Young blood: Russian men can now sign up for contract service as young as 18

Highschoolers and their mothers reflect on the prospect of going to war right after high school

Young blood: Russian men can now sign up for contract service as young as 18

Photo: EPA

While Russian society is still processing the recent amendments changing the draft notice system and introducing new restrictions for draft dodgers and the Ministry of Defence is advertising military contracts all over the place, young Russians are finishing school and thinking about what to do in life. The aforementioned amendments include a document that allows men to become professional soldiers at the age of 18, foregoing vocational training (which used to be mandatory for signing a military contract). We talked to high school students and their parents about their attitude to this prospect.

‘I want to learn something about the military first, and only then serve as a contractor’

Vlad, Year 11 [graduation year], Moscow region

I don’t think it’s safe to sign contracts with 18-year-olds. Those who want to go to the front or sign a contract [at that age] usually have no practical knowledge and combat experience: they just watch videos on the Internet. I believe that, in order to sign a contract, a person should spend at least five years at a military academy — studying in whatever field they choose.

If the government wants 18-year-old contract servicemen, it needs to make sure they don’t end up as cannon fodder.

For me, military service is the only [option I associate the future with] — because I’m not aware of other options. I just don’t know where else to go.

[I am attracted to the military] because here at least I will have a clear future, a stable job and salary, then a pension. I am also somewhat patriotically motivated. Besides, I know that I can apply the skills acquired in a military academy to civilian life as well.

But I am not eager to sign a contract at 18. I know that I am inexperienced and lack physical training. I want to learn at least something about the military first and only then serve as a contractor somewhere.

As for being sent to the zone of the special military operation: if they tell me I have to serve there, I will go. I won’t run away or dodge the draft — that would make me a traitor of my motherland. I would feel bad about getting cold feet and running away like that.

‘In pre-war times I would have seen a military contract as a last resort’

Dima (name changed), Year 11, Moscow

The army is a good choice for many people, but definitely not for me. It’s not at all my thing. I would prefer to earn money with my intellect, doing what I enjoy. In pre-war times, I would have seen a military contract as a last resort. Now that there’s a war, it’s far from being the best solution. None of the likely options for my future involve signing a contract. The reason for that is both the physical risk and my political views: I do not agree with the current ideology.

I now have very disturbing thoughts when I think about the current political situation and my future. I have decided to just put myself in a vacuum, to think about it as little as possible. I am preparing for my finals, planning to go to university and confirm my D category (unfit for military service due to health issues) so as not to be drafted. Hopefully, this way I will keep myself safe.

Most of my peers, about 70%, share my opinion and support my ideas — we have shaped each other this way. They do not want to tie their lives to the military.

Some acquaintances of my age and older think differently. Different people have different footing: they are influenced by their family, the environment in which they live. But it is their choice to think that way. My opinion and my actions cannot be influenced by anything.

‘I hope in five years things will settle down and I won’t be called onto the battlefield’

Kirill, Year 11, Moscow region

After school I’m going to become a military man. All my relatives are in the military. At the same time, though, I don’t see the point of signing these contracts straight out of school. It seems to me that a person should at least understand what it’s like. But they want to draft people this way after only three months of service. I think that is a very short period of time. A lot of people at 18 don’t know what they want. They may look at things the wrong way. Some may be told by their parents: “That’s it, go” — and won’t be able to resist the pressure.

I will have to serve a five-year contract after five years of military school. As far as I know, if I don’t like something during training, I can leave. I don’t know if it would be possible to leave in those three months, but I think it’s too short a period. So I don’t particularly approve of it.

But the fact that a person can be sent to the zone of the special military operation right after signing a contract is just unbelievable. There is no way a person will learn to fight in three months. Meaning there will be lots of deaths. I hope it won’t come to that, but it would be better if they hadn’t passed this law.

I myself wouldn’t want to go to the special military operation zone. I am not that much of a patriot.

I don’t want there to be wars and I don’t want to go to war myself. [I’m going to military school] to learn. As long as I am doing studies, I cannot be mobilised. Only if they announce a full mobilisation. But I hope nothing like that happens in the next five years, that things will settle down and I won’t be called onto the battlefield.

‘I will not give up my son’

Irina (name changed), mother of a Year 9 student, Siberia

Everything is as clear as daylight: all these laws, including the latest one, are passed in order to ensure an uninterrupted supply of cannon fodder. Because they do not want to stop the war. A sensible person won’t agree to go there, and all the other ways of attracting someone to the military which existed during more peaceful times have ceased to work: too many are now dead, wounded, and incapacitated. People come back [from the war] and recount [their experiences] in their small circle — naturally, few are inspired by this.

A large percentage of children who graduate from school are still socially immature. If the family supports everything that is going on, it certainly increases their willingness [to sign up]. And since they are treated with propaganda, Important Conversations [weekly classes that “teach patriotism” in Russian schools — translator’s note], it is as if God himself told them to go straight to war.

About two weeks ago I came to the school to talk to the head teacher. I saw and even took a picture of a contract service advertisement that was glued to the glass door right at the entrance, under the sign with the school number. Salary starting at 195,000 rubles [€2,160], phone numbers: they’re calling on young guys to sign up. I will be reporting this to the prosecutor’s office because I think that school is not the right place for such things. I informed the school administration about this and tore the ad down in front of one of the head teachers, who had put it up half an hour before. I explained to her that I thought this was unacceptable. She looked surprised and asked:

“Why do you think so?”

“Do you have a son?”

“Yes, I do. And he said: ‘If I have to, I’ll go and defend my country’. And I said I’d be proud of him.”

“If you are ready to give up your son, your own blood, for slaughter, that is your business, but I will not give up my son. So I will take this down right now and rip it to shreds.”

So I did that and threw [the shreds] in the trash. And nobody said anything to me. I’m no revolutionary, but on a personal level I won’t allow anyone to forbid me from doing what I think is right. I am not breaking the law. On the contrary, I’m making it harder for those who are breaking it.

If they want to kill themselves, let them go kill themselves. They shouldn’t involve us, let alone our children: no one has the right to do that. 

My son never even played war-related games as a child. Even before the war started, he said he did not want to join the army. I told him that there is alternative civilian service. I thought it a worthy choice for a man to give his duty to his motherland in other, more useful and appropriate ways.

When I told him about it, he said: “Why not?” I know that there is a lot of pressure being exerted on those who apply for alternative civilian service. I said: “It’s going to be hard, but let’s prepare for it”. I wasn’t planning to get him a fake [health] certificate: that involves lying, and so I find it distasteful.

I do not know what will happen next, but I do know one thing: I will not let him go [to the army], I will not give him up. Not even for ordinary military service — especially now, when the law has been passed and propaganda is ubiquitous. If leaving the country becomes impossible — and it seems likely that borders will be closed to conscripts — I’ll use any means necessary. I’ll buy a hut in a remote village and settle there with my son.

‘When children join the army at 18, for them it’s an extension of school or kindergarten’

Maria (name changed), mother of a Year 11 student, Siberia

I have two sons: the older one is 35 and the younger one is 17 and a half. My eldest son left Russia in September. He has a very high-demand military profession, so it’s very likely that he would be drafted. He did his compulsory military service and then served another three years as a contract soldier. After finishing university, he had trouble finding a job, whereas there was a military unit right across the road from home, and they were ready to pay him.

During his contract service he basically did nothing. He held a rifle once when he was sworn in during compulsory service. He has never even been to a firing range. He decided to leave the army when the mess in Syria started and contract servicemen were urged to go and fight there.

I told him then: “Son, this is someone else’s war. You don’t have to die in somebody else’s war”.

Leaving the army was not easy. And it is probably next to impossible to leave now.

My youngest son is going to enrol at university. He has won an Olympiad [prestigious national competition in a school subject that gives runners-up an opportunity to enrol in certain universities for free — translator’s note], he is a good student and hopes to thus avoid the draft. He almost never talks about the war, somehow avoids this subject. Recently, he saw an advertisement for the Wagner Group on the bus and came to me with saucer eyes. This is something unexpected and scary, something he hasn’t encountered in his life. I believe that he and his peers are still children.

When children join the army at 18, it is an extension of school or kindergarten for them. When my eldest son went to the army, and he was even older [than 18], there was a parents’ meeting at which we were told to give money to repair the barracks. It was just like school. Although my older son was quite independent, I can’t imagine him as an 18-year-old making a decision about who to kill and when to die.

Nowadays, however, these decisions are made for such 18-year-olds. All these advertisements affect them, of course. They see it, and it sticks in their minds. A lot of pressure is being exerted on conscripts. Two of my friends’ sons recently returned from compulsory military service. Their parents told them: “Don’t sign anything”. We all kept our fingers crossed for them. When they returned, they told us that almost a third of their fellow soldiers had been persuaded to sign a contract and were sent off to war. They had no experience that would allow them to understand what it is like. And at that age it is hard to resist.

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