Fearing front-line deployment, some Russians resist conscription

As the war in Ukraine continues, some young men aged 18 to 27 opposed to the conflict have fled Russia.

A Russian soldier prepares a self-propelled gun at the Tskhinvali military base on August 7, 2009.
Several young Russians have fled the country, fearing that they would be sent to the front line as conscripts [File: Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP]

Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities.

As rumours of martial law spread across Russia in early March, some young men abruptly left their homeland, fearing they would be conscripted and sent to the battlefield in Ukraine.

They are among thousands of people who have fled Russia since February 24, as a crackdown grows on anti-war sentiment.

Ivan*, 17, flew to Turkey on Monday from Russia.

“I don’t think it’s normal that in the 21st century, a person can be taken against their will to serve in the army for an entire year. Right now conscripts are being sent to the front line, and I am categorically against the ‘military operation’ carried out by my country,” he told Al Jazeera, ironically using the state-approved terminology for the war.

After initially insisting that only professional soldiers were fighting in Ukraine, Russia’s defence ministry has since admitted conscripts have been deployed, with some captured or killed.

Russia has had a system of conscription since tsarist times, when recruits could be press-ganged into service for up to 15 years. But modern conscription dates back to the Soviet era.

Every able-bodied man aged 18-27, in theory, has to serve one year, and draft-dodgers face heavy fines and up to two years’ imprisonment.

Students, convicts, and family members of killed soldiers are exempt, while single fathers and carers for disabled family members can have their service deferred.

And in practice, others have before been able to skip conscription. Those who had the means could avoid the draft by paying bribes, showing doctors’ letters proving they were medically unfit, feigning insanity or falsifying university attendance.

“Yes, this question has been asked of us a lot recently – how to avoid service. That they [draftees] know such ways exist is already good,” Elena Popova, coordinator of the Russia-based Movement of Conscientious Objectors, told Al Jazeera.

“In general, I’ve noticed that since the start of this war people are very afraid in all sorts of ways. They’re afraid they’ll all be grabbed and thrown into the meat-grinder. They feel their freedom is under immense pressure. So now I think it’s particularly important to show that other ways exist, and they work.”

And there is yet another way of staying out of the barracks.

According to the Russian constitution, people whose religious or personal beliefs are incompatible with military service, as well as members of certain ethnic minorities living a traditional way of life, are allowed to perform “alternative civil service” (AGS) instead.

Such religious or personal beliefs are vaguely defined – simply saying you’re a pacifist, for example, is not enough; you have to prove it.

This can be done with a bureaucratic procedure that ends with an interrogation before a military committee. Of the tens of thousands called for duty each year, only a fraction are given AGS.

After being accepted, unlike conscription, AGS can last nearly two years.

The draftee can be tasked with a variety of duties. Jobs such as nurses, cleaners and postal workers are the most common. Although it is not forced labour, draftees are deprived of several workplace rights.

Grisha Rezvanov, 29, completed the civil alternative from 2018 to 2020 as a janitor in a nursing home near his St Petersburg home.

“The conditions were excellent. There were forests and nature nearby, and the grandmas treated us to pies for fixing the TV,” he said. “I was a little uncomfortable at first, since many of the old folks were former military veterans. But basically everyone was more or less normal.

“But that’s not important. The point is, I didn’t have to train to be an assassin. There was a standard routine, and I devoted my free time to self-improvement. I read wonderful books, which had a positive effect on my mental health.”

Grisha’s mother, however, still thought of him as a draft-dodger. She stopped calling him her son, breaking their relationship.

Seventeen-year-old Vyacheslav, who requested Al Jazeera withhold his last name, plans to apply for AGS when he is called on for the draft.

A member of a small religious denomination, his beliefs compel him to a strict code of pacifism.

“It’s frightening, of course. This conflict will end in some time, but until then, it’s frightening that this can happen in our time and with our country,” he said of the war.

“I cannot even imagine myself physically harming another human being. Even if they insulted me or did something terrible to my loved ones, I might be angry or upset, but I can’t bring myself to hurt them. That’s out of the question for me.”

Back for Ivan in Turkey, even the alternative option is too much.

“AGS is nearly two years of my life,” he said. “Sometime in the next 18 months I’ll go back to Russia to apply for a German visa, but in the future, I shan’t return for longer than three months at a time until I’m ineligible for military service at 28.

“Sometime in the distant future I might move back to my homeland, but when it will be different – a free country.”

Source: Al Jazeera