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'Shoveling NATO's S***': A Russian Pacifist's Three-Year Fight For The Right To Perform Alternative Civilian Service

Russian conscripts depart from a recruiting station in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- In December 2016, Igor Suvorov thought his problems with his local draft board were over when the officials approved his request for alternative civilian service. But his troubles were only just beginning.

Over the next few years, he went from being an acknowledged pacifist to being convicted of dodging the draft. His case has moved all the way to the Russian Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction. His case has been accepted by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. And earlier this month, more than three years after the story began, Suvorov appealed to Russia's Constitutional Court.

"In our appeal to the Constitutional Court, we argued that the state has no legitimate basis for depriving an individual of his right to alternative civilian service," lawyer Aleksandr Peredruk, who works with the St. Petersburg Committee of Soldiers' Mothers and is representing Suvorov, told RFE/RL. "From the point of view of the defense capability of the country, the state -- as represented by the draft board -- already acknowledged that Igor is a pacifist. But when he committed, in their opinion, some infraction, they decide to punish him and send him to serve. De facto, they are making him carry a weapon against his will."

In December 2016, the then-16-year-old convinced his draft board in the Krasnodar region city of Gulkevichi that he was a pacifist and should be allowed to complete alternative civilian service instead of being drafted into the army for a year.

Article 59 of the Russian Constitution enshrines the right of Russians to perform alternative service if "his convictions or religious beliefs contradict military service." Under the law on alternative civilian service, conscripts can either work for 21 months at any "organization subordinate to the bodies of the executive branch" or 18 months at a defense-industry plant. According to the Defense Ministry, about 2,000 people apply for alternative civilian service each year and about half of them are approved.

"The most important issue is that alternative civilian service is not a privilege," said lawyer Sergei Golubok, who is also defending Suvorov. "It is a right, a means of carrying out a constitutional obligation to defend the country. Alternative service is longer than military service. It is work at miserly pay in places where it is difficult to find workers. It is not a way of avoiding service. It is a form of service but without carrying a weapon."

Sergei Golubok
Sergei Golubok

This form of service, however, carries a stigma in Russia, particularly among many of the officials who oversee the process of approving it, Golubok added. "It is a serious problem -- discrimination around alternative civilian service is often seen as a refuge for some sort of losers," he said. "But for society, it is a very significant form of volunteerism. If we had more of these people, it would solve a lot of problems in a whole raft of industries. In fact, the state should be interested in seeing the right to alternative civilian service observed without hindrance from military bureaucrats in the regions."

Non-Draft Dodger

In the spring of 2017, however, Suvorov showed up again at his draft board for his medical examination. And that is where the trouble began. The examining doctor ordered Suvorov and the other conscripts to strip naked in the corridor outside his office. Suvorov objected, saying it was humiliating. When his objections were ignored, he left the building and filed a complaint with local prosecutors.

His complaint went nowhere, but in the autumn, he began receiving orders to report for military service. He ignored them and continued waiting for an order regarding his approved alternative military service.

The next document that came to him, however, was notification that a criminal charge of draft evasion had been filed against him. He learned from that document that his local military district commissar had unilaterally nullified his application for alternative civilian service.

With the help of the St. Petersburg-based Committee of Soldiers' Mothers and a nongovernmental organization called Citizen and the Army, Suvorov appealed the commissar's decision in court. His appeals were rejected at every level up to the Supreme Court.

Among other issues Suvorov's lawyers raised was the argument that the law on alternative civilian service unconstitutionally allows a person who has been officially acknowledged as a conscientious objector to be prosecuted for draft evasion.

'Just A Pose'

In the summer of 2018, Kommersant and other websites published the transcript of Suvorov's April 2018 court hearing on the draft-evasion charge in the Gulkevichi district court in which Judge Yury Yermakov aggressively questioned the defendant and his witnesses.

"No one needs to be forced to serve these days," Yermakov said. "Our army is powerful enough today to give the whole world cancer. Do you see? No one forces anyone to serve. We don't have hazing or whatever in the Russian Army. No one ties up your arms or stuffs your head in a bag. You just needed to go to the military commission. What was the problem?"

"I insisted on my right to alternative civilian service," Suvorov answered.

"You weren't insisting on your right," Yermakov answered. "You adopted a pose. You were just posing. No, listen to me! Don't interrupt.... The most interesting thing is that serving a year in the army passes very quickly, you see? There is no hazing. They feed you well.... Where did you get this idea?

"It is my conviction that contradicts military service," Suvorov replied. "It is my pacifist views. Even if the army had golden tables and smorgasbords."

The judge then insisted he did not want to debate the defendant.

"If you don't know how to defend yourself," he concluded, "that means that tomorrow you will be shoveling shit for someone. For the Americans. For NATO. For China. For someone or other, do you understand?"

In general, lawyer Peredyuk said, Russia needs clarity on alternative civilian service. He said the local military commissions are not actually even required to explain why they reject an application for such service.

Peredyuk mentioned one case in which a draftee who applied for alternative civilian service argued that he held the beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose members refuse military service, even though he did not belong to the group, which has been banned in Russia as an "extremist organization."

"[The commission] wrote in their decision that since the Jehovah's Witnesses are banned by a Supreme Court decision, he had no right to alternative civilian service," Peredyuk said. "That is, for them it is perfectly normal to give a gun to a man and send him to serve although he admits holding the beliefs of an organization that has been labeled 'extremist.'"

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Tatyana Voltskaya of the North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service