Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Call to Arms Has Thousands on the Run




For the past three years, Alexander Borodin has been a fugitive from the law. The 23-year-old has been constantly changing jobs and avoiding encounters with the police, knowing that if they catch up with him, he faces two years in jail.


Borodin's crime: He does not want to do his compulsory national service in Russia's armed forces, where malnourishment and brutal hazing is a way of life.


He is one of 30,000 young men who, according to Defense Ministry figures, dodged the spring draft last year alone. Now 3,000 of them are facing criminal charges. Borodin's case is just one example of a cat-and-mouse game constantly under way between the military and Russia's young people.


If it were not for foot-dragging by Russia's parliament, many of them would not have to hide from the law. Under the constitution, conscientious objectors have the right to opt for alternative, nonmilitary service -- but a bill setting out the procedure is bogged down in the State Duma, parliament's lower house.


For Borodin, the nightmare began in 1994 when his son turned 3 and he lost the exemption from military service for fathers of young children.


For two years he avoided the police, but a year ago he was stopped while driving. After running a check on his name, the police handcuffed him and took him in. Borodin was ordered to sign up during the next draft.


When he failed to show on the appointed date, police arrived at his parents' apartment. "They arrested my brother and my father. They held them overnight, and demanded to know where I was," he said.


It was only then that Borodin, who was away from Moscow at the time, learned he faced criminal proceedings. He returned and went to the draft office to sign a statement asking to do alternative service.


The recruitment officers refused to accept the statement. Now, Borodin faces a court hearing Jan 30.


"Of course I'm scared," he said, sitting on the couch of a small apartment in northern Moscow. "But I think you have to fight for your rights.


"I do not refuse to serve, but I want to do alternative service."


Asked why, he said: "What is our army now? Unwashed, hungry soldiers. Nothing to eat. Appalling conditions. It is not military duty but military shame."


He also wants nothing to do with a force that has fired so frequently on its own people, he says, citing the attempted coup of 1991, the shelling of parliament in 1993 and the war in Chechnya. Though his religious beliefs are not particularly strong, he considers himself a conscientious objector because he does not want to be trained to kill.


Borodin is unlikely to win the right to alternative service soon. The military struggles every year to fill its annual quota of conscripts and does not want to make it any easier for would-be evaders.


The Duma's military lobby, led by the defense committee chairman, former General Lev Rokhlin, is stalling a bill on alternative service. It has been through two readings and should come up for discussion in the current parliamentary session.


Rokhlin has argued that it is not worth setting up special service for a few hundred people. He has suggested that objectors instead work in areas of the army where they do not handle weapons, such as the construction units.


But these have reputations as some of the worst units of all, with especially grim living and working conditions. "It is not freedom from service, it is slavery," Borodin said.


With the Duma stalling, conscientious objectors are forced to turn to the courts to defend their right to alternative service.


The Anti-Militaristic Radical Association, or ARA, an organization that supports conscientious objectors, is helping 77, including Borodin, demand their rights. They have so far registered one success, in 1996, when a court ordered charges against one conscript to be dropped.


"It is written into the constitution, but there is no legislation on alternative service. So the entire fight is going on in the courts," said Nikolai Khramov, one of Russia's first conscientious objectors and the founder of ARA.


According to Khramov, 615 men have applied to the Defense Ministry for alternative service. He argues that the demand would be much higher if people knew about their rights.


"There are people in Moscow, young people, who do not even know what a constitution is," he said., adding that those who stick up for their right to alternative service "are only the educated ones."


Khramov, who became one of Russia's first conscientious objectors when he refused to serve in 1982, describes himself then as a "long-haired peacenik." Now with his hair cropped short and wearing a tweed jacket, he is launching a Moscow-wide campaign of civil disobedience.


"In every carriage of the metro we are putting up stickers that say 'Conscription, No Thanks.'" he said.


Every week he is out on the streets passing out leaflets and telling people to write to the Duma.


Now ARA has come under investigation, accused by the General Staff of the Army of encouraging men to dodge the draft. Khramov was called in to the city prosecutor's office to explain his activities. "I told them we are not encouraging them to break the law; we are just telling them about their rights under the constitution," he said. "We are doing nothing that breaks the law."


"The General Staff of course is very annoyed with what we are doing," he acknowledged, but added: "When we have 6,000 objectors, then they will have to listen to us."