Marauding through Moscow

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By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  12/30/2007

MOSCOW – Shortly after dawn one morning on my first trip to Russia, a land where guidebooks advise foreigners to avoid just about anyone in uniform, I elbowed my way out a cramped subway car onto a marble platform full of indecipherable Cyrillic signs.

Lost, sleepy, and trying to find my way beneath fluorescent-lighted chandeliers and timeworn frescoes of muscle-bound workers, I pushed through the throng of rush-hour commuters and noticed that all the hammers and sickles, red stars, and other relics of communism weren’t the only holdovers from the Soviet era.

Staring somewhat ominously at me was a large man wearing a bright blue beret, combat boots, and a blue-striped tank top. He looked like the kind of guy experienced in the art of killing. I tried to avoid his gaze as he hoisted a nearly finished beer and shouted in my direction, "Slava, VDV! Slava, VDV!" which sounded like a menacing version of gibberish.

But after nearly a week in Russia, it no longer seemed odd – and few paid the man much attention – to find someone drinking in public, haranguing passersby with drunken songs and incomprehensible epithets. I had become accustomed to curious sights throughout the fading grandeur of Moscow’s metro system, which some 9 million people use everyday. Once, I watched a man, in full view of just about everyone in a subway car, plant his hand down a woman’s shirt while another man, after perhaps too much vodka, lost his lunch as the train lurched to a halt.

What I didn't know early that morning was that I would spend the day trying to steer clear of many of the drunken man's comrades, thousands of beret-wearing veterans who wrought a measure of chaos to nearly every corner of the capital, from metro stations and markets to parks and all around Red Square.

I would learn later that this disjointed legion of large men – many of whom were trained to kill Americans – were celebrating a peculiar holiday here called Paratroopers Day, which seemed like a mix of St. Patrick’s Day and Veterans Day, with more alcohol and belligerence. The holiday marks the birth 77 years ago of the Soviet Union’s airborne assault troops, called the Vozdushno-Desyantniye Voiska, or VDV, the proud, highly trained force that helped lay waste to much of Chechnya after years preparing to fight US troops in Europe.

Having managed to pass the drunken paratrooper without incident, I found a way out of the station on one of the metro’s many escalators, which travel about twice the speed of their American counterparts and rose from what seemed like a mile below ground. I emerged into a cold drizzle next to the massive, neo-gothic foreign ministry, which could pass for the Legion of Doom, and trudged through the sodden streets, passing everything from a McDonald’s to vendors hawking trinkets bearing the likeness of Lenin and Marx.

As morning blurred into afternoon, I wandered around the city, from the ornate metro stations to a gritty market where Asian-featured men from the old Soviet republics in the Caucuses sold imitation Nike sneakers, oversized watermelons, and all kinds of gewgaws. I rubbed elbows with grimace-faced babushkas and young women who flaunted their beauty with long hair, short skirts, and stiletto heels, a choice that seemed perilous on cobble-stoned streets. I dined on pelmini (Russian dumplings), borscht, stuffed cabbage, and black bread, though sushi, pizza, and lots of gourmet imports were widely available.

I visited the old Lubyanka prison, where Stalin jailed thousands of dissidents, potential counterrevolutionaries, and innocent victims in the 1930s. The imperious building, amazingly, is now headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the successor of the KGB. When a guard gestured for me to stop snapping pictures of the weathered, gray stones and many surveillance cameras, I crossed the street and found a tiny park home to the relatively invisible Memorial to the Victims of Totalitarianism, a patch of garden with little more than a commemorative rock from a labor camp where the Soviets worked an untold number of people to death.

A block away, I stumbled upon Moscow’s premier science museum, which highlights the country’s contributions to everything from chemistry to rocketry. There were some of the world’s first spacesuits, an exhibit about how Dmitri Mendeleev developed the periodic table, early radio receivers, and importantly for science, a model of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb.

Afterward, as I passed the scaffold-covered Bolshoi Theater and neared the red-brick gates of the Kremlin, I began to realize something was different about this day than my previous days in Russia. Nearly everywhere I turned, I saw the men in the blue berets and striped shirts, or telnyashka, a signature part of the uniform of Russia’s special forces.

Few of them seemed approachable, but I was curious. I decided to try out the few words of Russian I had picked up over the past week.

I went up to one paratrooper walking with a woman and asked, in about as awful an accent as possible, if he spoke English: “Izvinitye, vui gavaritye po angliyski?"
The woman responded: “A li-ttle.”

“Can you explain,” I asked, “why so many people are wearing berets today?”

I added with a smile: “Spasiba,” or thank you.

They didn’t return the smile. She looked blankly at me and said something about it being a holiday. Then she made a puzzling gesture, what I now think referred to men descending from the sky in parachutes.

No better informed, I walked to Red Square, where hundreds of on-duty servicemen in green fatigues kept a close watch on their retired brethren, who ambled about waving their blue and green flags and yelling, “Slava, VDV!” or “Glory to the Airborne Troops!”

I prodded a friend, an expatriate living in Russia, to ask a police officer what was happening. She was reluctant, because of the rule about not approaching those wearing uniforms. He looked coldly at her, more through her, refusing to say anything.

With the area crowded with similarly unfriendly men and the sun finally peaking through the dark clouds, I thought it would be a good time to visit Gorky Park, which my guidebook described as “one of Moscow’s most festive places to escape the hubbub of the city.”

There was definitely a party.

On the metro ride to the park, scores of disheveled, red-eyed men in berets held each other up, sang, and hugged fellow comrades, even those who appeared to be strangers.

Outside the station near the park, a group of paratroopers stood around a buddy laying half on the sidewalk, half on the street. He was motionless. A man wearing a beret held his head, but his chest didn’t seem to be moving. It looked as if he was dead, until they pulled him up and his eyes rolled open.

I crossed a bridge over the Moscow River and watched as other paratroopers ran into traffic waving flags, butted chests with passing comrades, and hurled bottles of vodka and beer cans anywhere they wanted.

I thought once I crossed the bridge I’d be in the clear, but their numbers were only increasing – the conscious and unconscious. It was as if I had walked onto a base after a victorious battle.

It turned out, compounding the evidence of my obliviousness, that the park was the epicenter of the paratroopers’ drunken festivities, the place where they all congregate to observe their day of mayhem.

When I passed through the columned entrance of the park, which has old carousels, roller coasters, and remnants of the Soviet Union’s failed effort to copy the Space Shuttle, the paratroopers were everywhere.

They were urinating on benches, strumming guitars with medals on their chests, and filming each other dancing and wrestling. Some disrobed to their tattoos and splashed through the park’s fountains. Others ended up half naked, passed out on the muddy grass.

The year before, when local media reported authorities had arrested five paratroopers and sent some 20 others to area hospitals, The Moscow Times described the day as “relatively uneventful.”

On this day, to make sure I didn’t end up like the men splayed out on the grass, I decided it might be a good idea to explore a different part of town.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.