In Russia, military service is mandatory for men aged 18 to 27. But according to a recent European Parliamentary Research Service report, each year, half of all would-be conscripts—75,000 out of an annual intake of around 150,000 young men—are thought to be dodging the draft. And now the conflicts in Ukraine in Syria are expected to push those numbers even higher. The armed forces’ autumn draft—which runs between October 1 and December 31 and involves 147,000 young men—could register greater reluctance to serve than any in recent memory. Of particular concern to Russia’s armed forces are intelligent young men who enroll in Ph.D. programs, allowing them to put off service until they age out of the draft.
Muscovite Vladimir Berkhin, a young psychologist, recently started a doctoral program at a reputable university in his home city. “A young man who wants to avoid conscription in Russia can present himself as ill—mad, near-sighted, or something else,” he explained to me, “or join to the non-armed service and serve as a policeman or a fireguard.” None of those options appealed to him. Nor did joining the army. Russian conscripts have long been subjected to brutal and sometimes lethal hazing, which has driven hundreds to suicide.
And so Berkhin opted for doctoral studies. He doesn’t consider himself a pacifist, and neither do most young men who avoid conscription. They just don’t want to be exposed to initiation rituals, which range from performing demeaning tasks for higher-ranking soldiers to rape. In a survey quoted by Columbia’s Journal of International Affairs, 70 percent of Russian men said that they were put off by the prospect of serving because of hazing. Aleksey, a 26-year-old from a city three hours east of Moscow, who asked that his real name not be used, likewise opted for doctoral studies. “It was a good and legal opportunity,” the young historian said of his decision.
According to the European Parliamentary Research Service report, draft dodgers pay bribes to get out
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