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Farewell to Arms: Russia's 'alternative' to military service

April 01, 12:12 UTC+3

Some Russians cannot perform the standard military service, for instance, due to their religious beliefs, so the country's legislation offers them the opportunity of a civilian alternative

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© Yury Smitiuk/TASS

Russia's regular annual spring/summer military draft begins on April 1 and in line with a decree issued by President Vladimir Putin, who is the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces, the Army and Navy will receive 142,000 new conscripts.

However, some Russians cannot perform the standard military service, for instance, due to their religious beliefs, so the country's legislation offers them the opportunity of a civil alternative. The work benefits all of society, not just the Armed Forces and is considered a substitute for mandatory military service. Young adults from small indigenous ethnic groups who are eligible for the draft can also apply for a tour of civilian alternative service.

The young men who decide to replace "boot camp" with the civilian alternative service will not be different in any respect from rank-and-file workers. They will be getting monthly wages and will have annual paid leaves as stipulated by the general Labor Code.

On February 15, 2016, the Ministry of Labor published a revised and updated menu of jobs, trades and positions, which citizens doing the alternative service can pick up assignments for. It contains: 


• Fifty-nine trades (car drivers, stevedores, street cleaners, interior decorators, waiters, cooks, attendants at public catering facilities, cloakroom assistants, and others);
• Sixty-two positions in the (non-manufacturing) service sector (ballet dancers, childcare center instructors, physicians of different specializations, zootechnicians, economists, legal counsellors, postal workers, and a number of others).

The duration of the service depends on where a conscript prefers to do it. In most cases, it lasts 21 months, but it also can be three months shorter if a draftee does it in the state's law enforcement and civil protection agencies such as in the branches and subdivisions of the Ministry for Emergency Situations and Civil Defense.

According to the Defense Ministry, the number of those willing to opt for the civilian alternative service has shrunk by one-third since 2004. Less than 1,200 young men chose it during the course of autumn/winter draft in 2016.

The number of Russians who applied for the alternative option in 2015 was 1,309.

Russia’s Federal Service for Labor and Employment says there were 1,042 "alternativists" in this country as of February 1, 2017. The authorities handed down assignments for alternative service to 354 individuals, which makes up 0.6% of the men conscripted for discharging their military duty.

Several "conscientious objectors" have spoken to TASS about how they felt while doing the alternative service and what difficulties they had to grapple with.



ANDREY DUNAYEV

 

  • Doing a term of civilian alternative service at a post office in the Moscow region;
  • Chose it because military service runs counter to his convictions;
  • Learned about this type of service while speaking with a college mate.

Andrey said it was not actually difficult to defend his right to do the alternative service but problems arose from what he called "loads of paperwork and wandering from one office to another". He happened to be the first conscript at his district's draft office and the officers there did not understand quite clearly what they should do in his case. They told him to get a medical checkup once again and did a long, dragged-out scrutiny of his personal information. 

In the past, many people have tried to convince me I was simply frightened – something I don’t even try to hide because I’m really afraid of the Army and I think this fright is as normal as the fear of fire or heights

For the time being, he works as a postman. His rather short workday begins at 11:00 am and is over at 3 in the afternoon.
Andrey is satisfied with the fact his fellow-workers never nitpick about his being an ‘alternativist’.

Andrey's place of employment is two stops away from his home. His daily grind consists of being in the office six days a week for a wage of about 23,000 rubles (around $ 410) a month. 

I don’t have any regrets about choosing the civilian alternative service

“After I finish it I’ll finish up my college education and will enroll in a postgraduate course,” Dunayev said.
 

ANDREY TSIRK

  • Doing a tour of alternative service in Krasnoyarsk, eastern Siberia;
  • Chose the service because describes himself as a pacifist;
  • Learned about the possibility of civil alternative service from the Internet.

Andrey says he filed a request with the military draft office but the officials there refused to accept it at first. He lives in Dudinka, a small town on the eastern bank of the mighty Siberian river Yenisei, about 100 km away from the heavily industrialized city of Norilsk, a huge mining center. He became the first conscript from the Arctic areas of the Krasnoyarsk Region who was drafted in the Taimyr Peninsula.
In 2012, Andrey initiated a lawsuit against the military commissariat to defend his right to alternative service. Since the litigation took quite some time, he started his service only in 2015. He had turned 23, while the standard conscription age in Russia is 18.

He is currently employed as a Grade I postal operator. “This is the highest possible grade, as I had a previous work experience in the postal system,” Andrey said. He has mastered the entire spectrum of operations one can find at a post office, from handing out mail on demand to collecting parcels to delivering cash remittances and the money paid to customers as social benefits.

“I don’t have any regrets that I took the alternative service route,” Andrey said. “I even helped my friends. Everyone at the postal office knows I’m doing my military duty this way. Some customers coming here quite often applaud the fact I turned up here. They even thank me for making this choice.”

He gets up at 06:00 am and works from 07:30 through to 8 pm including lunchtime. His work schedule usually features 13 or 14 work shifts a month. He gets a salary that is rated as average for the district, 17,000 rubles ($ 303.5) a month. The terms of his service also allow for vacations and he has already traveled twice to his hometown. 

Andrey has what is known in Russia as incomplete higher education. He is enrolled for a course in restaurant management and administration at the Siberian Federal University.

“I don’t want to see either assault rifles or tanks or bombs or explosions because I don’t need any of them,” he said.

I’m helping my country in a different way, all the more so because the law permits it. If this is so, why not then?



DMITRY GOGUNOV

  • Doing a civil alternative service stint as a postman in the Moscow region since 2016;
  • Gogunov chose the alternative service because he is “scared by the omnipresence and mandatory nature of boot-camp training";
  • He learned about the civilian alternative service at classes on Constitutional law.

“I graduated from college where I majored in law and at this moment I’m getting a higher education and combining studies with service,” Dmitry said. “There’s a list of professional occupations for the alternative service and my occupation is mentioned there. But still I realized they would most certainly place me in a post office or a hospital because these are the most common places where people do the alternative service.”

He went to the military draft board with a package of documents – an application, a letter of recommendations from his college, and an autobiography. It turned out he was a second conscript to request alternative service in the history of his district's military "commissariat". The draft board consisted of ten to fifteen people and they warned him about all the possible pitfalls that this type of service might involve.

Dmitry is now in his fifth month of working as a postman. He does not complain about the employment conditions. The post office is located near his home and this enables him to spend more time with his family and friends.

“I didn’t regret for a single moment that I chose the civil alternative service,” Gogunov said. “It’s a worthy replacement for general army service, although it’s far from always easy. For instance, many guys are sent to places far away from their homes and they find it difficult enough to get by on the wages their host organizations pay them.”

Gogunov said with confidence the conscripts who go for the civilian alternative service are as strong and robust as those who have done regular military service. When his tour of duty ends, he will finish the second year of his studies at the university and will take a job in his field of specialization.



DMITRY OVCHARENKO

  • Doing a tour of duty at a post office in the southern city of Krasnodar as of 2016;
  • Chose the civil alternative service option because of religious convictions (brought up in a churchgoing Orthodox Christian family, wanted to become a priest, served in a church after studies at the St. Tikhon Orthodox University of Humanities);
  • Learned about the opportunity of alternative service from Internet, books, articles.

“It wasn’t difficult at all to get the right to the alternative service,” Dmitry said. “They asked me to submit an application for substituting conventional army service with the civilian alternative one, and after that I waited for a notification from the military draft board.”

At first Dmitry worked as a postman but later on his superiors transferred him to the position of a first-degree communications operator. Now he performs cash transactions, communicates with customers and collects parcels. Dmitry says a working day that lasts twelve hours makes him feel tired morally and emotionally rather than physically.

He lives in a hostel for postal workers. A bus ride there after work takes about an hour. He shares a room with other ‘alternativists’.

“I don’t have any regrets about my decision to help the state, namely, to serve my homeland peacefully,” Dmitry said.

Roman Azanov, Olga Makhmutova

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