A squat military van parked in the middle of Pushkinskya Street last summer.  Surrounded by military schools and bases, soldiers crossed this pedestrian mall every day. In Rostov-on-Don, the military enjoyed particular freedoms with parking and traffic laws.  

Last summer, hundreds of soldiers strolled down the leafy sidewalk on Pushkinskaya Street daily, enjoying the pedestrian mall that crisscrosses the heart of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. In July, they wandered past neat-trimmed grass, flower gardens, outdoor cafes with plastic patio furniture, and past the concrete dividers that border them.

This street was named after a poet, but warriors dominate the city founded along the Don River, a century-old shipping route and crucial frontier, less than 500 miles away from Chechen border. Two military bases, two military academies, a regional recruiting station, and the headquarters for the Great Don Cossack Army all lay within walking distance. The city’s 1.2 million inhabitants have spent their entire lives surrounded by military outposts that are a microcosm of the troubled Russian army. Civilians mingle with a sea of uniforms: boy-soldiers in camouflage, officers in crisp dress, and off-duty recruits in khaki civilian clothes and sunglasses to hide their eyes.

At the end of last summer, wreckage from an exploded airplane fell just outside this city, changing everything for these soldiers. The guerilla war in Chechnya had jumped the border to Russia with renewed intensity. In just a few weeks, Chechen suicide bombers had destroyed two airplanes, bombed a Moscow subway stop, and murdered hundreds of children in a Beslan schoolhouse. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin summoned military forces to tighten borders, pacify Chechnya, and protect Russia.

The increased attacks, however, only highlighted problems with Russia’s military that have been brewing for years. Russia’s terrorism policy rests in the hands of thousands of young men from the Rostov region, pulled into the army every year under a confusing set of draft laws that many find ways to evade. According to many active soldiers and their advocates, the army is a poorly financed and demoralized force. Although the government responded last January with initiatives to build a contracted army, it is unclear how effective the reforms will be or how they will help extricate Russia from a war that it cannot win.

As troubled Iraqi elections loom — and the logistics of a deadly American commitment to Iraq become more problematic under a protracted occupation — the state of Russia’s military after a decade-long conflict offers a troubled example for Americans.

Pushkinskya Street is the community center in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. During the day, cars parked haphazardly outside the shops and offices lining the long stretch of flowery sidewalks. In the evening, residents strolled past countless outdoor cafes and chatted with their neighbors.

Filling the ranks through “coffin money”

A few blocks away from Pushkinskaya, kitty-corner to a grade school, lies a sprawling red brick building guarded by recently graduated teenagers with machine guns. The Southern Region Recruiting Station was the first station to institute a new set of military reforms earlier last year, trying to fill the army ranks with a better kind of soldier.

This station began accepting applications last January, part of the military’s plans to convert half the army into contractors by 2007. For years, the army found soldiers under a mandatory conscription law, drafting soldiers for two years from a nationwide pool of 1.2 million young men between 18 and 27 years old — drawing boys into complicated conflicts for which they were ill prepared. While small numbers of contractors have also served in the Russian army and navy for many years, the army now plans to dramatically increase this pool of voluntary fighters.

As Vice-Military Commissar of the Rostov Region, Colonel Valery Tolmachev supervised the contractor recruiting drive last year. He explained that the current, drafted army suffers from an “intellectual poverty.” While the Russian draft calls hundreds of thousands of young men, wealth and education often determine the final cut. Recruits can avoid the draft through special work and university deferments, and many wealthier draftees pay to keep their names off the register. The army is struggling, even in this military-saturated region.

Too many of the best and brightest have managed to escape service, leaving the poor and undereducated to lead the ranks. Accusations of hazing and power abuse sometimes filter down through the ranks, reflecting the difficulties of an army staffed with unwilling or unhappy troops.

With a cautious smile Tolmachev expressed hope in these new contracted soldiers, expecting that this additional force of willing and experienced fighters will replace the weaker, drafted soldiers. “People were eager to serve under contract; even women came to sign up.”

In contrast to draftees, contract soldiers are paid at higher rates with additional pay for wartime experience or special skills. For instance, contract soldiers in the 42nd Motor Rifle Division earn 15,000 ($510) rubles a month for service in a Chechnya hotspot — almost 10,000 ($340) rubles more than the average, drafted recruit.

Colonel Tolmachev estimated that contractors now compose 25 to 30 percent of the whole army, only a small rise from last year. However, increased contractors have also lowered the mandatory service requirement to one year, loosening the two-year draft policy that forced thousands of young men into the army. So far, the change has mostly affected “commandants,” placing contractors at military outposts in highly dangerous conflict areas.

While American contractors perform similar services in Iraq, repairing the battered infrastructure, leading supply convoys through the desert, and running dangerous military missions, the U.S. government has not yet raised the pay-stakes as dramatically as the Russian army. However, as that conflict’s resemblance to the guerilla nightmare of Chechnya increases, the pressure for improved compensation to avoid a draft builds.

Tolmachev called the high-risk incentives paid to contractors in dangerous Chechen outposts “coffin money.”

A tug floats along the Don River last summer. For centuries, this long river watered agriculture and guided freight ships through the vast southern interior of Russia.

Curator of misery

Tolmachev’s term appropriately gestures towards the military quagmire that the Chechnya conflict has become. In the mid-1990’s, the Russian military crashed into this unconventional war. It sent thousands of drafted soldiers into the fiercely independent Chechen region — without preparing them for the duration or tactics of the conflict.

The latest insurgency is an outgrowth of longstanding tensions between the Russian government and Chechnya. Though an autonomous Chechen-Ingush republic was established under Soviet rule, World War II brought a vicious crackdown under Stalin when thousands of Chechens were deported for allegedly collaborating with German forces. The Chechen republic was reestablished in 1958, but the earlier exile of its citizens scarred its relationship with Russia.

Post-Soviet chaos bred violent separatist movements in Chechnya, and these rebels mounted waves of terrorist attacks on Russian soil — demanding an autonomous state. The Russian government resisted, and sent troops to break up terror cells in Grozny in 1995. Soon the insurgency situation degenerated into crisis.

Just like the U.S. military in Iraq last year, Russian forces discovered that full-scale occupation could not stop suicide bombers and urban guerillas. The military was not able to pacify the besieged country, and the insurgents evaded military control. These tactics led to a protracted conflict, and a second war commenced in 1999. Since then, thousands of troops have died, and a string of terrorist attacks have squandered hopes for a clean exit strategy.  

Svetlana Arsenyevna Lozhkina, chair of the Rostov Region Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, has seen the consequences of this bloodshed firsthand, and she has a large supply of stories about the soldiers who have suffered or died in this conflict.

Nestled on the bottom floor of the colonel’s recruiting station, her office is a cozy space plastered with newspaper clippings about boys hurt, lost, or killed over the last 10 years of military action in Chechnya. Her committee formed in 1989, created by mothers who had lost children in war. Lozhkina joined the group after her son returned safely from his mandatory service, turning her motherly concern into a public service project. Over the past 15 years, Lozhkina has filled dozens of ledger-books with complaints from drafted soldiers, documenting the struggles of young men trapped in dangerous posts.

Despite the tired wrinkles around her eyes, Lozhkina speaks intensely. “I don’t keep track of numbers, but at least seven people come in here each week during the summer. Many more people come during the Army’s fall recruitment drive to complain about their service.”

Lozhkina reads a letter from a soldier stationed in North Ossetia — the site of the then-unexpected Beslan massacre. Private Vilady alleges that two soldiers were infected by hepatitis during routine flu shots and that officers beat soldiers hard enough to rupture organs. The soldier concludes, “We don’t care what we have to do. We’ll do anything to get out of this hell.”

Every day, she carefully prints the name, address and complaints of new soldiers in a five-inch thick notebook. She’s a curator of misery, and 2004’s ledger was already half full in July.
Every day, the American military records similarly grim statistics. There’s no draft randomly pulling out college-aged soldiers, but already American soldiers have been forced to extend their tours while more reservists have been pulled into the conflict. The streets of Grozny are as untamed as the shadowy walls of Falluja in Iraq. If the insurgency and American occupation should drag on for another five or 10 years, some mother will have to fill ledger books with the names of American soldiers.

A view of Rostov, taken from a ship floating along the Don River last summer. The Don Cossack ethnic group settled along these green banks, raising horses and training generations of proud warriors.

A special breed of soldier

Lozhkina’s ledger captures the fear and inexperience of young draftees, the kind of problems the army hopes to avoid with professional soldiers. Studying the contract soldier program, it is apparent that many Rostov region contractors are Cossacks — a brash group that eagerly signed up out of ethnic pride. These soldiers are reputed to enter war zones fearlessly, but they’ve also faced a new set of problems within the contract soldier system.

Inside the Rostov-on-Don headquarters of the Great Don Cossack Army, rows of training photographs decorate the skinny, dim hallways. The army is named after the Don River that flows past Rostov, the fertile water that lured this proud ethnic group to settle here in the 17th century, and defend the southern frontier. The pictures show children training in Cossack military schools: little boys in greasepaint and camouflage, teenagers scrambling up walls; recruits riding horses, kissing flags, or practicing karate moves.

While the death toll in Chechnya sends many rich Russian teenagers running from the draft, this is still a city of warriors. Out of all the military-men debating the future of the Russian army, these fighters tell the most optimistic stories.

The Cossack tradition of raising soldiers from childhood is long standing. In the 17th century, the group pledged allegiance to the Czar, but maintained sovereignty and traditional values within their communities. In the 19th century, they became an independent arm of the Russian military, establishing these Cossack outposts and schools in the region.

A giant blue, yellow, and red Don Cossack flag dangles in Vladimir Voronin’s office, decorated with the Cossack army’s seal — a white stag leaping with an arrow buried in its belly. “Cossacks are more eager to serve than other people,” said Voronin, the Commander of the Directorate of Ideology and Propaganda of the Great Don Cossack Army.

His plastic glasses perched on the end of his nose, and his unruly, moussed buzz cut sprouted in all directions.  Presented with the lack of a draft in America and ideas of alternative service such as the Peace Corps, Voronin dismissed any kind of civic service options to the Russian draft. “For me, alternative types of service are almost like an alternative sexuality,” he said. “Normal men serve.”

Last year, Voronin’s office recruited 608 Cossack men from the Rostov region to serve in the Russian army. Of those recruits, about 100 soldiers signed three-year minimum commitments to serve as contract soldiers in the 42nd Motor Division in Chechnya — one of the bloodiest corners of the war.
“Cossacks respect the traditions of people in the Caucuses region. The military is uncomfortable that we have success there and their official troops don’t,” Voronin said of these new contract soldiers.

“We were raised up by history,” said Major Boris Azarkhin, a Cossack military leader. “For modern Cossacks, our main purpose was to protect our country.” He wore a dress shirt with the Cossack crest stitched on the breast: St. George sticking his spear through a dragon’s neck.

Cossack history contrasts neatly with the centuries-old conflict between Russia and Chechnya republics. While Chechens have bucked Russian control since the 19th century, constantly struggling for an independent republic, the Cossacks have maintained a good relationship with Russia since World War II when they fought German tanks with horses, rifles and sabers. The Cossacks lived here as proud Russian citizens for centuries, still maintaining cultural traditions like colorfully embroidered shirts and community holidays. While a tight-knit Cossack leadership council presides over Cossack schools and churches, the ethnic group has always deferred to the Russian government since World War II.

The major proudly insists that his soldiers in the 42nd Division in Chechnya represent “the best soldiers the Cossacks can offer.”  He hoped the outpost would grow into a full-fledged, self-contained military community, with schools, parks, and housing projects for soldiers’ families.

“Then the soldiers won’t have any headaches like caring for their families,” he said, “They will only care about serving better.”

These brave sentiments raise some hard questions about occupation. Generations of American soldiers will someday staff precarious bases in places like Falluja or Baghdad, keeping an uncomfortable peace. Iraqi or Chechen insurgents aren’t bound by such defensive positions, and they can hide anywhere in their country.

Occupational outposts are fixed barbwire fortresses, perpetually exposed to mobile attackers. The idea that soldiers’ wives and children could grow up inside these war zones is absurd, even for a culture seeped in militarism as the Cossacks. Nevertheless, insurgencies in Chechnya and Iraq virtually require this sort of decades-long commitment.

Mercenary back-wages

While the Cossack major dreams of a professional occupation force with palatial barracks, in reality, the army has lost too many troops and resources during the Chechen occupation to start afresh. As Colonel Tolmachev explains, education loopholes and bribery have crippled the drafted forces, sending ill-equipped soldiers into a complex battlefield. Professional soldiers seem like an elegant solution, a way to eventually end the draft and fill the ranks with eager soldiers like the Cossack contractors.  

However, a few retired contractors painted a grim picture of hired guns in the Russian army. While they wouldn’t speak at length about their service, their assessment was simple:  “All army financers are traitors,” said Oleg Gubenko, a former Cossack contract soldier. “They should be shot.”

Gubenko joined the army full of ethnic pride in the late 1990s, but after serving as a contractor in Chechnya for three years, he returned home bitterly without his full pay. Last August, Gubenko organized a strike with other unpaid contract soldiers. Some members of his group alleged that the army owes them upwards of 1 million rubles for their contract service. The matter has not been resolved. As hundreds of new contracts are signed this year, these contractors wonder if it will ever be resolved.

Stanislav Velikoredchanin, a civil rights lawyer whose shaggy beard, tattered shorts and sandals clash with the brazen toughness of the soldiers that he defends in court, reflected on the fundamental issues facing the Russian military in his living-room office. “The main problem in the military is financing” he said. “Anybody would be happy with 15,000 rubles, but they actually get a lot less. The army promised them big money, but many were not paid.”

Velikoredchanin has experience defending soldiers in civil cases concerning owed wages and the intricacies of draft policies.  In 1999, he published the book ABC’s for Recruits — a 400-page manual on the loopholes and inaccuracies within Russian draft-law that could be exploited by draft-dodgers. His work helped many young men avoid mandatory service during the troubled years since the war in Chechnya began.

The civil rights lawyer said that the financial problems, troop shortages, and the conflict in Chechnya have changed the army for the worse. He served in the Soviet army in the 1960s, and shares fond stories about his time there. He muses, “Officers used to be noble people. But in times of military action, generals don’t think about quality, they just want more recruits. This fills the army with some bad parts of humanity.”

Despite such criticisms of the draft regime, conservative military analysts do not question the importance of maintaining a standing military force at all costs. Dimitry Tziganok, director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, placed complete faith in Putin’s military policies — treating the Chechen conflict like a patriotic exercise. While he admitted that current draft laws let too many rich or educated young men escape service, he believed in the idea of an all-inclusive draft.  

“The son of a street cleaner and the son of a general should both serve,” he argued. “That’s their duty to their country.”

Leaders like Tziganok see the professional soldier program as a return to the glory days Soviet-era army. However, in the alternative view, Russian soldiers have not changed; their duties have. The drawn-out conflict in Chechnya that has sent many young Russians running from the draft has also sapped the military’s strength.

Contractors may ease some of the problems, replacing scared boys with expensive hired guns, but the policy change avoids a much larger question. In Iraq and Chechnya, new guerillas spring out of the wreckage left behind by occupational forces in these contested nations. This anger perpetually renews insurgency forces, creating an endless demand for more soldiers on the other side, saddling traditional armies with dwindling public support and funding. The question remains for both Russian and United States military leaders: Is it possible to fix an army entangled in a long occupation?  

Night falls on Pushkinskaya Street

One lazy night last July, a couple of soldiers mingled with their civilian friends on the sidewalk of Pushkinskaya Street. Street cleaners in orange plastic vests smoked cigarettes in the night breeze. Rich kids parked their squat, black sedans on the sidewalk, blaring American hip-hop out open windows.

A pop ditty played on a transistor radio in a café, a military song that had become curiously popular over the summer. Pop star Leonid Agutin, backed by a rock and roll orchestra, sang:

I must serve like everybody
The train will take us to the border
Cheer up boys, we’re all soldiers now.

The simple song is belied by a complex reality. Every year hundreds of teenagers sneak out of service, Svetlana Arsenyevna Lozhkina collects letters from scared soldier-boys, contract soldiers beg for money, and Cossack soldiers lose the nationalistic fever burning in that song. Still, officials like Tziganok hold on to the stubborn patriotism of that anthem, dreaming of a streamlined occupational force.

As the visible strain on America’s overstretched military stokes rumors of an impending draft reinstatement, the grim reality of Russia’s war on terror might foreshadow the future of America. The Russian military has floundered in Chechnya for five years — and they won’t be leaving anytime soon. This doomed struggle burned out a once-powerful army.

In August, terrorists smashed all illusions of safety and control with a couple pounds of explosives. Insurgent fighters don’t need to build elaborate bases, stage complicated army drafts, or worry about missing wages. They are desperate, and can cripple rebuilding efforts for years. As that plane wreckage tumbled to earth outside of Rostov-on-Don, it reminded the whole world that these are new kinds of wars — wars that no traditional soldier can win.

The song never defined the “border” its boys are rushing to defend. This border might be the frontier between boys and men, street cleaners and generals, recruits in Rostov and politicians in Moscow; perhaps it’s also about that invisible, broken line that once kept war far away from this peaceful street.  

As the cheery tune ended, the soldiers wandered down Pushkinskaya Street.


This story was written with the support of Elena Gracheva and NYU’s Russian American Journalism Institute.

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