enced a lot of hardship. I lost my parents. And now it's hard to live here. I lost my parents
before I was eighteen. But it makes it easier to endure hard times when you lose a person.”
His mother died of cancer when he was sixteen. His dad died of cancer when he was
eighteen—perhaps related to his work at a dirty machine factory in Chelyabinsk.
“I am proud of my father and his work. And the plant did everything. We didn't have to
pay a kopek for his burial.”
Evgeni smiles and pats his buddy on the shoulder.
“All I have is my grandma and two friends.” Ivan looks at Evgeni. “Everyone else I
pushed aside because I knew what to expect.”
Ivan was eighteen, an orphan but done with school, which made him eligible for his
mandatory year in military service.
“I always wanted to serve in the army. But after losing my mom and dad, I didn't want
“Did you ask to get out of it?”
“Yes. And their answer was no. I was in a fury. What could I do? I went to serve. And I
never regretted it.”
“Why don't you regret it?”
“As an American, I don't think you understand what it's like there. There is not a single
person who supports you. They want to break you. There are people who morally break
you, and emotionally break you.”
At this point I can't help but think about the black-and-white images I've seen of Rus-
sian young men fighting in Chechnya in the two wars in the 1990s. Russia's soldiers were
known to be fighting machines, killing brutally and dying often. Then you would see these
photos of them taking a break from the battlefield, cigarettes hanging from their mouths,
teenagers, so hardened at such a young age.
“It takes time to show what you are worth,” Ivan explains. “But it makes you stronger.”
He describes his training in southern Russia. His commanders, he says, deliberately put
ethnically Caucasian men together with Slavic Russians, hoping ethnic tensions would boil
over and they would beat one another up. That was supposed to get them ready for battle.
“I considered it the right thing to serve in the army. Difficulty brings people together. I
think what the Russian army achieves: It makes Russians .”
It makes Russians.
With Ivan I feel I am listening to a single voice amid the “millions and millions strong”
in Russia's outer provinces—Shishkin described this as the second of two “nations.” Tuck-
er described it as “popular Russia.” And it's about more than geography. Even amid the
trendy cafes and fat paychecks in Moscow, there are many people toiling and seeking
strength. I'll never forget a former military doctor in Moscow named Sergei Pichonkin. I