March 01, 2013

Sporting Portyanki

Sporting Portyanki

In January, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu expressed horror that soldiers were still wrapping their feet with portyanki instead of wearing socks. Vowing that the historic practice must end, he proclaimed that “In 2013, or at least by the end of 2013, we must forget the word портя́нки...”

How odd, I thought to myself… Maybe the portyanka is a bit old-fashioned and not very aesthetic, but why take it out on the word? After all, there is the well-known and rather witty диалекти́зм from Russian student lexicon, whereby the word портя́нка is used in place of шпарга́лка (cheat-sheet). And Russians more generally use the word to describe a дли́нная бума́жка с писани́ной (a long piece of paper with writing on it).

Коро́че, the word is here to stay, even if the actual портя́нка is on its way out. On the other hand, что за пожа́р? (where’s the fire?). As experienced Russian soldiers and officers will tell you, it’s very uncomfortable wearing plain но́ски|носки́ (socks) with those tall army boots – one’s feet quickly get rubbed raw, and socks wear out instantly. Furthermore, портя́нки prevent the blisters (мозо́ли) that come from wearing tall, heavy boots with no laces. How do I know? I learned it the hard way when I stupidly (and secretly) replaced my портя́нки with socks during my own month-long sojourn in the military: I had bloody blisters all over my right foot, while the old-timers wearing портя́нки had none.

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