A Soldier’s Tale (4): the army paradox

Letters are a life-line for Tolya. The army’s a mysterious entity, unknowable by anyone outside it, the conscript reflects. Awful though it is, he wouldn’t have missed it. He’s learned a lot. And even (possibly) made a friend
Tolya's Letters
25 January 2010

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, 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 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.


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

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

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

Part 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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