The Border Guard, not the Sports Club
When I was working at the mine, all I could think about was the coming Spring—because I hoped to be accepted, then, into the Army Sports Club. If I could not achieve that, then I would have to be a soldier. It was now that my coach Ivan Stepanovich failed me, for the first and probably the last time. I do not resent him for it now. Everything always works out fine in the end. He promised that he would get me a spot in the ASC, but there was only one vacancy. During the 1986 spring draft, it turned out I was not the only athlete born in 1967. There was another, the son of the director of the Novosibirsk ASC. Instead of selecting me, Oleg Tinkov, then—champion of the city and of the Kuznetsk Basin, winner of more than one competition—this son was admitted to the Novosibirsk ASC. He was admitted, too, even though I could have out-pedaled him with one leg.
The strong arm of the old-boy network has always held sway in Russia and always will. Thus I missed out. In April 1986, I was taken into the army and, instead of getting into the ASC, I ended up among the border troops, under the control of the USSR’s KGB. My career as a cyclist, which had held such great promise, ground to a halt. Everything that I did later—my return to sports in 2005-2006, my participation in races, the creation of the Tinkoff cycling team, and the cycling trips to Italy where we cover 4000 km in a month—is connected with the fact that my career was cut short at that time.
As we were being loaded into the railway coach, I looked out the window and saw the new spring growth. It reminded me of a song written by Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotsky:
Spring has just begun,
Most of the people are still indoors,
But I had to get out there, –
Then two arrived suddenly,
With a convoy, with a convoy.
“Get dressed,” they say, “come out!”
I begged the sergeant:
“Let me stay with the Spring!”
But the sergeant took me away. First, we took the train to Krasnoyarsk. From there we flew to Vladivostok and then took the bus to Nakhodka.
When we arrived at the unit, the dischargees took all our food from us. We did not resist. At first we were brisk with them. But they replied: “Let’s get you shaved, then we’ll talk”. We had our hair cut and then were sent to the sauna. Afterwards we were given submachine guns and then mounted Kalashnikov machine guns. This type of gun is very heavy but fires better than the others. It is hard to miss when using it, in contrast to the hand-held variety. We ran cross-country, but the 3-km sprints were easy for me: when I was cycling, after all, we would run 15-20 km during our winter practices.
We would sweat so hard from the heat and the pressure that the fabric of our uniforms would start to dissolve. Within three months they would tear. According to regulations we were supposed to get new clothing every six months, but ours had to be replaced more often. We had to run, jump, and blow things up. Explosions rumbled from all sides—flash! Bang! It is depressing to read about what goes on in the army nowadays. Serious training has been replaced by hazing. The goal then, was to make us into real border guards. If there had been a war we really would have protected our country. The army—or at least the border guard—was really and truly combat-ready.
The rumors about hazing in the Soviet army are highly exaggerated. Things were not all that bad. Believe it or not, we had nothing of the sort in the border guard. It all depended on your officers, their qualifications, and their approach to training. Sure, the army has its hierarchy: I washed the floors, of course, and the senior officers did not. But I was never—not once—punched in the two years that I was there. The worst I suffered was a shove or a minor kick in the butt if I was moving to slow. I was never beat up.
A lot of my friends ended up in the Afghan war and I might have been sent there myself. It was a choice between Afghanistan and the border. Our Fatherland decided that, being 190 cm (6' 4") in height, I would be of more use at the border. Three of my classmates who served in Afghanistan came home ruined men. The war taught them how to smoke marijuana and how to do a lot of other things. Up until 1986, when I was in Siberia, I did not know what drugs were. When I got back from the army, though, pot had become commonplace, distributed by veterans of that war. Heroin was next.
* * *
Healthy, young Siberian men were sent in bundles to the border and into Afghanistan. Less were taken from St. Petersburg and Moscow. I have heard terrible stories from friends about how much they were beaten and about how much they drank. The border guard was completely different. Everything was done with precision and exactitude.
I was admitted to the sergeant training school. For six months, from April to October 1986, I trained to become junior sergeant. These were some of the most trying times of my life, taxing both physically and psychologically. I even considered suicide at one point. After that—until, perhaps, I was training for a race in 2005 (of which more later)—life was never so hard again.
A sergeant lives the good life: no washing floors, no kitchen duty and therefore no dirty dishwater. One day, though, I was stupid and told an officer to screw off. I had my sergeant’s badges ripped off and had to wash the kitchen floors and deal with the trash. This was unpleasant, to say the least, considering that I was in my second and last year of mandatory service. I did get my badges back, though, before being discharged.
Some of you may remember Mikhail Gorbachev’s famous trip to the Far East, to Nakhodka, Vladivostok, in June 1986. He even came to our unit, although I did not see him myself. Our unit was considered an elite one. It was called Nakhodka Independent Identity Check Point and was at the border at Vostochny Port. Because the country’s top official was coming, our combat training all but stopped for two months. Instead, we practiced for Gorbachev’s arrival. What did this involve?
In Soviet times we did this stupid thing (it is probably still done today): we got in trucks and we were taken out and lined up along the road. We would stay in the bushes and chase away mushroom hunters and other passersby. After a couple of hours, an officer would come along and pick us up. Of course it is nicer to lie in the bushes and sleep for two hours than to do jumping jacks and learn dumb things from the training manual. The idea was that if Gorbachev happened to take the road along which we were stationed, then his safety would be assured. We trained for this exercise for two months. I do not know why. Lying by the roadside is not rocket science. Maybe they do the same now, for Medvedev.
I am not sure how things are today, but in the Soviet Army I was emotionally tormented. It was really a hard thing to take. One would get up in the morning and the clock would be ticking. Instead of socks, you would wrap cloth around your feet and pull on your boots. The blisters would burst and they would have to cut of the wrapping in the medical station. This happened to everyone. Stand, squat, get on the ground, push up! Silence, soldier! Shut up! My calluses got so thick from the binding and the canvas boots that today I can wear new shoes without the slightest discomfort.
My friend Oleg Kakovin, a guy from Leninsk, just could not let go. For three months, he kept fighting with the warrant officers. He would swear at them, but it was pointless. The system was built on the oppression and destruction of the individual. Soldiers are rivets. The goal is to make the person into nothing. When there is no “I,” the color khaki pervades all. As the Soviet rock group Nautilus Pompilius sang: “I haven’t seen a scarier crowd than a crowd dressed in khaki.” Perhaps the same thing happens in western armies.
If my friend Oleg argued or told the sergeant to screw himself, the command would ring out: “Line up, platoon! Three kilometers running. March!” We’d all start running and tell Oleg to cut it out. Or we would be given the order to get up and all of us—except Oleg—would be on our feet. The punishment would be the same: a three-kilometer battle march. But when he refused to obey a third time and we were all forced to run three kilometers as a result, that made us angry. Everyone ran up to him and started kicking him. So you would give up resisting whether you liked it or not. We were disciplined as a group. You simply could not be mouthy or 30 people would get punished on your account. In the end you would suffer. This was very effective psychology. Thank God, I never used this approach in my business relations.
My responsibilities as a border guard included inspecting foreign ships as they were coming into port. We made sure that no one crossed the state border unnoticed and undocumented. It never happened. How crazy would you have to be to want to come illegally into the USSR? There were some that wanted to leave without permission, of course, but it was absurd to think that anyone would want to sneak in! Some Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese did come in legally. We would conduct a formal inspection. Going through the cabins, we saw foreign objects—jeans and magazines—and examined them closely.
This was how I learned my first few words in English:
“Please, go one by one.”
“Show me your passport, please.”
“Please, open the door.”
In our unit there were two brothers from Bryansk, one of which was a snitch. I beat him up for tattling to our superior, Colonel Zubr, who was scary as hell. If you let one word slip, he would make you dig shit out of the toilet all day long. It was terror: you had to keep your mouth shut and your eyes on the floor. I left the army twenty-two years ago. But if I bumped into Zubr today, I would punch that pig’s face in. Imagine what you would have to put a person through to make him want to kick your head in, twenty years later? And I am not even a resentful guy. I have no hard feelings towards people who have screwed me over, once a year or so has gone by.
* * *
My second year of service was easier, but more hectic too. For the two years I was there I took a break from speculation. After all, it was impossible to sell stuff in the army. My military service marks the only period, two years in all, when I have no memory of doing business. My green shoulder marks kept me barricaded from it. I suddenly had new priorities. I wanted a border guard marks of excellence: level one, level two… The army sucked me in and I found myself working to build my military career, even considering staying on as a warrant officer.
Before I was discharged in April 1988, three of my friends and I applied to serve further. Later, I was even summoned. One of the officers convinced us: what was there to do as civilians? A wide-scale restructuring of the system had begun while we were gone. Everything was a mess. Factory workers were not getting their pay. By contrast, the army meant stability. We were promised full government support, food, and a monthly salary of 200 250 rubles. Imagine how things would have gone if I had signed that contract! I would be a moron now, a senior warrant officer or captain, stationed in a place like Nikolayevsk-on-Amur.
Border guard captain Tinkov!
But the hand of God was at work. A voice inside me said, “No, Oleg. Go home.” I came to Captain Sayakhov and told him,
“Comrade Captain, I want to take back my application.”
“What! Are you nuts? We’ve already sent everything to Vladivostok and you’ve been approved.”
“I don’t want to be a warrant officer.”
The captain called me an idiot and I was dismissed.
At the same time, Providence protected me from membership in the Communist Party. If you wanted to become a warrant officer you had to be a communist. I even wrote a membership application.
After my discharge, two friends and I flew from Khabarovsk to Kemerovo. From there I needed to make my way home to Leninsk. Gorbachev’s battle with alcoholism was in full swing and it was nearly impossible to buy vodka. We waited in line, bought a bottle, and shared it between the three of us. I got sick, collapsed, and fell asleep right at the station in Kemerovo. I did not manage to get home that night. It was a strange picture: a soldier in full parade uniform with regalia, asleep under a bench in a puddle of vomit. Having slept it off, I went to the house of one of my co-dischargees who lived in Kemerovo. I got a brush from him, cleaned off my clothes, and left for Leninsk.
The army is simply bad, but I am happy that I enlisted. The experience hardened me physically and emotionally. The army is not for the faint-hearted and it is not for little girls. On the whole it was a negative experience and I would rather not go into too many details. Still, I would recommend military service to anyone: you really gain a lot from it and return, ultimately, a new person. It is easy for me to say this, I suppose, since I have already been through it myself. Believe it or not, I can discern to a high degree of accuracy if someone has been in the army—just by having a conversation with him. People who have served have a soundness of mind at their core. In a similar way, I can tell that a young woman is Russian based on a number of factors, no matter how well she speaks another language. I wrote about this in my blog once, which led to a lot of heated discussion.
Let me tell you an interesting story. On February 23, Fatherland Defenders’ day, which is, traditionally, a holiday when women congratulate men for being—well, men—about 200 people filed into our auditorium. I opened the event in the customary way, with a speech. I started with the words “A display of prowess.” I spoke to those gathered about the army, but they seemed perplexed or oblivious. So I asked: “Which of you guys served in the army, anyway?” There were about 150 men present. I was expecting half of them to raise their hands—or maybe twenty, fifteen percent at least. Imagine how shocked I was when only three hands went up. I felt sick, quickly wrapped up my speech and left.
We have a lot of double standards in Russia. The spectacle of white-collar workers, none of whom served in the army, celebrating February 23 in Moscow offices—and with a bang—brings the word duplicity to mind. Either refrain from celebrating the holiday at all, or just call it “Men’s Day,” as though it were the male counterpart of Women’s Day on March 8. These days hardly anyone serves in the army. Who knows if this is good or bad?
One way or another, on May 28—Border Guard Day—I arrived back in Leninsk-Kuznetsky. This holiday is celebrated completely differently now than it was then. You can see crazy drunks in green berets running down the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, yelling, singing, and jumping in the fountains.
Dear reader, I solemnly declare that I am not one of them!
Even though I remember well our battle song:
A border guard must follow cruel laws,
We can’t sleep when others are asleep,
You and I, pal, we’re back on duty.
A border guard must follow cruel laws.
We were taught that the USSR border was sacred and untouchable.
We had been warned about the hazing, but none of it happened in our unit. Sure, we washed the floors, while our senior officers did not, but I never got beat up in the two years that I was there.
This letter contains the phrase “the doors of any educational institution are open to you.” I didn’t take it seriously.
Oleg Ikonnikov, cyclist:
Oleg and I practiced together, went to training camps, and passed the qualifiers for Master of Sport candidacy. He was a very strong finisher. He’d win the criterium and the group races. He could keep a good pace and hold his own in a team when we went to Russia-wide competitions. Even though his age ought to have put him in the juniors he competed with the grown men. He could have won among the juniors, but he was put into a more senior team to fill in the gaps. If he had stuck to it, he would have achieved great heights. The conditions would have to have been different and the coaches more professional, like in Omsk or Kuibyshev. Whoever got into the Army Sports Club (in Omsk) ended up succeeding. If Oleg hadn’t stopped training, he could have been a champion. He has the talent.
It was hard to get into the ASC. You had to get to Omsk, first, then fall on your knees in front of the coach and beg him to take you. Apparently Oleg wasn’t too interested. The team in Omsk was strong. From there you would get into the Central ASC or into the All-Union team. Once the nineties came, getting into the Omsk ASC was your ticket into professional teams. Of course, back when Oleg and I were training, there was no such opportunity. The ASC in Novosibirsk, though, was run like in a village. There really was no good reason to go there, except as an excuse not to join the army. Coaches should do all they can to keep a hold of and promote athletes like Oleg. But we had to promote ourselves, otherwise nothing would work. But that’s supposed to be the coach’s job.