“I'm enslaved.” A servicewoman’s contract with the Russian military expired, but the army doesn’t let her go
Алла Константинова
“I'm enslaved.” A servicewoman’s contract with the Russian military expired, but the army doesn’t let her go
12 December 2022, 16:58

Art by Mari Msukanidze / Mediazona

Vera Antonova is a little over 30, she has two small children, a husband, and frayed nerves. She had a contract with the Russian military which already expired, but for almost two months now, her superiors aren't signing her discharge papers, arguing that there was no presidential decree to end the ‘partial’ mobilisation that started in late September. This means that she must continue to serve. The woman told Mediazona why she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

I've been in service for 14 years now, currently working in the records office in one of Moscow's military units. My last five-year contract was supposed to end on October 6. I had no plans to extend it, for me, it was a kind of an end point.

I was on sick leave with my children on October 6, the day the contract expired. When I came back to work, I was told that they wouldn’t discharge me. The head of the unit did not talk to me, only my immediate supervisor and the personnel officer. They didn't offer me any alternative. All they said was, “Serve.” ͘͘How long? Until the end of mobilization.

I understood perfectly well: if there is a presidential decree that states in black and white that active contracts are prolonged until the end of mobilization, no one would let me go.

My situation now is that, in fact, I'm not even a part of the military. As my superiors say, I'm considered a ‘volunteer.’ Just like the volunteers leaving for the SMO zone, yes. I asked them, “Where is this so called voluntarity? Did you ever ask me?” It turned out that the transition to this status happened, of course, without any paperwork.

Shoigu announced that the mobilisation is over, and so did the president. But there is nothing legal—no act or decree about it. No one will sign the dismissal papers until the decree is issued. As the personnel officer told me, “The last war lasted for five years!” I don't know which war he was referring to.

You can't just leave the army. A serviceman can't just write a report and quit. They didn't register my report, they tried to persuade me. Well, I've already decided everything on my part, but every day you hear something like Give it some thought!, Well, why don't you think about it some more?, Think about it another way...—and it's really hard from a psychological point of view.

There are three formal reasons for dismissal in the military right now. First, there's category D—when you are more dead than alive—for very serious illness. For example, people with one leg, with a prosthesis, are allowed to serve in the army. The second reason is the age limit for military service. And then there's an enforceable court decision against a serviceman. I can't retire on any of the grounds now, I'm enslaved. Although in peacetime I could've quit because of my health—I don't have the D category, but I do have a disease that would allow me to quit.

It is possible terminate the contract ‘due to non-compliance,’ for example. But these are negative grounds, so the employment record will state I ‘didn't comply with the conditions of the contract.’ These negative grounds can further reflect on civil activities, because more often than not employers call and ask why you were fired.

I have two small children: the older one is in second grade, and my daughter goes to kindergarten. This, by the way, is one of the reasons why I was going to quit. They get ill very often, and our doctor says it's psychosomatic: they break arms, get sick with sinusitis for a month... In other words, they do everything to prevent me from going to work. My throat always hurts, too. Psychosomatics says it's because a lot remains unsaid, because I have to keep silent all the time. Well, yes, I'm mostly silent at work.

My commute to work is four hours by car, five days a week. I get up at five in the morning, I don't even see my kids—I leave at six. I come back around 7 p.m. every day. I'm also on duty, two to four times a month, so it is normal for me to be away from home for three days straight. I sleep right in the unit on the sofa: according to regulations, a soldier on duty can have a three-hour rest. Needles to say, I cannot call it sleep.

I work with papers. Why do I have to work at night? Because I'm a servicewoman. No, I don't understand that logic. You know, I've barely understood anything about the army for the last seven years.

My mother-in-law helps me and my husband. But my husband also works, he's an executive at another agency. And he sees that I come home every day and cry, and I can't do anything. At least I had some kind of an end point—the end of my contract, but now I don't know what to do at all.

When I started working in 2009, things were different. I come from an officer dynasty and had lived in military camps all my life. I was going for a prestigious and decent job. It was the 2000s, when military units were finally starting to... ‘feel’ normal. I saw some good Soviet officers: my father, his fellow officers... But unfortunately, officers are no longer the same. I'm not talking about all of them, of course, but most of them. They aren't on their best behaviour, let's put this way. Not officer-like. They've been trained for five years to do nothing and boss people around. And I think you understand that what is happening in Ukraine is, among other things, the mistakes of the officer corps.

The attitude towards people has changed. And then again, the workload—now there is a serious understaffing problem in the army. That is, the workload is redistributed, and when a civilian can close the door at six o'clock and say, “I'm going home,” a serviceman cannot do that.

When I started saying openly at work that I wanted to quit, people came up to me and said, “You know, I really envy you.” A lot of people actually want to quit, everyone just has different reasons [to stay]. Some have military mortgages; some serve until retirement.

My colleagues also asked me, “What are you going to do after release?” I told them that I would stay at home, my husband would let me. Of course, I'm not going to do that—I have two more professions. But I tell everyone at work that I will stay at home. Also, now the superiors put pressure on me, “Sign the contract, think about it.” And I'm like, “My husband won't let me.” And they get all mixed-up. When I tell them the real reasons, that I’m not satisfied with this, this, and this, they immediately find ten arguments in response. And if I say that my husband does not allow me to sign a contract, they're lost for words.

My colleagues are not actively interested in what is going on in Ukraine. If they are interested, they ask only in passing, and if you answer them, as I did, they just stop asking you anything at all. But I know it's different in many other units. We had a propaganda session—and afterward everyone just went back to their workplaces. In some units, they openly ask: “What do you think?” And, of course, in a situation like this you have to have the ‘right’ attitude.

Art by Mari Msukanidze / Mediazona

We have propaganda in all our military units, of course. These are classes for the staff explaining the reasons and goals of the military operation, and so on. But I keep quiet about my position and don't talk to anyone. All my colleagues are used to the fact that I am very much dependant on my husband—that's the image I've created for myself. And when they ask me, “How do you feel about it?”, I say, “My husband doesn't let me talk to you about it.” Everybody kind of looks at me like I'm a fool, but it works. Yeah, this absurd is everywhere. I stopped understanding anything. I decided that if I somehow tried to explain everything to myself logically, I would go crazy.

I tried to transfer to another unit, closer to home, but they didn't let me, because there's a shortage of staff. A lot of people want to leave the army, because the workload, responsibility, and pay are completely out of line with reality. For example, in Moscow and the Moscow region a warrant officer gets 40-50 thousand rubles. Most warrant officers are men, so can you imagine what 50 thousand is for Moscow and the region? And what if the his wife is on maternity leave or, for example, he has two children, and he is on duty day and night. He doesn't even have an opportunity to earn extra money, because it's forbidden. Some are kept in service by military mortgages, but it seems to me that nobody works because they believe in some big idea. A lot of people have left for the SMO zone for the money.

I remember when a nuclear power plant was shelled in Ukraine at the beginning of March. I was at home because my child got sick again. And at six in the morning, I woke up and my husband said, “There's a nuclear power plant being shelled, do we have iodine?” I got so scared. He says, “I'll go to the 24-hour pharmacy, fill the tank with gasoline.” And I think he also stopped and bought some canned meat on the way.

If something happens I won't even know about it: we are not allowed to have phones at work, and we don't have landlines. God forbid something happens; I understand that I won't be able to find my children at all. So, I go to work, and nine hours later I leave. My mother-in-law helps us, but a couple of times one of our children was sick had to come home from school alone.

For two years now, I'm just crying all the time. My psychiatrist told me: “If you don't cry, you might go crazy.” I can sit in a meeting and cry. I can't take antidepressants—I spend four hours a day driving. When my contract was supposed to end, I had some peace of mind. Now I realise that I don't even have that.

The mobilisation law has a clause that women with children under 16 can be dismissed. But I am not aware of any such cases. Again, they declared it was a ‘partial’ mobilisation, and this provision of the law applies during ‘full’ mobilization. Maybe there will be some precedents, but there just aren't that many women in the army yet. My husband suggests I tender my resgnation, wait until they refuse to accept it, and then write to the presidential administration. But they will most likely send it down to the subordinate agencies, and how much help would that be?

My colleagues are already used to the fact that I cry all the time, and they don't bother me. They know that if they start talking to me I'll cry even harder. My bosses also understand everything, but there's nothing they can do. In theory, they could even tighten the screws, because anything can be done to a serviceman, if they want to fire you or put you in jail. They can send you to an equal position anywhere in the country—and without your consent, too. They just read out a decree: “In a month, you are to report there and there.” And you go.

Now I'm trying to figure out, roughly speaking, what they can do to me. They cannot formally transfer me to another position or to another unit because I am not officially on a contract. I can't find anything in the regulations about what can or cannot be done to me. But I am obliged to go into service.

Editor: Dmitry Treshchanin

Translator: Daria Fomina

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