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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Schools Begin To Look Like Boot Camp




The news that schoolchildren will be required to attend military readiness courses brings back memories of my own youth in Vladivostok, when both girls and boys learned how to dismantle Kalashnikov assault rifles and throw grenades.


The most pacifistic creature on earth, I somehow ended up as a lieutenant in the Soviet Army. Called to war, my duties were clear: I was to drive to the front in an armed carrier and yell in a loudspeaker, "American soldiers, surrender!" I also learned how to write leaflets and interrogate a captive.


It all started in school. A retired major with a funny name - Garold Grigoriyevich - used to take us to a military shooting range, where he explained how to shoot a rifle. The boys enthusiastically indulged their destructive instincts. Even better, they got to watch us girls make fools of ourselves by shooting the wrong targets while lying down in our short skirts.


Garold Grigoriyevich had a loud voice and could make us obey. Our giggling was invariably killed by his competitions for who could put on a gas mask the fastest. The classroom walls were covered with posters showing nine signs of a nuclear explosion and instructions on what to do should one occur. The colorfully painted mushroom clouds still come to me in nightmares.


At Far Eastern State University, everyone in the English department was required to take military training. I got the worst possible grade in "the party work in the army" because I couldn't explain to an imaginary enlisted man why "the Communists and the people are united."


Military training exams were easier in summer because summer clothes made cheating easier. We would draw schemes of an American motorized infantry division on our legs from the knees upward, where our skirts covered the pen marks. Then we would flip up our skirts for answers. Our thighs contained information about Russian weaponry that would have been a godsend for any American spy.


When it was time for the state exam, another girl and I were eight months pregnant. Nonetheless we had to march to our seats in the exam hall, snap to attention and report in a military manner that we had arrived. It was pretty hard, and the commission felt sorry for the two balloons pretending they were ready for war. The colonel who headed the commission discretely stepped out for a smoke. Our teachers then told us the answers to the test. We both got excellent grades.


Then the enlisting headquarters somehow lost track of me. They sent letters to my father's workplace for some reason, although I wasn't hiding out in the first place. They finally tracked me down at home and as a reward for my supposed desertion, I was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant.


I'm torn over this rank. I have an American boyfriend, and if I am called up to go fight his country, he will have to take care of my son.


And the guys always leave the house a mess when I am away.


But I have a deeper concern. My son is 13 years old and he will be eligible for the draft in five years. At a time when Russia is fighting in Chechnya, I do not want him to learn how to fire a Kalashnikov.


Military training may have been a laugh, but I don't want Garold Grigoriyevich to get his hands on another generation.


Helen Womack is on vacation.