Young Russians Want Out Of Their Own Brutal Army

CLUTCHING a copy of the Bible and quoting the Russian Constitution, Nikolai Gorshkov was citing authoritative sources as he petitioned a Moscow court last week to be exempted from a two-year stint in the Army.

The three women presiding over his case were not convinced, however. Their implacable demeanor in the 30-minute hearing betrayed little sympathy for a bespectacled computer hacker trying to dodge the draft. Case dismissed.

But Mr. Gorshkov's plea to be assigned alternative social service seems likely to be heard more often as the second round of the 1995 military draft gets under way.

''I expect that this fall as many as 20 percent of the draftees in the Moscow region will petition for alternative service, and we will be advising them on how to go to court,'' says Nail Salikhovsky, who works with the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers.

So far, few Russian men have claimed that their convictions do not allow them to take up weapons. Article 59 of the Russian Constitution, adopted in 1993, sets out ''defense of the Fatherland'' as a citizen's duty. But it also stipulates that ''in cases where carrying out military service violates a citizen's convictions or faith ... he has the right to do alternative civilian service instead.''

The problem is that the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, has not yet passed a law to regulate alternative service, so in practice there is no way anyone can actually do it. A draft bill was thrown out at its second Duma reading last May, when most deputies abstained, depriving the bill of sufficient votes for passage.

Maria Ivanyan, a staffer on the Duma committee that drafted the law, says that deputies abstained simply because their factions had not decided on a policy toward alternative service.

''They didn't know what to do, because they didn't want to vote against civil rights, but they didn't want to vote against the Army either,'' she says.

The Army fiercely opposes allowing draftees to plead conscientious objection.

At the Gagarinsky interborough court in central Moscow a week ago, Army Capt. Ravil Moravyov was blunt about the military's feelings when he represented the local draft board in Mr. Gorshkov's case.

''If everybody found their way around doing military service like this, there would be nobody in the Army,'' Captain Moravyov told the judge.

The judge and the two-member ''people's jury'' sitting with her in the scruffy third-floor courtroom gave no reason for rejecting Gorshkov's petition, nor did they give any clues as to whether they were persuaded of the sincerity of his religious convictions.

Gorshkov, a nervous and delicate young man wearing a white shirt buttoned to the neck and without a tie, told the court he had been a member of the Church of Christ, an evangelical Protestant group, since December 1992. ''I made a decision in my life that I was not going to use a weapon against anyone, whatever the circumstances,'' he said.

Gorshkov could perhaps have been forgiven even if he was somewhat exaggerating the depth of his religious convictions: The draft board had assigned him to the Army construction brigades - the roughest, least disciplined, and most notorious units in the military.

On the office wall at the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, where activists defend conscripts' rights, the list of construction brigades where brutal hazing has been reported is far longer than that for any other branch of the armed forces.

Dyedovshchina, a practice where new recruits are beaten, humiliated, and forced to do menial tasks by more senior conscripts, is widespread throughout the Russian Army. Sometimes it is fatal. About 2,500 soldiers died last year as a result of criminal incidents, according to figures released by the military procurator's office last month. At least half of those deaths are believed to have been the result of hazing. Another 423 conscripts committed suicide, many out of despair at their mistreatment.

Terror of dyedovshchina is a major reason why young men try to avoid military service. Some are even driven to desperate acts of self-mutilation to ensure that they fail their medical tests. Last fall 22,000 potential conscripts simply never showed up at the draft board. The Army did not bother to follow up on many of them, though, and only 127 were ever convicted of draft evasion.

The military authorities seem equally unwilling to prosecute would-be conscientious objectors, says Sergei Sorokhin, who helped Gorshkov take his case to court. Only seven of the 30 young men Mr. Sorokhin has helped have had their petitions allowed. But none of the rest have been prosecuted, nor have they been drafted.

''The Army is afraid,'' says Mr. Salikhovsky of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. ''If they think that a boy is ready to go all the way with his case, they don't want to get involved.''

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