• 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!

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  • Russian Caricature Of The Day: Traditional Swedish Recipe

    Recent IKEA meatball news hit me hard. I’ve been a fan since the first time I’ve tried them years ago. And even though I stopped buying IKEA meatballs when my kid decided to stop eating pork, it’s still pretty sad. Not that I care about eating horse meat,  I am sure I unknowingly ate it more than once during my lifetime. If anything, this proves my long-held belief that we get too much information about the food we eat, with all the ingredient lists and nutrition tables. What we don’t know doesn’t hurt us.

    This caricature is by Sergei Yelkin – a Russian cartoonist whose blog I’ve been following for years. I just translated the labels to share with the English-speaking audience. If you would like to see the original Russian version, please click here.

    Traditional Swedish Recipe.

    Traditional Swedish Recipe.©Sergei Yelkin

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  • Canned Art

    My secret awesome tipsters (who are everywhere) alerted me about an exhibition of canned food sculpture at the Union Station.

    CANstruction, is a design-build competition, that showcases the talent of Kansas City’s creative community as they create unconventional, astounding structures using only canned and other non-perishable food items.

    After the exhibition is over, Union Station will use cans and other non-perishable items to build an army of robotic employees to replace those recently laid off.

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  • Behind The Iron Curtain:To Russia With Love

    On this day 22 years ago a young German pilot Mathias Rust landed a small Cessna in the middle of the Red Square in Moscow, bypassing all the “impenetrable” air defenses. In the aftermath a huge shake-up was conducted in the Soviet Army leadership, and Rust spent 432 days in jail. Just 35 years before that it would have been a bloodshed. Times, they were a-changing…


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  • Real World War II (Part 3)

    Part I
    Part II

    It would be nice if the colonel tried to think about and prepare an attack, to check whether everything possible is done, but oftentimes he was simply mediocre, lazy, drunk. Often he did not want to leave the warm shelter and crawl under the bullets … Often an artillery officer didn’t completely identify the targets and, afraid to take risks, shot from a distance covering an entire area, frequently shelling our own troops … Sometimes a supplier was having fun drinking and entertaining the women in the nearest village, forgetting to deliver shells and food … Or a Major would get lost using a compass and lead his battalion into a completely different area. Confusion, mistakes, deficiencies, fraud, failure to fulfill one’s duty, so typical of us in the civilian life, is more evident during the war. And for all these the price is the same – blood. Ivan’s attack and die, but their commanders sitting in the shelter keep sending them into attack again and again. It’s surprising how different the human psychology is for those who have to attack and those who observe; when you don’t have to die yourself everything seems simple – just keep moving forward!

    One night, I substituted for a telephone operator at the apparatus. Communications were primitive then and calls on all lines could be heard at all points, I learned how commander Fedyuninsky talks with divisional commanders: “Your mother! Forward! If there is no advance – I will personally shoot you! Your mother! Attack! Your mother! » (Russian swearing)… Two years ago elderly Ivan Ivanovich (*Fedyuninsky), now a kindly grandfather, was telling the kids about the war on TV in completely different terms.

    In a language of parable, the following occurred: the house got infested with bugs and the owner ordered the residents to burn the house down and burn themselves along with the bugs. Someone will be left to rebuild it all … We didn’t know any better and couldn’t do it otherwise. I read somewhere that the British intelligence service is preparing its agents for decades. They are taught in the best colleges; trained athletically, intellectually and become well-rounded professionals in their business. Then these agents go on to solve the world’s problems. In Asian countries, the task is given a thousand or ten thousand hastily coached people in the hope that even if almost all fail and are destroyed, at least one will accomplish his mission. They have neither the time nor the means to prepare and lack experienced instructors. Everything is done in a hurry – not enough time, not enough planning, or if there was an effort it turned out to be misguided. Everything is done reflexively, by intuition, by sheer numbers. That’s how we fought. In 1942, there was no alternative. A Wise Master in the Kremlin knew it all too well and kept pressing his iron will, ordering the only thing he could: “Attack!” And we attacked and attacked and attacked … And the mountain of corpses at the Pohost, and many other areas and nameless heights grew, grew, and grew. That’s how the Victory was hammered out.

    If the Germans had managed to infiltrate our command staffs with spies, and the troops with saboteurs, if there was mass treason and enemies would develop a detailed plan to collapse our army, they would not have achieved the effect which was the result of the idiocy, stupidity and irresponsibility of the authorities and helpless submission of our soldiers. I saw this near Pohost, and as it turned out, it was like this everywhere.

    The war has exposed the underside of the Bolshevik regime. Just like during the peacetime when they conducted detentions and executions of the most hardworking, honest, intelligent, active and bright people, they continued to do it on the frontlines, but in a more open and revolting form. Here is an example. From the high command came and order: take over a heights. The regiment stormed it week after week, losing a lot of people every day. Replacements were moved in constantly, there was no shortage of people. But among them were swollen from hunger residents of Leningrad, who were prescribed bed regime and high-calorie diet for three weeks by the medics. Among them are youngsters born in 1926 who fourteen and not eligible for the military draft … “Forrrward!!! “and nothing else. At last, a soldier or a lieutenant, a platoon leader, or captain, commander of the company (rarely), seeing a crying shame, exclaims: “You can’t sacrifice the people like this!. There, on top of the height, there is a concrete reinforced firing point! And we have only 76-millimeter tiny gun! It cannot pierce the concrete! “… Political officers and SMERSH immediately get involved, a tribunal is set up. One of the informers, who are plentiful everywhere, testifies: “Yes, in the presence of the soldiers he questioned our victory.” Immediately a pre-printed form gets filled out, where they only need to enter the name and the resolution: “Execute!” or “Send to the penal company!” which was pretty much the same. That’s how the most honest and responsible people got eliminated. And the rest – “Forrrward ! Attack!” There are no fortresses that could withstand the Bolsheviks! “And the Germans dug into the dirt, creating a maze of trenches and shelters. Go get them! Stupid, senseless killing of our soldiers went on. Presumably, this selection of the Russian people – is a ticking time bomb: it will explode after a few generations, XXI or XXII century, when selected and nourished by the Bolsheviks mass of scum will create new generations of their kind.

    It is easy to write it, when the years have passed, when the crater near Pohost got filled up; when almost everyone had forgotten that little station; when anguish and despair are not as painful as it was then. Imagining such despair is not possible, only a person who himself had experienced the necessity to stand up and run towards death can understand it. Not someone else but namely you, and not someday, but right now, this minute, you must go into the fire, where, at best, you can get lightly hurt, and at worst – either tear up the jaw, or the stomach, or he knock out  the eyes, or shred the skull. That’s you, although you want to live so badly! You, who had so much hope! You, who had not yet lived, and hadn’t seen anything in life! You, who still has the whole life ahead! You, who is only seventeen! You must be willing to die, not only now but always. Today you are lucky, death passed you by. But tomorrow there will be another attack and again you have to be ready to die, and not heroically, but without celebration, without the orchestra and speeches, in the mud, in the stench. And no one will notice your death: you will lie down in a big pile of corpses near the railroad and rot, forgotten by all, in the sticky mire of the marshes near Pohost.

    Poor, poor Russian peasants! They got caught between the millstones in the mill of history between the two genocides. On the one hand they were being destroyed by Stalin, herding them with the gunfire into socialism, and now, in 1941-1945, Hitler was killing myriads of innocent people. That’s how the victory was being forged, that’s how the Russian nation was being destroyed, especially its soul. How will live the descendants of those who survived? And what will happen to Russia?

    So why were they marching to the death, with a clear understanding of its inevitability? Why did they go, against their wishes? They marched not just with the fear of death, they were completely terror-stricken, and yet they marched! They didn’t have to think and justify their actions. They were too preoccupied. They just got up and walked, because they HAD to! They listened politely to the parting words of their political officers – illiterate retelling of the worthless newspaper editorials – and kept going. They were not inspired by some ideas or slogans, they just had to. That’s probably how our ancestors went to die on Kulikovo Field or at Borodino (major battles in the Russian history). It is unlikely that they speculated about the historical perspectives and the greatness of our nation … Upon reaching the neutral zone, they weren’t shouting “For the Motherland! For Stalin! “, as they write in the novels. In the line of fire one could hear the hoarse howling and thick foul language, until the bullets and shell fragments didn’t shut the screaming throats up. No one cared about Stalin when the death was near. So why now in the sixties, again arose the myth that we have won only because of Stalin, under the banner of Stalin? I have no doubt on this matter. Those who won, had either fallen on the battlefield, became alcoholics depressed by the post-war hardships. They had to bear not only the war, but also all of the post-war reconstruction of the country. Those of them who are still alive are now silent, broken. The people in power now are the ones who avoided the carnage – those who sent people to the camps, those who ordered the senseless attacks in the bloody war. They acted in the name of Stalin, and they are still crying about it. There wasn’t “For Stalin!” on the frontline. The Commissars have tried to hammer it into our heads, but the commissars did not go under bullets. I just had to vent…

    1942.Top: Destroyed Soviet Tank. Bottom: Graves of the crew of a downed German Plane

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