A Russian Soldier’s Story

Two years in the life of Kiril Bobrov—a parable of the once-proud, now-rotting Russian army

At three in the morning it was whisper quiet on most of the Kamenka military base, in northwestern Russia, but in the boiler room a handful of men were awake and looking for action. Two drunken soldiers named Ruha and Max, ringleaders of a group from the Caucasus that regularly tormented younger conscripts, sent some of their buddies to rouse Kiril Bobrov, a twenty-year-old private asleep in the crowded barracks. Their goal was to strip him of 400 rubles (about $14) that his mother had sent him. Everyone knew about the money, but no one knew where it was. Kiril wanted to spend it on cigarettes and sweets; Ruha and Max wanted it for cigarettes and vodka. Kiril had told them he had already spent the money, but they didn’t believe him. The other soldiers jerked Kiril awake, took him to the boiler room, and began to beat him. They demanded that he turn over the money. He refused. Ruha, his face contorted with anger, lifted a wooden chair and smashed it down on Kiril’s neck. The force of the blow broke the chair.

No one knew what Ruha would do next. But the violence had peaked; it quickly subsided. The men slapped Kiril a few times and sent him back to his bunk, warning him not to tell any of the officers in the morning, or worse would follow. Kiril lay in silence, too fearful to sleep. Three hours later he reported for duty, pretending nothing had happened, though his neck felt as if it were on fire and his head hurt like hell.

When Kiril Bobrov entered the army, just after he turned nineteen, he was ready to serve. Many Russian teenagers are desperate to avoid the draft, but Kiril yearned for an escape from his drab existence—long hours spent looking after his elderly grandmother, afternoons and evenings spent shopping and cooking for her. It was a thankless task that fell to Kiril because his mother spent most of her time at work, waiting tables in a restaurant popular with tourists in the Black Sea town of Tuapse, where they lived.

When Kiril thought of joining the Russian army, he dreamed of excitement, of shooting real guns, of making friends, of being part of something he believed in—even though the army was bogged down in a terrible, endless war in Chechnya. He saw little downside to joining the army. His life was stalled anyway. He wasn’t going anywhere with his education. He had never excelled in school, his progress hindered by what seemed to be a learning disability that was never diagnosed or treated. He was not comfortable reading or writing. He had tried but failed to learn welding at a trade school. His only marketable skill was preparing food, a skill he had furthered with a year in cooking school, and something he thought he might be able to pursue in army kitchens. Having cooked for his grandmother since he was ten, he had developed a knack for using herbs and spices to add zest to usually bland Russian food, and he was adept with the local fish, crabs, and mussels.

So Kiril stepped forward willingly. In this he was bucking a trend. The draft has become wildly unpopular throughout Russia, in part because of harsh, cruel conditions in the ill-equipped and underfunded army, where conscripts are paid the equivalent of about $3 a month, and in part because of the war in Chechnya, which has sapped the military of the prestige it enjoyed in the Soviet era. Many Russian men who served as military officers when the Soviet Union flourished are today unwilling to let their teenage sons set foot on a military base. Studies show that only about 11 percent of the young men who reach draft age each year actually enter the military. Those who do are generally from society’s lower ranks. Education deferrals are routinely available to teens from affluent families. Others avoid the draft by paying hefty bribes to recruitment officers in exchange for being classified as unfit. Some add a drop of blood to their urine samples, in the hope of being thought ill. Some even swallow magnesium crystals, which are said to cause painful stomach ulcers that can lead to medical disqualification.

A tall, ungainly boy with floppy ears and hooded brown eyes, Kiril was influenced by a childhood spent near a military base but without a man in his life: his father had left the family when he was seven. For years Kiril had looked out his bedroom window onto the base and watched the soldiers train. He watched them go through their drills, admiring their precision. He watched them play sports and lift weights and joke around in their off-hours.

“From my windows I could see that the atmosphere was really friendly,” Kiril says today in his soft, shy voice. “The soldiers were really friendly. They were not bullying each other, and they were laughing. It was like a family.” He thought they would be his family too.

Kiril was assigned to a nearby military base, in Yeysk, for basic training. Yeysk is a port city known for its fighter-pilot training center. A sign at the entrance to the base pronounces it “a blacksmith shop where cadres are forged for the Russian air force.” Kiril knew he would never be a pilot (that role is reserved for air force officers with much more training and education than he had), but he wanted to learn how to handle anti-aircraft artillery.

Conditions in the barracks were spartan but ordered. There were no showers, but the soldiers could wash once a week in Russian-style saunas known as banyas. They were given clean clothes and underwear once a week as well. Kiril found every day much the same. Up at 6:30, with five minutes to use the toilet, brush his teeth, wash his face, and get dressed. Pull on the scratchy uniform, the portyanki (rectangular pieces of cloth used instead of socks), and the heavy leather boots that didn’t quite fit. Ignore the blisters on his feet. A clean white strap had to be put in place just inside the collar; no one knew why, but those with a dirty strap were punished. Then it was time to report, salute the sergeant, join the formation, and start to run. Usually it was two miles; sometimes, if the temperature was below zero and the wind was fierce, it was a bit less. Then push-ups—it sometimes seemed to Kiril that his entire life was now spent doing push-ups—and more exercises. The meals were bland, providing a reprieve from exertion but little more. After dinner the soldiers could relax a bit, and watch TV or videos of old Russian war movies. Kiril could listen to Metallica, Limp Bizkit, and Linkin Park, his favorite metal bands, until lights-out, at 10:30. It was a hard regimen to get used to, but the soldiers adjusted. They joked that they would survive basic training because even Russian generals were smart enough not to kill off their cannon fodder ahead of time.

Kiril liked the predictability of military life. He loved learning how to fire a machine gun and anti-aircraft batteries, how to shoot down incoming rockets and missiles. He found out that he was good with weapons—he could destroy a target at 200 yards—and he was happy on the firing range. It was the first time he had been good at anything other than cooking. He was homesick, but so was everyone else. He fit in; he even seemed to thrive. Photos from that time show him standing tall, obviously proud of his uniform. He felt himself becoming stronger. Developing stamina, courage.

Kiril attended weekly “political information” meetings directed by officers—a remnant of the Soviet era. In Soviet times the propaganda sessions had been devoted to the threat posed by NATO and the United States. Now they consisted primarily of lectures about the reasons for the prolonged fighting in Chechnya. The officers were trying to counter the impression, held by many in Russia, that the war was a misbegotten adventure that had more to do with controlling oil and other vital resources than with Russia’s national security. Most of the conscripts believed them, Kiril says; he did. And he wanted to go to Chechnya, though for “real shooting” rather than out of feelings of patriotism. He felt that serving in Chechnya would establish for all time that he could be bold.

But Chechnya was not in Kiril’s future. When boot camp ended, he was assigned to Kamenka, about a hundred miles northwest of Saint Petersburg. The train ride there, a thirty-hour trip in May 2002, marked his first time out of the region where he was born.

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Gregory Katz, a foreign correspondent based in London, is the Houston Chronicle’s bureau chief for Europe and the Middle East.

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