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Goodbye to the Footcloth, Hello to the Sock

New draftees wrapping their feet in footcloths after reporting for duty in the east Siberian city of Chita last year. Yevgeny Yepanchintsev
It has padded the feet of Russian soldiers as they marched on Paris, Berlin and Grozny. But within a year, the humble footcloth is to be consigned to the laundry bin of history. Its replacement? The sock.

Portyanki, 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.

The 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.

Footcloths have long been a symbol of the army. But while most countries switched to boots and socks, Russia stuck with the footcloths.

U.S. surgeon Malcolm Grow described the strips of cloth in a memoir of his time working as a doctor in Russia during World War I.

"When 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.

The Russian soldiers told him: "We don't like socks."

Parts 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 soldiers.

But the footcloth has had as many detractors as admirers among generations of Russian soldiers.

"There 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 calluses."

Bykov, who wrote of the difficulties associated with footcloths in his book "Jewhad," called the transition to socks "a good decision."

Historian 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."

"The 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 socks.'"

But 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.

One 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 to master.

During 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.

But nostalgia isn't enough for many who have had to wear them.

"To 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."

Access to laundry is a common problem in the army, and some soldiers' feet have turned gangrenous because of footwear problems, Melnikova said.

Footcloths are also notorious for their foul odor -- a source of perverse pride by some army brass, Melnikova said.

"They 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."

Bykov agreed, recalling, "They smelled terribly, and everyone said portyanki were chemical weapons."

In 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."

The officer himself wears socks because he never got the hang of wrapping the strips of cloth.

Sometimes footcloths are a blessing in disguise, Merridale said, because when soldiers get their boots, they don't necessarily get ones that fit them.

"If you are good at wrapping portyanki, then you can wrap up five or six and end up with boots that really fit," Merridale said.

The 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 remain.

"The 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."

The 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.

Earlier this year, the army said it had hired fashion designer Valentin Yudashkin to create a new uniform for soldiers.

The Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for an interview for this report.

The 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.

When the Ukrainian army switched to socks earlier this year, soldiers complained that they would have to wash their socks themselves, Izvestia reported.

The 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.

Some Ukrainian soldiers wrote poems as a tribute to the footcloths. One managed to rhyme the words "melancholy" and "socks," or toski with noski.

Another wrote: "Don't be sad, my friend / Goodbye footcloth / Hello new sock."

In Ukraine, soldiers get 12 pairs of socks and 25 grams of detergent to wash them.

It is unclear how many pairs of socks Russian soldiers will get.

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