YEKATERINBURG, Russia – Increasingly, the young men of Russia say they see military service as an opportunity, not a dreaded obligation to avoid.
The Associated Press recently visited Russia's newest military recruitment center in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city, and talked with several men who plan to turn their one-year mandatory military service into a longer-term job. The cultural shift is significant in an army long dependent on barely paid, low-morale conscripts who leave within 12 months, if they ever report for duty at all.
Tomorrow's soldiers stress they see Russia's army, navy and air force as offering competitive pay and better opportunities for training and adventure than life behind a desk.
The 21-year-old has just earned a university degree in finance and law, looked at the civilian jobs on offer and concluded that a military life would be far more exciting.
So like many university students able to defer their required one year of military service, Batalov now plans to avoid conscription and sign on as a two-year "volunteer," a step that will give him 10 times the pay of a conscript — and perhaps a fast track to joining an elite fighting unit like his uncle, a special forces trooper who saw action in Chechnya and elsewhere in Russia's restive North Caucasus.
"I always wanted to be like my uncle," said Batalov, who says he has had corrective eye surgery, lost weight and trained as a boxer in hopes of increasing his chances of selection for special forces training.
Batalov says he's broken up with his girlfriend because she opposed his career ambitions. "Self-realization is more important for me," he said.
The 22-year-old graduate in information technology says he's joining the military because it offers better job prospects in a depressed economy. Volkhin hopes to learn plenty about high-tech computers and communications systems in uniform.
"The army is changing for the better," he said, noting that his military contract would allow him to work regular hours and still live with his parents.
The 17-year-old says he hopes to hone his mechanic skills in Russia's tank corps. Those like him who don't progress from high school to university cannot proactively enlist and instead first serve one year as a poorly paid conscript earning just 2,000 rubles ($31) a month.
But Galaktionov says he aims to stick around once his 12 months is up, gain a place in a military academy and eventually become a tank commander.
Galaktionov says his main motivation is to help protect Russia like his soldier father, who won medals in Chechnya. He says many of his classmates are similarly content to be drafted into service, a stark contrast from the mood only a few years ago.
"Previously, nine out of 10 were trying to dodge it, find a way to avoid it," he said. "Now it's considered cool and most people want to serve."
The 18-year-old attended the same high school as Galaktionov and both took part in the school's military-focused summer camps. Mogutov says he enjoyed the camps' Spartan conditions featuring shooting practice, nighttime alerts and other drills.
Mogutov says he hopes after his year of conscription to study medicine under army sponsorship and become a military doctor.
"I also would love to visit hot spots," he said, citing adventure as more important than pay. "I want to test myself."
Associated Press reporter Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this story.