A Russian Soldier’s Story

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

The Kamenka base is set deep in the forest near a small village of wooden peasant cottages. The village has no restaurant, no bar, no café, no movie theater—not even a name. Along the road leading to the base, a Soviet-era T-80 tank sits on a pedestal; a plaque commemorates the tank’s role in Russian history. The base sprawls over hundreds of acres and is surrounded by a high yellow wall and barbed wire.

New arrivals are at the bottom of a well-defined hierarchy. Just above them are so-called “old soldiers” or “grand-fathers”—second-year conscripts serving out their final months. Most are no longer willing to make their beds or shine their boots or find illicit booze; they get the new arrivals to do these things for them. Once the officers leave the barracks for the night, the old soldiers take charge.

That is when trouble starts. An old soldier may wake up a new one and demand cigarettes or vodka or rubles. If the younger soldier comes up empty, he may be beaten. Hazing has been a problem in armies throughout the world for millennia, but in post-Soviet Russia it has become a crisis. Some units of abused recruits have mutinied or marched off base en masse. Some soldiers have shot and killed their tormentors. Thousands of conscripts have run for their lives. The incidence of suicide among draftees has increased, and officials cite bullying as the chief cause. President Vladimir Putin has called for an end to the hazing, and dozens of officers have been disciplined for allowing it (and in some cases for abusing or even killing their men themselves). But the beatings, known as dedovshchina (“rule of the grandfathers”), persist. The young soldiers live in collective terror, not of combat but of their comrades.

Kiril’s misery began on the day he arrived, when he made a seemingly minor mistake in military protocol. He addressed an old soldier who had attained the rank of sergeant with the formal term “Comrade Sergeant,” which had been mandated at the Yeysk base. But soldiers at Kamenka had been told to use a more familiar approach—to call their sergeants by name. The sergeant, angry at Kiril’s mistake, pummeled him, hitting him everywhere except on the face (so that no bruises would show). Kiril eventually smoothed things over with the sergeant, but he was beaten for weeks by various old soldiers whose demands he failed to meet. His idea of the military as a family evaporated.

“That first night I realized this was hell,” Kiril says, his eyes going blank as he describes Kamenka.

I was not simply hit once; I was beaten up. First the sergeant—he hit me in the stomach several times, and in the head, and after I fell he kicked me in the stomach. He didn’t aim, he just kicked and kicked and was swearing at me. Starting the very next day, the old soldiers would give us thirty minutes to get cigarettes with filters (which is impossible on the military base), or say, “Get me this much money in an hour, and if you don’t bring it to me in an hour you will be beaten to a pulp.” Which always happened, because we had no money … The base is not in a city, it’s in the woods, so you can’t go and ask for things. You can’t ask the trees for money and cigarettes. The old soldiers and even the officers would get drunk, and to entertain themselves they would wake you up in the night. I remember all the stools were broken through beating and hitting. They would make us do push-ups and just beat us for entertainment.

The worst offenders in Kiril’s unit were Ruha and Max, who generally operated out of the boiler room—it was always comfortably warm, and officers rarely went there. Ruha and Max never abused conscripts from their own part of the country. But everyone else was fair game. One officer on the base could keep Ruha under control, but when this officer was off duty, nothing could make Ruha stop. The young soldiers tried to stay out of his way, but there was no escape when his friends came for them in their bunks at night.

Most draftees have to deal with dedovshchina at one time or another during their hitches. Usually the old soldiers test the new arrivals, leaving those who are physically and psychologically tough alone after a beating or two. They focus on the weak, the timid, the fat, the mentally troubled, the effeminate. There is also a strong regional bias: the ethnic divisions that bedevil Russian society are reflected inside the barracks, with second-year soldiers from a given region often establishing a safe zone for arrivals from their own ethnic group and attacking newcomers from another. The beatings are worse during the long nights of winter, when the soldiers’ drinking escalates.

Officers who served during the Soviet era believe that the spread of dedovshchina is related to a precipitous drop in both the wages and the respect given today’s officer corps. Wages today are a fraction of what they were, and officers have to pay for food, uniforms, and almost all the other things they used to get free. Many have to work second jobs to get by. On the whole they are too busy and disillusioned to spend time with their soldiers, who are left to their own devices at night rather than being supervised by junior officers, as they once were. Thus the old soldiers have free rein.

The best tactic for a new conscript is to challenge the old soldiers the first time they attack. It’s easiest for those who arrive at the base with a group of friends willing to protect one another, and for those who fight back the first time. It helps if they show a violent streak of their own. Kiril lacked the sharp tongue and tough fists that could have given him some status in the barracks. He seemed an easy target, so he became a perpetual target. As the beatings increased, Kiril felt his body breaking down. He lived with fear around the clock; he could not go to sleep without wondering if he would be woken up and abused. His neck, his spine, and his skull were in constant pain. His sense of failure returned, along with self-loathing.

He soon developed a severe infection on his legs. They were covered with hundreds of hard pimples. Some would burst each day, spreading pus; his pants started sticking to his skin. He itched all day long. The wounds did not heal. Marching became excruciating. He grew weaker and more depressed, and finally went to the hospital in July, two months after having arrived at Kamenka. The doctors could do little for his ailment, which they attributed to nerves and stress.

Before going into the hospital Kiril had received official written notice of the 400 rubles his mother had sent. That was a lot of money—for a conscript, the equivalent of several months’ pay. He asked friends to hide the document while he was hospitalized, to keep the old soldiers from finding out. After his discharge from the hospital he went to the base post office and picked up the money. He gave it to his friends for safekeeping. That night Kiril was summoned to the boiler room by Ruha and his henchmen. The next day he spent the money on cigarettes, cookies, and candies. The old soldiers found his purchases, seized them, and again hauled Kiril into the boiler room for a beating.

Kiril broke. The next day, acting on impulse, he tried to escape. He wanted to make his way back to the base in Yeysk, which he had enjoyed so much. He believed he could return to the target range there, where he had proved his prowess. He walked off the Kamenka base through a park that was not fenced in, but he was caught within minutes.

Two months later Kiril tried again to escape; again he was caught and forced to return to Kamenka. On his third attempt, the following spring, he succeeded, along with another private who had also suffered under Ruha. Eventually Kiril reached Saint Petersburg, where he contacted an advocacy group called the Soldiers’ Mothers Organization. Legal advisers from the group told him to go to a hospital and have his injuries documented, so that it would be clear he was no longer healthy enough for military service.

The hospital report for Kiril Bobrov makes disturbing reading. Doctors found that he suffered from numerous wounds, traumas, and concussions. They listed several serious injuries, including a spinal fracture in his neck. A mental disorder was also diagnosed. The report concluded that he was no longer fit to serve in the Russian army.

But Kiril’s problems with the army are far from over. His decision to run away from Kamenka created a bureaucratic hurdle that may take him years to overcome—perhaps his entire working life. In Russia former soldiers must generally show discharge papers when applying for a job.

So, accompanied by his mother, Kiril returned to the Kamenka base, hoping to persuade the authorities there to give him the discharge papers that would clear his name and allow him to pursue a career as a cook. He brought with him the hospital report, which lessened the risk that he would be arrested or forced back into the barracks to serve more time. It was roughly two years after he’d first arrived.

Kiril and his mother were denied entrance to the base. They spent hours at the front gate while officials inside considered his request. The two paced back and forth, their hands jammed into their pockets for warmth; they told little stories and maintained some hope during the long afternoon. A light snow fell for a few minutes, soon giving way to cold rain. Their mood fell as dinnertime came and went. Eventually a soldier came out, returned the hospital report, and sent them off, without any discharge papers. They trudged to a bus stop, made their way to a train station, and returned to Saint Petersburg in silence.

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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