Page last updated at 19:10 GMT, Monday, 19 February 2007

Moscow Diary: Soldiers and snow

This week the BBC's James Rodgers in Moscow looks at Russia's military service woes and finds out how the capital is coping with its long-awaited snow. His diary is published fortnightly.


There is an army barracks near my flat in Moscow. Almost every morning, the soldiers line up to get into trucks, presumably to head off for training.

I say presumably because the theory and practice of what Russians do during their military service can be entirely different.

Russian soldiers
Russia's military has been tarnished by a series of scandals

Conscripts have been hired out as cheap labour while senior officers pocket the proceeds.

Now it seems some soldiers may even have been forced into prostitution.

Every Russian man aged between 18 and 27 is supposed to spend time in the army.

Only a fraction of them actually do. If you are at college, or medically unfit, you can be excused.

Most people manage to find a way to avoid the draft.

False medical certificates, false registration documents at an address where the recruiting officers find no one has ever heard of you, or a simple bribe, are the favoured methods.

The impression you sometimes get is that only the poorest and the least well-connected actually end up serving.

In June last year, the defence ministry said 15% of the men drafted that spring were undernourished.

The post-Soviet armed forces have been dogged by cruelty and disaster.

For someone who had been a child during the Cold War, it was hard to believe that these were the successors of the Red Army we had so feared

There have been horrific cases of bullying ending in death and disability.

In the latest scandal, the Union of Soldiers' Mothers claimed that soldiers in St Petersburg were being forced into male prostitution. The union campaigns for the welfare of military personnel.

The command of the barracks concerned denied the allegations, but a military prosecutor was reported to be investigating.

Reporting on the war in Chechnya in the 1990s, I was struck by the sorry state of some Russian troops.

For someone who had been a child during the Cold War, it was hard to believe that these were the successors of the Red Army we had so feared.

President Vladimir Putin's recent speech in Munich was interpreted by some as the possible start of a new Cold War.

There is no doubt that Moscow is seeking a greater international role, but this is not an army whose conscripts are necessarily willing or able to be part of a military superpower.

The day that news of the alleged prostitution ring was reported in the papers, one of the tabloids led on the fact that Andrei Sychev was planning to write a book.

Private Sychev had to have both legs and his genitals amputated as a result of injuries he received while serving in the army.

He was not disabled by shot or shell. He was beaten by his comrades in arms.


A team of specialists springs into action. They have had it pretty easy so far. January 2007 was the warmest on record.

Snow in a Moscow park
Moscow's snow arrived late - and clearing it is a big task

But the snow came late last month, and it is still falling.

Mobile conveyor belts with metal flippers scoop it up and dump it into trucks.

The city council proudly announces how many cubic metres of snow have been shifted from the capital's streets.

It is not all high-tech. Take the roof of the house opposite the BBC office - the operation provides employment for four people.

Two stand on the pavement - one at each end of the area where the snow might land when it is shoved off the roof. Two more are at the sharp end. Brushing steadily, they move methodically across the icy tiles above.

A harness - tied to the less-than-solid-looking chimney - is the only thing stopping them falling off the roof along with the snow.

Moscow's fanciest shopping centres employ a host of cleaners. Their job is to mop up the muddy puddles which form when snow from shoppers' shoes melts on the marble floors.

I felt guilty the other day when I swept the snow off my car windscreen just when the empty parking space next to mine had been cleared.

I apologised to the man sweeping up. "Don't worry," he replied. "It'll snow again soon anyway."

The sensation that a couple of centimetres of snow caused in the UK recently made me slightly embarrassed.

Previous Moscow diaries:

Your comments:

Russian army now is in a very bad situation. Next month I'll be 18 and I will have to go to war commissariat. But fortunately this summer I have entered Moscow State University and the only reason why I will go there is to get a document allowing me not to serve. But my cousin wasn't so lucky he left his college because of his marks and he was taken to army immediately. His serving was looking like being in prison: sergeants had taken his food, kicked him. The funniest thing is that Russian soldier have fewer rights than prisoners.
George, Moscow

Having lived in Russia for 4 years, I am familiar with James comments. One that always used to impress me was the apparent "surprise" with which snow came each year, especially evident for street-snow cleaners. My favourite line was "we can never be sure it will snow in winter" - yeah, right!
Vadim Smith, Brussels, Belgium

Why only bad things? Nothing positive! I agree Russian Army is not the one it used to be in the past. But writing so many bad things about it (and, I must admit, a lot of bad stuff about Russia in general) makes people think Russia is a sort of ugly mask. I have an impression that such articles aim at further humiliation of Russia. Cold War is definitely not over.
Andrey, Moscow, Russia

Russia's a country with a lot of resources, especially human capital. It's quite a shame that it's vastly underutilised due to corruption. Like a snowball rolling downhill, corruption does too.

Sometimes the whole truth is difficult to know. Regarding the Russian Army, it has always been kind of a mystery to really know what their capabilities and limits are. Today Russia is an emerging power whose president often shows off the new weaponry, etc. On the other hand the recent reports on bullying and prostitution gives us another perspective on what really is happening inside the Russian Army. Great piece for those interested in the subject; and let me say I do not think the Russians are the only ones that suffer from problems like this.
Alejandro, Mexico City, Mexico

Russian soldiers abused - it is sickening and very sad. I truly feel their and their mothers' pain and the emotions. I appeal to President Putin to take an immediate action against such crimes.
Sara, New Brunswick, USA


James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow

MAY - OCT 2008

SEPT 2007 - APRIL 2008




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