May 01, 1996

Defending One Sixth of the Earth

The month of May is a time of mixed feelings for Russian servicemen. On May 9th they celebrate one of the nation's greatest ever victories against a foreign invader, Nazi Germany, remembering the heroic deeds of their parents and grandparents. But May is also the time of the spring draft, when rife draft-dodging serves as a reminder that all is not well in today's army. Alexander Zhilin traces the ups and downs of Russia's armies, and investigates the plight of today's.

As a vast nation without natural frontiers and a very living memory of 250 years of subjugation by the Mongols, Russia has always made a strong army a top priority since Muscovy became free of the Tatar yoke in the 15th century.

The seeds of Russia's modern army were sown in 1699, when, as part of his modernizing reforms, Peter the Great created Russia's first standing army -- organized, equipped, and trained according to Western models. Two decrees, in 1699 and 1705, stated that all non-noble males were liable to conscription for life. This term was softened to twenty-five years in 1793, twenty in 1834, and twelve in 1855. Selection of recruits to fill government quotas was left to local communities, though landowners had discretion on private estates (which they often abused). As during the American Civil War, the practice of purchasing voluntary substitutes was widespread.

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