Chapter 4. The Fighting Units of Spetsnaz

Spetsnaz is made up of three distinct elements: the fighting units, the units of professional sportsmen and the network of secret agents. In numerical terms the fighting units of spetsnaz are the largest. They are composed of soldiers from the ranks, out of those who are especially strong, especially tough and especially loyal.

A factor that facilitates the selection process is that within the Soviet Army there exists a hidden system for the selection of soldiers. Long before they put on a military uniform, the millions of recruits are carefully screened and divided into categories in acordance with their political reliability, their physical and mental development, the extent of their political involvement, and the 'cleanliness' (from the Communist point of view) of their personal and family record. The Soviet soldier does not know to which category he belongs, and in fact he knows nothing about the existence of the various categories. If a soldier is included in a higher category than his comrades that does not necessarily mean that he is fortunate. On the contrary, the best thing for a soldier is to be put into the lowest category and to perform his two years of military service in some remote and God-forsaken pioneer battalion in which there is neither discipline nor supervision, or in units of which the officers have long since drunk away all the authority they had. The higher the category the soldier is put into the more difficult his military service will be.

Soldiers of the highest category make up the Kremlin guard, the troops protecting the government communications, the frontier troops of the KGB and spetsnaz. Being included in the highest category does not necessarily mean being posted to the Kremlin, to a spetsnaz brigade or to a government communications centre. The highest-category men selected by the local military authorities simply represent the best human material which is offered to the 'customer' for him to choose from. The 'customer' selects only what suits his need. All those who do not appeal to the customers move down to a lower level and are offered to representatives of the next echelon, that of the strategic missile troops, the airborne forces and crews of nuclear submarines.

The young soldier does not realise, of course, what is going on. He is simply summoned to a room where people he doesn't know ask him a lot of questions. A few days later he is called to the room again and finds a different set of strangers there who also ask him questions.

This system of sorting out recruits reminds one of the system of closed shops for leading comrades. The highest official has the first choice. Then his deputy can go to the shop and choose something from what remains. Then lower ranking officials are allowed into the shop, then their deputies, and so on. In this system spetsnaz rank as the very highest category.

The soldiers who have been picked out by spetsnaz officers are gathered together into groups and are convoyed by officers and sergeants to fighting units of spetsnaz, where they are formed into groups and go through an intensive course of training lasting several weeks. At the end of the course the soldier fires shots from his Kalashnikov automatic rifle for the first time and is then made to take the military oath. The best out of the group of young soldiers are then sent to a spetsnaz training unit from which they return six months later with the rank of sergeant, while the rest are posted to fighting units.

In spetsnaz, as throughout the Soviet Army, they observe the cult of the old soldier'. All soldiers are divided into stariki ('old men') and salagi ('small fry'). A real salaga is a soldier who has only just started his service. A really 'old man' (some twenty years' old) is one who is about to complete his service in a few months. A man who is neither a real starik nor a real salaga falls between the two, a starik being compared to anyone who has done less time than he has, and a salaga to anyone who has served in the army a few months longer than he.

Having been recruited into spetsnaz, the soldier has to sign an undertaking not to disclose secret information. He has no right ever to tell anyone where he has served or what his service consisted of. At most he has the right to say he served with the airborne corps. Disclosure of the secrets of spetsnaz is treated as high treason, punishable by death according to article 64 of the Soviet criminal code.

Once he has completed his two years' service in spetsnaz a soldier has three choices. He can become an officer, in which case he is offered special terms for entering the higher school for officers of the airborne forces in Ryazan. He can become a regular soldier in spetsnaz, for which he has to go through a number of supplementary courses. Or he has the option to join the reserve. If he chooses the last course he is regarded as being a member of the spetsnaz reserve and is with it for the next five years. Then, up to the age of 30, he is part of the airborne reserve. After that he is considered to belong to the ordinary infantry reserve until he is fifty. Like any other reserve force, the existence of a spetsnaz reserve makes it possible at a time of mobilisation to multiply the size of the spetsnaz fighting units with reservists if necessary.

* * *

Mud, nothing but mud all round, and it was pouring with rain. It had been raining throughout the summer, so that everything was wet and hanging limp. Everything was stuck in the mud. Every soldier's boot carried kilograms of it. But their bodies were covered in mud as well, and their hands and faces up to their ears and further. It was clear that the sergeant had not taken pity on the young spetsnaz recruits that day. They had been called up only a month before. They had been formed up into a provisional group and been put through a month's course for young soldiers which every one of them would remember all his life in his worst nightmare.

That morning they had been divided up into companies and platoons. Before letting them back into their mud-covered, sodden tent at the end of the day each sergeant had time to show his platoon the extent of his authority.

'Get inside!'

There were ten young men crowding around the entrance to a huge tent, as big as a prison barracks.

'Get inside, damn you!' The sergeant urged them on.

The first soldier thrust aside the heavy wet tarpaulin which served as a door and was about to enter when something stopped him. On the muddy, much trampled ground just inside the entrance a dazzlingly white towel had been laid down in place of a doormat. The soldier hesitated. But behind him the sergeant was pushing and shouting: 'Go on in, damn you!'

The soldier was not inclined to step on the towel. At the same time he couldn't make up his mind to jump over it, because the mud from his boots would inevitably land on the towel. Eventually he jumped, and the others jumped across the towel after him. For some reason no one dared to take the towel away. Everyone could see that there was some reason why it had been put there right in the entrance. A beautiful clean towel. With mud all around it. What was it doing there?

A whole platoon lived in one huge tent. The men slept in two-tier metal bunks. The top bunks were occupied by the stariki — the 'old men' of nineteen or even nineteen and a half, who had already served a year or even eighteen months in spetsnaz. The salagi slept on the bottom bunks. They had served only six months. By comparison with those who were now jumping over the towel they were of course stariki too. They had all in their day jumped awkwardly across the towel. Now they were watching silently, patiently and attentively to see how the new men behaved in that situation.

The new men behaved as anybody would in their situation. Some pushed from behind, and there was the towel in front. So they jumped, and clustered together in the centre of the tent, not knowing where to put their hands or where to look. It was strange. They seemed to want to look at the ground. All the young men behaved in exactly the same way: a jump, into the crowd and eyes down. But no — the last soldier behaved quite differently. He burst into the tent, helped by a kick from the sergeant. On seeing the white towel he pulled himself up sharply, stood on it in his dirty boots and proceeded to wipe them as if he really were standing on a doormat. Having wiped his feet he didn't join the crowd but marched to the far corner of the tent where he had seen a spare bed.

'Is this mine?'

'It's yours,' the platoon shouted approvingly. 'Come here, mate, there's a better place here! Do you want to eat?'

That night all the young recruits would get beaten. And they would be beaten on the following nights. They would be driven out into the mud barefoot, and they would be made to sleep in the lavatories (standing up or lying down, as you wish). They would be beaten with belts, with slippers and with spoons, with anything suitable for causing pain. The stariki would use the salagi on which to ride horseback in battles with their friends. The salagi would clean the 'old men''s weapons and do their dirty jobs for them. There would be the same goings-on as in the rest of the Soviet Army. Stariki everywhere play the same kind of tricks on the recruits. The rituals and the rules are the same everywhere. The spetsnaz differs from the other branches only in that they place the dazzlingly clean towel at the entrance to the tent for the recruits to walk over. The sense of this particular ritual is clear and simple: We are nice people. We welcome you, young man, cordially into our friendly collective. Our work is very hard, the hardest in the whole army, but we do not let it harden our hearts. Gome into our house, young man, and make yourself at home. We respect you and will spare nothing for you. You see — we have even put the towel with which we wipe our faces for you to walk on in your dirty feet. So that's it, is it — you don't accept our welcome? You reject our modest gift? You don't even wish to wipe your boots on what we wipe our faces with! What sort of people do you take us for? You may certainly not respect us, but why did you come into our house with dirty boots?

Only one of the salagi, the one who wiped his feet on the towel, will be able to sleep undisturbed. He will receive his full ration of food and will clean only his own weapon; and perhaps the stariki will give instructions that he should not do even that. There are many others in the platoon to do it.

Where on earth could a young eighteen-year-old soldier have learnt about the spetsnaz tradition? Where could he have heard about the white towel? Spetsnaz is a secret organisation which treasures its traditions and keeps them to itself. A former spetsnaz soldier must never tell tales: he'll lose his tongue if he does. In any case he is unlikely to tell anyone about the towel trick, especially someone who has yet to be called up. I was beaten up, so let him be beaten up as well, he reasons.

There are only three possible ways the young soldier could have found out about the towel. Either he simply guessed what was happening himself. The towel had been laid down at the entrance, so it must be to wipe his feet on. What else could it be for? Or perhaps his elder brother had been through the spetsnaz. He had, of course, never called it by that name or said what it was for, but he might have said about the towel: 'Watch out, brother, there are some units that have very strange customs.... But just take care -if you let on I'll knock your head off. And I can.' Or his elder brother might have spent some time in a penal battalion. Perhaps he had been in spetsnaz and in a penal battalion. For the custom of laying out a towel in the entrance before the arrival of recruits did not originate in spetsnaz but in the penal battalions. It is possible that it was handed on to the present-day penal battalions from the prisons of the past.

The links between spetsnaz and the penal battalions are invisible, but they are many and very strong.

In the first place, service in spetsnaz is the toughest form of service in the Soviet Army. The physical and psychological demands are not only increased deliberately to the very highest point that a man can bear; they are frequently, and also deliberately, taken beyond any permissible limits. It is quite understandable that a spetsnaz soldier should find he cannot withstand these extreme demands and breaks down. The breakdown may take many different forms: suicide, severe depression, hysteria, madness or desertion. As I was leaving an intelligence unit of a military district on promotion to Moscow I suddenly came across, on a little railway station, a spetsnaz officer I knew being escorted by two armed soldiers.

'What on earth are you doing here?' I exclaimed. 'You don't see people on this station more than once in a month!'

'One of my men ran away!'

'A new recruit?'

'That's the trouble, he's a starik. Only another month to go.'

'Did he take his weapon?'

'No, he went without it.'

I expressed my surprise, wished the lieutenant luck and went on my way. How the search ended I do not know. At the very next station soldiers of the Interior Ministry's troops were searching the carriages. The alarm had gone out all over the district.

Men run away from spetsnaz more often than from other branches of the services. But it is usually a case of a new recruit who has been stretched to the limit and who usually takes a rifle with him. A man like that will kill anyone who gets in his path. But he is usually quickly run down and killed. But in this case it was a starik who had run off, and without a rifle. Where had he gone, and why? I didn't know. Did they find him? I didn't know that either. Of course they found him. They are good at that. If he wasn't carrying a rifle he would not have been killed. They don't kill people without reason. So what could he expect? Two years in a penal battalion and then the month in spetsnaz that he had not completed.

Spetsnaz has no distinguishing badge or insignia — officially, at any rate. But unofficially the spetsnaz badge is a wolf, or rather a pack of wolves. The wolf is a strong, proud animal which is remarkable for its quite incredible powers of endurance. A wolf can run for hours through deep snow at great speed, and then, when he scents his prey, put on another astonishing burst of speed. Sometimes he will chase his prey for days, reducing it to a state of exhaustion. Exploiting their great capacity for endurance, wolves first exhaust and then attack animals noted for their tremendous strength, such as the elk. People say rightly that the 'wolf lives on its legs'. Wolves will bring down a huge elk, not so much by the strength of their teeth as by the strength of their legs.

The wolf also has a powerful intellect. He is proud and independent. You can tame and domesticate a squirrel, a fox or even a great elk with bloodshot eyes. And there are many animals that can be trained to perform. A performing bear can do really miraculous things. But you cannot tame a wolf or train it to perform. The wolf lives in a pack, a closely knit and well organised fighting unit of frightful predators. The tactics of a wolf pack are the very embodiment of flexibility and daring. The wolves' tactics are an enormous collection of various tricks and combinations, a mixture of cunning and strength, confusing manoeuvres and sudden attacks.

No other animal in the world could better serve as a symbol of the spetsnaz. And there is good reason why the training of a spetsnaz soldier starts with the training of his legs. A man is as strong and young as his legs are strong and young. If a man has a sloppy way of walking and if he drags his feet along the ground, that means he himself is weak. On the other hand, a dancing, springy gait is a sure sign of physical and metal health. Spetsnaz soldiers are often dressed up in the uniform of other branches of the services and stationed in the same military camps as other especially secret units, usually with communications troops. But one doesn't need any special experience to pick out the spetsnaz man from the crowd. You can tell him by the way he walks. I shall never forget one soldier who was known as 'The Spring'. He was not very tall, slightly stooping and round-shouldered. But his feet were never still. He kept dancing about the whole time. He gave the impression of being restrained only by some invisible string, and if the string were cut the soldier would go on jumping, running and dancing and never stop. The military commissariat whose job it was to select the young soldiers and sort them out paid no attention to him and he fetched up in an army missile brigade. He had served almost a year there when the brigade had to take part in manoeuvres in which a spetsnaz company was used against them. When the exercise was over the spetsnaz company was fed there in the forest next to the missile troops. The officer commanding the spetsnaz company noticed the soldier in the missile unit who kept dancing about all the time he was standing in the queue for his soup.

'Come over here, soldier.' The officer drew a line on the ground. 'Now jump.'

The soldier stood on the line and jumped from there, without any run-up. The company commander did not have anything with him to measure the length of the jump, but there was no need. The officer was experienced in such things and knew what was good and what was excellent.

'Get into my car!'

'I cannot, comrade major, without my officer's permission.'

'Get in and don't worry, you'll be all right with me. I will speak up for you and tell the right people where you have been.'

The company commander made the soldier get into his car and an hour later presented him to the chief of army intelligence, saying:

'Comrade colonel, look what I've found among the missile troops.'

'Now then, young man, let's see you jump.'

The soldier jumped from the spot. This time there was a tape measure handy and it showed he had jumped 241 centimetres.

Take the soldier into your lot and find him the right sort of cap,' the colonel said.

The commander of the spetsnaz company took off his own blue beret and gave it to the soldier. The chief of intelligence immediately phoned the chief of staff of the army, who gave the appropriate order to the missile brigade — forget you ever had such a man.

The dancing soldier was given the nickname 'The Spring' on account of his flexibility. He had never previously taken a serious interest in sport, but he was a born athlete. Under the direction of experienced trainers his talents were revealed and he immediately performed brilliantly. A year later, when he completed his military service, he was already clearing 2 metres 90 centimetres. He was invited to join the professional athletic service of spetsnaz, and he agreed.

The long jump with no run has been undeservedly forgotten and is no longer included in the programme of official competitions. When it was included in the Olympic Games the record set in 1908, was 3 metres 33 centimetres. As an athletic skill the long jump without a run is the most reliable indication of the strength of a person's legs. And the strength of his legs is a reliable indicator of the whole physical condition of a soldier. Practically half a person's muscles are to be found in his legs. Spetsnaz devotes colossal attention to developing the legs of its men, using many simple but very effective exercises: running upstairs, jumping with ankles tied together up a few steps and down again, running up steep sandy slopes, jumping down from a great height, leaping from moving cars and trains, knee-bending with a barbell on the shoulders, and of course the jump from a spot. At the end of the 1970s the spetsnaz record in this exercise, which has not been recognised by the official sports authorities, was 3 metres 51 centimetres.

A spetsnaz soldier knows that he is invincible. This may be a matter of opinion, but other people's opinions do not interest the soldier. He knows himself that he is invincible and that's enough for him. The idea is instilled into him carefully, delicately, not too insistently, but continually and effectively. The process of psychological training is inseparably linked to the physical toughening. The development of a spirit of self-confidence and of independence and of a feeling of superiority over any opponent is carried out at the same time as the development of the heart, the muscles and the lungs. The most important element in training a spetsnaz soldier is to make him believe in his own strength.

A man's potential is unlimited, the reasoning goes. A man can reach any heights in life in any sphere of activity. But in order to defeat his opponents a man must first overcome himself, combat his own fears, his lack of confidence and laziness. The path upwards is one of continual battle with oneself. A man must force himself to rise sooner than the others and go to bed later. He must exclude from his life everything that prevents him from achieving his objective. He must subordinate the whole of his existence to the strictest regime. He must give up taking days off. He must use his time to the best possible advantage and fit in even more than was thought possible. A man aiming for a particular target can succeed only if he uses every minute of his life to the maximum advantage for carrying out his plan. A man should find four hours' sleep quite sufficient, and the rest of his time can be used for concentrating on the achievement of his objective.

I imagine that to instil this psychology into a mass army formed by means of compulsory mobilisation would be impossible and probably unnecessary. But in separate units carefully composed of the best human material such a philosophy is entirely acceptable.

In numbers spetsnaz amounts to less than one per cent of all the Soviet armed forces in peacetime. Spetsnaz is the best, carefully selected part of the armed forces, and the philosophy of each man's unlimited potential has been adopted in its entirety by every member of the organisation. It is a philosophy which cannot be put into words. The soldier grasps it not with his head, but with his feet, his shoulders and his sweat. He soon becomes convinced that the path to victory and self-perfection is a battle with himself, with his own mental and physical weakness. Training of any kind makes sense only if it brings a man to the very brink of his physical and mental powers. To begin with, he must know precisely the limits of his capabilities. For example: he can do 40 press-ups. He must know this figure precisely and that it really is the limit of his capacity. No matter how he strains he can do no more. But every training session is a cruel battle to beat his previous record. As he starts a training session a soldier has to promise himself that he will beat his own record today or die in the attempt.

The only people who become champions are those who go into each training session as if they are going to their death or to their last battle in which they will either win or die. The victor is the one for whom victory is more important than life. The victor is the one who dives a centimetre deeper than his maximum depth, knowing that his lungs will not hold out and that death lies beyond his limit. And once he has overcome the fear of death, the next time he will dive even deeper! Spetsnaz senior lieutenant Vladimir Salnikov, world champion and Olympic champion swimmer, repeats the slogan every day: conquer yourself, and that was why he defeated everyone at the Olympic Games.

An excellent place to get to know and to overcome oneself is the 'Devil's Ditch' which has been dug at the spetsnaz central training centre near Kirovograd. It is a ditch with metal spikes stuck into the bottom. The narrowest width is three metres. From there it gets wider and wider.

Nobody is forced to jump the ditch. But if someone wants to test himself, to conquer himself and to overcome his own cowardice, let him go and jump. It can be a standing jump or a running jump, in running shoes and a track suit, with heavy boots and a big rucksack on your back, or carrying a weapon. It is up to you. You start jumping at the narrow part and gradually move outwards. If you make a mistake, trip on something or don't reach the other side you land with your side on the spikes.

There are not many who wanted to risk their guts at the Devil's Ditch, until a strict warning was put up: 'Only for real spetsnaz fighters!' Now nobody has to be invited to try it. There are always plenty of people there and always somebody jumping, summer and winter, on slippery mud and snow, in gas-masks and without them, carrying an ammunition box, hand-in-hand, with hands tied together, and even with someone on the back. The man who jumps the Devil's Ditch has confidence in himself, considers himself invincible, and has grounds for doing so.

The relations within spetsnaz units are very similar to those within the wolf pack. We do not know everything about the habits and the ways of wolves. But I have heard Soviet zoologists talk about the life and behaviour of wolves and, listening to them, I have been reminded of spetsnaz. They say the wolf has not only a very developed brain but is also the noblest of all the living things inhabiting our planet. The mental capacity of the wolf is reckoned to be far greater than the dog's. What I have heard from experts who have spent their whole lives in the taiga of the Ussuri, coming across wolves every day, is sharply at odds with what people say about them who have seen them only in zoos.

The experts say that the she-wolf never kills her sickly wolf-cubs. She makes her other cubs do it. The she-wolf herself gives the cubs the first lesson in hunting in a group. And the cubs' first victim is their weaker brother. But once the weaker ones are disposed of, the she-wolf protects the rest. In case of danger she would rather sacrifice herself than let anyone harm them. By destroying the weaker cubs the she-wolf preserves the purity and strength of her offspring, permitting only the strong to live. This is very close to the process of selection within spetsnaz. At the outset the weaker soldier is naturally not killed but thrown out of spetsnaz into a more restful service. When a unit is carrying out a serious operation behind enemy lines, however, the wolf-cubs of spetsnaz will kill their comrade without a second thought if he appears to weaken. The killing of the weak is not the result of a court decision but of lynch law. It may appear to be an act of barbarism, but it is only by doing so that the wolves have retained their strength for millions of years and remained masters of the forests until such a time as an even more frightful predator — man — started to destroy them on a massive scale.

But the she-wolf has also another reputation, and it is no accident that the Romans for centuries had a she-wolf as the symbol of their empire. A strong, wise, cruel and at the same time caring and affectionate she-wolf reared two human cubs: could there be a more striking symbol of love and strength?

Within their pack the wolves conduct a running battle to gain a higher place in the hierarchy. And I never saw anything inside spetsnaz that could be described as soldier's friendship, at least nothing like what I had seen among the tank troops and the infantry. Within spetsnaz a bitter battle goes on for a place in the pack, closer to the leader and even in the leader's place. In the course of this bitter battle for a place in the pack the spetsnaz soldier is sometimes capable of displaying such strength of character as I have never seen elsewhere.

The beating up of the young recruits who are just starting their service is an effort on the part of the stariki to preserve their dominating position in the section, platoon or company. But among the recruits too there is right from the beginning a no less bitter battle going on for priority. This struggle takes the form of continual fighting between groups and individuals. Even among the stariki not everyone is not on the same level: they also have their various levels of seniority. The more senior levels strive to keep the inferior ones under their control. The inferior ones try to extract themselves from that control. It is very difficult, because if a young soldier tries to oppose someone who has served half a year more than he has, the longer-serving man will be supported not only by the whole of his class but also by the other senior classes: the salaga is not only offending a soldier senior to himself (never mind who he is and what the older ones think of him) but is also undermining the whole tradition established over the decades in spetsnaz and the rest of the Soviet Army. In spite of all this, attempts at protest by the inferior classes occur regularly and are sometimes successful.

I recall a soldier of enormous physique and brutal features known as 'The Demon' who, after serving for half a year, got together a group of soldiers from all the classes and lorded it over not just his own platoon but the whole company. He was good at sensing the mood of a company. He and his group never attacked stariki in normal circumstances. They would wait patiently until one of the stariki did something which by spetsnaz standards is considered a disgrace, like stealing. Only then would they set about him, usually at night. The Demon was skilful at making use of provocation. For example, having stolen a bottle of aftershave from a soldier, he would slip it to one of his enemies. There is no theft in spetsnaz. The thief is, then, always discovered very quickly and punished mercilessly. And The Demon was, of course, in charge of the punitive action.

But seniority in spetsnaz units is not determined only by means of fists. In The Demon's group there was a soldier known as 'The Squint', a man of medium height and build. I do not know how it came about, but it soon became apparent that, although The Demon was lording it over the whole company, he never opposed The Squint. One day The Squint made fun of him in public, drawing attention to his ugly nostrils. There was some mild laughter in the company and The Demon was clearly humiliated, but for some reason he did not choose to exercise his strength. The Squint soon came to dominate the whole company, but it never occurred to him to fight anyone or to order anybody about. He simply told The Demon out loud what he wanted, and The Demon used his strength to influence the whole company. This went on for about three months. How the system worked and why, was not for us officers to know. We watched what was going on from the sidelines, neither interfering nor trying to look too closely into it.

But then there was a revolution. Someone caught The Demon out in a provocation. The Demon again stole something and slipped it to one of his stariki, and he was found out. The Demon and The Squint and their closest friends were beaten all night until the duty officer intervened. The Demon and The Squint were locked up temporarily in a store where they kept barrels of petrol. They kept them there for several days because the likelihood of a bloody settling of accounts was considerable. Meanwhile the whole affair was reported to the chief of Intelligence for the district. Knowing the way things were done in spetsnaz, he decided that both men should be tried by a military tribunal. The result was a foregone conclusion. As usual the tribunal did not hear the true causes of the affair. The officer commanding the company simply put together a number of minor offences: being late on parade, late for inspection, found in a drunken state, and so forth. The whole company confirmed everything in their evidence, and the accused made no attempt to deny the charges. Yet there was some rough justice in the process, because they probably both deserved their sentences of eighteen months in a penal battalion.

* * *

The silent majority can put up with anything for a long time. But sometimes a spark lands in the powder keg and there is a frightful explosion. Often in spetsnaz a group of especially strong and bullying soldiers will dominate the scene for a certain time, until suddenly a terrible counter blow is struck, whereupon the group is broken up into pieces and its members, scorned and disliked, have to give way to another group.

In every company there are a few soldiers who do not try to dominate the rest, who do not voice their opinions and who do not try to achieve great influence. At the same time everyone is aware of some enormous hidden strength in them, and no one dares to touch them. This kind of soldier is usually found somewhere near the top of the platoon's hierarchy, rarely at the very top.

I remember a soldier known as The Machine'. He always kept himself to himself. He probably experienced no great emotions, and by spetsnaz standards he was probably too kind and placid a person. He did his job properly and seemed never to experience in his work either enthusiasm or resentment. Nobody, not even The Demon, dared touch The Machine. On one occasion, when The Demon was beating up one of the young soldiers, The Machine went up to him and said, 'That's enough of that.' The Demon did not argue, but stopped what he was doing and moved away. The Machine reverted to silence.

It was clear to everyone that The Machine's dislike of The Demon had not been given its full expression. And so it was. On the night when the whole company beat up The Demon and The Squint, The Machine lay on his bed and took no part in the beating. Finally his patience gave out, he went to the toilet where the sentence was being carried out, pushed the crowd aside with his enormous hands and said, 'Let me give him a punch.'

He gave The Demon a blow in the stomach with his mighty fist. Everyone thought he had killed the man, who bent double and collapsed in a heap like a wooden puppet with string instead of joints. They poured water over him and for half an hour afterwards did not strike him. They were afraid of finishing it off, afraid they would be tried for murder. Then they saw that The Demon had survived and they continued to beat him. Quite aloof from the squabble for top position in the company, The Machine had gone straight back to bed.

In the same company there was a soldier known as The Otter'; slim well built, handsome. He was not very big and appeared to have little strength. But he was like a sprung steel plate. His strength seemed to be explosive. He had amazing reactions. When, as a recruit, he first jumped over the towel, he was subjected to the usual treatment by the stariki. 'Drop your pants and lie down,' they said. He took hold of his belt as though he was ready to carry out their orders. They dropped their guard, and at that moment The Otter struck one of them in the mouth with such a blow that his victim fell to the ground and was knocked senseless. While he was falling The Otter struck another one in the teeth. A third backed out of the way.

That night, when he was asleep, they bound him in a blanket and beat him up brutally. They beat him the second night, and the third, and again and again. But he was a very unusual person even by spetsnaz standards. He possessed rather unusual muscles. When they were relaxed they looked like wet rags. He suffered a lot of beatings, but one had the impression that when he was relaxed he felt no pain. Perhaps there were qualities in his character that put him above the standards we were used to. When The Otter slept he was then in the power of the stariki and they did not spare him. They attacked him in the dark, so that he should not recognise his attackers. But he knew all of them instinctively. He never quarrelled with them and he always avoided groups of them. If they attacked him in the daylight he made no great effort to resist. But if he came across a stariki on his own he would punch him in the teeth. If he came across him again he would do the same again. He could knock a man's teeth out. He would strike suddenly and like lightning. He would be standing relaxed, his arms hanging down, looking at the ground. Then suddenly there would be a frightful, shattering blow. On several occasions he punched stariki in the presence of the whole company and sometimes even with officers present. How beautifully he punched them! If there were officers present the company commander would admire The Otter and indicate his approval with a smile on his face — then sentence him to three days in the guard room, because they were not allowed to hit each other.

This went on for a long time, until the stariki became tired of it all and left him alone. Nobody touched him any more. Six months later they offered him a place at the very top. He refused, still keeping his silence. He never got involved in the affairs of the platoon and had no desire and no claim to be a leader. When the whole company was beating up The Demon The Otter did not join in. Some years later I met a spetsnaz man I knew and learnt that The Machine had been offered a job with the professional athletic service. He had refused and had gone back to some remote Siberian village where his home was. But The Otter had accepted the offer and is now serving in one of the best spetsnaz formations, training for the ultimate job of assassinating key political and military figures on the enemy's side.

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There are other ways in which a spetsnaz soldier can defend his position in the hierarchy, apart from punching people in the face. Spetsnaz respects people who take risks, who have strength and display courage. A man who will jump further than others on a motorcycle, or one who will wait longer than others to open his parachute, or one who hammers nails into a plank with the palm of his hand — such people are assured of respect. A man who goes on running in spite of tiredness when all the others are collapsing, who can go longer than others without food and drink, who can shoot better than the others — such people are also well thought of. But when everybody is thought highly of, there is still a struggle among the best. And if there is no other way for a man to show that he is better than another, physical violence will break out.

Two soldiers in leading positions may fight each other secretly without anyone else being present: they go off into the forest and fight it out. A conflict may begin with a sudden, treacherous attack by one man on another. There are also open, legal encounters. Sport is particularly admired by spetsnaz. The whole company is brought together, and they fight each other without rules, using all the tricks that spetsnaz has taught them — boxing, sambo, karate. Some fights go on until the first blood is drawn. Others go on until one person is humiliated and admits he is defeated.

Among the various ways of finding leaders a very effective one is the fight with whips. It is an old gypsy way of establishing a relationship. The leather-plaited whip several metres long is a weapon only rarely met with in spetsnaz. But if a soldier (usually a Kalmik, a Mongolian or a gypsy) shows that he can handle the weapon with real skill he is allowed to carry a whip with him as a weapon. When two experts with the whip meet up and each claims to be the better one, the argument is resolved in a frightful contest.

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When we speak about the customs observed within spetsnaz we must of course take into account the simple fact that spetsnaz has its own standards and its own understanding of the words 'bad' and 'good'. Let us not be too strict in our judgement of the spetsnaz soldiers for their cruel ways, their bloodthirstiness and their lack of humanity. Spetsnaz is a closed society of people living permanently at the extreme limits of human existence. They are people who even in peacetime are risking their lives. Their existence bears no relation at all to the way the majority of the inhabitants of our planet live. In spetsnaz a man can be admired for qualities of which the average man may have no idea.

The typical spetsnaz soldier is a sceptic, a cynic and a pessimist. He believes profoundly in the depravity of human nature and knows (from his own experience) that in extreme conditions a man becomes a beast. There are situations where a man will save the lives of others at the expense of his own life. But in the opinion of the spetsnaz men this happens only in a sudden emergency: for example, a man may throw himself in front of a train to push another man aside and save his life. But when an emergency situation, such as a terrible famine, lasts for months or even years, the spetsnaz view is that it is every man for himself. If a man helps another in need it means that the need is not extreme. If a man shares his bread with another in time of famine it means the famine is not extreme.

In the spetsnaz soldier's opinion the most dangerous thing he can do is put faith in his comrade, who may at the most critical moment turn out to be a beast. It is much simpler for him not to trust his comrade (or anybody else), so that in a critical situation there will be no shattered illusions. Better that he regards all his fellow human beings as beasts from the outset than to make that discovery in an utterly hopeless situation.

The soldier's credo can be stated in a triple formula: Don't trust, don't beg, don't fear. It is a formula which did not originate in spetsnaz, but in prisons many centuries ago. In it can be seen the whole outlook of the spetsnaz soldier: his practically superhuman contempt for death, and a similar contempt for everybody around him. He does not believe in justice, goodness or humanity. He does not even believe in force until it has been demonstrated by means of a fist, a whip or the teeth of a dog. When it is demonstrated his natural reflex is to challenge it immediately.

Sometimes in the life of a spetsnaz soldier he has a sort of revelation, a sense of complete freedom and happiness. In this mental state he fears nobody at all, trusts no one at all, and would not ask anybody for anything, even for mercy. This state comes about in a combination of circumstances in which a soldier would go voluntarily to his death, completely contemptuous of it. At that moment the soldier's mind triumphs completely over cowardice, the vileness and meanness around him. Once he has experienced this sensation of liberation, the soldier is capable of any act of heroism, even sacrificing his life to save a comrade. But his act has nothing in common with ordinary soldiers' friendship. The motive behind such an act is to show, at the cost of his own life, his superiority over all around him, including the comrade he saves.

In order for such a moment of revelation to come on some occasion, the soldier goes through a long and careful training. All the beatings, all the insults and humiliations that he has suffered, are steps on the path to a brilliant suicidal feat of heroism. The well-fed, self-satisfied, egoistic soldier will never perform any acts of heroism. Only someone who has been driven barefoot into the mud and snow, who has had even his bread taken away from him and has proved every day with his fists his right to existence — only this kind of man is capable of showing one day that he really is the best.