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Russian military adopts a modern touch: socks Add to ...

Russian army footwear has scarcely evolved from the era of the Napoleon battles, but that is about to change. Russian soldiers are getting socks.

Since the time of Peter the Great, the soldiers have wrapped their feet in strips of cloth - flannel in the winter, cotton in the summer - then covered them with boots. As part of Russia's ongoing attempts to modernize the military, the defence ministry has eliminated the historic footwear and ordered socks and lace-up army boots for soldiers.

The move to abolish the infamous portyanki has been cheered by some military reformers who claimed they were unhygienic and caused infections. But scrapping the footcloths has prompted some soul-searching in this nostalgia-loving nation, with some traditionalists lamenting the loss of a yet another centuries-old tradition.

Poets and historians have written reams about the cumbersome clothing - good and bad. Russian poet Sergei Mikhalkov, who penned the lyrics of the Soviet and Russian national anthems, wrote that his flannel footcloths kept him warm "both in the snow and on the earth."

They also smelled terrible when they got wet. There are stories that Russian foot odour help defeat the armies of Napoleon and Adolph Hitler.

Moscow resident Oleg Mityaev, who served in the army during the 1980s, said the smell was fierce. "We could only launder them once a week so they were always wet and dirty," Mr. Mityaev, 37, said.

In the barracks, if a soldier snored too loudly, his roommates would toss balled-up footcloths at him, hoping the rank-smelling material would wake him, he recalled.

The footcloths were brought to Russia by Peter the Great, the 18th-century czar bent on modernizing his country along European lines. He actually lifted the idea from the Dutch army, when he travelled to Holland in 1690s to studying ship-building.

The czar returned to Russia with grand plans to build up Russia's navy fleet and introduce footcloths for his men in uniform.

Now, the Russian government says footcloths will be phased out by late next year. Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has also hired a top Russian fashion designer to revamp soldiers' uniforms. Not everyone is impressed.

Military historian Vadim Belolugov said the footcloths, if applied correctly, are warmer than socks and ideal for any Russian terrain, from Siberian steppes to Caucasian mountains.

"It can be achieved in eight simple movements, just begin with your toes," said Mr. Belolugov, director of the Centre for Military History Studies in Yekaterinburg. The strips of cloth had to be dried every night too.

He claimed modern soldiers had difficulties with the footcloths because they didn't apply them correctly or care for them properly.

"They're lazy," he said. "They do not want to wash their things or learn how to wear them."

However, military reformers lauded the footcloth's demise.

Russia's Mothers of Soldiers group, which advocates for better army conditions, has been lobbying for an end to footcloths since the 1980s.

Spokeswoman Valentina Melnikova said the wraps have caused thousands of cases of skin infections because they don't dry properly once wet. During the Chechen wars, the mothers group staged protests to demand better uniforms. "We chanted that our husbands and sons can't fight with wet legs covered with ulcers," Ms. Melnikova said.

Even today, she said, her group gets complaints about portyanki, specifically from a military unit in Novocherkassk in southwestern Russia.

"There is no sewage system, and the water is brought there on trucks," Ms. Melnikova said, adding soldiers can't wash their clothes.

Despite the complaints, the footcloths distinguished modern Russian soldiers from other armies. In the mornings, soldiers had just 45 seconds to don their uniforms, but new recruits often stumbled with their footcloths, said Mr. Mityaev, the former soldier. They were given special lessons on how to wrap their feet within 10 seconds.

"Our commander made each soldier take his boots off to see whether the footcloth was rolled up properly," he said. "If someone hadn't done it well, the whole regiment would have to do the procedure again. We used to repeat it five or six times."

The introduction of socks in the Russian army follows similar changes in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia. There, armies banned their portyanki to bring their uniforms in line with NATO standards.

According to newspaper reports, Ukrainian soldiers burned their footcloths during elaborate ceremonies and composed poems and songs of commemoration to the soon-to-be extinct pieces of clothing.

With a report from Nadia Popova, Special to The Globe and Mail

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