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Moscow conscripts see grim duty as rite of passage


MOSCOW -- The empires cracks and dissolves, but the army goes on.

Here, army life begins where it always has, in a dispiriting, dim building set in a gruesomely industrial district of southeast Moscow.

Worn-out buses from all over the city pull up every morning, bringing in stoic young men, doing what's expected of them, their minds seemingly blank and definitely hung over.

Soviet law said that every young man had to serve his nation. Now there is no Soviet law, and today it's a Russian army and a Russian navy -- and there's some question as to whether there actually exists a Russian law requiring service -- but still the draftees wearily show up.

They don't know what awaits them. They might be shipped off to one of the hot spots of the old Soviet Union. The army, they agree, is where an 18-year-old can show what he's made of.

"Look, the service will be perfect. It's not my duty. It's just my wish," says Denis Likhovidov, with a grin.

But on this dust-gray morning, even as the buses heave into the center, a sort of unspoken warning -- or maybe rebuke -- awaits the innocent arrivals. On the street directly outside the main gate, by complete happenstance, a squad of cursing men is tearing up streetcar tracks, virtually by hand, tossing paving stones into a trailer and wrenching rails loose with crowbars.

These men don't look up as the buses go by: They are last year's draftees.

And of all the many ways to defend the motherland, sooner or later this is what it comes to for most conscripts -- brute manual labor, with a shovel or a pick for a weapon.

For the draftees, it doesn't register. Army life is just beginning.

There are 300 today, the same as every day. There used to be many more.

In Moscow, only 15 percent of 18-year-olds will in fact end up in the military this year. University students win exemptions that stretch on until the army no longer wants them. More than 10 percent of the potential draftees -- or 14,000 men -- are rejected on health grounds. Others plead family hardships.

Nationally, the numbers are not much better: Only 28 percent serve.

Col. Vladimir I. Dobrovolsky, in charge of processing Moscow's "recruits," simply shrugs. This is what the army needs; this is what it gets. Nobody needs a 4-million-man military anymore.

As part of gradual cutbacks, the services are contenting themselves with fewer draftees and have cut their length of service.

Almost none of the young men of Moscow are healthy enough for the air force or submarine service, Colonel Dobrovolsky notes. It's the pollution more than anything, he's convinced.

Not so many years ago, the Moscow processing center was jammed. There were no student exemptions, and there was a war in Afghanistan.

"We're not preparing for war now, anyway," says Lt. Col. Pavel Zinchenko. "Simply civil disorder."

And yet in a population full of finaglers and draft dodgers and worldly cynics, 300 young Muscovites still show up every day. They're not jittery. They're not excited. They're not even very nervous. And they don't seem particularly patriotic.

The draft, for them, is simply one of life's realities. It calls, you go, you get out. Your father did it. You do it.

Horrible tales of hazing and brutality leave these men undisturbed. It's a passage. It's the beginning of manhood.

Aleksandr Panchinkov finished the eighth grade, got a job running equipment in a factory, turned 18 1/2 , and now he's here.

It's late morning, and he's waiting for his physical, which consists of making two fists, standing on one leg, and proving to the examining physician that his heart is beating. His first choice is the navy, even though the period of service is longer, because it's got more panache.

What does he expect of the next two years? "Service," he replies. "There is nothing else to expect. There are no doubts to have."

Doesn't he have any qualms about being wrenched away from family and friends? He looks blank. "My family thinks I must do this. I had a girlfriend, but -- I'll find another one, in two years," he says.

He passes the physical and is then called into a large room where a panel of officers, in a matter of moments, assigns each draftee to a particular branch. Mr. Panchinkov gets his wish and heads to the navy.

Denis Likhovidov, the young man who's expecting a perfect hitch, has started off with a perfect hangover.

"I don't feel anything," he says, "except a headache from last night."

He had a good job as an electrician but he says it never occurred to him try to get out of serving.

"I don't know why not. I never thought about it," he says. "My mother's in favor of this. My girlfriend -- well, I don't know what she thinks. I didn't have time yesterday to ask her."

He firmly believes that going into the army is a way to prove himself. Yes, if there's fighting in the next two years, in this increasingly dangerous country, he'll be a part of it. Life will be hard, but after it's over, no one can doubt that he's a man.

He's clearly in it for the glory.

The glory of Russian military life. Outside, the men of the track crew laugh raucously and swear and yank up another rail.

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