A Soldier's Tale

openDemocracy Russia now puts together in one document the 9 letters written by Tolya (probably not his real name), a private in the Russian army. Tolya preferred to serve in the army rather than study at university. These letters were written some time ago, but few publications give such a clear indication of the state of affairs in the Russian military.

8 December

I’ve landed up in a parachute regiment basic training camp in Omsk [1].  Or several kilometres from Omsk.  Exactly what I wanted.  We went on the Moscow-Khabarovsk train via Ekaterinburg.  It took more than 2 days and there were 2 majors with us.  One was a dentist and oral surgeon, the other hit the bottle the whole way, told jokes and issued idiotic commands like “Get your jackets out of your rucksacks and cover your legs”.  At the time we were right pissed off with him. But that was nothing compared to what was to come.  We arrived at the unit at about 3 in the morning and were carted off somewhere for the night.  When we got there, the sergeants started bawling at us straight away, then beating us up.  They did me over because I touched a sergeant’s feet when I was stepping over them, by mistake.  He’d put them in the way on purpose, of course.  And so on and so on.  On the whole, the sergeants are wankers.  There’s only one of them, Moshkin, who I’ve got any time for. The others aren’t bad. I don’t mind them. But the way they behave– it’s disgraceful.  They do nothing but shout and beat people up.  Though they say this is nothing compared to what it'll be after we're sworn in.

Shit, these fuckers tighten the screws every day.  I apologise in advance for this rather disconnected letter, but I only get to write a few sentences at a time, sometimes only a few words, when I have a minute.  We don't get any large chunks of free time here…

Most of my friends know that I’ve never been able to stand sweet tea.  But that's all there is here.  Our unit is pretty cool, because we’ve got enough to eat.  But the NCOs still steal the food. They do everywhere.  In the beginning everyone was very thirsty.  The sergeants have forbidden us to drink tap water – they say it'll make us swell up and die.  It really does taste awful.  Someone was drinking water from the tap when a sergeant came in.  He yelled at the drinker and hit him, then started drinking it himself.  I have heard (and read) that being terrorised by the regulations and the officers is a particular feature of basic training.  That's true, except that we’ve got sergeants instead of officers. Being here gets you down, specially when some wanker starts calculating how long he's been in the army.  Then you realise what long stretch it’s going to be.

Smokers have a rough time here. Occasionally they hand out cigarettes called «Our Brand». Everyone knows they’re complete crap, but everyone smokes them, so one cigarette has to go round two or three people. They last seconds. The sergeants are also always banning smoking for some rubbish reason.  For instance, there was this fellow smoking in the john – they beat him up with mop handles and kicked him, then banned smoking for the whole platoon.  But I don’t want to make out that it's really such hell here:  if you keep your head down and keep out of the way you can get by – life’s not even too bad.

Russian Army

When I’m done here I’ll have to do this exam.  If I pass, I'll become a mechanic and driver of an airborne combat vehicle.  That'll be in 6 months, in May 2007. Then I get to choose. I can go on as a sergeant in the basic training unit (not likely, tormenting people isn’t my idea of fun). Or serve out the rest of my 18 months in one of the parachute regiment units which still take in non-contract soldiers.  I could also sign up for two and a half years in one of the many parachute regiment units.  But the guys who are doing my head in, saying I’m going to be kicked out of the army in 6 months are probably right.

What I find really hard here is the sweet tea and having to shave every day.  I don't like either of them.  As for the rest, it’s all a load of crap.

The other soldiers are a good lot on the whole, though there are some real wankers.  But I still haven't found anyone I’d really like to spend time with, someone I could be friends with. Perhaps I won't.  I wrote this letter more than a week ago, in the most uncomfortable positions and places.  That's why it's so bitty and disconnected. Again, sorry.  Right now, for instance, I'm standing on the platoon orderly's locker – if that’s really what it is, of course.  I'm writing on my palm.  We've just sorted out the sub-machine guns.  It suddenly struck me – bugger me, why do I have to serve for such a long time?

Yesterday was washhouse day, which was ace.  There aren’t many pleasures here –  breakfast, lunch, supper, bed time – and the washhouse.  Plus smoke breaks for the smokers.  Today I rigged my first parachute. It was very complicated.  Oh shit, this motherfucker of a pen doesn't work at all.  It's not even that easy to put a parachute on and today we spent 5 hours learning how to rig it correctly.  Of course no one can remember the whole spiel, so we'll have to do it again.

Kyusha and Avdyusha kept on telling me to bring my phone.  I didn't - how right was that!  It would’ve been nicked anyway– one bloke even had his razor nicked in the middle of the night.  Also, mere mortals aren’t allowed to have a phone.  If you’re on halfway decent terms with the sergeants, you might get the OK to have one after a couple of months.  Actually I can make calls now.  It works like this: the sergeant gives you a phone so you can ring and ask the person you’re ringing to put money on his phone.  I don't know the rates, but it's about 100 roubles a minute, something like that.

My fellow soldiers come from all over (I mean in the company).  There are two guys from Moscow - one even lives in the same district as me. Our family dachas are a couple of kilometres from each other.  There are guys from the Altai, Bashkiria, Petersburg region, Arkhangel region and other places. Some are great, others stupid and there are some real bastards. Right, that's me done – I could witter on for ever.  Do write, but put an addressed envelope in with your letter. There are no envelopes here, but nobody will nick it if it is addressed.

10 January

 ...You can tell from my writing that my hands are gradually warming up now.  We've just come in from the tank training area and I couldn't move them at all.

11 January

Your story about the monastery at Optina [2] was very interesting.  I compared our timetables and we get more sleep.  But in the monastery you probably actually get to sleep for your allotted 6 hours, whereas we sleep much less than our allotted 8.  If someone hasn't managed to shave, get a haircut, sew up his collar or anything else (and you're always behind with something – that's just how it is), then it all has to be done at night.  Or you really cop it in the morning or, what's much worse, the whole platoon does.  Collective punishment is alive and kicking in the army…..Sometimes they get us up in the night and force us to do this workout because of something idiotic someone’s apparently done. So the spiritual atmosphere in the monastery is purer, healthier and brighter, for sure.  But you could guess that without getting anywhere near a monastery or the army…It's probably tougher in the monastery…You can't just up sticks and off from the army, but you can from the monastery, at least if you're a labourer.  I've been in the army for 2 months now.  It may be tough physically and morally, but I can manage. I even get to smile sometimes.  There's a saying in the parachute regiment that «Man is an animal that can do ANYTHING».  You don’t have a choice.  I couldn't spend that long in a monastery, though, I would leave after a week, if not on day 3, because I’d be dying for a Mars bar, a beer or the internet.

What I miss most of all in the army is probably art.  Of course there are lots of things you don't get enough of: food, sleep, social contact (specially with girls, but just with normal, clever people who aren’t bloody-minded), freedom, information and lots more.  But art’s what I miss most.  I really miss classical music and architecture.  That's about the size of it.

8 February

What do we get to eat?

The food is very simple.  For breakfast we get 3 slices of bread, a glass of cold tea with sugar, a plate of porridge or mashed potato, almost always with some kind of meat gravy or stew.  Sometimes we get a hard-boiled egg.

For lunch we get 3 slices of bread, a piece of butter and some kind of soup (which we often think is very good, but actually we're just hungry).  The main course is some kind of sodding macaroni with stew or potato with gravy.  Or some grain or other, also with meat.  After that it's half a glass of some diluted juice made from no one knows quite what…sometimes we also get half a packet of crackers,  square biscuits which aren't sweet, more like bread.  Most people break them into their soup, so they get soggy and can be eaten more quickly without chewing.  There's very little time for eating, as I'll describe later on.

For supper we get 3 slices of bread, some potato or kasha or a stew of some crappy sour cabbage, the smell of which makes your eyes sting.  There's almost always fish with the potato, kasha or stew.  At home my granny would use her pension to buy fish like that for the cats.  People who don't like fish just groan!  I like fish, so I'm OK.  Also for supper we get of course a glass of cold, semi-sweet tea, a piece of butter, sometimes (rarely – once or twice a week) some kind of pastry that's baked here on the premises.  Of course the pastries are quite small and not sweet (after all, the cooks and the NCOs need sugar themselves at home!), but we're still very pleased to see them.

On the whole we are all hungry all the time here, even straight after lunch, and everyone longs for something sweet.  I don't know why, but in the army everyone is always hankering for something sweet.  We get very little time for meals – or that's what it felt like at the beginning, now we're used to it.  But still at mealtime everyone sits in silence, quickly-quickly chewing and swallowing so as to finish by the time the command comes «Grub's done, dishes away».  No one says a word (no time), just the odd phrase like «pass the salt», «give me some of your bread» or «fuck off» etc.  What really gets to me is not that there isn't enough food, just that you have to eat all three courses in 5-10 minutes.  That's why you're left feeling you're still hungry.

We don't take our coats off in the canteen, just our hats and gloves and seating is very squashed.  We eat fast, then put all the trays together with the plates on top and the glasses stacked, all at the edge of the table and then on the command we all go outside to line up.  The people sitting where the stuff is stacked take the plates to be washed and catch us up outside.  Then we march three abreast, sometimes singing, around the edge of the parade ground to сompany HQ.  On the way we shout out various responses.  The sergeant asks «How's the army treating you?» and we reply «Tops!»; the sergeant says «Good answer!» and we reply «We're serving our country!».

That's the kind of rubbish we get up to.

The next thing you asked is if we often get beaten, and how badly?  At the beginning there was lots of it.  Now, when everyone has more or less got the message and become less dopey, there's less beating.  Now it's more often fighting between us, rather than the sergeant hitting us.  But to be more specific – a month or two back I got beaten almost every day.

Now it's once a week or a fortnight.  It's mostly for some minor stupidity – you don't know the rules properly, your collar is not washed, boots not polished, belt not done up etc. etc.  They don't beat you much for things like this – a couple of thumps and they let you go.  But for more serious offences they can really thrash you for for a long time.  I copped it for refusing to count while one of the lads from my platoon was doing push-ups – actually, that's right, you don't count for one of your own, but the sergeant told me to count and I wouldn't.  For that he really did me over and for so long that I was completely fucked.  It probably went on for 20 minutes.  And he's a seriously strong guy.  My right ear still doesn't hear as well as the left and it's hardly getting better.  But I didn't start counting.

I got really badly beaten for fighting with a guy – though to be fair I was on the receiving end – and refusing to shop him.  But even more than the physical pressure I felt morally responsible because the whole platoon was made to work out.  But I didn't squeal.  The whole platoon knew who I'd been fighting with.  Half the lads approved (he didn't tell!) and the other half regarded me as a complete wanker – after all, it was them that had to work out and they were really put through their paces quite savagely.  But I still think I did the right thing.  So, to answer your question, the beatings here are pretty tough.  But you get used to it quite quickly and start not giving a shit.  They beat you and you don't give a fuck.  On civvy street I'd never have thought it could be that way.

…Do I get a lot of letters?  More than I can answer.  But the really crappy thing about getting letters here is that you're not allowed to have more than 5, I think it is, in your locker, so I started throwing them away.  Then I realised what I could do and started putting them in envelopes marked Archive and sending them home.  I'll read them when I get there.

You asked what I like here.  I have to say that foxed me a bit.  From where I am what I REALLY like is life outside.

My health is fucking awful.  I've lost a lot of weight here.  Anyone who saw me undressed would probably remember that, although I was no weightlifter, I had quite a good physique.  Now I'm a skeleton.  Before I could do 100-110 push-ups and 15-20 pull-ups.  Now it's more like 30-40 and 6-8 and that's pretty difficult. I've also had a streptococcal skin infection here, ulcers all over my body, but it seems to have gone, touch wood.  And I'm pretty deaf in one ear after that sergeant did me over.

So health – not brilliant, but it'll all come back and get better, I know!

14 February

In this fucking army everything is different from outside and very definitely not for the better.  There's no communication of the kind we're used to and no hint of any either!  Of course, the people here are in a class of their own

People don't like it when you stand out in some way.  No matter in which way.  For me this is odd and not what I'm used to, but I have to knuckle under and pretend I'm the same as everyone else.  Everything here is done in formation and on command – anything else, and you get beaten up, by your own comrades, what's more.  So much for the collective spirit!  Many things are very unpopular here, for no very good reason, as far as I can see.  They don't like Muscovites.  Petersburgers either, come to that.  Nor clever people.  «Hairy wankers with earrings» and other such «freaks» neither.  Actually I've just tried to think of anything that people like here that I liked in my former (and I should like to think future) life.  I couldn't.  Art isn't rated much, as you might imagine!  It's really that no one gives a shit about anything.  There are very few interesting people or personalities.  Perhaps they're just very cleverly disguised?  But there's plenty of scum about – soldiers and officers of all ranks.  To sum up, «Children, don't join the army».

I try and smile as much as I can, which means that all the others think I'm an idiot J.

Actually, joking apart, I'm considered one of the thickest soldiers in the whole company (120 people)!  It's the wheels of fate – first the worst student in the class, then the thickest soldier in the company….

17 March

 They’ve put me in hospital.  I had a small sore on my hand, but it wouldn't heal.  It got infected and my hand swelled up so much I couldn't salute. As soldiers are obliged to and I couldn't, they put me in hospital.  I may have joked about it, but actually everyone's health here is terrible, so everything festers.  Hardly surprising, as there are no bloody vitamins, the food is boring and there isn’t enough of it. We don't sleep enough, get very tired, often get very cold and rarely get a chance to rest.  So it's very hard on our bodies and we get ill.

I’ve got no objection at all to lying about for a week (longer, if I'm lucky) here in hospital, where the conditions are relatively OK.  A bloke's got to rest up occasionally, after all!  There isn't much food here either, but at least it's good and you can eat it normally, without having to stuff your face and swallow without chewing.  On top of that there are kind, sane nurses rather than spiteful sergeants.  I’ve got time to write. Perhaps there'll even be time to read something – there are actually books here.  After life in the company, it's bliss. Peace and quiet, which one can normally only dream about.

Well, here I am lying in hospital (actually, more like sitting, since you can only lie if you've been prescribed bed rest!) and it's not brilliant, but pretty good.  When they discharge me from the hospital, I shall start going fucking mad again.  I just hope the commanders don't decide to leave me here in basic training, or send me to some arsehole dump of a place because I've been in hospital.  First the bastards use the sergeants to make you rot, then get cross when you need treatment.  I’ve got not a single friend in the army:  the people here are bastards and completely unreliable.

There are plenty of shit holes around here.  There's a lot of terrible tales about Ishim.  It's a sort of village or one-horse town in the back of beyond, where they even carry water in jerry cans.  Why they need a tiny unit there I've no idea. But there is one, and people are sent there to rot.  So here’s to hoping this terrible cup will pass me by, guys, that I’m sent to an average sort of unit, that I can serve out my term as fast as possible and get home….

18 March

I’m not remotely tempted to take drugs here.  I don't even want a drink…What I'd probably like more than anything would be an empty flat, a shop 15 minutes walk away and plenty of money.  And a bath with hot water.  For a week or two I’d do nothing at all, just shop for food, eat and sleep.  I might wash occasionally and after a week I’d need a TV, some books and music.  I'd be happy to live like that for a month or two, as I've had it up to here with the army.  But dream on…there's no such fucking thing.

What would be really cool would be set off on foot from here, hitching lifts,get completely exhausted, wet through, go hungry, get very thin and completely scabby, then at last get home to my beloved granny, who’d feed me boiled spuds and ply me with tea, sweet doughnuts and cakes.  But I’m dreaming again...and all these dreams are really just about eating and sleeping, as far away from the company as possible. I'm fed up to the back teeth with everyone and everything there.  It’s all completely stupid and you’re surrounded by morons.  OK, only joking, everyone's actually all right – it's me that's the pillock from Moscow!

There’s something I'd like to discuss with you…..we're just about to be split up and posted.    Whether I leave or stay here, I’m going to come up against the problem of doing a stint working my butt off for the top bosses in the  «demob squad».  This means I have to do whatever they want to me to.  It's picturesquely called «giving birth» which means getting hold of whatever.  I will be allocated to one particular member of the demob squad and will be his «elephant» or «bitch».  A classic example of this would be that he wakes you up in the night and tells you to get him pelmeni and smetana.  And you get it…somehow!  But that’s not the problem. You can decide not to go for this stint and say so straight away, but then you'll be a «bitch» for 2 years.  This means being constantly on all kinds of duties, doing all the filthy and tough work.  If you decide to toe the line (and it’s up to your demob boss to decide whether you’ve succeeded) i.e. if you agree to join the System and live by Its rules, then you'll move up the various stages until you're an «old hand» or «grandpa», as they call it,  just before your own demob. Then it’s your turn to lord it over everyone: you'll have your own «bitch» and can (but don't have to!) demand all the same things of him.

So what I want to ask you, all of you, dear friends, is what you think I should do.  It's your opinion I want, from outside on civvy street, since that would've been what the old me (or my conscience) would have thought, as it were.  Of course I’ll have to take things here into account too and make my own decision. But do write anyway, dear friends, and tell me what you think I should do.

Of course there’s a third way. I could pay the old hand off (about 10-20 thousand roubles, or something like that) and buy myself a place in the system.  And there are fourth, fifth etc. possibilities too…. I can say right off that I find the third way completely stupid and unacceptable.

I might be sitting in, say, the recreation room and repairing posters.  Actually what I'm doing is keeping out of sight and doing fuck all, writing a letter and making the most of the general commotion – everyone is doing something and no one is looking for me.  But I'm a bit jumpy, because someone could come in at any moment and would then do me over for a long time for doing fuck all.  As you see I've got right into this sodding army language. But I sent you a «glossary», so you won't have problems understanding.  The sodding slang has got right into my skull and it's too much of an effort to try and write normally.  I was always lazy and have become more so here.

How's this for slang?  I heard this amusing exchange in a conversation:

«Where's the (battalion) commander?»

«Giving birth to an elephant.»

This was because there's a guy here with a funny name, Karpuk.  He's gone AWOL and disappeared, so giving birth to an elephant means that the commander is looking for this soldier.  To his credit he hasn’t yet found him….whether that's to the credit of the commander or the soldier, I leave you to decide.

3 April

…All your letters describing the delights of civvy street or anything good at all are the only things that keep me in touch with the outside world.  In here anything that comes from outside is seen as almost divine, from another world.  I'm not at all an envious person really, so I read about all your delights with great pleasure.  Even so,  oh, buggeration. It's awful here, so tough…… but hey! I'm not letting go of my optimism.

..About the bullying.  I think it's an inherent part of the system.  If there weren't any bullying, the whole army’d collapse – from the bottom up.  Just as it would if the generals and signallers suddenly disappeared.  I can't really explain it very clearly, but the main thing is I don't have to, because it's all brilliantly and clearly explained (even for me!) in Konstantin Bannikov's article «The Anthropology of Extremist Groups».

He compares the army with primitive human society, and most convincingly.  He talks a lot about all kinds of army traditions which he compares with primitive tribal traditions.  He also writes a lot about the army hierarchy – the bullying.  I found this article very interesting, because I'm part of the experiment. I’m experiencing it from inside this strange system.

That's what got me thinking that the bullying is an essential part of army life.  Now that I'm here, I'm absolutely convinced of it.  And although I'm on the lowest rungs of the hierarchy (only 3 months in, after all), I can see that it couldn't function without the bullying.  Just as our life is unimaginable without the drug dealers and policemen that set out to catch them or the bribe-takers (corrupt officials) and the informants who turn them in.  Without the contract killers who then shoot the informants.  And without the clever psychologists who will write books about it all.  Bullying in the army is best way of organising the collective, or of it organising itself.  Whether one likes it or not (and I don't!).

26 April

Many people here (almost everyone!) laugh at me because I write letters on little bits of paper, folded over many times, leaning on a bit of wood or just on the palm of my hand.  Idiots!  Firstly, it’s not their business what I choose to write on.  Secondly, surely it’s better to write badly on crumpled paper than on a big piece of paper, but only one letter every two months, as many do.  The paper’s crumpled because I carry it around with me in my breast pocket (right on my heart!) and get it out whenever I get the chance to scribble a few words.

30 April (after lights-out)

..I simply can’t manage to finish this letter, which is why I’ve found the strength to go on writing after lights-out.  A huge thank you to you, and to everyone who hasn’t forgotten me and writes me letters.  They’re a great help.

Just a few minutes ago some bastard cleaned my clock i.e. smashed my face in.  I don’t give a shit and am prepared to forgive him, just because I know that you exist – people who love me and are waiting for me to come home.

1 May (evening)

I recently received a whole FOUR letters, one of them yours.  It was very funny – I was writing to my parents, complaining that I don’t get many letters from my friends, when we were rushed off somewhere and I didn’t get to finish the letter.  That evening I got 4 letters!

…On the whole I’m not complaining that I went into the fucking army, as I have actually got something out of it.  Strange as it may seem, it’s given me a lot of love.  I’ve got so much love for my parents, friends, freedom, music and art – everything that I had before the army and haven’t got now.  If I can keep this love, then my army service will not have been for nothing.  I’ll just have to remember as often as possible how awful it was here and then everything will be really good when I’m out there.

…Bugger it, when I read your letters or now, writing this one and actually quite often, when I have time to think – I’m gripped by an overwhelming desire for any form of activity, trips, books or just talking to people!  I feel like a spring that is being constantly pressed down, with no chance of uncoiling.  When they let go of the spring, it will bounce all over the room from one corner to another with happiness!

…In many ways the army is a paradox.  For instance, every year a huge number of lads are called up and every year about the same number are demobbed.  But the army remains a very closed organisation.  I think that anyone who hasn’t served in it is unlikely, very unlikely to understand anything about it at all.  After all, I had read all kinds of books, visited internet forums, read newspapers, looked at TV, talked to people….but when I got here I was staggered at how different army life is from life outside.  The difference is unimaginably huge.

But everything is arranged so cleverly that I can’t tell anyone about it, however much I am longing to do so.  At first I simply didn’t have the time.  Then, when I’d got the hang of writing letters in practically any situation and conditions (which for some reason makes the others very cross), I’d already got used to things, which you’d think it’d be impossible to get used to …and now I can’t actually write about it.

It’s brilliant, quite brilliant:  a huge system with an enormous number of people moving through it all the time, people who are chosen at random, “from the street”, without any serious selection process, people who are different, and the system still manages to stay closed! ….

There are many things here that are brilliantly simple – brilliant and incomprehensible!  Take, for example, the system of collective punishment:  ok, it’s immoral, inhuman, amoral, unlawful and forbidden by every imaginable law or rule.  But it works!  Because of me the whole platoon was forced to do press-ups in gas masks (people were fainting) and then squats in the drying room:  this was far worse and more difficult than if a sergeant had simply come and beaten me up.   That one man could have such massive, total and forceful power over many seemed completely impossible to me before.  Now I see that it IS possible – and how!

Another thing that’s happened is that I have come to respect all kinds of blue collar professions here.  All the welders, lathe and combine operators etc.  Firstly, because there are lots of them (and many of my fellow soldiers have earned my respect for one thing or another, in spite of the aggro I get from them).  Secondly, I have found out for myself that to master a profession like, for instance, the driver of an airborne combat vehicle requires a lot of effort, intellectual effort too.  I hadn’t really thought about this before. I no longer feel quite so scornful in the educated and haughty in the way I did before (and many of us do) about  “vocational “ or “technical” schools and “colleges”.

So the phrase one hears so often «I got to understand a lot in the army» could in principle be applied to me too.  It's not that I've understood a lot, just some things.   Although it's sodding awful here, at times really sodding awful, on the whole I've never once regretted joining up.  But that doesn't stop me wanting to go home every second….

5 May

Firstly, yesterday I ate more sweet things that I have in all the time since my parents left Omsk.  Wicked!  I was on staff duty.  At the beginning various majors gave me all sorts of errands: fetching sugar etc.  I decided that if I nicked a few lumps of sugar from the box, it'd be no loss to the major.  I knew I shouldn't, but I really, really wanted something sweet.  Then I was paid my jumping money – what one gets for jumping out of a plane – which was 130 roubles.  I didn't get it earlier because for some reason I was one of the last to jump, me and 10 others.  But never mind that.  I was given the 130 roubles and I got them while I was on duty (as wages are paid out in that part of the regimental HQ building), so the sergeants didn't manage to take them off me.  One lieutenant had a stab at it, but failed and I spent all the money on myself!  I spent it all that day, because if I hadn't I'd only have had to hand it over to someone.

To repeat myself, the day I ate so many Snickers was a real holiday for me.  I ate about 4 chocolate bars of different kinds.  Chocolate, ice cream and all sorts of other rubbishy little things!  A really brilliant day….

About friends:  many people say (and I think this myself) that you have no friends in the army.  You have comrades, who help you in return for you helping them.  In combat forces under fire it's probably different, but that's how it is here.  It's dog eat dog – and in spades!  There's almost no such thing as disinterested help.  After a short time even people who on the whole think that one should help others for nothing (me, for example) are so angry and resentful at the constant meanness and selfishness all around, that they think 10 times before helping anyone, even if it's not difficult to do so.  So the atmosphere and personal relationships are both completely rotten.  No one protects the weak against the strong.  I don't, though I'm very ashamed to admit it (though, what am I on about?  Who can I protect if I'm on the receiving end all the time?).

During our first weeks here, when we hadn't yet worked out who the losers and tough guys were, everyone helped each other and shared things.  But it didn't last long.  Perhaps it's different in other companies, but our sergeant major Sifonov is all for the kind of practices more typical of prison camps and the animal kingdom.  Says it sorts the men from the boys straightaway.  Well, only God will be the judge of that…

But there are a few people in this hell hole who I enjoy spending time with. Sometimes we even have interesting conversations.  Vadik, Artem Lesnikov (the one who got concussion when Sifonov hit him with a stool) and another couple of lads.  And, of course, Zhenya Fyodorov.  I'd call him a friend.  Don't know, perhaps it's a bit early to say, but I'd like to think that after the army he'll be a friend, rather than just a comrade.

…We celebrate some of the national holidays here.  It'd be better if we didn't, because it always means extra cleaning up, putting things straight and dress parades with all the high-ups making speeches – though I quite like these, as it gives me a chance to stand around for 10 minutes without having to do anything!  Then we march in formation (sometimes singing) around the parade ground and that's the holiday!

Easter was quite different.  We got to breakfast in the canteen and there, in the middle of the room were tables and on them…..Easter cakes (kulichi)!  We were lined up along the tables and a priest with three girls said a prayer and sprinkled us with holy water.   They said good, kind things.  Don't remember what.  And they sang beautifully.  Then everyone was given a painted egg and a very decent slice of kulich.  In the 5 months I've been here, this was the only time that anything even vaguely human had been organised from the top down for the whole regiment.  I don't know whose idea it was, but may God bless him!  Of course this is not even one gram's worth of what Easter is like at home, but I think everyone got some warmth in his soul with that bit of cake.

And, by the way, the Muslims (of whom there are quite a lot) didn't turn their noses up at it either.  They'd had their holiday, but they went off to it on their own, so I don't know what happened there.

There's no time to read.  When I was in hospital I was reading «The Mother» by Gorky [1], but I didn't finish it as I was discharged – bastards!  I managed to find a room where I could hide away.  I sat reading the Tyutchev [2] poems that happened to be there until the duty sergeant found me.  But it wasn't much fun, as I was more focused on staying there as long as possible than I was on reading Tyutchev.

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.

20 May

Oh God, it’s already twenty to one.  We’ve been cleaning all day, at it since we got up.  I don’t know what time reveille is here – 6, 7, it’s unlikely to be at 8.  Most likely at 7.  Since that time we’ve been cleaning without a break and I’ve been meaning to sit down and write this letter.  I’ve just sat down, but awkwardly and at any moment someone might come and drag me off somewhere to fetch something or do something.  The bolder you are the less you get bothered.

Of course it goes without saying that no one bothers the “dembels”.  They sit around, dying of boredom and thinking up things for me to do so I can’t write my letter – I might have to wash something or move it from one place to another for the 10th time.  We “bitches” are not entitled to write letters at this stage of our service.  I have another bit of bad news.  My leg is healing up very fast, by which I mean as it always has done, not like in Omsk.  This means I shall soon be discharged from hospital.  That’s why I don’t have much time to write.

4 June

This is my first letter from the new place – from Tula – although I’ve been here for almost two weeks.

When I heard I was being moved from Ryazan to Tula, I was very upset at first.  Firstly, because my dacha was quite near Ryazan and secondly, because things weren’t too bad there.  But now I was being transferred.  They even discharged me from hospital double quick because of it.  I got really upset when I got to Tula.  The regiment here is an elite regiment, so everything is smooth, clean and beautiful.  The barracks are being refurbished to European standards.  While this is going on, we are living in tents in some field with deep gullys and mud, but no water.  On the whole the conditions are terrible, but we still have to be neatly turned out, shaven, washed and in clean clothes – and no one's in the slightest bit interested in how you achieve this.

Other lads have been fanning the flames by telling us that huge lorries unload pipes for the new barracks at night time.  It was unbearably hot and we were desperately thirsty, but there was nothing to drink.  The Minister of Defence was supposed to be visiting in a few days, which didn't help.  This meant that there was much more scouring and painting.

Here the soldiers are definitely watched.  Not like in Omsk, of course, but very different from Ryazan, where an inexperienced rookie like me could fuck off for a couple of hours and go for a drink and something to eat.  So I really wanted to go back to Ryazan, but that was when we had only just arrived.

Now I have no regrets at all.  It's turned out to be much better than I thought, mainly because of the relationships between people here.  The dembels and the sergeants treat us more like younger brothers than slaves.  To be honest, I'm quite unused to it, especially after Omsk.  People here treat you normally, like a human being, not an animal as they did in Omsk and even more than in Ryazan.  I don't know, of course, it may be that they simply haven't got on to our case yet…but I still feel that everything is much better here.

If I had come here straight from civvy street, I probably would't think much of it, but after the hell (I'm not afraid of describing it like that, it may have been OK for some, but it wasn't for me) of Omsk, things are really good here.  And that's even though I'm still a «bitch» and I still have to work out my stint for the dembels.

…In the army I feel rather like an anthropologist, who is sending reports to you on the mainland about this strange and terrible tribe.  From this point of view I really do have to do my stint for the dembels.  That way I can get more deeply into the life of the tribe and really get a feel for it.  But I am still a human being and don't really want to get involved in such crap.

I am now serving in a mechanised artillery battery in Tula, so I'm not only a trooper – I'm an artilleryman.  I've already been allocated a vehicle with a huge and threatening 120mm cannon which fires shells, mines and Christ alone knows what else…

..So, we're OK here – perhaps I'm just lucky in the detachment I'm in.  But on the whole things here are the same as they are throughout the army – the strong ones bully the weak and the old the young etc, though it's less marked here than elsewhere.  This is probably down to Mikha Ugolkov – the battery sergeant major.  He's a good man who considers that one person terrorising others is not on.  Sifonov, the platoon sergeant major in Omsk, was just the opposite and had no qualms about saying so.  Qualis rex, talis grex – it all depends on the man at the top.

Sifonov was a prize wrestler and Ugolkov is an ace at chess, which says it all.  Sifonov beat us mercilessly and indiscriminately.  Ugolkov took me aside one day and said that I shouldn't turn in on myself and get depressed.  He talked to me like a human being.  I'd long since forgotten what normal human relations are like when they're founded on mutual trust and respect.  And I certainly didn't expect anything like that from a sergeant.

The lads here are much better, more human.  But I'm not going to let my guard down yet – I can remember my first letters from Omsk telling you about the interesting weapons and the nice fellow soldiers from all over the country.  Now I would drive a stake into the graves of many of those fellow soliders.

..The weather is as usual – boiling hot or freezing cold and raining.  There's not much water here and it comes in tanks.  There's a lot of mud, but probably not for long – we'll be moving into the barracks for the winter.  There are the same army idiocies here, perhaps even more of them, but they've been so drummed into me that I've got used to them.  So not much point in writing about them.  They're something that no one who hasn't been in the army would understand anyway – and you do get to used to them.

..So I'm still spending a lot of time thinking about life outside, mainly in the future.  But about the past too.  What I do know is that dembels are dinosaurs from another planet and I’ll never, never get to that stage because it's hundreds of millions of light years away.  And anyone that tells you anything else is fomenting rebellion.  God, there's still so long to go!

22 July

Hi there, mates!  I haven’t written to you for a long time.  A big thank you to all those who write to me and sorry that I haven’t answered.  I just don’t have the time these days.  I even have a problem finding the time to read the letters I get…

Things have got worse here recently, worse and more difficult.  The “dembels” [conscripts just about to be demobbed ed.] have got more malicious and the “pheasants” too [the stage before “dembel” ed.]  We’re not with the regiment at the moment.  We’re in a village called Slobodka, about 30 km from Tula [1].  It’s a training area, where we are going to do field manoeuvres.  We’re getting ready for them at the moment – we’ve been building protective shelters – special dug-outs made of logs and turf, where the tank – our vehicle – can drive in.  The tank is hull down, so hidden with only the turret visible.  It’s hard work because the officers allocate the work to the whole battalion, but we – the “bitches” [younger conscripts ed.] – do all the work.  Well, the pheasants do a bit.  The dembels sit around bored out of their minds.

So each man does the work of 2, perhaps even 3 men.  The work is hard enough anyway – we’re sawing logs, digging turf, then lifting, carrying and piling it up.  We had a week recently when part of the battery (quite a big part!) went to Ryazan [2] to jump out of IL-76 [3]s, so there were only 3 of us bitches left here.   We almost kicked the bucket.  The grandpas were particularly evil that week and made merciless fun of us all the time. Almost the whole battery is here now, so it’s got a bit easier.  The grandpas have softened up a bit too.  But back then was really awful and there was absolutely no time for letters.

Christ, even remembering it is tough.  I’m really sorry that I didn’t get to jump out of an IL-76.  I would very much like to do that.  It’s a whole lot better than AN-2 [4] – you’ve got the height and the speed is about double.  100 men jump at once, not just 9, as they do from an AN-2.  It’s a serious plane, not just a puddle-jumper.

26 July

We've got one dembel in the battery who's called Chernyakov.  He went on weekend leave.  But our deputy battery commander Okulov (nickname Boxer) was pissed off that he agreed this with Major Maljuta, rather than with him.  Maljuta is Boxer's boss.  Incidentally, I did the same thing.  The thing is that this Chernyakov crossed someone's field of vision out of uniform, as he hadn't had time to get changed.  So there he was standing in front of us lined up in formation in jeans and a teeshirt, while Okulov told us what a scumbag he was.  The fact that he was in jeans and a teeshirt made it easier for me to see him as a person, rather than a dembel.  I actually felt quite sorry for him, really I did!  There he was, a shabby little weed remarkable in no way at all – neither mentally nor physically.  One really couldn't feel anything for him but pity.  Or possibly distaste.

But, for fuck's sake, he's a Dembel here!  So we bitches, better than him in all respects, get beaten by him, have to do what he says and stand on guard while he gets pissed at night-time.  And it doesn't seem unfair, or even strange, to anyone at all.  Because he's a Dembel.  There are two of them – Chernyakov and Veshnyakov – who are particularly foul.  They give us a hard time for the sake of it and beat us for the hell of it, rather than for some cock-up or other.  They abuse us every step of the way.  Bastards!  I've kind of got used to it, but sometimes you wonder why, for Christ's sake, you have to put up with so much crap and humiliation from all these shits.  I start examining my conscience and think – well, I probably deserve this.  My parents put up with so much from me and my life has hardly been blameless, which is perhaps what I'm suffering for now.

29 July

Yesterday I was a third of the way through my military service!  God, can it really be that some day I shall come home and see you all again?  I can't stop thinking about it, though it doesn't seem possible.

..The other day the boys here got money sent from home.  Some got 3000 roubles, some 500, whatever.  The whole battery should have received 10,000 roubles in total.  But we're all here, so Warrant Officer Ryurikovich, the battery sergeant major, got the money…. and went on a 3-day binge.  Then he said he hadn't received anything.  My friend, who is also a mechanic, lost his whole stash of 3000 roubles, so goodness knows how he's going to be able to pay off his dembels and how we're going to buy a slap-up meal for them when they get to 50 days before demob (and it's 60 days today).

31 July

I really miss you.

2 August

I hope you will drink to me today – or pray for me.  Things are really bad here.  There are only two guys in the detachment who don't shout all kind of filth at me all the time.  From all the others I either hear it or cop it physically.  Well, they can just bugger off.  I don't give a stuff about any of the fuckers.  The worse it is for me here, the better it will be outside.  And all their fucking «concepts» can rot too – I don't care and I don't care what they think of me either.

OK, I'd better stop writing.  I'm really at rock bottom, even off the scale in the minuses, the very low minuses.  Though a lot of stuff has happened here that I could write about – but my head's not functioning properly.  I'm starting to lose the habit of thinking..

7 August (evening)

Oh, what can I write about?  Shall I tell you about one guy being bullied yesterday?  Or it happening to me and one other today?  No, I don't want to traumatise your tender civilian souls.  What is usual and ordinary for the army could be interpreted as humiliation by people outside..

..So I'll write about me and sleep instead.  When we were still in the regiment in Tula we were on sentry duty every day.  It was like this:  over 24 hours you get 2 hours sleep every 4 hours.  So you could get 8 hours in total, but of course it's much less.  But my body couldn't get used to this regime, because every other day (24 hours) we then slept «normally» at night…  So we were short of sleep all the time.

Somewhere I read that when you have to endure crap like this, there's something called «sleeping in your sleep».  Some bloke described having a nightmare that he was lying on his bed, when suddenly the walls, ceiling and the bedding all turned into a hideous sticky mass, which was swallowing him up and suffocating him.  He would wake up in a cold sweat, in his room in his bed – and suddenly it would all start happening for real!  Or that's what it seemed like.  Actually, of course, he was still asleep.  Then it would happen all over again.  Lots of times.  It's terrible – each time you feel that now the bedding really is engulfing you and you're awake.

Well, I had something rather like that.  But my nightmare were little yellow round things.  I can't really say what they were doing, but I knew it was very dangerous and really scary.  I woke up (did I hell!) and discovered these little yellow sweets right there in front of me and they had very evil designs on me, to put it mildy.

Then I actually fell asleep several times while I was walking.  I'd long since learnt to sleep standing up and if I leant against anything – then 100% guaranteed.  So the phrase «Give a soldier somewhere to stand and he'll go to sleep» is absolutely not a joke.  But this was really something else and I was at the end of my tether.....A couple of times when I really had absolutely not to go to sleep, I specially didn't lean against anything or hold on…I thought I'd be fine.  But I woke up because I fell over and knocked against something… 

The regulations say that at night time «soldiers mount guard in patrol mode», which means walking over a pre-arranged route with a machine gun.  This is what I did.  Several times I was very lucky that I crashed either forwards or to the left, when I fell asleep.  If I'd gone to the right I would have landed face down on many rows of barbed wire.  Even if I hadn't gouged my eyes out, I would certainly have been shouted at by the guard commander because my uniform would have been torn.

9 August

Something happened yesterday.  I was sitting not far from the barracks and a cat was scratching around in the bushes.  I called “puss, puss, come here” and she came to me.  I picked her up and was stroking her….when one of my fellow soldiers,  Yegor Mazayev, comes along.  He asked disdainfully why I had picked her up and I answered that she was clean and healthy.  At which point he socked the cat the most almighty blow to the head.

It rushed into the bushes and I sat completely stunned.  I asked him why he’d done that and he said he couldn’t stand cats.  I gradually recovered my senses and started shouting at him that he shouldn’t do that kind of thing to a defenceless animal.  Mazayev was standing there with Vasya Vorontsov and roaring with laughter.

…Yesterday it was 50 days to demob time.  I’ve got through half the sodding 100 days.  I had read and heard that 50 days is a kind of carnival time.  The “bitches” [younger conscripts ed.] can give orders to the “dembels” [conscripts with 100 days to demob ed.], who have to put on a meal for them…Needless to say, it’s nothing like that here.  We put on the meal and got given the orders.

19 August

We’ve just been with the regiment to Tula, where we were jumping.  One of our dembels, Chernyakov, had gone awol.  Everything would've been fine, except that he didn't come back until 11 in the morning, when the battery commander had already returned. The guy was unlucky and someone saw him.  The commander went ballistic.  He laid into him so much the guy could hardly stand up.  Then he spent a long time making merciless fun of him in front of us as we stood there in formation.  He said «Chernyakov, why did you get pissed and pick a fight with civilians in the park?»  (Chernyakov had given this an an explanation so no one got any ideas about snitching on him  - he would insist that he went awol and got into a fight with civilians).  Then he went on picking on him for a long time, humiliating him and punching him while we stood there and watched.  Finally he made him put on three bullet-proof jackets (and that's one hell of a lot!) and keep them on.  Today is the fourth day and he's still walking around in the jackets and a helmet.

Your old Tolya would never have thought «Serves you right, you wanker, for picking on us».  The old Tolya would still have have forgiven him and felt sorry for him…But this Tolya didn't feel that at all.  I just looked on and thought he deserved every bit of it.

10 September

A woman carries a baby 9 months before giving birth.  It's taken me 9 months in the army to do something I've never done before:  I hit a man in the face.  True, the man I hit is the type that would probably make you refer to his mug, rather than his face.  He's actually quite good-looking, with high cheekbones and a slight look of the mongol, but he's an out and out bastard.  Towards me, anyway.  He's a very good example of the kind of person we used to call a yob.  Give him a rousing hand, please – Lenya Martynov from Sverdlovsk region.  Nicknamed Motor.

From the beginning it was obvious that we wouldn't get on, but the relationship was doomed from the moment he looked at my photo album.  He saw photographs of me «hairy, unshaven – what are you, heavy metal or what?»  Said that in life outside he couldn't bear people like that and had smashed in the faces of dozens of them.  And more of the same.  To him I'm a fuckwit and a sucker etc. etc.  He may be right, but we have completely different views of life. 

Two weeks ago our battery went away to Tula.  Five of us driver-mechanics were left behind in Slobodka.  How we lived here is a separate story, to be told another time.  When they came back we were subjected to a hail of protests about how they had had to slave their guts out, while we were knocking around here (actually, not far from the truth).  Comrade Motor came to me to complain that I had nicked his sheet and pillowcase.  The great and terrible Motor had had to sleep for a whole week with no pillowcase and under a prickly dusty blanket because of a rotten lousy insect – me.  He gave me a week to repair the moral and physical damage I had caused him.  At a cost of 500 roubles.  To reinforce his words he roughed me up a bit.  My ear still hurts.

The next day the whole litany started again.  Not interested where I get the 500 roubles from, just as long as he has them in a week's time.  As always, the performance was accompanied by an abundant stream of insults and foul remarks about me.  At that point my dembel, Ramzan, summoned me for something (Motor's not a dembel, he's a «pheasant» [stage before dembel ed.] - one call-up before me) and I turned away.  Motor started shouting that he hadn't dismissed me, that if he went for me, I would be a gonner…. I ignored this, so he got up and landed me a couple of blows on the cheeks.  At this I (wonder of wonders!) planted him one in the face, but this time with my fist.

We started fighting.  He was the stronger.  He knocked me into the middle of next week.  Afterwards my multicoloured face was the admiration of the whole barracks.  This was on Saturday.  It's now Monday, but none of the officers have noticed, thank heavens.

If they do notice, I shall say I got into a fight in the canteen with an unknown solider from another unit.  Soldiers' excuses are a subject in their own right.

If you have a bruise, you slipped in the toilet.  Or got into a fight in the canteen, but you don't know who with.  Or in the park.  It's always dark there, so you didn't get to see their faces.  If something is torn or broken and «why haven't you repaired it?», it's always got torn or broken «a moment ago».  If you are found in possession of something belonging to someone else, it's «not mine, I found it lying around – don't know who put it there».  If you've broken or lost anything, then someone's «nicked it».  All these excuses are as old as the army, but they stay around and each generation thinks up new ones.

11 September

Tyoma asked what we would do if war was declared tomorrow. Do I know what to do?  I don't, because I'm a crap soldier.  I know who my commander is and can guess who the gunner is, though I'm not absolutely sure… I know the number of my vehicle, so we'd run to it and get to know each other there.  Then I'd try to get the vehicle going…If all other things were equal, I'd be able to do this, but the air has been let out of the tyres, the battery's been flat for ages and the fuel was siphoned off and sold by the side of the road.  So I probably wouldn't be able to get the vehicle fired up, but perhaps some more experienced mechanic, a dembel, would help me and siphon off fuel from somewhere else, if there's a war.  He'd take it from the neighbouring company, filch a battery there too and ask a friend from the same region as him to push the vehicle.  Then he'd knock me over the head with the key – and we'd get it going.  After that, I would in principle be able to drive it.  True, only straight  ahead.  So he'd actually probably hit me with the key in the kidneys too for good measure – then it'd turn the corners….

11 November

So let me tell you how Pavlik Putilov and I got hold of a mobile.  Pavlik found it in the grass, when we had been sent on one of the regular “jobettes” we had to do.  No one wanted to go.  It was Sunday in the memorable place called Slobodka.  There Sundays were quite normal – unlike the sodding guards regiment.  In Slobodka you could sleep all day on Sunday, so everyone did.  In the regiment you were always having to join in some kind of sporting or cultural activity for everyone.  In Slobodka you slept.

So everyone was preparing to catch up on their sleep, when lieutenant colonel Rudin, in charge of the regiment’s artillery, comes and says that we’re all going to Tesnitskoye to help set up camp for some company or other.  You can probably guess what this did to our mood and what choice swearwords we used to curse that company.  But it was while we on this «jobette» that Pavlik found the mobile!

It was an ordinary mobile with a camera and apps.  It turned out to belong to some major, who had lost it.  We didn't give it back to him.  In the army, as you know, there's no such thing as «lost»,  just a different way of expressing it.  As we had been in the army for some time, we knew that we could be searched, even made to undress completely and shake out our footcloths.  It'd already happened, though not to us, but we'd seen it.  So Pavlik stiched the phone into his pants.  How did he manage to do this and where?  God alone knows.  Even I didn't notice him doing anything suspicious, though he wouldn't have hidden from me – he'd have been more likely to put me on guard.  Sod it, what incredible ingenuity soliders have.  I'm amazed myself.

We brought the phone home.  Everything went OK and we hid it in a rotten tree stump in the training ground.  Wrapped it up in a plastic bag and hid it.  Pavel had the foresight to move 400 roubles from the major's account to his sister's.  The next day the major blocked the sim card.  All we needed for complete happiness was a sim card and a charger.  My friends soon brought us both.

We had this telephone for quite a long time – from about July to the middle of October.  I don't remember exactly.  At the end it started going on the blink more and more, then it stopped working altogether.  At one point Neglinny, a «dembel» [soldier within 100 days of demob ed.] asked Pavlik for a cigarette.  You remember him, he's a wanker and a scumbag.  Pavlik said he hadn't got one.  Neglinny said «You trying to make a fool of me?» and started searching him.  He found the telephone, said something really stupid like «You haven't worked hard enough for this» and smashed it on the ground.  We didn't mind much – it didn't work anyway.  Now you see it, now you don't.

…Once I went out at night time to ring home or my friends.  Don't remember.  I took the phone and went outside.  I went behind the barracks and was standing there, rabbiting on…suddenly out of the bushes comes a lieutenant colonel.  A real one, coming out of the bushes!  Here in the hospital, which is where I am now, there are colonels and lieutenant colonels at every turn of the way.  In the regiment we have one colonel – the bald regimental commander – and about 20 lieutenant colonels.  But you don't see them much.  There are hundreds of majors and even quite a lot of captains, but on the whole they're all lieutenants and warrant officers.

Anyway, there I am in the dead of night, standing behind the barracks and hoping that none of the soldiers or the sergeants will see me, let alone the warrant officers…and suddenly, out of the bushes, a whole lieutenant colonel emerges!

So I take to my heels and he goes after me.  You couldn't make it up…a lieutenant colonel chasing after a soldier through the dark.  But, as Ostap Bender said, youth triumphed.  I manage to get away.  I make a loop round the barracks and zip in the door.  It's Vasya on duty.  I manage to tell him that he hasn't seen me if anyone asks and hurtle on.  I was just going to hide the phone in a heap of stuff, when the lt.col. comes rushing in and goes straight for me.  Oh God!  I haven't hidden the phone.  It's in the most obvious place – my trouser pocket.  Fu-u-ck!  I've had it.  He rushes up to me and starts searching me, shouting «Where's the phone?».  «What phone, comrade lieutenant colonel, what are you talking about?»  «The one you were talking on just now» and he starts thumping me about the chops.

The noise alerted Lieutenant Karavaev, who came in a run.  The lieutenant colonel started banging on about the lax behaviour of the soldiers.  While this was going on, I got the phone out of my pocket and slipped it to Vasya.  The lt. col. turned back to me and started searching me again!  Ha, ha, you wanker, you're too late!  Though how he didn't find it the first time is completely beyond me – a miracle!  He so furious he can't find anything that he starts hitting me again.

In its own way this is quite a record.  Even captains don't hit the soldiers often and majors do it very rarely.  For a lieutenant colonel to be hitting a soldier is unheard of.  He's obviously some kind of nutter.  Before he left he barked in my face «You've got some brass neck, you insolent soldier!» in response to my lies..  He asked the lieutenant my name and said he would remember it.   Insolent…..well, what do you expect?

9 February

Good morning, comrade civilians!  I'm still on duty at post no. 1, guarding our sodding colours.  It's about 3.30 and I'm ready for sleep.  In 11 days I'll be 21.  If it all turns out as I plan, I hope that my English coming of age will be an excuse for getting together with many of you.  I've already planned my toast, which takes 15 minutes to deliver!

It'll soon be two months since I've been trying to get myself into the Central Military Hospital (CMH) so that I can spend the rest of my service there.  I'd have been ashamed of such thoughts before, especially when I was in the CMH and wanted to stay there.  But when I was discharged for the New Year holiday and went back to my thrice accursed Guards Airborne Regiment my conscience stopped bothering me about things like that.

It's got easier here.  Much easier than the second 6 months and unbelievably, immeasurably easier than the first 6 months, when I was in Omsk on basic training.  It's still hard, of course, dreary and sad, but I'm kind of on automatic pilot now.

The only really hard thing there is ahead is winter field exercises, or winter fields, as we call them.  They're planned for March-April.

..In the Recreation and Information Room (the Lenin Room in old speak) there's a cupboard with books in it.  The books there are rather like in the loony bin – nothing is rejected, they take whatever anyone brings in.  Some of the books are even quite interesting – there was one called «The Theory of Relativity for the Millions».  I got it out from a corner at the back and sometimes read it.  You can't actually read seriously here, because as soon as you sit down with a book, at most after 20 minutes, you find that someone needs you.  You have to tidy up somewhere, lug some boxes from one place to another or go an on errand somewhere etc.  But sometimes you get to open a book for 5 minutes, to leave these fucking surroundings for a short time and go back into your own, good world.  That's what I used to do.  But by taking out that particular book from the back corner of the cupboard I have condemned it to death.  It's being used to wipe arses now.

..I've often heard from friends and even from my mum and sister that they will be interested to see what kind of dembel I'll be and how I treat my «bitches» [younger conscripts ed].  I can say straight off that I'll be a useless dembel and you don't need any experiments to establish that fact.  You just try imagine me making someone sew my jacket for me, straighten my bed in the morning or get hold of some kind of food or other.  Or, even more, extort money from someone for my «100 days».  It's even stupid to make bitches dig trenches/emplacements [?] while you sit in the shade drinking mineral water, as our dembels did in Slobodka.  I couldn't do it.

Of course I could get a bitch for myself to protect him from the excesses of the other soldiers from the same intake as me.  But I don't have enough authority for that, so in my case the experiment of transforming a bitch into a dembel has failed.  They chose the wrong person.

Although I'm a «pheasant» [stage before dembel ed] now, my status is actually still that of a bitch and will always be.  I clear up in the morning, I try not to offload my work on to others etc. etc.  To tell the truth, although I pretend to be offended when people say I'm still a bitch, inside I'm actually quite pleased about it. The army has ruined me (or has it just revealed the bad side of my character?).  What's good is that I have in some ways managed to stay a human being. 

These letters originally appeared on www.openspace.ru

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Golts, Alexander M., Putnam, Tonya L. “State Militarism and Its Legacies: Why Military Reform Has Failed in Russia.” International Security, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. 121-158.

Lambeth, Benjamin S. “Russia’s Wounded Military.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 74, No. 2 (1995), pp. 86-98.

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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

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Union of the Committees of Soldiers Mothers of Russia, web site

The Russian Federation Ministry of Defence – official web site

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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.