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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Army Puts Best Foot Forward, Stumbles

Against a bracing wind in the center of the parade ground Tuesday, the Komendantsky Regiment's sapper trainer was telling the young crowd about mines.

"In the last year, our regiment has deactivated and destroyed 856 explosive objects," said Lieutenant Colonel Nikolai Orzhikhovsky. He beamed at the teenagers, revealing a row of gold front teeth that matched the gleaming brass buttons on his coat. Some shuffled their feet. One stifled a yawn.

"These included 192 hand grenades, 37 aviation bombs, 38 active mines, 256 pieces of engineering ammunition, 12 radioactive shells, 81 artillery shells and 241 miscellaneous explosives," he shouted as a fresh flurry of snow settled on his moustache. "Listen up there at the back."

Try as they might, the organizers of the first open day for 17- and 18-year-olds at the Komendantsky Regiment's army barracks couldn't stir up more than a modicum of interest in their audience.

"My brother is in the army, and he doesn't like it," said Viktor Nodayev, 17, who was standing in the back row. "He told me about the freezing dormitories and the way the older officers bully the younger conscripts. I'd rather go into hiding than serve in the Russian army."

The snow fell thicker, and Lieutenant Colonel Yury Abaluyev, who had coordinated the event with the municipal district of Lefortovo, ushered the group into the canteen.

"Every day our soldiers are given three hot meals, two with meat or fish," he said. "They have a choice of two first courses and two main courses."

At this, the crowd perked up. "I wouldn't mind joining the army if we had food like this every day," said Fakhri Khudayberdiyev, 15, who studies at School No. 735.

"My brother says the food isn't anything like this," Nodayev said. "I think this is probably a one-off to encourage us. But I won't be fooled."

The purpose of the open day was not to attract secondary-school graduates to the regiment because every Russian male over the age of 18 is required by law to serve in the army for two years unless he can produce an exemption certificate.

But a little public relations on behalf of the army might be called for in the light of a poll commissioned by the Independent Russian Institute of Social and Ethnic Problems, which found that 82 percent of young men in Russia had no plans to serve in the armed forces.

"We want to show young people that the army is enjoyable," said Abaluyev, who has served since 1977. "Frankly, I don't believe those statistics. Ask any of the soldiers here today whether they enjoy being in the army, and every one of them will say he does."

The only soldiers on duty, however, were too busy polishing their boots and brushing their coats to be disturbed.

Abaluyev led the teenagers upstairs to the dormitories. "You'll have to feel your way along the wall," he said as they came to the third floor. "The electrician is coming to fix this light this afternoon."

He showed them the dormitories, where soldiers sleep on iron bunks, 36 to a room, a single blue blanket to cover them. The minimum height for a soldier in the Komendantsky Regiment is 180 centimeters, but much more than that and their legs would hang over the end of the bed.

Abaluyev said his regiment would start conscription at the end of the month.

"We take 300 conscripts from 19 regions around the country," he said. "After we have verified their credentials, their height, their weight, their medical records and whether or not their parents have been in prison -- like father, like son, as they say -- we will start to call them up."

In May, the conscripts begin their two-year service, and in August the twice-yearly process will repeat itself.

Despite his enthusiasm for the Russian military, Abaluyev said he is in favor of a professional army. "Of course it would be an improvement on the way things stand if we were dealing with professionals and not conscripts," he said. "But where would the government find the money? I cannot see it happening in the near future."

As the teens filed out of the parade ground, past the military band practicing for the arrival of Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng, Nodayev sighed. "My brother has nearly finished his service now," he said. "Lucky him. If only I hadn't been born a Russian."