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I spent two years in the Soviet Army (now the Russian Army). Happily, I was neither an occupant of Afghanistan nor a `peace-maker' in one of the countless `hot-spots' of the Soviet Union because my mother had an acquaintance in the conscription department and delivered a bottle of the best Armenian cognac to the right place at the right time. I knew nothing of such tricks. When I waited with other conscripts to be taken away to my regiment, I was astonished to see my classmate, a good student at the Polytechnic University, taken to the Navy for three years (a bad deal). At that time many of us naively thought that army service would be of benefit, although I suspected that the only skill I would learn would be that of surviving.

The Air Defense regiment where I served was civilised and comprised mostly of enlightened officers, and future and ex-university students, who had to devote several years to the Army at that time. Shortly afterwards Gorbachev cancelled conscription for students, but I wasn't as lucky as those born after 1970 and had plenty of time to reflect on my life. The two years were comparatively idle and full of foolishness. I accepted the famous dictum that when God created discipline on earth the Air Forces were flying, and when he wanted discipline in the sky there was stormy weather.

There were many traditions in the Soviet Army apart from the official `invincibility and glory' which made us sick every time we heard it. Older soldiers exploited newcomers to the utmost. But we were relatively happy because the construction troops in the neighbouring barracks had an order and spirit which reminded us of prison. As I served in the kitchen police or in the barracks every other day, I would dream impatiently of reaching the `golden age' when I would be a senior soldier. At last the day came. The crucial question `to beat or not to beat' was on the horizon. Three of my colleagues from another flying squadron answered this by beating up a fresher, full of Perestroika ideas, so that he needed hospitalisation. As a result, they saw the rest of the upheaval of Soviet reforms through grated windows. This made me think more intensively than the Prince of Denmark, and that was not all.

Even though our officers were quiet and educated, I was sworn at many times when I lost my automatic rifle. I was on duty at the aircraft parking place while the planes were out flying. This was a prestigious duty because you could either read `War and Peace' or smoke three hundred cigarettes a week. If a junior didn't come to take over during lunch-break, you could hide your rifle somewhere in the bomb-shelter and go to the canteen. I did that several times.

Once when I came back, as full as Sir Falstaff after a sumptuous feast, I couldn't find my rifle in its hiding place. I knew full-well the consequences of that sort of loss, especially if the gun were stolen, and I prepared myself for a minimum of a year in prison. If I was lucky I would come home at the same time as my classmate in the Navy. My commanders (there were so many commanders in the Army that if I spat in the garrison street I would hit a commander) and colleagues looked everywhere for the rifle while the airfield gradually filled with returning planes and unflattering comments about my loss.

I was crushed and did not know what to do. Neither comrades nor the Communist Party could help. I had grown up in an ordinary atheistic family and (in the words of H.E.Fosdick) `had no invisible means of support'. My parents had baptised me `just in case' according to the normal double-standard, double-thinking Soviet practice, but until then I had only been to churches converted into museums.

I was an ordinary boy, who thought that the world was divided into `right' socialist and `non-enlightened' capitalist parts. Suddenly, this diligent member of the Young Communist Union started praying and asking God to help him find that damned rifle. Looking back it was awkward but at the time it was sincere.

The rifle was found an hour later, when I climbed onto a plane's tail. I almost fell off when I saw it lying on the roof of a shed. I still have no idea who had played such a trick on me. Maybe it was a standard joke of the construction troops who were jealous of our `freedom' in Air-Defense. Maybe some of my colleagues did it just for fun. It did not change my life immediately but pointed to changes to come. I understood that there was a spiritual world which is close to us, that we are able to contact when in trouble.

A month later, my Hamlet-like dilemma of whether `to beat or not to beat' was resolved. I was posted to a remote radio station. It was less military than an Irish pub. The four of us there didn't divide the world into older and younger soldiers, but lived as friends. It was then that I started to recognise ways out of the trap of conformity. And, I hope, my life stopped being so far from spiritual questions.

Igor Smerdov, Russia

Last update: 2000-02-12 20:06:06 (EEST).
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