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Another Uncomfortable Tradition Dies In Russia
by James Dunnigan
November 24, 2013

This is the first Winter in which Russian soldiers have not worn Valenki. These are boots made from felt. In the West just about the only things you can still get made from felt are hats, but in Russia felt footwear has been popular for centuries. Felt is processed wool. Felt is relatively stiff and, like all wool products, is a good insulator and water resistant (not waterproof). Until the 20 th century, during the heart of the cold weather season, felt boots were the only way for Russians to go outside and not get frostbitten feet. While felt has been around for over 1,500 years, felt boots did not appear until the 1700s and only became cheap enough for widespread use in the 19th century, when their manufacture could be automated. Before that felt boots were very much a luxury item. By the late 19th century they were a mass market product and the Russian Army was a major customer.

But felt boots are not as study as leather ones and are useless in periods when there is a lot of slush or any rain at all. In times like that you need to wear the felt boots inside some rubberized footwear to keep them dry. While very useful during World War II, when even the German soldiers would steal felt boots from dead Russians and use them, the felt boots usually did not last more than one season, especially if you were in combat or worked outside regularly.

So now the Russian military is switching over to Western style cold weather footwear. This means Russia is also replacing the traditional rugged (and crudely made) slip on boots and foot wrappings as well. Western style combat boots that use laces, come in many different sizes, and are meant to be used with socks are much more popular (and familiar) to most Russians. Felt boots have been out of fashion for urban Russians for decades. Most Russians are also unfamiliar with the foot wrappings (“portyanki”) that soldiers were still taught to use. For portyanki to work the user has to wrap their feet just so before slipping the foot into the “tarpaulin” boots. If you did not do the wrapping correctly some of your flesh would be exposed to the rough inside surface of these canvas boots. This usually leads to debilitating blisters. The old-fashioned boots were widely disliked by most of the troops forced to use them. The number of older officers who still favored this 19th century footwear are also fading away. So the portyanki and valenki are officially gone this year, along with the old canvas boots that only came in two sizes.

What the Russians are using instead is what the United States has learned from twelve years of combat operations in Afghanistan. That forced the United States to develop several generations of combat boots for troops fighting in the rocky hills, freezing cold, and scorching heat found there. Every two or three years a new boot design was created and issued. Each generation of boot had fewer problems and the latest iteration (the HWMCB, for Hot Weather Mountain Combat Boot) has generated the fewest complaints. The HWMCB has a lot of little tweaks to the previous design with the biggest difference being that the new boot is 200 gr (7 ounces) lighter than the last one. Russians on the Internet were more interested in American cold weather boots, which were easier to develop than hot weather models.

Back in 2011, the U.S. used a very quick competition to select a new hot-weather combat boot for troops in Afghanistan. This search took only a few months. The selection previous to that took two years and resulted in a splendid new combat boot. There was one problem. The boot was built with cold weather in mind. Not surprisingly, during Afghanistan's very hot weather season this boot left feet too hot and quite uncomfortable. Thus the race to find a hot weather boot. So for the last five years troops go to Afghanistan with two pair of boots, one for each of Afghanistan's two seasons (one is very hot, the other is very cold, and in between each of these main seasons there is a few weeks of deceptively mild weather for which either boot will do). The Russian military has long done this, using the canvas boots most of the year and the felt boots during cold weather.

In 2011, the U.S. Army selected the Belleville 950 Combat Mountain Hiker as the new combat boot for troops in Afghanistan. The Belleville 950 had a stiffer and 20 percent thicker sole, designed to ease foot strain and increase traction for troops crossing broken (often rocky) terrain while carrying typical heavy combat loads (over 30 kg/66 pounds). The upper portion of the Belleville 950 was water resistant leather. The Belleville 950 was not suitable for full time use because of the stiffness. So troops continued to use their current, less stiff, and more padded combat boots. But when they headed out into the hills they tended to wear their Belleville 950s.

When the Belleville 950s got worn during the hot weather in Afghanistan two years ago the heat problems became apparent. The army promptly sought out a boot as sturdy as the Belleville 950 but cooler in hot weather. Two candidates were selected. One was a warm weather version of the Belleville 950 (called the 990), while the other with a similar design was a militarized version of the Wellco Hybrid Hiker. Together these two manufacturers delivered over 60,000 pair of the warm weather boots within a year.

This use of a commercial boot design is nothing new. Over the last decade the army and marines have changed their attitudes towards combat boots. Instead of trying to design boots themselves, the military has recognized the superior design of commercial boots created for hikers, mountain climbers, and outdoor activists in general. This has resulted in a new generation of combat boots that are more durable, and comfortable, than earlier generations of combat footwear. Many troops in the Russian military, especially the career officers and troops, noticed this trend as well and were able to keep up with developments via the Internet.

Looking for boots particularly suitable for Afghanistan is nothing new either. Back in 2008, SOCOM (Special Operations Command) bought 10,000 pair of boots designed to survive use in Afghanistan after discovering (as early as 2001) that Afghan rocks tend to tear boots up. The U.S. Army desert boots, used without problem since their first major workout in the 1991 Gulf War, rapidly fell apart in Afghanistan. By early 2002, soldiers were complaining that the boots were useless after a few months. The problem appeared to be that the boot soles and heels were built to deal with soft sand. Afghanistan has a lot of sand but it also has a lot of sharp rocks, which tear the boot bottoms up. Apparently the boot did not get extensive testing in rocky desert areas (which are not as common as mainly sand deserts). Deserts have long been a major problem for developers of military equipment.

The troops have long sought their own solutions, quickly buying every brand of hiking and "assault boots" (for police and SWAT) out there. These cost $100-$150 a pair. Bates was one of the more popular brands being bought by the troops, and the U.S. Marine Corps turned to Bates for a new desert boot. SOCOM had Bates create the "Tora Bora Alpine Boot." SOCOM wanted a boot that could handle the rocks, as well as the temperature extremes in Afghanistan.

The Internet played a major part in the suddenly rapid development of new boot designs. Most troops are on the Internet and many participate in online message boards, listservs, or chat rooms where new discoveries can be rapidly talked about and evaluated. The news is distributed quickly and widely. The military procurement bureaucracies have to respond to this because the troops can also blitz Congress with tales of shoddy equipment. The bureaucrats hate that, so they now pay much closer attention to what the troops want. The new boot designs were adopted by many other countries because their troops found out about it on the Internet and demanded the better gear the Americans were developing.

 


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