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‘Our entire society is built on threats’ How Russia’s military enlistment offices intimidate conscripts who seek alternative service
Russia’s annual spring draft concluded on July 15, marking the first round of conscription since Moscow began its full-scale war against Ukraine. According to Article 59, section 3 of the Russian Constitution, those who are unable to perform military service due to their beliefs have the right to substitute service — commonly referred to as “alternative civilian service” (ACS). Human rights defenders and activists note that interest in ACS has grown since the start of the war, as has the number of conscientious objectors. In turn, enlistment offices responded to this trend with threats and intimidation. Meduza reports on how conscientious objectors and those who provide them legal assistance experienced the spring draft.
“The problem is the wording of the law itself”
In the city of Samara, a woman addresses the Sovetsky District Court in a loud and confident voice. She’s the secretary of the draft board at a local enlistment office. And she’s explaining why activist and pacifist Yegor Beschastnov — who has requested alternative civilian service (ACS) — should have to serve in the army. Yegor’s beliefs, she maintains, are wrong; he’s an anarchist whose views are unconstitutional. Such a person cannot be a pacifist, she tells the court. For this reason, his request for ACS was denied.
“According to his mother,” the draft-board secretary says, “he was raised to be so gentle, amenable […] He was fond of toys not of boyish, so to speak, leanings.” She begins to speak more quietly, hesitantly: “But on the contrary, [he was] a fan of girls’ toys… And how such a gentle, domestic boy could consider himself entitled to violate the laws of the state in which he lives, and to later speak of pacifism?”
The violation of the law in question is Yegor’s participation in an anti-war rally in February 2022. He spent 28 days in a special detention center for protesting. On the day of his release, he was handed a summons from the enlistment office — even though beforehand, Yegor says, they hadn’t shown any interest in him for several years. Until February 18, he’d had a student deferral, but then Yegor left the university.
Yegor consulted with a lawyer on how to avoid military service. He’s always been against the draft army, and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine made him even more opposed to being drafted. He is certain that conscripts can be sent to Ukraine to fight in the war. After consulting with the lawyer, he applied for ACS on March 30. The enlistment office denied his request. Yegor has been trying to challenge this decision in court since April.
Among other things, the draft board took issue with the fact that Yegor brought in a character reference from Boris Fedyukin’s unregistered libertarian party, of which he is a member. They hadn’t heard of such a party and argued that a friend or neighbor could have created it and forged a reference. “Among the parties registered in Russia, there isn’t a single charter that disagrees with military service,” the draft board insisted. On April 8, the draft board unanimously denied Yegor’s petition for ACS.
A lawyer from Conscientious Objection to Military Service (@agsnowarbot), a Telegram-based hotline that helps conscripts exercise their right to ACS, says that “the problem is not only a matter of enforcing the law but the wording of the law itself.”
“[Enlistment offices] interpret the law broadly [and] have started to evaluate if a person is truly against the war,” explains the lawyer, who wishes to remain anonymous. “Consequently, they deny requests for ACS without justifying their decisions, although they should do so according to the law.”
“They’re afraid of being sent to Ukraine”
This is not the first year that enlistment offices have made things difficult for conscripts seeking ACS. That being said, the statistics on alternative service are contradictory. When the European Court of Human Rights was reviewing the case of “Dyagilev v. Russia,” the Russian Defense Ministry reported that 98 percent of applications for ACS were granted. However, activists from the Movement of Conscientious Objectors say that based on their experience, roughly half of pacifists’ petitions for ACS are denied.
Anti-war activists say the number of men not wanting to enlist grew during the latest draft. “We used to be approached by committed pacifists,” says Elena Popova, the coordinator of the Movement of Conscientious Objectors. “Now I receive letters from young men, their parents and girlfriends, explaining they would have joined the army in peacetime, but now they don’t want to, they’re afraid of being sent to Ukraine.”
In March, Vladimir Putin stated that conscripts were not taking part in the war, even though the relatives of conscripts sent to Ukraine said otherwise. A few days after Putin’s statement, the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged that conscripts had indeed taken part in hostilities. The Kremlin ordered the situation to be investigated, and a month later twelve officers “were brought to justice” for sending conscripts to war. Nevertheless, conscripts and their family members have continued to report that conscripts are serving in Ukraine, including aboard the cruiser Moskva that was sunk in April.
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“The main thing is I’m not in the army”
Ignat (name changed) told the draft board that he was refusing to serve in the military because “human life is the highest value” and he wasn’t willing to take it away. He abhors military service, with rare exceptions. For example, he doesn’t condemn the USSR for fighting off Nazi Germany.
“These people had no choice, absolute evil came to them on earth, and they had to defend themselves,” he explains. “I told [the draft board] I can accept this. And, as an example of the reverse situation, I cited the war in Ukraine, calling it criminal and senseless. Members of the board began to argue with me. The chairman cut short our argument and approved my ACS. He didn’t consult with anyone, there was no vote, even though the board is a collective body. We bickered a bit more, but I’d calmed down: I had in my hands the decision granting me ACS, and that was the main thing.”
The next day, however he got a call from the police. As it turned out, a police officer had been present during Ignat’s meeting with the draft board — and he had written him up for “discrediting” the army. The police took statements from the members of the board, and opened an administrative case against Ignat.
“All day I received calls from multiple officers,” Ignat recalls. “They came by my mom’s place several times, knocked on the neighbors’ doors, asking where I was. I was elsewhere on business, so I called the precinct and said I’d come in myself. My testimony was taken, and a report was drawn up.”
The police officer who filed the original report didn’t appear in court. “The main thing I wanted to find out from him,” Ignat says, “is why he wasn’t on the draft board’s lists, which are published in advance and officially announced.”
Because the plaintiff wasn’t present, Ignat and his lawyer asked the court to summon the accuser, citing the principle of adversarial proceedings. The court denied their request.
“Our petition for a linguistic analysis also wasn’t granted,” Ignat adds. “This was crucial for us because in the documents the court reviewed, the text of my speech [before the draft board] was different. Half of the draft board’s members had one statement, and the other half had a different [version] […] There was a third version [of my words] in the [police] protocol.”
The trial lasted about six hours. For a long time, the judge couldn’t get an audio recording of Ignat’s speech to play. Ignat had brought this recording to the police station, where it was copied onto a disc in a low-quality format. At 8 o’clock in the evening, Ignat left the court after being fined 40,000 rubles ($690).
“Working together, Igor and I found a lawyer from [the human rights group] Agora. Our movement is ready to help pay [Ignat’s] fine,” says Elena Popova, the Movement of Conscientious Objectors coordinator.
A similar incident occurred in Ufa after a conscript petitioning for ACS described his position on the war in Ukraine in a statement submitted to the enlistment office. He was reported to the police for “discrediting” the army, but the police didn’t open a case against him, since they didn’t consider his statement public speech.
“My lawyer and I also insisted that speaking before the draft board wasn’t public speech,” Ignat says. “This didn’t help in our case. But the main thing is I’m not in the army.”
“A man is not a suitcase”
According to the lawyer from Conscientious Objection to Military Service, young people can encounter problems even before meeting with the draft board: often, enlistment offices simple don’t accept petitions made by conscripts seeking ACS.
[Enlistment office employees] discourage people, they say the law concerning alternative service was overturned. Or that you’ll serve for four years without pay, we’ll send you to Siberia to chop wood — stuff like that,” the lawyer explains. “If the conscript knows his rights and turns to human rights defenders for help, he’ll have a greater chance of getting alternative service.”
Draft boards, according to the lawyer, deny alternative service requests for two reasons: the application for ACS did not meet the filing deadline, or the draft board decided that a conscript’s reasons were unconvincing.
According to the law, applications for ACS should be filed no later than six months before the start of the draft. The Federal Labor Service (Rostrud) is required to determine the placement for ACS within six months, the lawyer explains. But in practice, he says, the application filing deadline has become a pretext for refusing ACS.
Another problem is that enlistment offices evaluate how convincingly a conscript has expressed his anti-war position, even though the law does not give them the authority to do so. The law concerning ACS requires conscripts to state their beliefs, but this doesn’t mean they must prove them. This was upheld by the Constitutional Court in a 2006 ruling that’s still in force today.
Elena Popova suspects that enlistment office employees might not know all the details of the legislation concerning ASC. She cites the example of a draft board secretary who told a conscript he “needs to eat roots and live in the mountains” to be granted ACS. Conscientious objectors say that enlistment office employees are prejudiced against those who don’t want to serve in the army.
“It’s always difficult to communicate with the draft board,” explains activist Alexey Kholodkovsky, who was granted ACS in 2013 and now helps conscientious objectors during the draft. “They [the draft board members] are disconnected from the people and see in you a little boy who disobeys them, and they don’t like such people. And before this board you’re just a little guy who often doesn’t know the laws.”
During a meeting with the draft board, Yegor Beschastnov was told he was ignorant of his constitutional obligations, even though the right to alternative service is enshrined in the Russian Constitution. The draft board repeatedly ignored Yegor and his mother’s rejoinders that he’d still serve the state, just in another form.
Today, some conscientious objectors are faced with the fact that enlistment offices are interpreting their pacifism as fear of being sent off to war. For example, Yegor told the draft board about his participation in anti-war rally as proof of his opposition to war in general and active championing of this position. The chief enlistment officer interrupted him and said he had nothing to fear, because only contract soldiers are serving in Ukraine, and Yegor definitely wouldn’t be sent into combat.
Elena Popova maintains it isn’t worth attaching great significance to the words and actions of enlistment offices: a conscientious objector’s main goal is to avoid the army— and this can be done even if the enlistment office refuses to grant them ACS.
“A refusal from the enlistment office can be appealed in court. While a trial is going on, a person cannot be taken into the army,” she explains. “Say the court sides with the enlistment office — we file an appeal, and by then the draft is ending. […] As they say, a man is not a suitcase, he cannot be forcibly dragged into the army.”
Nevertheless, the Russian Defense Ministry is trying to do exactly this: human rights defenders note that roundups of conscripts, as well as attempts to forcibly deliver people of draft age to enlistment offices, have begun in Moscow. Elena Popova says this practice had almost completely subsided in recent years, but enlistment offices became more active in 2022. In early June, several sources warned of impending police raids targeting conscripts. But according to human rights activists, the roundups are not widespread at the moment.
“They were kept there by force all night”
At the end of May, Anna’s boyfriend appeared before an enlistment office draft board to confirm a medical deferral he had be granted previously.
“At the enlistment office, they initially told him he’d be taken [into the army] on May 30, which he didn’t agree to,” says Anna (name changed). “He didn’t understand the reasoning. He tried to argue, and the enlistment office staff told him that if he wants to uphold the deferral, he’d have to undergo another medical examination.”
On June 6, he arrived at the regional enlistment office to undergo the medical exam. He called his girlfriend from there in the evening and said that the exam was over, but they wouldn’t tell him the results until morning.
“They were literally locked up in the regional enlistment office, kept there by force all night,” Anna recalls. “He said he didn’t know anything other than they’d have the examination results in the morning, and they had promised to let him go home immediately after that. […] On the morning of June 7 he called me — he was depressed, in a terrible state, and he said that at 5 o’clock that evening he would be put on a train headed to Arkhangelsk, to a military unit.”
A month later, Anna went to the enlist office to ask about how to bring her boyfriend home: he took the oath and is serving in the military. He complains of intensifying knee pain, which makes it difficult for him to fulfill his commander’s orders. “Neither the district nor the regional enlistment offices know anything,” Anna says, explaining that she always gets the same reply: “For all questions, call the military unit.”
There were other cases of forced detention at enlistment offices during the 2022 draft. Fyodor Khudokormov, the creator of the YouTube channel Real View, was detained at an enlistment office for approximately five hours. Khudokormov tells Meduza that he got a call from a district police officer, who asked him to come down to the station. Once there, he was told told that a police officer would accompany him to the enlistment office. He wasn’t allowed to leave the office until he’d undergone a medical examination, even though he already had a deferral: Khudokormov has asthma, which makes him unfit for service.
Alexey Tabalov, who heads the rights organization Conscripts’ School, tells Meduza that these “roundups” rarely happen in the regions — they mostly take place in Moscow and St. Petersburg. But anyone deemed a “draft dodger” by an enlistment office is at risk of getting caught in the dragnet.
“The police are involved, but the police have limited powers: they can track [a person] down and serve a summons, but they don’t have the right to drag a person to the enlistment office or a collection point,” Tabalov explains. “Unfortunately, in many instances, neither the conscripts nor the police know this.”
“There’s a war going on,” Tabalov continues, “and apparently, against the backdrop of general militarization, they need to call up more people as quickly as possible. It’s not surprising that enlistment offices are resorting to threats: our entire society is built on threats.”
Elena Popova also says that enlistment offices are trying to instill fear and confusion in conscripts. In some cases, would-be conscripts are threatened with the use force. As an example, she cites the case of a conscientious objector from Moscow’s Timiryazev Agricultural Academy. The student had a deferral, but nonetheless received a summons to appear for a medical exam. Knowing that he was not legally obligated to report to the enlistment office, the student ignored it. Then, the police showed up at his dorm. The district chief of police tried to talk the student into opening the door and, when he refused, threatened to break it down.
Popova, who was on the phone with the student at the time, advised him not to open the door. The police officers then called the student’s father in an attempt to exert pressure on him. Eventually, the police officers gave up and left — but they continued to hound the student’s father and even tried to get him evicted from the dorm.
The student in question corroborated Elena Popova’s account of what happened, but declined to comment on the story. Meduza also has a video recording of this incident.
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Despite the negative attitude many young Russians have towards the war against Ukraine, fear of being sent into combat, and unwillingness to serve in the army, applying for alternative civilian service is not a widespread practice. In 2018, lawyer Arseny Levinson from the human rights initiative Citizen and Army told Deutsche Welle that every year around 1,000 young people across Russia apply for ACS — that’s less than one tenth of a percent of all conscripts. More recent statistics were not publicly available.
Abridged translation by Meghan Vicks
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