Rounding Up the Homeless to Serve in the Military--Then and Now
By Stephen Wilson, one of our reporters abroad
During the 18th to 19th century, military service was shunned in Britain. The lack of freedom, in addition to strict discipline, poor pay, and harsh conditions, discouraged people from joining the armed forces. Only the most desperate would join up.
When Captain Cook at the age of 26 informed his workmates that he intended to join the Royal Navy they thought he was insane. They warned him that a war was imminent and that he faced certain death, and even if he was not killed he would wish himself dead. They asked him "Have you heard that you can be lashed twelve times just for speaking out of turn?"
During the Napoleonic war the Royal Navy's ships were undermanned because they had a shortage of sailors. And the sailors they did recruit sometimes deserted and fled to America. One of the excuses for Britain fighting the War of 1812 (against America) was the fact that America was offering a sanctuary to deserters from the Royal Navy.
How did the Royal Navy go about recruiting sailors? They press ganged them into service. The state allowed special press gangs to raid the ports and forcibly abduct people into service. If a luckless person happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time drinking in an inn, he could be grabbed and thrust into a ship…
Those ships were often named 'sailing coffins.' The British army recruiting agents would buy a person a drink, and get him so drunk that he would sign a contract for service in the army.
The recruit would wake up with the worst hangover in his life! Plus, he had unwittingly signed away his freedom!
Such snatch-and-grab tactics by the British 'press gangs' would be understood by Russian military recruiters. Many Russians have been avoiding the call up for mobilization on a mass scale since the start of the “Special Military Operations” in Ukraine just over one year ago. According to the statistical body Rosstata, during the first 9 months of 2022 as many as 622,915 people left Russia. At this moment the figure probably more likely comes to around one million.
To make up for the shortage of recruits, the Russian state has resorted to all kinds of unconventional methods. The Wagner Group recruited many convicted prisoners in exchange for being freed following their service in Ukraine. …that is if they survived. But when news came back of the high casualties in Ukraine the number of recruits dramatically dried up.
Since October 2022, reports have emerged of security officers grabbing homeless people lining up at soup kitchens in Moscow and being taken to special military enlistment offices. Cheap hostels where migrant workers stay have also been targeted. Migrants have been promised Russian citizenship if they join up. According to one charity called 'Food Not Bombs,' they have seen dozens of homeless men taken off the streets to be sent to special military recruiting points.
A 60-year-old homeless man was grabbed and taken to the office. On discovering he was 60 he was told that he did not meet the age criteria. They told him they don't take anyone above the age of 45. Men who are queuing up for food can be forcibly pulled out, thrust into special long buses and driven to improvised military offices and pressurized to sign up to fight.
A spokesperson for Salvation Hangar, an Orthodox Christian homeless charity, stated, "The police come here without asking anyone. They see a queue of people waiting for food, and then grab them by the scruff of the neck against their will." He stated at least 50 people who had been taken from the queue were later released. They were not “military material!” One of the enlistment centers is in the courtyard of the museum of Moscow which is located in the city center.
Given the poor medical health as well as the average age of the homeless one would have thought that finding suitable recruits here might be challenging. According to Grigory Sverdlin of Nochlezhka, the average age of the homeless is 46. That is one year too old for military service.
In addition, many homeless are also invalids and are afflicted with endless medical ailments from living years on the streets.
To strengthen the Russian army the age of call up is to be raised from 19 to 30 by 2024. Further, the state plans to amass 400,000 special contract soldiers.
But even recruiting people from the age of 30 can be problematic. A specialist, Andrei Zemtsev stated, "Unfortunately many people aged from 27- 30 are already becoming invalids caused by the modern tempo of life. Obesity, being flat footed and short sighted are the most widespread afflictions… I am afraid that many of those adults can't serve because of poor health."
Meanwhile, the desperate search for potential recruits continues on the streets of Moscow. Patrols comb the streets, stopping and searching people. The number of stop-and-search measures has increased. The huge and formidable presence of the police in Moscow is very conspicuous…
At practically every platform and entrance of the metro you can come across a police man who checks documents. Though they first stop many Asian and Caucasian nationalities they are also targeting young people. The main aim is to track down people avoiding mobilization.
This author himself was suddenly stopped and questioned by the police a month ago.
Given this forbidding atmosphere it is no great revelation to find the level of anxiety has shot up. The abductions for recruitment purposes seem to occur among men of different ages and professions. You often encounter wives whose husbands have disappeared abroad, musical bands that can no longer perform because most members have vanished, and mothers who worry their children are going to be enlisted in the army.
But if a homeless person were recruited, sent to the front and then returned to civilian life – would he simply be discharged on to the streets again? The very high prevalence of homeless individuals among war veterans in so many countries suggests this is a distinct possibility.
Reportedly high numbers of homeless veterans in the USA are being placed in a variety of housing because of recent strong collaboration among federal agencies. However, in many countries there are reports of homeless veterans not being so lucky, lately.
How many homeless have actually been successfully recruited into the army internationally is largely unknown. And how many have been discharged and placed into better housing situations than they were in before being recruited is also unknown.
It seems like the legacy of press gangs indeed lives on—despite so many people fighting these kinds of policies in many cities and states! The numbers of press gang abductions are also missing—and might be very hard to track down!