Neither before nor since October 2013 have I ever wanted to have scoliosis, an acute venereal disease, hepatitis, or a heart condition, but during that month I experienced strong waves of envy towards the owners of such illnesses. I was sixteen and in my last year of high school, just enough of a man to attend the grand event that was the medical check-up organised by the Military Registration and Enlistment Office of the Russian Federation.
At eight in the morning on the day, hundreds of sleepy and confused boys, me included, were standing in the hallway of a cold, green, chlorine-smelling building, waiting for the psychological and professional evaluation. The evaluation, designed in 1990 by a man called Mr. Rybnikov, tested three aspects of a potential recruit: his professional interests, psychological durability, and sincerity.
The first part of the quiz was concerned with the area that the recruit would like to be assigned during the war. Feel free to do what you, a 16-18-year-old, are truly passionate about: army trucks, artillery, or, for the more sophisticated ones, war submarines. During this part, a bald, plump boy started raising his hand every two minutes to ask what the questions meant. That made the other recruits less tense, and we giggled every time he pretended he had not understood the sentence, leading to great frustration among the organisers. After a few minutes, it became clear that the boy was not pretending at all and was simply mentally challenged. He frowned and scratched the back of his head, looking at the pieces of paper lying in front of him with glossy, tearful eyes. Soon enough, his mother burst into the room and started to explain how the kid was not trying to make fun of anyone but had a condition and how that condition had a name that was specifically mentioned in the list of things that could prevent a teenager from protecting his motherland. A senior female organiser, who belonged to the same undying breed as customs officers and high school janitors, was not impressed.
‘Ma’am, please be patient. Yes. Yes. I understand. Well, if he isn’t suitable, then you have nothing to worry about, right? And he will finish the test, somehow, won’t he? Cause he’s a smart boy – aren’t you, kid?’ For the first time in her life, the mother was put into a position where she had to go through the humiliation of proving that her son was not a smart boy at all.
Part two: questions about one’s psychological durability. This segment seemed to be at the core of a search for the perfect killing machine: ‘Would you say that you drink a little too much water on a daily basis?’
The last, the sincerity part, was designed to investigate whether the respondent was tampering with the evaluation mechanism. ‘Do you lie sometimes?’ was one of the sincerity questions, with ‘yes’ being the sincere answer, which allows to make two assumptions about the Russian army: first, it believes that everybody lies, and second, if there are people who don’t, they shouldn’t be trusted with a gun.
After the test, we scattered to queue up for the doctors’ rooms. There are six doctors that a potential recruit meets: an optometrist, a dentist, a surgeon, a neuropathologist, a physician, and a urologist. Inside the office of the moustachioed urologist. There were five other boys with me; one of them was the mentally-challenged kid. When asked to show his penis to the doctor, he took his underwear off entirely and threw it on the floor, exhibiting his white, hairless butt. The whole process seemed unnecessary. Could there be a penis so great it could have compensated for an intellectual disability?
At six-foot-four, I was the only person at the check-up to be congratulated for being eligible to receive 1.5 portions of every standard meal during the time of my service. The boys behind me started whispering in disbelief: no one wanted to go to the army, but if you ended up getting drafted, you should at least get to enjoy the food.
I left the check-up with the sad thought that I was a suitable candidate for ‘Category A’. The idea of spending twelve months of my life in the service was boring and depressing. Gladly, it never happened – I moved abroad to study.
Every year I visit the Russian embassy in the city where I live and remind them of my presence abroad; my current registration in a foreign country allows me to defer my recruitment. When I go back to visit my family in the summer, I do so between the fifteenth of July and the thirty-first of August, which is the short window between the spring and the winter draft periods.
Before I proceed, I would like to address the obvious. It is reasonable to question my ability to write about the Russian army, especially in a critical tone, since I have never been conscripted myself. My goal here, however, is not at all to accuse it, or the government, of anything that happens to the drafted boys – there are many variables that contribute to every individual accident. The Russian army is, in fact, an ordinary one, interchangeable with those of other countries, and a birthplace of some dull positives – occasional acts of heroism, genuine patriotism, and it has the ability to instil a sense of discipline and purpose in the young minds of drafted boys. The interesting aspects of the Russian military service are in its flaws – in them you can find the unique and trace the Russian mentality.
The chances are that I will never end up serving in the Russian army. However, there is still a thought in the back of my head that, one day, I might receive a letter that will summon me, and that thought gives me 1.5 portions of anxiety.
Before writing this, I phoned a good friend of who served in the army a couple of years ago. I was sitting in my sunlit room, while he was listening to loud hip-hop in a freezing apartment at four in the morning. Taking theatrical breaks between words to take a drag from a cigarette, he told me all about the service, and it sounded just the way one would expect it.
You wake up at 6 in the morning. Shower, half an hour of exercise, then an officer comes to check whether your bed is made badly. If it is, you get punished. Breakfast at 7:30, then you must listen to the radio for ten minutes. Afterwards, there are training courses until 13:50, when you have ten minutes to wash your shoes. If they are dirty, you get punished. Lunch. More training until dinner. At 8 in the evening, you get an hour of free time, out of which you must dedicate at least half to shaving and preparing for tomorrow. Watching the news for half an hour. If you close your eyes for too long, you get punished. Evening walk. Sleep.
There are footnotes to this. You cannot use the Internet, because the communications tower nearby will spot you. When it does, your phone is taken away and nailed to a wooden plank that resides in the smoking area. Also, you cannot have visitors for 8.5 months and you are never stationed to the place that you’re from. My friend was lucky enough to serve in one of the most elite Russian military bases – Military Base #33 – in the vast green fields by the city of Luga.
When I asked him to summarise his experience in the army, my friend replied briefly, ‘It was great. The conditions were poor, but it was great.’ I asked to clarify, and he said: ‘It made me more durable, psychologically and physically. A man. When I came back from the army, I felt like I could do anything.’
With his freedom, however, my friend did nothing of note. He enrolled in a new university, got a job making office deliveries, and started dating a girl (he sent me two photos, and she looks kind and sweet). After the army, he arrived into a world of large – perhaps, too large – freedom, and finding no one to give him tasks overwhelmed him. Where does his psychological or physical durability come into play?
Said psychological durability can be gained as a result of natural, gradual maturing and is a long and continuous process. As you get older, you learn how to deal with conflicts, how to tackle anxiety, and how to avoid getting stressed. However, there is a shortcut to psychological durability, which is trauma. Trauma, which can range from the death of a beloved goldfish to spending twelve months in a prison-like regulated environment, is similar to receiving a crappy vaccination: you receive a certain dosage of a disease, and if your body copes with it, it develops an immunity, but if it doesn’t, you need treatment.
However, those in need of treatment will not receive it. The statistical data on the suicide rate in the Russian army is foggy: in 2008, the annual number of non-war casualties stopped being reported on the official website of the Russian military. The last available data can be found in interviews, blurted out unintentionally by various authorities. That year, according to one source, 471 people died in the army service during non-war times; out of them, more than half committed suicide, and others died due to ‘careless use of equipment’, ‘accidents’, or simply disappeared. Out of the approximate 1.2 million people serving in the Russian army (including officers, reservists, and other less active members), that would make up for about 0.039 percent. Let’s look at another army that is quite notorious for bullying and cruel misconduct – the army of the USA. In the year 2010, for instance, 301 confirmed or suspected suicides were reported, which would comprise around 0.013 percent of the American army with its total personnel count of 2.3 million. Evidently, in Russia, you either man up or get picked out by the unforgiving hand of ‘equipment’. (Please take this statistical data with a pinch of salt. According to the officials, bullying in the army does not exist. After all, ‘it’s the 21st century’. Every year, however, there are news articles appearing on the Internet that do not coexist well with the reported purity of the Russian army. For instance, on 12 February 2018, a Russian newspaper called Novaya Gazeta published a piece that covered the story of Alexander Shirer, a fully healthy young recruit who died from a reported heart attack that happened to coincide with his fight with another soldier. Alexander’s parents doubted the whole scenario and drove their son’s corpse across the country to someone Dr. Vlasov, who, upon the completion of the recruit’s autopsy, found out that the deceased had no heart – it was simply cut out. The heart resurfaced months later, in several pickle jars. As of 12 July 2019, the case is still in trial, although the cut-up heart was finally admitted as evidence.)
The idea of becoming a Russian Man (a subspecies of the Common Man, a creature indigenous to locker rooms and smoking areas) by serving in the army is an ironic or simply an incorrect one. That Man is usually described as an independent, self-confident, physically and mentally strong persona. The disconnect is obvious: how can one acquire these traits in the rigid environment of the Russian army? The only thing that the service imposes on a recruit is the ability to behave under authority, to be responsive, and not to ask any questions. The entire day is scheduled for you, and your input is just to live through it. However, you can be punished or bullied, and if you do – just deal with it.
When asked by the correspondent of the Russian newspaper Snob about the way that bullying and suicides could be eradicated from the Russian army, Veronika Marchenko, the head of an organisation called ‘The Rights of the Mothers’ sighs, as one can only sigh in a written interview: ‘When the army becomes voluntary, bullying disappears.’
In that case, what is preventing the government from making it voluntary? Wouldn’t an army full of people who share its ideology be more effective? And is this solution so obvious, or there is some hidden force within the Russian army that crumbles the spirits of both the involuntary and voluntary conscripts?
The contemporary Russian army has a hero – his name is Alexander Matrosov. Nineteen years of age, Matrosov died a heroic death during World War II: when his division was held immobile by a German machine gun, he ran up to the weapon and blocked it with his own body, allowing his unit to proceed and kill the German soldiers. His act was commemorated by every reasonable form of art, from sculpture (there are statues in 20 Russian cities) to film.
A quick search on the Internet gives some odd background to the story. (If you type ‘the heroic act’ in Russian in Google, ‘the heroic act of Alexander Matrosov’ will be suggested as the third most popular search term.) Apparently, before WWII, Matrosov had a difficult past. He was raised in an orphanage, judging by the lack of birth certificate for his name, and served two prison sentences – tried once as a child and once as an adult – both for damage to property with the purpose of destruction or mischief.
(To keep the name of Alexander Matrosov clean, in 1967 the Higher Court of the USSR declared his second sentence to be wrongful. What about the first one?) After his sentence was over, he sent several letters trying to get himself recruited into the Russian army and succeeded. There is controversy surrounding the act itself, also. An unpopular opinion from a Russian war veteran named Lazar Lazarev suggested that there was no way that a human body could have blocked a German machine gun since the bullets would have gone through Matrosov without any significant resistance. Another theory suggested that the act was unintentional, and the soldier tripped or was shot in the leg on his way to the machine gun. The most likely version, however, is that he attempted to throw a grenade down the enemy trench but was quickly murdered – so it goes.
The heroic nature of the act seems questionable to me – not because I doubt Matrosov’s bravery, but because of the emphasis that the propaganda put on some elements of his story over others. Of course, sacrificing your own life for the sake of saving others is valiant, but if the machine gun was that destructive, would he not have died anyway? In that case, he just died in a rather productive fashion. Another question follows: would it not have been more heroic if he had survived? Had he remained alive, his mission as a soldier would have continued. What makes his death more heroic than the survival of countless other soldiers, who killed their German machine gunners and just kept going?
As a result, a fictional, political Matrosov is created, who shares little similarity with the real-life soldier. The Russian hero turns out to be a simple man who does not flinch at the idea of self-sacrifice, and this is no coincidence. Looking back at the history of the Soviet Army, one can see a pattern of powerful political figures using untrained soldiers as cannon fodder, so it only makes sense to use Matrosov as an example: he did not mind being used as means to an end.
It becomes increasingly clear, then, that the government does not intend to use its army as an institution of pure militaristic purpose. If it did, then it would have focused on quality over quantity, promoting a career in the army as something prestigious and sought-after rather than what it is now – a year-long fever dream between youth and adulthood for those who don’t do well on the national exams. Those who do well and enroll in universities, however, can defer – but only until the end of their baccalaureate, unless they’ve fled the country to study abroad.
The benefit of creating such an organisation is in its seeming dysfunctionality: while there is some overarching nationalistic idea in it, it is mostly a strong tool for preparing the confused Russian youth for its future life of blind submission to an intangible political authority. If conscription to the army had been voluntary, then it would have lost a share of ideologically-fuelled soldiers every time it changed its unintelligible political narrative.
When Russian politicians appear in the news, they exert power, and that power is always assumed to revolve around the large militaristic capabilities of the country. There is an impression created of a stabilised machine operating under a homogenous and, more important, popular national idea; this is sometimes even praised by right-wing international audiences. In truth, however, this idea is simply issued top-down by the government, which makes it so difficult to assign responsibility to anyone when Russia harms anyone besides its own citizens, as they did in Georgia or Ukraine. Who do you blame when the amount of agency of an average recruit is so seemingly minute? It is a question of ethics, but it is also the missing piece of the puzzle for the Russian political opposition which cannot figure out whether it should focus on educating the masses or confronting the government.
So far, neither of the approaches seems to be successful, and for as long as they are not, people like myself will try to stay away from it all. There is a general mood of desperation surrounding one’s ability to influence a government that plots in such a masterful way, but there is also the guilt and the shame of an escapee. Here, I want to call for understanding from all sides: this desertion is not one of abandoning a helpless child, but one of leaving a sinking ship.
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