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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soldiers Trade Swords for Ploughshares

An army runs on its stomach, they say, and nowhere was this more in evidence than at the base of the 18th Motor Rifle Brigade in Solnechnogorsk, 60 kilometers north of Moscow.

As the first snow settled on the outskirts of Moscow on Wednesday, the brigade was preparing for winter. But of the more than 1,000 soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Alexei Samolkin, few were to be seen, nor was the equipment that they were supposed to be servicing with grease and anti-freeze ahead of the cold weather.

In fact, the whole brigade seemed to be concentrating its efforts on food rather than on any preparations for war. Most of the conscripts, it appeared, were away bringing in the harvest on collective farms in the region. One soldier said the brigade was down to 250 men, and there was not a piece of armor or weaponry in sight.

The handful of soldiers who were around were tending the brigade's farm buildings, full of spotless little piglets and friendly sows, work horses, one of which was called Grozny, and dairy cows named after popular soap operas.

Not that the brigade was dominated by exclusively material concerns. A greenhouse on the territory cultivated roses "for the women," as one of the soldiers said.

The message of the day was the one that has been consuming the military recently: the nonpayment of wages. Pay was three months late, and even the salaries that are handed out are pitiful, said one officer, with a lieutenant colonel receiving just $260 a month and conscripts a mere 29,500 rubles ($5.40) a month pocket money.

"When your wife starts asking questions it is not good," Samolkin said. On his desk lay a glossy photo of himself heading a parade in Berlin where he had served for two years. The bright colors of the medals and flags was a world away from his ill-lit office, in a brick building built by German prisoners of war in 1947.

"We do not know who is guilty; we do not know where the money goes," he said. But were kept at the ideal temperature of 5 degrees Celsius, the officer in charge told journalists. The cabbages did not seem to be fully in yet, but the soldier stacking the few crates already harvested insisted that things were fine.

"The soldiers are not going hungry," the commander Samolkin said. Earlier one of his officers called a conscript over to demonstrate.

"When did you last eat meat," he barked. "This morning." "And yesterday?" "Yes, sir." "You see," the officer said, turning to the journalists, "no one is going hungry."

"The soldiers are carrying on and fulfilling their duties," Samolkin said. What those duties were, however, was left to the imagination. Asked if his brigade was fit for war, he replied: "Let's say we have bullets and shells enough."

The brigade was ordered to start readying for Chechnya last year but then was let off the hook, another brigade going instead. Some 20 people left when they learned of the impending tour of duty, said Samolkin, who himself spent three months in the war-torn territory.

A calm, controlled man, he burst out with unexpected passion about Chechnya.

"The army won the war, that is the opinion of the officers. Along with that the army did everything it was set to do," he said. "It went further than the [tsarist] Russian Army ever went," he said, suggesting that today's army pushed far deeper into the Chechen mountains than that of the famous Tsarist general Alexei Yermolov, who only reached Grozny in the middle of the last century.

"Why have peace, after that, is another question," he said. But pushed harder on the question of peace Samolkin showed the inner turmoil that is churning up the army. He was not against an end to the war, but he smarted at the defeat that the peace agreement and withdrawal meant.

He also appeared to dread the consequences of that defeat for the army. "First it is important that the men come back alive and receive the awards they deserve. Second it is most important that there are no consequences," he said.

For him, the painful sacrifice the army made in Chechnya meant it deserved more money and more respect. Asked if his experience in Chechnya led him to think that reform of the army was necessary, he said: "We think we need to restore it to what it was. If we do that then everything will be all right."