Monday, June 12, 2017

Smelly feet win wars: Or do they? The end of the portyanki

Not entirely a military secret but the Russian Army rarely, if ever wore socks. According to them that know such things, Russian soldiers have for the last three centuries been bandaging their feet instead of wearing socks. The portyanki (foot bandages) were introduced by Peter the Great (1672-1725), who took the idea from the Dutch army after a visit to the country.

Frontoviks (combat veteran) have wrapped their feet ever since, choosing strips of flannel in winter and cotton in summer. Peter himself preferred to wear valenki, a fleece lined boot similar to Ugg boots. The notoriously difficult foot wraps were phased out by the end of 2008. In theory wrapping bandages around the foot gave greater support to the foot than knitted socks. Changing the tension would allow for finite adjustments and trapping dry air within the wraps would help insulate the foot, keeping it warm and dry. However all this would be negated when the wraps got wet either by sweat (most likely) or soaked by rain and snow. Technically a damp foot wrap could be rewound with the wet section to the leg and the dry wrap around the foot. In practical terms however the opportunity to undo a jackboot and rewrap in conditions of trench combat was quite impractical.

Long jackboots, Sapogi were traditionally worn by Russian troops. These were completely occlusive footwear similar Wellington boots and like Wellingtons prevented sweat from evaporating. Traditional woollen socks became quickly saturated and rotted away so the foot cloth was moderately better. Socks were available to soldiers but it was easier to dry strips of cloth overnight than woollen socks. This did not stop families knitting their relatives socks or making valenki (felt boots) which were collected by Party and factory organisation and eventually were be taken to the front for distribution.

Soldiers lucky enough to receive their home packages zealously guarded the contents as anything to combat the severe climate was welcome.

Wrapping the feet was a difficult technique to prefect, and many recruits suffered painful cuts and calluses before perfecting the wrap. Learning to wrap the foot properly became the mark of a real soldier and many die hard Frontoviks lamented the passing of portyanki. In Dmitry Bykov’s novel “Jewhad” there are passages referring to the difficulties associated with footcloths as a mother argues for clemency for her son who has as yet not mastered the technique. The officer remains adamant no socks will be issued but of course he is wearing a pair.

Footcloths trap sweat and bacterial breakdown in the sweat caused unwashed wraps to stink and this became a source of perverse pride to the soldiers. A common myth was the Russian army were invincible because of the foul nature smell of their foot cloths. Portyanki helped defeat Emperor Napoleon and Adolph Hitler in their quest to conquer Russia or so the old tale would have you believe. Barrack room funsters used the rank-smelling foot cloths, rolled into tight balls, as a means of play and retribution by leaving them beside snoring comrades, just so they could savour the aroma.

The drive for change came from Defense Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, (a former furniture store manager and top tax official) who previously instigated changes to military uniforms prior to taking office. fashion designer Valentin Yudashkin was employed to create new military uniforms. The Sapogi will also be replaced with lace-up boots similar to those worn in the U.S. The trend reflects similar moves by the Ukrainian and the Georgian armies to streamline standards with the armies of NATO countries. Ukrainian soldiers were issued with 12 pairs of socks and 25 grams of detergent to wash them. Many marked the occasion with a special farewell ceremony to their portyanki with poems and fables performed by soldiers dressed in Soviet and Ukrainian army uniforms.

Overall the end of portyanki was welcomed but a wave of nostalgia inspired poets such as childrens’ writer, Sergei Mikhalkov, to record both 'fors and against.' Behind the scenes the two main drives to replace traditional portyanki was because it has become increasingly difficult to obtain new portyanki since the production was stopped after the collapse of the Soviet Union; and the intense lobbying by the Mothers of Soldiers, advocates for better army conditions, who for years staged public protests to highlight the need for better uniforms for combat soldiers. Debilitating trench foot is commonly reported in war zones where cold and damp conditions prevail.

Interesting site
Museum of Valenki

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As it is currently correctly stated in the Wikipedia article, valenki are not ugg boots and are not made of sheepskin. They are felt boots, which is entirely different.