Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, called Monday for Russian soldiers to start using socks.
Socks have been standard issue in the Russian army since 2007, but it appears most Russian units prefer that their soldiers use traditional foot-cloths, known as ‘portyanki.’
Some in Russia see the foot-cloths as shamefully old-fashioned.
“This is 2013,” said Shoigu. “We are still talking about foot cloths.”
But the cloths are an ancient tradition, providing continuity to the pre-Soviet army of the old Russian empire.
Many veterans say they prefer them to socks, being more comfortable with tall boots.
Portyanki also dry faster than socks when wet, according to their aficionados.
But many conscripts dislike them.
“If you don’t tie them properly they can bunch up and give you horrible blisters,” says Svetlana Savranskaya.
Savranskaya is director of Russian programs at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
“I was surprised how the portyanki issue has become almost a litmus test for your political opinions in Russia,” she adds.
“Most of the liberal sites on the Russian internet are strongly in favor of the decision, saying it’s uncivilized,” says Savranskaya, “At the same time, the more conservative sites, more Russian patriot sites, all spoke in favor of portyanki, saying they’re part of Russian military traditions.”
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Jeb Sharp: Russia is a fascinating place with its own set of quirks and traditions. One of the more unusual ones in the Russian military is not wearing socks. You heard correctly – no socks! Instead, for untold generations, young Russian conscripts have had to learn to use ‘portyanki’ or foot cloths. Well, today, Russia’s Defense Minister said that must end. Svetlana Savranskaya is the director of Russian programs at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Svetlana, first, can you describe these foot cloths?
Svetlana Savranskaya: Yes. Portyanki is a square piece of cotton which is kind of rough to touch. I had some experience because a lot of my friends were in the army. You wrap it around your foot and you are supposed to do it all in 45 seconds.
Sharp: Describe them a bit more. How does that work, that wrapping?
Savranskaya: You spread the cloth on the chair and you put your foot on the cloth and then you wrap it kind of diagonally around your foot and then up the ankle. One of the strong points of portyanki is actually that it helps hold the ankles stable but if you do not put it on in any exactly right way it could really badly bunch up and produce terrible blisters.
Sharp: That sounds horrible.
Savranskaya: Yeah. Some of my friends to whom is just talked, they said that during their service they saw some horror stories where those blisters went untreated. When very young draftees would come for their very first days in the army, they could not put portyanki on properly and they were made to run great distances. Sometimes those cases led to other diseases and the boys ended up in hospitals.
Sharp: People are passionate about whether or not they want socks or ‘portyanki’ – these foot cloths. What is it to know whether you want one or the other?
Savranskaya: You know, it’s very interesting. Just a very quick look at the first responses to this decision reveals that the portyanki issue could be used as a litmus test for your political preferences in Russia. I did not expect to find that but, very predictably, most of the liberal sites on the Russian internet were very strongly in favor of this decision, saying that the use of portyanki is uncivilized; it shows a lack of care for the draftees, for the conscripts and lack of medical attention. At the same time, the more conservative sites, more Russian patriot sites, all spoke in favor of portyanki, saying they’re part of Russian military traditions; they are actually much better than the socks; they are much better especially when used with the particular Russian high boots that are still used in the Russian army, and that portyanki also denotes continuity from the pre-revolutionary Russian army to today and that they should be kept. So, that’s a very interesting split of opinion.
Sharp: Svetlana Savranskaya, director of Russian programs at the National Security Archive at George Washington University; thank you Svetlana.
Savranskaya: You’re very welcome.
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