And for many unlucky Russian boys, it is literally a matter of being dragged into service. The Militsia routinely pounces on kids who've gotten their call-up papers but haven't shown. The trashes' favorite tactic is to strongarm their way into the apartment at six in the morning, when all sane people are asleep, drag the kid out of his nice warm bed, and put him in a cell until the Army guys come down to pick him up. If the cops are in a nice mood, they may let the victim's parents give him some extra clothes or a little money -- though he probably won't be able to keep it very long once he's in barracks.
Here, pieced together from interviews with survivors of Russian Army service, is what the poor draftee can expect once he's put on that hated uniform.
It helps if you grew up in a mean, institutional world -- say, an orphanage, or an English private school. At least then you'll know what to expect: the strong terrorizing the weak, while those in charge look on indifferently. As one interviewee put it, "In the barracks there's nothing to do but turn on each other, like spiders in a jar." The officers don't need to worry about what the troops do to each other; officers get to go home at night to be with their families. Soldiers may not get to see their families at all during their two years' service. That leaves a lot of time for refining and perfecting the little cruelties that make Russian army life so miserable that many soldiers would rather blow their own heads off than finish off the full 24-month sentence.
The rules are simple. For the first year of your service, you're a "dukh" (ghost) -- a victim until proven otherwise. Your only purpose in life is to be humiliated, robbed and terrorized by those who've served longer than you.
If you make it to the end of that first year, you become a "cherpak" ("scoop"). And if you do OK in the first six months of your second year, you become one of the predators, a "Dyed" (grandpa) . Those lucky enough to become Dyedii are initiated in typical Army manner: by inflicting as much pain as possible. First the Dyedii order the candidate to do something impossible, like bring them a glass of water in five seconds, or crawl on hands and knees, heeling like a dog, beside a Dyed who walks quickly over uneven ground. When he fails, he's beaten with fists, then laid on the floor or on a table, given something to bite on, and whipped on his bare ass with belt buckles -- usually about 20 strokes. When that's done, the Dyedii help the candidate to stand up, tear off his camouflage uniform, and pronounce him a Dyed.
But to reach this proud moment the conscript has to survive his first 18 months in the Army. Here, in excerpts from interviews with Army survivors, is what they told us about how to make it through: "Be prepared for the worst. Forget all your education and manners. In the military, politeness and intelligence are a sign of weakness. Polite smartasses are hated and beaten more than anybody. And the bastards deserve it, too -- they're usually from the big cities and think they're better than guys from the sticks. And these mama's boys can't even keep up, physically -- all they do is say the Army is for hicks and losers and they're only in it by accident. Muscovites are hated worst of all, 'cause they got everything and the rest don't have shit.
"So if you play computer games or read books -- throw them away. They won't help you now. You need three qualities: physical strength, the guts to stand up for yourself, and knowing how to act, like in prison.
"Strong guys are always respected, but you don't actually need physical strength. You need mental toughness -- how much pain you can endure, and how much you're willing to inflict on your opponent. Enduring pain without breaking is the most important thing. You have to be able to take ANY pain. And you can; it's been tested many times. If you get beaten too hard to bear, you'll pass out, that's all. So when you fight, fight to kill or cripple your opponent.