original title: UBEJDENIA
2016, 61 min., Color/ Black and White, Russian
CATEGORY: Dark Comedy
COUNTRIES: Russia, Poland
FESTIVALS & AWARDS
- Main Prize for the Best Feature Film ArtDocFest 2016
- MDR Film Prize for an outstanding Eastern European Film DOKLeipzig 2016
Cinematographer : Maria Falileeva
Producers : Maria Chuprinskaya, Vlad Ketkovich, Maciek Hamela, Tatiana Chistova
In 1987, United Nations Commission on Human Rights approved the Resolution on Conscientious objection to military service based on “thought, conscience and religion”. In Russia, the right to have an alternative civil service was guaranteed for the first time by the 1993 Constitution.
According to the law, the right to object to the military service is not limited to the believers. Other citizens may declare that their personal convictions (pacifist, philosophical, moral, ethical, political) are incompatible with military service. Those serving the alternative service work as librarians, hospital attendants, archivists, circus and theatre workers etc.
Sounds great – the peaceful labour is wonderful. However, there is one problem: once you come to the enlistment office, you have to prove that your convictions are indeed what you say. It is up to the draft board to decide what do you really believe…
Four stories of young men’s encounters with army recruitment commissions. Ardent pacifist Roman is sent through a series of humiliating court trials. Losha and Viktor endure long and condescending deliberations that undermine their personalities. Finally, LGBT movement veteran, Johnny is bluntly rebuked and handcuffed. All are put to test by a bureaucratic machine that doesn’t sympathize with those who dispute the purposiveness of military service.
The coscript enters a room packed with officials. The officials have to listen to his convictions that go in conflict with the idea of military service. It’s for the officials to decide whether the conscript leaves the room as a soldier or as a civilian.
A sneak peak into what it really means to stand up for one’s beliefs in a re-militarized society that punishes conscientious objection under criminal law.
We are observing the process of decision making, the conscript and the officials, the time passing by and all the details that make life what it is.
This is where the director comments directly on the consequence of the absurd theatre, which is a reality in Russia today, some call it mobilisation. The film shows a generation gap between the young ones who claim for pacifism and the stone-age panel, who has to act according to some paragraphs, they don’t understand. Is it a sad film, of course it is, on the other hand you feel happy to see the bravery of the young ones, who dare stand up for their convictions.
We do not want to be slaves
Ivan Fedoseyev comes to the draft board carrying the banner “Army is a school of slavery”. Coming near the military enlistment center, he witnesses Zarnitsa, a war game for adolescents, and shows his banner to the players. When the refractory conscript enters the room where the draft board is sitting, everyone is already waiting for him. They angrily ask him: “Why do you not respect our veterans?” – “I do respect veterans”, says Ivan – “but you should not try to make military service appealing, you should not lure people to enlist, you should not militarize them”. Ivan does not want to serve in the Russian army but the members of the draft board are not bereft of maliciousness when they finally vote against his request for alternative civil service.
This is a scene from the documentary Convictions, released internationally on 7 March at the Jeden Svet Festival in Prague. Ivan wished to come from St. Petersburg to Prague to be present at the first screening of the film but he does not have a Schengen visa so we speak with him on Skype. “When I left the room where the draft board sat,” says Ivan, “conscripts in the corridor waiting for their turn started to applaud.” Ivan Fedoseyev who calls himself John, has a rich experience of political struggle. He was among the first organizers of ‘rainbow columns’ at the Labor Day manifestations of the last years. “It was the most important public LGBT event in Russia,” he tells us. “In 2014, three hundred people marched on Nevsky Prospect, and in 2015, their number grew to six hundred.”
The alternative civil service should be instrumental in bringing about the full abolition of the slavery
For a number of years, Ivan Fedoseyev has been fighting against the ‘conscription slavery’. “When I was 17, I decided not to join the army. It is the part of the state that forms its own policy of repression of the human beings. I have been four times at the military enlistment center and every time I would prepare my speech beforehand. My speeches become tougher and tougher. We always come with a camera they are afraid of. Once a member of the draft board was aggressive, and we were taken away in handcuffs. The hatred mounts against those who choose non-violent means of struggle. Many conscripts just buy off the draft boards but I am hostile to corruption and I do not wish to use dishonest ways. I want to use my constitutional right, and the alternative civil service should be instrumental in bringing about the full abolition of the slavery.”
Ivan came to the draft board session filmed by Tatiana Chistova in the film Convictions accompanied by Yelena Popova, the founder of the Movement of Conscientious Objectors to the Military Service on the Grounds of Conscience. The Phоtо Album of the Movement contains portraits of young people who managed to obtain permissions for the alternative service.
I speak with 24-year-old Alexey Rykov. His story is also told in the film Convictions. The draft board session filmed by Tatiana Chistova refused his request but later he was more successful.
– Alexey, there are four ways to defer from army service: you may grease somebody’s palm; you may pretend to be ill and obtain a false health certificate; you may go into hiding and ignore military subpoenas; finally, you may come to the military enlistment office and declare that you do not want to serve. You chose the fourth method which is the most complicated one and probably the most risky of them all. Why?
When these people see you are afraid, they start to look for profit
– I am not sure this method is the most risky one. I chose it because I did not deem possible to use any other one. I did not consider illegal methods. I did not want to break the law; besides, I did not have 150-200 thousand rubles to buy the exemption from military service. Making a false health certificate is not a good thing, either; it is illegal. It was by chance that I learned about the possibility of alternative service. I studied in the university, so my military service was deferred but the deferment was coming to the end and I started to think what I could do. I started to browse videos, looking up for the phrase “How not to serve in army and stay legal”. I found the YouTube channel of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers and started to browse all their reels, records of workshops and draft board sessions. I understood that I can really do it. I decided to visit a workshop run by the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers. I came there, I understood that it is not that scary, after all, and I am perfectly capable of staying outside a military unit.
– I was astonished by your manner when speaking to the draft board. You were dealing with a group of coldblooded and malevolent people, representing the state and capable of seriously damaging your life. The relations between the state and the citizen in Russia follow the pattern of relations between a gangster and a victim. You did not look like a victim. You spoke like a free person, without any humility, even with a kind of haughtiness. It seemed unusual to me.
If you have made a decision that you do not want to serve in the army, nobody can force you, even the people that represent the state.
– I kept cool. I know that these people, when they see you are afraid, they start to look for profit. If you do not show your fear, they would speak more composedly with you. It is also a great merit of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers and all its members: they say that you should not be afraid of these people, they cannot do anything to you. That is true.
If you have made a decision that you do not want to serve in the army, nobody can force you, even the people that represent the state. It makes one more confident.
– They can file a case against you, as shown in our film. The sentence was mild but it could be tougher.
– This case took place in Bashkortostan. In Russia, there are many such cases but a large portion of them are won by the conscripts, and they do not lead to penal sanctions and deprivation of liberty.
– In the film, you say that you thought about your unwillingness to serve in the army, gradually adding new arguments. Can you name the most important ones?
I do not want to support the machine of violence
– I have two or three arguments. The main one: any limitation to the freedom makes me sick. It includes freedom of movement as well as psychological freedom, when they do not allow you to say what you think. My second argument is that I do not want to support the machine of violence. The army institutionally is a factory that produces violence. My third argument is that if I join the army, I would start supporting our present political regime. Yet, I disagree with our regime on many points: the freedom of speech is curtailed, and people’s rights are infringed upon, because people do not know their rights at all.
– How did you manage to win?
– To put it in crude terms, I just wore them down. They refused me, I filed a case. Then they forgot me for a year. Then I renewed letters and complaints. Then I came, they tried to impose their point of view once more, but I just stood my ground. Finally, they thought and said: “Well, do we need such a person in the army? He is annoying.” So they approved my request and told me: “Go and serve your alternative service.”
– You also spoke about the war in Ukraine to your draft board? What do you think about it?
Any war brings power to somebody, and power brings money to somebody. It means that the final purpose is to make money
– People become propaganda victims. They are brainwashed to go and die for some cause, and in fact they become simple figures in a game, and the purpose of this game is to make money for somebody. I believe now that any war brings power to somebody, and power brings money to somebody. It means that the final purpose is to make money. In every war, I see only the motivation of those who sit up there and manipulate other people as if they were puppets, instilling their ideas which are totally false. That is what I think about any war, including the war in Ukraine. I think the same things take place on the other side,” – says Alexey Rykov.
There are two more protagonists in the film Convictions. Viktor Semenenkov tells to the draft board that he had witnessed his father’s murder and since then he cannot stand any violence. The draft board, with the unexpected support of the representative of the prosecutor’s office, agreed to send him to the alternative service without much hesitation. The case in Bashkortostan, mentioned in our conversation with Alexey Rykov, was initiated against Roman Fedotov, a convinced pacifist who backed his reluctance to serve by references to Leo Tolstoy’s and Mahatma Gandhi’s thoughts. After long ordeals and a lawsuit he also managed to win.
There were many heroes but our film includes only four people. I wanted them to be just simple and ordinary guys. It was my basic idea not to take unique and complicated cases. On the other hand, it was important to have a dialogue between the draft commission and the guys. People on the other side are also my heroes, are also personalities interesting to look at.
– Your conscripts do not seem to me simple and ordinary guys. They are very courageous, which is already unusual. A young man must have guts to be able to tell a commission of severe old frowning Soviet people that he does not obey their orders.
It seems strange to me that many guys sit in the corridor and accept their destiny with fatalism
– I cannot agree with you because St. Petersburg is a city of three revolutions, it is natural for us to revolt. On the contrary, it seems strange and unusual to me that many guys sit in the corridor and accept their destiny with fatalism. I find it normal and right that some guys try to speak with the draft board as equals. It is incorrect to assume that the population, especially the population of big cities is the rabble, going through their life routine with submission and obedience. It is not true.
– You did not film only in St. Petersburg. Your film contains an interesting case from Bashkortostan.
– Yes, that is why I filmed it. In St. Petersburg everybody knows about the alternative service, there are many such cases, the requests are filed often, there is support, and young people come together and form groups. The province is less informed. The level of education is lower in province, and the military service is the only way to somehow change your life. There is nothing to do in this wilderness, and the army gives a chance to leave your predestined place where a boy has only one standard option – to join a Railway Transportation college.
– I think that young people join army not only to change their life but also because it feeds them during at least a year. The army is for poor people nowadays. The children of rich parents go abroad or pay a bribe or buy a false medical certificate. The army is stratified from this point of view – only poor people serve.
There are regions where it is an honour to serve
– I cannot agree with you. Russia is a big country, we have different regions. There are regions where it is an honour to serve. There are also regions where young men were not conscripted, for one or another reason. My guys sought not to serve while those guys would use any means possible to get into army and would not be accepted. There is the Southern Military District where there is a competition to get into army because they believe that “if you did not serve, it means you are not a real man.” I cannot say about the whole of our huge country that the army service is for poor people. It would be as absurd as trying to establish the medium temperature in a hospital.
– However, children of rich people generally do not serve in the army.
– Children of the middle bourgeoisie, as a rule, obtain a higher education, people with higher education have their service deferred, then they go for the MA course, then for a Ph. D. At that point, they reach the age of 27 and they are no more eligible as conscripts. Of course, there is corruption. Of course, if you do not want to serve, you may buy false documents. However, in the last three years it became incredibly expensive. Besides, there are precedents showing that it does not always solve the problem: you may pay and not get the result. I believe the situation improved since the moment I started shooting the film. It means it became easier to solve your army problem with legal means. It is my subjective feeling. However, at the same time the difference between those who sincerely want to serve in the army and those who sincerely does not want became more marked. These two poles are now much more visible,” says the film director Tatiana Chistova.
We believe that the very idea of ‘defenders’ is one of the pillars of the oppression
On 23 February (Defender of the Fatherland Day in Russia), on the Mars Field in St. Petersburg, the opponents of the military service organized a dramatized action. A woman in red, reminiscent of the iconic Soviet image Motherland Calls stood with the banner “Say when it is enough” and men lay down around the Eternal Fire symbolizing those killed in the war. “We believe that the very idea of ‘defenders’ is one of the pillars of the oppression, of any oppression – national, gender or what else. A man is brought up from his infancy with the idea that he should protect. But in reality he is only taught to behave aggressively and to fully repress his emotions. He grows up a person capable of violence and control,” – explain the organizers of the action.
In 2018, the movement for the alternative service will celebrate its 30 years. It was founded already in the USSR by the young conscript Alexandr Pronozin who, back in 1988, sent a letter to the Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov where he declined to serve in the armed forces because of his “pacifist and political ideas” and ignored the summons from the military enlistment office. He was defended in court by the famous lawyer Henri Reznik, and in 1991, after the breakdown of the USSR, Pronozin took part in working out the draft law on alternative service that was finally adopted in 2002.
Activists who explain to the conscripts the conditions of that law try to debunk the myth that it is up to the citizen to prove that his convictions or religious beliefs defend him to serve in the army. In reality, it is up to the draft board to prove that his statements are not true, and he is not obliged to present any certificates of his participation in a religious or a pacifist organization. This reminder is particularly important in the spring: on 1 April Russian army issues a new call-out for conscripts.