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Authors: Svetlana Alexievich

Zinky Boys (8 page)

BOOK: Zinky Boys
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‘Have I made a mistake?' I asked.

‘It's not what's in the book.'

You remember that fairy-tale where the King hated every colour but grey? Everything in our kingdom-state was dull grey, too. ‘Teach yourselves to think so that you won't be made fools of like we were, and come home in zinc coffins!' That's what I tell my own pupils now.

Before I went into the army it was Dostoevsky and Tolstoy who taught me how I ought to live my life. In the army it was sergeants. Sergeants have unlimited power. There are three to a platoon.

‘Now hear this! Repeat after me! What is a para? Answer: a bloody-minded brute with an iron fist and no conscience!

‘Repeat after me: conscience is a luxury we can't afford! Conscience is a luxury we can't afford!

‘You are a medical unit! The medical unit is the cream of the airborne forces! Repeat!'

Extract from a soldier's letter: ‘Mum, buy me a puppy and call it Sergeant so I can kill it when I get home.'

Army life itself kills the mind and saps your resistance to the point that they can do what they want with you. Six a.m. — reveille. Three times or more, in succession, until we've got it right: reveille — lights out! Get up — lie down! You've got three seconds to fall in for take-off on a strip of white lino — white so that it needs to be washed and scrubbed every day; 180 men have to jump out of bed and fall in in three seconds; 45 seconds to get into number three fatigues, which is full uniform but without belt and cap. Once someone didn't manage to get their foot bindings on in time. ‘Fall out and repeat.' He still didn't manage in time. ‘Fall out and repeat!'

Physical training was hand-to-hand combat, a combination of karate, boxing, self-defence against knives, sticks, field-shovels, pistols and machine-guns. You have the machine-gun, your partner just his bare hands: or he has the shovel and you have your bare hands. Hundred metre hurdles. Breaking ten bricks with your bare fist. We were taken to a building-site and told we'd stay there till we'd learnt it. The hardest part is overcoming your own fear and of not being scared of the smash.

‘Fall in! Fall out! Fall in! Fall out!'

Morning inspection involved checking buckles — they've got to be as shiny as a cat's arse — and white collars. You have two needles and thread in your cap to sow into your collar a clean white cotton strip each day. One pace forward — march! Pre-sent arms! One pace forward — march! Just half an hour free per day — after lunch. Letter-writing.

‘Private Kravtsov, why aren't you writing?'

‘I'm thinking, sarge.'

‘I can't hear you — speak up!'

‘I'm thinking, sarge.'

‘You're meant to yell, you know that! Hole training for you, my lad!'

‘Hole training' meant yelling into a lavatory bowl to practise military responses, with the sergeant behind you checking the echo.

There was constant hunger. Paradise was the army store, where
you could buy buns, sweets and chocolate. A bull's-eye at target practice earned you a pass to the shop. If you didn't have enough money, you sold a few bricks. This is how it works. A couple of us big tough soldiers find ourselves a brick and go up to a new boy who's still got some money.

‘Buy a brick!'

‘What do I need a brick for?'

We edge a bit closer. ‘Just buy a brick!'

‘How much?'

‘Three roubles.'

He hands over the three roubles, goes off and throws the brick away, while we stuff ourselves silly. One rouble buys you ten buns. ‘Conscience is a luxury the para can't afford! The medical unit is the cream of the airborne forces!'

I must be a pretty good actor. I soon learnt to play the part. The worst thing that can happen is to be called a
chados
, from the word
chado,
which means a weakling or baby.

After three months I got leave. It was a different world. It was only twelve weeks since I'd been kissing a girl, sitting in cafés and going dancing, but it seemed like twelve years.

My first evening back at camp and it was: ‘Fall in, you apes! What's the first thing for a para to remember? Not to fly past the earth!'

We went on a twelve-day patrol. We spent most of our time running away from a guerrilla gang and only survived on dope. On the fifth day one soldier shot himself. He lagged behind the rest of us and then put his gun to his throat. We had to drag his body along, including his backpack, flak-jacket and helmet. We weren't too sorry for him — he knew we'd have to take him with us — but I did think of him when we got our demob papers.

Dum-dum wounds from exploding bullets were the worst. My first casualty had one leg blown off at the knee (with the bone left sticking out), his other ankle ripped away, his penis gone, his eyes blown out and one ear torn off. I started shaking and retching uncontrollably. ‘If you don't do it now you'll never make it as a medic,' I told myself. I applied tourniquets, staunched the blood, gave him a pain-killer and something to make him sleep. Next was a soldier with a dum-dum in the stomach. His guts were
hanging out. I bandaged him, staunched the blood, and gave him a pain-killer, something to make him sleep. I held him for four hours, then he died.

There was a general shortage of medication. Even the iodine ran out. Either the supply system failed, or else we'd used up our allowance — another triumph of our planned economy. We used equipment captured from the enemy. In my bag I always had twenty Japanese disposable syringes. They were sealed in a light polyethylene packing which could be removed quickly, ready for use. Our Soviet ‘Rekord' brand, wrapped in paper which always got torn, were frequently not sterile. Half of them didn't work, anyhow — the plungers got stuck. They were crap. Our homeproduced plasma was supplied in half-litre
glass
bottles. A seriously wounded casualty needs two litres — i.e. four bottles. How are you meant to hold them up, arm-high, for nearly an hour in battlefield conditions? It's practically impossible. And how many bottles can you carry? We captured Italian-made polyethylene packages containing one litre each, so strong you could jump on them with your army boots and they wouldn't burst. Our ordinary Soviet-made sterile dressings were also bad. The packaging was as heavy as oak and weighed more than the dressing itself. Foreign equivalents, from Thailand or Australia, for example, were lighter, even whiter somehow … We had absolutely no elastic dressings, except what we captured — French and German products. And as for our splints! They were more like skis than medical equipment! How many can you carry with you? I carried English splints of different lengths for specific limbs, upper arm, calf, thigh, etc. They were inflatable, with zips. You inserted the arm or whatever, zipped up and the bone was protected from movement or jarring during transportation to hospital.

In the last nine years our country has made no progress and produced nothing new in this field — and that goes for dressings and splints. The Soviet soldier is the cheapest in the world — and the most patient. It was like that in 1941, but why fifty years later? Why?

It's terrible being shot at when you can't fire back. I never sat in the first or last armoured carrier in a convoy. I never had my legs dangling in the hatch; I preferred to sit over the side so
there'd be less chance of them being blown off by a mine. I had German tablets with me for suppressing fear, but I never took them.

We'd come back from battle looking very unlike Soviet soldiers. We looted enemy boots, clothes and food. Our flak-jackets were so heavy you could hardly lift them. The American ones were preferred — they didn't have a single metal part. They were made from some kind of bullet-proof material which a Makarov pistol couldn't penetrate at point-blank range, and a tommy-gun only from a hundred metres at most. American sleeping-bags we captured were 1949 models, but as light as a feather. Our padded jackets weigh at least seven kilograms. When we found mercenaries dead we took their jackets, their wide-peaked forage caps and their Chinese trousers with inner linings which didn't wear out. We took everything, including their underwear (yes, there was a shortage of underwear too!), their socks and trainers. I picked up a little torch and a stiletto knife once.

We used to shoot wild sheep (they were ‘wild' if they were standing five metres away from the rest of the herd), or barter for them. Two kilos of tea — captured tea, of course — bought you a sheep. We'd find money on raids as well, but the officers always made us hand it over and then shared it out among themselves before our eyes! So you'd put a few notes in a cartridge case and cover them over with gunpowder. Hey presto! A little nest-egg.

Some men got drunk, others put all their energies into surviving. Others, like me, wanted to win medals. You go back home and what do they say? ‘So, what've you got? Sergeant-Major, eh? What, in the Pay Corps?'

It hurts me to think how gullible I was. The political education officers managed to convince us of things they didn't believe themselves. They'd known the truth for a long while. There was this slogan: ‘Afghanistan makes brothers of us all.' Crap! There are three classes of soldier in the Soviet army: new recruits, ‘grandads' or veterans, and
dembels
, conscripts nearing the end of their two-year service.

When I got to Afghanistan my uniform was smartly pressed and neatly tailored to my own measurements. Everything fitted perfectly, buttons glistening, tapered jacket, the lot. The problem
was, new recruits aren't allowed to have tailored uniforms. Anyway, one of these
dembels
came up to me. ‘How long've you been here?' he asked me.

‘Just arrived'.

‘New recruit? Why're you dressed up like that?'

‘Don't let's fight about it.'

‘Listen, boy, don't get me angry. You've been warned!' He was used to people being frightened of him.

That evening the recruits were washing the barracks floor while the
dembels
sat around smoking.

‘Move the bed!' ordered the
dembel.

‘It's not my bed!' I said.

‘You still haven't cottoned on, have you?'

That night they beat me up, eight of them, and gave me a good kicking with their army boots. My kidneys were crushed and I pissed blood for two days. They didn't touch me during the day. I tried not to antagonise them but they still beat me up. I changed tactics: when they came for me at night I was ready for them and hit out first. Then they beat me very carefully, so as not to leave a mark, with towel-covered fists in the stomach every night for a week.

After my first tour of active duty they never touched me again. They found some fresh recruits and the order went out: ‘Leave the medic alone!'

After six months recruits graduated to veteran status. A feast was laid on (paid for by the recruits). The
dembels
stuffed themselves with pilaff and kebabs and began on the ritual: applying the buckle and the side of the belt as hard as they could to the backside. Twelve for the ‘graduation', another six on account of being a para, another three for being in a reconnaissance unit, and a few more for cheek and bloody-mindedness. In my case it was twenty-nine strokes. You have to take it without a squeak or else they do it again right from the beginning. If you
can
take it — join the club! Shake hands! You're one of us!

The
dembel's
departure was a story in itself. To begin with there was a compulsory whip-round to buy him a brief-case, a towel, a scarf for his mother and a present for his girlfriend. Then his dress uniform had to be prepared. The belt had to be brilliant
white — you're not a para without your white belt — and his aiguillettes had to be braided (we nicked parachute shroud lines for that). Shining the belt-buckle was a work of art. First you used medium, then fine, wire-wool, then a needle, then felt, and finally ‘Goya' brand polish. The uniform was steeped for a week in engine-oil to restore its dark-green colour, then cleaned with petrol, and finally hung up to air for one month. All ready! The
dembels
go home and the next lot of vets take their place.

The farewell address from the political education officer to the departing
dembels
was a list of what we could and could not talk about back home. No mention to be made of fatalities, nor of any ‘unofficial activities', because we are a ‘great, powerful and
morally health/
army. All photographs and films to be destroyed. We did not shoot, bombard, use poisons or lay mines here. We are a great, powerful and morally healthy army.

Customs stole all the gifts we had with us, even the perfumes, scarves and watches with built-in calculators. ‘Sorry, boys, not allowed!' they said, but we never got a receipt for anything. Our presents were their perks.

Still, the smell of the green spring leaves, and the girls walking around in short dresses, made up for all that. I've just remembered a girl called Svetka Afoshka. We never knew her real surname, but apparently when she arrived in Kabul she'd sleep with a soldier for 100 Afganis — or afoshki as we called them — until she realised she was selling herself cheap. Within a couple of weeks she'd upped her price to 3,000 afoshki, which an ordinary soldier couldn't afford.

A friend of mine called Andrei Korchagin
***
(we called him Pashka, of course, because of his surname) had a girlfriend back home, but one day she sent him a photo of her wedding. We kept an eye on him for nights after that, in case he did something stupid. One morning he stuck the photo to a rock and riddled it with his Kalashnikov. Long after that we still heard him crying at night. Hey, Pashka! Look at all these girls, now! Take your pick!

In the train home I dreamt we're getting ready for battle. ‘Why
have you got 350 rounds instead of 400?' my friend Sasha Krivtsov asks me.

‘Because I'm carrying medication.'

A little later he asks: ‘Could you kill that Afghan girl?'

BOOK: Zinky Boys
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