into the Army. In this year’s fall draft, which ends December 31, 219,000 men are expected to be called up. But conscripts avoid serving through a multitude of legal and illegal means, from enrolling in universities to bribing doctors for testimony that a conscript has ailments he does not. Around 80 percent of Russians who appeared on rolls for the fall draft received exemptions and deferments, according to the Army.

Since Russia’s August war with Georgia, attention at home and abroad has turned to the state of its armed forces. In the war, Russia’s Army overwhelmed that of tiny Georgia and dug in 25 miles from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Russia has a significant nuclear arsenal, and a senior government official recently announced that $141.5 billion would be allocated to the armed forces between 2009 and 2011 for 300 tanks, 15 warships, and almost 500 aircraft. There are plans to transform the Army into a mobile, albeit leaner fighting force.

But it would be wrong to overemphasize the Russian Army’s capabilities, even though the war and fiery rhetoric from Moscow have certainly spooked western governments. Critics say that a reliance on the draft—professional servicemen make up 20 to 30 percent of the troops—is a critical weakness as these troops are generally poorly trained, even cannon fodder. “People with this level of training will be killed in the first battle,” says Alexander Golts, a Moscow defense expert with the Yezhednevny Zhurnal newspaper. Some conscripts took part in the South Ossetia operation in the summer, though it is not known how they fared.

The lengths that Russians go to avoid the Army hint at other problems—notably dedovshchina, or rule of the grandfathers, an informal and widespread discipline system in which draftees can be subject to degrading, sometimes violent hazing by their seniors.

In a famous case, conscript Andrei Sychyov had his legs and genitals amputated after being beaten by senior officers on New Year’s Day 2005. Another conscript, at the Plesetsk cosmodrome near the Arctic city of Arkhangelsk, was beaten by drunk officers, locked in a dog cage, and died later. More recently, investigators in Novosibirsk said a private slit his wrists in March after suffering abuse.

Draft dodgers in turn fuel corruption, as they bribe officials to give them deferments and certificates saying they served, which they need when applying for jobs.

“It’s a giant, corrupt system that includes workers in the conscription offices, medical institutions, and institutions of higher education; because a lot of institutions only exist to give out draft deferments, they don’t teach anything,” says Golts. In 2005, Georgiy Satarov, a researcher at Indem, a Moscow nonprofit group that tracks corruption, reported that there were around $350 million in bribes related to the draft annually. An Army spokesman was not available for comment.

For many, a bribe is indeed the simplest way out. The average cost in Moscow is said to be around 200,000 rubles ($6,880). “I told my parents I’m not ready to serve and they said I should finish studying and then we’ll discuss it,” says Oleg, 18, a chatty student fond of clubbing and Angelina Jolie who also declined to give his surname. He hopes his parents will provide the money. His mother supports his decision, though his grandfather was a prominent Soviet commander during World War II and his father, who was drafted, seems in favor of Oleg serving.

But bribes don’t always work. Conscription officials have been known to pocket payments and then not exempt a draftee from service, says Znachkova, adding that in worse cases, they take the money and then report a conscript for attempted bribery. As is often the case in Russia, having the right connections can solve many problems, meaning that it can be safer to make a payment through a contact in the military. “You only go via people in your own circle,” says Oleg, whose own seemingly tenuous connection is a friend who himself is friends with the son of an officer.

The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers discourages offering bribes to military officials, and instead suggests that draftees study the conscription laws and see if they fit under one of the exemption categories—soldiers with severe cases of flat feet and scoliosis do not have to serve, for example. Some doctors can, of course, be bribed for fake diagnoses.

Other times, it’s simpler to leave Russia altogether. Dmitry, 24, recently moved to Moscow from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and received Russian citizenship. Znachkova proposed he either return to Tashkent until he is 27, when he will be too old to be drafted, or enroll in a master’s program that ends when he is 27.

If worst comes to worst, draftees can take legal action. Yaroslav Tsitsoyev, 18, is suing his local conscription office because they refused to send him for medical tests after he said he was ill. He doesn’t have a lawyer, though recently Znachkova was prepping him on how to speak with the judge and printing off legal documents for him. “Most of my friends aren’t serving; they all have problems with their health,” says Tsitsoyev, who was calm despite his impending solo appearance in court.

There are rumors of Russians taking more extreme steps to avoid the draft, such as breaking their own arms. Oleg recounts the story of an acquaintance who lived in two flats that adjoined each other and had a shared bathroom.

“Whenever personnel from the conscription office came round, he’d just run next door. They didn’t know he had two flats,” Oleg says.

“That was before he bought himself a certificate saying he’d served.”

6 responses to “Annals of Russian Patriotism

  1. Russian patriot
  2. It’s a wonderful movie! Hopefully it will be a winner of Suslov award… and maybe even a contender for Riefenstahl award.

    It’s a little tedious… I realize, it has never been a criteria for Soviet propaganda, but to win Riefenstahl prize – you need to be more entertaining. The narrator has too much of an accent. Even Al Qaeda found a native English speaker for its agitki. I am sure you could find a useful idiot with better English as well!

    You learned a useful propaganda trick: to use first-person when talking as if on behalf of your enemy. But I think you overdid it a little bit. 9 minutes of non-stop “we are bloodthirsty money-makers”, “we direct terrorists”, “we don’t care about innocent lives” could make you a junior writer in Krokodil of the 70s… but now you may be a speechwriter in Nashi at most!

    So, dear delusional Russian Patriot, you are on the great start. If Russia runs out of money to pay for your bullshit – there is always Zimbabwe and North Korea! You have a bright future ahead of you

  3. Russian patriot

    My nationality the German, but I am proud of that that I was born and I live in Russia. And if Russians money or oil ends, Russia not begins to bomb Iraq as USA, under a pretext democracy. You never were the free democratic country. Your press under control the state ideology .

    You hate all world


    Well that I live in the country independent of the USA and me will not plant for these lines in Guatnanamo or in Abu-Grejd
    But in 21 century your empire of evil will lose leadership.It recognises even your analysts. There will be countries capable to resist to your bloody democracy. It enrages you therefore and arise such ideological project as your site
    P.S. I apologise for my bad English.

  4. My nationality is not Russian, I am Poland but I was born and lives in Russia. I am love my country. I recognise that you hate us, because Russia is a Great civilisation. I am proud of my Patronimic and I am always ready for defend my Motherland from enemy. I was under Russian arms and praud them. I am lawyer now but I am ready to dispute in arms my Russia. I agree with Russian patriot: “… if Russians money or oil ends, Russia not begins to bomb Iraq as USA, under a pretext democracy. You never were the free democratic country. Your press under control the state ideology ..”.

  5. “I am Russian”, now we know you are a KGB plant! A Pole who says he is proud of being Russian, now that would be a first!!

  6. Why many of Russian patriots had being Poland nationality. I advice you to learn more History.
    This is list of Russian patriot who were Polands and who I remember immediately.
    1. Rokossovskij
    2. Chaikovskij
    3. Speranskij
    In addition I see that very simple to name any disagreeing person as KGB plant! It is your democratic position?

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