A soldier’s tale (1)

A new Russian army recruit writes home about life at a parachute regiment basic training camp
Tolya's Letters
2 January 2010

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. 

8 December

I’ve landed up in a parachute regiment basic training camp in Omsk.  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.

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 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.


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 5 can be read here (Tolya hopes that things will be different, but his hopes are soon dashed) 

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

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