By Boris Kagarlitsky
MOSCOW — Unable to defeat the Chechen fighters, Russian generals have launched a new battle. This time the goal is to force the repeal of a law that allows male students to defer their military service. Complaining of a lack of soldiers, the generals are also anxious to draft students in professional and technical institutes, as well as young people who are the sole breadwinners for their families.
These deferrals and exemptions are guaranteed by law. The option for students of postponing their military service already existed during the Soviet period. Several times it was abolished, but later restored. In addition, many higher educational institutions had their own faculties of military studies. When male students at these universities finished their courses, they still had to serve in the army, but already had the rank of officers.
There has been endless talk in military circles about abolishing deferrals. But it is only now, against the background of the army's humiliating failures in Chechnya, that the army command has launched a real onslaught, demanding that the parliament change the law. The students in turn are organising themselves and putting up resistance.
Among young people in Russia, the popularity of military service has never been so low. Resistance to conscription is developing against a background of overwhelming opposition to the war in Chechnya. Draft evasion, desertion and refusal to obey orders have become widespread. Not even court cases brought by the military prosecutor's office are having much impact.
Student leaders in St Petersburg have declared that even if the parliament grants the military's demands, young people will not present themselves for induction. If attempts are made to draft students by force, these leaders say, "We will storm the local military commissariats". A demonstration by thousands of people on Palace Square in St Petersburg recently showed that these are not empty words.
In Moscow on March 1 a campaign was begun to collect signatures on petitions, and student activists began picketing institutions of higher learning. In the first hour of picketing, more than 200 signatures were collected.
The most active group has been the union "Student Defence". This was set up in 1994 and is now the fastest-growing social movement in Russia. Its extensive activity in Moscow began with the ceremonial burning of an effigy of the bourgeoisie outside the university. The forces of law and order quickly intervened, arresting a number of participants.
Today several thousand Student Defence activists are not only organising pickets and demonstrations against the draft, but are also waging a constant struggle for the rights of tertiary students. They are fighting for higher scholarship payments, and for an end to the common practice of police and administrative authorities carrying out arbitrary searches of student hostel rooms. Student Defence organisations are active also in Siberia and central Russia.
The traditional higher education unions, which are part of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), initially regarded Student Defence with suspicion, fearing its radical actions. But as Student Defence became more and more of a real force, attitudes changed, and the traditional unions began to collaborate with it. The FNPR now officially recognises Student Defence as a "partner and ally".
Student Defence has a clearly expressed left orientation. It was founded by anarchists and members of the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League. However, large numbers of young people who were not aligned with any particular political current quickly joined.
In the words of Dmitri Petrov, the Moscow leader of Student Defence, most of the body's members and activists are relatively unconcerned about ideology, but have more or less leftist views. For this generation, left ideas are becoming synonymous with liberation from the corrupt and mindless power of the "New Russians". In the view of many of the founders of Student Defence, Petrov has too much of a pragmatic bent. However, radical pragmatists in the organisation have had little difficulty finding a common language with anarchists and Komsomol members.
The success of Student Defence reflects a widespread radicalisation of youth. This is not surprising. Young people now make up as much as a third of the total number of unemployed. Around 10% of tertiary graduates are unemployed. A further 10% of young people are unable either to find work after they finish school, or to continue their studies. Significant numbers of young people are forced to leave school at the age of 14 or 15 in order to sell small items on the streets, wash cars or serve the "new Russians" in some fashion.
Sociologist Tatyana Babushkina, who is studying the problems of youth employment, considers that few of these people will ever manage to resume their education. Youth unemployment is creating a permanent "reserve cadre" for mafia structures. But on the other hand, it creates a powerful dynamic of social protest.
Although the attractions of education in Russia have declined sharply (a professor earns less than a stall-holder, and the scholarship payment for a postgraduate student is equivalent to US$12 a month), large numbers of young people are still anxious to study.
Most of the activists of Student Defence are enrolled in technical institutes or teachers' colleges. "These people are our country's future technological elite", Dmitri Petrov says. "They're people with well-founded professional ambitions. They want to do more than just act as servants for the New Russians. They know how to work, and they want to work. They want to play a role in running the country. This is why they don't like the present society, which doesn't give them the opportunity."
So far, the dissatisfaction of young people has shown up mainly in an unwillingness to vote, in contempt for the official politicians and in mistrust of the press. However, more and more young people are making the shift to active protest. "We founded Student Defence", says its chairperson, Dmitri Kostenko, "in order to make radical action once again attractive to young people. We're categorically opposed to this society, and our goal is to change it. To do this, we're relying on young people, people even younger than us, for whom socialism is a beautiful dream counterposed to a horrible reality."
Whatever the differences between "pragmatists" and "ideologues", both currents agree that the resistance to the military represents a turning point for the youth movement. "We'll almost certainly lose this struggle", Petrov says. "But this isn't the main thing. The main thing is the way young people are mobilising and organising themselves in the course of these actions."