Behind the Iron Curtain: Portyanki

Memory is a strange thing. One minute I am reading a story about outpatient surgery in prison and the next minute it takes me back about 20 years when I was sitting in a small army hospital room and another soldier, who was supposed to be a nurse, was poking a scalpel at the infected cyst on my own foot. But this is not about some gruesome sadistic surgery forced on a newly drafted Soviet Soldier, although I still have a scar to show for it. This is a post about portyanki – a foot wrap worn in the Russian and later in the Soviet army instead of socks until just a year or two ago.

After a long and tumultuous day of saying good-byes to civilian life and traveling by train and then inside a truck in the dark, lining up, multiple counts, marching with a group of half-scared schmucks and finally arriving at a place where most of us will spend the next two years, our group of fresh draftees finally settled down for an uneasy night of exhausted sleep. In the morning we were to shed whatever else connected us to our previous lives and become bona fide soldiers in the Soviet Army. After watching in horror other soldiers jump off their bunk-beds and stampede to their morning exercise routine we proceeded to the warehouse to receive our uniforms. The Soviet military uniform changed very little since WWII and there were always rumors of giant stashes of old uniforms sitting around waiting for the time “when enemy strikes”. The boots were the heavy non-laced kind from some fake leather material called kirza (sometimes translated as canvas, I am not exactly sure), uncomplicated by lining or any other comfort features. There were no socks, instead we received two pieces of cloth about the size, shape and thickness of a tea towel (13.6 by 35 inches) and some vague instructions about how to put them on. Given the quality of boots and the fact that this was the only kind of footwear for all occasions except for the rare weekend off, portyanki were not such a bad choice. What we didn’t realize was that putting them on correctly was an art, mastering which for most people required persistence, patience and a lot of foot damage. Another useful but unavailable at that time piece of information was that although the boot may have felt tight at first, getting a larger size was a big mistake. After some trial, error and confusion I ended up with a new uniform, two portyanki and a set of boots one or two sizes too large. Everything seemed to be OK until my first 10K run in full gear. During my whole life before that day my cumulative running distance equaled to about 10 or 20 kilometers. Needless to say that I crawled back half-dead with my portyanki bunched up inside my boots and a big bloody blister on one of my feet, which then got infected, blossomed into a big cyst and brought me to the scalpel wielding failed medical student from the beginning of this post. For the next two weeks one could tell inexperienced portyanki wearer by his distinct limp and walking around in slippers instead of boots. I almost had to wear slippers to my swearing-in ceremony but after the infamous surgery I recovered enough to fit in the boots again.

I could go on and on about portyanki, about the summer and winter kinds, about the smell when everyone aired theirs at night (laundry was once a week), or about how I eventually mastered the art of putting them on and wore them until I was discharged even when I was allowed to wear normal socks. They were comfortable in the end, easier and faster to put on, warmer in winter and cooler during the summer. When I see American soldiers running around in sneakers I smile to myself: what a bunch of pussies! (I am kidding, do not write me threatening comments). For those of you who don’t believe me here is a short instructional video. And that’s, my American friends, how we won the cold war!

  • Cutting edge Russian technology like this never ceases to amaze me.

  • lol.. you always could tell a story in full circle.

    I’ve missed your blogs!

  • I have letters from my grandma’s family in Lithuainia in the 1950’s, complete with the Soviet blacked out marks. They are written in Lithuanian and I have no idea what they say, but I know my grandma sent coats and clothes and food to them there…I always wondered if they received her gifts, or if they even understood how much she loved her cousins….thanks, Meesha for the reminders of my heritage…both Lithuanian and Ukranian…

  • midtown miscreant

    like giant ace bandages . Who knew? lucky your under wear wasnt made the same way.

  • MM: I guess underwear would come later. Hint-it wasn’t personalized.
    Moxie:maybe you can have your letters translated.

  • And I thought the “boondockers” we wore in the Navy were bad. Heck I usually had 2 pairs of socks with them.

    Interesting post tho, and glad your guys were gracious (cold war) winners.

  • travel

    Shakin head here. What’s cheaper and easier to make than socks? Old habits die hard I guess.

    Are there any women in the army over there even now? I can’t even imagine what they’d issue in place of Kotex….oh yeah…rags.

  • For these boots foot wraps were actually better and I continued to wear them even when I had a chance to wear socks. Socks would quickly wear out to nothing but holes.
    In my day the only women in the military were hired civilians. They were not drafted. Also there were no tampons as far as I know. They had pads and these were pretty bulky.

  • Andre

    The making of a Russian cowboy at its best, my friends. I still have both of my feet thanks to those silly wraps. 1986 winter near Kiev would have had them for sure, if I was sporting socks like any respectable fraer would have.

  • Surely I am the only one here who understood what “fraer” is

  • Buddy Jodrey

    Where can I get Portyanki? Thank you.

  • I have no idea, they are just rectangle pieces of cotton cloth similar to what tea-towels are made from.

  • Andre

    You don’t get them. They are cut from medium weight cotton fabric. That’s the whole idea behind it – you can always keep your feet dry and clean in battle, trench, captivity etc. All you need is a yard of fabric. I must say, there is a certain genius in the simplicity.

  • Communist Block person

    You always have the most interesting posts. Love this and the video is great!

  • mokreonuce

    When I worked in a chemical mixing factory in Atlanta, I noticed some workers had footwraps because they didn’t care about them sticking out of their rubber boots. Anyone else in the US have ever used or have seen others using footwraps?

  • Debit Credit

    I would say that Soviet kirza and similar types of no-lace, pull-on type boots are okay, as long as the wearer does not perform a lot of strenuous activities like hiking/running/cross-country.  I got into these boots because I used to do weekly inventory in walk-in freezers, so I needed to have footwear that could keep my feet warmer and could accomodate thicker socks.  These types of boots worked out perfectly.  Last, but not the least, I tend to be lazy, which means I do not like to bend down to tie up shoe-laces!

    I ended up preferring Soviet and DDR surplus boots because they are cheaper (I have also tried out Frye and Chippewa boots in the past; nice, but lot more expensive), although it is not easy to find merchants, not only carrying them but also selling them at decent price and carrying my size.

    As for my pair of Soviet kirza, the only downside I suffered was ending up having the nails that kept the rubber soles in place to pierce into the insoles, followed by the insoles cracking.  Not very pleasant.  Otherwise, they were pretty convenient to have during bad weather.  I still have DDR boots, but since I have not used them a lot until recently, it will take a while before I get to notice the effects of wear and tear.  I plan on purchasing a pair of kirza boots later on, once I can zero in on a merchant carrying them.

    As for footwraps, I only became aware of them recently.  They seem to be highly recommended by those who have had a lot of experience with the kirza boots.