Goodbye to the Footcloth, Hello to the Sock
By Kevin O'Flynn, Moscow Times 19/12/07
Dec 19, 2007 - 11:12:51 AM
or footcloths, have kept soldiers' feet warm and dry since the days of Peter
the Great. Notoriously difficult to wrap, they are the bane of many a new
recruit and will be phased out by the end of next year, Deputy Defense Minister
Vladimir Isakov announced last month.
scrapping of the footcloth comes as the first half of a two-part revolution in
army footwear: Traditional Russian army boots, known as sapogi, are to be
replaced by lace-up boots similar to those worn in the U.S. Army, Isakov said.
have long been a symbol of the army. But while most countries switched to boots
and socks, Russia stuck with the footcloths.
surgeon Malcolm Grow described the strips of cloth in a memoir of his time
working as a doctor in Russia during World War I.
the foot became wet, they could unwrap the cloth, wrapping the wet part round
the leg where it dries quickly, while the dry end is wrapped around the foot
and keeps it warm," wrote Grow, who later became the first surgeon general
of the U.S. Air Force.
Russian soldiers told him: "We don't like socks."
of the German Luftwaffe used footcloths until the end of World War II, and
invading German soldiers even swapped their socks for the wraps with Soviet
the footcloth has had as many detractors as admirers among generations of
are tons of problems in the army because people can't put them on," said
celebrated author Dmitry Bykov, who served in the army in the 1980s. "In
the first months, half of [our] company was walking in slippers because of
who wrote of the difficulties associated with footcloths in his book
"Jewhad," called the transition to socks "a good decision."
Catherine Merridale, author of "Ivan's War," a history of the
ordinary Soviet soldier in World War II published last year, said she found it
"a great shame that soldiers could not have socks."
official party line was that portyanki are so much more comfortable,"
Merridale said in a telephone interview from England. "So I asked lots of
veterans after I got to know them. ... They all said: 'Actually we prefer
the looming departure of footcloths and sapogi has sparked a bout of soul
searching and nostalgia among army veterans -- and regret from some
contemporary soldiers who say they do prefer the footcloth to the sock.
of the first things a new soldier is taught is how to wrap the footcloths
around his feet. The strips of cloth are supposed to be wrapped around the feet
and ankles, binding them like bandages. It is a skill, however, that many fail
Soviet times, traditionalists argued against doing away with footcloths, saying
that if they were good enough to get the army to Berlin, they were good enough
for the current army.
nostalgia isn't enough for many who have had to wear them.
use footcloths, you need to clean them and disinfect them or there will be foot
fungus," said Valentina Melnikova, head of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers
Committees, a nongovernmental organization that monitors soldiers' rights.
"If there are any cuts, then swelling begins."
to laundry is a common problem in the army, and some soldiers' feet have turned
gangrenous because of footwear problems, Melnikova said.
are also notorious for their foul odor -- a source of perverse pride by some
army brass, Melnikova said.
believe that footcloth smell could defeat any enemy, because no European or
American can deal with such a smell," she said. "They just smell it
and die instantly."
agreed, recalling, "They smelled terribly, and everyone said portyanki
were chemical weapons."
his "Jewhad," a desperate mother begs an officer to let her son wear
socks because of sores on his feet. The officer explains to the woman that her
son is merely incapable of wrapping his footcloths correctly. "The
footcloth is the Russian soldier. It's so very Russian, that invention of
ours," the officer says. "You got a Russian soldier, you got
footcloths. Everyone knows that."
officer himself wears socks because he never got the hang of wrapping the
strips of cloth.
footcloths are a blessing in disguise, Merridale said, because when soldiers
get their boots, they don't necessarily get ones that fit them.
you are good at wrapping portyanki, then you can wrap up five or six and end up
with boots that really fit," Merridale said.
decision to drop the footcloths and sapogi appears to be a sudden turnaround.
Until recently, Isakov and other generals had been adamant the footwear would
footcloth is an invention that is impossible to turn away from, even in the
21st century," Isakov said in September, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported.
"You can't compare them to socks. Anyone who has tried to walk in boots
for a long time knows well the difference between socks and footcloths."
move is part of a new rush of reforms initiated by Defense Minister Anatoly
Serdyukov, who worked as a furniture store manager and top tax official before
being appointed defense minister in February.
this year, the army said it had hired fashion designer Valentin Yudashkin to
create a new uniform for soldiers.
Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for an interview for this report.
change from footcloths to socks follows similar moves by the Ukrainian and the
Georgian armies, whose decisions were aimed at streamlining standards with the
armies of NATO countries.
the Ukrainian army switched to socks earlier this year, soldiers complained
that they would have to wash their socks themselves, Izvestia reported.
Ukrainian decision was announced as a sign of progress. To commemorate the
passing of the footcloth, the Ukrainian army held a special farewell ceremony
that included poems and fables about portyanki performed by soldiers dressed in
Soviet and Ukrainian army uniforms.
Ukrainian soldiers wrote poems as a tribute to the footcloths. One managed to
rhyme the words "melancholy" and "socks," or toski with
wrote: "Don't be sad, my friend / Goodbye footcloth / Hello new
Ukraine, soldiers get 12 pairs of socks and 25 grams of detergent to wash them.
is unclear how many pairs of socks Russian soldiers will get.
Source: Ocnus.net 2007