Ordered to Chechnya, a Russian youth deserts

January 10, 1995|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Volodya, an 18-year-old draftee, has made ppTC decision that helps to illustrate what the war in Chechnya has come to for the once-proud Russian army.

He is a deserter.

Volodya would not give his last name, for fear of provoking the army even more than he already has. But he is a private who saw it as his duty to serve his country. He spent five months learning to be an air force truck driver and making the pleasant discovery that military life wasn't so bad. Then, on Dec. 27, as Moscow was preparing an ill-fated assault on Chechnya, he was suddenly ordered into the army as an artilleryman.

Volodya had just started training for his new job at a base in Tver, northwest of Moscow, when his lieutenant casually told him that he would be heading today for the war in Chechnya as part of a shipment of 1,500 fresh troops.

Volodya climbed over the wall early yesterday morning. His mother, Irina, met him on the outside and handed him civilian clothes she had been given by "some good people" who lived nearby. Together, they took the first commuter train to Moscow.

What Volodya has done is not uncommon in the face of war, but his story offers a clue to understanding the effect that the war in the Caucasus has had on Russians.

Volodya, a provincial student from a town near the textile center of Ivanovo, refused to consider trying to avoid the draft. He did his duty as he saw it, and left school for the military even though he could have won an exemption.

The son of a former paratrooper, he was proud to put on the uniform. Yesterday he slung it off and became a fugitive.

"If Russia were in danger, if it were attacked, I would never run away," he said last night. "But in Chechnya? I don't know what I would be defending -- or why I should be killing Chechens."

Volodya said he wants to return to the service, to fulfill his duty. But not in Chechnya. He wants to go back to his air force unit in the town of Vyshni Volochek.

On the advice of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, he plans to turn himself in to the military prosecutor today, to demonstrate his honorable intentions. The committee has promised to lobby on his behalf -- and on behalf of a small but growing band of similar refuseniks.

Volodya received less than 10 days' actual training in the artillery. One of his officers told him that he was being rushed off to war because of the army's desperate manpower shortages.

With less than 2 percent of the young men in the Moscow region undertaking military service, the officer told him, it takes a lot of strong young boys from the provinces to make up the difference.

"They're using young guys as meat down there," said Nail Salikhovsky, who works for the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers.

But the war in Chechnya has become unpopular, not only among civilians but within the army itself.

The press here has pounded away at the government for its handling of the war. Russians now appear more willing to defy the authorities than at any time since the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Volodya's mother said that about 120 parents who had learned that their sons were based at Tver and on their way to Chechnya came to the base last week to plead for exemptions.

Volodya's father is dying of cancer at the age of 45 -- he has been told he has two months to live -- and his mother told the unit commander that she needed to rely on Volodya as a means of support.

"He couldn't make an exception," Volodya said. "But then he said if it was up to him, he wouldn't send anyone to Chechnya. But he has his orders."

Irina didn't like that excuse.

"Maybe in a month or a year our officials will say this was all a mistake," she said last night. "So today the boys get an order, and a year from now they'll get the blame."

She said she knew of five young men who had scaled the wall around the base in just one day, and that she decided her son should follow.

"The guys in my unit told me to run," Volodya said. "I can't understand why they all didn't run. They probably don't realize it's a war we're going into."

"The boys whose parents didn't track them down have no information," Irina said. "They don't know that people are being killed -- that soldiers' corpses are lying on the street."

When Volodya turns himself in today, said Tatyana Znachkova, of the mothers committee, he will be taken to Moscow's Lefortovo Prison, run by what was once the KGB. He could be charged with desertion, which carries a penalty of 14 years in prison. There is no notion of absent without leave in the Russian army.

On the advice of Mrs. Znachkova, he will send his uniform back to Tver today by registered mail, so he can't be charged with trying to steal it.

The mothers committee enjoys considerable respect within Russian society, although Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev has been quite hostile to it. The committee will try to persuade the prosecutors to send Volodya back to his original air force unit.

"I can't promise that in the near future the sun will shine brightly for you or your mother," Mrs. Znachkova told Volodya last night. "Of course, you will have problems. But you will also have life."

Being yelled at by officers, she added, is better than being killed in Chechnya.

"And you have no reason to feel guilty," she told him.

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