Russia's compulsory military service practices have come under attack for a variety of reasons, including the issues of economic inefficiency, governmental corruption connected with determining exemptions from service, dynamics of Russia's demographic status as it affects the military's ability to meet its quotas, and the practice of dedovshchina (from the Russian word for ‘grandfather’), a violent form of hazing directed at young conscripts.
Known as the first Emperor of Russia, Peter the Great included a “recruit obligation” in his efforts to form the Imperial Russian Army. The term of service in the 18th century Russia was for life, until it was reduced to 25 years in 1793, 20 years with an additional 5 years in reserve in 1834, and 12 years active duty in 1855. Russia's modern conscription practices date back to a 1967 law that remained largely unchanged until the mid-2000s, when the term of service was reduced to 1 year in 2008 for all men aged 18-27.
Writing for The Volokh Conspiracy Blog, a group blog comprised mostly of law professors, Ilya Somin put the practice of conscription in its historical context by paraphrasing an article written by economist Joshua Hall:
Economist Joshua Hall has an interesting article describing an oft-ignored, but very important expansion of freedom over the last several decades: the declining use of military conscription. He notes that, as of 1970, some 80% of the world’s governments used conscription, including the US and many of the democratic nations of Western Europe. By 2009, that had declined to 45%, and many of those nation that still have conscription have reduced the length of conscript’s terms and made it easier to escape the draft. Even France, the nation that first pioneered conscription in the 1790s, abolished it in 2001.
Hall also gives a good summary of the economic case against conscription. Most knowledgeable people are aware of the standard points that conscription reduces the quality of the military because professionals are, on average, better soldiers than short-term conscripts, and that conscription creates major social costs by forcing people to serve who would be more productive in other occupations. Hall notes two other ways in which conscription is inefficient that are less well-known – that it creates deadweight losses by diverting people from their preferred occupations to those which have draft exemptions, and that it encourages governments to underinvest in military equipment and instead sacrifice more lives in battle rather than capital […]
In addition to the economic inefficiency issues associated with conscription, there are governmental hazards as well in that it is known to incite corruption. International Defense and Security Programme Blog discussed in general terms the importance of applying a mandatory military service law equally, regardless of socio-economic status, and then cited Russia's military as a specific example of the methods by which conscription corrupts the military, along with efforts the Russian government has taken to address these issues:
Compulsory military service can be a cause of pervasive corruption within the armed forces. Such is the case in Russia. In order to avoid conscription, would-be soldiers pay bribes to the military authorities, medical personnel in charge of assessment and officials in draft boards. Such practices are widespread and publicly acknowledged.
In July 2010, Russia’s nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, tabled draft legislation which would allow potential conscripts to pay a sum equivalent to US $32,500 to avoid military service. The resulting funds would be channeled toward the costs of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). This measure, aimed at Russia’s military commissions, signifies both the great extent of draft corruption in the country and a clear recognition of this reality.
Serious attempts to deal with this issue have been made in recent years by the Russian government. The length of conscript service was shortened by six months in April 2008 to one year, while the list of exemptions from conscriptions has also been made more restrictive. However, the 2004-7 federal government programme designed to trial a transition to fully professional armed forces was largely ineffective, due to poor design and pervasive corruption which prevents full remuneration from reaching the contracted soldiers.
• Create a professional, mobile, high-tech army, able to respond quickly to local and regional conflicts;
• Pay special attention to our strategic nuclear forces and space-based weapons as means of ensuring Russia’s independence and security;
• End military conscription from 2015 while moving to a professional army;
• Ensure social benefits for war veterans (free education, tax exemptions and soft loans to start businesses or buy housing) […]
Global Voices discussed in a post entitled, “Russia: Demographic Collapse Means ‘No One Left to Draft’,” how the low birth rate of the 1990s has affected Russia's ability to maintain conscription quotas. However, demographic decline was only one of the major factors that General Nikolai Makarov, Russia's chief of the General Staff, mentioned in a RIA Novosti article quoted in the aforementioned GV post; dedovshchina was the other one:
Russia has no conscript-age young men left to recruit […].
The current conscript service crisis in the Russian Armed Forces is mainly due to demographic decline, bullying and brutal treatment of conscripts. […]
Marina Litvinovich reported for Global Voices on a relatively new trend where social media accounts of those who have died have been converted into memorials. One such memorial was dedicated to Evgeniy Shamukhin, a Russian soldier who had been drafted and then beaten to death during a dedovshchina ritual:
I was drafted in November 2007 and served in the Academy of the Ministry for Emergency Situations in Moscow region. On May 13, 2008, I was brutally beaten up by my fellow soldier Alexandr Revyakin. He was beating my head with his feet regardless of my appeals to stop it, and at the end I lost consciousness. Suffering serious injuries and not coming to my senses I passed away in a hospital on May 19, 2008. On August 14, 2008, the military court of Solnechnogorsk city sentenced Revyakin to 6 years and 6 months of detention.
Russia has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and it is believed that close to 1 million Russian people have taken their own lives since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Russian Defense Policy Blog argued that the dedovshchina practices associated with Russia's compulsory military service make young soldiers even more prone to suicidal actions:
Dedovshchina has always had potential to drive desperate conscripts to take their own lives to escape it. Hence, the majority of Russian Army suicide cases are investigated under Article 110 of the RF Criminal Code, “Incitement to Suicide.” Western legal tradition has long experience with incitement, but “incitement to suicide” is a little unusual. Not so for Russian military prosecutors and criminal investigators.
The author went on to list recent accounts found in the Russian press of young Russian soldiers who had indeed taken their own lives or who had attempted to do so:
In late August, a conscript on guard duty in Volgograd shot himself, leaving a suicide note blaming dedovshchina in his unit. The case is being investigated under Article 110.
In late August, a conscript from a Krasnoyarsk unit was detailed to the Railroad Troops brigade in Abakan to help prepare for Tsentr-2011. With only three months left to serve, he went AWOL, and apparently hung himself.
In mid-August, a conscript in Kaliningrad jumped off the boiler house roof and sustained a number of serious injuries, but survived. He had left a note asking that no one be blamed in his death.
In early August, a conscript in the 735th Missile Regiment, 62nd Missile Division in Uzhur killed himself while on guard duty at night. He had served six months.
In early March, in Belogorsk, a conscript due to demob in a few days shot himself to death.
In early February, a conscript in Sergeyevka shot himself to death. The case was being investigated under Article 110.
Public awareness of the soldiers who have taken their own lives has grown recently. A June 2011 Radio Free Europe article described an incident where protesters gathered in Moscow in response to the surge of soldiers who had died under such circumstances in the previous months.
In a November 2011 post, Russian Defense Policy Blog relayed the results of a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation, which surveyed 3,000 people living in 64 of Russia's regions. Many of the questions that were asked reflected a widespread awareness that dedovshchina exists, that it is related in some way to compulsory military service, and that many young men resort to illicit activities in order to avoid military service:
Finally, buried deep in the results, participants were asked for their views on the state of affairs in the Russian Army in coming years:
• 19% said it will improve.
• 19% said it will worsen.
• 35% said it will stay the same.
• 26% said hard to answer.
However, when asked to compare military service conditions today against those 10-15 years ago, more respondents said they are easier (39%), and many fewer said they are harder (14%), by comparison with Russians asked the same question in 2002 (just 6% and a whopping 64% respectively).