Transcon - Intensive, Relevant French and Arabic Instruction since May 2005 - Matt Quade

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Extract: The Baghdad Bugle October 2015. Putin’s Boots (cont.)

Once upon a time, in France, there were two Australian soldiers. One was quiet by nature, the other was not. When the quiet one could resist the urge to batter the loud one, the two Australians were good mates. In the same platoon, there were two Russian soldiers. One was quiet and one was loud. The loud Russian, Sergei, and the loud Australian, Steele, did not get on together.

It was the mid to late nineties and our regiments were full of ‘ex-Eastern-blocers’; Russians, Georgians, Ukrainians, Polacks, Czechs, Slovakians (don’t confuse the two), East Germans, Hungarians and Romanians. The ex-communists were all keen to serve a minimum of five years, or up to eight years, in the Legion to obtain a French passport. They weren’t particularly fond of the French, quite often just the opposite. A French passport however meant a European passport and escape from their dilapidated, ex-Soviet satellite countries that held no future whatsoever since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Since Gorbachev’s economic and political reforms to bring the dreaded ‘restructuring’ and ‘openness’ to the Soviet Union, many in the East suddenly had relative freedom of movement. In came with a catch though. The ‘openness’ revealed many uncomfortable truths, one of which was the fact that the central states coffers were a busted flush. There was no money left. The days of endless state subsidies for industry, the military, the public service and every other facet of society was over. The blurry line between socialism and communism had always appealed to the lowest common denominator in human behaviour. Everybody had a job and a loaf of bread, all you had to do was turn up, once in a while. Now the pendulum had swung completely the other way. In the nineties life in the old Soviet states rapidly transformed into survival of the fittest, the greediest, the most violent and the most corrupt. As a result, our regiments swelled with volunteers from the now defunct regiments of the ex-Soviet states, including Russia.

Us Westerners on the other hand; Brits, Aussies, West Germans, and the odd American, were a tiny and ever-shrinking minority, particularly since the exodus of the Brits from the Legion Regiments once the First Gulf War in Kuwait was over. Throw in a few Arabs, Africans, Turks and the odd frog and our platoons, companies and regiments were a military version of a Benneton ad. A sort of multicultural nirvana. Sometimes. In the case of our platoon, the love ended the moment Sergei, the loud Russian, and Steele, the loud Australian, came within swinging distance of each other. To call Sergei a ‘bit of a nationalist’ would be an understatement. He despised Gorbachev and everything he did and stood for. To Sergei, everything was going along just swimmingly under the old empire with the Soviet Union. Everybody knew their place, all the Soviet satellites states included, who, naturally, were eternally grateful to be tied in brotherly comradeship to Moscow.  Gorbachev, one man, and his restructuring and openness was the only reason the Soviet Empire collapsed. He was a traitor who had destroyed everything. Anybody who suggested otherwise was an ignorant fool who believed in the propaganda of the West.

Enter Steele. Steele was also a ‘bit of a nationalist’, an Aussie one. Now I had had my sneaking suspicions that communism had a dulling effect on the minds of large sections of a population. Whereas Steele would state quite openly and loudly that communists were nothing but subhuman. The inevitable reaction was delayed from the communists because Steele would always broadcast this opinion in English, not French, our rigorously enforced lingua franca at the time. That said, the contempt was mutual and perfectly understood between the two of them. And as painful as he was, I was also mates with Sergei, and Uri the quieter one. 

The comment that kicked off the inevitable was so trivial and insignificant that I cannot remember what it was. In short, Sergei, Uri and myself had already sat down to eat in a French army canteen during a training exercise. Steele came with his tray to park himself beside me. His bum had barely hit the bench and Sergei made a comment, whatever it was. Steele snapped straight back and challenged the ‘subhuman’ to go outside, immediately. Sergei launched out of his seat and both of them headed straight for the door. To their credit, they didn’t touch each other until the glass doors swung shut behind them. Barely a split second later though, Steele launched himself. What he lacked in diplomacy he made up for with his fists. It was all over in less than twenty seconds.

The French have an expression, ‘bloquer les fenetres’. Bloquer – to block, or to block up, fenetres – windows (eyes). In other words, you have been belted so hard, that the swelling has completely blocked up your eyes. Not fun when you’ve only had one window completely blocked up, Sergei had had both windows completely blocked up along with other fist-induced facial abnormalities. Steele didn’t have a scratch on him. In our culturally diverse environment at the time this created a small problem. Sergei and Uri were the only two Russians in our platoon but there were seven more of them in the rest of the company of about a hundred and twenty men. Other Aussies: zero. Oh dear.

The choice was pretty clear. Stick with Steele and get filled in or abandon him and get filled in. So we stuck together, not going anywhere without being together, just waiting for the next inevitable consequence. Better to go down together than apart. The Romanian and Hungarian corporals laughed at us. ‘The two Australians are waiting for the Russian mafia.’ They found the whole thing highly amusing. The picture became clearer later that night in the bar. The Hungarian corporal cornered us first, he was ecstatic. As it turned out, his joy was shared by practically the whole company for the same reason.

‘You guys from the West think that we are all communists. That we are all the same.  We hated being under the Russians and what they did to our countries and our people. We are not them. If they give you any trouble let us know. We’ll take care of it.’

His Romanian mate enthusiastically agreed. Given that the Hungarian corporal had recently hospitalised a legionnaire for disobeying an order and that we’d had no trouble from the Russians all day I assumed that they’d already been told to back off.  Steele also found it highly amusing, later on.

‘You stuck to me the whole time because you thought the Russians were going to come after me.’

‘I wasn’t the only one who thought that, you idiot.’

The whole saga was a lesson learnt and not meant to be an anti-Russian diatribe. It simply illustrated the point that the Russians have enough internal issues of their own to deal with. Many of the structural economic problems from the nineties have still not been resolved. It also has a huge internal migration problem of people from the old satellite countries going to Russia looking for work. The nationalist and religious tensions are no longer neatly divided along geographical lines. The problems have come home, all the way to the heart of Moscow, and require serious resources in terms of the military, police and intelligence services to keep it under control. It is a point that needs to be remembered about some of the reports that portray Russia as some all-powerful, malevolent and uncontrollable force in the world.

American and European politicians are bleating about the Russians complicating the situation in Syria. They’ve done a pretty good job of that themselves. It’s a bit late to start blaming the Russians. What they really don’t like is the fact that Putin looks decisive and has the poll numbers to prove it. And it is only a matter of time before Westerners start comparing Putin with their own politicians. We can also take for granted that Putin is never going to allow a bunch of Islamic State savages to overrun the Russian naval base on the Syrian coast. In other words, get used to Russia taking lead in Syria.

Matt Quade