US Soil Literally Ground Under Heel of Communist Jackboots

Since our posts on footwraps and jackboots, Lean Solid Dogs has been flooded with queries from peace-loving people of all fraternal nations. In response, I conducted harsh field trials on the Russian-style jackboots and footwraps, equipment worth over $20.05, assuming a value of one nickel for the remnants of my old pillowcase. Nothing but the best for you, dear readers!

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To me they still look like I should be rounding up Polish hostages.

I’d been told that where jackboots and footwraps excel is in water and damp. However, I had doubts. Sure, jackboots have high sides, and no doubt some of them are well sealed too. But it seemed like once they did flood, you would be doomed and your feet stuck for your whole walk in knee-high water buckets. At the recent GORUCK challenge, I’d chosen exactly the opposite strategy, wearing a second-hand pair of “Moab Ventilators,” so named because of the mesh sides intended to let water drain out like from scuppers on a ship’s deck. But whatever the designers’ intended, the Moabs stayed wet all night, encrusted on the outside with a thin cement of caked-on sand and moistened from the inside by my waterlogged wool socks.

20180815_121935And just as Krushchev predicted, the Communist jackboots buried their pricey, effete capitalist counterparts. I tried to flood them all the way and could not! First I stood in a creek up to my ankles, patiently waiting for water to find its way through the seal, but it never did. Impressed, I knelt down in the creek hoping that water would rush over the boot tops like Soviet tanks through the Fulda Gap. Still no joy. As I have mentioned before, the portyanki are so long (90cm/36”) that you wind half the fabric around your calves, and to my amazement this sealed the boot tops so thickly that water could not cascade in. I had to wiggle and fishtail around, trying to coax water into the jackboots, til after about 30 seconds I had to be satisfied with getting my feet about 40% soaked.

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See the ring of creek filth around the calf? The portyanki created a thick cloth seal there that kept out the dirt, and most of the water too.

I walked the next mile that way and found it perfectly satisfactory. I had wondered whether water would continue to drip down my calf and slowly make a sopping, sucking fishbowl around my feet, but this never happened. Either the footwraps pack up all the loose space around your feet and leave little room for water to gather, or as Lars from Survival Russia suggests, maybe the footwraps really do wick it up and out.

Certainly I was amazed at how well the wraps dried out. After a mile, I stopped to turn the wraps around. This is something that portyanki fans like Lars are always try to sell you on: “Instead of changing into dry socks,” they’ll say, “you can turn portyanki around and wrap your feet from the other, drier end. The wet end will get a chance to dry out, now being wrapped around your calf or even sticking out your boot top. It’s like having a dry pair of socks built right in.” Without impugning Lars’ integrity, I must confess I thought that sounded almost as fishy as Lenin’s “democratic centralism,” but he was right. After a mile, not only had the top end of my footwraps dried enough to be comfortable, they were also drier than my pant legs, which were directly exposed to the air!

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Turned around, re-wrapped, and almost as good as dry socks. The wet end is now poking out the top.

Score one for East then. No, the footwraps did not dry out completely until I took them off at home and hung them up, but now I was inspired to try some serious Marxist science. I soaked the portyanki and my favorite wool socks and hung them in the sun, side by side to make a fair trial, but the outcome was never in doubt. Unsurprisingly the thin, single-ply footwraps with their huge surface area dried in half the time.

So will I seriously wear these things in place of hiking boots? I certainly would in wet muck. I might even wear them on other terrain just for the fun of doing things the old-fashioned way, just like I prefer to shoot revolvers. Loyal readers of this blog know that I am a sucker for the seductions of kludgy but ingeniously designed Communist gear, and friends know that I suffer from Ostalgie, an aesthetic nostalgia for the lost world of the socialist Eastern Bloc. The city of my young adulthood was an actual Stalinist metropole, and it left me with a sentimental fondness for the blocky, heavy, dim, cheap, kitschy material culture and aesthetic that—as far as I can tell—originated in Moscow and was exported to all corners of the Second World as part of what might be called the “Stalinist cultural package.”

Jokes aside, let me be clear: Lenin, Stalin, and the state they made were evil, an evil unsurpassed in the 20thcentury, and it’s bizarre that they get a pass from so many bien-pensants in the West. I’m just saying that if (Heaven forbid) I were going to conquer and enslave half the peoples of Europe, I would definitely consider doing it in actual Communist jackboots.

Actually a Thing: Jackboots

Backpacking brings to life a lot of dead metaphors. When someone drives past you on a dry dirt road, you literally eat their dust, and on day two of a long hike, you really do have to tighten your belt.

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But “jackboots?” To me, “jackboot” is just a metonymy for fascists, as in “jackbooted thugs” and “Europe can go from zero to jackboot in no time.” George Orwell derided it as a hackneyed Comintern pejorative that held zero literal meaning for English speakers: “Ask a journalist what a jackboot is, and you will find that he does not know. Yet he goes on talking about jackboots.” I’d bet that Orwell was right and we got the viral “jackbooted Nazi” trope from the Russian language. But curiously, the Soviets themselves
also wore jackboots! In fact, whereas the German army traded in jackboots for laced boots halfway through the war, the Russian army wore them right up to 2008! (In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the usual Russian word for boots, sapogi, specifically refers to jackboots.)

Here in America, actual jackboots are a weird sight, known mostly from black-and-white photos of our dead enemies. Even in China they were rare. I used to deal with a lot of Chinese soldiers, who were organized and equipped along Soviet lines—like the Finns, the PLA would study Soviet designs and then improve them—but instead of sapogi they wore green canvas sneakers. It was only the ceremonial detail (礼兵) who raised the flag in Tiananmen Square each morning who would goose-step across Chang’an Boulevard in actual huge gleaming jackboots.

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Friend to friend, guys, if you’re serious about image-building, we need to get you new boots. How about some Uggs? Wouldn’t those be cute?

I must be a true ‘Murican, because I am turned off by jackboots, both the word and the real thing. For me, they call to mind all the adjectives that I associate with Mussolini: “preening,” “cocksure,” “buffoonish,” “swaggering,” “ridiculous,” “vainglorious,” and so on.

So I was surprised to find that in 2018 jackboots are still being chosen for daily wear by actual, nice, non-evil people! Exhibit A is Lars Grebnev, a Danish expatriate who creates the “Survival Russia” YouTube channel from the homestead he shares with his Russian wife and daughter in BFE, Siberia. (Hmm, I guess it shouldn’t be BFE but “БФЗ.”) A woodsman and hunter, Lars prefers jackboots to lace-ups for general wear because the jackboots keep moisture out, dry quickly when wet, and keep a healthy circulation of blood and air in and around the foot.

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images-15 At most, one of these two Danes has committed crimes against humanity, and it’s not the guy in the jackboots.

I had to keep reminding myself that a considered preference for jackboots is not necessarily the same as choosing despotism over freedom. “Besides,” I assured myself, “Grebnev can’t be an evil blood-stained fascist hyena. He’s Danish, and since Viking times no Dane has visited atrocities on other countries. Unless you count the films of Lars von Trier.”

So for the sake of Science, I acquired a pair of East German jackboots from—literally—a dust-covered shelf in a dark corner of a cavernous surplus store. They were so unloved that I had to convince the store owner to charge me $20 for them. “Perhaps,” I thought, “as a true American she’s ashamed even to have them in her store and just wants them gone.”

And then (deep breath) I wore the jackboots. Yes, outside of my house. In daylight. On a long hike. Granted, I did roll my pant legs down over the distinctively mitteleuropäischen boot tops so that people wouldn’t look at me and think, “Wow, I bet that guy kills for sport.” And there is NFW I am taking a picture of myself in tall jackboots and putting it on the internet. I probably wouldn’t be crucified unless I also wore balloon-like cavalry trousers and carried a swagger stick. But these days you can’t be too careful. People get condemned as Nazis for less. Honestly, sometimes I wonder whether you people adequately appreciate the things I do for you.

When you change into a completely different kind of clothing, you change your posture and movement too. Not just because you are conscious of a different social role but because of how the clothes physically touch, cue, constrain, or free you. If you’re like me, if you wear a kilt for a few hours, you walk and stand wider just because you can. Your thighs get to do whatever they want for once and you can give more room to … whatever needs room.

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The jackboots seem to prompt you to lock your knees when standing, because they push gently backward on your shins and coax you to put more weight on your heels. You tuck your pelvis under too—most Americans stand with our pelvises tilted forward—and then when I walk in the jackboots, I swing my feet more from the knees.

In the field, the jackboots were much more comfortable than I thought. I am pretty certain that the Russian army chose jackboots not to please the soldiers but because they made the supply officers’ job easier. One advantage to the jackboots was that correct sizes are not so important (more on this later), so your soldiers could get boots that were too big and still make do. Also, if I understand correctly, jackboots are easier to manufacture than ankle boots. Yes, they use up more leather, which is why the Germans abandoned them mid-war, but in some cases the Soviets had plenty of raw materials and labor but not enough of the specialized tooling and production experience needed for fancier items.

A classic example was the early AK-47. As originally designed, it was supposed to use light, cheap metal stampings, an emerging technology used to great effect by German engineers when they ran low on raw materials. But the Soviets found they suffered a different kind of scarcity than the Germans: their enemies had run short of steel and factory workers but they still had world-class production engineering. In contrast, the Soviets had enough steel and manufacturing capacity, but they didn’t have engineers who were experienced in the new field of metal stamping. So they purposely took a technological step backward and abandoned stampings for AK-47s, instead going back to the old-fashioned technique of carving the guns out of blocks of metal. (They also enslaved the German engineers and made them fix the metal-stamping problems. How’s that for thinking outside the box?) They chose something clunkier that used more material because that was the thing they could mass-produce using the skills they were good at. I suspect that jackboots were like that too: no eyelets or grommets or hooks, no tongue, not so much precise fitting, just a basic pattern that the Russian workforce was already good at making.

As promised, my jackboots kept my feet dry. I was pleased that for once I could clomp boldly through the stream instead of picking my way across stepping stones with a backpack and a clumsy jerry can–and maybe falling in anyway. And the jackboots were amazingly light, lighter than any boots I own, being made from some kind of imitation leather (possibly kirza).

What I worried about was footing. As noted, jackboots by themselves do not fit you very closely. Saying nothing of the ankle, which has no laces, the boots’ “lasts” (the foot-shaped part) can’t tighten around your feet. Instead they are like little boxes and your feet bang around inside fairly loosely. Even wearing two pairs of woolen socks, my feet did not feel snug enough.

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That was the whole problem. These boots are not made with socks in mind. Instead you’re assumed to be wearing footwraps (portyanki). So I did it, friends! As promised, I cut up an old flannel bedsheet into strips of 40 x 90cm (16 x 36”) and learned how to wrap my feet the Russian way. (One more item off the bucket list!)

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Let me tell you, comrades, like so much of life, there is a right way to wrap your feet and there are also lots of wrong ways. I know this because I tried all of them. Finally I got it right (thanks, Lars!), and what resulted looks like a foot that’s mummified in soft, poofy cotton cloth. Tactilely, it felt really luxurious and cozy, like a thick, sturdy sheaf of cotton candy from my calf down to my toes. And miraculously, when I slid my mummified foot deep into the boot, I got a nice, snug fit. Instead of my feet banging around the inside of loose leather cases, they were like a pair of earrings cushioned by cotton inside a gift box. Whereas laced boots tighten the boot down around the foot, the portyanki bulk the foot out to fill up the boot.

This seems to be why jackboots are forgiving of imprecise sizing. If you have a pair of boots that gives you a lot of toe room, you can tweak your wrappings slightly to fill in the empty space. Problem solved! The same thing happens at the ankle. The portyanki are super-long—a full yard!—and most of that cloth ends up wrapped around your ankle and calf. It acts as “internal boot laces,” if you will, and gives you a firm fit. When you walk, your heels get to rise and fall a little but you are held gently but firmly at your toes, instep, ankle, and calf.

On my walk, the only problem occurred when I walked down a long, steep, rough slope under heavy load. My toes were superbly cushioned, whereas hiking boots would grind them if the boots didn’t have generous toe room and the right tension in the laces. But after a time, the downward angle was slowly bunching up the footwraps in the boots’ toes, and after half a mile of that I needed to rewrap my feet so that I blister them against the wrinkles forming underneath them. I don’t yet know whether this is an inherent problem or my fault as a neophyte foot-wrapper.

In any case, at that point I had the opportunity to try out one of the virtues of portyanki that Lars and others praise the most: they make it easy to keep your feet dry of sweat because they are like several pairs of spare socks in one. Your sweaty foot is only in contact with one corner of the footwrap at a time, and the opposite end is wound around your calf or even poking out the top of your boot, where it is gradually drying. So if your foot would benefit from some dry “socks,” you just turn the portyanki around and wrap from the other side. Later you can dunk them in water, wring them out, and hang them up, and the thin cloth will air-dry in no time. I tried this out at the Pool of Heaven and it worked just as advertised.

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We are DEFINITELY trying this again, guys!

Портянки

What is archaic, rustic, cheap … and Russian?

It’s a trick question! The answer is, “Whatever it may be, you know damn well that now Jason will insist on trying it!”

Today it’s portyanki, the traditional Russian foot wrap that some hunters still prefer with heavy boots instead of socks. In fact, the Russian army only phased out foot wraps in 2008. Even though portyanki are notoriously stinky–“traditional Russian chemical weapons,” according to the old joke–loyalists insist they are better for foot health than socks because they dry very quickly.

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If you leave a wrinkle in the wrong place, you can get a nasty hot spot. Ask me how I know.

Of course, I think the army was actually more impressed that portyanki obeyed what I take to be the Prime Directive of Soviet equipment: Unburden the supply chain. Soviet industry scarcely needed to “manufacture” foot wraps–all they are is strips of cloth, and most any kind of cloth will do. The wraps bulk up the foot, so they make it less important to have boots that fit well. And they last nearly forever, unlike socks, but even if you do damage them, you can make do by wrapping them a little differently, or you can just make yourself a new pair with some discarded cloth.

Or that’s what they tell me, anyway. I aim to find out for myself. I have sacrificed an old flannel pillowcase on the altar of Soviet Gear Science and will report back. You may send any concerns about cultural appropriation to your local Communist Party branch office, where you will be sent to the gulag for re-education.

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The author consulted no Cossacks in connection with this post. He remains defiant.