Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to reform the country's military, which is based on a conscription system. One proposed reform expected to go soon to lawmakers would allow men with moral objections to fighting to serve an alternative service.
The city of Nizhny Novgorod has decided not to wait, and has set up its own program.
One wing in the Hospital of Emergency Care in Nizhny Novgorod does not have an elevator. So for many patients, the only way up and down the four flights of stairs is in the arms of one of the 20 young men working there. They are part of a program they hope will allow them to fulfill their two years of mandatory military service by working at the hospital as orderlies.
Twenty-four-year old Vsevolod Kurpenin works in the surgery department. "This is a very difficult place to work," he said. "They let us into the operating room. Sometimes we even help the surgeons and the nurses. We see all of the injuries."
The program started this January and the men range in age from 18 to 26. They are easily identifiable in their green uniforms as they run up and down the halls.
The doctor in charge of the hospital, Valery Lipatov, says he agreed to allow the men to work at his hospital because no other hospital would take them. "I love experiments," he said. "And, also, everyone else refused. They were all afraid."
By law, alternative service should be simple. The Russian constitution, passed in 1993, says any man who has moral objections to serving in the military may do alternative service. But the government has never passed legislation to determine how long the men would serve, where they would work, and who is eligible.
So now, although young Russians have the right to alternative service, they do not have any way to do it. Analysts say the military fears that allowing men to choose alternative service would reduce its ranks.
Last autumn, Yuri Lebedev, the mayor of Nizhny Novgorod, decided to change this. An organization working with men who have moral objections to fighting suggested that the mayor start an alternative service program.
Mr. Lebedev found a place for them to work and funding for the program. "There is a need for this work in society," he said. "And service to one's country, service to the motherland, it does not have to just be holding weapons and does not have to just be in the army."
About 4,000 men from Nizhny Novgorod are called up for military service every year. But the mayor says about half of them do not serve. Military analysts say almost 90 percent of those summoned every year in Russia avoid serving.
Young men are afraid of the army's brutal hazing or of being sent to the breakaway region of Chechnya or simply do not want to give up two-years of their lives.
Most avoid conscription by studying at a university or bribing officials to say they are medically unfit, or simply by running away.
But 22-year-old Yuri Khvalev, one of those working at the hospital, did not want to run away. He wants to serve his country, just not with a gun. "We simply want to help people," he said. "We are not draft dodgers."
But supporters of alternative service say the military is trying to pressure the courts to close down the program.
The Nizhny Novgorod prosecutor, Leonid Denisov, brought a case against the mayor and the program this winter. He denies being pressured by anyone, and says he admires the men working at the hospital and supports alternative service.
But he says it should only begin after a law has been enacted. Mr. Denisov said, "Our mayor determined this set of conditions. Tomorrow, a mayor from a different city could set up a different set of conditions. It is a question that has to be decided at the federal level for all citizens."
A local court ruled in February that the mayor should not have set up the program since there is no federal law governing alternative service. According to the court's decision, the work the men are doing now will not count toward their military service.
President Putin says that while he supports the idea of alternative service in general, there is still no law governing it. And he said specifically that programs like those in Nizhny Novgorod are against the law.
Proponents of alternative service said Mr. Putin was sending a clear signal to other cities to think twice before starting programs of their own.
But many of the approximately 700 patients at the hospital disagree with the Russian president.
Sixty-two-year-old Larissa Saryova has been in the hospital for three months for bleeding ulcers. She said she is going to pray that the 20 young men be allowed to stay. "There simply are not enough of them," she said. "If there were five on this floor it would be better, but now there are only three."
The controversy may soon be resolved. The Russian parliament is scheduled to debate this spring on an alternative service law. For now, the men at the hospital can only wait to find out whether their work will count once the new law is enacted - or whether they will be forced to start all over again.