ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — It took a while to get the young deserter to talk. Roman had fled his army unit and was staying with Tatiana Barykina and her family, and they could see the scars on his wrist and sense the pain that hung upon him like a millstone.
But it was weeks before he began to describe life in the Russian military: the officers who stole their soldier’s salaries, the hazing and beating of young draftees by career soldiers. When Roman slashed his wrists in despair, army doctors stitched him up and sent him back to his unit.
Roman sought help by writing to the Soldiers Mothers of Petersburg, but a sergeant found the antiwar organization’s reply in the mailbag and threatened the soldier’s life. So he fled to this Baltic city, and ended up billeted with Barykina, who volunteers with the mothers group. She eventually found him a place in a psychiatric hospital.
“These boys are usually so taciturn,” she said. “They’ve been through such terrible things in the army, and they don’t want to talk about it.”
While America fights a war on terror with overwhelming public approval, families here are scrambling to avoid sending their boys to Russia’s own war against an Islamist foe in Chechnya. And this czarist-era capital of Russia has become a hotbed of antiwar activism. So strong is the resistance to the draft in this city, the army is forcibly conscripting boys by dragging them from high school classes in handcuffs and arresting them on the streets, to be sent off to the army, lawyers and war resistance groups say.
Draft dodging is fueled reports of desertions and mistreatment of soldiers, and by widespread anger at government’s seeming indifference to the depravations that ordinary Russians face.
“Nobody I know is willing to go to the military,” said Artur Getrimas, an 18-year-old who has hired a lawyer in an attempt to get a deferral. “I don’t think my country deserves to be loved and respected because it doesn’t provide a good life for its people. Corruption is everywhere, and those people who have no money or connections are stuck on the lowest level, and everyone kicks them around.”
Young men are especially anxious to avoid Russia’s war in Chechnya. A first, unpopular round of the war ended in 1996 with de facto independence for the breakaway region, where rebels attempted to establish an Islamic republic. But Chechnya became a cesspool of kidnapping and murder, and the Russian government blamed Islamists for a series of apartment bombings in Russia that killed 300 in 1999. When Chechen guerrillas invaded the neighboring region of Dagestan that year, Russia launched a second war that destroyed the capital and sparked charges of war crimes on both sides.
At first, this second round in Chechnya had overwhelming popular support. But the military squandered the public goodwill by failing to address the systemic mistreatment of conscripts, who earn only 30 rubles ($0.95) a month and are treated as second-class citizens by career soldiers.
In some parts of Russia, resistance to the draft is largely passive. Parents pay bribes to keep their sons out of uniform, and young couples hurry into marriage and have babies to get deferrals. But Petersburg has always been the most Westernized of Russian cities and also the most rebellious (the Russian revolution began here). If Petersburg residents are more defiant, this is in keeping with the city’s history.
Some of the harshest criticism of the conscript military comes from a former army colonel, Sergei Podolsky. Now head of the St. Petersburg Regional Public Movement for Military Reform, he says he receives dozens of calls every day from soldiers and deserters looking for help.
A mustachioed man who is missing part of a finger and walks with a limp, Podolsky tells of one young man named Ivan who fled his unit in Chechnya. Officers were selling men’s weapons on the black market, Ivan said, and sergeants would send the draftees out with orders not to come back until they had earned 300 rubles ($9.50). This left the destitute men with nothing to do but beg or steal the money.
And the behavior of the army under fire was appalling, Ivan told Podolsky. His charges were similar to those leveled by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. “He saw how our federal army was basically shooting Chechen civilians,” Podolsky said. “They were surrendering with white flags, and the army started firing with automatic launchers. He saw the ears cut off of Chechens on ropes or wires.”
The desire to avoid military service has led to a burgeoning business for those offering help to draft dodgers. Arkady Chaplygin, a 24-year-old lawyer, promises to get young men declared unfit for the military for a mere $500. Chaplygin draws a steady stream of clients from subway advertisements.
There are reasons people are willing to pay such sums in a country with a per capita gross domestic product of $7,700. The police are everywhere, dragging off young men, Chaplygin said.
“A young guy goes into the subway,” he says. “A policeman stands there, waiting. If the guy looks 18, they ask him for documents. If he doesn’t have proof that he has a legal draft deferral, they grab him and take him to the police station and send him off to the army.”
Chaplygin says sleazy firms sprout up all the time offering to help young men avoid the draft, but most of are scams that disappear overnight. In his office, he claims a 100 percent success rate.
Volunteers at the mothers committee, however, accuse Chaplygin of overcharging desperate young men. Instead, they offer free seminars to teach potential draftees how to get a medical deferral. They work out of a shabby suite where a cat sleeps on the radiator and wall posters depict doves landing on the helmeted heads of soldiers. Many of the volunteers are Roman Catholic, and they end every seminar by leading a room crammed with up to 120 young men in reciting the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.
The women say they are bringing something new to a formerly totalitarian country: the notion of a civil society.
“In a post-totalitarian society, people don’t know how to take responsibility for themselves,” said Yelena Vilenskaya, co-chair of the group. “They’re afraid to take a pen and write a statement to some bureaucrat. They’d rather just pay a bribe.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.