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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Textbook Approach to Draft Dodging

One good thing can be said about mandatory military service. It got at least one young man back into school.

Saddled with a hard-drinking single mother, my friend Yura dropped out of school some years ago to eke out a living doing odd jobs. He washed cars. He sold newspapers in the metro. He built doors in a workshop run by a distant relative in a dank basement.

Then Yura turned 16 and had to register with his neighborhood voyenkomat, the army recruitment office. Military officials had him take a physical and jotted down his personal information, including his education. When he conceded that he had quit school, he was curtly presented with two options: go to military academy in the fall for five years and enter the army as an officer or wait until he turned 18 and serve two years as a private.

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Neither struck his fancy. "Who knows how many years I would have ended up having to serve in the army if I had picked the academy," Yura later told me. "I may have had to make the military my career. And everyone knows what happens to soldiers -- they get killed in Chechnya or in their barracks if they don't go mad first and start killing each other."

He decided to wait the two years until he was 18 to think up a way to get out of the army. Simply not showing up for the draft call was not an option. He said he could not handle living with the fear of being picked up as a draft dodger for nine years, until he turned 27 and was no longer required to serve.

So Yura scrimped and saved his money, nursing a plan to offer a doctor or the head of the voyenkomat a bribe that would let him off the hook for at least a year or two. But the more Yura mulled over the plan, the more apprehensive he grew. "How much money do you have to offer?" he said. "What if it's not enough? What if I offer it to the wrong person? What if a doctor writes me a sick slip and the army doesn't accept it?"

So nine months before Yura was due to report for duty, he abruptly changed course. A simpler way to dodge the draft, he decided, would be to put it off for another five years by enrolling in an institute or university. Many of them provide military waivers.

But how to get the diploma proving he had completed his first 11 years of school? No problem -- buy one. A friend of a friend knew the director of a school who could help. For $300, Yura got an officially signed and stamped diploma showing he was a straight-C student with a single five, or A, in physical education. After proudly showing off the drab green diploma and pointing out the five, Yura moodily added: "You'd think for $300 they'd give me a few more fives."

He decided he wanted to be a linguist ("English will be easy because I've already learned a lot playing computer games") and found a small institute in the western outskirts of the city. He plunked down the $450 tuition for the first semester and held his breath. Without a glance at his diploma, institute officials snatched up his money and signed and stamped his waiver.

Voyenkomat officials, who two years earlier had duly noted that Yura was a dropout, looked a little disappointed when he presented the waiver but accepted it without a word.

The catch is he can't change institutes more than once during his five years of studies. He hopes the draft will be replaced with a professional volunteer army by the time he graduates.

Up until the summer break, Yura was earnestly studying alongside a bevy of girls and a handful of boys, who were apparently also avoiding the draft.

The big challenge now is getting passing grades.

But Yura seems to be doing all right. He tells me he's getting straight C's.

Andrew McChesney is deputy editor of The Moscow Times.