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A Soldier’s Tale 7: Hopes dashed, business as usual!

Our conscript Tolya had such high hopes of his new posting in the elite regiment of the Russian airborne division, but the bullying goes on – if anything it’s got worse

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.  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 to jump out of IL-76s, 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 – 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.

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 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 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

Military Service In Russia - No New model army, by Keir Giles, Conflict Studies Research Center, Russian series, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, may 2007

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.

Union of the Committees of Soldiers Mothers of Russia, website

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.


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