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Last Updated: Monday, 19 February 2007, 11:53 GMT
Armies boot out Soviet tradition
By Artyom Liss
BBC News, Moscow

Canvas boots
Canvas boots have been a fixture in the Russian army for centuries
The post-Soviet armies of Ukraine and Belarus are set to part with one of their oldest traditions.

Defence ministries in both countries are decommissioning traditional foot bindings and canvas boots.

For centuries they formed part of a soldier's standard uniform across the Russian empire.

Then the Soviet Union inherited the tradition and after its demise in 1991 many of its successor countries preserved this tradition.

Early service regulations of the Red Army even explained in great detail how to wear the boots and how to wind on the foot bindings.

For soldiers, the learning curve was steep. Alexander - who served as a tank gunner in the 1980s - says that in the first few weeks of the military service his feet were covered with bleeding wounds.

Sore feet

"You can't just stick your feet in and go off on a cross-country march" - he recalls.

"It takes a while to get used to the foot bindings and to the canvas, and then you grow enormous corns, and just don't care any longer. Your feet become so hard you can drive in nails with your toes".

It takes a while to get used [to them] and then you grow enormous corns, and just don't care any longer
Ian Leder, former Soviet infantryman
A traditional foot binding is a rectangular piece of thick cloth 35 by 90 centimetres (13.6 by 35 inches) in size.

First worn with bast sandals by Russian peasants, they remained almost unchanged through the ages.

But, for all the blood, sweat and tears involved in wearing bindings, former soldiers say the thick cloth and the canvas boots were a perfect match.

Former infantryman Ian Leder described typical Soviet boots as "a tough piece of work".

"There were stitches in places where you'd least expect them. And measurements were rather vague. So the thicker the layer between your feet and your boots, the better", he says.

Cold climate

Some long-serving privates did try to switch to socks, but very soon they all went back to the foot bindings.

Russian soldier's boots in Grozny
Russian army chiefs say their soldiers will keep wearing them
Advocates of the tradition say cheap and virtually indestructible boots and foot bindings suit the cold Russian climate better than the refined footwear of Western armies.

And in the marshland, there is almost no danger of water making its way inside.

So, while large parts of Russia remain off-limits to anyone but the toughest, generals in Moscow do not seem prepared to move on.

Russia's neighbours face a terrain which is, arguably, less challenging.

This could, perhaps, explain their post-Soviet change in footwear priorities.

Defence chiefs in Ukraine say there is a need to maintain hygiene in the army and to make soldiers' lives more bearable.

In Ukraine, the old tradition will be phased out within a few months.

Belarus is taking things slower. There, the last pair of canvas boots and matching bindings will only be laid to rest in 2010.

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