The Talented Mr. Ripsky

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To the relief of anxious Russian males currently looking down the business end of an army induction notice, Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev has come up with a plan to help them beat conscription. Well, some of them. Avdeyev recently assured the country's "young dancers, competition laureates and higher education graduates" that "if you are very talented, if you show great promise and if culture figures [and] your teachers petition on your behalf, everything will be all right." Somewhere Elvis smiled.

The minister apparently outlined a gifted and talented program to the military that made deferments for Яber-talented youths "all right" with the top brass -- yes, the very brass whose Sisyphean task it is to scrounge up sufficient recruits from a chronically shrinking population to run a chronically manpower-needy army. Avdeyev must give one heck of a PowerPoint presentation!

Americans know plenty about talented draft-dodging, of course. During the wacky, warlike 1960s, current Vice President Dick Cheney secured five separate deferments in three years to keep from sloshing latrines or democratizing Southeast Asia -- a record of relentless unavailability one historian described as "incredible." And President George W. Bush showed no less talent than Mandrake the Magician in avoiding Vietnam: While on "active duty" in the Texas Air National Guard -- presumably defending the skies over Dallas against communism -- Bush reportedly disappeared for months at a time. Poof! And with no consequences! Tell me that's not talent.

But Avdeyev obviously defines talent in a purely cultural context, as in dancing "Giselle," tooting the tuba and so on. The trick for Russia's new-wave service avoiders, in any case, will be to knock 'em dead at the audition. Yes, audition. The only reason the military would agree to this scheme, I figure, is if they get to take part in the actual talent evaluation -- in effect, giving themselves free semiannual variety shows that may even beat the Red Army Chorus doing "Sweet Home Alabama" for entertainment.

Or not. Let's face it -- not every aspiring Russian vibraphonist or would-be Barber of Seville deserves a get-out-of-the-army-free card. Just imagine:

Moscow, Prefabrograd District, Local board 372. Behind a pair of tables facing a makeshift stage sit three cultured civilians, three uniformed officers and a secretary.

Secretary: OK, next up is Vitaly Skvernyuk. He's got a letter from some conservatory professor here, quote: "Hearing 'Dizzy' Skvernyuk's 'Adagio from Swan Lake' on the slide trombone is a real experience."

Officer No. 1: I'll bet it is! Damn, another tone-deaf blowhard! And I hate "Swan Lake" without trombones!"

Officer No. 2: Yeah, what's worse -- these tootlers or those idiots yesterday doing "dramatic readings," like it's the [bleeping] Miss America Pageant?

Secretary: Well, maybe we should try another talent category today, something lighter. Say, here's one: "Vladimir Ripsky: comedian." Wow, he's got a reference letter from Yevgeny Petrosyan: "I laughed so hard at Kid Ripsky on open-mike night at 'Yucks for Bucks' I almost soiled myself!"

All: Sure ... Why not? ... Send in the clown! [Ripsky emerges onstage, smiling warily.]

Ripsky: Thank you, ladies and generals, ha-ha. Hey, it's nice to be here -- instead of peeling spuds outside Grozny, ha-ha. [Silence.] Whoa, kind of a quiet crowd, I see -- is it Marcel Marceau Family Night? Bada-bing! So, anybody here from out of town? OK, how about Khimki? Ha-ha, seriously, I love Khimki ... [BANG! BANG!] Aiiieeee!

Civilian No. 1: Colonel, I insist you use other means to express yourself. Firing "warning shots" over performers' heads is ... is ...

Officer No. 3: Don't get your leotards all knotted, I haven't hit anybody yet and it really saves time. And c'mon, Petrosyan-Shmetrosyan -- my dog is funnier than that kid. Now he'll get the message: Don't quit your day job -- after your army tour, that is!

Tough crowd! While I'm sure gunplay wasn't what Avdeyev meant when citing the "enthusiastic reaction" his plan got at the Defense Ministry, there's clearly potential for serious misunderstandings here. Perhaps Russian youths should think twice about the talent-deferment option. Or wear Kevlar.

But there's good news, too, for today's near-soldiers: Hold out until January and Bush and Cheney may be available for consultations. As a veteran nondraftee myself, I'd say skip Avdeyev and go with the experts.



Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.