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Supernatural Selection

 How the elite of Russian special forces are ready to fight?  10/14/2011, 02:46
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Supernatural Selection
PHOTO: ANDREY SHAPRAN

If a commando sees you wearing the dark-red beret, or «maroon» in Special Forces terms, you could be heading for trouble. It should only be worn with military uniform. So if you’ve got the beret on in public, like a drunken airman on 2nd August (Russian Paratroopers’ Day), you’ve got a problem. That’s what commandos say about civilians who buy the maroon beret in shops. Sib.fm’s correspondent takes a look at the test which you have to pass to wear this special headgear.


The «maroon berets» in Russia are the equivalent of the American «Green Berets»

— You’re going to write about the Special Forces?

— Yeah!

— Alright, but we don’t need any girly material. Military men don’t like soppy stories, ok?

It’s 7:10am and we’re standing by the roadblock at the gates of the Iskitim Training Centre of the Novosibirsk Military Institute for Interior Troops. Today, 44 servicemen who want to earn the right to wear the maroon beret are going to run, crawl and get wet, clenching their teeth and submachine guns. For us civilians, it’s just a natty piece of red felt, but for the commandos it’s a symbol of courage, honour, valour, the highest level of professional skill and something else, which even they struggle to put into words, but for which they’re ready to fight until their face resembles a bloody mess.

The aspiring maroon berets of 2011 are lined up on the drill square. One journalist remarks that the established commandos who are standing not too far away look not only more confident, but also several times larger than the ones who are about to take the test.

— At the end they’re going to beat them up you know!" she exclaims.

The holders of the dark-red beret are the elite of the Special Forces. They are strapping and stern, but, all in all, are looking forward to a good day. Many of them are going to take part in the quick-march as instructors. Then they will force the already drained candidates to do press-ups and belly crawl.

When they fall on the wet ground, wheezing and swearing, the maroon berets will give the order: «Now shout: I love the Special Forces». They’ll shout. Then start running again.

The first event is a cross-country quick-march «with tactical scenarios». It starts with a river crossing. The soldiers, already a little out of breath, run up to the river and enter the water, lifting their weapons.


Trials were conducted illegally when the «berets» tradition was first introduced

— Run, I said! Lift your feet higher! Running, not walking! Weapons up!" command the instructors from the riverbank.

It is essential not to get the submachine gun wet. After the quick march, burning obstacle course and liberation of a village, taken by terrorists, it’s time to fire a test shot from the standard weapon. If your gun doesn’t go off, you can say goodbye to your dream of becoming a maroon beret. At least until the next trials.

— Last year one lad’s submachine gun didn’t fire. It had probably gotten wet. He was really tired, could barely stand. Then he realized that all his suffering was for nothing and I could see that he was on the verge of tears," recounts a woman who has already been to the trials several times.

We were promised that after the 12km quick-march in full gear, which weighs more than 20kg, less than half of the 44-strong group will remain. Apparently they’ll come crawling back, not running. At last they came into sight. Only a couple have fallen behind, but just by a few metres. A lot of them are dragging their feet, their faces mud-stained, but they’re all moving quite briskly.

— Don’t give up. Run!" cry the maroon beret instructors.

Colonel Mikhail Illarionov, deputy head of the Intelligence Section for Interior Troops, told us that three years ago most people dropped out during the quick-march. Now the candidates are tougher — 13 out of 44 have fallen by the wayside.

Explosions ring out around us. Everyone flinches. Except the huge, harsh maroon berets. But even on their faces we detect barely-noticeable movements, which tell us that the explosions are real. Almost.

The flaming assault course, the most spectacular part of the trials, has begun. Amid smoke and explosions the commandos move in groups, covering each other.

You really get the feeling that you’re at...all right, not at war, but in a war film, that’s for sure. Except that we can’t see the enemy. Green missiles are being launched with a shrill whistle, as if from underground. Instructors monitor the soldiers’ every step and remove them from the «battlefield» for even the slightest slip-up.

— I said advance by rushes! Are you deaf? Cover!" scream the instructors, who will soon welcome new commandos «for especially complex special operations» into their ranks. It’s considered normal to scream at your colleagues here, because the beret is at stake and when it’s all for real the «maroons» really don’t want to end up next to a guy who sat down to have a rest during the «battle» or forgot to check whether there were any militants behind the door.


The tradition of «maroon berets» is established in the Special Forces of Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

The men here have all taken part in real wars: only active commandos are allowed to participate in the trials. That said, they must have served for at least one year. This morning, 53 candidates, who had already passed strict screening, came to the Iskitim Training Centre. After the final medical inspection, 44 remained.

— Here the soldiers are only ‘fighting’ against themselves," explains Colonel Medvedev, Chairman of the Council of Maroon Berets. «The standards and conditions are well-known. Go ahead, make the grade. What’s different this year is that we’ve toughened the requirements and are devoting more and more attention to the admissions process. A lot of candidates are eliminated during pre-selection. No one is here by chance, they are all highly skilled.

This year not all the submachine guns fired, so 30 soldiers are marching on to the third stage, shooting. They are given time to clean their weapon. As well as readying their guns for action, the lads have the chance to rest a bit. I approach them.

— Do you have water? Anything sweet? Sweets? Sugar? Do you have anything at all?» the tough future «maroons» ask me. I get annoyed at myself for not being prepared. Could have at least brought a chocolate bar.

The instructors remind the candidates why they’re here.

— What have you sat down for? Tired, are you?!

After the shooting it’s time for the stage known as «high-rise» — storming a tall building. The participating commandos put on abseiling equipment and are given a grenade and ammunition, before mounting the roof of a three-storey building.


The maroon beret is worn only by soldiers, who are worthy of this right based on their professional, physical and moral qualities

On the command «Storm!» they’ve got 25 seconds to rope down to the first window and, hanging there, fire a submachine gun burst into it. Then they have to descend to the lower window, knock out the plywood which is blocking it, throw a grenade in and run to the judges’ table. All this in less than 30 seconds, then the grenade explodes.

One of participants hesitates for a fraction of a second before moving on from the first window, makes up the lost time, but then, on the ground, struggles to remove the clip from his rope. He runs towards the judges’ table, gets his distances wrong, knocks it down and falls on the grass. His time is 26 seconds. He hasn’t passed the test.

Thirteen soldiers are left. Two women in white coats with big bags of medicine and bandages are walking towards the field.

— «Now it’s getting serious,» say the medics.

The weakest part of our preparation is on the psychological readiness to act, says Colonel Illarionov, answering the question to what extent the trials simulate field conditions.

It’s very difficult for us to model a combat situation, when real bullets are flying and real legs are severed.

— Nevertheless we try to model this psychological situation with hand-to-hand fighting," Illarionov continues. «In fact, it’s the most convenient and effective method of training. Moreover, a ‘fistfight’ approximates operational conditions to the greatest possible extent.

The patriotic march «Farewell of Slavianka» is playing. The test subjects have already demonstrated a set of acrobatic exercises and close-quarters combat with and without a weapon. Now they are putting on protective equipment in preparation for the one-on-one fights. Twelve minutes of uninterrupted combat are in store for them, during half of which the boys have to fight against the «maroons». It definitely won’t be «play fighting». If a candidate gets the better of a commando, he’ll lose his beret. Six minutes is nothing. The 5-minute break at university passes in the blink of an eye. But six minutes against a «maroon» seem infinite, even to those who have already watched military boxing from the side-lines.

— Why are you sitting down?! Come on, come on! Hands up! They hit you — you hit back! the older troopers are yelling to their charges, who any minute now will be dealt a bloody knockout at the hands of their instructors, who barely break a sweat.

Apparently, before it was enough to just stick out your minutes of combat. Nowadays, if you don’t fight back, you’ll be disqualified for «passivity».


The maroon beret is also awarded for courage and bravery during warfare and special operations

The instructors, who have come to fight in only t-shirts and gloves, don’t feel any real danger. They give the candidates the opportunity not only to defend themselves, but also to strike first. This is the final test. Only a few minutes of fighting separate the trialists from the beret. That’s why cheering, swearing, encouragement, names, and more swearing can be heard from all directions. Anything that will help distract the youngsters from their bloody noses.

Grigory Kobelev, from Angarsk, got his maroon beret in May 2007. Now he is the instructor of the «Snow Leopard» unit assault team and this year brought two soldiers to the trials. In 15 minutes one of them will be presented with a well-deserved maroon beret by Colonel Medvedev.

— Both of them could have passed, but one failed ‘high-rise’ by a second, said Senior Sergeant Kobelev. «I ran the whole distance with them, encouraged them not to fall behind and kept their spirits up. Now, of course, I’ve complimented them, but normally I’m very strict. There’s no room for compassion in this business. One out of two has passed. I think that’s a good showing.

No one gets to see the maroon berets prior to the awarding ceremony. Every year journalists ask to film the safe where the berets are kept and try to find out how many of them there are. But every year they get the same answer: „Prohibited.“ It’s not the done thing, not appropriate.

No one should touch the beret, except for the Chairman of the Council of Maroon Berets and the owner himself.

— When a person has earned the right to wear the beret, he doesn’t wear it just for fun. Every six months he has to confirm this right, by meeting our requirements at a level of at least „Good“ (4 out of 5),» Colonel Illarionov says. «If there is a drop in standards, the beret can be taken away. This happened in May to one serviceman in Ufa.


The maroon beret isn’t exchanged for a new one. The more worn-out it is, the cooler it is

 

According to Illarionov, 25-30% pass the tough test at their first attempt. Some people try out three, five and even ten times. Almost everyone has a second attempt but then fewer and fewer are willing to go on.

Sergey Gurkov from Kazan was the last recipient of the beret today. He spent all 12 minutes of close-combat fighting man-to-man against a serving „maroon“.

 

— It’s very, very hard,» Sergey says, his swollen lips smiling in spite of everything. «This is my third time at trials. I’ve achieved my goal. For me, the beret is all about honour.

— Has something inside you changed?

— Everything has changed.

 

The maroon berets are awarded in turns to the now clean and well turned-out men, who go down on one knee and kiss a piece of burgundy cloth, before putting on the beret, tilting it to the left. Then they stand up, raise their hand to their temple and shout so loudly that they can be heard at the Iskitim quarry: «I serve the Russian Federation and the Special Forces!»


Read this story
in Russian

From the expressions on their faces, you would think that everything in their lives is about to radically change for the better. Yet the maroon beret doesn’t give its owner any privileges compared to other members of the service. No raise in salary, no promotion in rank, no other special advantages. And tomorrow the majority of them will be sent back out on their risky missions.

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 This publication has been translated by experts from "Monoton" translation agency.
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