3 days in the Special Forces:
How to survive
the Russian military

Nikolay Litovkin
Blood, sweat, and dirt. This familiar trinity enlivened my senses once again as I returned to the field, this time to join up with a group determined to test themselves mentally and physically for a trio of gruelling days under the command of the Russia's feared Crimson Berets.
Somebody falls in the dirt as his legs fail him during a march through the forest. I don't even recognize his face as my mind is clouded by extreme tiredness.

"Come on, man!" someone says, trying to raise his spirits. "We have to keep moving. Keep breathing. Just think about breathing and nothing else."

'Grenaaaade!" Something ripples through the air and lands on the ground with a bump next to us - we jump frantically in different direction, covering our heads with our hands.

"How did it all come to this?" I thought.

The beginning

Let's rewind a couple of days. It's Friday afternoon. Twenty men aged 17 to 48, myself included, are waiting on the edge of Russia's capital for a bus to take us to a military camp hidden in the woods of the Moscow Region.

These people come from all walks of life: Students, businessmen, office clerks, and former soldiers. There's even a guy who traveled from the UK to pass the military training with his father, who is a former captain of the Russian Army.

Why are we here? Well, we want to put ourselves through the same psychological and physical tests endured by the Russian Special Forces.

"Home-work-home. I can't live this way anymore. I have to change something in my life and I know no better way, but to join the military. Even if it's just for a couple of days," Ilya, a successful Moscow businessman whose company built all major roads in the Russian capital, told me.

Day 1: Fist fights and broken bones

The project we're participating in is called One Day in the Russian Special Forces. It's a commercial venture (around $500 for each participant) but everyone must first pass a psychological test to check their mental endurance. Whoever fails this test gets their money back and leaves the group.

Despite this, there was a real freak in our group - there always is - doesn't matter if you're in the real military or enrolled in a training program. He was called Pyotr but we nicknamed him "Berserk" as each time he sparred or trained with someone he roared like a crazy orc from Lord of The Rings. He claimed a previous military tutor in St. Petersburg taught him first aid by slashing his own leg with a knife and then sewing up the gash himself...

Here I was, standing shoulder to shoulder with this guy, wondering if someone was going to get a bullet in the head the moment he picked up a gun.

Not a gunshot but a shout gets our attention:"Run! Run! Ladies, two minutes until combat training," the officers yell at us.

We rush out of the bus and onto a freshly cut field where an actual Crimson Beret, an elite Russian National Guard officer, is waiting for us. "The training you're about to pass is not as hard as the Crimson Berets endure day to day. You'll run eight km instead of 12 through a forest. In the Army, soliders only stop fighting until they're knocked out - and they only stop shooting AK-47s when their arms are too tired to hold the rifles," he explains.

The group stands still. No one dares interrupt the thickset soldier with the ice-cold eyes of a trained killer.

"Your biggest enemy today is yourself and nobody else. You'll have to fight not with the guy next to you, not with the instructors, but with your fears and beliefs that you're not able to do something," he tells us.
"No questions? Good! Then move!"

Hours pass under the blazing sun. We're taught a few dirty wrestling and kickboxing techniques - things you'd never use in the ring but may need in case someone tries to kill you. These fighting methods are all about distracting your opponent before striking them in the groin and then finishing them off with an elbow to the back of the head. Dirty, yes, but effective.

Things really start to heat up when we face-off against each other with bare fists - no mouthguard or helmet. A couple of guys hit the deck early on, their opponents are too strong for them. It turns out an amateur world MMA 2012 champion is among us! He casually TKOs an opponent with a knee to the face. A minute I hear another scream - someone's suffered a broken nose.

Both of them are sent back to the camp to medical help.

"A man's got to be a man. I wanted to come here and fight with anyone who'll dare stand before me. I wanted to be tested! I wanted to remind myself of my good old days in the Navy," a beaten, yet unbroken, fighter tells me after receiving medical attention.

Both of the defeated warriors return to training as nobody wants to leave the program on the very first day.

Five hours later we get our first rest. We eat some noodles with canned meat and then go back for another two hours of combat trainings.

Finally, night comes after seven long hours of fighting and we collapse out of exhaustion in a tent erected in the middle of a field.

Day 2: Dirt, sweat, and your own worst enemy

Morning: 6 .a.m. We're given breakfast and an hour or so to prepare for the imminent eight km march through the forest. Surprisingly, a 17-year-old girl joins us to run alongside the team that's supposed to find a spot to ambush us from among the trees. Afterwards she tells me she's known some of the instructors for years and loves to spend her weekends with them during the military training of civilians. She was like G.I. Jane and just as beautiful as Demi Moore's iconic movie hero, yet she had long blonde hair - not the crew cut Moore sported in the film.

"This is the moment to turn back, nobody will blame you," one instructor said.

Yet all of us stand still.

"No matter what you're commanded to do, you do it. If I say crawl, you crawl. If I say run, you run as fast as you can. If I say dive, you dive as if bullets are flying."

Nobody says anything. We wait in silence.

"Squad, move!"

Our group starts to march. A few moments later someone shouts: "Grenaaaade!"

Everyone falls down and seconds later gets up and runs through the bushes towards the forest.


We fall down again and crawl 100 meters before we come to a trail that leads us up a cliff into the forest.
"Run, ladies! Run! Nobody's gonna wait for your pretty asses to get up here!"

Crimson Berets have to pass exactly the same tests in the military. There are some differences, though. Real soldiers do it loaded with 30 kilogram backpacks, rifles, ammunition, and the run lasts 12 km - "giving up" means forever losing your right to enter Russia's military elite.

Every 300 meters we crawl, do push-ups, and whatever our officers command. It soon becomes unbearable for a number of the group, as people start falling to the ground and abandoning the gruelling marathon. They don't care what the soldiers think of them - complete, utter exhaustion grips them and they return to the camp, defeated.

"DAMN! You don't even have 30 kilo packs on your backs with AK-47 rifles and helmets on your heads! And still you give up and leave!" an officer shouts at us.

You should never whine. You can roar, shout, wince in pain, and scream but you should never whine or cry. Never tell an officer you can't take it anymore - otherwise you'll lose their respect and be treated like a weakling.

Halfway into the march one of the officers grabs me and tells me to go back to camp - I was lagging behind.

What happened next I only learned back in camp: The remaining seven teammates were ambushed on the way through the water obstacle. So they dived in and swam to shore where they had to run another four km through the forest, all wet and covered in dirt.

Day 3: Tactical Lifestyle

The last day in the camp began at 2 a.m. when an officer throws a noise grenade under our tent. I'm not sure if it was the grenade or the scream of the guy lying next to me that woke me up.

'Move! Move! Move!' the officers shout.

We rush out of the tents, drop to the ground to do some push-ups, and are only allowed back up again until the officers decide we've had enough. We then sleep for another couple of hours.

When I wake up my eyes are blurred and bloodshot from tiredness. The day is spent studying SWAT tactics: How to rescue captives guarded by terrorists in buildings - as well as the tactics of Special Forces soldiers operating in forests and mountains.

One of the main things you learn in the Army is that no matter how hard each task or situation is, it will always come to an end, so it's worth enduring. Otherwise you will break every time the going gets tough - and the tough always gets going in the military.

The people who took part in the program told me it was one of the best city escapes they've experienced, and not only a great physical test, but also psychological. Standing in line with different people from various background, everyone is equal.
Text by Nikolay Litovkin
Edited by Vsevolod Pulya
Images credits: Stoyan Vassev
Design and layout by Anastasiya Karagodina
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