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A Russian recruit, mobilized for the war in Ukraine, is fighting to avoid the fight

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin's mass mobilization of additional troops prompted tens of thousands of young men to flee the country. NPR's Charles Maynes has this story of one young recruit who remained in Russia and is now fighting to avoid the fight.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Kirill Berezin remembers the exact moment the Kremlin's so-called special military operation in Ukraine directly entered his life. It was September 24. He'd found a piece of paper lying at the entrance of the St. Petersburg apartment he shares with his grandmother - a draft notice.

KIRILL BEREZIN: (Through interpreter) I got it that morning. They slipped it under the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Just days earlier, President Vladimir Putin had announced he was mobilizing 300,000 new troops for Ukraine, and Kirill suspected he might be on the shortlist. He was 27 and didn't have a wife or family. He'd also done mandatory service in the army a few years earlier. But from that experience, he says he knew he couldn't fight in Ukraine.

BEREZIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Kirill grew up in Russia's cultural capital of St. Petersburg. Military service just wasn't for him. That feeling of firing a gun - he says he hated it. And it wasn't fear. It was conviction.

BEREZIN: (Through interpreter) I understood I couldn't shoot a person in any circumstances. The weapon brings nothing but destruction. It's just not for me.

MAYNES: But he headed to the recruitment office that same day to explain he would be happy to serve, just not in that way. What he wanted was alternative military service - anything that didn't involve killing.

BEREZIN: (Through interpreter) I could work in the hospital or a kitchen. I could do anything to serve my country, but only without a weapon in my hand.

MAYNES: Alternative service is constitutionally guaranteed under Russian law. The Defense Ministry even lauds Russia as among the first countries to offer conscientious objector status on the grounds of pacifist or religious beliefs, dating back to the early 20th century. But Russia's government today maintains there are no such exceptions for troops fighting in Ukraine, even if some, like Kirill, argue that's a question to be decided by the courts. At least, it should be. When he got to the recruitment center, the officers were having none of it.

BEREZIN: (Through interpreter) Unfortunately, they didn't listen to me. Like with all of us, there was no medical exams or discussions. They just took your documents and put you on a bus headed for a training camp.

MAYNES: The recruits were given three days of minimal training. They fired a total of 30 rounds as target practice, Kirill says, before being sent by train to a staging ground near the Ukrainian border.

BEREZIN: (Through interpreter) There were guys acting like it was all a game, saying, I can't wait to get there; we'll find those Ukrainians and take care of them, that sort of thing. But those who knew where we were going, they kept to themselves, clearly terrified.

MAYNES: When the recruits arrived at the military camp, Kirill found it overcrowded, with not enough tents for incoming troops. He slept outside on the ground. He also heard rumors, later proven true, that newly mobilized troops had already been thrown into battle and died. Meanwhile, Kirill kept insisting on alternative service. He'd filed a formal legal appeal, and his commanding officer knew it.

BEREZIN: (Through interpreter) He'd say, why get the police or courts involved when they can just bash your head in, throw you in a truck and off you go?

MAYNES: In all this time, Kirill still refused to pick up a gun, and the harassment, he says, increased.

BEREZIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: He admits he contemplated suicide as he grew more desperate, even writing a farewell note explaining the circumstances before he realized he couldn't find a rope to hang himself. And then news came. His unit was heading out for Ukraine.

BEREZIN: (Through interpreter) No one tells you anything about where we're going. But I knew it wasn't safe to be under the command of this officer, and I didn't know if I'd have any means of communication when we got there.

MAYNES: Desperate, Kirill did the only other thing he could think of to save himself - he left the base.

BEREZIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: He negotiated a ride back to St. Petersburg from a local taxi driver. It cost him most of his savings, he said, some $500. But the driver didn't ask questions about Kirill, about his uniform, about why he was leaving in the first place. And when he got to St. Petersburg, he immediately surrendered to local authorities and filed a formal complaint against his senior officer. Again, he said he wanted alternative citizen service.

BEREZIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: And that's where I met him - as he waited for another hearing to find out whether he would be returned to the army and an uncertain future. Kirill acknowledged there were risks. He might be given a lengthy jail sentence for desertion or refusing to fight. Worse, he might be sent back to that same commanding officer, and that seemed likely to happen until, at last, a bit of luck. Kirill reached out to a commander he'd served under during his years as a conscript long before Ukraine. And it was decided - Kirill will still have to serve, but at least now he'll be under different leadership, and it seems in a noncombat role. Still, Kirill thinks he made a mistake that day, the day he found that draft notice and headed straight for the recruitment office.

BEREZIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Now, he says, he suspects they threw papers under as many doors as they could - a quota given, a quota met.

BEREZIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "Whoever showed up, showed up," he says, shaking his head.

BEREZIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "And I walked right in." Charles Maynes, NPR News, St. Petersburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.