Prisoners of the Red Army

MOSCOW – Some of the most interesting artifacts of the Soviet Union in Russia are the holidays that continue to be celebrated, almost two decades after the fall of communism. On February 23, Russians celebrate the “Day of the Defender of the Fatherland,” a rough equivalent of Father’s Day but with a militaristic flavor. On this day, daughters, wives, and girlfriends give presents to Russian men and lavish them with attention. (In fairness, there is also “Women’s Day” – March 8 – and a newly popular Valentine’s Day.)

During Soviet times, February 23 was called the “Day of the Soviet Army and Navy,” and celebrated the creation of the Red Army. The holiday received its current name in 2006, and, according to a recent survey by the Russian pollster FOM, 59% of Russians consider it to be special or significant (32% do not).

Unfortunately, February 23 is not the only remaining relic of the Red Army. Another Soviet military legacy is the system of obligatory conscription. While all other large European countries abolished military conscription in recent decades, Russia continues with a system in which all physically-fit male citizens aged 18 to 27 must serve for 12 months. Exemptions are based on medical conditions, and are given to university students and employees of certain organizations (for example, the police). About 500,000 young men are conscripted every year.

The system is unfair, inefficient, and unpopular. According to FOM, 51% of Russians support abolishing conscription, and 67% are against extending the age of eligibility for the draft. The Russian military estimates the total number of draft dodgers to be close to 200,000. According to the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, the current rate for bribes to avoid conscription is as high as $5,000 (for comparison, a typical lieutenant’s monthly salary is about $500).