AT the end of a bumpy road through a snowbound birch forest lies a Russian Army training camp. ``Service to the Fatherland is Goodness, Honor, and Glory,'' proclaims a giant red-and-white sign at the entrance.
By the padlocked gates to the base, though, a group of mothers huddled this week, unconvinced by the slogan. Their soldier-sons were somewhere in the barracks, en route to Chechnya, and they had come to snatch their boys away, worsening Russia's high desertion rate in the brutal, unpopular war.
``If they allow my son to come to the gate to talk to me, I'm just going to throw him in my car and drive,'' said Galina Tetyurkina. ``I'm not afraid.''
``I've got my boy's clothes in a bag,'' said another mother, bundled up against the bitter cold in a quilted blue coat and fur hat, who asked not to be identified. ``If he comes I'll dress him in civilian clothes, and we'll go.''
In Moscow, meanwhile, mothers from all over Russia who had already managed to spirit their sons out of their Chechnya-bound units crammed into the tiny office of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, seeking advice.
``I don't know what to do next, that's why I'm here,'' said one woman uncertainly, as her son Alexei - still in army fatigues - towered over her.
Alexei's mother had traveled nearly 1,000 miles by train from her home near Moscow to the southern city of Krasnodar, where someone had seen her son in a hospital and sent her a telegram. Alexei's unit was due to be shipped to Chechnya in a few days' time. She simply walked out of the hospital with him and brought him home.
One of the volunteer mothers at the committee office gave Alexei a form to fill out and send to the military prosecutor's office, appealing for clemency. The committee has handed out more than 500 such forms in the past 10 days, according to committee official Ida Kuklina, but she thinks they represent only the tip of the iceberg.
``Probably as many as 5,000 men have avoided service in Chechnya in one way or another,'' she says. ``It happens differently in different places, but it's going on all over Russia.''
The military prosecutor's office has opened only a few dozen criminal cases against soldiers who have gone AWOL, according to spokesman Sergei Ushakov, but the office has conducted several hundred investigations.
The real scope of the problem may well be larger though, he concedes. ``Unit commanders might be trying to present the situation as better than it is and simply hiding cases from us,'' Mr. Ushakov says.
Alexei, who said he wouldn't mind doing his military service nearer home, denied that he had done anything wrong by walking out on his unit.
``I don't feel like a deserter,'' he said. ``I think I did the right thing. I don't need that war.''
The clemency appeal form, drafted by the committee, claims that ``I had to abandon my unit because otherwise I could not have avoided participation in actions aimed at killing the civilian population in Chechnya.... There I would have been given orders violating the laws and Constitution of the Russian Federation.''
Such legal niceties were far from the minds of the mothers at the Senyezh camp gates. ``I'm divorced; I have only one child. I raised him by myself for 20 years, and I've pinned all my hopes on him. You think I'm going to lose him now to some stupid political battle?'' Mrs. Tetyurkina asked.
Last weekend, more than 100 mothers gathered at the camp entrance. On Monday only a dozen or so were braving the cold, stamping their feet on the icy ground, but the mood was growing desperate. ``I saw my grandson's platoon commander yesterday, and he told me not to worry, that nothing terrible was going to happen,'' said Alexandra Vasilyevna. ``But they've already given the boys their dog tags.''
The base commander's reluctance to let his recruits see their mothers was perhaps understandable, considering the mothers' intentions. After several weeks of relatively lax security, the Army is cracking down, according to Mrs. Kuklina of the mothers' committee.
``The soldiers are practically prisoners on their bases,'' she said. ``It's getting more and more difficult'' to help them escape.
Mrs. Vasilyevna was undeterred, though, as she blew on her chapped hands to warm them. ``I've told myself that I will even spend the nights here. I'm just going to stay here at the gates.''