Village Boys Not Dodging The Draft

PUTINO, Ural Mountains -- In the three weeks that passed since he came home from the army, Kostya Shisterov tried everything possible to keep himself busy. He did some logging for an uncle, slaughtered a pig his family would eat during the winter and helped every neighbor who knocked on the door of their wooden house to ask for an extra pair of strong hands. He visited friends, went to the disco and even came back drunk a few times. And still he was bored.

He also looked for a job. But the search was all too simple. In the village of Putino, there is but one company that could employ a strong young driver with a good head on his shoulders and few other qualifications. And it was not hiring.

So Shisterov, a tall, dark and handsome 20-year-old, decided there was only one thing to do with the rest of his life. "I'm going back to the army and signing up on contract," he shrugged, sitting on the steps of the village school's gym. "At least they feed you there and give you clothes and boots. Hell, they even pay you a salary!"

Like in thousands of other Russian villages, in Putino, a small picturesque settlement on the slopes of the western Ural mountains, there is not much for a young man to do. A quarter of the working-age population is jobless, and there are no openings for the dozens of new job-seekers graduating from schools each year. The once-a-week disco, the gym and occasional drinking bouts with friends are hardly enough to fill Shisterov's time and consume his energy.

The fears of thousands of Shisterov's peers in big cities around the country -- brutal hazing and human-rights abuses in the army -- are far away from here. For many young men in villages like Putino, where poverty is the norm and prospects worse than bleak, the army is a way out -- a ticket to a new life where everything is possible, including a regular salary.

"I would love to stay in the army on a contract for several years," said Sergei Popov, a 20-year-old computer programmer who has just been drafted. "Maybe I could save some money, buy myself a small apartment somewhere in the city."

For Popov, finding a job and having a career in programming at home was hardly an option. The village has no need for a computer programmer and in the nearest large city, Perm, where he studied, potential employers were more interested in his residency permit, or propiska, than in his qualifications.

"You cannot get a job without residency registration, cannot have

registration without having at least a small apartment in Perm, cannot have an apartment without money, cannot have money without a job," said Popov, an air of resignation on his intelligent, boyish face. "It's a vicious cycle. And the only way I see of breaking it is going on contract and saving enough for an apartment."

Popov considers hazing a sort of calculated risk, something he is willing to put up with in exchange for a chance in life.

"Of course I'll get beaten up there. It's the norm," he said. "But most people live through it easily, so I'm not too worried."

When it comes to their attitude toward the army, the young village men are much closer to their parents' generation than to their peers in the city, said Yury Levada, head of the Moscow-based All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research, or VTsIOM.

"For them, much like in Soviet times, the army is one of the escape routes from the villages," Levada said in an interview in Moscow. "Most young men serve in big cities and hardly any of them return permanently to their villages after they've served their term. ... It's a one-way street."

Old Soviet traditions live on in the village in more ways than one. Young men leaving for the army throw big farewell parties in Putino, feasts that last for several days and end only when the recruits get handed over to the sergeants who escort them on their train rides to the big recruiting center in Perm.

And serving in the army is still considered an initiation into manhood.

"A guy becomes a real man only after he's served in the army," said Anton Durnovtsev, 16. "Otherwise ... well, otherwise you're a sissy and nobody wants to hang around with you."

According to the Defense Ministry, there are just over 140,000 contract soldiers, or kontraktniki, in the 1.2 million-strong army. This figure, which does not include professional officers, makes up as much as 20 percent of rank-and-file soldiers, a ministry spokesman said in a telephone interview. Half of the kontraktniki are women, working mainly in communications and medical facilities.

President Vladimir Putin has pledged to reform the outdated, cumbersome army by 2004, in large part by ending its traditional dependence on the draft and significantly raising the number of contract soldiers -- a move that would require "significant allocations."

According to the Defense Ministry spokesman, the financial and social status of contract soldiers is still "far from satisfactory." An average kontraktnik earns 1,500 rubles to 2,000 rubles ($50 to $65) a month, and the army is obliged to provide him with shelter, food and compensation for medical and social insurance. In warring Chechnya, a contract soldier is supposed to earn 5,000 rubles to 8,000 rubles if he does not participate in armed conflict and 25,000 rubles to 28,000 rubles if he does, the spokesman said, adding that pay arrears to Chechnya kontraktniki have caused the number of applicants to "drop significantly."

However, even the lowest of these salaries, together with the social benefits, makes an attractive package for the young men of Putino, where the average salary is 800 rubles to 900 rubles. It is also a great cure for the all-pervasive boredom and a way to keep off the bottle -- as common a pastime here as in any of the country's rural areas.

"I had a friend who used to be the local champion in cross-country skiing," Shisterov said. "He came back from the army and couldn't find any work, so he started drinking. Later he left for Perm, but he kept on drinking. He's a wreck now.

"People become drunkards out of boredom, because there is nothing else here to do," he said. "There is no work here, nothing to do but play volleyball at the school gym. And you can't play it all the time, can you? If I stay I'll also become a drunkard."

The teens of Putino, like teens of many other villages, are leaving en masse for the cities. According to the school director, Sergei Reshetnikov, only one or two young people out of each generation stay in the village. The majority try to find jobs in nearby towns or in Perm.

"Most of them leave," he said. "And they are right to do so -- their chances of realizing themselves here are next to none."

But for the village boys the army has one big advantage over bustling, chaotic and often rough cities where one also has to fight for jobs and money.

"You see, the army is the only place where they are actually happy to see you," Shisterov said. "You come to the military enlistment office, and say: 'Take me.' And they do."