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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Who Wants To Die at Such A Young Age?

Colonel Y is a deeply unhappy man. Overweight, he sits at his desk chain-smoking, obeying orders he does not believe in.


Colonel Y -- for he has asked me not to name him -- is an army recruiting officer who thinks Russia should have a professional, not conscript, force.


This spring, he is under greater pressure than ever. For the army, short of young men whose dream is to go and die in Chechnya, is demanding its full quota of conscripts. It has ordered a crackdown on draft dodgers and has made the criteria for winning exemption from military service stricter. The colonel's recruiting center in southern Moscow must produce results.


Which is bad news for the youths lining up in the corridor outside, waiting for their medical examinations.


"Show me a guy here who wants to go to the army. Do you think we are patriots?" says Ilya, a defiant 19-year-old in a black bandanna.


Others are meeker. "I'll have to accept what comes," says Dennis, also 19, a shop worker with vulnerable long, golden hair.


This is how the system works. When a young man reaches age 18, he can expect to be called before a commission of officers, doctors and civilians. If the young man does not serve immediately, he will keep receiving call-up notices every spring and autumn until the age of 27.


If he is in higher education, he can finish his studies before going to the army. The commission will exempt him from service if he has a child under three or dependent elderly relatives. He can also win exemption on medical grounds. Here begins the battle of wits between army and draft dodger.


According to a friend who dodged the draft in the days when Afghanistan was to be avoided at all costs, there are dozens of ways to make yourself medically unfit. Drinking cleaning fluid to provoke a stomach ulcer and feigning mental illness are only two examples.


But the army is having none of that anymore. Doctor's decisions must be confirmed by other doctors. And even the range of genuine ailments taken into consideration has been narrowed.


The center's chief doctor, Oleg K., showed me a new set of government guidelines. For example, a hernia is no longer a sufficient reason to keep a man out of the forces.


The doctors differ in their bedside manner. The optician is a plump, jolly woman who feels for the youths. "Who wants to die at that age?" she says.


The ear, nose and throat specialist is more brusque. "Your cold will clear up when you get in the army," he tells a sullen boy in a sports jacket. But both doctors say they make objective decisions.


I get the impression the boys at the biggest disadvantage are the ones who have come with their mothers. "Oh, these hysterical mothers. They are the bane of my life," mutters Doctor K, as he hurries down the corridor..


But what mother would not be hysterical, listening to Colonel Y? Boys leaving his recruiting center do not go immediately to Chechnya. That risk comes only in the second year of service. But there are other dangers. Can he guarantee a mother that her son will not starve or be bullied in the army? "Unfortunately not," he sighs. "It all depends on the local commanding officer." And he lights a fresh cigarette from his still-burning stub.