In Russia, the Favorite Pastime of Draft Dodging

Russia's Army relies heavily on conscripts, but Russians are working harder than ever to avoid service.

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MOSCOW—Misha, a subdued, blond 21-year-old, recently sat in the run-down Moscow office of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, an advocacy group that offers advice to soldiers and men of draft age.

After ignoring a draft summons, police had come to his mother's apartment to seize Misha, who declined to give his surname for fear of reprisals, and cart him off to a conscription office, from where he'd be sent to his barracks, possibly somewhere distant like Siberia or the Far North. He wasn't home.

Tatyana Znachkova, the teacherlike head of the committee in Moscow, advised him to hide at his grandmother's. She also told Misha's mother, as she has told thousands of other mothers, how to deflect the police without making them think he was dodging the draft, a criminal offense.

"You say, 'Oh, how unlucky! He sent a text just yesterday saying he was spending the night at his girlfriend's.' "

Each spring and fall, Russian men ages 18 to 27 are drafted into the Army. In this year's fall draft, which ends December 31, 219,000 men are expected to be called up. But conscripts avoid serving through a multitude of legal and illegal means, from enrolling in universities to bribing doctors for testimony that a conscript has ailments he does not. Around 80 percent of Russians who appeared on rolls for the fall draft received exemptions and deferments, according to the Army.

Since Russia's August war with Georgia, attention at home and abroad has turned to the state of its armed forces. In the war, Russia's Army overwhelmed that of tiny Georgia and dug in 25 miles from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Russia has a significant nuclear arsenal, and a senior government official recently announced that $141.5 billion would be allocated to the armed forces between 2009 and 2011 for 300 tanks, 15 warships, and almost 500 aircraft. There are plans to transform the Army into a mobile, albeit leaner fighting force.

But it would be wrong to overemphasize the Russian Army's capabilities, even though the war and fiery rhetoric from Moscow have certainly spooked western governments. Critics say that a reliance on the draft—professional servicemen make up 20 to 30 percent of the troops—is a critical weakness as these troops are generally poorly trained, even cannon fodder. "People with this level of training will be killed in the first battle," says Alexander Golts, a Moscow defense expert with the Yezhednevny Zhurnal newspaper. Some conscripts took part in the South Ossetia operation in the summer, though it is not known how they fared.

The lengths that Russians go to avoid the Army hint at other problems—notably dedovshchina, or rule of the grandfathers, an informal and widespread discipline system in which draftees can be subject to degrading, sometimes violent hazing by their seniors.

In a famous case, conscript Andrei Sychyov had his legs and genitals amputated after being beaten by senior officers on New Year's Day 2005. Another conscript, at the Plesetsk cosmodrome near the Arctic city of Arkhangelsk, was beaten by drunk officers, locked in a dog cage, and died later. More recently, investigators in Novosibirsk said a private slit his wrists in March after suffering abuse.

Draft dodgers in turn fuel corruption, as they bribe officials to give them deferments and certificates saying they served, which they need when applying for jobs.

"It's a giant, corrupt system that includes workers in the conscription offices, medical institutions, and institutions of higher education; because a lot of institutions only exist to give out draft deferments, they don't teach anything," says Golts. In 2005, Georgiy Satarov, a researcher at Indem, a Moscow nonprofit group that tracks corruption, reported that there were around $350 million in bribes related to the draft annually. An Army spokesman was not available for comment.

For many, a bribe is indeed the simplest way out. The average cost in Moscow is said to be around 200,000 rubles ($6,880). "I told my parents I'm not ready to serve and they said I should finish studying and then we'll discuss it," says Oleg, 18, a chatty student fond of clubbing and Angelina Jolie who also declined to give his surname. He hopes his parents will provide the money. His mother supports his decision, though his grandfather was a prominent Soviet commander during World War II and his father, who was drafted, seems in favor of Oleg serving.