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Fyodor's Russia

The shortages and bread lines are gone, but Russians like Fyodor Sozontov, 18, have new concerns—like war, corruption, and a growing rich-poor divide.

By Steven Lee Myers in St. Petersburg

The diagnoses from the hospital, many of them years old, were Fyodor Sozontov's backup plan. They proved, he said, that something was wrong with him. He read them out slowly, the medical conditions too difficult for him to pronounce: osteochondrosis, arachnoiditis, and cerebral angiodystonia.

The draft board was skeptical. During his first visit, obligatory for all young Russian men in high school, the officers declared him fit for military service. "But that was kind of a surface examination," Fyodor says. "They practically did not look into anything."

Fyodor, who lives in St. Petersburg, turned 18 in October. He is a soft-spoken teenager who spent last summer engaged in a rite of passage for young men in Russia: dodging the draft.

Malls & MTV

His attempt to get out of military service has affected almost everything about his life, his attitude toward authority, his hopes for his own future and that of Russia. "They say you serve your Motherland—you defend it," he says. "Well, it is a difficult question. You have to live here a while to understand it."

Fyodor was born a citizen of a country—the Soviet Union—that ceased to exist in 1991. Russia, the largest of the 15 republics that emerged from the Soviet rubble, offers him opportunities that young people of an earlier era could never have dreamed of. Instead of chronic shortages and lines for bread and meat, they can shop in gleaming supermarkets. They can buy Levi's and Nikes and cruise dozens of new malls with stores like Benetton. They can travel abroad freely. They have the freedom to pray as they like and study where they wish, instead of being channeled into careers decided by the Soviet bureaucracy.

In a country where foreign novels and, worst of all, American rock'n'roll were once deemed subversive, young people now choose the books they read and the music they listen to. Russia has MTV and thumping clubs, text messaging, e-mail, and video games.

In the 15 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, a new middle class has emerged, especially in cities like Moscow, Russia's capital, and St. Petersburg. But the transition from a one-party, totalitarian Communist state in which the government controlled all aspects of the economy, to democracy and free-market capitalism, has been erratic.

Russia's economy is growing, and the standard of living has improved for many, including Fyodor's family. But millions of others have fallen on hard times as state-run industries have collapsed. Despite the country's oil (Russia is the world's second-largest oil producer, after Saudi Arabia) and other natural resources, the gap between rich and poor has widened: Russia has 36 billionaires, but the average income is less than $300 a month.

Corruption, by every measure, is growing. Democratic freedoms that Russians embraced in the 1990s are, critics say, now being whittled away by President Vladimir V. Putin, who came into office in 1999, after Russia's first President, Boris N. Yeltsin, resigned and appointed him President by decree.

Putin's Control

Putin, who has since been elected twice, in 2000 and 2004, has increased state control over the media and other industries. He has also attacked big business. Together, his actions have started to scare off much-needed foreign investment.

Last year, Putin abolished elections of regional governors, whom the President himself now appoints. So just as Fyodor has reached voting age, there is no longer a popular election to choose St. Petersburg's governor.

That may help explain Fyodor's shrugging attitude about politics. "The government does not care," he says. "Maybe Putin is trying to do something, but for most people the most important thing is to get something for themselves...They only care about themselves."

Under the Constitution, Putin himself can serve only two terms, until 2008, but his steps to consolidate power have left many people believing that he won't step aside, despite his promises to do so.

"I think Russia is at such a fork in the road now," says Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion, who retired from the sport to campaign against Putin. "The regime that has abolished democratic freedoms in Russia, that tries to completely liquidate the institution of elections, is taking Russia, one can say, to a blind alley—to nowhere."

War in Chechnya

Most worrisome to teenagers like Fyodor is the war that began in 1994 in Chechnya, a region on the country's southern border. Chechens are Muslims and the collapse of the Soviet Union revived their dreams of independence, like that achieved by former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, and Georgia.

Russia's leaders, though, fear that Russia would disintegrate if regions like Chechnya broke away. What started as a separatist conflict has increasingly become a terrorist one, with Islamic militancy spreading in Chechnya and beyond. In 2004, Chechen terrorists seized hostages in a school in Beslan, a small town in southern Russia. At least 331 hostages died, more than half of them schoolchildren.

The war is one of the main reasons why Russia still has a military draft, despite pledges to use volunteers, as in the U.S. In theory, all men between 18 and 27 must serve two years. In practice, 90 percent avoid the draft. Most do so by taking advantage of deferments for going to college or failing the fitness exam. Either kind of deferment can be obtained for a bribe, which routinely costs $1,000, but can run as much as $40,000.

Fyodor is neither inclined nor, evidently, able to pay his way out. "It would be better if the Army was made up of people who wanted to serve," he says.

Fyodor was born in Czechoslovakia in 1987, where his parents worked briefly, his father as an engineer at one of the Soviet military bases there. Two years later, as Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was ending, he returned with them to Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was then called). His parents harbor little nostalgia for Soviet times, nor does he, but Fyodor also is far from upbeat about the new Russia.

Depeche Mode & Nirvana

This attitude makes him a typical Russian teenager. A survey of Russian attitudes by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington found that only 37 percent of Russians between the ages of 16 and 29 fully embraced democracy. Despite the freedoms and opportunities that came with the Soviet collapse, 36 percent said they preferred authoritarian rule. The rest said the form of government simply didn't matter.

Fyodor lives in Kupchino, a neighborhood of bleak Soviet-era high-rises far from St. Petersburg's beautiful, historic center. His apartment's courtyard is an intimidating place, occupied by drunks and thugs and "people with very unhappy faces." Fyodor does his best to avoid them, as well as skinheads, a pernicious subculture of Russian youth.

He tends to stay inside, where he plays guitar, strumming songs by groups like Depeche Mode and Nirvana. He laments the quality of education in Russian schools, but by his own admission, he is not an eager student. If not for the draft, he says he would not really be interested in college. He calls the draft the greatest stimulant to higher education.

Escaping to College

That's why his family gathered up his old diagnoses. Proving he was unhealthy was a way to avoid service. But as it turned out, he found another way. Fyodor scored well on his high school exams, receiving the highest scores—in history and literature, and the second highest in math, chemistry, and Russian. He had hoped to enter elite St. Petersburg State University, but he didn't make it.

He applied instead to the Kirov Forestry Academy, a technical college with a five-year program. He entered in September, and for now, he will not be going to Chechnya. "For the next five years," he says, "I am safe."