Moscow, 19 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian Defense Ministry has advised its servicemen to fish, hunt, farm and gather mushrooms in order to survive until the federal government accumulates enough cash to pay military wage arrears.
General Nikolai Byrbyga of the ministry's education department says that a written "advice" to this effect had been issued this month to military units across Russia.
Byrbyga said all deputy commanders of the military units in charge of education are currently scrambling to organize "collective trips of military servicemen and their family members for gathering mushrooms and berries, and canning them."
Byrbyga stressed that the directive is "no order, but just a piece of advice" which should be put into effect only after servicemen complete their daily service.
"People really need this to survive somehow, we are trying to help," Byrbyga said, citing the fact that most Defense Ministry servicemen have already gone for four months without pay.
Moreover, most of Russian officers have not been paid their food compensations that account for some 20 per cent of their pay package, for more than a year.
The servicemen are advised to fish as well as to gather vegetables and fruit, according to the text of the department's directive cited in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. It remains unclear however, how servicemen will be able to grow and harvest vegetables and fruit on land assigned to others, whether to collective farms or private farmers.
Officers at two military units, reached by phone this week, said they had "heard" about the directive, but had not yet seen it. An education chief of an air force unit near the Moscow region town of Chkalovsky said he would hardly try to take his brothers-in-arms mushroom hunting and fishing unless he was pressed by Byrbyga's directorate.
"Just tell me who is going to pay" for the trips and extra hours, said the officer, who asked not to be named. He said there was barely enough gasoline at his cash-strapped unit to have commanders driven around in their working time, let alone to fuel buses to take people mushroom-hunting.
In any event, officers' wives have for years been involved in similar informal activities. They customarily plant all sorts of vegetables on plots of land that their husbands rent inexpensively at collective farms.
Unlike officers, soldiers do not have much choice and have to eat whatever their cash-strapped unit can afford. In one case hundreds of kilograms of very low-quality canned meat, containing parts of processed tails, were bought by a military unit based in the Moscow region town of Monino.
Luckily for the soldiers, the meat, which technically could have been classified as pet food, came to the attention of the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office. The office forced the unit's command to exchange the meat for one of better quality.
(Simon Saradzhyan is a specialist writer in Russian defense matters and contributes regularly to RFE/RL)