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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Right Not to Fight

This is a busy time for Sergei Sorokin. During the height of the spring draft, the soil scientist spends much of his time outside his laboratory advising young men on how to exercise their rights as conscientious objectors.

It is an exacting task in a country where many people - even those in the legal profession - are unaware of the constitutional right to refuse to serve in the military for reasons of conscience. In contrast to the Soviet army glorified in this weekend's celebrations marking its victory over Hitler's Germany, Russia's peacetime army commands little respect or interest. At a time when the country is struggling to maintain its armed forces, clarifying procedures for alternative service is hardly a priority.

Still, since Sorokin successfully convinced a judge in a 1993 court case to accept conscientious objector status for two 18-year-olds, he has shepherded some 150 men through both civil and criminal proceedings. With his trademark denim vest and an easygoing manner, Sorokin has become a symbol for the alternative service fight, winning grants from the West and gaining notoriety throughout Russia. Although Sorokin finds it increasingly easier to obtain the right to refuse service, he says ignorance remains widespread. "Each judge considers the case like Christopher Columbus, like it is the first time they are crossing this ocean," Sorokin, 45, says with a smile. "They understand by the law what they must do, but their patriotism kicks in, and they don't do it."

And if they do uphold the constitutional right not to serve, the repercussions can be severe. Yelena Raskevich, now a Moscow lawyer with a private practice, says she was driven out of her post as a judge after she ruled in favor of a conscientious objector in 1996.

Of the young men Sorokin has taken through the court process, only two have given up and been conscripted, he says. One of those is Sergei Butar. "The court sessions, the uncertainty, I got tired of it all," Butar, a short, slender man says in a soft monotone. "I just figured the sooner I went in, the sooner I'd get out." In May 1995, after several months of waiting for a ruling on his bid to obtain conscientious objector status as a devout member of the Moscow Church of Christ, a Protestant group, Butar gave up and reported to a central Moscow collection point for draftees. He was photographed, had his bags checked for vodka and sent on a train to Krasnodar. After basic training, Butar's unit of 24 was dispatched to Chechnya.

Butar no longer believes in God. His unit served in what he called a "quiet" area and suffered no casualties in combat. But one soldier died from ded ovshchina, the brutal and common practice of hazing. Dedovshchina is particularly difficult for believers, Butar says. "To be a Christian there is practically impossible. In the Bible it says that if you are hit then you should turn the other cheek. In the army, it is the weak ones they beat and beat and beat," Butar says quietly in an interview in the north Moscow apartment he shares with his family. His faith fell apart quickly. "There, there is a different order, a different law. I became like everyone else. It is easier that way."

Getting drafted is an inevitability of Russian life. Every spring and fall, 18-year-old males without government work, student status or children are summoned for an examination before the local draft board. According to the most recent figures from the Russian Defense Ministry, of the 158,000 men called up last fall for their two-year term of service, some 20,000, or 13 percent, simply didn't show up and now have warrants out for their arrest. Men who are conscripted are often those too poor, ignorant or honest to find a way out. Some draftees pay up to $5,000 for fake medical certificates that exempt them from service.

A tiny number - about 1,000 young men - sought alternative service last fall, citing Article 59, part 3 of the Russian Constitution. It reads: "A citizen of the Russian Federation has the right, if military service goes against his convictions or religious faith or is unacceptable in other ways as defined by federal law, to substitute it with alternative service." But there is no law explaining how this right is to be exercised. The lack of legislation prompts military prosecutors to charge conscientious objectors with draft dodging.

Sorokin, a researcher in the soil chemistry lab of Moscow's Dokuchayev Institute of Soil Science, has no legal training. But he is often better informed about case law on alternative service than the judges or prosecutors in courts where he represents men asserting their right to alternative service. A pacifist and an atheist, Sorokin defines "conscience" in the broadest possible terms. "If a boy doesn't like the minister of defense, that is a good enough reason for him not to go," he says.

A legal definition of what constitutes a conscientious objector is the trickiest aspect for drafting legislation. "We need such a law, and we must pass such a law," says State Duma Deputy Mikhail Sourkov, the Communist deputy chairman of the defense committee. "But we need to define 'conscience' and 'belief.' It happens frequently enough that a young man, a week prior to going before the draft board decides all of a sudden that his conscience won't allow him to serve." Sourkov, a retired general, also believes the current Russian military establishment does not have the wherewithal to implement alternative service. "The conditions just don't exist," he says.

In Russia the question of what constitutes a religious belief is also a matter of controversy, as seen in an ongoing trial in Moscow to determine if the Jehovah's Witnesses have a "legitimate" faith. Ukraine, for example, has legislation on alternative service and has taken the extra, somewhat unusual step of compiling a list of religions whose members are eligible to refuse military duty.

Russia is obligated, as a signatory to various treaties and as a member of organizations like the Council of Europe, to offer an alternative to military service as a basic human right. In March the European Parliament passed a resolution chiding Russia for its failure to adopt alternative service legislation and expressing concern at the "bad treatment," "malnutrition" and "growing number of fatal accidents in the armed forces."

Typically, alternative service is longer than military service and is only granted after a government review board determines that a conscientious objector's beliefs are genuine. Conscientious objectors are required to serve either as non-combatants or given the option of purely civilian work as, for example, hospital orderlies. Of the 50,000 men conscripted in Greece last year, about 100 were granted alternative military service by a committee of experts. The length of alternative service in Greece is three times as long as military service. In Germany, which has one of the world's more liberal laws, draft-age men choosing alternative service need not give any explanation, but they must serve 15 months rather than the 10-month term required for military service. About one third of Germany's draftees currently choose alternative service.

In October, Duma deputies voted down proposed legislation that had been percolating through the Duma for years by 130 to 76, with opponents, especially Communist deputies, saying that the proposed definition of conscientious objectors was too broad and open to abuse. The failed bill used the same definition of alternative service as the constitution and called for conscientious objectors to serve three years instead of two. A new bill isn't likely to be introduced any time soon because military leaders fear a well-defined mechanism for getting conscientious objector status will "open the floodgates" for reluctant draftees to choose alternative service and deplete the armed forces, says Lev Levinson, an aide to Yabloko Duma Deputy Valery Borshchyov and one of the drafters of the failed legislation. The Defense Ministry has refused to take part in drafting the legislation. Levinson fears this leaves the field open to hardline nationalists who believe alternative service should mean "four years of work above the Arctic Circle without right of transfer."

Sorokin is an unlikely crusader against the military establishment. He has worked mostly at the same laboratory at the Dokuchayev Institute since graduating from Moscow State University's chemical faculty. By his own account, Sorokin wasn't politically active in his youth. He didn't participate much in the Komsomol and never read samizdat. During a two-year stint from 1986 to 1987 as a metals analyst at ZiL, a Moscow automotive factory, Sorokin had a brief and discouraging encounter with the political process. At a workers' meeting, Sorokin called for a multiparty system in the Soviet Union. He was roundly denounced and later eased out of his position at the factory.

Back at the institute in 1987, a co-worker's son died during a hazing session while serving in the army in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. Through her and at meetings of democrats on Pushkin Square, Sorokin heard more and more accounts of the "suicides" and "accidents" that the nascent advocacy group Committee of Soldiers' Mothers was investigating.

His own son was 16 at the time. "I needed to decide what he would do. I started to find out what was going on," Sorokin says. He got acquainted with the Soviet legal code related to military service, read Lev Tolstoy for moral inspiration and researched what sort of alternative service other countries offered. He also got to know members of the Transnational Radical Party, including Kolya Khramov, a pacifist who refused military service in 1984 and was eventually declared mentally unfit to join. Sorokin's son went to court to obtain conscientious objector status, but as the process dragged on he began studying at university which automatically exempted him from service.

In 1992, Sorokin discussed alternative service in a three-minute interview on a local radio station. "I just said, 'Here is the problem. Here is your right in the constitution. Those who need advice can call me,'" Sorokin says. "This phone didn't stop ringing for three days," he says, tapping the red phone on his desk. He received calls from 150 young men, among whom he concluded 10 or 15 were real conscientious objectors.

Sorokin had his first court case the following year, in April 1993, when he represented two 18-year-olds who had refused the draft. Because they were in remand jails for draft dodging, Sorokin only met his clients during the court proceedings. "I learned as I went along. I knew the law, but I just didn't know how to behave in the courtroom. Sometimes the judge would stop everything and explain to me the next step," Sorokin recalls. "I didn't know, for example, that the boy in the very beginning had to declare that he wants me to be his advocate."

Sorokin seems to thrive when he is negotiating the murky territory between what the Russian government promises its people and what they actually get. At public meetings, Sorokin, a tall broad-beamed man with a vaguely rebellious look, uses humor to engage his listeners and make more palatable what he is proposing: that 18-year-olds take the Russian legal and military system head on, risking criminal prosecution as draft dodgers.

At an international seminar to promote alternative service held late last year in Novgorod, Sorokin counseled and challenged young men to openly, honestly state their refusal to serve, rather than paying bribes or seeking refuge in phony educational arrangements. The key point of the three-day seminar was to have been an open meeting for residents of the city of 250,000 to learn more about how to refuse military service. Despite publicity on local television, only a handful of young men and a few parents attended. The youths sat nervously in the back of a large rented lecture hall, and despite periodic prodding from the meeting's organizers, were loathe to take part.

But when Sorokin introduced a real live conscientious objector, someone who had refused to serve and was there to tell the tale, the audience perked up. "What? Is he sitting on air? No, he is sitting on a chair," says a smiling Sorokin of Mikhail Ryabinin, a 20-year-old student at Novgorod State University who declared his refusal to serve on grounds of conscience in 1997. "They called him up one year ago and, still, he is sitting here in front of you."

A member of the Church of Scientology, Ryabinin is one of four young men seeking an alternative to military service in the city. If his alternative service case goes to court, Ryabinin anticipates having a harder time than most because of widespread hostility to the Los Angeles-based church that opponents call "a totalitarian sect." "I am not scared because I am right," says the earnest Ryabinin. "The aim of Scientology is civilization without criminality, insanity and war."

Some of Sorokin's critics call him too cavalier. At the Novgorod seminar, two leaders of the Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg, a grassroots group that helps draft-age men avoid service legally and illegally, minced no words in attacking Sorokin as recklessly endangering young men. The group's co-chairwoman, Yelena Vilenskaya, said it doesn't matter how a young man goes about avoiding service as long as it is avoided. Vilenskaya took pride in telling seminar participants of one young deserter whom office workers dressed up as a woman and put on a train home; or the young man who was called up, skipped his date with the draft board and now makes his way around St. Petersburg with an empty baby carriage since draft-age men with babies under three years old are exempt.

Given the horrors of present-day military service, the search for any immediate exit is understandable. But every such dodge has a corrosive effect. "When a person buys a [fake medical] certificate, they are feeding the corruption and perpetuating the twisted system," Sorokin says. On the other hand, a steadfast assertion of one's constitutional rights can spread understanding of laws and push Russia toward becoming a more civil society. "It is a fundamental part of any democratic society to have the right to choose, to have a person's activity agree with their convictions," says Chris Hunter, a Quaker whose Moscow-based Center for Peacemaking and Community Development helped organize the Novgorod seminar. "One of the biggest problems in Russia is that people don't know their rights."

After Sorokin showed up in her court room in 1996, Raskevich, the judge who lost her job, took great pains to research the unfamiliar territory of alternative service. She now believes there is no doubt of a Russian draftee's right not to serve. Sorokin's skill, Raskevich says, is in making that argument in a logical, practical manner and in transmitting his own compassion. "They cannot pay for a lawyer, and so they think it is better to hide than appear in court," Raskevich says of poor draftees. "But Sorokin, he takes all that on himself and makes it possible. He was a welcome sight in my courtroom."

Sorokin vows to continue his work in the legal netherworld and in the process hopes to create a new generation of activists from people like Alexei Bykov, 20. When Bykov, then 18, showed up before the draft board, a major told him there was no law yet for alternative service, but that he could serve in a construction unit. "I mentioned my constitutional right. He mentioned the criminal code under which I would be prosecuted," Bykov says. After arguing his rights in court, draft-dodging charges against Bykov were recently dropped. He is now attending law school.

Bykov says it would have been quicker to buy a "white ticket" or medical exemption from service than to argue for his rights in court. But he can't forget the feeling of empowerment, appearing in court on his own behalf. "I want to show that this is possible in Russia," he says.