Just a few months before Igor and I met in 1999, he had received a notice to appear before the local military recruiter for the spring draft. He went through the medical commission and proved himself, unfortunately, after years of daily workouts and his vocational training in electronics and truck driving, to be an ideal specimen for war.
He received the dreaded three-day notice, requiring him to report for duty, and it was all but certain that he would be shipped to Chechnya, where a cruel and bloody war was brewing.
“The first day, I was sitting and thinking, What the fuck is going on?” he says. “I remember it was a sunny day, very hot in the marshrutka [shuttle bus]. And I was sweating. In my mind, I was three days from a date with Chechnya. I was thinking, What can save me? I was thinking about it. I thought, I will go there and die. Three days of life. How to spend it? I already forgot how nervous I was.”
Two of the most common techniques for evading military service were paying a bribe to a doctor for a false medical report and enrollment in a college, which would bring about a deferment. Ultimately, Igor utilized both.
With three days to go, it was too late to organize a bribe to a doctor, even if he’d had money, which he didn’t. He had just started his first real job, serving draft beer and shashlik at Chaika, one of the city’s upscale restaurants catering to foreign businessmen, governmental officials, and prostitutes. His only hope was to convince the recruitment officer that he had enlisted in a military or police academy, which would land him an automatic deferral. So the next day, first thing in the morning, slightly recovered from the shock and feeding off adrenaline, he called a friend who was studying at a military and space university. He asked how one went about entering and followed his instructions. He went to the registrar, picked up the applications, and filled them out. He pleaded with the secretaries to process them on the spot. He showed them his draft notice. And they took pity on him. On the third day, he returned to the recruiting office with proof that he had filed enrollment papers.
The recruiter looked at him blankly and said nothing as he scanned the documents.
“Okay,” he said finally. “If you don’t enter the university, you will be drafted in three months.” He tore up his draft notice and made some notes in his file.
“I felt like I was reborn,” Igor says.
Reborn, Igor had no intentions of entering the military space university. He decided to enrol at the shipbuilding university, not so much because he wanted to be a maritime engineer as because it had the easiest entrance exam, testing only one subject: mathematics. He signed up, and this bought him the summer, three months to prepare for one entrance exam in math.
Then he promptly forgot about it.
Working as a barman on the dock run by the restaurant Chaika, right there on the Griboyedov Canal, Igor sold beer to tourists taking trips along the city’s canals. He partied every night with the ship captains.
One morning he awoke with a mind-numbing hangover and the realization that his entrance exam was three days away, and if he missed it, the likelihood that the recruiter would approve another educational deferment was slim. He had, in effect, another three-day notice. He hadn’t prepared for the exam at all. And math was not his thing.
“Then,” he says, “it came to me. I remembered: I’ve got my old pal Tarasov.” While Igor had attended a secondary school with special emphasis on English, Tarasov had attended a secondary school with special emphasis on mathematics.
He called up Tarasov and offered him a bottle of cheap vodka in exchange for taking his entrance exam, and Tarasov happily agreed to come right over to prepare.
At first, Igor thought about switching the photo from Tarasov’s passport to his. He tried, but it didn’t look convincing. “I thought about chancing it, then thought, Fuck it. We will burn. I said, ‘Okay, Tarasov, don’t shave.’ And he has a heavy beard. I said, ‘Don’t wash hair.’ He had long hair like me at the time.” He put the passports back together and they parted ways.
After just three days, when Igor saw him outside the university on test day, he barely recognized him. Tarasov looked like a bum. He had a thick beard, and his hair was scraggly and greasy. Igor was impressed. Igor mussed Tarasov’s hair, gave him his passport, and administered the sign of the cross over him. “Go,” he said. Tarasov went. Igor watched through the crack of the door as he showed the passport to the proctor. The proctor made a notation, and Tarasov sat down to take the exam.
Igor went to the second floor, where there were two Russian billiards tables, and started shooting by himself. When it comes to Russian billiards, most people play either Moscow Pyramid or Amerikanka (which means “American girl”). The balls are sixty-two millimeters in diameter and the pockets aresixty-four millimeters. It means you’re either dead-on or the ballbounces out. The cues are as long as cane poles and the table is approximately the size of the former Soviet Union itself. There is an essential Russian billiards shot in which you carom the cue ball off the object ball and into the pocket. Igor practised this shot. The exam was scheduled to take two hours. Igor thought, By the end of two hours, I will make the carom every time.
But after only thirty minutes, Tarasov strolled in. He approached the pool table and handed back Igor’s passport.
“What the fuck?” Igor said. “It’s a two-hour exam.”
“I’m finished,” Tarasov said. “Also, I helped a couple other guys. Then I left.”
“Okay,” Igor tells me. “I knew I had the right man. And that’s how I got into the shipbuilding university and out of the army for the second time.”
In a redemptive story, Igor would learn his lesson. He’d focus on his studies, apply himself, maintain good standing, and stay out of the army. But his intentions at the university were far from academic. Tuition was free. He hardly showed up except for biweekly badminton classes. He was there for one reason: to stay out of the army. His marks showed it. Within a year, he was on academic probation, and then he found himself facing expulsion. By that time, he had learned something about how Russia works. Now, he decided, with the salary from his work at Chaika—he would soon graduate from working the canal dock to being head barman, with a good salary and tips—he could put Russia to work for him.
“Then began my search,” he tells me, “who to bribe to get rid of fucking army for good. I began to save money.” The highest rate Igor came across for a medical certificate that would declare him unfit for military service in 2001 was five thousand dollars. But even in matters of such delicacy, Igor considers himself a master negotiator. “So I was calling to all my pals to get this info. Then found through some guys the real price: six hundred dollars.”
Igor called the doctor who charged six hundred. She lived nearby. He brought her the money.
She took the cash and looked him over. At that point, Igor had been lifting weights for almost six years. “Oh, you are a huge guy,” she said. She thought. “Let’s say you broke your back training.” She told him which X-ray clinic to go to. “I will call ahead,” she said. “Everybody will know about you.’”
The next day, he went to the clinic. He gave his name and waited. Shortly, an attendant called him into the back and hung a set of X-rays on a light box. The X-rays had his surname printed on them. The attendant pointed to a small line in the spinal column—a clear fracture.
Armed with his independent medical analysis and fraudulent X-rays, the next step was to go through the medical screening at the commission with the military doctors. His doctor had connections there too. She said, “Go. Doctors over there know everything. When you’re seeing the specialist, he will ask you to make push-ups. You need to say, ‘Oh oh, my back! I can’t!’ And he will look at your X-ray and say, ‘Aha, I see.’”
“And that’s what happened,” Igor says. “I also went to the psychologist that day. He asked me, ‘What do you think about the army?’ I said, ‘I don’t like when someone is commanding me.’ He was writing in notebook.”
After the medical screening, Igor returned to the recruitment officer who’d given him his three-day notice two years earlier. It was the final step. He was nervous. If it hadn’t worked, there’d be no more options.
“Well, Igor Yurievitch,” said the recruitment officer. “We can’t take you in the army.” He stamped Igor’s file.
And that is how Igor stayed out of the army.