Around the Jewish World: More Than a Few Good Men Are Dodging the Russian Draft

Dmitry Neverovsky is out of jail, but he is not out of trouble.

A Russian court released the Jewish computer programmer, who was given a two- year jail sentence in November for refusing to serve in Russia’s war in Chechnya, pending an appeal.

But Neverovsky, 26, is not allowed to leave his native city of Obninsk, located southeast of Moscow, until his appeal is heard.

Neverovsky is not alone in wanting to avoid the bloody Chechen war.

The number of Russians, Jews and non-Jews alike, who are avoiding the draft has skyrocketed since the war broke out last fall in Chechnya with Muslim guerrillas, prompting the chief of the Mobilization Department of Russia’s General Staff, Col. Gen. Vladislav Putilin, to complain of a manpower shortage.

Even though all Russian males under the age of 27 must serve in the army, Jews are particularly reluctant to do so — and this is nothing new.

Since the mid-19th-century reign of Czar Nicholas I, whose mandatory 25-year military service for Jews was considered a certain death sentence, Jewish families have, with the exception of World War II, generally tried to avoid having their sons conscripted into the Russian army.

“All Russian Jewish parents are terribly afraid of the army because of the old army tradition of anti-Semitism and because of the war in Chechnya, and try to put their boys in the universities by all means,” said Vladimir Shapiro, a leading Jewish sociologist in Moscow.

Many potential Jewish draftees are ineligible because they receive an exemption by attending university, where they complete some kind of “military instruction course.” After graduation, they become part of the reserve corps, which is normally not called up for duty.

Other Jewish draftees, as well as their non-Jewish compatriots, try to dodge service by getting a medical deferral, getting a job at a strategically crucial firm — or simply bribing draft board officials.

Jewish high school students can also avoid the draft by enrolling in one of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s programs for high school students that send boys and girls to complete their schooling in Israel. After the students complete their schooling, many boys stay in Israel to avoid service in the Russian army.

Jewish Agency offices in Russia and Ukraine have run into problems on this issue with the authorities, who are not happy with this additional drain on potential draftees.

“Normally I wouldn’t have had much against the service. But with the Chechen war and hazing, I am going to use every possible way to avoid the army in Russia, including emigrating to Israel and serving in the Israeli army,” says Konstantin, 17, one of whose parents is Jewish.

But Neverovsky never used any of these escape routes.

In 1995, he dropped out of the Obninsk Institute of Atomic Energy’s course in military instruction in protest over the first war in Chechnya, which ended in 1996.

“Dmitry didn’t want to have anything to do with the army, which wages war against its own people,” said his mother, Tatyana Kotlyar, who is a member of the Obninsk City Council and a campaigner for the right to alternative military service.

When the military tried to draft him after he graduated in 1997, Neverovsky tried to use his constitutional right to alternative civilian service and even sued the draft board for this right, but lost the case.

The current situation tests Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vow to impose the rule of law.

In 1996, Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled that “the right to alternative service should be ensured, regardless of whether the corresponding federal law has been passed or not.”

But draft boards and judges pay no attention to this ruling.

At the same time, many are accusing Putin of a “creeping militarization of schools” after his recent decree to revive military training for 11th-graders in Russian state schools.

I see this decree as a “step back in the democratic process. Military training should be voluntary and the right to alternative military service should exist,” says Vyacheslav Leshchiner, director of the state-run Jewish ORT school in Moscow.

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