A Russian Soldier’s Story

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

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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