A chilling call to Russia's unprivileged Fear of death, hazing hangs over draftees


MOSCOW -- "Go home, babushka!" yelled a strapping young man, dressed in a Los Angeles Kings hockey jacket, and trying to muscle his way out of his grandmother's grip and into a tough-guy stance among the crowd of new draftees.

"But why do you want to go so far?" she pleaded, as if the young man had a choice. "The Black Sea Fleet?"

It was the autumn military draft open house yesterday, and it wasn't pretty.

Mothers, fathers and lovers cried and held the hands of the day's batch of 100 conscripts as the young men received their orders.

Open house offered a rare public glimpse of what usually occurs in long nights of tears and vodka-soaked farewells at home. Parents usually cannot accompany their conscript sons to Moscow's central call-up point, and conscripts usually cannot announce their destination to their families. They usually can't tell anyone they're headed to Siberia, for example, until they get there.

Since the war last year in Chechnya exposed the army's underfinanced, undertrained and underfed condition, the idea of submitting to mandatory military service has become even less popular. Giving up one's son to the military is no longer a proud -- if tearful -- rite of passage.

"He's going into an enigma -- I don't know exactly where he'll be, what environment he'll be in, nor who he's going to be with," said Natalia Alexandrova, mother of an 19-year-old college dropout drafted this week. "My biggest fear is something like Chechnya."

There's also her fear of her son's fellow soldiers. Injury or death at the hands of the military itself is common -- by hazing or accidents caused by poor equipment, poor training or poor sanitary conditions.

Practically every day, parents can read lurid details of another scandal in the 1.6 million-member military.

There was, for example, the young enlistee who, to escape the torment of hazing, cut off his penis. Or the enlistee who shot to death his five tormentors. Or the units that have run out of fresh food and depend on dwindling rations. Or the military installation that was without electricity because the military failed to pay the bills. Or the suicide rate -- as high as 20 percent of the average of 2,000 noncombat deaths a year.

"Certainly, the prestige of army service has come down," said Maj. Gen. Vladimir Bespalov, who is in charge of the Moscow draft. "The army faces a lot of difficulties. First is the financial question, which influences the quality of nutrition, housing and heating.

"And probably I cannot assure 100 percent that there is not such a thing as hazing."

Mandatory military service is the "defense of the Fatherland" required by the constitution of every young Russian male.

But the universal conscription called for in the constitution has never been truly universal. In the Soviet era, it was Communist Party connections that permitted privileged youth not to serve. Now, it is largely financial connections -- the ability to pay for an exemption, such as a doctor's certificate of unfitness, or an outright bribe to officers.

As the military's reputation has worsened, the number of young men from Moscow entering the military has dwindled. General Bespalov said that in 1989, 23 percent of eligible Moscovites actually served their military duty; now, the figure is about 8 percent -- with the rest dodging the draft illegally or being found medically unfit.

So it is the unlucky and unprivileged who wind up on the wooden benches of the draft center.

"We aren't rich and we didn't want to break the law, and we didn't know how to hide," said Yevgeni Selemenyev, who turned last week. "That's why we're here."

He and five other quiet, baby-faced conscripts bound for con- struction detail in the Ural Mountains formed a small group to support each other as they waited yesterday for departure.

"We know for sure we aren't going to get enough food for the first six months -- the hazers will take any food our mothers try to send," he said.

Mr. Selemenyev was asked if he thought his little group would graduate to hazing new conscripts.

He and his friends eyed the conscripts nearby who were already piling up spent beer cans and making a drunken racket of catcalls and insults.

"Yes," he said. "The army is the school of life."

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