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A Soldier's Tale 9: changed, but not utterly dehumanised

In his final letter home from the army our conscript Tolya “finds” a mobile phone, is pursued by a mad officer and wonders what kind of man the army’s made of him

11 November

So let me tell you how Pavlik Putilov and I got hold of a mobile.  Pavlik found it in the grass, when we had been sent on one of the regular “jobettes” we had to do.  No one wanted to go.  It was Sunday in the memorable place called Slobodka.  There Sundays were quite normal – unlike the sodding guards regiment.  In Slobodka you could sleep all day on Sunday, so everyone did.  In the regiment you were always having to join in some kind of sporting or cultural activity for everyone.  In Slobodka you slept.

So everyone was preparing to catch up on their sleep, when lieutenant colonel Rudin, in charge of the regiment’s artillery, comes and says that we’re all going to Tesnitskoye to help set up camp for some company or other.  You can probably guess what this did to our mood and what choice swearwords we used to curse that company.  But it was while we on this «jobette» that Pavlik found the mobile!

It was an ordinary mobile with a camera and apps.  It turned out to belong to some major, who had lost it.  We didn't give it back to him.  In the army, as you know, there's no such thing as «lost»,  just a different way of expressing it.  As we had been in the army for some time, we knew that we could be searched, even made to undress completely and shake out our footcloths.  It'd already happened, though not to us, but we'd seen it.  So Pavlik stiched the phone into his pants.  How did he manage to do this and where?  God alone knows.  Even I didn't notice him doing anything suspicious, though he wouldn't have hidden from me – he'd have been more likely to put me on guard.  Sod it, what incredible ingenuity soliders have.  I'm amazed myself.

We brought the phone home.  Everything went OK and we hid it in a rotten tree stump in the training ground.  Wrapped it up in a plastic bag and hid it.  Pavel had the foresight to move 400 roubles from the major's account to his sister's.  The next day the major blocked the sim card.  All we needed for complete happiness was a sim card and a charger.  My friends soon brought us both.

We had this telephone for quite a long time – from about July to the middle of October.  I don't remember exactly.  At the end it started going on the blink more and more, then it stopped working altogether.  At one point Neglinny, a «dembel» [soldier within 100 days of demob ed.] asked Pavlik for a cigarette.  You remember him, he's a wanker and a scumbag.  Pavlik said he hadn't got one.  Neglinny said «You trying to make a fool of me?» and started searching him.  He found the telephone, said something really stupid like «You haven't worked hard enough for this» and smashed it on the ground.  We didn't mind much – it didn't work anyway.  Now you see it, now you don't.

…Once I went out at night time to ring home or my friends.  Don't remember.  I took the phone and went outside.  I went behind the barracks and was standing there, rabbiting on…suddenly out of the bushes comes a lieutenant colonel.  A real one, coming out of the bushes!  Here in the hospital, which is where I am now, there are colonels and lieutenant colonels at every turn of the way.  In the regiment we have one colonel – the bald regimental commander – and about 20 lieutenant colonels.  But you don't see them much.  There are hundreds of majors and even quite a lot of captains, but on the whole they're all lieutenants and warrant officers.

Anyway, there I am in the dead of night, standing behind the barracks and hoping that none of the soldiers or the sergeants will see me, let alone the warrant officers…and suddenly, out of the bushes, a whole lieutenant colonel emerges!

So I take to my heels and he goes after me.  You couldn't make it up…a lieutenant colonel chasing after a soldier through the dark.  But, as Ostap Bender said, youth triumphed.  I manage to get away.  I make a loop round the barracks and zip in the door.  It's Vasya on duty.  I manage to tell him that he hasn't seen me if anyone asks and hurtle on.  I was just going to hide the phone in a heap of stuff, when the lt.col. comes rushing in and goes straight for me.  Oh God!  I haven't hidden the phone.  It's in the most obvious place – my trouser pocket.  Fu-u-ck!  I've had it.  He rushes up to me and starts searching me, shouting «Where's the phone?».  «What phone, comrade lieutenant colonel, what are you talking about?»  «The one you were talking on just now» and he starts thumping me about the chops.

The noise alerted Lieutenant Karavaev, who came in a run.  The lieutenant colonel started banging on about the lax behaviour of the soldiers.  While this was going on, I got the phone out of my pocket and slipped it to Vasya.  The lt. col. turned back to me and started searching me again!  Ha, ha, you wanker, you're too late!  Though how he didn't find it the first time is completely beyond me – a miracle!  He so furious he can't find anything that he starts hitting me again.

In its own way this is quite a record.  Even captains don't hit the soldiers often and majors do it very rarely.  For a lieutenant colonel to be hitting a soldier is unheard of.  He's obviously some kind of nutter.  Before he left he barked in my face «You've got some brass neck, you insolent soldier!» in response to my lies..  He asked the lieutenant my name and said he would remember it.   Insolent…..well, what do you expect?

9 February

Good morning, comrade civilians!  I'm still on duty at post no. 1, guarding our sodding colours.  It's about 3.30 and I'm ready for sleep.  In 11 days I'll be 21.  If it all turns out as I plan, I hope that my English coming of age will be an excuse for getting together with many of you.  I've already planned my toast, which takes 15 minutes to deliver!

It'll soon be two months since I've been trying to get myself into the Central Military Hospital (CMH) so that I can spend the rest of my service there.  I'd have been ashamed of such thoughts before, especially when I was in the CMH and wanted to stay there.  But when I was discharged for the New Year holiday and went back to my thrice accursed Guards Airborne Regiment my conscience stopped bothering me about things like that.

It's got easier here.  Much easier than the second 6 months and unbelievably, immeasurably easier than the first 6 months, when I was in Omsk on basic training.  It's still hard, of course, dreary and sad, but I'm kind of on automatic pilot now.

The only really hard thing there is ahead is winter field exercises, or winter fields, as we call them.  They're planned for March-April.

..In the Recreation and Information Room (the Lenin Room in old speak) there's a cupboard with books in it.  The books there are rather like in the loony bin – nothing is rejected, they take whatever anyone brings in.  Some of the books are even quite interesting – there was one called «The Theory of Relativity for the Millions».  I got it out from a corner at the back and sometimes read it.  You can't actually read seriously here, because as soon as you sit down with a book, at most after 20 minutes, you find that someone needs you.  You have to tidy up somewhere, lug some boxes from one place to another or go an on errand somewhere etc.  But sometimes you get to open a book for 5 minutes, to leave these fucking surroundings for a short time and go back into your own, good world.  That's what I used to do.  But by taking out that particular book from the back corner of the cupboard I have condemned it to death.  It's being used to wipe arses now.

..I've often heard from friends and even from my mum and sister that they will be interested to see what kind of dembel I'll be and how I treat my «bitches» [younger conscripts ed].  I can say straight off that I'll be a useless dembel and you don't need any experiments to establish that fact.  You just try imagine me making someone sew my jacket for me, straighten my bed in the morning or get hold of some kind of food or other.  Or, even more, extort money from someone for my «100 days».  It's even stupid to make bitches dig trenches/emplacements [?] while you sit in the shade drinking mineral water, as our dembels did in Slobodka.  I couldn't do it.

Of course I could get a bitch for myself to protect him from the excesses of the other soldiers from the same intake as me.  But I don't have enough authority for that, so in my case the experiment of transforming a bitch into a dembel has failed.  They chose the wrong person.

Although I'm a «pheasant» [stage before dembel ed] now, my status is actually still that of a bitch and will always be.  I clear up in the morning, I try not to offload my work on to others etc. etc.  To tell the truth, although I pretend to be offended when people say I'm still a bitch, inside I'm actually quite pleased about it. The army has ruined me (or has it just revealed the bad side of my character?).  What's good is that I have in some ways managed to stay a human being. 

 

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 8 can be read here  (Violence is no joke) 

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.


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