On 30 March the Russian President and the Minister of Defence announced that spring conscription would start as usual on 1 April. The machinery of national defence requires that 135,000 young men be delivered twice a year. However by April, local governors and the heads of several regional military commissions had already announced that call-ups would be postponed due to concerns about the coronavirus. Human rights workers had worked tirelessly, sending open letters and appeals to the heads of local governments, reminding them that they have the legal authority to regulate the call-ups, and that they are responsible for the young men in their charge.
Since then the Ministry of Defence has announced that all call-ups will be postponed and will not begin before 20 May. They will end, as usual, on 15 July and there will be elaborate medical safeguards. There continues to be an unsettling gap between the official announcements and what is actually happening on the ground: some regions had begun their call-ups in March; one governor now plans to postpone until June.
By mid-April the virus was already active in Russia’s armed forces, with dozens of cases at army posts and in service academies. Only two weeks later the Ministry of Defence reported 2,600 cases. Startlingly, on April 20, at one fell swoop, 15,000 soldiers were sent into quarantine. On April 1 they had all taken part in close-formation drills for the May 9 Victory Day parade. On April 16 President Putin reluctantly announced that the parade will be postponed indefinitely. His decision was undoubtedly prompted by concerns expressed by veterans’ groups: surviving veterans of World War II, Russia’s human treasures, are elderly; many are in fragile health.
As for the spring conscription, human rights organisations have pointed out that it might be best simply to cancel it. However, this possibility frightens the parents of soldiers who are nearing the end of their tours of duty. If the spring call-up is cancelled, will their sons will be forced to do more time? This is against the law, but. . . Advocacy groups, including our long-time friends at “For Our Sons” in Tatarstan are trying to provide young men and their families with more information, but as one activist wrote to us, “So far, there are more questions than answers.”
Advocacy for human rights and conscientious objection continues
Our friend from “For Our Sons” wrote to us from a rural village some 800 miles east of Moscow. Their advocacy centre used to operate from an FHM-supported office in the city of Kazan. After realizing that their work on behalf of conscripts and conscientious objectors is now conducted by internet and telephone, he and his wife moved their advocacy work to their dacha. They ride their bicycles to the grocery store in a neighbouring village; they make delicious berry jam (which is occasionally delivered in person to the FHM office); they find new homes for stray dogs first adopted, and then abandoned, by summer residents. His wife is an equal partner in their work of rescuing boys caught in the terrible machinery of war. As one awed American Quaker said, “He’s an activist; she’s a force of nature.”