Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Steven Lee Myers has a story in the Saturday's New York Times about a teen from St. Pete who's trying to dodge the draft - In Russia, a Young Man's Dream Is Dodging the Draft.

It'd take a few books - and/or a bunch of close friends with first-hand experience - to make an outsider feel what our army's really like, and that's why the piece seems somewhat sketchy, and it reads a bit like a pamphlet... though, of course, it's got tons more authenticity than many army stories I've seen on Russian TV in the past few years...

[...] Fyodor, 17, soft-spoken and athletic, is embarking on a rite of passage for young men in today's Russia: dodging the draft.

The experience shapes almost everything about his present life. He is entering manhood with a desire to go to college, despite having no concrete academic goal, or, failing that, to convince the authorities - and at times, it seems, himself - that he is sick.

"It would be better," he said, "if the army were made up of people who wanted to serve."

In theory, all Russian men 18 to 27 are required to serve two years in the military. In practice, roughly 90 percent avoid it. Most do so by taking advantage of different kinds of deferments, including one for going to college, or by failing the physical fitness exam.

Either supposedly can be obtained for a bribe - something Fyodor is neither inclined nor, evidently, able to pay.

"They say you serve your motherland - you defend it," he said. "Well, it is a difficult question. You have to live here a while to understand it." [...]

I especially like the very end of the story, the ambiguity of it:

His plans for the future are equally vague. After college, he said he would like to become a master of wushu, teaching it to others. Wushu, he said, has taught him a basic philosophy.

"The best warrior," he said, "knows that the best thing is to avoid a fight."


The New York Times story has reminded me of something I wanted to write about ever since I returned from Kyiv.

On the way back, one of my compartment-mates was Natasha, a heavy, 44-year-old Kyiv woman, looking well beyond her age, a mother of three boys. The oldest of her sons graduated from college with a degree in history - and then, unexpectedly, volunteered to spend nine months serving in the army. Natasha and her husband tried to talk him out of it but he wanted to be like his friends, most of whom had served.

(The way I understand/remember it, you either take military classes while at college and then become exempt from active duty, or you skip the classes, or fail them, and then serve a shortened term (almost wrote 'sentence') - nine months instead of a year and a half, I guess... Or, if you're an idiot, you get kicked out of college, as one of my dear friends did, and then serve the full term... Many colleges do not offer military classes at all, so you find yourself in the army right after graduation - unless you have two or more kids by that time...)

Anyway, Natasha's son, who's now 23, was sent to serve with the 'internal troops' based in Kyiv. (Again, I'm not an expert here at all, I'll have to wait for Mishah to wake up to offer a better description of what Natasha's boy got himself into - all I know is that they wear what looks like ordinary gray police uniform, and when the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s, these 'internal troops' boys from all over the country were sent to places like Abkhazia and Azerbaijan, supposedly to keep order. Mishah served in Abkhazia, in between the two wars, and his twin brother was in Azerbaijan - but that's a totally different story...)

Ukraine is a peaceful country, thank God, so all Natasha had to worry about at first was the quality of the food her son was getting.

But then the Orange Revolution began.

Everyone in Kyiv was very tense then, fearing that Kuchma would send in the troops - and Natasha was very tense, too, but for a different reason: her son was with those troops. His unit had the orders to guard the Central Election Commission building, a spot calmer than the presidential administration, but still quite a challenge for a loving mother. She spent a month or so visiting her son's base, sometimes as often as three times a day, checking if his unit was resting or on duty, worrying about her son being hurt or hurting somebody...

I told Natasha that this was something that had never occurred to me at that time: that all the police boys had mothers worrying themselves to death somewhere... Natasha's "angle" made me even happier about the way the orange crowd treated the cops - Police are with the people! and Go and get warm, and we'll stand here for you!..

She said they all kept asking her son whether he'd shoot at the people if ordered to, and he tried really hard to avoid answering - which probably meant he wouldn't have obeyed such an order, although to admit it openly must be equal to becoming a deserter...

He told his family that he saw the riot police (OMON) practicing at their base - beating the hell out of one another all day long. Those guys had been brought in from outside Kyiv, and they occupied the barracks of the 'internal troops' boys who, temporarily, were relocated to the gym and other such spaces.

Natasha's second son is approaching the draft age, too, now, and she's begging him to study well, then go to college and avoid the army. He tells her not to worry - their oldest brother is serving for the three of them, he tells Natasha.

Natasha has always wanted to have a daughter - that's part of the reason she has three sons: she kept trying... Right now, she told me, her oldest son is mature enough for her to hope for a granddaughter...

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