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‘If a person doesn’t resist, they send him away’ Russia’s fall conscription campaign is wrapping up. Here are four stories about what it takes to avoid the draft.
Reporting by Eva Alexandrova. English version by Emily Laskin.
Russia’s fall conscription drive for mandatory military service, during which 120,000 people were supposed to be called up, runs from November 1 to the end of the year. Russian authorities claim that conscripts will not be sent into the combat zone. In the spring, though, there were cases of conscripts being sent to war — those who served on the sunken cruiser Moskva are a well-known example. Since early December, employees of enlistment offices and police have been conducting mass arrests of draft-aged men, often with no regard for people’s rights to defer mandatory service. Authorities stake out people’s legal residences, grab them from cafes, and forcibly send them to military collection points and then on to military units. In some cases they try to do this in one day, though legally a summons for mandatory service should be given no later than three days before service starts. Here are the stories of four men who managed to escape the draft.
Daniil Trenkunov and his wife, Ksenia
On December 4, Daniil Trenkunov, a 25-year-old purveyor of fine liquors, was staying at a hostel — to avoid ending up at a draft registration point — when the police arrived, going room to room and checking mens’ documents. “The housekeeper warned my roommate that the police came and told him to leave by the rear entrance,” Daniil told Meduza. The last time police came to the hostel, they took a young man — he still hasn’t been in touch, even with his parents.
Daniil’s roommate managed to escape through the hostel’s back door, but Daniil left a bit later and found that the door was locked. He went toward the main exit instead. Police stopped him on the second floor. When Daniil told them he’d already had his documents checked, they let him go. But on a lower floor he wasn’t so lucky — police took his passport, put him in a car, and sent him to a Moscow military enlistment office. Until he got there, he thought he was being taken to a police station.
Daniil resisted conscription at every stage over the next several days. On the way to the enlistment office, Daniil was asked to hand over his phone, but he refused. A police officer was assigned to him, to make sure he didn’t call or text anyone. He nonetheless managed to send a message to his wife, Ksenia. He was ordered to undergo a medical examination, and he refused, explaining that he had complex medical problems and he doubted that the enlistment office had access to a lab that could test him. He was told that the enlistment office would “figure it out themselves.” He passed the medical exam.
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Daniil was then taken into an office where two police officers, a therapist, and a war commissar (the head of a military enlistment office) unanimously declared him fit for service. At six that evening, Daniil and one other conscript, accompanied by five guards and an enlistment office employee, were taken to a collection point for conscripts. The entire way, Daniil tried to persuade the enlistment office employee that his conscription was illegal. He was told “There are no miracles, you didn’t just end up here.”
When I got out [of the car] at the collection point, I was horribly stressed and I lost the power of speech. At that point, National Guard went through my backpack to confiscate any sharp objects. But they missed a pair of nail scissors in a back pocket [of my pants]. Then they made me hand over my phone. I couldn’t speak, so I just shook my head. At that moment, Ksenia called. She’d spoken to a friend from the Tagansky District Council, who calmed her down, and so I handed over the phone. They gave me a receipt for it, but I lost it and now I don’t know where it is.
He and the other young man he’d arrived with were taken to join other conscripts, they were shown propaganda films and fed “swill” and “tea with a metallic taste.” Daniil said there were around 25 conscripts at the collection point, and many said they’d been treated very badly, and taken from their homes or workplaces. Most, he said, were already in uniform — only he and the person he’d arrived with were still in civilian clothes.
The next day, Daniil tried again to explain that he has health problems. At that point, one of the enlistment office employees threatened him, saying “Either you undress now, or the National Guard will undress you. It’s past time.”
Daniil then took the nail scissors out of his back pocket and, he says, gave himself around 20 stab wounds to the left arm. “Blood was gushing out like a fountain, I was hysterical. A member of the National Guard put a tourniquet on my arm above the elbow to stop the bleeding. Then they took me to either a psychiatrist or a psychologist, and started to explain why I’d done it,” he said. About half an hour later Daniil was taken to a hospital for an operation and to treat the wounds, and was then sent to the psychiatric ward.
From the moment that it became clear that Daniil had been taken from the hostel to the enlistment office, two people were working to save him: his wife Ksenia, who was pregnant, and a lawyer from the coalition Prizyv k Sovesti (Call to Conscience), who requested anonymity for security reasons. Ksenia filed an online lawsuit on Daniil’s behalf in the Tagansky District Court, which she could do because Daniil had given her access to his account on the social services website. The lawyer then sent Ksenia with a copy of the complaint to the records department of an enlistment office. There, Ksenia was told that they wouldn’t do anything because they “didn’t care.”
I burst out in sobs, fell to my knees, and started praying in Hebrew [Ksenia is Jewish]. They were scared! I heard them say “God, she’s probably cursing us.” Some auntie came over, took all the documents from me, put a seal on them and said “Leave.”
Ksenia went back and forth to various courts and government offices, trying to get a response about her husband’s case. At one point, she says, “I made a huge scene.” Eventually, the investigator’s office agreed to see her.
She found out about her husband’s stab wounds during this bureaucratic ordeal, when someone at the Krasnoselsky enlistment office told her “in a humdrum tone” that her husband had “slit his wrists.” Ksenia told Meduza, “I fell to my knees and literally howled — I was so horrified by what was going on. My first thought was that he didn’t do it himself, that someone did it to him.” Ksenia wasn’t allowed to see Daniil in the hospital, but she did persuade doctors to discharge him early. They agreed only after they found out she was pregnant.
Ksenia miscarried on December 10 — because of the stress, she thinks. Daniil came home five days later. No one has tried to take him back to the enlistment office, but, on his lawyer’s advice, he doesn’t go outside. Ksenia is helping Daniil prepare documents that say he’s unfit for service. “What happens next is unclear,” she says. “We don’t want to rush into the unknown, but we’re both thinking more and more about it.”
On September 28, just a week after mobilization was announced in Russia, a 19-year-old university student in Moscow, who is known to his friends and family as Sam, left Russia. He lived in Kazakhstan first, then Turkey and Georgia. At some point, Sam learned that all of his classmates had taken deferral papers to the enlistment offices, and no one asked them any questions. So, at the end of November, he decided to go back to Moscow to take care of some “paperwork,” including going to the enlistment office. On November 30, Sam went in with his papers. “An employee studied them for a long time. Then they sent me for a medical examination, and then to a meeting of the draft board. There, they told me I was being called up for mandatory service,” said Sam.
He said that, according to the summons, he had two hours to appear at the enlistment office “to be sent to the military service site.” Sam tried to argue and asked for at least a day to arrange his things and see a doctor — an excuse he thought up to buy time. The draft board refused, and took Sam into an office where some forms were lying on a table.
I thought maybe it was a test to figure out where I should serve, because at the meeting they asked me which troops I wanted to join. There was only one draft board employee in there with me. At some point, she stepped away into a neighboring office, and I realized I had to run. I took the stairs down from the fourth floor to the first, by some miracle I slipped out the iron double doors, past a guard, darted out onto the street behind a random man, and then ran through courtyards to the metro and home, to my dormitory.
Sam was afraid that enlistment office employees knew where he lived and would be waiting for him at the entrance. But there was no one there. He hid in his girlfriend’s room, where they bought tickets to Yerevan, Armenia, and he left that day. Sam’s in Georgia now.
His phone and internal Russian passport remained at the enlistment office — Sam filed a claim for them in court, through his lawyer. He continues to study at his university via “conditional distance learning,” an arrangement he had to work out with each instructor individually. “I don’t know whether I can be expelled if the university administration decides I’m a draft dodger. But I’m challenging [the decisions and actions of the draft board] in court,” Sam told Meduza.
On the morning of Saturday, December 3, Vasily Slezkin, a 19-year-old second-year student at Moscow Polytechnic University, was with his father, getting ready to go to the family’s dacha. Vasily went out to their car first. At his building’s entrance, he encountered a police officer who showed him “some piece of paper” and told him he had to go to the enlistment office. The officer wasn’t worried about the fact that Vasily, as a student, was entitled to defer service. He said Vasily was being taken in just to confirm that fact.
Vasily didn’t have proof that he’s a student in hand, so he asked for a summons to be signed for a specific date, so that he could get proof from his university. The officer assured him that wasn’t necessary, and said the enlistment office would make the request, promising Vasily that he would be there only half an hour, Vasily’s brother, Mikhail, told Meduza. Mikhail says Vasily believed the officer, and grabbed his student ID and draft registration papers, and went with him to the enlistment office.
At the enlistment office, they took all of Vasily’s personal belongings and his phone, and sent him to an office where he was told, “the university has given you up, get ready, you’re going to the army.” Vasily only managed to connect with his family that evening, when he called from someone else’s phone and told them that around 6:00 pm, he and some other young men were taken out of the enlistment office through the back door, and driven somewhere. In the morning, he said, the draft board would talk to them. It eventually became clear later that the young men had been taken to Moscow’s main collection point.
Vasily told Novaya Gazeta Europe that he wasn’t sure whether there were any other students in the group with him, but that he didn’t hear anyone else speak about deferrals or illegal conscriptions. On breaks between document checks and medical examinations, everyone watched the same propaganda films that Daniil had been shown.
Mikhail, Vasily’s brother, had access to Vasily’s online university account, which showed that he was a student. On Saturday, Mikhail ordered a certificate to prove that Vasily was enrolled, but he couldn’t get it before Monday at the earliest. Instead, he told his friends about the situation, and they alerted the media and human rights activists. The next day, the head of the university’s mobilization office got in touch with Mikhail, calling the situation “non-standard.” He prepared the necessary certificate in half a day.
The officer on duty at the station where Vasily had first been taken refused the document, saying “it wasn’t clear what it was.” At that point, Mikhail contacted a lawyer and, on the lawyer’s advice, various military court officials. In the evening, someone from State Duma Deputy Ksenia Goryacheva’s office contacted Mikhail and said they’d send a “state telegram” on Monday, to sort out the situation.
Vasily contacted his family several times on Sunday, and it seemed like he was about to be sent to a military unit in the Vladimir region. But then everything was delayed by a day. When he managed to get in touch with Vasily, Mikhail told him that human rights activists had advised him to constantly tell each and every possible person that he was a student and couldn’t be conscripted. “Because if a person doesn’t resist, they send him away — that’s it,” Mikhail explained to Meduza. Vasily took his brother’s advice, and “it had a good effect.” Mikhail believes that “without this, in theory they could have sent him [to a military unit] in one day.”
On the morning of December 5, Vasily’s mother succeeded in meeting with both a military prosecutor and staff at the enlistment office. That same day, Vasily messaged his brother that they’d returned him to the enlistment office and given all his things back, but also fined him 3,000 rubles (around $40 USD), allegedly for failing to respond to a summons, even though he never got one. Vasily signed the papers regarding the fine and they let him go home. Mikhail says the family is not planning to sue.
On December 15, Daniil Panov, a 25-year-old restaurant server and sommelier, was on his way to work in Moscow when he noticed a police car. It pulled up to Daniil, stopped abruptly, and an officer got out and asked for his documents.
“I was holding my passport to show him, but he grabbed it, looked at my date of birth, and immediately put it in his pocket. Then he said that I was conscription age, and we would go to the enlistment office to clarify things. I asked why he needed to see my papers [in the first place]. To that, the officer replied, ‘Sit down, or we’ll use force and put in the report that you resisted,’” Daniil told Meduza. The officer didn’t take his phone, so he posted an Instagram story saying he was being taken to the enlistment office.
At the office, employees refused to answer any of Daniil’s questions. He was sent for a medical examination, where he explained to the doctor that he has several medical issues, including one which causes him to use a cane ocassionally. But, because he didn’t have any medical records or certificates on him, they declared him fit for service.
According to Daniil, during the exam the doctor insulted his dyed hair, nose piercing, and tattoos (he has around 40), and laughed about sending “sicker people [than Daniil]” to the army. After that, Daniil refused to continue the exam. Then the military commissar came into the office and, according to Daniil, shouted at him for a long time, swore, and even brandished a chair at him, and finally said “If it were up to me, I’d ******* beat you up right here in the enlistment office.”
There were four other young conscripts with Daniil. After the medical exam, he says, they were kept in a locked office for around seven hours and forced to sign military ID cards. They were told that if they didn’t sign, they’d be sent into the army that very day. Daniil eventually managed to get in touch with a lawyer, who told him not to sign. He and one other young man refused, but then their phones were confiscated.
At around nine in the evening, all five of the men were taken to a collection point. Those who had signed their military IDs were immediately taken off the bus that brought them there. Daniil and the other man who refused to sign stayed on for another two hours.
I told him [the other guy] absolutely everything the lawyer had told me, so he also didn’t sign. But when they finally took us off the bus…they separated us. And in about 20 minutes, I was told, that guy signed everything after being threatened. I was repeating, like a mantra, that I didn’t agree with the draft board’s decision, that I wanted to challenge it in court, and that everything that was happening was illegal. For this, they yelled at me and told me that if I didn’t sign, things would just get worse.
Daniil was again taken to a locked office, and kept there until 1:30 am, at which point he overheard an employee saying that they’d been told to let him go. They tried once more to get Daniil to sign up, but when he refused, they let him go.
Daniil walked through snow drifts for about 40 minutes until he got to the closest open supermarket. A clerk there helped him call a taxi home. Now, on his lawyer’s advice, he’s not going outside. In January, after the holidays, Daniil plans to confirm his medical diagnoses, but he doesn’t think that will change anything. He recently read about how authorities picked up and conscripted a man with one eye.
On December 19 or 20, some of Daniil’s close female friends went, also on a lawyer’s advice, to the enlistment office to ask where his passport and phone were. They were told that no one by Daniil’s name had ever been in that office. On December 26, Daniil’s lawyer went himself, but he also failed to accomplish anything.
Meduza sent inquiries to all of the enlistment offices, collection points, hospitals, and local authorities involved in these four stories, but, at the time of publication, has received no responses.
English version by Emily Laskin
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