Dodging The Draft, Russian Style

"Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible" by Peter Pomerantsev PublicAffairs

Every April and October the color khaki seems to suddenly sprout on the streets as bands of young soldiers appear in the cities; skinny, in uniforms either too large or small, with pinched red noses and red ears, scowling at the Maybachs and gold-leaf restaurants.

They hang around at the entrances of metro stations where the warm air gusts up from the underground, shiver while sucking on tepid beer on street corners of major thoroughfares. They come shuffling up stairs and knocking on apartment doors and stalk through parks.

It's the time of year of Russia's great annual hide and seek. The soldiers have been given orders to catch young men dodging the draft and force them to join the army. Military service might be mandatory for healthy males between eighteen and twenty-seven, but anyone who can avoids it.

The most common way out is a medical certificate. Some play mad, spending a month at a psychiatric clinic. Their mothers will bring them in. "My son is psychologically disturbed," they will say. "He has been threatening me with violence, he wakes up crying."

The doctors of course know they are pretending and the bribe to stay a month in a loony bin will set you back thousands of dollars. You will never be forced to join up again—the mad are not trusted with guns—but you will also have a certificate of mental illness hanging over you for the rest of your career.

Other medical solutions are more short term: a week in the hospital with a supposedly injured hand or back. This will have to be repeated every year and annually the hospitals fill up with pimply youths simulating illness.

But the medical route takes months of preparation: finding the right doctor, the right ailment—because the ailments that can get you off change all the time. You turn up at the military center with the little stamped registration card that your mother has spent months organizing and saving for, then find that this year flat feet or shortsightedness are no longer a legal excuse.

If you're at a university you avoid military service (or rather you fulfill it with tame drills at the faculty) until you graduate. There is no greater stimulus for seeking a higher education and Russian males take on endless master's degree programs until their late twenties.

And if you're not good enough to make it into college? Then you must bribe your way into an institution. There are dozens of new universities that have opened in part to service the need to avoid the draft. And the possibility of the draft makes dropping out of college much more dangerous—the army will snap you up straightaway.

For the poorer young men, it's hide and seek time.

When the bad marks come in, mothers start to fret and scream at their sons to work harder. And when they can see the boys might fail, it's time to pay another bribe, to make sure they pass the year.

But there are a certain number of pupils the teacher has to fail to keep up appearances, and the fretting mothers start to put out feelers for the most desperate and most expensive remedy: the bribe to the military command. The mothers come to the generals, beat and weep on the doors of the commanders, cry about their sons' freedoms. (Money by itself is not always enough; you have to earn the emotional right to pay the bribe).

But all these options are only available for those with money and connections. For the others, for the poorer ones, it's hide and seek time. The soldiers will grab anyone who looks the right age and demand his documents and letters of exemption and if he doesn't have them march him off to the local recruitment center.

So the young spend their time avoiding underground stops or hiding behind columns and darting past when they see the soldiers are flirting with girls or scrounging cigarettes off passersby. You see teens sprinting through the long, dark marble corridors of the subway as cops give chase.

When soldiers come by apartments, potential conscripts pretend they are not there, barricading themselves in, holding their breath until the soldiers go away. The soldiers eventually get tired and leave, but from now on every time you have your documents checked by police you will be trembling that they might ring through and see whether you dodged the draft.

And every time you go into the subway, every time you cross a main road, every time you meet friends near a cinema, any time you leave your little yard, life becomes full of trepidation. And you will live semi-legally until you are twenty-seven, unable to register for an official passport and thus unable to travel outside of the country.

This is the genius of the system: even if you manage to avoid the draft, you, your mother and your family become part of the network of bribes and fears and simulations. You learn to become an actor playing out his different roles in his relationship with the state, knowing already that the state is the great colonizer you fear and want to avoid or cheat or buy off.

Where he will be sent depends on the bribe a soldier pays.

Already you are semi-legal, a transgressor. And that's fine for the system: as long as you're a simulator you will never do anything real, you will always look for your compromise with the state, which in turn makes you feel just the right amount of discomfort. Whichever way, you're hooked.

Indeed, it could be said that if a year in the army is the overt process that molds young Russians, a far more powerful bond with the system is created by the rituals of avoiding military service.

Those too poor, too lazy, or too unlucky to avoid the draft—or those for whom the army seems a better option than anything they have—are rounded up, stripped, shaved and packed off to bases all across the country. At the end of the April and October call-ups the city streets are clogged with great trucks full of conscripts, decked with tarpaulins and open at the back. The new conscripts sit and stare at the city they are leaving, rubbing their heads as they get used to the lightness of their newly shaved skulls.

Where he will be sent depends on the bribe a soldier pays. Some will go to Chechnya, to Ossetia, to the death zones everyone dreads. But if you pay in time, you'll avoid those.

What no one will be safe from is hazing, known in Russia as the "law of the grandfather." Dozens of conscripts are killed every year, hundreds commit suicide, and thousands are abused. (Those are just the official statistics.)

This is why every mother wants to keep her son away from the army. New conscripts are known as "spirits." And as the tarpaulin-covered trucks pass through the gates of the army bases, the conscripts will hear the shouts of the older officers waiting for them.

"Hang yourselves, spirits, hang yourselves!" they call. And the great breaking-in begins.

This is an excerpt from Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev published by Public Affairs.