Portyanki: awesomely awkward Russian footwraps

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Russia: Riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. So said Winston Churchill, when attempting to describe this massive swathe of baffling land, and rich, but historically obscured culture. And there’s no greater mystery in all of Russia that I can possibly think of than the issue of why the Russian military didn’t use socks until 2013.

Portyanki footwrap
This is going to be a sock. No, really. (photo by Juha Kämäräinen)

That’s right. No socks. What did they have instead? Portyanki. A 400 year old tradition that proves tradition isn’t always right. Sometimes, it’s just downright silly.

What the heck are portyanki?

They’re cloth footwraps. Instead of socks, Russian soldiers (as well as others throughout Eastern Europe) wrapped strips of cloth around their feet in specific patterns to cover the entire foot, before strapping on the boots and going into battle.

And I’m too lazy to tie my shoes. I’d go insane if I had to tie my socks too.

Check it out:

Why would anybody use portyanki instead of socks?!?

Now don’t get all up in arms about how ridiculously backward this practice seems; first of all, footwraps were in widespread use all over the world, long before socks were developed or became cheaply available. In many cases, it was simply the only option. And even after socks were invented, it was a long time before they became cheap enough for anyone but the higher-ranking officers to use them. Even fancy shmancy Finland was still using them in the 1990s.

But the footwraps had a number of other advantages as well; first of all, you can scrounge them from anywhere, from an old t-shirt or a ripped up pillowcase. They also dry faster than socks, since they unfold into a single thin layer. Repairs were fairly easy, though you could just ignore small holes, since wrapping the cloth around the feet results in multiple layers anyway, so a hole in a single layer isn’t a big deal.

In other words, they’re exactly the kind of gear you’d expect to see in a scrappy fighting force of quickly conscripted soldiers who didn’t have access to a budget surplus.


So why switch to socks?

Well, socks are better. If you can afford socks, you wear socks.

Portyanki footwrap
Footwrap, ready for battle. (photo by Syker Fotograf)

Portyanki need to be tied correctly, since any fold or lump in the fabric will quickly form a serious blister. Plus, socks are a whole lot faster to deal with. Not only in use, but in training as well. You don’t have to train soldiers on how to put on a sock. Their moms did that for them already.

But damn, it took a long time. Partial changes began in 2007, with portyanki scheduled to be completely phased out by 2013. If there’s anything that represents Russia’s slow, laborious inability to shed outdated technology, this has got to be it. Even Ukraine and Belarus beat them by abandoning portyanki a few years earlier.

But…portyanki will be missed…sort of?

Despite the fact that socks are a billion times better, plenty of Eastern European soldiers remained rather nostalgic about their high-maintenance footwear. Word has it that some Ukrainian soldiers even held a farewell ceremony, and songs were written about…little strips of cloth. Weird, right?

I suppose it’s just a matter of growing up with something, and finding it hard to let it go. It was a ritual, and in some ways a hassle, but it’s a hassle people got used to, and probably had a lot of memories that came with them. They lived with them, and now they’ll be gone forever.

I bet a few of those soldiers will break out the portyanki one day, many years from now, and give their feet one last good wrapping, and shed a tear for days gone by. And it’ll be adorable.

Weird, but adorable.

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