The old Soviet postcard reads: Glory to the Soviet Army! The word “Army” is generic conversational for Armed Forces. So if you say that you are a sergeant in the Army, you might need to specify it further whether you are in the Ground Forces, Air Force, Marines, or the Navy.
February 23rd is yet another holiday in Russia – День защитника Отечества (Defender of the Fatherland Day). The majority of young Russian males end up serving in the Armed Forces as призывники (draftees). Comparatively few Russian women serve in the military. Besides, women have their own holiday on March 8th. For all these reasons, February 23rd is usually viewed as a men’s holiday.
Since as I mentioned, most Russian males have some армейский опыт (army experience), they tend to tell stories about their days in the military whenever an opportunity presents itself. And that’s those with experience either as солдаты срочной службы (draftee soldiers) who served for two years (if drafted before 2008) or even just one year (if drafter after 2008) or professional контрактники (contract soldiers).
Interestingly, one of the official terms for “military obligation” is воинская повинность (the other one is воинская обязанность). The two words повинность (duty) and провинность (fault, delinquency) are cognates, but shouldn’t be confused.
Back to the holiday… On this day, if you find yourself в русскоговорящем кругу (in a company of Russian speakers), you are likely to hear tales, often tall tales, about their military service days. Or, borrowing a line from the classic, бойцы вспоминают минувшие дни… (soldiers recall the days long gone).
If you are a male, your Russian собеседник (conversation partner) might assume you too served in the military forces of your country. So don’t be surprised if you are asked about your rank or branch of service. Fathers-in-law are particularly prone to this line of questioning.
In case you have served or are serving in the military, here’s some basic info you need to know:
Сухопутные войска (lit. ground forces) would be approximately equivalent to the Army
Военно-воздушные силы or ВВС would be same as the Air Force.
Военно-морской флот or ВМФ is, of course, the Navy
Воздушно-десантные войска or ВДВ are not the Marines, but rather Airborne soldiers. These guys are so tough, they have a holiday of their own on August 2. So, if you are a red beret in the US Army, you get much respect from your father-in-law for sure.
Now, Вооружённые силы Российской Федерации (Armed Forces of the Russian Federation) have something called космические войска which immediately brings to mind the Starship Troopers movie (or am I the only one?). These are Aerospace Defense Forces. The final one is Strategic Missile Troops or ракетные войска стратегического назначения. I think these last two are covered under the Air Force in the US.
So you can say Я служу/служил в ________________ (I serve/served in the ____________) using your branch of service instead of the blank. Don’t forget that you will have to use the prepositional case here.
Я служил в сухопутных войсках 6 лет. (I served in the Army for 6 years).
Я служу в военно-воздушных силах уже 15 лет. Ещё пять и смогу выйти на пенсию. (I’ve served in the Air Force for 15 years. Five more and I can retire).
Я сам не служил, но мой отец был морским пехотинцем (I didn’t serve myself, but my father was a Marine).
Now that we are clear with род войск (branch of the military), it’s time to figure out воинские звания (military ranks).
|Ефрейтор||Private 1st class or lance-corporal|
|Старший сержант||Staff Sergeant or Sergeant First Class|
|Старшина||Master Sergeant or Sergeant Major|
|Младший лейтенант||2nd Leutenant|
|Старший лейтенант||1st Leutenant|
|Генерал армии||General (four-star general)|
Oh, two more absolutely must-know ranks are прапорщик (Warrant Officer) and старший прапорщик (Chief Warrant Officer). Which really puts you in a pickle if you are a warrant officer. You see, in Russia, прапорщик or прапор is usually portrayed as a dim-witted, arrogant, rude and frequently dishonest character. If a joke is not about a colonel or general, then it’s for sure about a warrant:
Не спорь с прапором о том, что земля круглая, а то он заставит тебя её разравнять. (Don’t argue with a warrant that the Earth is round or he will order you to flatten it)
Прапорщик встречает осла. Осёл спрашивает: «Ты кто такой?» Прапорщик отвечает: «Я – офицер, а ты кто такой?». Осёл отвечает: «Ну, тогда я – лошадь».
(A warrant meets a donkey. The donkey asks: who are you? I am an officer, – the warrant says, – and how are you? Well, then I am a horse, the donkey replies.)
No wonder that Russians are mostly phasing out these two ranks and replacing them with sergeants. Which kind of sucks if you are a warrant officer ‘cause in the US a warrant officer is an officer and not an enlisted.
By the way, just as in the US military, in Russian enlisted soldiers must salute their officers. To salute is отдать честь (lit: to render honor) while the word салют means fireworks or gun salvo.
And finally, if you were a commander of a unit, it’s important to know words for воинское формирование (military unit) you commanded:
|Отряд||Anything from detachment-size to corps-size element|
Now combine all the elements:
Я служил старшим сержантом сухопутных войск, но вышел на пенсию пару лет назад (I as a Sergeant First Class in the Army, but retired a couple of years ago)
Муж моей дочери – полковник ВВС (My daughter’s husband is an Air Force Colonel).
Мой брат – командир отделения (My brother is a squad leader).
Hopefully, now you can join in the story-swapping. But only if you are a man. Women serving in the military will still have to wait until the International Women’s Day, March 8th.