Soldier of Complete Misfortune: An American in the Russian Navy

14:0922 Oct, 2015 10293
Photo: MoD of the Russian Federation, Radio Mayak

Nearly everything that foreigners know about Russian army is a myth. Ancient stereotypes about relations between officers and soldiers, living conditions and general atmosphere in the army remain widespread and unbroken. Still, there is another point of view. Tim Kirby, the US-born RT journalist, took part in an unconventional reality show — for a week he had to bear the burden of actual army service in the Naval Forces of the Russian Federation. Standard training exercises, food, barracks, psychological evaluations — he went through everything and lived to tell the tale. “Defending Russia” publishes the translation of Kirby’s blog entry that busts old myths and — possibly — creates some new ones.

Few Americans have ever made it behind enemy lines into the secretive world of the Russian military, however one American just managed to do so as a participant on a reality show! In this blog you will get to read about his misadventures and experience on what it's really like on the inside of one of the toughest armies in the world.

Hints of tear gas and yellow clouds of smoke fill the air. The only sounds to be heard are the sporadic bolts of rifle fire. A soldier moving forward misjudges his next step and 100 kilograms of lard start falling to the ground. He hears the “pop” of something in his left knee tearing as he tries to save himself. His face hits the dirt and that’s the end of the road for him.

That soldier lying face down in dust and gravel is me, an American soldier of misfortune, who got the chance to “serve” in the Russian Navy as part of a reality show.

Photo: Press Service of Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Radio Mayak

Maybe you are expecting in this blog to see some kind of advertisement or propaganda to sign up for the Russian military, something like... “Hey guys, what are you waiting for!? If even some dopey American can make it in the army then so can you too! Sign up today for a three-year military contract and get this free toaster!” Well, you’re not going to get any sales pitches from me, because if I couldn’t make it in the military, I am in no position to tell you that it is “tons of fun for everyone”, but what I can do is write about my experience.

So let’s, as they say, “start from the beginning”.

The reality show powers-that-be gave me the chance to temporarily become the only American in the Naval Forces of the Russian Federation, who by chance doesn’t actually know how to swim and is afraid of water (what did I get myself into!?).

This all happened because I am a radio show host in Moscow, on a station that organizes a yearly reality project connected with the military. The name of the program changes each time. Last year “Stillavin’s Battery” got to learn how to shoot the big guns in the artillery, and this year “Polite People: Velvet Season” sent a group of 6 men who previously served and 6 who somehow “dodged the draft” (all men aged 18-27 in Russia are conscripted for one year) to see if they can become real soldiers, or should I say sailors, in Russia’s Navy during just a week of condensed and ultra intense training.

Note: The show’s name “Polite People: Velvet Season” is derived from the masked Russian soldiers (called on the internet the “polite people”) who were ubiquitous on the streets of the Crimea directly after it changed hands. The Velvet Season is what we in the States refer to as Indian Summer (the show was filmed in September).

Photo: Press Service of Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Radio Mayak

Obviously, if you look at me, I am no soldier — I am a fat, broke, over-worked family man, so I performed the worst of any of the participants except for the one guy who chickened out before the show even started. The uniform of this “Mr. Deserterovitch” who bailed on us was auctioned off piece by piece during our radio broadcasts. Thanks to him, I didn’t come in last. A win by forfeit is still a win, baby!

Let me be blunt, as a man it is a horrible shameful feeling to fail at doing things stereotypically male, and during my week in the Navy I had the chance to feel like a complete failure as a man every moment of every day (hooray!).

However, in spite of the boatloads (pun gleefully intended) of shame poured on me, I can say that it provided me with some food for thought, and it both confirmed and shattered some of my own preconceived notions about the military.

I can say that on the very last day at the base Russian soldiers of all ranks almost unilaterally asked me the same question “So now (after your military experience) what do you think about the Russian army?”. The answer to this question is quite simple. The army works wonderfully, I just can’t work in it. I know this is a very blunt answer, so allow me to analyze my expectations about and the realities of my time in the “red” army. This is probably the best way to answer the soldiers’ questions regarding “what I think about the army”.

Note: During the reality show we served both on earth and on military ships, therefore the terms “army” and “navy”, as well as “soldier” and “sailors”, are used interchangeably in this text.

Expectation: The food in the army would be decent
Reality: The food was really good!

All of the participants, who had previously served 10 or 15 years ago, said that beyond a doubt the “food” back then was an inedible mass not worthy of human consumption, and they all universally confirmed that it has gotten much better. I can say that I work at two places in Moscow, and our army lunches were superior to our corporate cafeterias.

Naturally, when the army canteen is far away, you have “paiki” to eat in the field. These are basically MRE’s which, like all packaged food, is not ideal but it was quite good for its purpose. The canned food in each payok was way better than anything frozen or in aluminum on Moscow store shelves (most frozen food in Russia is terrifying).

One of our sergeants even showed us with pride that our chocolate bars were made of natural chocolate, because each had a gray film on them unlike perfectly brown mass-produced chocolate with 50 types of preservatives.

Obviously, I can see how after a year of Russian military food a man might crave a burger or… well, a Russian man might want some sushi (which seems to be the most popular type of foreign food in the former USSR ), but I can say that I would eat that army food on a regular basis with glee in my “civilian life”. Also, on the base they had a store where soldiers can spice up their diet and even buy soda pop of certain legendary brands from a “geopolitical competitor” of Russia’s.

I should say that when I am stressed out or doing a lot of physical work, I don’t have any desire to eat, so I probably ate less than anyone. A great dieting solution! But in short, I can say that I liked everything that I was given.

Expectation: Russia has a hardcore army
Reality: Russia has a hardcore army

From the time of the first princes of Kievan-Rus, Russia has been able to defend herself by the sword. If Russia had not been able to fight, then without a doubt this unique civilization would not be around today.

They say that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires but, Nazi Germany, the Mongol Horde, Napoleon etc. have all met their end as world powers in Russia.

Photo: Press Service of Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Radio Mayak

For some reason Russians expect, or almost demand that all foreign people must be 1) innocent and naive and 2) doubt the quality of their soldiers so they can take joy in correcting them or give them “history lessons”. I guess there is a certain pleasure in “mythbusting”. To be honest if the rest of the world was aware of things like just how much the Soviet Union suffered during WWII, then many people in Russia would be subconsciously mad that they no longer get to “correct falsified history” to foreigners. The problem is that I have lived in Russia for a while, so I am very “aware” of Russian military history, I celebrate Victory Day on May 9th every year, I know the deal, I don’t need to be constantly taught history lessons.

But to sum up my feelings about the power of the Russian military I will actually quote myself from one of our morning radio programs...

“I see before me two Ferraris (our sergeants) and I feel like a lawnmower”

As a man, the worst feeling is not being one of the alpha-males, and in the army I felt so useless, worthless and weak in comparison to our sergeants that I didn’t even feel like I deserved to lick their boots. Being in the army gave me a constant feeling of inadequacy that ripped my brains apart. One of the sergeants was the living answer to the question “what would Stallone be like if he had been born in Russia?”. He had exactly the same voice, mannerisms etc., only he was much bigger and could actually do all the Rambo stuff in real life.

To be honest, I don’t want to serve UNDER some great person, I would rather BE great myself (or at least be decent) and not be subservient to anyone, even if they “have the right stuff”.

Believe me, if every person in the Russian military was like our sergeants — only nuclear missiles could stop them.

My fellow grunts in the unit tried to convince me that it doesn’t matter what other people can do, if they can run better or load a magazine more quickly, but for me this is insane logic. If you can’t play basketball, well, then it is time to go get a hockey stick and try something else. Our officers are the standard that we need to strive towards, and if you can’t become just like them, then you’re not worthy of the army, end of the line PFC Gomer Pyle, go back to Mayberry and fix Fords, you twit.

Photo: Press Service of Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Radio Mayak

Expectation: The barracks will be like a barn or a labor camp from Solzhenitsyn's books
Reality: The barracks were a lot like a dormitory at the colleges some friends of mine went to in the USA

One of the main reasons, well, THE main reason why I couldn’t achieve anything in the army, is my mentality — or should I say, my “loner” mentality. As a man who has lived a life of solitude, it was very unpleasant for me to think of myself in a big room filled with showers like in Auschwitz, packed to the brim with steam and naked men. HELL ON EARTH. I have no need to see any man’s sexual organs. The only one I need in my life I was born with, therefore I was very happy that each toilet and each shower had its own stall.

Before the show, I imagined that an army “toilet” would be like one in a long forgotten village somewhere in the former Soviet Union, just a big long trench in a concrete barn. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the cleanliness and privacy of their squat toilets. (For most of the eastern half of the USSR squat toilets seem to be the norm, so I am used to them, plus they say it is a more “natural way” to do your business). In general, I was very happy with the toilet/shower situation. It is way easier to be a member of the military when you don't have to constantly see other people's members!

The beds were surprisingly comfortable. I've had surgery in Russia and the bed I had to lay in for days was far worse. Also, they had 3 washing machines, but of course despite all this nice stuff we had no time to use any of it, they had to turn us into sailors in a week so it was RUSH RUSH RUSH, or as they say in Russian “by the run... MARCH!”

Photo: Press Service of Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Radio Mayak

Also, there was an electric teapot and unlimited filtered water! Filtered Water!

I asked around and soldiers on the base said that we had one of the nicer barracks, but the others were not significantly worse or different.

Expectation: Only men are drafted into the army
Reality: Every woman in Russia gets drafted too... the fun way

In the army everyone is busy, you can't sleep when you want or as long as you want. You only get 10 minutes to eat, and although the food was good, you get little choice.

Of course jumping out of trenches and shooting assault rifles is fun, but the majority of your time in the army/navy is long periods of annoying routine, and this really reminds me of what women with small children have to go through.

Moms in Russia have to always be ready to go at a moment’s notice, the darn kids never let them sleep very long and constantly wake them up at night. They sure can keep a woman busy for seemingly 24 hours a day with pointless tasks. Very often my wife can’t even get lunch or go to the bathroom just because the kids are on her case all day long. So the women of Russia really earn their “maternal capital” (money the government gives for the birth of children after the first, which can be used to buy a place to live), because their service to the motherland seems just as annoying and frustrating as the male equivalent, and in fact is actually longer.

Expectation: Constant psychological manipulation of the most primitive form
Reality: Constant psychological manipulation, but somehow well-meaning in nature

More often than not people write that the source of military conditioning for each soldier in modern armies comes from Friedrich II of Prussia. Everything that happens in the military, happens for a reason, and on the mental manipulation side we have old Freddy to thank.

They shave soldiers’ heads to kill their sense of individual identity, and yell and berate the soldiers so that, by Friedrich’s logic, his soldiers “should fear their own officers more than the enemy”. I mean, if we look back to ancient Rome, on some rare occasions for cowardice 90% of an army would be forced to decimate (kill) the remaining 10% of their own guys, as both a punishment and motivational tool.

This is rare, but we can see that for centuries and centuries, before Freud and the term “psychology” came around, generals understood the value of brutal psychological manipulation for the sake of creating a powerful army.

War was the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution, and it may also be the source of the idea of “psychology” and psychological manipulation. Therefore I was expecting a lot of these mind tricks, going into the reality show.

Photo: Press Service of Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Radio Mayak

Ya know, if some average Joe goes and watches a magician, it really seems like he took a rabbit out of a hat magically, however if the person in the audience is a magician himself, then it all seems rather boring, because he knows how the game is played. This person would be annoyed by other members of the audience who expect him to be mystified and amazed by the magic tricks on stage. In this way I am a lot like the magician in the audience, because I’ve lectured about media manipulation and information warfare at various Russian universities including the prestigious MGIMO (Moscow State Instutute of International Relations) which creates Russia’s future diplomats.

Although looking at me you might take me for a homeless person, I have done consulting regarding the use of soft power in geopolitics.

Therefore I can say to you as the “magician watching another magician from the audience”, that being told “if you don’t run I’ll make the other members of the squad run” is deeply intellectually insulting.

Furthermore the second that I feel someone is trying to manipulate me, my brain goes into “resistance” mode. Even if that manipulation might be to my benefit, I will still reject it. So basically I fought against Friedrich everyday of the entire experience.

In Russian the word “goat” is an insult, because goats simply will not do what their master wants. They resist everything just for the sake of resisting, they bite and spit on their master at any given chance, and it would seem that I share this mentality.

Maybe this goat way of thinking has given me a career in the Russian media, where it seems to be more useful than not, but in the army it created for myself, my squadmates and the officers only trouble.

It is better that I maintain my goat-like ways in civilian life.

Photo: Press Service of Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Radio Mayak

Expectation: The officers would treat us like meat robots and lower than dirt
Reality: The officers treated us like their own children. Well, like children with really, REALLY  strict dads from the 1800’s

I never served in the US military, so I expected the sergeants to be like Lee Ermey’s legendary role in the movie “Full Metal Jacket”: a pack of enraged psychopaths, who get no joy in life other than making their own soldiers suffer and grovel at their feet. I thought they would be the kind who would search with glee to find any flaw with your uniform in order to get some masochistic joy out of making you run miles (or worse) because one badge on your jacket is 5 degrees off center.

Well I can say, regarding the officers, that I saw the following...

  • If you ever answer a sergeant's question with something like “I'm not tired”, then believe me, he will find a way to make you tired. They say to be Russian you must have  “humility” — well, in the Russian armed forces if you answer any question without humility you are put to shame instantly.     
  • If you cannot memorize the squad's official song then they will force you to learn it... the hard way, via a myriad of punishments. Just to be clear: I never saw anyone anywhere hit anyone else.     
  • The answer “I can't” is unacceptable. You can and you shall; end of story. For the military this is probably the proper attitude to have.     

In general, I have to say that the sergeants didn't act like psychopathic dictators, but instead they were more like stern fathers who wanted to make us better.

They were not like the Dyedovshini of the 90's (these were thuggish elements in the Russian military during the chaos of the Yeltsin reign who were responsible for horrible treatment of their soldiers. Basically they were the army equivalent of the toughest guys in cell block D and acted like them).

Regarding fatherhood, I remember that once when I was rather young, who knows maybe 8 or 9, while hunting my dad made me carry more than half my bodyweight in equipment, as well as a shotgun, and slog THROUGH an entire ice cold swamp with him. This was very hard, but today I am very glad he made me do it, because it made me tougher for the rest of my life, and I am very sure that the participants of the reality show are also grateful today for the results of the challenges the sergeants gave them.

Photo: Press Service of Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Radio Mayak

And speaking of my father, the Colonel (the officer in charge of the entire base) reminded me of my dad in every way (well, except for lacking an awesome beard). He had that sort of simple wisdom that only guys who work with their hands seem to have. A 60 year old painter or welder can tell you a thing or two if you’re willing to listen. The Colonel was extremely calm but with a macho direct and understandable way of speaking.

He was also like an action movie star from the 80’s. In Hollywood movies whenever there is an explosion, it is almost mandatory that Batman or whoever walks away from it in slow motion, emotionlessly.

Well, the Colonel did exactly this completely naturally, as he emerged from the dust kicked up as he showed us how to take out a tank with (wooden) hand grenades. But before his grand exit, he popped up after the tank drove over the trench he was in, and managed to casually throw the grenade into a pipe on the tank! It was an epic level shot and the equivalent of getting a swish at 50 yards but he did it like it was routine. LeBron James  would be proud.

My father has become well known amongst my friends for walking up to someone at a social gathering, yelling “PULLl” and being able to shoot whatever drink or object they had in their hand out of the sky without fail. I guess you could call that an American pinata party. That ability — to hit any target at anytime — made me feel like I was back in the backwoods of Ohio. But in short, it was nice to spend time with a duplicate of my father, who is in many ways the father of hundreds of men on that base.  

The most surprising thing of all is that both sergeants and the colonel were able to, after just 5 days, list basically all of my personality flaws as if they had known me for years.

I bet very few of my colleagues at work could even come close to knowing me that well. As if speaking with one voice, they all said “you are self-critical to the point of absurdity and it cripples you and ruins everything that you do before you even start”.  Ya know when my wife tells me things like that I never listen, but when 3 real warriors, 3 Schwarzeneggers tell you that… well, it leaves me with the feeling that I’ve got some things to work on.

Photo: Press Service of Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Radio Mayak

Expectation: There will be some army humor and typical guy culture
Reality: There was A LOT of army humor

Well what can I say, one of my friends once told me that all Clevelanders are funny and sarcastic,  because humor allows them to tolerate dismal lives and another 4-12 Browns’ season. Then by this logic it must be “hard” to survive in the army, because nearly every conversation is filled with a thick dose of army humor with unsubtle hints of sarcasm.

I personally always carry an invisible gallon bucket full to the brim with sarcasm and dark humor so at least in that sense I am a real Russian soldier!  

Expectation: Water would be provided
Reality: Russian soldiers need not this thing you mortals call “water”

Unexpectedly for me, access to drinking water was only available in the barracks, but strangely the sergeants and all the normal soldiers seemed to have no desire or need to drink. How can they fight without water? I guess if you’re tough enough you just stop caring.

Expectation: I am not capable of serving in the Russian military
Reality: I am not capable of serving in the Russian military

First off, if I wasn’t part of a reality show then I could have never passed the medical screenings needed to enter the army/navy. Two weeks before the show started I went to the doctor’s to get a wide range of things looked at, and one of them said that I need surgery on both of my knees in the near future. During the obstacle course, although I made it through them all one-at-a-time, trying to do all the obstacles at once was too much for my knees and they basically froze shut in place. After that point there was very little that I could do physically.

Secondly, I need to say that I got one of the worst results on the psychological examination in the history of the Russian military. I got a 3 out of 10. This may be due to the fact that I answered “no” to the question “do you enjoy the works of Hans Christian Anderson?”.

However, I can say that the result of the psych-test was completely accurate, I am not mentally fit to be in any military because I absolutely cannot function in any sort of group... well, unless I am the leader. In English we always use terms like “brothers-in-arms” to describe the military, but the thing is — I don’t have any real brothers and I don’t need any brothers-in-arms, don’t touch me, don’t talk to me and don’t come within 5 meters of me!

Photo: Press Service of Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Radio Mayak

My Russian colleagues attributed my unpleasant behavior to “American Individualism”, and our officers told the guys at the radio station that I only respond to an “individual approach” of instruction. This is some sort of Russian misconception, just like when they attribute every aspect of everything in America to the country’s “Pioneer History”. The thing is, individualists see individualism as a “good thing” and advocate that position, but I am not an advocate of (excessive) individualism, especially in the military, where that form of reasoning just will not do. My problems were not “my individualism” but my very high levels of paranoia and a complete lack of trust in any human being.

In contrast, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer (a US governmental organization that sends volunteers to serve in various countries for a two-year “tour”), I was probably far from the best volunteer, however I seemed far more prepared for survival in isolation in a foreign country. One in three volunteers cracks before the end of service and quits, I never even considered quitting. One of the organizers gave me a very telling backhanded compliment near the end of my service. She said “ya know Tim, ya didn’t do that much, but you never called to complain once it two years, good job, you’re the best!”.  

The difference is that the Peace Corps sent me to Kazakhstan to serve in solitude in a village (unarmed), and although man is a social animal, the cold and loneliness never really bothered me. In one of the winters I had no heat and would have to spend days in -10 C environments never taking off my coat for even a second until I could go to the city on weekends to warm up. I also lived with just a bucket to crap in and about 2 liters of water per day maximum to use for both drinking and occasionally bathing. I can’t lie, I really had a lot of fun going to the cities on weekends but what would be traumatic daily hardship for someone from the “golden billion” had, or should I say have, no effect on me.

Being alone, trying to survive on the Kazakhstani steppe, was awesome, I think it was actually the happiest time of my life! Trying to become battle brothers in the army was hell and one of the worst weeks of my life.

Obviously, in the comments some smart mouthed punks are going to say “ah hah, see that foreign guy isn’t a real Russian, boot him out of the country!” Well, I have to say that in terms of being able to function in a collective my mentality is not Russian, but in a lot of other ways it is not American either. If you’ve ever been around a Americans while abroad, you will hear a lot of complaining, or as some call it (as a means of allowing men to whine as some sort of social norm) “venting”, where, as stated above, I just keep my yap shut which is very Boris style. And I can live absolutely without comfort no problem; toilets are for the decadent West.

Photo: Press Service of Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Radio Mayak

But if my mentality is awful for the military (but good for the steppe), then it begs the question “what types of mentalities should go into the military?”. I would say that if you like the following, then the Russian military might be a rocking place for you.

  • You really enjoy hangin’ out with the guys (just like Tom Cruise in Top Gun)
  • You really enjoy being in groups and need to be around people. If some of the best moments of your life were on a sports team or at church or some other organization, then you’ll like the military.
  • You want to prove to yourself that “you can” or  you just have to prove something to yourself in general.
  • You’re a guy who really likes to talk to people and you are easy to get along with and are good at making friends.
  • You hate the office world and all the Bill Lumberghs in it.
  • You prefer physical work.
  • If your job will never earn you enough money to buy an apartment in Russia, then, as the colonel told us, you should really try joining the army. The Russian military has special incentives that can allow soldiers to take out a “military mortgage”. Basically the colonel put it this way, you can work as a security guard for your entire life and have no hope of owning a place to live unless a relative dies and leaves you one in their will, OR you can serve a few years in the military and be set. For those who might not know, real estate in Russia is VERY expensive and may be worth “fighting for”.

So those are the types of people who would be suited to the army.

In all honesty, I think the average Russian male can make it, however after my experience I know that (barring some sort of severe physical handicap) the key to making it in the military is all in your mentality.

Expectation: Everyone will ask about my son’s future in the army
Reality. Not one person asked about my son’s future in the army

Well since my son is a Russian citizen, his future lies in the army somewhere for at least a year of his life. One of the participants in the reality show, called “The Architect” (everyone had nicknames), told me about his experience in the Russian equivalent of the ROTC, and to be honest, I think that is a much better way to do things. Essentially, he said that you go to college, but one day per week you are in the army, and a lot of it is all theoretical work and not so much running under the sun in body armor. This sounds like something that I could actually do, and therefore I will recommend it to my son when he is 18. I mean, if dad can’t do it then sonny boy doesn’t have to, and well, dad was one hell of a crappy sailor, but maybe he could be good as an officer moving toy soldiers around in simulations.

Do I regret my week in the Navy?

Photo: Press Service of Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Radio Mayak

Yes, but that is only due to the fact that plans for an English version of the show, in sort of a documentary style, fell through. This is really my fault, I should have been more demanding and forced the organizers to give me my own personal cameraman and total creative freedom. So I did this all for nothing due to my own sloth and “faith” that other people had a similar vision of the project to my own.

The thing is, that looking like a constant idiot and feeling lower than dirt for a week, is not a problem if there is some sort of reason for the suffering, like making an amazing one-of-a-kind documentary film. However, looking like a constant idiot and feeling lower than dirt for a week just for the heck of it (which is what basically happened), was pointless and therefore absolutely intolerable.

I can’t wait for that knee surgery.

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