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Soviet Army. Was it a threat or a giant with clay feet?

Updated on February 17, 2013

The Soviet Army. Behind the scenes.

Invincible and legendary, without mercy and hesitation. Cruel Russian soldiers are ready to kill. Is it what you heard about the Soviet Army? What else do you know about it? What if I say that the Soviet army in a Soviet time was a big fake? At least I had such feeling basing on my own 2 years of military service as a plain in the Army. Of course there were special units, marines, which were highly trained machines but in general army was a swamp which sucked money of taxpayers.

Serving in the Army was an honorable duty of a Soviet person. The very combination “an honorable duty” was always an enigma to me. To combine these two words is probably the same as to combine words “a gentle rape”. Nevertheless it was really so – “an honorable duty”.

In 1985 I graduated school and entered university. Life of a student who lives in a dormitory without parents is full of nice events but a letter from military commissariat broke my plans for the nearest 2 years. In June 1986 I passed my last exam and some days later I was already at a collection point of military commissariat.


Source

A task of a military commissariat was to collect as many new soldiers as they could. At the same time “buyers” from military troops came there. When the officer arrived, he asked for a necessary amount of recruits and he had them. A common practice of those years was to take people from towns located far from a place of service. They thought that the soldier will not have any temptation to escape home. Lots of my classmates served in the Far East near Vladivostok or somewhere in Asia. Recruits never knew the place of future military service. I and other 8 students who happened to be the last call of the season were “bought” by a lieutenant escorted by 2 sergeants. We all looked like beggars because it was not a good idea to wear good closes during call up. Army was supposed to give us a uniform and to throw civil clothes in a waste.

Soldiers travelled free by train in that time. We had tickets, but did not pay for them. My trip to the future place of service took 3 days. We changed several trains, we nearly lost a couple of drunken recruits who managed get a bottle of vodka and used it as a medicine against vagueness of the future. Late in the evening of the 3rd day we came to a small station in Astrakhan region. A truck was waiting for us and here we go. Each mile he took us away from that little station made our nervous jokes more exquisite because we still were not aware where we go. No people around, no cities, no even villages. Just plain steppe and numerous electricity lines crossing it from one side to an other. It was a “far far away” from a civilized world.

This place was on a border of Kazakhstan and Russia. It was called Kapustin Yar. Kapustin Yar was a biggest firing field of rockets in the USSR. I served in the military unit which tested and launched rockets for air defense forces.

The first difficulty a newbie had – to learn making a bad in the “army style”. That was a science. A rope was pulled along the barrack and all the beds, pillows, lines on blankets were aligned to that rope. Making a bed was a definite ritual which can not described. I am not able to do it not because of secrecy but because my English is not good enough to describe a stupidity of making a bed procedure.

The basic slogan of the Soviet army probably did not change till today: “It may be bad but all should be in the same key” (did I choose a proper phrase? If not correct me please).

Swear words did not exist in the army. I mean it. Ensigns just did not understand that the words they say were far away from a normal language. They never ever said a single word without adding a couple of non-written expressions printing of which is not permitted by rules of HP. I wish you knew how rich our Russian language is…. The word f**k was the least swearing word. But if you can hear it in films, it is almost a literature word. When I came home I had trouble in communication with parents. Probably they did not understand till now why I stumbled first week on every sentence.

The biggest problem the army had in those times was a military bullying of young soldiers. The soldiers had a non formal division, a hierarchy which was formed depending on the time you serve in the Army. In different places it was a little bit different but in general soldiers were divided into “spirits” – newcomers till 6 months of service, “scoops” – service from 6 to 12 months, “grandfathers”- service from 12 to 18 months and finally the "elite" of the army – “demobee” from 18 to 24 months of service. I do not know the origin of these words and I can’t say where it came from. It was just like that. In most cases, in most troops (but not all!) there was a huge difference in duties assigned to “spirits” and “demobees”.

The less you served the most difficult and unpleasant tasks you had. If you were a “grandfather” you usually did nothing leaving it to “spirits” unless and officer was watching you.

After all officers went home, the grandfathers and demobee became the kings of barracks and used “spirits” at their own wish. A usual thing was a humiliation of the “spirits” whose spirit was weak (this tautology makes sense here). That depended on how much the grandfathers were inclined to humiliate others. Some people were broken and waited with impatience till the demobees leave the army to come to their place and to revenge newcomers for all offends they had. That was an order supported in the Soviet army for many and many years. Authorities attempt to fight with it now but still without big success as far as I know. Actually officers WERE interested in that layout of things because the grandfathers supported order in barracks in their absence.

I did not have it to that extend as described above because I was in a military unit of guards. Every day my unit was watching launching pads for rockets, rockets themselves and a gas filling station. So in our unit a bullying was in the form of “kingdom of sergeants”. Sergeants were the bosses while the grandfathers were the second after them.

A biggest task of the Soviet Army was not to teach soldier to fight but to keep a soldier busy. I talked with many of my friends who had their service in the Soviet Army. We all had it more or less similar. Lots of drill, marching, cleaning and fulfilling silly orders. When an inspection from Moscow came we painted leaves of trees so that they were green. In winter we turned the snow upside down so that it was white and solemnly buried a cigarette butt in the grave 2.5 m deep, if found not in the ash tray. Therefore we raise the strength and power of our army every day and every month of the service.

Cleaning barracks from the floor till the ceiling was a routine procedure every Saturday. Some units did it more thoroughly, others – not, but we all removed the bunks, and polished wooden floors with heavy but simple instrument which we called by a nice woman’s name “Masha”. Imagine a mop which had a heavy piece of tree trunk instead of a crossbar. This piece of trunk was shoed with a thick cloth to to polish the floor. This mop was a source and inspiration for numerous jokes describing different relations of the whole barrack with “Masha” .

While army service I often mastered my ability to shoot. All in all I made 9 single shoots from Kalashnikov! Can you imagine that? Gosh, I was lucky to serve in a coy of guards. Soldiers from transport divisions or from servicing units never hold a gun at all. Each time we finished training at a shooting range I felt myself so much experienced in shooting...

I served in a very nice place with plenty of sun in summer and absolutely chilling winds in winter. May was the last month we saw green grass. In June all grass burnt out and became yellow. Still we had regular physical trainings outdoors which were supposed to make us proud by the fact that we defend our motherland. We had crosses in steppe at a temperature when the rubber on booths cracked because of heat. Regular trainings were continued till one soldier died because his blood was curdled from extraordinary heat. Died heroically executing his honorable duty of military service as you can imagine.

Lots of sun, lack of minimal sanitary caused regular outbursts of dysentery in all units. If you do not know what it is, then you are lucky. I had it twice and still cherish reminiscence of those days. I am a mercy person and will not describe it to you, read in Wikipedia if you want but believe my word this WAS HORRIBLE.

June was famous for a clouds of midges biting your eyes, ears and nose. Two weeks in June we waited impatiently till they all die (I love Greenpeace, I love all living creatures but not midges). It seems to be an easy task to stay outside for a couple of hours but if you do not use chemicals your face will be swollen from thousands of bites and “it really hurts”. Some soldiers found substitute to chemicals, they used diesel fuel as a repellent.

As to the weather conditions spring and autumn were our favorite seasons. Winter was a very special time for us. Two hours shift outside at a cooling wind was the worst I had in my life. We were dressed so heavy that in fact anyone could kill a watchman easily if he wanted because we were unable to move quickly. We had no masks on a face, so we used towels to cover mouth and nose from frost.

If the only road connecting us with other world was covered by snow we were totally isolated from all food supplies. That’s OK, soldier must heroically bear all difficulties of military service. I was lucky not to smoke, but smokers suffered much without tobacco.

Once in 2 years a soldier usually had 10 days of vacation to go home. Usually but not always. I had it and still remember my mother crying from happiness that I was not in Afghanistan. Being young we all wanted to be in Afghanistan to serve and protect our Motherland. What the heck we forgot there? After the first 6 months some of us wrote reports asking to transfer to Afghanistan but our troop commander was an old and clever man who said that he “is ___ tired of kicking out of his room all these ______ volunteers who want to escape this _____ Kapustin Yar instead of serving their ______duty here (insert swearing words according to your education and imagination).

There was nothing in my life that I remembered more than the Army. For the next 10 years I had the same nightmare: I am called up to the Army again and assigned to the same coy of quads and can not prove that I had already served in the Army. I thought of going to a psychiatrist.

Now the army tends to be a place for professionals who get paid for doing their work. I am sure this is much better idea. At least people know why they do it.

In February 1989 the Soviet Army left Afghanistan. Some years later the Soviet Union was broken apart and the Soviet Army disappeared. The place where I served turned into a dilapidated area with carcasses of buildings and my military unit was dissolved.


Kapustin Yar , Area 31

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    • handymanbill profile image

      Bill 4 years ago from western pennsylvania

      great story. We were always told how dangerous the soviet army was. But 9 shoots in 2 years. Voted up.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      yep, we were on a shooting range 3 times. 3 shells each time. Thank you for a comment!

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      just forgot. At a shooting range each shooter was accompanied by a catcher who had to catch empty shells after shooting. Each bullet was calculated and the same amount of empty shells was to be returned. Once an empty shell fall down in a crack. and 90 people were crawling for a couple of hours to find it.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      This is great stuff, pavlobadovskyy. Not only interesting, but your dry wit comes through very well. Voted up, interesting and shared.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

      I remember when September 11th happened and Osama bin Laden was reported to be in Afghanistan, I was thinking, here I've been cheering for Afghani freedom fighters against the Soviet Union, and now they're our enemies? The world keeps changing.

      Also sharing, just in case there is anyone who follows me who doesn't already follow UnnamedHarald...

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      TO UnnamedHarald: Thank you for commenting!

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      to aethelthryth: Your words about the change of enemies are very important. This is a very good example how change in the policy of country makes huge changes in the minds of people.

    • JMCL162 profile image

      JMCL162 4 years ago from New York

      Really interesting hub Pavlo Badovskyy! I've heard many stories about the Soviet Army but never a firsthand account like this. Very unique article and voted up.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      You are welcome! Thank you for stopping by and voting!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Pavlo - This is excellent. An amazing look at the Soviet Army from the inside. We in the west had no idea. We (the regular citizens - I cannot speak for our government officials) had no idea and believed the Soviet army was immense, well trained and incredible well-supplied in terms of weapons and equipment. I had no idea, 9 shots! boots that crack! You have done a great job describing the location, process and the military culture. It does not surprise me that you had continuing nightmares. Great article. Sharing. Theresa

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Dear Theresa

      Thank you for a high evaluation of my hub! I always wanted to say my opinion about army, but I had nobody to share with. Now I have Hubpages and glad that it can be interesting to others.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 4 years ago from Taos, NM

      This was fascinating. Yes, we always were told the Soviet army was very strong. Your army experience sounds quite frustrating. But, I'm glad you weren't in Afghanistan. Our military is now there and it is horrible. Thanks so much for a fascinating hub!

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Thank you for a comment! The topic of Afghanistan is very painful for me. Yes, I was lucky not to be there. I know families who lost thier sons in that country. I believe I write a hub one day describing memories of my friend who was there about it . I have just to wait a little bit to make him drunk to speak about it... Too sad that American soldiers are in Afghanistan and it is horrible when their mothers become hostages of the policy of the country. The USSR made a mistake entering their troops there and I truly believe the United States is on the same faulty way now. Both the USSR, and the USA had/has NOTHING to do there as long as people die there.

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