An army marches on its stomach.
Not being hugely up on military tactics, I thought I would instead devote today’s post to the issue of mandatory military service in Russia, which is something I know a bit more about, primarily because most of my Russian friends are beginning to grapple with this issue as their children approach the age of 18. I say children – but of course I mean, their male children, since mandatory military service is only for men, not women. All Russian male citizens must serve in the army for 12 months sometime betwen the ages of 18 and 27, unless they have a legitimate reason not to. While changing one's gender might be seen as going to extremes to avoid conscription, this is Russia, and there are many things to keep the bands of military recruiters out on the streets, trying to round up all the available candidates.
Military service in Russia was recently reduced from two years to 12 months, but that hasn’t done much to swell the ranks. It remains, for many, a brutal first step in to the world of adulthood, with notoriously violent bullying and hazing, called dedovshchina (from the Russian word for Grandfather) of new conscripts by more seasoned soldiers. I can’t think the food is up to much either, so all in all, it isn’t an ideal “Be All That You Can Be,” situation. Russia is also actively engaged in military conflict down in the south of the country, so, for those who are not bullied to death, there is a very real concern that they might have to deploy to an active combat zone.
There are, of course, compensations. Swimming in a fountain once a year for the rest of your life is right up there. As is your eligibility to be a security guard once you get out.
If you ask a 40-something woman what her 18-year old son is up to, she might well respond, “Oh, he’s hiding from the army.” This might well be accompanied by either a welling up of tears in her eyes (in which case, get ready to be asked for a loan) or a disgusted “tsk-tsk” noise and a Slavic shrug. Both mean that the golden boy in question has failed to line of any of the acceptable legal exemptions from mandatory military service. These are, in order of social acceptability: university or graduate education, which entitles you to either postpone your tour of duty, or take the option of becoming an officer for two years, which used to be a fast-track method to securing the lowest rung on the property ladder, but is less so today. If you have two or more children (and don’t laugh this off: the winters are very long, and cold and dark in a lot of Russia) this constitutes a permanent exemption. The most popular excuse, however, and the one which is easiest to arrange if the recruit in question is not the brightest bulb on the sun tanning bed, is to obtain a medical exemption. This is where the loan your 40-something friend will be asking for comes in. If there is actually nothing wrong with you, then you have to purchase an ailment. Doctor’s certificates testifying to a medical condition making it impossible to serve can be obtained for roughly $5,000.
A fourth option exists for those who cannot scrape together the money for a fake student ID or a medical certificate, and that is to join the murky ranks of the semi-legal strata of Russian society. In the early days of perestroika, many parents sequestered their military-aged sons at remote dachas, or sent them in to the interior regions of Russia to hide out on farms or with distant cousins. This is a dismal existence: always looking over your shoulder on public transportation to avoid detection, never being able to stay at your home address, many legitimate forms of work unavailable to you because you haven't completed your military service.
Russia’s elite make sure their children are either full time students, or that they reside abroad at the family’s house in Kensington. And, I can’t say I blame them. I think if I had a son, I would do everything I could to keep him out of mandatory military service.
HRH, however, disagrees with me – violently. He says the whole system means D students and petty criminals staff the Army at the lowest levels. He thinks everyone should serve (which he did, from the ages of 17 - 24 first as a military cadet, and later as a serving officer). So, it is a good thing we only have a daughter (though Velvet would love to be an Hussar). HRH disapproves of hiding from the Army. He thinks it is a sissy sort of a thing to do, and he gets very exasperated when he hears about people who are actively engaged in it. Tolya, our driver, who did his 2 years, agrees: “Everyone should serve,” he says simply, “well, unless they are unable, in which case, they shouldn't. But if you can...you should. It makes a man out of you.”
Happy Ground Forces Day to all of Russia’s boys currently in the process of becoming men.
This post is part of The Stunt.
Photo by Jennifer Eremeeva. All Rights Reserved
Hi There Readers!
I do not want to finish this post without mentioning the excellent organizations of soldiers' mothers who are lobbying to improve conditions for military conscripts in Russia. The Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia does excellent work, and you can read more about another group in an excellent article by Tatianna Shabaeva here.
What is your take on Russia’s mandatory military service? Are you a veteran of military service, or are you perhaps serving at the moment? What’s it like? Leave me a comment and let me know. Thank you very much for stopping by and reading this post. I have some other posts about other branches of Russia’s military you might enjoy: