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Monday, July 16, 2007

Caught in the Neo-Soviet Draft

The blog offers the following story about conscription in neo-Soviet Russia (by the way, you Russians -- America's military is 100% volunteer, while Russia has to literally force its young men into the military at gunpoint, where they face brutal torture, slave wages and apalling living conditions; which army would YOU bet on if it comes to a fight? which civilization is more civilized? more patriotic? why does Vladimir Putin fear an all volunteer force like American has? because nobody would sign up? why does Russia need conscription if NATO doesn't have it?):

A spectre is haunting Russia – the spectre of military service. All men between the ages of 18 and 27 should complete up to three years in the armed forces, and my English language lessons have become therapy sessions for the traumatised Russians it creates.

For me, it’s that holy grail of EFL teaching, a conversation topic on which even the most apathetic students have an opinion. In the wake of Anna Politkovskaya’s murder you couldn’t get a word out of them on their country’s imprisoned media. Nor after opposition leader Garry Kaparov’s arrest were they interested in the renewal of its authoritarian instincts. Those issues, it seems, are too abstract and remote for the students in my class. Every one of them has got something to say about military service, though, albeit in differing qualities of English.

The most obviously affected are Andrey and Evgeny, both of whom went to fairly extreme lengths to avoid the draft. Knowing you’re exempted if you’ve got two kids, Andrey and his wife had three by the time he was 24, just to be on the safe side. When asked how it feels to be such a young dad he replies: ‘Better than being in the army.’ I compliment his use of comparatives; he would have said ‘gooder’ two months ago.

Evgeny went a different route and kept extending his studies knowing that students are also exempted. He is now a doctor of law almost by accident. I wonder what he would be if he hadn’t reached the cut-off age of 27 – a Nobel Prize winner perhaps.

The net is closing around such exemptions, however. Demographic trends mean that even the Nobel Prize won’t save those in a new generation whose depleted numbers require them all to serve if the army is to fill its quotas. Marina is already saving money for bribery, fearing her son may fail one of his university exams. ‘If his professors won’t take the money, the recruiting officer will,’ she says, practising the first conditional.

Konstantin’s Lada, in which I am given a lift home after lessons, is another tale of life affected by the issue. Library books lie beneath a military hat on the back seat, and polished boots are under my seat. ‘They let me stay in Moscow as long as I study and work,’ he says. He completes his hours on a part-time basis, which makes his every day a juggling act of work, army and study. ‘Only one 160 days to go,’ he says cheerfully.

Not in my class, though, is Dimitri, whom I met at a party. He is Russia’s version of a conscientious objector. Being philosophically opposed to indoctrination, he chose to dodge the draft. He now lives a clandestine life; his parents claim not to know where he is so he can argue he hasn’t received his call-up papers. He can’t travel abroad and his quasi-legal status means it’s difficult for him to find work, but he doesn’t seem too bitter.

Though told with the guilty smirks of schoolboys, the stories of evasion and swindling hide deeper psychoses. In December 2005, 19-year-old Andrei Sychov went off to his military service and came back with neither his legs nor his genitals. But rather than sustaining his injuries at the hands of an enemy, it was his own superiors who maimed him – as part of an initiation ceremony.

There are fears that bullying and torture are part of a conscript’s daily life, meaning that even those lucky enough to return physically complete stand to lose something mentally. When my students’ faces start to betray these deeper worries, I turn to some ‘doctor doctor’ jokes to lighten things up.

But no amount of bad jokes will ease this nation’s worries. Its president, who has been employing more hawkish language of late, may soon be replaced by the even more hawkish former-general Sergei Ivanov. And with the country’s growing paranoia over its border with China, as well as American missiles in Poland, the Kremlin won’t allow soldiers to join up by choice.

The bitterness of these class conversations, however, suggests it would be a fruitful issue for a would-be opposition to exploit.

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