No, not parliamentarism – that lesson remains unheeded in Russia. Nor has constitutional monarchy found any traction there.
Independent judiciary hasn’t fared much better either, and neither has the rule of law. Even such a mundane practice as putting money in the bank without laundering it first has been derisively ignored.
So much more grateful should we be for Russia reviving a fine British tradition that has been dormant in its native land for over two centuries. I’m talking of course about mobilisation by impressment, known colloquially as the ‘press gang’.
The term describes taking men into the army or, in Britain, especially the navy by compulsion. This could be done either by summons or simply by rounding up strapping lads in the streets.
The practice was widespread in Britain for about 150 years starting from the mid-17th century, when crewing the ships for the growing Royal Navy and merchant marine presented a constant problem. Impressment was one way of solving it.
People liable for press-ganging were described as “eligible men of seafaring habits between the ages of 18 and 55 years”. Such men often displayed understated enthusiasm for being yanked off the street and sent off to sail into broadsides. Public opposition was also strong, and the practice was abandoned when Napoleon was defeated in 1815.
It was then revived by the Somali dictator Siad Barre (d. 1995) and a few other African tinpot despots. And now by Russia, circa 2022.
First Putin and then his Defence Minister Shoigu briefed the nation on the progress of the “special military operation”. Things are going swimmingly, just as planned, they said.
Yes, they admitted mournfully, the Russian army has suffered some losses. Nothing compared to the Ukies’ 100,000 KIA, but still – almost 6,000 Russians have given their lives to protect the Motherland from Nato.
That left some holes in the manpower requirements, and these need plugging. To that end, Putin announced a “partial mobilisation”. How partial?
Funny you should ask. “Military service will apply only to citizens who are currently in the reserve, especially those who have served in the armed forces, have certain military professions and relevant experience,” explained Shoigu.
What sort of numbers are we talking here? Here comes the good news: according to Shoigu, the mobilisation reserve of Russia is about 25 million. But that’s the overall number of those eligible for conscription should the need arise. At present, the need has arisen to draft a mere 300,000, just over one per cent of the possible total.
I, along no doubt with many of those directly affected, did some mental arithmetic and was baffled by the result. Why is it necessary to conscript 300,000 to replace 6,000 dead and some wounded, 90 per cent of whom are, according to Shoigu, back in the ranks already? Such are the vagaries of the mysterious Russian soul that so fascinate Dostoyevsky aficionados.
If the Russian chieftains lost touch with the facts of life so much as to believe that the news would be met with enthusiasm, they got an instant reality check. Queues 20 miles long instantly formed – not at recruitment centres but at airports and border crossing points.
The price of a one-way airline ticket out of Russia quickly jumped to $10,000, paid eagerly by those able to do so. The paupers drove their bangers to the border with Georgia, Mongolia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Mars… just kidding about that last one.
When it became clear that it would take days to get to the top of the queue, many dumped their cars and hired more nimble scooters. Anything not to have to defend the Motherland.
Others discovered they didn’t have to travel that far. Simply moving to a different region within Russia would throw the mobilisation bureaucracy out of kilter. Suddenly, men began to acquire an urgent need to travel hundreds of miles for business or pleasure.
Conscription summonses rained on the population, and in numbers much greater than 300,000. The powers that be know they need a hefty safety margin.
There’s not enough time to train the recruits properly, not enough weapons to arm them, not enough clothes to protect them from cold, not enough body armour – even not enough officers. The way the Russian army is run, it takes over 40,000 officers to command 300,000 men.
Even assuming that some retired veterans could be taken off the mothballs, how effective would they be if they haven’t uttered a word of command in decades? Not very, is everyone’s educated guess.
The important thing to understand is that the desired 300,000 is the difference of subtraction, not the product of addition. The ‘partial’ subscription is planned to proceed in several waves, at least three.
The first batch of ill-trained, ill-equipped and ill-led cannon fodder will be served up to be processed by Ukrainian artillery in short order. Then a second wave will come in, and a third one after that. The hope is that those who survive will indeed add up to 300,000, but it’ll take twice as many body bags to get to that number.
That’s why the mobilisation order has a secret clause, evoking the nice memory of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. Inside sources say that the number specified there is 1,000,000 recruits, which supports the three-wave concept.
Far from being ‘partial’, the mobilisation is already total covertly and soon will be overtly. Russian men are facing a stark choice, and they know it. Either they flee, which is becoming increasingly difficult and in a few days will become impossible, or accept a 10-year prison sentence for draft evasion – or turn into lambs led to slaughter.
Meanwhile the conscription juggernaut has gone straight into top gear, skipping the lower ones. Crowds of Russians accepting the summonses with characteristically Russian servile meekness, are being loaded on to buses and taken to destinations unknown.
Alas, the current estimate is that relying just on such obedient individuals would make the 300,000 quota short by about 270,000. Draft evaders are that good. That’s why the press gang has begun.
Recruitment parties bang on people’s doors at night, pick up the men and take them away. Street raids are also proceeding apace. No one cares whether the men have any military experience or regulation specialities mentioned by Putin. No one cares even if they have medical deferments. Their job is to die, and only the numbers matter.
Yet, to use the Americanism, Putin may be dumb but he ain’t stupid. Press-ganging is under way not in Moscow, Petersburg and other major cities, where inquisitive foreign correspondents may roam (the home-grown ones have been brought to heel).
Men are being rounded up in faraway regions, mostly ethnic. Some villages in Buryatia, for example, have already lost all their men to recruitment parties.
So far few public protests have augmented private escapes. But there have been some, though not in the ethnically pure Russian provinces.
For example, riotous public demonstrations broke out in the Babayurt region of Dagestan, where the federal motorway has had to be blocked. As to Chechnya, its women screamed they wouldn’t let their husbands and sons go off to be killed or, if they are lucky, crippled.
The Chechen dictator Kadyrov, who increasingly resembles a loose cannon hoping to roll all the way to the Kremlin throne currently occupied by Putin, agreed. Chechnya, he said, had already exceeded its quota of conscripts by a wide margin. There would be no more, thank you very much.
As all this fun is going on, I for one am happy that at least the Russians have learned something from the British. Not perhaps the best thing, but hey – at least they are trying.