I have been banned from Russian TV and State radio for 12 years; and even the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station refuses to touch the subject of anti-militarism. I approached its owner, Aleksei Venetiktov, and others several times, and the answer was always no. Many people, I know, are very hostile to my pacifist statements. Recently, they cost me my job.
In the 1990s, there was some sort of talk show about alternative service (instead of serving as a conscript) practically every month. Once, I was even on air with Dmitry Kiselyov (now the star State TV host, and often referred to as the most powerful man in the Russian media). Back then he was a smooth young presenter. We discussed with several young soldiers who had fled from Chechnya, the question: ‘Are you prepared to die for the Motherland?’ That would not happen now.
Yeltsin promised three times during election campaigns to end the draft… he was defeated by his generals.
Back then, new political organisations were arising all the time, including anti-war groups, although, even then, as pacifists, we argued with the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. Their aim was to create a ‘good army’ without bullying and harassing of recruits, whereas ours was to end the draft, and reduce the armed forces and weaponry to a minimum.
Yeltsin promised three times during election campaigns to end the draft, and many believed him. In the end, the President was defeated by his generals.
The root of the problem
I would walk around Moscow’s apartment buildings holding Yeltsin’s election manifestos, explaining to people the importance of ending the draft. Their reactions were a lot more positive than they would be today. A Russian army recruiter counts the human costs of war Nowadays, you are more likely to get an earful about ‘foreign agents,’ fifth columns and traitors to the Motherland. Since the constitutional crisis of 1993, when Yeltsin shelled parliament, public opinion has changed, under pressure from militarist propaganda. The military helped Yeltsin defeat those parliamentarians who wanted to limit his power – and they expected something in return.
Nowadays you are more likely to get an earful about ‘foreign agents’ and fifth columns
Preparations then began for the Chechen War; and the generals forced young soldiers into the Chechen meat grinder at the end of 1994 with the rallying cry of, ‘Revenge for our young lads.’
The Great Patriotic War
Russians are deeply afraid of ‘enemies,’ and the government fuels these fears through the media, with endless rumours of conspiracies. Russia suffers from a ‘Victors’ Syndrome’ – as shown in the lavish government Victory Day celebrations held every May. But to be proud of victory is to parade a pride that hides the reasons for war
Russians are deeply afraid of ‘enemies,’ and the government fuels these fears through the media
My maternal grandfather went to the Front in 1941, and disappeared the same year somewhere around Smolensk or Rzhev, leaving my grandmother alone with four children in the town of Stupino, outside Moscow. The Front nearly reached them in the winter of 1941; General Belov’s cavalry was based in the forest nearby, and the older children would run off to help the soldiers…
My grandmother was always incensed at the uselessness of military parades, believing that healthy men were busy not with labouring or farming, but with pointless marching. She rejected the idea that victors in war should continue a military existence, boast about their victory; that they should regard killing as an achievement, and urge their children to do the same. Russian honour guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Moscow, in 2009. CC MC1 Chad J. McNeeley,
The Soviet government continued to propagandise military force for years after the end of the Great Patriotic War, as it was always known. This name underlines the defensive nature of the war, taking it out of its historical context, and ignoring the USSR’s policy in the 1930s of ramping up animosity and militarism. My school years were filled with daily cartoons and newspaper articles denouncing the imperialism and militarism of ‘the capitalist West.’
But the fervent militarism of parades and the enthusiastic commentary that accompanied them on TV and radio made me ask questions. What can we do about this militarism? They have just denounced militarism, and yet now they shout, ‘Glory to our mighty armed forces!’
Many people in Russia conflate pacifism with inaction.
Pacifism is incomprehensible for many people in Russia, they conflate pacifism with inaction, believing that it will lead to disorder and occupation by our enemies. But real pacifism requires proactive measures when there is not a war, when the military is only preparing to fight.
Pacifism is not a subject today for the Russian classroom. The most receptive time for such ideas in education was the 1990s, when military training disappeared from the curriculum. But in 2000, the military marched again back into our schools. It began with a subject called ‘Basics of Everyday Safety,’ which was then supplemented with ‘Basic Military Training.’ Against the objection of some parents and head teachers, school classes are now packed off to army bases for week-long exercises.
Once, in 2002, I was able to talk about these issues at a school, when at the instigation of the 1st September educational newspaper, a sympathetic teacher organised a round-table discussion where representatives of the military gave their views, and I gave mine. The discussion went well – students were very engaged. By the final session, however, the head teacher was becoming irritated, challenging my every statement. She was, after all, the wife of an army colonel.
Anti-militarism is good for Russia
Anti-militarism is good for any country. Military and security expenditure officially account for almost a quarter of Russia’s government spending, a figure both astounding and shocking. Only the country’s colossal oil and gas profits allow it to maintain its population’s living standards alongside expenditures like these. I estimate the cost of twice-yearly conscription alone at around half a trillion roubles. The process involves more than 200,000 people; thousands of administrative buildings; road transport, communications; doctors… all for the purpose of drafting 300,000 able-bodied young men into the army; and removing them from the civilian labour force for a whole year! It costs more than a million roubles a year to maintain each and every conscript. 'I won't go to the army' reads this graffiti at the military recruiting office in Murmansk, Russia
It costs more than a million roubles a year to maintain each and every conscript.
The draft process is a hotbed of corruption, as recruits buy their way out of military service. Meanwhile, a propaganda apparatus is being maintained, to raise the fear of external threats from our neighbouring countries; and there is ceaseless TV propaganda about the USA and other NATO states.
In the course of my life I have spoken to every possible audience, trying to promote conscientious objection, which I consider the most effective form of resistance to the military machine and the militarist mindset. I have talked to young men who refuse the draft; helping them write statements, get their objections heard in court and the media; and enabling access to, and support from human rights NGOs. I have collected all their stories, and travelled across the country – to Balashov, Chekhov, Noginsk and Yaroslavl, to be at their side in court.
I consider conscientious objection the most effective form of resistance to the military machine
In 1993, I received a phone call from Aleksei Ivanov. Legislation permitting alternative service for conscientious objectors had just been passed, and he had applied to his local enlistment office for enrolment on the alternative programme. He had, he told me, still been called up for military service. He then took the matter to court, and the judge upheld his complaint. This was a new experience for the military authorities; unlike now, they did not ever turn up in court, so there was no pressure on the judge to fall into line.
I had written a short guide for conscripts, with examples of complaint letters. Another young man, Pavel Zveryev, also received the same positive outcome, which was even reported in the prominent Izvestia newspaper, under a headline reading ‘Beekeeper Zverev beats the Army.’
Only two people got sent to prison before they could appear in court: Oleg Astashkin fled to Latvia to avoid his military service; and Alexander Chizhikov dropped out of university, and tried to take on the enlisting office in Kuibyshev, on his own. I managed to get well-known journalists to come to court; and the Quaker activist Peter Jarman brought a whole group of foreign anti-war activists. It just so happened that a European Human Rights Conference was taking place in Vienna at the time. We were able to send information on the cases to the conference via Amnesty International; and the defendants were recognised as prisoners of conscience, in Russia. They were both given suspended sentences.
Russia has two allies
I began this work campaigning on behalf of young men opposed to conscription in 1992 when my son Mikhail was facing conscription. By 1996, I had taken part in 200 court cases and the issue of conscientious objectors was widely discussed in the media. 'It's not shameful not to serve' - anti-conscription protest, St. Petersburg, 2011
My younger son, who had just graduated from university, was called up for military service in 2000. He passed the medical examination and received call-up papers twice that year. I decided to complain not to the courts, but directly to the Moscow draft board. A year later he was declared unfit for service, on the grounds of second -degree scoliosis (curvature of the spine). Around this time, the Ministry of Defence was calling up an unprecedented number of reserve officers, mainly university graduates who had had some military training during their degree course; and I was kept busy helping with the dozens of cases that dragged on until 2005. I had to fight the Military Prosecutor’s Office, which was attempting to accuse them of desertion. They all, however, escaped any real charges.
Ukraine abolished the draft, but now Crimea is part of Russia it will be in force again there.
The situation in Ukraine has brought the issue of conscription back into people’s minds. On VKontakte [Russian social media website], I read a posting by the father of a recruit who is afraid that his son may be turned down for alternative service, and may be charged with a criminal offence if he refuses to do military service; I have been discussing with him the best way to behave at a hearing. With militarism on the rise around us, an interesting situation has arisen in Crimea – Ukraine abolished the draft, but now that Crimea is controlled by Russia it will come into force there again.
Most Russians cannot imagine life without an army. Conventional wisdom here holds that ‘Russia has two allies – the army and the navy.’ Russia without wars, without armies and navies… it is difficult to imagine, let alone hope for. But we must.
Photos 1, 3, and 4 courtesy of VKontakte 'Alternative Civil Service' page (vk.com/ags_sm)
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