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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Army Tries to Lure Back Deserters

In a shabby corridor in the office of the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee, Artyom, a pale and skinny 21-year-old, sits nervously fidgeting. For Artyom, the visit here was only the second time in the past 11 months that he had ventured outside the doors of his family's Moscow apartment.

Artyom is one of an estimated 40,000 young conscripts who are on the run from the law after deserting Russia's notoriously brutal and underfed armed forces. If the police catch up with him, it would mean a forcible returned to his unit and several months in jail. And since desertion does not have a statute of limitations, a deserter can be prosecuted even if years have passed since he fled the army.

But now, there is a chink of light at the end of the tunnel for this army of deserters. The Military Prosecutor's Office, in conjunction with the Soldier's Mother's Committee, a soldier-advocacy group, is offering to reduce sentences or in some cases drop charges altogether for deserters who turn themselves in.

The deserters are not being offered amnesty. But under Russian law, they cannot be convicted for desertion if they can prove they had a good reason for leaving their unit. This is where the volunteers at the Soldier's Mother's Committee, all well versed in the intricacies of criminal law, come in.

"[The prosecutor's office] simply had no other option. We have been working with the runaways for years," said Soldiers' Mothers' Committee spokeswoman Valentina Melnikova.

"The reasons are always the same. Nobody runs away because they have to go through too much military training. It is always bad conditions, lack of food, sleep and most of all the violence," Melnikova said.

According to Yury Nikolsky of the Moscow Military Prosecutor's Office, the aim of the initiative, officially titled "Operation Deserter," is to tackle the wave of crime in Moscow, which, he said, is caused by deserters trying to subsist in the capital. Because they have to surrender their documents when they are drafted, deserters cannot get work and are not entitled to receive state benefits.

"Our primary concern is that, unable to exist legally, the deserters often commit further crimes, sometimes very serious ones," Nikolsky said.

Nikolsky said that the Military Prosecutor's office opted to turn to the assistance of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee to win the trust from the runaways. "We also promise that if the deserters turn up themselves it will be noted and should reduce the potential punishment," he added.

Under the Russian Criminal Code, servicemen who failed to return to their unit after a month of absence can face up to five years in prison. Melnikova said the most common conviction, however, is two years imprisonment.

When deserters give themselves up directly to the authorities, the punishment is usually severe because the military machine tends to ignore the circumstances of the escape, said Melnikova. The committee, meanwhile, pays great attention to the reasons for deserting, and more often than not it is relatively easy to prove that the soldier was justified in leaving his unit.

"Often kids are suffering from some medical problems, " Melnikova said. "Family circumstances can also be a good justification."Conscripts often run away after they are refused a legitimate leave due to sickness or death of a relative. "And then a vicious circle begins because, afraid of punishment, they do not come back. Meanwhile, the time passes -- and not in their favor," she said, adding: "We have some really severe cases, when boys have been hiding since 1991," Melnikova said.

The new initiative is having modest success. Since it began the number of people contacting the committee on the issue has risen.

"But even before there were hundreds of people contacting us," Melnikova said. Last year 2,015 deserters showed up and another 3,000 sought the committee's assistance by mail. Since the beginning of 1997, 350 deserters have been through the committee's doors.

Artyom himself refused to talk about his service in the army. "All I want is to forget it," he said. But his story, as recounted by his mother, Galina Balkina, is typical.

Drafted in 1995, Artyom was serving in a military construction unit in Khimki, a satellite town north of Moscow. In February 1996, Balkina got a phone call from the commander of Artyom's unit, who said that her son was in the hospital with pneumonia. It later turned out that he was not suffering from pneumonia but had been stabbed in the back by a superior at the construction site, his mother said.

After two months in the hospital, he was back in the army. At the end of summer of 1996, Artyom was hospitalized again, this time with a wound on his head that appeared to have been caused by a hard triangular object.

"And than in March last year he just ran home. He was beaten up and said that he was almost raped," Balkina said. "So we just kept him in ever since."