One year in the Red Army
Alexander Aksakov’s preface to his photo-book “365”
A cold winter was on its way. We were given a uniform, a pair of boots, a box of dry rations and a chance to pay our “debts” to the motherland. No one was really sure if we had any, but trying to avoid them was a bad idea – life on the run from the police until the age of 27 is a sad fate. It was the day we all met: my birthday, December 10th.
Not a great day for a birthday party, not at all. Especially when you are with 50 unknown recruits in a changing room sharing a cake and some candies. Still, they were sweet enough in comparison to the bitter taste of a 365-day debt to pay off.
We were on our way to the base. A northbound train shot across snow, digesting people in its winding, metal gut. Long winter nights never feel safe.
Snow, random lights, the sounds of the train, shaven heads, anticipation and tea from metal cups all conspired with the night, radiated anxiety
Seen from a carriage window, Russian northern winters look like a long, straight, boring road: it ends somewhere at the horizon, but you can never reach it. Although it seemed endless, suddenly our trip was over. We were at the base. A shower, a change of clothes, abandoning our civilian underwear, supper, first instructions. Many new unknown faces. We were not allowed to use mobile phones, cameras, laptops or any other computer or recording devices. They were banned.
We could only make calls once or twice a week.
An officer took my Smena-8M and put it in a box in his office. But the thought of spending a year without documenting my surroundings was grim, so two months later, when I was put into a fireteam, I figured out that my officer was an amateur photographer. It came to me like a flash of light in the middle of the night. After a long talk I had my camera back – on the condition that no other officers found out. It was like night and day.
We spent most of the time in a fireteam. Minus 35 Celsius outside and darkness offer time to think, to read and to shoot some portraits. Just a couple of rolls and no chance of getting more make you a thrifty person. Especially when you’re deep in the woods, 50 km from the nearest town. Parcels from relatives once every two months were my only respite.
Four months left. I knew everybody in the base, everybody knew me, but in most cases it was a matter of knowing faces and names, and nothing behind them. We were kind of together, but everybody was alone at the same time. We had different backgrounds, but the army made us equal – age, class, education didn’t matter. We were all dressed in green.
Sometimes winter is good – especially when you know for sure that spring is around the corner. Six months were full of nature. I spent most of the time in the woods with some of my new friends and my officer. The Smena was always in my pocket. Nature gave me the freedom to shoot and not to worry about hiding the camera.
The desperation was gone. Long northern days heralded the equinox – 6 months had passed and there were 6 more to go. By that time half the conscripts had been demobilized. Most of us hardly knew them – even less then we knew each other. It’s part of army hierarchy – newbies stay newbies before old conscripts finish service. And the newbies stayed alone for a month before new soldiers started to come.
It was hot. Our uniforms were stifling. I and the sergeant, a friend of mine, had been on duty for 4 months. We changed shifts every other day. Not enough sleep. But at least enough light outside. Although it was tough, it was still nice to stay alone at night. It was a physical feeling – not to have people around you. It opens a road of thoughts and dreams about home, friends and family. Long, long nights…
These sleepless nights led me to autumn. By that time the fireteam was finally full – 5 of us, and 5 new conscripts. Finally I had time to rest, the return of dreams made nights surreal. And time was ticking towards my next birthday. And the day of demobilization. I was waiting for the best birthday present of my life. When you wait for something, time slows to a crawl. Anticipation was killing me.
More recruits joined our team. But everybody was still alone. We were all wrapped up in our own thoughts: the new guys were thinking about their service, while we were looking forward to going home. I was still taking a few pictures a week.
My camera was a diary of my feelings more then a diary of life. It was a tool for turning experience into substance, for capturing it and freezing it in time.
The Smena became a hidden friend, my personal psychologist
More months passed. We were about to return home. It was hard to see some of my friends leaving earlier. I was jealous. Guys from my unit were going home, and I was staying longer because I was conscripted later. Anyway, I was glad to see them on the train. It would be mine one day, that was sure.
But nothing is forever. And I wasn’t planning to stay in the army forever, either. And my birthday finally came.
I was packing my bag. I hid the undeveloped films, wrapping them up in clothes, at the bottom of the bag and in the pockets. There was still a chance of us being searched before the train departed, the threat of losing all the pictures was real. A shiver ran down my spine.
My team saw me leaving. They waved.
It was December 10th again.
The train. Noise and flashing lights through the window. I was not depressed. I was happy that the debt had been paid off. I left everybody and everything in the woods, in snow and dark sky.
I took the Smena out of the bag to shoot a last portrait of a friend of mine, who was also demobilized that day. The shutter softly clicked. It was the last frame of the last roll, just in time.
Rewind. The last day. The last frame. I opened the back of the Smena, took out the film… the shutter was broken. My hidden friend was dead.