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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Problems of Patriotism In a Country of Sadists

It's an old story. Last week, another soldier at a military base in the Leningrad region grabbed his machine gun and made a break for it, looking for a better life. Although his weapon was found soon after, the soldier is still at large, one of about 5,000 young conscripts who escape from the army each year.

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Last month, the government and the State Duma spent a lot of time and energy debating proposed laws on alternative military service.

Last week I was approached by a colleague taking a poll on the issue and one of the questions he asked was, "Should alternative service take place far away from the homes of those serving?" When I said that I didn't understand the question very well, he helpfully explained that "there is always the hidden question about whether or not each individual would suffer sufficiently."

No one seems to be talking about the effectiveness of alternative service or, for that matter, of military service in general. Everyone seems to just accept that soldiers are running away in droves, that they spend an inordinate amount of time drunk and that they are always being beaten by their comrades and officers .

Take my own military experience as an example. During my two years of active duty, I fired a machine gun twice (missed both times) and once I fired from a tank (a direct hit). I spent one year in what was then East Germany, working with the German police who were sorting out traffic accidents caused by drunken Russian officers who were smashing cars into trees all over the Sachsen-Anhalt region. Most of them hadn't managed to learn a single word of German despite living there for several years.

As a result, I spent a lot of time translating for them while they bought new cars and the like. Sometimes this got to be pretty funny. Once I dropped by the quarters of an officer in my unit just as he was finishing his dinner. He welcomed me in a friendly way and said, "By the way, can you tell me what this package says. I bought it the other day and, you know ... Damn Germans, the stuff is breaking my teeth."

"It's dog food," I said meekly.

Anyway, I told the pollster that everyone should be given the chance to choose alternative service without conditions. The army would end up with the same number of soldiers, since those who are now goofing off or running away would likely opt to serve in hospitals or clean streets instead.

When we have volunteer soldiers getting a decent wage, the army's problems should be much diminished.

"But what about patriotism?" the pollster asked.

It's hard to feel patriotic about a country that wants its soldiers to suffer, I thought to myself.

Vladimir Kovalyev is a reporter for The St. Petersburg Times.