In Russia, a Young Man's Dream Is Dodging the Draft

By Steven Lee Myers — The New York Times, Foreign Desk — June 11, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — The hospital's diagnoses, many years old, are Fyodor Sozontov's backup plan. They can, he hopes, prove that something is wrong with him.

He reads them out slowly, the medical conditions too difficult to pronounce easily: osteochondrosis, arachnoiditis and cerebral angiodystonia. Still, the draft board was skeptical. During his first visit, obligatory for all boys in secondary school, the officers declared him fit for military service.

"But that was kind of a surface examination," he said. "They practically did not look into anything."

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 awhile to understand it."

Fyodor is only slightly older than the new Russia that emerged from the Soviet Union. He was born in 1987 in what was then Czechoslovakia, where his parents worked briefly, his father an engineer at a Soviet military base there. Two years later, he returned with them to Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then named, as the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe began to collapse along with the Soviet system.

He has grown up during a time when his country embraced, however awkwardly, freedom, democracy and capitalism. His parents harbor little nostalgia for Soviet times. Certainly he doesn't. But what has unfolded in Russia under President Vladimir Putin fills him with little hope or inspiration. In fact, it dismays him.

"We do not think it is much better than the Soviet Union," he said. "What we have now is its legacy."

Corruption and bribery can infect schools, the medical system, the police. He is not overtly political, but Fyodor complains that the system has done little to end poverty, hunger and social inequities. Worse, he said, society is driven now by a cold individualism.

"The government does not care," he said. "Maybe Putin is trying to do something, but for most people, the most important thing is to get something for themselves, to get something into their pockets. They only care about themselves."
Russia, for him, came into stark contrast last year when he made his first trip abroad. A teacher at his school organized a two-week bus trip to the Czech Republic. He loved it.

"It is cleaner there," he said. "People in the Czech Republic are more responsive. And they have more understanding why they go to work, why they earn money.

"In Russia, basically speaking, we have a bardak," he added, using the slang for brothel and meaning a mess.

Fyodor lives in Kupchino, a neighborhood of bleak Soviet-era high-rises far from St. Petersburg's beautiful historic center.

His apartment building's courtyard is an intimidating place, a hangout for drunks and thugs and "people with very unhappy faces."

He is slightly built but fit. That is a result of his passion for wushu, the Chinese martial art that emphasizes self-defense, precise physical movement and intense mental discipline. He trains four times a week.

He laments the quality of education in Russian schools, but by his own admission, he is an average student. In fact, it is not clear he would even be considering college were it not for it being a way to avoid the draft. He calls it the greatest stimulant to higher education.

Fyodor's reasons for not wanting to be drafted are typical. He despises authority, for example, especially that of the military. "I simply cannot stand commands," he said. "If I was ordered to clean a toilet, my answer would be, 'Go do it yourself.' "

Other reasons include the grinding war in Chechnya, a brutal system of hazing among draftees and notorious cases of conscript abuse by commanders.

Fyodor's best hope for avoiding the draft remains college, but as he completes his final exams of high school this month, he has not earned the gold or even silver medals for scholastic achievement that would smooth his way to admission to college.

On his first of five exams he received the highest grade, a 5, but on the second, only a 4. "Not bad," he said, "but not excellent." He does not yet have the results for the third, and he must finish two more before graduation on June 21. The university entrance exams come later this summer.

The next few months are crucial in determining his future, which is why his family has collected the old hospital diagnoses.

He is vague, when pressed, about what precisely ails him. He fell as an infant, he says. When he was 10, he adds, he hit his head on the corner of the bed. He also offered a list of other ailments. "I cannot stay in classes too long," he said. "My nose bleeds. I have headaches." He mentioned high blood pressure and "a bad adaptation to society."

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."
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