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A soldier’s tale (2): trying to blend in

In this second letter home our new conscript Tolya is starting to settle in to his two-year stint in Russia’s army. He tells us about the food and how he has learnt to avoid being beaten up.

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….

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

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

Read On

Russia’s Armed Forces Undergoing 'Unparalled' Transformation, By Roger McDermott, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Aug. 13, 2009

One Soldier's War in Chechnya, by Arkady Babchenko, translated from the Russian by Nick Allen,  Grove Press, 2008

Wretched Russian conscripts, by Con Coughlin Con Coughlin reviews in Chechnya by Arkady Babchenko, Telegraph Online, Nov. 15, 2007

More On

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


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