A Soldier’s Tale (5): a new life? Not b… likely!

Our conscript, Tolya, has left basic training. He hopes that things will be different, but his hopes are soon dashed when he meets his demobbers or dembels.

12 May

I’m in the train, on the way from the basic training camp to Ryazan. It’s morning on 12 May.  Things were bad in Omsk and will in all probability not be easy in Ryazan either.  But now, at the moment, life is good!  The train shakes about, so writing is not easy. Yesterday everyone crashed out all day and all night.  We only woke up to eat.  Today we are all smiling.  Half of them are still asleep and the other half is trying to find some way of entertaining themselves.

Yesterday the lads got hold of a harmonica from somewhere (where?  They probably nicked it.  Can’t imagine where from) and there turned out to be someone who knew how to play it!  So we travelled with music.  Now the radio is playing some kind of lovely instrumental music – the radio’s always on in the train. 

…The food’s not bad here either.  The officers got their hands on half the food boxes we’d been issued with.  But there was quite a lot left!  And someone managed to have some money on them, so we’ve had gingerbread, waffles, biscuits AND mayonnaise!  Not much, of course, but still pretty good.

But the main thing is that you don’t have to do anything.  You can just lie there, which is very cool!  No one is pissed off with anyone else, whereas in Omsk we all were all the time.  So, we’re having a breather.  I don’t know what’s ahead…no one does.  But we hope it’ll be better.

You asked how I now see civvy street, both in the past and in the future.  Mainly, of course, in the future.  Masses of plans and hopes.  Most of them probably stupid and unrealisable, but that doesn’t make them any less pleasant to contemplate.  Lots of memories, too, of course.  But here and now, in the train, my main feeling is one of anxiety.  Don’t know what’s ahead of me in the new place.  It’ll obviously and inevitably be one of the demob squad, but I don’t have a clue….

18 May

Fuck and bugger!  After literally a couple of days it was obvious, and has become more and more so, that starting afresh here was not going to be an option.  Or you can, but it’s still just the same as before.  The same old patterns.  Not a hope in hell of being able to do things in any other way.  I am still at the bottom of the sodding hierarchy, will continue to allow myself to be humiliated, beaten and made to do things, as I did before.  That's the sort of person I am.  Educated.  Calm.  Warm-hearted.  In other words – weak-willed, cowardly and spineless.  Oh, and stupid too.

From here everything out there, on civvy street, seems like a dream.  I wonder if it's me that is completely different here, or is it them?  Where's the root of the evil?  Perhaps it isn't even evil…what the fuck.  I don't give a toss – I was used to the role of the outsider in Omsk and didn't want it to be the same here, but I seem to be landed with it.  In a word – a fucking fiasco.  But in Omsk I managed not to become a bastard or a bum boy.  I hope I'll be able to do the same here.  Pray for me…I just can't find a way of getting on with the army.  We're too different. There's not a chance of changing it…it's been around too long.  I hate it, the bitch.

Christ, people here are so full of resentment and other crap.  But they're people…they're not from the moon.  So, an effing fiasco, to put it briefly.  I'm once more stuck with living in this world, away from the world which is much better, bigger, brighter, kinder, more interesting, important and meaningful.  Populated by you, not them.  I can only marvel at the endless difference between these two worlds.  While gradually studying this one. Because, to be fair, I may need it like a hole in the head, but there's a lot that is worthy of attention.  A lot that's simple, but brilliant – even wise and beautiful.  And exotic.

I don't think there can be anywhere else on earth where there's so much that's absurd.  I'll stand by these words!  Fuck me if I don't!   It does really make a lot of sense, just don't ask how it all hangs together.  To understand (or rather, feel) it, you have to serve in the army.  I've already written that I now understand those old men who sit for years on benches outside our apartment blocks and don't do ANYTHING.  I really understand what a kick it gives them.  At the same time I wrote about being like a spring and how I would unwind and do everything – and do it better than anyone else.  Both are true and the only way you can get a grasp of how it fits together is….to serve in the army.

The «bitches» have a hard time in the army.  Especially if they stand out. Or if they're blockheads.   And, of course, there can be lots of aggravating circumstances.  If, for instance you're a squealer, you wet your bed, you often cry or if you have unusual sexual tastes …

One of the aggravating circs is going into the infirmary.  A «bitch» is not a person, he has no right to treatment, he has to WORK!  After some days here I understood that things were going to be bad (in the «usual» way), so I've taken a break.  In a word, I'm in hospital again.  It's called the «hospital company» here.  Of course I'm not in here for nothing.  My leg was fucked!  While I was still in Omsk one of the sergeants whacked it with a spade (he was one of the worst sergeants there – Moshkin).  First I got a bruise, then the flesh was raw.  On top of that the leg got hit many times by one of my fellow soliders, Andrei Plombirov, who was also a real bastard.  May he rot in hell and may God forgive him!  So…my unfortunate leg swelled up to the size of an elephant's leg.  It was very painful and I couldn't bend my knee or my foot…

But we're not in Omsk any more and things don't take months to heal.   My leg had started to get better and would have healed completely.  It'd have been better for me in the future if I had made up a story and not gone into hospital. I could have managed.  But I really wanted to write this letter and several more, which was the main reason for coming here.  But it makes no difference – everything is still going to be sodding awful.  Though, to be honest, it does seem that things could be better here than in Omsk.  I haven't really settled down here, but that's how it looks to me.

19 May

If you make friends with everyone, don't make any mistakes and have enough street cred – the complete opposite of me – you can have a pretty good life here.

…My future «dembels» i.e. demobbers have made contact (they're not dembels yet, they're still only «pheasants», which is the last rung below a dembel) to talk about the future.  When they discovered I was from Moscow «actually from Moscow itself», their eyes lit up greedily, as my eyes probably did in the food shop when my parents came to Omsk.  They started telling me that by the time of their demob I had to get them desert boots – and really cool ones i.e. good ones – a telephone, no two telephones (just like me in the shop – «snickers, no three snickers»), and fucking wonderful ones at that.  They also want about 6 thousand roubles in cash, and every day I'm going to have to come up with good cigarettes, nice things to eat and all sorts of other little things.  The bastards are out of their minds…

When they asked how much money there was in my family, I told them that we have enough to live on, but not to throw around.  Their immediate response was «don't try and fuck us about, you're from Moscow and have money coming out of your arse».  I didn't try and convince them of anything different, as there'd have been absolutely no point.  Oh, bugger it!  I really think that I'm going to get well and truly screwed here.  If you'd only seen their mugs….And it's not only them, there's the officers too and most (though not all) of them don't seem to have taken to me much either.

It's just the same here as it was in Omsk.  I'm always ending up in idiotic situations because of the way my face looks:

-          What're you grinning at?

-          I'm not (and I'm really not)

-          What a prick!  I'll sort that grinning mouth out for you!

But, sod it, even if I am smiling – why shouldn't I?

We haven't yet been allocated to platoons.  One platoon commander in our company, a lieutenant whose name I can't remember, took against me immediately…He's a huge, fat

hulk with a stupid, evil face.  He often hits the soldiers.  In Omsk officers didn't hit soldiers very often and if they did, it was usually for a reason.  There it was the sergeants that beat people up, usually for nothing, and in the end the soldiers were hitting each other.

…On 13 June our battalion is going somewhere in the Pskov region to «extend the firing range» i.e. chop down trees in the forest.  Until mid-September.  The driver-mechanics are not going.  I don't like it at all, because there won't be any officers and I shall have to stay here alone here with my dembels.  The buggers will want to eat, to smoke, to make calls and to wear desert boots and I am a rich Muscovite who must have lots of visits, since it's not far away.

Oh shit, I should really like to be fucking off to the forest with everyone else.  You live in tents and work a lot, but I'm not afraid of that, as you know.  You still have to work for the dembels there, but it's much less vicious.  You're not working for the wankers here, but for others and, who knows, they might be nicer.  Another not unimportant thing is that you slave your guts out from breakfast to lunch chopping trees, then from lunch to supper you're doing something else.  Then it's turn-in time, then immediately reveille, so the days fly by like birds.

 

Part 1 can be read here. (A new Russian army recruit writes home about life at a parachute regiment basic training camp). 

Part 2 can be read here (Tolya tells us about the food and how he has learnt to avoid being beaten up).

Part 3 can be read here (Tolya reflects on the bullying of the ‘bitches’ by the ‘grandpas’).

Part 4 can be read here (The army’s a mysterious entity, unknowable by anyone outside it, the conscript reflects).

Part 6 can be read here (Life suddenly looks rather better, but is it for real?)

Part 7 can be read here (The bullying goes on – if anything it’s got worse)

Part 8 can be read here  (Violence is no joke) 

Part 9 can be read here (Tolya wonders what kind of man the army’s made of him)

These letters originally appeared on www.openspace.ru

Read On

The Russian Federation Ministry of Defence – official website.

The Consequences of Dedovshchina – Human Rights Watch Report, 2004

Golts, Alexander. "The Social and Political Condition of the Russian Military." In The Russian Military: Power and Policy, edited by Steven E. Miller and Dmitri Trenin, 73-94. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004

How to Dodge the Draft in Russia? , by Marina Kamenev, Moscow, Time Magazine, Mar.30, 2009

More On

These letters written by Tolya (probably not his real name), a private in the Russian army, were published on our partner site www.openspace.ru and attracted a lot of attention. Unlike his mates,  Tolya preferred to serve in the army rather than study at university. Even though these letters were written some time ago, few publications give such a clear indication of the shocking state of affairs in the Russian military. Tolya now lives in Kostroma. oDR will publish further excerpts from his letters over the next two months.