The Red Army is looking for more than a few good men. To fill the ranks, Soviet draft boards must round up about 1.5 million conscripts a year, or an average of 4,100 new soldiers, sailors and airmen every day.
And every day, the task of sating that voracious appetite for manpower grows more difficult.
In this balmy Ukrainian city 800 miles south of Moscow, for example, a low-slung, stucco building erected before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution now houses the regional draft board. Forty-one Soviet officers work here to cull every eligible 18-year-old male from the Crimean peninsula -- population 2.5 million -- and ship them off to defend a motherland many despise and disavow.
Some draft boards have become "combat theaters of operations," in the words of Col. Gen. Grigori Krivosheyev, deputy chief of the general staff. Draft boards have been threatened, vandalized and firebombed. In some Soviet republics, draft resistance is blessed by local authorities.
The manpower demands of an army that replaces one-quarter of its troops every six months have been further complicated by an increase in legal exemptions -- college students, for example, are now excluded -- so that today only 4 in every 10 young Soviet men are subject to the draft.
Not to worry, said Col. Alexander Volkov, 44, commander of the Simferopol draft board. A hearty, large-framed paratrooper who served two years in Afghanistan, Volkov exudes a sanguine calm despite evidence that the empire is in danger of dissolution.
In the Ukrainian city of Lvov, for example, officials voted to disband local draft boards; the Ukrainian legislature decreed last summer that conscripts cannot serve outside the republic without permission, a declaration that reportedly triggered many desertions by Ukrainian soldiers; in late October, the Ukraine declared its sovereignty.
But unless Moscow's authority collapses completely, Volkov remains immensely powerful. During the spring and autumn call-ups, he and his staff decide who will be exempt for medical reasons; in which of the five services -- army, navy, air force, air defense or strategic rocket forces -- the able-bodied will serve; and where in the Soviet Union they will be sent.
As befits such clout, Volkov lives well. He is chauffeured about in a shiny black Volga sedan equipped with telephone and television, and he entertains two American guests in his spacious apartment with a feast of caviar, beef and vodka, served on fine linen and German porcelain.
"I tell the young men that the army gets you fit," he explained. "It builds you up in a way that stays with you for your whole life. It builds up your character, too. . . . Most of all, I tell them that we have a strong need for a national defense and that every citizen must do his part to protect the motherland."
Volkov declines to disclose the number of draftees from the Crimea. "Thousands" is as specific as he will get. Draft evasion, he insisted, is not a problem in his region. "Although I can't give exact figures, I can say that our levels of the draft are now roughly equal to those in the Baltic republics."
The analogy is an odd one, since the Baltics are in open revolt. Half of all Baltic conscripts dodged the draft this year, contributing to a desperate shortfall in army manpower, according to the chief of staff of Soviet ground forces. Pravda reported last summer that draft evasion in 1989 had increased 24-fold in the Baltics and 23-fold in the Ukraine over the previous year.
Such problems in the active forces also affect the country's huge pool of military reserves, which will begin to evaporate without a steady flow of trained, former soldiers.
Although draft dodgers are subject to seven years in prison, relatively few are brought to trial, since the military must depend on local authorities to press charges. Even in Moscow, according to the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, or Red Star, only 14 of 462 recent evasion cases were prosecuted.
"If they cannot prosecute guys who say, 'I'm not going to serve,' that's the end of the military as an institution," said Alex Alexiev, an analyst of the Rand Corp., an American think tank. "They depend on the local organs. That's the great weakness."
If resisting the military has become an expression of resurgent nationalism for thousands of young conscripts in the outlying republics, even professional officers can feel ambivalent.
"If you ask whether I am more loyal to the military, to the Soviet Union or to my motherland, the answer is easy," said Capt. Alexei Yemetz, a 28-year-old Ukrainian stationed near Lake Baikal. "I have to love the Ukraine most of all. . . . We all have to cling to our roots."
Draft authorities in Simferopol are not sympathetic. "We have a law. They have to serve," said Lt. Col. Yuri Kotov, head of the draft board's political section. "And recruits who don't want to go have to be punished."
Once, before the world turned upside down, a tour of duty in the Red Army was promoted as "a strong antidote against the infantilism and feminization of men," as a 1981 Soviet article put it.
"But now," said Nikolai Kapranov, a defense expert at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, "people have a very strong allergy to military service."
"It's becoming unacceptable to expect us to do the kind of work that we do for 10 rubles a month," or $1.67, said Valentin Pidrushnyak, 21, a seaman mechanic with the Black Sea Fleet. "In our parents' day, they could get away with it. People believed in suffering and sacrifice then. They believed that they could do everything for the glory of the motherland and get no compensation for it. That's not a good argument for our generation."
Nor for future generations. Said Natasha Bulyaev, a Moscow housewife: "The only thing I wish for my 4-year-old son's future is that he never has to serve in the army."