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Jerry Amernic: Comrades in arms: The Russia of yesterday and today

Commentary

I don’t know what happened to them and am afraid to ask. But many years ago, during the Afghanistan war, and we’re talking the 1980s here, a group of Red Army soldiers did the unthinkable and deserted and some joined the enemy—the Mujahideen—to take up arms against their former comrades. Five of them would later be smuggled into Canada by way of Pakistan. I thought this would make a good book and got to know them. The book never happened but it’s weird how the mind works.

You see it was around this time when my wife and I got an egg slicer, a little device with narrow wires that tears through hard-boiled eggs in an instant. Slicing eggs and cleaning this contraption and the remains afterward always made me think about something one of those guys told me. How his crazed Red Army platoon commander took prisoners, tied them up, and laid them across the road. Then he had infantry vehicles called BMP carriers—tanks—drive over them and rip their bodies to shreds. This soldier saw it all with his own eyes. Then he was told to clean up the mess and when doing that had to scour the tank treads for bits of human flesh. For whatever the reason his story always came back to haunt me with the egg slicer.

This was grisly stuff, but everything they told me about the Red Army and how it operated in Afghanistan tended to be grisly. Now, as I watch nightly news reports about how the Red Army has been conducting itself in Ukraine these past eight months, I have the distinct impression little has changed.

That soldier, trained as a sharpshooter, was drafted into the Red Army at 19 and told he’d be fighting American and Chinese mercenaries when he got to Afghanistan, which sounds like present-day Red Army recruits who arrive in Ukraine and look for Nazis. The very day that he left home he saw a coffin being unloaded from a truck down the street. The body of a neighbour, age 21, was coming home after a training accident in East Germany. Not in combat. Training. Apparently, these things were commonplace.

So what was it like being a member of the Red Army during that war? Based on the extensive interviews I did with this group—all of them young and friendly—it’s not much different from what transpires today.

In this file photo taken April 2, 1989, an Afghan guerrilla stands on top of one of the Soviet-made army tanks captured near Jalalabad, in Afghanistan. Joe Gaal, AP Photo.

The sharpshooter did just under two years of service, with no leave; the officers and KGB monitoring everything to make sure the men kept their noses clean. He said in the Red Army firing squads could be employed for those who don’t toe the line. When training was completed they were ordered to attack Afghan villages and kill everything—enemy combatants, women, children, old people, as well as dogs, cats, goats, and sheep. He once confided to me just how many people he figured he killed over his stint in Afghanistan.

It is not a pretty number.

They all spoke about discrimination against rookies and vicious in-fighting between ethnic groups. They told me chemical agents like trichothecene mycotoxins which are deadly compounds produced by molds were used in Afghanistan as early as 1980. The Soviet Union always denied this. Such agents cause blistering, vomiting, dysentery, and ultimately death. They also said alcoholism was rampant in the military with heavy use of marijuana and hashish, never mind heroin and opium. Remember, this was Afghanistan where the opium poppy grew like a weed.

Soldiers suffered from hepatitis, typhoid, cholera, and malaria, but despite it all, they had to write “happy” letters home knowing full well that their outgoing mail was inspected. Some tried to kill themselves.

One of them was a driver and mechanic who occasionally had to search for mines. Dangerous work to be sure. Then there was the demolitions expert. Eventually, five were smuggled to Canada. There was a press conference and the story went, as we now say, viral. They were feted at the House of Commons in Ottawa and soon two of them made a trip to Washington to address a commission and relate their experiences about Afghanistan.

When he was younger the sharpshooter wanted to be a pilot. It didn’t happen. His life, and the lives of his comrades, got sidetracked because of Afghanistan and their being drafted into the Red Army. The last I heard he had a family of his own and was living in suburbia. I go through the notes I kept and read his comments.

“I like it here. It’s a great country but you have to work hard.”

On the other hand, he also said life in Canada was easy. As for returning to Russia, that was out of the question.

“To go back and see the mothers of all my friends who died in Afghanistan? I don’t want to go.”

One of them wound up in Boston while two others got married and divorced. Still, this was many years ago and I don’t know what has happened since. But the war continues in Ukraine and the world holds its breath.

I know a few Russians and Russian speakers from my work, all of them professional people. One of them, an accountant, told me how World War II is taught there with no mention of Normandy, D-Day, or the Western Allies. Everything starts in 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded Russia and we can all thank the Red Army and the Red Army alone for Hitler’s defeat. I was also talking to a lawyer shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine and asked about it.

“It would be like Washington bombing Toronto,” the lawyer said.

I have a friend, not Russian, who leans quite far to the Right. When we talked he said he didn’t like Putin but that he has a point about NATO encroaching on Russia. And so there is a very big security concern on the part of the Kremlin, which he apparently understands.

But I don’t share that view. You can call it Russia or the Soviet Union, it’s the same mentality that invaded Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Crimea albeit Ukraine in 2014, and all of Ukraine this year. And that’s only a partial list. Why the invasions? Pure and simple it’s the fear of liberal democracy, on the part of a criminal organization masquerading as a government, in a country that has never known it.

Yes, I realize we have problems of our own. Just read some of my earlier pieces for The Hub. But I don’t see how a rational mind can have any defence for Putin who advocates the absolute worst form of tribalism.

Ultra-nationalism.

In history, we have seen it before and it never turns out well. Which is why Putin is Yesterday’s Man and the sooner he is gone the better.

Malcolm Jolley: The lesser-known Cabernet that is worth your while

Commentary

Cabernet Franc is an orphan grape, meaning whatever varieties bred together to make it ages ago have disappeared into extinction. Perhaps, a thousand or so years ago, it was with this knowledge that Cabernet Franc set about having children of its own, like Merlot and most famously Cabernet Sauvignon, the latter being the lovechild of a dalliance with Sauvignon Blanc. And like all good and devoted parents, Cabernet Franc has been by and large happy to step back and see its widely planted progeny find success and renown in the world of wine.

Cabernet Franc is likely best known as one of the grapes in a Bordeaux blend, or Meritage blend from California. For a viticulturist, Cabernet Franc’s main talent is its ability to ripen early, or at least earlier than most other red wine grapes. In the pre-global warming climate of the mid to late twentieth century, this would have been particularly valuable in Bordeaux, where the vignerons could at least count on it to ripeness over a cool growing season. Further north in the cooler Loire Valley, its ability to ripen early made it the overwhelmingly dominant red wine grape.

Cabernet Franc does well in another cool climate that’s close to my home, the Niagara Peninsula and the other wine-producing regions of Southern Ontario. It responds well to the limestone soils of the Niagara Escarpment. At Thirty Bench, winemaker Emma Garner’s Cabernet Franc from the Beamsville Bench is among the most prized-after Niagara reds, while Norman Hardy’s Cab Franc from limestone-riddled Prince Edward County doesn’t get the attention of his Pinot Noir, but is a perennial fan favourite, for those that know.

Looking back to France, the wines of the Loire Valley are best known in export markets like ours for the whites; especially for Sauvignon Blanc and particularly for the relatively far eastern regions of the valley, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Further down the river, towards the Atlantic, roughly between the old medieval cities of Tours and Angers, is where we find the red wines, nearly all of them from Cabernet Franc vines.

The great commercial advantage enjoyed by the winemakers of Bordeaux is its deep water harbour, which made for easy exports to Britain, the Low Countries, and eventually North America and beyond. While the Loire has the port of Nantes, once the capital of seafaring Brittany, the importance of the Loire to its winemakers ran the other way: it was historically the river itself.

The Loire is France’s longest river, and it makes a long arc from its source in the Massif Central to the Atlantic. About midway, at Orléans, the river is only 120 kilometres to Paris. The bulk of the wines of the Loire, especially the reds, have always been bound for the capital and its bistros. This is in part why you see relatively few Loire Cabernet Franc bottles in Canada, at least outside of Quebec: the Parisians and fellow Northern French drink most of it.

When compared to its Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot offspring, Cabernet Franc is often described as lighter, with more red than black fruit notes. Sometimes it’s also described as a bit more fragrant. As with all vinous things, the exceptions to these rules are multiple and a concentrated Cab Franc from a warm year (which seems to be every year now in Europe) can be just as rich and complex as any red wine. Still, the Loire Valley Cabernet Francs tend to show good, bright and lively acidity, which places them firmly in the camp of the vins gastronomiques.

Great wine pairing seems to be a chicken and egg game. Did the wine find the food, or the food the wine? Or if it isn’t, a third way of explanation would be to say they are symbiotic: most of the classic ones seem to involve matching the wines of a place to its foods. The Loire Valley is sometimes called the garden of France, as just about any French ingredient can be found, grown, or raised there. And, like the wine, a lot of it ends up in Paris.

There are lots of red wines that pair just fine with bistro fare—which is to say popular—foods of France, but there is a strong argument to be made that a typical Loire Valley Cabernet Franc is versatile enough to go with just about all of them: light enough for seafood or for white meats like sweetbreads, but also big enough for anything from calf’s liver to duck confit to good old steak frites. In this way, there are few home-cooked meals chez moi that wouldn’t welcome a glass of the lighter Cabernet.

All of this is why I was delighted to find a bottle of the 2018 Saumur-Champigny Lieu Dit Les Poyeux on the shelves of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario store near me. The French wine term lieu dit can be literally translated to “place said”, but might be more accurately (and poetically) transposed as “the place we call”. Les Poyeux is a hillside vineyard a little south of the Loire near the town of Sauzur-Champigny, which is famous for its caves.

Since before recorded history, those caves have been carved out of the soft yellow chalky limestone the locals call tuffeau. Lightweight, it’s easy quarry and ideal for floating up or down a river to build so many cathedrals, abbeys and fairytale castles, like the big one nearby at Saumur. It’s also fantastic at letting vines grow long roots deep into it, in search of water and minerals dissolved therein. Of all the red wine regions of the Loire, Saumur-Champigny has the most tuffeau, which makes wines that are paradoxically both soft and deep in flavour.

The Les Poyeux is made by a co-operative begun in the 1950s, named after two of its founding farmers: Marcel et Robert. Like a Clos in Burgundy, individual farmers claim particular rows at Les Poyeux, and the co-operative happens to have six there that contribute to the wine. In concert, the farmers leave their Cabernet late on the vines, typically picking well into October, then the must is left to macerate on its skins for 22 days, to bring out a brooding, blackberry fruited wine despite its light strawberry nose. Mixed into this is the telltale Loire Cabernet Franc note of pencil shavings. Also, it’s $19 a bottle.

The Marcel et Robert 2018 Saumur-Champigny Lieu Dit Les Poyeux is a great deal, and there are many other great Loire deals to be had, if you are lucky enough to be in a market with an allotment of it, now and again. Of course, there are lots of more expensive, and more sophisticated, Saumur-Champigny Cabernet Francs out there, mostly sold by the case to restaurants or collectors. And also wines from neighbouring regions like Chinon and Bourgueil that are worth checking out if you can find them. The upshot is that the red grape that made it in the Loire when it was too cold for much of anything else to work is having a bit of a moment in warmer times, and more often than not it’s worth a try.