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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Russia

Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Nov. 20, 2003

Moscow — Russia is the kind of place where it seems everybody has a story, often a sad one. But Roman's was the worst I'd heard so far.

Just 21, his body is already covered in war wounds. He sports a maroon, banana-shaped scar on the right side of his throat that curves under his chin, the mark left by piece of metal that shot into him when the vehicle he was travelling in struck a mine in the war-torn republic of Chechnya. His stomach was similarly torn up by shrapnel from the same explosion. It's a miracle he's alive.

But, he explains, his head sinking lower to the table as he downs another glass of draught beer, he doesn't even count the incident as the worst thing that's happened to him. That's because his brother, just two years older than he, was one of the 118 sailors who drowned aboard the Kursk nuclear submarine after an explosion in a torpedo tube took the huge vessel to the bottom of the Barents Sea.

I don't want to believe Roman. It seems incredible that so much tragedy could happen to the same family. But the look on his face and a grim nod from his friend convinces me he's telling the truth.

“Only in Russia could two things like this happen to the same family,” Roman, a lifelong Montreal Canadiens fan, explains as we await another round at a Moscow nightclub popular with students. Finished his two-year stint as a conscript soldier, he's trying to pick up his life where he was forced to leave it.

He could have been more specific and said only in the Russian military could two things like this hit a single family.

The draft is the bane of a young man's existence in Russia. Every year, the country calls up some 500,000 men over the age of 18, often under Kafkaesque circumstances. There are tales of those who try to avoid being nabbed in the night, off the streets of their hometowns, then instead being shipped across the country to a barracks several time zones away. Sometimes, their families don't know where they are for months at a time.

I once saw two young men-–they looked younger than 18 to be honest--getting shoved into the back of a car by camouflage-clad thugs on St. Petersburg's Nevsky Prospekt, apparently because they didn't have the right papers to keep them out of the army. The soldiers were so intimidating that no one on the street intervened to help the pair. The scene made me think of how lucky I was to grow up in Canada, where young men and women enter the army by choice, often doing so because it will help them get a post-secondary education.

It's the opposite here, where young men do all they can to avoid the draft. Many of them understandably see two years in the army, navy or air force as a potential death sentence.

The Kursk tragedy of three years ago is well known in the West, as is the story of another submarine, the K-159, that sank in almost the same spot this year with nine sailors aboard. Less well publicized are the frequent helicopter crashes or other less spectacular accidents that seem to hit the Russian military on an almost weekly basis. But each incident takes a toll the forces' already low morale.

Life in Russia's army--which the Kremlin has been talking for years about reforming into a modern, professional force like the United States has--is undeniably harsh. The hazing rituals are the stuff of legends, and alcoholism and suicide are rampant. The pay is awful and, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch, even the food the soldiers are served is rancid and bug-infested.

The soldiers that come back from the army are often prone to violence and drug use, meaning that conscription is not just something young men have to go through as part of growing up in Russia, but a societal sickness that affects everyone.

Worst off, of course, are those sent to Chechnya. The hellish four-year-old war in Russia's breakaway southern republic has claimed, by official count, the lives of almost 5,000 Russian soldiers, though some reports say that almost that many die every year. This year, the separatist region was named the most heavily mined place in the world, eclipsing the country where the fathers of many of today's Russian army conscripts were sent, Afghanistan.

Such figures are obviously terrible, but none of them struck me at a personal level until recently, when a good friend of mine told me that even though he's in his mid-20s, there's still a chance he'll be conscripted. He's now planning to go back to school, one of the few places a young man can avoid the draft, even though he's employed by a major Western firm and has an apartment to pay for.

I don't even want to use his first name on the remote chance it will cause him trouble. He's smart, gentle, and trilingual--in other words, the kind of person this country should be trying to give a tax break and start-up cash to, rather than a rifle.

The conscription tragedy, though, looks set to hold him back personally for a while longer, and the country as a whole for the foreseeable future.

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