According to his paperwork, "Dmitri" spent several weeks in a psychiatric institution in the Arkhangelsk region in northern Russia and, soon after, he was finally diagnosed with a mild mental illness. He won't say what the diagnosis actually is; the important thing for him is that the general finding is stamped across his identification papers. It prevents him from ever getting a job in the Russian government. But more importantly for Dmitri, that medical certification prevents him from being drafted into the army.
Dmitri (not his real name) paid $2,500 to be certified with his mental illness three years ago. He is just one of thousands of young Russians who have gotten out of military service (or are trying to) as the country comes up to the April 1 beginning of its biggest peacetime draft in history, one that hopes to enlist 305,000 new soldiers. (See pictures of Russia's evocation of Soviet military glory.)
Russia considers itself a nation of patriots, but when it comes to defending the motherland, men over the age of 18 aren't quite ready to lay it on the line. This age cohort was born in 1991, the year Communism collapsed and the Soviet Union became moribund, and may not be as indoctrinated into the old patriotism as previous generations. The year 1991 also had a particularly low birth rate, which makes a huge peacetime draft even more of a challenge. The young men are also entering employment and working age and families in the middle of Russia's economic crisis, which is sharper than the rest of the world's, may not be so willing to give up their potential breadwinners. (Soldiers are paid a minimal and "symbolic" amount for service to their country, the equivalent of about $10 a month.) Moskovsky Komsomolets, a daily newspaper in the Russian capital, reports that 45,000 Muscovites, out of the 60,000 eligible to be conscripted, are currently trying to avoid military service. (See pictures from a Russian summer camp for patriotic youth.)
All men between 18 and 27 years of age who meet minimal health requirements must present themselves for compulsory army service. University attendance allows people to be exempted only if the school requires military training in order to graduate. Men who do not serve (and do not have a good reason for being exempted from duty) do not qualify for international passports and related documents issued by the government. It's easy to be caught and summarily sent off to service because government-issued documentation must be carried at all times. "They checked my papers at the metro station in Chisty Prudy," says Alexander (who chose not to give his last name) who was drafted to the navy. "I had waist-length hair. The next day, when I was on the phone to my mother, I was shaved bald and trying to explain to her what was happening, I was with dozens of other boys none of them knew where we were going."
Many people go to the International Movement of Soldiers' Mothers to find out how to prevent their children from getting drafted. "For some people it works to register at a different address, or stay at a relative's house when the military inspectors come around," says Tatiana Kuznetsova, who runs the Movement, "We always suggest to go to the doctor" who might then be able to find some physical reason to qualify for exemption from service.
But there are other ways to get around the law as well. Some people tinker with birth certificates; others pay bribes, though that may not always work. Yuri, who also declined to give his last name, had a family friend who was a colonel. "He signed a medical certificate which says that I am weakened from my childhood meningitis," he says. "It's valid until I turn 27." He didn't have to pay a thing. But he says he knows friends in Moscow that paid $10,000 for similar papers. "Draft-dodging is a national pastime," says Alexander Golts an independent military analyst. "In Russia it's a million-dollar industry." (See 10 things to do in Moscow.)
Boris Titov, a human-rights activist, told radio station Ekho Moskva that young Russians who can afford to should be allowed to pay their way out of service provided that the money goes towards improving army conditions in Russia, which are notoriously low. Others, however, point out that may only exacerbate class divisions and affect the quality of the country's soldiery. "The army is already made up of Russia's poor," says Kuznetsova. "With this kind of system, it will be full of alcoholics and invalids."
While her organization advises families how to avoid conscription, Kuznetsova says she wants Russia to have a professional military. "I want the boys to actually learn proper military training, and also to be paid, it should consist of people that want to be there." At present, however, the military is a nightmare zone. The Russian army is infamous for hazing. One horrific incident in 2005 left a 19-year-old without legs or genitals. But countless beatings are believed to go unreported. The New Times, a weekly magazine, reported that 471 people serving in the armed forces died in 2008, half those deaths being suicides. Says Kuznetsova: "The boys there aren't occupied enough with learning the so-called art of war. Hazing happens because a bunch of boys in their prime are piled together and don't know what to do with themselves." (See the Russian military in action during the 2008 war with Georgia.)
The horrors of service may drive people away but, in the end, demographics may be enough to undermine the Russian draft. This generation is already small compared to past conscription pools; it is also qualitatively of poorer stock. Says Golts: "Already, half the conscripts are not actually healthy enough to serve." Golts worries about the drafts to come. In the next few years, he says, the situation will become worse because of the poor birth rates of the 1990s. "I am not sure what the army will do to maintain the quota."