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A Soldier’s Tale 8: violence is no joke

Our conscript Tolya continues his study of violence in his airborne division of the Russian army

9 August

Something happened yesterday.  I was sitting not far from the barracks and a cat was scratching around in the bushes.  I called “puss, puss, come here” and she came to me.  I picked her up and was stroking her….when one of my fellow soldiers,  Yegor Mazayev, comes along.  He asked disdainfully why I had picked her up and I answered that she was clean and healthy.  At which point he socked the cat the most almighty blow to the head.

It rushed into the bushes and I sat completely stunned.  I asked him why he’d done that and he said he couldn’t stand cats.  I gradually recovered my senses and started shouting at him that he shouldn’t do that kind of thing to a defenceless animal.  Mazayev was standing there with Vasya Vorontsov and roaring with laughter.

…Yesterday it was 50 days to demob time.  I’ve got through half the sodding 100 days.  I had read and heard that 50 days is a kind of carnival time.  The “bitches” [younger conscripts ed.] can give orders to the “dembels” [conscripts with 100 days to demob ed.], who have to put on a meal for them…Needless to say, it’s nothing like that here.  We put on the meal and got given the orders.

19 August

We’ve just been with the regiment to Tula, where we were jumping.  One of our dembels, Chernyakov, had gone awol.  Everything would've been fine, except that he didn't come back until 11 in the morning, when the battery commander had already returned. The guy was unlucky and someone saw him.  The commander went ballistic.  He laid into him so much the guy could hardly stand up.  Then he spent a long time making merciless fun of him in front of us as we stood there in formation.  He said «Chernyakov, why did you get pissed and pick a fight with civilians in the park?»  (Chernyakov had given this an an explanation so no one got any ideas about snitching on him  - he would insist that he went awol and got into a fight with civilians).  Then he went on picking on him for a long time, humiliating him and punching him while we stood there and watched.  Finally he made him put on three bullet-proof jackets (and that's one hell of a lot!) and keep them on.  Today is the fourth day and he's still walking around in the jackets and a helmet.

Your old Tolya would never have thought «Serves you right, you wanker, for picking on us».  The old Tolya would still have have forgiven him and felt sorry for him…But this Tolya didn't feel that at all.  I just looked on and thought he deserved every bit of it.

10 September

A woman carries a baby 9 months before giving birth.  It's taken me 9 months in the army to do something I've never done before:  I hit a man in the face.  True, the man I hit is the type that would probably make you refer to his mug, rather than his face.  He's actually quite good-looking, with high cheekbones and a slight look of the mongol, but he's an out and out bastard.  Towards me, anyway.  He's a very good example of the kind of person we used to call a yob.  Give him a rousing hand, please – Lenya Martynov from Sverdlovsk region.  Nicknamed Motor.

From the beginning it was obvious that we wouldn't get on, but the relationship was doomed from the moment he looked at my photo album.  He saw photographs of me «hairy, unshaven – what are you, heavy metal or what?»  Said that in life outside he couldn't bear people like that and had smashed in the faces of dozens of them.  And more of the same.  To him I'm a fuckwit and a sucker etc. etc.  He may be right, but we have completely different views of life. 

Two weeks ago our battery went away to Tula.  Five of us driver-mechanics were left behind in Slobodka.  How we lived here is a separate story, to be told another time.  When they came back we were subjected to a hail of protests about how they had had to slave their guts out, while we were knocking around here (actually, not far from the truth).  Comrade Motor came to me to complain that I had nicked his sheet and pillowcase.  The great and terrible Motor had had to sleep for a whole week with no pillowcase and under a prickly dusty blanket because of a rotten lousy insect – me.  He gave me a week to repair the moral and physical damage I had caused him.  At a cost of 500 roubles.  To reinforce his words he roughed me up a bit.  My ear still hurts.

The next day the whole litany started again.  Not interested where I get the 500 roubles from, just as long as he has them in a week's time.  As always, the performance was accompanied by an abundant stream of insults and foul remarks about me.  At that point my dembel, Ramzan, summoned me for something (Motor's not a dembel, he's a «pheasant» [stage before dembel ed.] - one call-up before me) and I turned away.  Motor started shouting that he hadn't dismissed me, that if he went for me, I would be a gonner…. I ignored this, so he got up and landed me a couple of blows on the cheeks.  At this I (wonder of wonders!) planted him one in the face, but this time with my fist.

We started fighting.  He was the stronger.  He knocked me into the middle of next week.  Afterwards my multicoloured face was the admiration of the whole barracks.  This was on Saturday.  It's now Monday, but none of the officers have noticed, thank heavens.

If they do notice, I shall say I got into a fight in the canteen with an unknown solider from another unit.  Soldiers' excuses are a subject in their own right.

If you have a bruise, you slipped in the toilet.  Or got into a fight in the canteen, but you don't know who with.  Or in the park.  It's always dark there, so you didn't get to see their faces.  If something is torn or broken and «why haven't you repaired it?», it's always got torn or broken «a moment ago».  If you are found in possession of something belonging to someone else, it's «not mine, I found it lying around – don't know who put it there».  If you've broken or lost anything, then someone's «nicked it».  All these excuses are as old as the army, but they stay around and each generation thinks up new ones.

11 September

Tyoma asked what we would do if war was declared tomorrow. Do I know what to do?  I don't, because I'm a crap soldier.  I know who my commander is and can guess who the gunner is, though I'm not absolutely sure… I know the number of my vehicle, so we'd run to it and get to know each other there.  Then I'd try to get the vehicle going…If all other things were equal, I'd be able to do this, but the air has been let out of the tyres, the battery's been flat for ages and the fuel was siphoned off and sold by the side of the road.  So I probably wouldn't be able to get the vehicle fired up, but perhaps some more experienced mechanic, a dembel, would help me and siphon off fuel from somewhere else, if there's a war.  He'd take it from the neighbouring company, filch a battery there too and ask a friend from the same region as him to push the vehicle.  Then he'd knock me over the head with the key – and we'd get it going.  After that, I would in principle be able to drive it.  True, only straight  ahead.  So he'd actually probably hit me with the key in the kidneys too for good measure – then it'd turn the corners….

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 7 can be read here (The bullying goes on – if anything it’s got worse)

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.

Russian Military Reform, 1992-2002, by Anne C. Aldis and Roger N. Mc Dermott, Routledge, 2003

The Consequences of Dedovshchina – Human Rights Watch Report, 2004

Golts, Alexander. "The Social and Political Condition of the Russian Military." In The Russian Military: Power and Policy, edited by Steven E. Miller and Dmitri Trenin, 73-94. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004

How to Dodge the Draft in Russia? , by Marina Kamenev, Moscow, Time Magazine, Mar.30, 2009

Union of the Committees of Soldiers Mothers of Russia, web site

The Russian Federation Ministry of Defence – official web site

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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