A soldier’s tale (3): hospital, then what?

In this third excerpt from his letters, our Russian conscript ends up in hospital, with time to reflect on what lies ahead. He reflects on the bullying of the ‘bitches’ by the ‘grandpas’. So deeply entrenched is it, he reckons, that the army would fall apart without it.
Tolya's Letters
18 January 2010

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!).


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 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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