Since the time of Peter the Great, Russian soldiers have used footwraps or foot bindings instead of socks. This wasn’t an unusual item of soldier clothing as many militaries in the world used them at one time or another. American and British forces in World War I equipped their soldiers with foot bindings.
By the time the twentieth century hit its full stride, socks had gotten easier to make. They are also much quicker to put on than a piece of cloth. Nevertheless, only now are Russian soldiers moving to that revolutionary invention known as the sock.
Portyanki (singular – portyanka) are two pieces of cloth used by the soldiers in the Soviet and Russian Army instead of socks. The word sprang up from the Portuguese word which means “a piece of cloth”. The first portyanki appeared together with lapti – the shoes that that were made of the bark of the lime tree. Russian peasants used to wrap portyanki around their feet and then put lapti on. Portyanki started to be worn extensively in the army during the time of Peter the Great, who first saw them during his long stay in Holland. For the Russian Tsar, portyanki was just another item to make the Russian army look more European. Time went by and the Tsars disappeared, but portyanki stayed with the Russian and Soviet soldiers all the way through their glorious history.
People used to scare would-be soldiers with portyanki before being called up to the service. The translation of the phrase used sounds threatening: “When you wrap portyanki around your leg, you’ll come to realize that life if one tough thing”. The word gets even more negative meaning when your friend asks you for a favor and leaves you no choice to refuse: “Ty mne drug ili portyanka?” (“Are you a friend to me, or just a rag?”)
Until 2008 – the year when portyanki were abolished by the Defense Ministry of Russian Federation – they were worn with the high and quite heavy everyday tarpaulin boots (“kirzovye sapogi”) – another symbol of the Soviet Armed Forces. It usually took time to get used to this heavy footwear and portyanki underneath. Putting this “gear” on was the first thing rookies had to learn at the start of their military career. The first month the whole process is usually torture – the soldier feels his feet sweating and in pain.
There was a time when sock technology didn’t match foot bindings in protecting a foot from the wear of a heavy boot. Yet even in World War II, the U.S. had switched to socks. That put the Russian a good 70 plus years behind the U.S. and much of the world. Imagine, we once feared world domination by sockless troops.