On November 5th, 1941, Arndt Pekurinen, a pacifist, was shot in Finland, because of him today in Suomi  it is possible to serve this country even in a circus or a sauna. At the height of the Russian autumn conscription, we tell how the alternative civil service is organized in Finland and how it differs from the ACS in Russia.

Life for service without weapons

The first law on the persons liable for military service appeared in independent Finland in 1919, but there were no paragraphs concerning convictions. In 1922 the amendments allowed to serve in the armed forces without weapons on religious grounds. Then the first conscientious objectors appeared, but they were severely punished. Already in 1931 the law of Pekurinen was adopted. Thus Finland created the institute of alternative civil service and the refusal of military service on religious grounds ceased to be a crime. At the same time, the Finnish lawmakers defined the places of passage of the ACS as those that "benefit the state and society" and only citizens with religious convictions could serve there.

Arndt Juho Pekurinen, 1905 — 1941 – pacifist and the first Finn, officially released from military service on grounds of conscience. In 1926, Pekurinen repeatedly refused mandatory conscription, leading to his imprisonment between 1929 and 1931. While Pekurinen was deeply religious, his motives were not based on his faith. While his contemporaries suggested he was Communist, he was not interested in politics. Because of his pacifist conviction, in the atmosphere of the Militaristic thirties he was harassed relentlessly. In 1930, an international petition on his behalf was sent to the Finnish defense minister Juho Niukkanen, which included the signatures of sixty British MPs and notables such as Albert Einstein, Henri Barbusse and H. G. Wells. On 14 April 1931, the Lex Pekurinen, Finland's first alternative to military service, was passed. However, its provisions extended only as far as peacetime. When the Winter War broke out in 1939, Pekurinen once again found himself imprisoned. From there he was sent to the front, with orders to make sure he did wear the uniform, and bear and use a weapon. He refused both, for that on November 5, 1941, he was executed without trial on the orders of the commander, while two soldiers refused to shoot him and only the third agreed. The investigation of his death began after the war, but was never brought to an end. He remained effectively forgotten for over fifty years, until the publication in 1998 of the book Courage: The life and execution of Arndt Pekurinen by Erno Paasilinna. The city of Helsinki named a park Arndt Pekurisen puisto (The park of Arndt Pekurinen) in his memory.

Arndt Pekurinen. Photo: wikipedia.org

In 1959, the Finnish state gave all citizens the right to serve without weapons, including secular objectors. Their applications were considered by a special commission, which included a judge, an officer, a representative of the Ministry of Social Affairs, a priest and a psychiatrist.

The next step in the development of the institute of refusal of military service was the release in 1985 of Jehovah's Witnesses from any service, including alternative. The authorities explained this decision by community guilt for this religious group: historically, Finland persecuted Jehovah's Witnesses, placing them in camps, in particular, for refusing to wear military uniform.

After only two years, the alternative service received unprecedented development: in 1987, the Finns abandoned the practice, according to which conscripts had to prove their convictions. From that moment, it was enough for a citizen to indicate on a special form what his views contradict military service.

Since then, despite the militant spirit of Finns, a public protest against compulsory military service has been strengthened: citizens did not go to the recruiting stations and wrote statements to the police against themselves to organize a public trial on evasion of the conscription. The anti-war movement also intensified, thanks to popular rock musicians supporting the protest, such as Terveet Kädet, Kohu-63 and Kaaos. The future president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, also actively participated in the pacifist movement.

Due to public pressure in 1992, the term of alternative service was reduced to 395 days, and in 1999, the right to exemption from participation in the country's military defense on grounds of convictions was enshrined in the country's main document - the Constitution of Finland (§ 127). Beginning in 2008, the term has decreased to 347 days, the authorities of Finland have stopped not only demanding citizens to explain or motivate their choice, but even to point out the nature of their beliefs (for example, religious, secular or political). Moreover, the refusal of military service became possible in wartime.

How to get into alternative service

In Finland, male citizens aged 18 to 30 are subject to conscription. Any citizen liable for military service has the right to pass alternative civil service instead of military one. Unlike in Russia, ACS in Suomi has a declarative nature: a citizen simply fills in a special form, which confirms that service with arms conflict with his views.

Photo: Application form for ACS
"Based on my convictions, I can not pass the military service prescribed by Law on subjects to military service, so I ask you to exempt me from it and transfer to the civil service."

The application is formally considered by a commission of three people, but in fact it can not deny its satisfaction. At the same time, even military servicemen can be transferred from the army to an alternative service with a recognition of prior service in the Armed Forces, and in some cases at a ratio of one to two days.

By the way, in Russia the law presupposes various reasons for the refusal on application: for example, if the conscript missed the application submission deadline or the documents characterizing him do not correspond to the arguments that the performance of military service is contrary to his convictions or religion. In practice, this means that any statement can be rejected without reference to specific documents.

According to the statistics of the Movement for Conscientious Objectors, presented to the European Court of Human Rights as a conclusion of amicus curiae in the case of Dyagilev v. Russia, from 234 conscripts who asked Movement for legal aid and applied for alternative service, 109 (46.5%) achieved replacement of military service by ACS, applications of 107 (46.9%) were denied. Other 18 (6.6%) people were confronted with the non-feasance of the military.

The requirements for future alternative and military servicemen in Finland, like in Russia, are absolutely the same, including health reasons. According to statistics, today about 25 to 30% of Finnish citizens are exempted from compulsory military or civil service for health reasons, and about 10% of the civil servicemen started their training at the ACS Center are dismissed in first days due to medical problems that are detected already during training.

The term of alternative service is 347 days, and military service lasts 165, 255 or 347 days, depending on the education level. After 6 months of military service, a young person can voluntarily continue the service for another three months to obtain a sergeant's rank, and then (also voluntarily) - three more to get the rank of junior officer. For comparison: in Russia, civilists  serve their country during 21 months.

The number of conscripts who choose an alternative service instead of military is about 7% of the number of citizens conscripted into the armed forces, that is, approximately 2,200 people in year. Some of them use various postponements, therefore about 1,500 Suomi citizens undergo an alternative service each year.

What alternative servicemen study

For the first four weeks, the alternative servicemen undergo intensive training at the Center for Alternative Civil Service, located on the picturesque shore of the lake in the community of Lapinjärvi in the south of Finland.

Photo: Alexander Peredruk
Center for Alternative Civil Service

Servicemen learn the basics of first aid and fire safety, study tracing activities and rescue people who disappeared in the forest, as well as work with pollution and clean water from oil spills. It is noteworthy that the experience of WWF - the World Wildlife Fund was taken for the development of the last module.

Theoretical studies include the history of conscientious objection in Finland, lectures on "Politics and civic activism", where they study the policies of developed countries, as well as the course "Prevention of violence" - in these classes, young people are told about basis of violence and how to resist it. Up to 16 academic hours are given for the study of human rights, as well as humanitarian law governing the period of military operations.

Photo: Alexander Peredruk

In addition, the Center of ACS also teaches specific professions: for example, security, which helps to monitor public safety during major sport events.

During the training all expenses for food and accommodation are borne by the state, providing also a small wages. For the weekend, the Center organizes a free transfer to Helsinki so that young people can spend time with friends and family. Meals at the Center are arranged according to the "buffet" system, which is most of it a vegetarian food - among objectors it is in great demand.

The all-expenses-paid service in a sauna

After training, citizens are sent to the workplace, where they will serve for the next 10 months. The conscripts choose the place of alternative service by themselves from the list approved by the Ministry of Labor and send out a CV.

«Typical jobs are hospitals, libraries, social and medical institutions, schools and colleges ... Usually, an alternative serviceman looks for a place to work near the house», says Mikko Rayonen, the head of the Center of Alternative Civil Service. «This week we have a new group of recruits, among them there is a person with dual citizenship of Russia and Finland, and after training he will go to serve in the New Valamo monastery».

ACS in Finland can be conducted not only in state institutions, but also in non-commercial organizations (NGOs), among them the Association of Youth Circuses, the Association of War Veterans, the Federation of Swimming Sports, the Orthodox Church, the Cinematographic Foundation, as well as rescue organizations and even the Finnish Sauna Society. Exceptions are commercial organizations and political parties.

For example, 165 vacancies are in Helsinki, among them: a librarian, an office worker, a chef, a programmer, a doctor and a secretary. In Russia, there is also a list of professions and organizations ready to receive alternative servicemen; however, the citizen does not choose where to serve, and, in reality, most of them remain vacant, and objectors are often sent to serve in the Russian Post and medical organizations.

Finnish alternative servicemen. Photo: Alexander Peredruk

Jussi, Mikko and Eero (from left to right in the photo, the names have been changed) are undergoing an alternative civil service directly at the Center of ACS, where they stayed after the training. Jussi works as a photographer and manager of social networks of the Center. He refused to serve simply because he has such an opportunity. «The army is not for me, I initially knew about this», - the young man says. Mikko is an anti-militarist, anarchist, vegan, is in the Union of conscientious objectors to military service. He just started the service as an administrator in the Center of ACS. Eero deals with computers and translations from English into Finnish and vice versa.

Finnish organizations willingly employ alternative servicemen: living expenses for one is about 1,200 euros per month, which is about two to three times less than hiring the normal employee for the same place.

Civil serviceman receives:

  • wages from 5 to 12 euros per day (depending on the period of service);
  • food or compensation for food costs (€ 13.5 per day)
  •  payment for renting an apartment (in some cases, the cost of living takes the state);
  • travel costs, if the working place is more than 5 km away from place of living;
  • travel costs to visit relatives across the whole of Finland;
  • free medical care from the state.

If this money is not enough, civilist can officially earn extra money in another place or with the consent of the employer take a vacation - a break from the service - for up to 180 days. Compulsory leave are included in term of service, and there is an opportunity to take extra up to 12 days of leave for childcare.

After the employment, organization can not just fire serviceman.

«It is much more difficult for an employer to get rid of an alternative service worker than for serviceman from employer», - says Esa Külmälä, administrator of the Q-teatteri theater in Helsinki, where the serviceman works as a handy-man: adjusts the light,stage production and so on.

After the end of the alternative service, citizens are not enrolled in the military register, which means that they can not be summoned to military training. Every citizen in the military reserve has the opportunity to withdraw from register - for this he needs to undergo training at the Center of ACS, which actually lasts five days and includes lectures on peacekeeping and conscientious objection. This law in Finland is annually used by about 500-800 people.


Despite fairly loyal conditions, the Finnish alternative service has been criticized by citizens. This is mainly due to the mandatory nature of the military or alternative service: in Finland there is no right to a total refusal, with the exception of Jehovah's Witnesses. Such selectivity, in its turn, causes discussion. In this regard, every year, several dozen of people protesting against forced service, criminal cases open against them, which usually result in a prison sentence or house arrest for 6 months.

Recruitment system criticized also for the inequality of women and men, but not because women are exempt from this duty, but for another reason: women who wish to join the army are required to go through a medical commission at their own expense, while for men in it is free of charge.


Alexander Peredruk, attorney of Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg



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