DECEMBER 22, 2010 1:46AM

Summer of my Russian jackboots

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Russian army-issue jackboots are -- you'll pardon the expression -- a bear to get into. Simply stepping into the things is impossible. They narrow at the ankle; your toe will touch bottom, but your heel will catch on the wall. You can try to force your way in by tugging and wiggling, but without the Karate Kid's own balance, you'll topple like a spruce. No, the only risk-free approach -- as any woman can tell you -- involves lying back on your bed, thrusting your foot in with your toe pointed like a ballerina's, raising your leg, and pulling -- hard. And hoping no one's watching.

I learned this in Moscow, where I spent four months in 1997 polishing up my undergrad Russian at Moscow Linguistic University’s Evrotsentry program and interning at an electronics firm. Not being a tourist, I scrupulously avoided all tourist-like behavior. That meant no photo safaris of Red Square, no lap dances at Night Flight and no souvenirs. Especially no souvenirs. How could they serve as marks of distinction? Every grad student I knew had an Astrakhan fur cap, a lacquer box and a bust of Pushkin gathering dust beside his copy of Mao’s Little Red Book.

One day, when I was visiting the Old Arbat for the respectably un-touristy reason of scoring hash, the boots caught my eye and -- as Emo Phillips sang -- dragged it fifteen feet. They stood at the edge of one of the innumerable stands that sold military surplus goods, but they in no way resembled the crumpled matte blobs I'd seen on the feet of actual soldiers. Knee-high and glistening, they rose as straight as two smokestacks; in fact, they breathed authority like smoke.

Imagine one of those eighteenth-century engravings depicting some decisive battle. Dead center, you'll see a straight-backed duke or marquess, mounted on a rearing horse and waving his grenadiers toward an enemy battery. The boots he's wearing were the boots I saw for sale.

The hippie in charge confirmed that they were indeed ofitserskie sapogi, or officer's jackboots, and asked the equivalent of $25. Whether this was a steal or a shakedown I had no idea, but haggling over prices with a blond in a knitted rasta cap seemed a thing beneath any owner of officer’s jackboots, so I forked it over. Neither did I try them on. They looked about right, and besides, I wanted them as a conversation piece. Wearing them would have felt strange, unless the Russians were willing to re-fight Poltava and put me in command.

As spring turned to summer, my clothes began to disappear and disintegrate. Socks, underwear, and finally shirts went missing in the laundry; an oxford came back shredded . From constant walking -- which Moscow, like Manhattan, encourages by being so compact -- my three comfy pairs of Skechers began collapsing at the heels and sprouting long scuff marks on the caps.

This caused great anxiety. Muscovites are deeply fashion-conscious. In letting my shoes go to hell, I was letting down the side. Though a victor in the Cold War, I looked like a loser.

"I’m supposed to throw myself at him?" I could hear the long-stemmed beauties thinking as I rubbed shoulders with them at the Hungry Duck. "I’d sooner have my leg humped by Laika the Cosmonaut Dog."

"I can show you some shoe stores," offered a friend, a former LDS missionary who knew the city like a native. But finding the stores wasn’t a problem; making the decision to buy was. It seemed to entail a change in diplomatic status. Without the funds to shop at GUM or any other chi-chi emporium, I’d end up buying shoes the natives would recognize as low-end. And that would make me what? A poor expat? A foreigner undergoing Russifikatsiya? The only such people I knew were Peruvian musicians who played at my favorite bar. I could not guess their place in Moscow’s social order, and wasn’t sure I wanted to live it.

Another friend had once shown me a photo from his trip on the Trans-Siberian railroad. He was wearing a peaked policeman’s cap and grinning like a chimp while a babuskha attendant tugged at his goatee. ("She called me ‘Dzerzhinsky’," he’d told me.) Backpacker was a position I could aspire to. Everyone seemed to respect them, since it was obvious they had money somewhere. Their look, like their attitude, was pure irony: homage to everything, attachment to nothing.

So I started wearing the boots.

I wore them with my hemp jeans to class, and with my khakis and flannels to work. One good thing about ofitserskie sapogi, I learned, is that once you’ve quit the parade ground, there’s no especially wrong way to wear them. In a sense, they go with anything. It turned out mine were a size too big, but despite that -- and even though the soles felt like solid hickory, and were held fast by actual hobnails -- they gave me no blisters. The things were so rigid, so uncompromising in every aspect of their construction that no foot dared slide around; if either knew what was good for it, it stayed put.

Nobody noticed at first, which took me by surprise. Possibly, Russians of that generation consider falling into a goose-step part of the normal human experience. Then, one day, as I clomped through the door of my hostel, the security guard exclaimed, "Hey -- Walker, Texas Ranger!"

"Me?" I asked. I don’t look a thing like Chuck Norris.

"Yeah, you. You’re wearing boots. What are you, a cowboy?"

The moment of truth. "No cowboy. These" -- here I hiked up my trousers and cocked a leg like a male Betty Grable -- "are Russkie ofitserskie sapogi!"

His face went slack. "Lord God," he said. "Why?"

Shrugging and smiling, I clomped up the stairs to my room. When I looked back, I saw him shaking his head and muttering. "Sapogi!"

And so my secret leaked out. Before long, every single person on the hostel staff, from the manager to the ladies who served us molochnaya kasha every morning in the cafeteria, asked to see my sapogi. And I obliged them. When I visited the nudist beach on Serebriyanyi Bor, my sapogi stood upright beside me on my blanket like a flag, or -- may one nod to the elephant? -- a declaration of virility.

Reactions were never derisive. They were plain and simply flummoxed. The faces of men and women, the young and the old, expressed not so much a conflict between laughter and tears as one between shitting and going blind. The greater reason was obvious: Russia was not then -- and perhaps never has been -- a place where gross eccentricity in dress can pass without comment.

But there was, I came to understand, another reason. My boss hinted at it one afternoon when I caught her staring at the boots.

"You know," she began slowly. She was one of those Russian women whose sweetly skittish manner invites loving, cliched comparisons to deer and doves. "We had to wear boots like that in the army. They were very uncomfortable. We had to wrap our feet, but that hardly helped. I look at you, my feet start throbbing."

It was a sobering thought. From everything I’d heard, military service was the single least pleasant experience in a Russian man’s -- or, less typically, a Russian woman’s -- life.  According to the tradition of dedovschchina, or "rule by the seniors," a man’s two-year mandatory hitch is divided into two halves. In the first, he has to endure the most hideous abuse from the senior members of the company. In the second, he can deal it out to any of the junior members. "Worse than prison" is how one friend described it (although he’d never been to prison). Another friend had, in Soviet times, managed to land in a company composed almost entirely of Caucasians. He spoke of them not with the generalized dislike common among Russians, but with a raw, personal hatred that made me change the subject at the first opportunity.

In other words, I was wearing my hosts' worst nightmares on my feet.

But as far as I could tell, this caused no resentment -- no sense of "Hey, white boy! Who told you it was all right to appropriate the trappings of our misery?" Rather, my complete cluelessness -- sartorial as well as sociocultural -- seemed to put people at their ease. If I was dumb or crazy enough to wear jackboots, even officer’s jackboots, what harm could I possibly do? People became enormously friendly. I was regularly offered vodka (which I accepted), kvass (which I didn’t), and trips to the Finnish sauna with women of easy virtue (never you mind). I had agonized over status, and I had found one. My status was The Strange American in Sapogi, and it was largely agreeable.

Anya, a woman in her late thirties who reigned over the nudist beach as queen bee emeritus, told me, "People regard you as a form of entertainment."

"Like a dancing bear?" I asked, hurt.

She thought for a moment. "No, that’s a bit strong."

But being patronized isn‘t always a bad thing. When you’re a foreigner in a largely lawless city, you need patrons. I learned this in August, when Paratroop Day rolled around. My friends informed me that veterans of VDV, Russia’s elite airborne service, would be dressing in whatever parts of their old kit still remained and gathering in Gorky Park, just across the river from my hostel. There they would drink -- a lot. Exactly what they would do besides was hard to say; they were an unpredictable bunch. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to be in my sapogi should their mood take a xenophobic turn, which, my friends warned, it might.

"Just stay close to home," they pleaded. Touched by their concern, I did. Toward evening, I headed into my regular bar, providentially built into the hostel itself. Almost immediately, three young men wearing the VDV blue beret and striped singlet slumped in. Like so many Russians, they looked like angelic skinheads -- angelic skinheads who happened at the moment to be mad-dogging the world.

The bar’s owner guided me into a stool at the bar. "Stay here," he said. Then he fetched the security guard, a man armed with a Makarov pistol, and planted him on the stool beside mine.

"Stay here," he said. The purity, the disinterested generosity of his gesture made me want to cry.

Safe and snug as a babe, I stole a glance at the killer angels in the corner. I noticed they were wearing tennis shoes. Suddenly conscious of my boots, I tucked them beneath the lower ring of my stool. For all the good they’d done me, I hadn’t, really, walked a mile in them.

Author tags:

travel, fashion, comedy, russia, yeltsin

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On our way into the city from the airport, we passed a monument that marked the outermost limit of German troops' advance during the 1941 campaign. It's chillingly close to the city center.
Feel free! As you know, World War Two is one of my great interests. In Moscow, you'll find traces of it everywhere you look. One of the Metro stations -- I'm ashamed to say I can no longer remember which one -- is covered with mosaics commemorating the contributions made by the various branches of the Russian armed forces. The people see the war less in ideological terms than in nationalistic ones. They call it the Great Patriotic War, not the War of Communism versus Fascism.
I've never read Gross, but what you told me about the mass lynching doesn't surprise me a bit. A few months ago, Nathan Englander published a short story -- can't recall its title, dope that I am -- about a Jweish kid who miraculously survives imprisonment in a cnoncentration camp, only to find some very hostile Poles squatting in his family's old house.

Some Jews welcomed the Russians as they pressed West, just as some Ukrainians welcomes the Germans as the pressed East. Both groups ended up horribly, horribly disappointed.

Speaking of wars and literature? Have you ever read Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry? It's about a Jewish war correspondent who gets "embedded" -- to use the current parlance -- in a squardon of Communist Coassacks during the Russian Civil War. It reads like a 1920s version of Generation Kill.
Well-written, as usual. It's funny how expat existence gets boiled down to acceptance through a few essentials. :)
Really enjoyed this. I used to dress in thrift store funk and occasionally would run into someone who would place the time period stuff I had on with something they knew intimately. It was perhaps the only good part about being poor. Well done.