|Never been much of a Russophile(or phobe), but this is a good read, if you've got the time. Sad, really, very, very sad.
The Atlantic Monthly | June 2006
A Russian Soldier’s Story
Two years in the life of Kiril Bobrov—a parable of the once-proud, now-rotting Russian army
by Gregory Katz
t three in the morning it was whisper quiet on most of the Kamenka military base, in northwestern Russia, but in the boiler room a handful of men were awake and looking for action. Two drunken soldiers named Ruha and Max, ringleaders of a group from the Caucasus that regularly tormented younger conscripts, sent some of their buddies to rouse Kiril Bobrov, a twenty-year-old private asleep in the crowded barracks. Their goal was to strip him of 400 rubles (about $14) that his mother had sent him. Everyone knew about the money, but no one knew where it was. Kiril wanted to spend it on cigarettes and sweets; Ruha and Max wanted it for cigarettes and vodka. Kiril had told them he had already spent the money, but they didn’t believe him. The other soldiers jerked Kiril awake, took him to the boiler room, and began to beat him. They demanded that he turn over the money. He refused. Ruha, his face contorted with anger, lifted a wooden chair and smashed it down on Kiril’s neck. The force of the blow broke the chair.
No one knew what Ruha would do next. But the violence had peaked; it quickly subsided. The men slapped Kiril a few times and sent him back to his bunk, warning him not to tell any of the officers in the morning, or worse would follow. Kiril lay in silence, too fearful to sleep. Three hours later he reported for duty, pretending nothing had happened, though his neck felt as if it were on fire and his head hurt like hell.
hen Kiril Bobrov entered the army, just after he turned nineteen, he was ready to serve. Many Russian teenagers are desperate to avoid the draft, but Kiril yearned for an escape from his drab existence—long hours spent looking after his elderly grandmother, afternoons and evenings spent shopping and cooking for her. It was a thankless task that fell to Kiril because his mother spent most of her time at work, waiting tables in a restaurant popular with tourists in the Black Sea town of Tuapse, where they lived.
When Kiril thought of joining the Russian army, he dreamed of excitement, of shooting real guns, of making friends, of being part of something he believed in—even though the army was bogged down in a terrible, endless war in Chechnya. He saw little downside to joining the army. His life was stalled anyway. He wasn’t going anywhere with his education. He had never excelled in school, his progress hindered by what seemed to be a learning disability that was never diagnosed or treated. He was not comfortable reading or writing. He had tried but failed to learn welding at a trade school. His only marketable skill was preparing food, a skill he had furthered with a year in cooking school, and something he thought he might be able to pursue in army kitchens. Having cooked for his grandmother since he was ten, he had developed a knack for using herbs and spices to add zest to usually bland Russian food, and he was adept with the local fish, crabs, and mussels.
So Kiril stepped forward willingly. In this he was bucking a trend. The draft has become wildly unpopular throughout Russia, in part because of harsh, cruel conditions in the ill-equipped and underfunded army, where conscripts are paid the equivalent of about $3 a month, and in part because of the war in Chechnya, which has sapped the military of the prestige it enjoyed in the Soviet era. Many Russian men who served as military officers when the Soviet Union flourished are today unwilling to let their teenage sons set foot on a military base. Studies show that only about 11 percent of the young men who reach draft age each year actually enter the military. Those who do are generally from society’s lower ranks. Education deferrals are routinely available to teens from affluent families. Others avoid the draft by paying hefty bribes to recruitment officers in exchange for being classified as unfit. Some add a drop of blood to their urine samples, in the hope of being thought ill. Some even swallow magnesium crystals, which are said to cause painful stomach ulcers that can lead to medical disqualification.
A tall, ungainly boy with floppy ears and hooded brown eyes, Kiril was influenced by a childhood spent near a military base but without a man in his life: his father had left the family when he was seven. For years Kiril had looked out his bedroom window onto the base and watched the soldiers train. He watched them go through their drills, admiring their precision. He watched them play sports and lift weights and joke around in their off-hours.
“From my windows I could see that the atmosphere was really friendly,” Kiril says today in his soft, shy voice. “Th