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31 Jul, 2009 06:51

Pskov: ready for battle

The Pskov region, located around 600 kilometers from Moscow, is not only a place of rich history and natural beauty. The area is home to one of the most respected and elite forces in the Russian army.

In the 76th Airborne Division they train for combat, not for show. Over the past 70 years, the division has been in most of Russia's armed conflicts: from Stalingrad to South Ossetia.

Being the country's first fully-professional division, it is staffed by men who the entire army looks up to. To be selected for the division is an honor, as Major Ruslan Kompanets, Assistant to the Division Commander explains:

“It's the men who were, and are part of this division who have made it what it is – famous in all of Russia, and maybe the world.”

But away from the order of the military base is the messy reality of war. Any unit's history is not just about military glory, it is about the loss of human life. Due to its status, this division has suffered more than most.

It is March 2000, and the Russian army is forcing Chechen militants to retreat into the mountains. The army’s commander insists that the war has been won.

Meanwhile, at the frontline, a small troop is sent ahead to set up camp on a key mountain position. Before they have a chance, they are ambushed by the bulk of the remaining militant force. The troop resists until they run out of ammunition.

Eighty four men from the division died that day. Lance Corporal Aleksandr Lebedev was one of them. He'd just bought a house, had a fiancée and was planning to leave the front-line.

“We didn't manage to do our job as parents,” Raisa Lebedeva, the corporal’s stepmother says.

“We should have stopped him from going on this final mission. He was such a good person, he really loved life.”

Unlike most soldiers in the Russian army, these paratroopers are professional soldiers. They receive salaries of around $400 a month.

They are supplied with superior army food and live in small rooms instead of barracks with bunk beds. And death, as part of their job, is something these men just learn to live with.

“Of course, the first time somebody was killed in our troop it was scary,” Roman Rubenov, a paratrooper, recalls.

“But I like to be a soldier: I have an excellent relationship with other people here. And I am good at shooting.”

If Russia's recent history is any guide, this skill may be needed for more than aiming at cardboard cut outs.

And the 76th Division's men will once again be called upon to prove their bravery.

Carlo Disieno, a former American paratrooper who now lives in Pskov, explains that regardless of nationality, it is ultimately the desire to be the best of the best that leads these soldiers on.

The training process is grueling, both physically and psychologically and sacrifice is an important part of the paratroopers’ lives:

“You have to be willing to sacrifice,” Carlo Disieno explains. “And to sacrifice your life.”

United by common ground

Local residents say that the military and civil populations of the city live have learned to live as a united community.

Svetlana Vyalkovskaya’s family has strong ties with the military: both her father and brother serve in the 76th Division.

“Everything is okay, people communicate,” she says. “I guess it’s normal for military people to live together with civilians.”

Centuries ago…

But, it is not just recently that Pskov has won military glory for itself. Its battle history goes many centuries back.

The walls of the Pskov Fortress were most severely tested in 1581, when the army of Polish king Stefan Batory laid siege to this citadel as part of the Livonian war between Ivan the Terrible and his western neighbors, says Professor William Brumfield, an expert on Russian architecture from US-based Tulane University:

“Here, the local stones were put together with great skill and ingenuity – of great thickness – and managed to serve its purpose at times of greater stress.”