Russian Army Draftees Are Reluctant to Join 'This Mess'

Yevgeny, a student who expects to graduate from the Khabarovsk Polytechnic University soon, is standing in a long, rather disorganized, line of young men stripped to their underwear.

He and his comrades are waiting for physical and psychological examinations at Khabarovsk's central Army induction point, and they don't look very happy.

Maybe it's the thought of being drafted into a Russian Army known for its beatings, hazings, and the occasional death by starvation.

"Nobody wants to tie his fate to this mess," says Piotr Gudsan, deputy head of the draft board in Khabarovsk Territory, whose office is a few doors down from where the draftees are standing.

Only a few years ago, graduating students like Yevgeny could be fairly certain that they would not have to serve in the Army. Most received reserve-officer commissions after attending a few military-training classes at their universities and then promptly forgot about the Army.

But faced with a dwindling officer corps, the Russian Army is dipping into its reserves. Half of Khabarovsk's graduating class of 1997 will receive draft notices along with their university diplomas.

For most university graduates, falling victim to the draft is something akin to being handed a lengthy prison sentence in the prime of life.

"It makes you think you studied five years for nothing," Yevgeny says. "You spend two years in the Army, and by the time you get out, you've already forgotten everything they taught you at the institute."

He vows to avoid serving if unlucky enough to pass all the examinations.

He is hardly alone in his determination. The prevailing attitude among Russia's class of 1997 toward military service - once considered a sacred duty - is that only the gullible get caught.

By law, every Russian male between the ages of 18 and 27 is eligible for the draft. But, in reality, only half will ever serve in the Russian Army, according to the draft board's Mr. Gudsan. "So far, I haven't gotten a draft notice," says Vitaly, a radio journalist who graduated from the Polytechnic University last year. "But they can still get me any time until I'm 27."

The Army takes only those graduates who have military specialties that it needs. That is the theory, at least.

"Basically, they take anybody who hasn't already found a way to squirm out of it," says Sergei Revyakin, who is also graduating from the Polytechnic University this spring.

To be sure, there is a smorgasbord of potential deferments available to university graduates. The deferments include getting married and having two children, working as a teacher in a rural school, and being elected to the Russian parliament.

Not surprisingly, most graduating students look for other ways to dodge the draft. Many choose to simply ignore the draft notices or move without informing their local draft board. Close to 31,000 potential conscripts were on the lam last year, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. (This compared with 21,000 in 1994, and 443 in 1985.)

"In the end, the police will find you. Where can you really run to?" says Volodya (not his real name), a recent university graduate who successfully avoided conscription.

When the police started making visits to his apartment, he found an unusual way to solve the problem. Volodya used a double - his brother - to go before the Army's medical board. "My brother really does have a stomach ulcer," says Volodya. "They took one look at him and gave him a medical exemption - but with my name on it."

For his part, Mr. Revyakin only wishes he had dodged the draft when he still had the chance. He served in the Soviet Army before beginning his studies. Now, he worries that the once-abundant opportunities to make easy money in the chaos of post-Soviet Russia have already been taken.

With the stakes so high, the bureaucracy responsible for conscripting graduating students has become a breeding ground for corruption. There are legends and rumors of files of conscripts accidentally being lost on purpose and the well-timed "diagnoses" of seemingly serious illnesses being made at the last minute.

"I've heard all the rumors, too, saying you can get out of the Army for a couple thousand dollars," says Gudsan at the draft board. "But they are only rumors. If I got an order to battle corruption, I don't know who I would fight - I don't see any of it here."

Gudsan is confident that, regardless of the class of 1997's lack of enthusiasm for military service, he will be able to fulfill the conscription plan for Khabarovsk Territory, which calls for 8,000 men to be drafted by June 31. Yevgeny and his classmates only hope they are not among them.

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