My ass looms over four stories as I hang backwards out the window, held in that position by two fellow privates in order to relieve myself. I don’t feel exceptionally comfortable trusting these two with my life, but there is no choice. I have dysentery. My diarrhea demands immediate attention, but the barracks bathroom is out of service. It’s dangerous to go to the outhouse at night because soldiers from other regiments are known to ambush and mug the unwitting victims of digestive problems. Not much to gain, but even parts of your uniform might be at stake. If any component of your attire ends up lacking, superiors instruct you to “give birth” to its replacement. Most realistically, this means stealing it from someone else. This instruction is not legal, but everyone is aware that in the 1986 Soviet Union, nothing is. The Soviet Union has five years to go until its collapse, but we don’t know that.
The sergeant improvises the window method and assigns my two assistants. They barely know me and don’t care if I die, but it’s clear that there will be trouble for all if they drop me. The state I am in, the act of defecation takes only a few seconds. They drag me back inside. The area underneath is not in use; it has become a semi-landfill, home to discarded concrete blocks, odd metallic structures bright with rust. Here, my modest contribution will not cause a stir.
In the present, my American friends ask if the act of shitting in that manner is a gesture, a symbolic dump upon the military, the Soviet Empire. Retrospectively, it becomes so. But at the moment, it doesn’t feel like a gesture. Just relief.
The Soviet Army has swallowed me for two years. The USSR is not a democratic country. Conscientious objections are not allowed. Normally, military service is deferred for college students, with a significantly slimmer chance to be enlisted as an officer after graduation—a much less painful life than a private’s. But my turn to be eighteen falls upon a two-year period when the deferment is suspended. I am summoned to arrive with my things. Only a few toiletries are allowed. It’s a lovely June day. My family and friends see me off. A school bus takes me away into another life, the kind I am absolutely unprepared for. We are briefly stationed in a gloomy building where a team of barbers shaves our hair off. After hours of waiting, another school bus transports us to the airport. Is the school metaphor intentional?
A crowd of future soldiers is loaded on a plane and shipped across the continent, from St. Petersburg to Siberia. I’m numb with fear and resignation as the flight hours roll on.
The notion of time being as artificial as it is, I’m intrigued by the thought that life could be considered to happen all at once, all causal relationships relinquished. I sense my younger selves present in me, dormant, connecting me to my memories. Even now, in the present, I feel as if some part of me is still wearing a Russian military uniform, getting up at 6:30 every morning, counting the days, longing for the time when my two-year sentence is over.
But nothing is ever over.
I wake up, and the future is a horror story. Here I am, in an army boot camp, four thousand miles from home: a slave, a workhorse, an errand boy. I’m not as brave as two of my good friends who slit their wrists, imitating suicide and thus getting a medical discharge on psychiatric grounds.
Outside the unlucky minority making a mess in Afghanistan, the military is being used as a free workforce, undernourished and minimally clothed. I will dig trenches for electric cable and water pipes. I will load and unload heavy things, paint walls, carry furniture for officers moving homes. I will not hold a gun in my hands more than once or twice. This part is OK with me: I don’t like guns.
My college acquaintance will be killed in Afghanistan. I remember him as an awkward kid without a morsel of humor, a ridiculous figure, a frequent character in our jokes. In the present, it’s odd and frightening that the previous sentence is a near-complete description of my relationship with another human being, a relationship that cannot be amended.
My current self also ponders how strange it is that the same country became a target of my new homeland’s military operation—and some American soldiers have died there. The second war wouldn’t have occurred without the first. How did I happen to move from one superpower to another? I am certain that the military experience contributed to my disenchantment, my decision to emigrate just two years after my discharge, to opt for a new life with $243, a suitcase, and a box of LPs.
Many Afghanis have died.
I did not die.
Each time a memory is invoked, it is optimized in our brains: missing details filled in, transitions between the scenes polished. What I remember may not be exactly what happened, yet it represents what my current self holds to be true.
But there is no time to think about any of that now because I have only forty-five seconds to get out of bed and stuff myself into my uniform. I’m not fond of uniforms. I am stuck with a pair of footcloths they make us use to wrap our feet—not because socks are unavailable, simply to follow the regulations. I’m still battling one of these ridiculous fabric rectangles as other soldiers, more expedient than myself, begin to line up for morning head count. I give up on perfection: blisters will happen anyway. I just stuff my foot into my ugly boot, the foot and the footcloth one shapeless mass, and run to take my place in the lineup. It’s important not to be last. A delay on anyone’s part brings on collective punishment. The whole platoon is forced to do push-ups until everyone has exhausted their last bit of strength. Such are the unofficial boot camp rules. The tardy soldier loses a few points on everyone’s patience scale. A private who causes frequent punishments quickly turns into a pariah.
Morning workout is next, and we stream down the stairs like good cattle, half-conscious and near dizzy from lack of sleep and the abrupt transition. The goal of this handling is clear: dehumanization. Good soldiers don’t think too much and don’t ask questions. We keep running.
I can’t get used to the food they feed us: loose grain stew resembling the contents of a sick child’s diaper, a theoretical notion of beef or chicken represented only by the occasional thread of fiber. The cooks and the sergeants eat all the good stuff after the official meal is over. I can barely force myself to swallow a few spoonfuls, and as a result I have lost thirty pounds in three months. I was not overweight before. I’ve learned that it is possible to be famished and unable to eat at the same time.
I am cleaning the officers’ dining room when I see a half-eaten piece of cake. A surge of uncontrollable desire courses through my cortex. I have no choice. My dignity has been hovering just barely above zero for several weeks, and in the face of this miracle, this siren of the cake’s sliver, I surreptitiously glance around to make sure no one will witness my fall. I devour it in three swallows, almost choking, fearful that someone might notice, hating myself for this humiliating surrender. In the end, I don’t care. I have nothing left to hide. I am barely a human being. I wonder what it is that I think of as myself.
When the layers we consider parts of ourselves peel off, what is left?
Eventually the three months of the boot camp are over. By sheer accident, I am transferred to a military unit within the reasonably large small city of Chita where things are safer than on the periphery. I can occasionally sneak out to buy a real meal. The look, the smell of my first plate of human food is still with me: a smiling sunny-side up next to a divine hamburger, with angelic mashed potatoes completing the sonata. The delight of this offering!
This reacquaintance with food causes quite a shock to my digestive system.
The dread of thoughtlessness and pointless discipline, the ongoing demand for uniformity in everything will torture me for the rest of my service, but at least the dire hunger and exhaustion of the first days are over.
I am lucky.
My current self wonders what kind of person I would be now, had I not been so lucky.
Soviet military is based on an unofficial hazing structure, a hierarchy in which soldiers approaching their discharge, grandfathers, hold a senior status over the younger bunch, like seasoned criminals do in jail. They demand unconditional service and violently suppress any lack of cooperation. Often, they amass power that even officers hesitate to challenge. By contrast, we, the new soldiers, are ghosts—an apt metaphor for our state of personality loss.
But the grandfathers in my unit are relatively civil. Beatings are infrequent as long as I play by the “rules.” The beatings are performed in a ritualistic way: the punches are painful, but not essentially harmful, and the subject is to succumb to them without excessive commentary. Pleading to stop fails to impress, and fighting back is a sure way to cause some type of unfortunate event in your life even if you are a skilled martial artist—perhaps not today, but most certainly tomorrow, the grandfathers will catch up with you.
Sometimes a discussion of your perceived failings and their denial or acknowledgement may accompany such a beating. Once, during what I consider a mere conversation, a grandfather punches me in the stomach. The punch is well-practiced and efficient. I seem to pass out for just a second and find myself falling. Somehow, in this lost second I have managed to pee my pants just slightly. Once I recover, my shortcoming is explained to me. My current self doesn’t remember what it was.
Usually these encounters are for establishing territory, not a matter of daily business.
Later, when it’s my turn to be a grandfather, I don’t have the skill or the desire to reinforce and enjoy this advantage. There is a temptation in having others at your command, but also a bad taste, a sense of corruption. Luckily, we are a small group: the peer pressure to preserve the hierarchical structure is not as strong as it may have been in a bigger unit. The dust of restructuring settles, and all of us fall into our identical roles as ghosts in a dying machine, stolen from our lives for two years; some approaching release, others, still recovering from immersion shock. I’m delighted to defy the military status quo by allowing a little extra humanity in our lives.
I get an electrician’s job. I replace light bulbs, work out wiring for any equipment that needs to be installed, and dig or paint with others when everything electric is sufficiently functional. Once I almost electrocute myself removing the stem of a light bulb, one of those so impatient to burn out they go with a flash of broken glass. I am standing on a well-grounded iron bed when both my hands accidentally touch the opposing wires. As 220-volt electricity streams through my body, I find my arms paralyzed; I can’t pull away. Some part of my mind recalls reading about this effect. Can I possibly die like this? But a simple alternative occurs to me: instead of struggling to will my arms into motion, I let my knees bend under me. I land on the bed, unharmed.
Another time an old man, a civilian, stumbles upon a stretch of 380-volt cable I am using to power a compressor. He begins working away at the cable, saw in hand. When his saw penetrates the plastic covering, the blade melts. He is knocked out, but he is wearing a glove, and happens to avoid any permanent damage. I don’t witness this event, but one of my friends does. We marvel at the audacity of cutting into a thick electrical cable without bothering to wonder whether it’s hot. “I just needed some cable,” the old man explains.
It’s the Russian way.
Much like socks, extra layers are not allowed. If you find yourself outside during those dark days with temperatures below -30, this adherence to rules becomes sadistic. Celsius and Fahrenheit converge at -40, which is not infrequent in Chita. Once again, the tactic of dehumanization is evident. And once again, I am lucky: most of the time I work inside.
My current self feels a share of guilt realizing that someone got it much worse because I did not.
I am told to bring a jar of horrid and potent potato hooch to a different building, where one of the grandfathers is on duty. Last night we all had a share of it, one of the ghosts always on guard in case any of the officers are seen or heard coming down the stairs. I put the jar in a bag and cover it with some paperwork. As I try to sneak out the front door, the officer on duty spies me.
“Molotkov, what do you have there?”
“Some paperwork,” I reply.
He searches the bag anyway. The illegal jar of alcohol is discovered. I am taken to the unit commander’s office. The commander demands that I reveal who among the grandfathers instructed me to bring the jar. He screams. He threatens me with escalating disciplinary measures: extended duty hours, bathroom cleaning for the rest of my service, military detention, all the way up to a transfer to such a district in Siberia that no one would ever find me again. I know it is within his abilities to follow up on this threat. Soldiers are transferred often. And if I’m spared a transfer, military detention is known for the harsh beatings and psychological torture practiced there. I am very scared. I am still more a St. Petersburg college boy, less a seasoned man ready for new hardships.
I hope he is bluffing.
I don’t crack.
I maintain I had no idea what the jar was, and that I simply intended to toss it into the garbage. I suggest that the jar must have been left behind by some of the construction troops that worked there in preceding weeks. Not a very believable story, but one I can stick to nevertheless.
My current self realizes, with some surprise, that this may be the only honorable thing I did during my service.
Whatever the relationship between the successive terms amidst the soldiers, we are all victims of the senseless draft trapped in a stagnant regime’s brutal armed forces. The people I really despise are the officers, who have intentionally chosen a military career in a militarist country.
No one wants to explain things to their superiors: eventually the matter is dropped. I become the officers’ personal foe, but my standing with the grandfathers is improved since I did not give them up.
Anything that happens once keeps happening due to its presence in our memory. I remain hanging backwards, defecating out a fourth story window. But it’s up to me to define the value of this recollection. Harsh times become reference points in our lives. Retrospectively, I value the experience of confronting the Soviet Military, with all its humiliations. It gave me years of identical nightmares: being back, enlisted again. And this is why it is both a great pleasure and a relief to share this memory: my fragile, shrunken ass in the window, smiling, expressing most eloquently and most laconically all that can be said about the dying Soviet Empire.
Days crawl on, slowly adding up to months. I follow orders reluctantly and question them often, making use of any opportunity to discredit and disregard the military forces I am imprisoned within. It’s no wonder that unlike many other privates who are allowed to go home in April, I am retained until the very end of June, the absolute deadline for my term’s discharge.
I leave with a proud sense of having been a bad soldier.