To Russia, With Love

This article about the full range of nasty hazing in the Russian military put me in mind of a rather odd experience I had a good decade or so ago. [Hat tip to Vadqe Zaavice].
When I hear about this hazing, I suspect that alcohol is involved. Why? Well, first, because it’s bad behavior and Russians are involved, so alcohol probably figures into it. Second, because it’s very bad behavior and Russian soldiers are involved, so really, there’s no question that John Q. Barleycorn has been hanging around.
You see, a I served with the UN a number of years back on a peackekeeping mission. One of the side benefits was to drink with a lot of Russian troops. This usually led to a great time going up, a very bad time coming down, and some good stories later, if you could remember what happened. In particular I used to drink with a bunch of SpetNaz, Russki special forces, who weren’t the muscular, Dolph-Lundgren-esque chaps we’d been led to believe, but rather a bunch of pasty, often chubby, swarthy, tougher-than-shoe-leather bastards who drink far harder than U.S. or British special forces, if you can believe that. Through them, I also had the chance to booze with some ordinary Russian troops. Well, kind of ordinary – they were paratroopers, which makes them a little out of the ordinary, but still basic line troops and fairly representative of the run-of-the-mill.
In the parachute battalions, the lower enlisted ranks would all sit around the tent getting drunk on cheap vodka. Ordinarily, you think of drunk as tipsy, woozy, maybe occasionally throwy-uppy – unless you’ve been drinking with Russians. And if you think of drinking with Russians, you think of people getting seriously stoshed, blackouts, barfing, eating apples with vodka, and waking up three days later wondering why you are in Budapest, when you were in Moscow when you started drinking. And if you think about drinking with Russian troops, you think of all that pertains to Russian boozehounds generally, mixed in with a heapin’ helpin’ of automatic weapons, landmines, hand grenades, tanks, and poorly maintained helicopters.
In fact, when you have boozed extensively with the Russian military, it’s easy to understand how they managed to lose 400 or so nuclear weapons. Hell, I’ve lost hats, neckties, belts, socks, wallets, underwear and my virginity while drinking, and I wasn’t drinking anywhere near as hard as I was to drink later with those Russki soldiers. So I imagine the generals in their nuclear defense corps are merely suffering from a similar phenomenon, only magnified by Russian drinking habits. Just as naturally as I might lose a pair of socks, they lost a few high-yield nuclear weapons.
Viewed from this angle, it’s quite natural that they should lose nuclear weapons here and there, and it would be disturbing if they hadn’t, rather like the friend everybody has who gets blasted, blacks out, and then drives home with nothing bad ever happening.
Of course these lost nukes are of great concern to the IAEA and the U.S. State Department. But the problem from an arms control standpoint, is that we’re probably looking for these lost nukes in all the wrong places. Instead of looking in Iran, and Iraq and probing terror networks in Malaysia, we should be looking under tables in bars in Murmansk, in ditches in Stalingrad, and under the sofa cushions in old Russian bases in Dresden. If Hans Blix finds a pair of lost socks marked “Property of the Russian Air Corps” between a bench and the wall in a pub in Petrovgrad, he should understand he is at least on the right track. But I digress.

When I was on the UN mission, I was tasked with finding out why we kept finding a dead Russian junior enlisted troop pretty much once a week, shot in the face, cold as a stone, with high alcohol presence in the blood. This was scary – we thought we were up against some huge Russian government corruption ring, and these poor lads were just the butcher’s bill for some general’s Mercedes.
Turns out, we couldn’t have been further from the truth.
All the dead Russians were just the result of the boys having some good ol’ fashion hard ass Russian-style fun. They had been playing Russian Roullette whilst drinking.
Now ordinarily, you think of this game being played with a revolver, with a single round in one of six chambers.
But not if you’re a hardass Russian paratrooper. You play it with an AK-74 if you are one of their sky-gods.
The rules are simple. Take an AK-74 (or any other magazine-fed assault rifle that fires from a closed-bolt position) and seat the magazine (loaded with at least a couple rounds) in the lower receiver section approximately half-way in. Cycle the action rapidly, without looking to see if it picked up a round. Stick the barrel in your mouth, and pull the trigger.
Evidently, if you are (1) halfway careful and (2) give two fucks for your life, you can manage to do this without chambering a round and blowing your fucking fool head off, most of the time. Problem is, these are Russian paratroopers, and neither condition (1), nor condition (2) above regularly apply.
So that’s why we were finding one dead Russian a week, shot in the head. No corruption, no dirty generals, no rotten stuff going on in the ranks.
Just a bunch of drunk Russians with guns having a bit of fun – and nobody thought much of it, not even the Russians themselves.
To me, that episode explained Russia a lot better than any Russian Studies textbooks ever could. It also explained a lot about Eastern Europe and the state of the world, too, if you think about it.


One comment

  1. nadezhda

    When I was in Moscow a lot in the early to mid ’90s, the days the general public made a point to stay off the streets as well they could was the various Armed Forces days. The mayhem unleashed by mid-day was remarkable. (IIRC the Navy guys were especially dreadful, but maybe it was just because they were so noticeable in their striped shirts.)
    I recall driving across one of the main bridges in the middle of Moscow on a bright, sparkling late afternoon with the pedestrian walkways on either side littered with groups of drunken soldiers and sailors hanging on each other, scuffling, draped over the side of the bridges, and threatening to unwittingly stumble into the fast-moving traffic at any moment. By the evening, the weapons were more likely to come out in the disputes among those who were still vaguely upright or who were on their second wind.
    As for the hazing, there are many Russian mothers who will do just about anything to keep their sons out of the hands of the Russian army. Chechnya is clearly one concern, but the sort of morale situation that the hazing reflects is an even bigger fear.
    So no, the Russians wouldn’t be a bit surprised by the outcome of the investigation into how the pride of Russian youth kept geting themselves killed. The public drunkenness and disregard for personal conseequences are part of those unattractive things about Russian behavior that are the downside of appreciating the wonderful things about the country.