THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Mind the uniform

Once the army's elite, Russian paratroopers celebrate their own holiday full-bore

Email|Print| Text size + By David Abel
Globe Staff / December 30, 2007

Shortly after dawn one day on my first trip to Russia, a land where guidebooks advise foreigners to avoid just about anyone in uniform, I elbowed my way out of 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 at me somewhat ominously was a large man wearing a bright blue beret, combat boots, and a blue-striped tank top. He looked like a 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!" gibberish that anyway sounded menacing.

After nearly a week in Russia, however, it no longer seemed odd to find someone drinking in public, haranguing passersby with drunken songs and incomprehensible epithets. Already I was accustomed to curious sights throughout the fading grandeur of Moscow's metro system, which some 9 million people use every day. For instance, I had seen a man, in full view of just about everyone in the subway car, plant his hand down a woman's shirt while another lost his lunch as the train lurched to a halt.

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

I would learn later that this disjointed legion of large men - many of whom were trained to kill - 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 more belligerence. The holiday marks the birth 77 years ago of the Soviet Union's airborne assault troops called the Vozdushno-Desantnye Vojska, or VDV, the proud, highly trained force that helped lay waste to much of Chechnya after years of Cold War preparation to fight US troops in Europe.

Having managed to pass by the paratrooper without incident, I found my way out of the station on one of its many escalators, which travel about twice the speed of their US counterparts and rise from what seems like a mile below ground. I emerged into a cold drizzle next to the massive, neo-Gothic Foreign Ministry Building, 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 likenesses of Lenin and Marx.

As morning blurred into afternoon, I wandered the city, from the ornate metro stations to a gritty market where Asian-featured men from the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus sold imitation Nike sneakers, oversized watermelons, and all kinds of gewgaws. I rubbed elbows with grimacing babushkas and beautiful young women who flaunted their long hair, short skirts, and stiletto heels, a perilous choice on cobblestoned streets. I dined on pelmeni (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 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 untold thousands, or millions, 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, some early radio receivers, and a model of the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb.

Afterward, as I passed the scaffold-covered Bolshoi Theatre and neared the red brick gates of the Kremlin, I began to realize something was different about this day from 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 navy and 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.

I went up to one paratrooper walking with a woman and asked, in about as awful an accent as possible, if he spoke English: "Izvinitzia, vi gavarite pa angliyski?"

The woman responded: "A li-ttle."

"Can you explain," I said, "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, which I now think referred to men parachuting.

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 advice about not approaching those wearing uniforms. He looked coldly at her, or through her, refusing to say anything.

With the area crowded with similarly unfriendly men and the sun finally peeking 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 comrades, even those who appeared to be strangers.

Outside the station near the park, a group of paratroopers stood around a buddy lying motionless, half on the sidewalk, half on the street. He looked as if he were 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 comrades, and hurled vodka bottles and beer cans everywhere.

I thought once I crossed the bridge I'd be in the clear, but their numbers were only growing. It was as if I had walked onto a base after a victorious battle.

It turned out the park was the epicenter of the paratroopers' drunken festivities, the place where they 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 strumming guitars, and videotaping each other dancing and wrestling. Some disrobed to their tattoos and splashed through the park's fountains. Some urinated on the benches. Others ended up half naked, passed out on the muddy grass.

The year before, when local media reported that authorities had arrested five paratroopers and some 20 others had been taken to 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 on the grass, I decided to explore a different part of town.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

If You Go

How to get there

Visitors to Russia must obtain a visa and an official letter of invitation from a company, hotel, or other group. Tourist visas are valid for 30 days and cost $100-$300. For information, contact the consular section of the Embassy of Russia at 202-939-8907, (-8913, -8918), or the nearest Consulate General in New York, at 212-348-0926 (-0955, -0626), or visit russianembassy.org.

Where to stay

Hotels in Moscow are anything but cheap, especially inside the Garden Ring, or the center of the city. The priciest hotels can cost more than $500 a night, while many mid-level hotels cost $150-$200. Budget-minded travelers might consider renting apartments; visit apartmentres.com or enjoymoscow.com.

Top hotels include the new Ararat Park Hyatt (4 Neglinnaya St., moscow.park.hyatt.com, 011-7-495-783-1234); Hotel Metropol (Teatralny proezd 1/4, 011-7-499-501-7800, metropol-moscow.ru); and Hotel Savoy (ul Rozhdestvenka 3).

Where to eat

Petrovich
ul Myasnitskaya 24/1
011-7-495-923-0082
Designed by the cartoonist Andrey Bilzho. Features music, nostalgia, and moderately-priced, bland food. Entrees $12-$15.

Tiflis
ul Ostozhenka 32
011-7-495-290-2897
Gourmet Caucasian cuisine. Entrees $15-$20.

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