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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Group Says Troops Used as Slaves

ST. PETERSBURG -- The impoverished Russian army often uses conscripts as slave labor to spruce up officers' homes or hire out to businesses to bring in easy cash, the Soldiers' Mothers' Organization said.

"It is very bad here. Today, they took us to work, we went to Moscow and removed manure from a horse farm, and we missed dinner but our [bosses] didn't really care," Oleg Popovichev, 18, wrote his parents in St. Petersburg from the military base in the Moscow region where he was stationed.

His letter is among the reams of letters from recruits and their families collected by the St. Petersburg branch of the advocacy group describing the practice of treating soldiers as a free labor force.

"We know that boys are used as slaves," said Ella Polyakova, co-chairwoman of the Soldiers' Mothers' Organization.

Military officials are forbidden under Article 37 of Russia's law on military service to "give orders that are not related to military service." However, even military prosecutors acknowledge that this is often violated.

While some conscripts say working for free is better than life on base, few dare to disobey their officers and refuse to do the work.

Sergei, 20, and Pavel, 19, who both asked that their last names not be printed, wrote the mothers' group late last year that officers from their military base on Zagorodny Prospekt in downtown St. Petersburg woke them and other recruits on several nights and took them to the Bavaria beer brewery to move boxes. The soldiers complained about a lack of sleep. A Bavaria official said in a telephone that she "cannot recall" that the brewery ever used soldiers as workers.

Relatives of Roman Aniskov, who served at the Zagorodny Prospekt base and died in a military clinic in 1997, said their son had been forced to unload canned food for free at a Vyborg apartment that belonged to his commander's lover.

Officials in the Leningrad military district prosecutor's office said Monday that they were well aware of the practice of using soldiers as free labor.

"We don't live on a cloud. We know such things take place," said Lev Mitrofanov, deputy head of the district Military Prosecutor's Office. "When we are told that such violations take place, we go and investigate." However, he said, the prosecutor's office has lately not been informed of any such violations. And no official statistics are kept regarding such violations.

"This type of violation of the law is much less significant to the society than murders, deserting or hazing," Mitrofanov said.

Some soldiers said they prefer the unpaid labor off the military bases to the daily drills and brutal hazing that are part of "normal" military life.

One 20-year-old recruit said he was happy building fences in the small village of Lesniki, about 50 kilometers north of the city. "Hey, I can smoke here when I want to. I can take my shirt off when I'm hot. Back at the base, I can do none of that," said the recruit, who identified himself only as Andrei. "And how, you reckon, can I tell my officer that what I'm doing here is against the law?"

Complaints have brought effective action sometimes, said Polyakova of the Soldiers' Mothers' Organization, citing a contract signed in 1996 between a Leningrad district army base and a concrete factory under which the base was paid for the soldiers' labor with concrete. The illegal exchange was stopped after an investigation by the Military Prosecutor's Office.

Some companies who hire soldiers pay the officers, but the recruits never see any of the money, she said.

Andrei Kolomeitsev, a professional woodcarver, was a contract soldier at the Gatchina division of the Russian Army's Sport Club. However, his mother, Nina Gritsenko, said that he never had to carry a gun because his real job was to carve wood and help build apartments and dachas for officers.

Her son told her he was never paid for his work and received the equivalent of about $100 a month as a contract soldier, Gritsenko said.

About a month after Kolomeitsev told his mother he had decided to quit, he disappeared from where he was living at a friend's house and his body was found hanging from a tree.

Gritsenko said she believes he was killed because of his decision to stop working for free. Officials at the Gatchina division of the sport club could not be reached for comment.