Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Patriotism and Matriotism Out of Place Today

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

The army came after me for the first time in the mid-1980s, when I turned 14. The preliminary medical examination at the local voyenkomat, or military registration and enlistment office, revealed that I met all the requirements for conscription into the paratroopers. As the war in Afghanistan was in full swing with no prospects for peace in sight, excelling in the medical examination plunged my parents into contemplative grief.

Entering university, however, postponed the call-up and prolonged my mother's seemingly futile efforts at increasing my life span.

Her worries were soon to be doubled when my younger brother turned 18.

Several days before the enlistment he went to a barber's shop to have his hair cropped and managed to catch ringworm while there.

It was a heaven-sent gift. Following consultations with various medical specialists, my mother did everything in her power to aggravate the illness, and pretty soon my brother received a waiver from military service for three years.

I myself managed to escape two call-ups after finishing my university education. This time it was the mid-1990s, and Chechnya had replaced Afghanistan as the meat grinder of the country's youth. I opted for the life of a vagrant rather than going for the military challenge.

My friends and relatives offered me refuge, while their own sons of conscript age were hiding elsewhere. In short, nobody was particularly eager to volunteer to get involved in the latest bloody page of Russian history.

I was caught the first night I spent at home after months of existence as a kind of urban guerrilla. In the wee hours of morning, I was awakened by police officers who forced me to put my signature on call-up papers. Having done this, if I didn't appear at the voyenkomat within the specified period, I would be eligible for criminal prosecution.

Once again, my mother started pulling strings and calling in favors among her medical colleagues. My brother's medical case history resurfaced, some pages of it were replaced and some cases of the finest cognac -- the usual currency for expressing one's gratitude where I come from -- were shamefacedly passed from one pair of hands to another.

The upshot of all this was that I soon found myself suffering from chronic, recurrent herpes that was in a phase of temporary remission.

Three days later, dizzy with a terrible hangover (my father's expert opinion was that it would enhance the credibility of my diagnosis), I waited for my turn in a noisy line of young men to undergo one more medical examination at the voyenkomat.

The boy in front of me, wearing thick glasses and thus hardly fit to wield a bayonet, complained that the commission's optician had found him fit for military service. "The doctor just asked me whether I could peel potatoes and when I nodded, he told me to call in the next boy," he lamented.

Another boy standing behind me in the line, whose appearance hinted at his rural origins, came along with his father. The poor peasant was depressed, finding himself in the company of boisterous youths who were cracking jokes at the nurses.

"Don't admit these hooligans to the army. They will spoil everything there. Take my son, he is a good boy. He will make a good soldier," the aged peasant addressed one of the officers in despair. The man was quite clearly out of his mind.

The medical staff -- some of them my mother's acquaintances -- confirmed my diagnosis, but the military delegates suspected a ruse.

"We will send you to the military hospital where our doctors will give you a thorough examination," the colonel, chief of the military delegation, said to me threateningly.

"Please do," I replied, knowing that until I was enlisted, the army delegates could do nothing to me.

The civilian members could. And they did.

"Write three call-up papers for this guy," demanded the deputy head of our local administration, who was also a member of the commission. "I'll deal with him personally. Let him come and see me at my office every day."

What he wanted was completely illegal, but I couldn't argue with him because he could get nasty with the doctors, and they would inevitably crack.

When I came to his office, he packed me into his Volga along with his guards and we shuttled between different doctors, some of them his friends, in search of an impartial opinion.

My initial diagnosis was signed by the top local dermatologist and none of the physicians we visited displayed any desire to spoil their relations with a powerful colleague.

"Well, I'll sign your waiver," the bureaucrat said, finally caving in during my last visit to his office. "Just tell me like a man that you are not ill."

However, I remained adamant and insisted that I was ill. I couldn't do otherwise -- so many people had entrusted me with their confidence.

Three years later my waiver expired. I received new call-up papers. This time, I couldn't be drafted to the army, as my elder daughter had not yet turned 3 years old, and this provided legal grounds for obtaining a new waiver.

The colonel at the voyenkomat knew this. And he knew that I knew this, too. But it didn't stop him from torturing me further.

"We have to do something with your waiver. I am not sending you to the army, but I am sending you to the venereal and dermatological disease clinic for two weeks to have your diagnosis checked," was his offer.

He was well within his rights. However, the cheerful prospect of spending a fortnight in a ward chock-a-block with syphilitics at the time didn't exactly excite my research interests. I thought about paying a ransom.

The officer asked for $200. I told him I had only 1,000 rubles ($35) on me. Twenty minutes later, my diagnosis was confirmed by a dermatologist whom I'd never seen in my life.

I shared my enlistment experience with an American acquaintance of mine.

"When I was young," he wrote back to me, "I signed up for army service voluntarily. The pay was good and I became an officer pretty quickly. Patriotism didn't come into the equation at all."

Back in Russia, there are various motivations used to encourage a youth to do compulsory military service: He should repay his sacred debt to the Motherland, no matter what the Motherland has done for him or has to offer in the future.

However, as civil society gradually develops in Russia, the understanding grows that civil duties stem from a pact between citizens and the state. Citizens refuse to buy into abstract rhetoric and prefer to operate on a quid-pro-quo basis.

I never felt any guilt for evading military service. No one who participated in my enlistment affair was thinking about anything apart from his or her own interests. Everybody around me was highly businesslike, and there was no room for romantic feelings.

No patriotism and no matriotism, either.

And why should I feel guilty? Everything was settled, fair and square.

Nabi Abdullaev is a Staff Writer for The Moscow Times.