Lone Soldiers: A scientist and a gentleman

Elia Victorov, 29, from St. Petersburg, Russia.

June 25, 2010 18:26
3 minute read.
Drawn to Israel by the story of Golda Meir, Victor

elia victorov 311. (photo credit: Yaakov Katz)

Elia Victorov is not your ordinary infantry soldier. First, he is 29 and busy running up hills and carrying stretchers on long hikes with a bunch of 18-year-olds. Secondly, he has a doctorate in biophysics.

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to a father who is a professor of astrophysics and a mother who has an advanced degree in chemistry, it was only natural that he decided to pursue a career in the world of science. His sister did the same and has a doctorate in chemistry.

But everything changed for Victorov in November 2008, when he arrived here for the first time not as a tourist but as a new immigrant. He came with his 93-year-old grandfather, a former soldier in the Red Army who fought in the armored division that conquered Berlin in World War II.

When asked why he decided to move here, Victorov does not provide an ordinary answer. He didn’t know Hebrew; he was not raised in a particularly Zionist or religious home and had never even visited. But, he says, his love for the state was embedded within him from just being Jewish.

“There are two different ways how to become a Zionist,” he says in his heavily-accented but confidently-spoken Hebrew. “One way is by talking about Israel all the time, learning about Israel and visiting Israel. The other way, which is how I became a Zionist, is by just being Jewish, knowing other Jews and being around them.”

His desire to come started as a child when he remembers hearing and watching about the Jewish state and its security problems on the radio and on television. He always dreamed of moving and read up, when he could get his hands on appropriate books, on the country’s history. He was particularly drawn in by the story of Golda Meir, the only female prime minister.

“I saw something special in the fact that a woman can be a prime minister,” he says. “She was a strong woman and I had a lot of respect for her.”

While he encountered a degree of anti-Semitism in school, Victorov says that he didn’t move here to run away from life in St. Petersburg. His parents were also not thrilled with his decision to move and serve in the army, but they ultimately gave him their support.

“There are still a lot of Jews there,” he says. “Life was good. I had a job and my family. There was nothing to run away from.”

Arriving in November, 2008, the Absorption Ministry sent Victorov to ulpan to study Hebrew, but after several months of not hearing from the IDF he decided to go down to the Jerusalem Induction Center to find out why he wasn’t getting call-up orders.

“They told me I didn’t have to do military service since I was already 27 years old,” he recalls. “I told them that I didn’t care and that I wanted to serve in the army since I believe that it is important for me to do and for the country.”

Aware that he could probably use his advanced biophysics degree to get a desk job as a scientist in the IDF, he wanted to serve as a combat soldier like his grandfather. He first tried out for the elite undercover Duvdevan unit which carries out complicated arrest operations in Palestinian towns and villages, but did not pass. He then told the army that he wanted to serve in the Kfir Brigade, responsible for most military operations in the West Bank.

“I asked for a combat unit since I wanted to feel the country more and to contribute more. To give more and get more,” he explains.

He laughs when telling how some of the soldiers in his unit make fun of his age, but notes that all of them show him respect and understand that he is someone who did not have to serve but decided to anyhow.

“There are some people who laugh with me that what I am doing is crazy, but they respect me and my decision,” he says. “I get a little more respect but I am treated like every other soldier without any discounts. I do everything that the other soldiers do and sometimes, if I can, even a little more.”

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