Fighting for another country, by choice

  • 2005-09-28
  • By Liivi Sandy
PARNU - Now that his army gear is off, Matti Tikovt would like a beer. His sister has just picked him up from the Parnu battalion and they're on their way to a pub. She hasn't seen Matti in a few months. Back then, he had long hair - the day he left his native Canada to embark on a unique adventure.

It's only his second weekend off since arriving in Parnu on July 12. In all that time Tikovt's life has been one long drill of guns, camping and rigorous exercise. Oh, and he's acquired a shaved head, of course. But he's definitely not your average Estonian guy. Most of them would certainly avoid enlisting for national military service if they could.

"I came to the Estonian army because I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life," says Tikovt, whose father convinced him to join the Estonian army after he decided not to go to university. The idea of school bored Tikovt so he figured he'd challenge himself in a different way while learning about his heritage at the same time.

Tikovt's parents are both Estonian and were raised in Canada. During the war both sets of his grandparents fled to North America. They may have escaped communism, but they fervently clung on to their native culture. Tikovt's mother tongue is Estonian and he went to Estonian classes and summer camp. These experiences were a valuable part of his upbringing, especially since he is still friends with many of the people he met back then.

Now he is thankful to his parents for speaking to him in Estonian throughout his upbringing, and that speaking English was forbidden during his four weeks at summer camp. Tikovt explains that a counselor once caught him speaking English and as punishment he had to perform a lengthy set of push-ups. However, the punishments he now receives as a soldier are a little more demanding, such as having to scrub every inch of a sidewalk.

"I spat on the ground and someone saw me," he admits coyly.

Push-ups on the other hand, are something he's come to enjoy.

He points to a list hanging in his dormitory. "I can do 54 push- ups in two minutes now," he says.

Tikovt likes the physical training he's getting, and remarks on how he's gotten bigger since he left home. He says that he wasn't really prepared for how serious the army was.

Every morning he is unceremoniously woken up at 6 a.m. and has just two minutes to get dressed. Before breakfast he has to do a five-kilometer run in his boots. Afterward he has four classes that teach him everything from the mechanics of a gun to how to survive without supplies in a forest.

He's just passed tests that will allow him to train to become a sergeant. He seems happy about it, even if it doesn't come as much of a surprise. Tikovt is described as a team leader by his superior.

"He's confident and motivates his peers," says Veeber Karu, Tikovt's group leader. "People are somewhat fascinated by him because he is a foreigner."

Karu says Tikovt has been a great addition to the group and because he's a voluntary conscript from Canada, he's even a bit of a hero. Estonian Television aired an interview with Tikovt a few weeks ago that highlighted his unusual undertaking. He's clearly popular thanks to the fact that he comes across as such a modest and amiable guy, and the interview was a perfect example of this.

At 6ft 3in Tikovt is quite a presence, but he's not used to being in the spotlight. He's had no trouble finding friends to take him home during weekends off, something he couldn't do otherwise because his own family is so far away.

"He's very funny," says his bunkmate, Juri Tikk. "And he's a really good friend."

The fact that things appear to be going so well for Tikovt makes his decision to come all the way to Estonia seem like good sense, but initially it was a hard choice to make. This begs a frequently-asked question of him. Why would he bother coming all the way to Estonia to enlist for the army when he could have enlisted at home?

His Estonian passport was his ticket here, a document which all Canadians with Estonian grandparents are eligible for. Tikovt says the Canadian army is more intense, especially because young men choose to enlist. It's a three year commitment, something he wasn't prepared to make.

"The Canadian army is more career-oriented and demanding," he says. "But I thought the physical training in Estonia was going to be like every day they work you until you die. It's not."

The biggest challenges for Tikovt have been the language barrier and the rigid schedule. "Everything is to the second," he says. He's not even allowed to lean on his bed during the day.

Saturdays however, tend to be more relaxed. They often line up for sweets at the canteen truck that comes by and many of the conscripts can be found in their rooms, perched on stools reading the newspaper. Tikovt opens his locker and shows me his copy of the latest Harry Potter novel. He finished it in six days, sometimes staying up late at night with a flashlight. It's little things like these that keep him going. And the packages his Canadian girlfriend sends him from home. Her picture hangs in his locker, along with a stack of letters and other photos.

"Music and girls are hard to be without," Tikovt says. "For the first couple of weeks it was hard but now I'm used to it." He says he misses the little comforts, like sleeping in if he feels like it. He also misses his family.

But he and his sister quickly get back to their old ways when she arrives to visit him. There are joyful hugs and plenty of jokes.

"He wanted a spanking," his sister says. "From a big Estonian soldier!"

They're laughing and he's in good spirits, despite the fact that he lives somewhere that resembles a prison. But Tikovt claims that he is maturing with the experience.

"Even in the past three months I've matured," he says.

He says that when he gets out he doesn't want to be grown up, he just wants to know his limits. "Not like grown up where there isn't even a limit anymore," he says. "But mature is just knowing the limit."

But his sister isn't so sure. After we drop Tikovt off, her eyes well up as though she knows her little brother has reached an adult point of no-return.

"Give him a kiss for me when you see him again," she says, watching him disappear through the barrack gates in full uniform, every inch the soldier.