No one can accuse Dmitry Medvedev of failing to exhort Russians to better themselves. The president has urged everything from establishing fairness in the legal system to transforming the country's "paternalistic" society and overhauling the economy to lead the world in information technology.
But on November 14 there finally appeared to be evidence that his four years in office would actually leave a mark on Russia besides the scrapping of daylight saving time
: the "Izvestiya" newspaper reported defense ministry officials
as saying soldiers would be made to play badminton.
Given the president's miserable record in every other field of reform, this appeared to be a coup. Last month, shortly after announcing he would not run for a second term to make way for his mentor Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Medvedev appeared in an Internet video
wearing a sports shirt emblazoned with a Russian flag and holding a badminton racquet.
In what one would have been forgiven for taking as a spoof, the president proceeded to extol the sport's virtues, saying it was good preparation for solving "different problems." Badminton players can make quick decisions, he said, "which means they have the will to achieve success."
Fair enough. The decision to make soldiers play badminton didn’t mean the military was going soft, according to the "Izvestiya" report. (Not that anyone would suggest a military that still relies on hazing among conscripts to maintain discipline has begun to indulge its servicemen.)
No, badminton would improve the soldiers' battle prowess, the paper reported the army's head of physical training, Colonel Alexander Shchepelev, as saying.
"You use the same muscles playing badminton that you use to throw grenades, knives and other objects," he told "Izvestiya." The paper said the Russian defense ministry plans to buy some 10,000 badminton rackets and tens of thousands of shuttlecocks, and that snipers would be among the first to be required to play the game.
But whatever badminton's merits for military training, they don’t appear to be universally valued in the Defense Ministry, where the "Izvestiya" story was greeted with surprise, according to RIA Novosti.
Ministry spokesman Colonel Igor Konashenkov denied the plans to institute badminton for training, saying it "is not a sport for military application in the armed forces; it is not part of physical preparation for servicemen," the Interfax news agency reported.
One expert quoted in the "Izvestiya" report dismissed the use of badminton as Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov's way of impressing the modernizing Medvedev.
If so, it appears to have backfired
Others may believe the story to be another attempt to make Putin's judo and bare-chested horseback riding appear even manlier compared to the seemingly ineffectual pursuits of his protégé -- just in time for Putin's almost certain return to the presidency next year.
-- Gregory Feifer