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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Deputies Ride Tanks to Win Higher Ranks

KALININETS, Moscow Region -- Braving strong winds and freezing temperatures, dozens of federal legislators descended on the Tamanskaya motorized infantry division on Thursday to fire guns and ride tanks, in the culmination of an annual three-day drill for those who crave new and bigger stars as reserve officers.

"Comrade officers, today you will learn how to handle weapons," shooting instructor Colonel Alexander Romanchuk announced to a rather uneven line of State Duma and Federation Council members and their staffers, whose combat fatigues ranged from hunting camouflage overalls to construction worker jackets.

Careful not to raise his voice, the stern-faced, red-cheeked officer proceeded to divide the group of 80 into two roughly equal groups. One obediently boarded a bus to ride to the tank practice course, while the other was ordered by Romanchuk to assume firing positions at the shooting range under the watchful eyes of a small crowd of journalists.

Not a single cameraman, however, joined those departing for spectacular rides in T-80 tanks, BTR-70 armored personnel carriers and BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles across the rugged terrain of the division's track.

The reason both electronic and print journalists stayed at the snowy shooting range was a middle-aged woman dressed in a camouflage jacket and wearing a snow-white beret.

Tatyana Astrakhankina of the Duma's Agrarian faction paced on high heels past TV cameras and across the shooting range, which featured a table with instructions on how to fire at airborne targets. On the table were painted silhouettes of the U.S. U-2 spy plane and Stealth bomber F-117A, even though both of these aircraft fly combat sorties at altitudes beyond the range of firearms.

Astrakhankina, 42, was the only woman trainee and perhaps the only deputy who would not get a new rank after completing the training, as she is not a reservist despite having attended four previous annual training sessions for deputies.

Despite this, Astrakhankina, who once played an air defense private in a popular Soviet movie about World War II, did not hesitate to stretch out on a rag at the firing line, take careful aim and spray the vast field from a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

"You have to keep the powder dry," Astrakhankina said when asked why she wanted military training when she would neither be called up for active service nor awarded an officer's rank when it was over.

"And I need to know the right words for speaking with my military voters," she added, smiling.

Astrakhankina missed some of the targets that she was supposed to take out at the range, subsequently firing from a machine gun and an automatic grenade-launcher. She did not lose her composure over the missed targets, though, and went on to don the headgear of a tank crew member and drive a roaring T-80 tank as fellow deputies and several Tamanskaya division officers watched in amusement.

But some of the officers present were not so amused.

One senior officer said he doubted the division and the armed forces would benefit from the training, which had also included two days of lectures at the Military Academy of the General Staff. Another senior commander, however, said the deputies they trained may "prove to be more understanding" when considering whether to increase combat training expenditures in the next federal budget.

What the Russian army does not hope to get out of it, however, is better trained reservists that can be called up on short notice, the officers said. First, Russian law bars federal legislators from active service, and second, three days of training a year is not enough to maintain military skills, the officers said.

"In this case it is the deputies who volunteer to be trained for their reasons," one officer said.

One reason is publicity in an election year and another is a new rank, which will be awarded to many of the trainees on or before Defender of the Fatherland Day on Feb. 23, the Gazeta newspaper reported last week. Officers in the Tamanskaya division would neither confirm nor deny the planned promotions.

The trainees, however, made no secret of their wish to get promoted, and it is already known that Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov will personally review and present the results of the three-day training at the Duma on Feb. 18.

Some of the trainees, including Duma Deputy Valery Komissarov, the anchor of a popular family show and a lieutenant colonel, who stalled his tank on the track, chose not to wait for the formal promotion and celebrated their completion of the training with shots of vodka in a classroom-turned-cafe right next to the track.

Of all the Duma factions, only Astrakhankina's Agrarians turned out in force. Komissarov represented the pro-Kremlin Unity faction. Others included prominent Communist Nikolai Kolomeitsev, an army captain; Sergei Shashurin of the People's Deputy faction; and the chief of the chamber's analytical department, Lieutenant Colonel Nikolai Vasetsky.

Visibly absent was the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who had attended such training sessions in the past. During his Duma tenure, Zhirinovsky has risen to the rank of colonel, and military regulations reportedly bar promotions of reserve officers beyond this rank.