‘Wait For Me’ 1941–45


In June 1941, Leonid Makhnach was staying at his grandparents’ house in the small town of Krichev in Belorussia, 600 kilometres from the Soviet border with Poland. He had been sent there for a holiday by his parents, who were unable to leave Moscow, but wanted him to get out of the capital, where the heat that summer had been stifling. Leonid’s father, Vladimir, was the director of the Mosgaz Trust, the main supplier of gas to the Soviet capital, and had to stay in Moscow to write a major report for the Party leadership on plans for energy in the event of war. The grandparents’ house stood at the edge of Krichev, where the town gave way to thick oak woods and pasturelands. It was a modest wooden house of the sort inhabited by smallholders, labourers and traders throughout the western regions of the Soviet Union, with a little yard for pigs and a garden full of apple trees.

Although it was located in the western borderlands, Krichev had no defence plan to put into operation when the Germans launched their huge invasion force against the Soviet Union at first light on Sunday 22 June. The Soviet leadership was not prepared for war, and towns like Krichev had no inkling of the imminent invasion until noon that day, when Molotov, in a faltering voice, announced the beginning of hostilities on the radio. For the next three days the radio was Krichev’s only source of news about the war. Then, on 26 June, without any warning from the Soviet authorities, Krichev was bombed by German planes. There was havoc in the town. People fled into the woods. Cows and pigs were left to run wild. Dead bodies lay in the street.

In the middle of this chaos Leonid’s mother, Maria, arrived in Krichev. She had left Moscow on the first day of the invasion in the hope of rescuing her family before they were cut off by the German troops. Vladimir just then had left on a brief work trip to the Leningrad region and was not due to return to Moscow until the end of June. So Maria set off on her own. She managed to travel as far as Smolensk, which was under heavy aerial bombardment, but there were no trains to take her further west, towards the Soviet front. Maria made her way on foot, against the flow of retreating soldiers and civilians, reaching Krichev, 120 kilometres to the south-west, four days later. ‘She was almost black with dust and grime, when she arrived,’ recalls Leonid, ‘and totally exhausted from the journey.’

The people of Krichev hurried to pack up their belongings and head east. The 2,000 Jews, almost half the town’s population, were among the first to leave, worried by the rumours they had heard of the Nazis’ brutality; they were soon followed by the Communists, who had just as much to fear from the invading troops. As the relatives of a senior Soviet official, the Makhnach family needed to get out as fast as possible. Maria delayed the family’s departure from the town for as long as possible in the hope that her husband would contact them. On 16 July, the day before the Germans took Krichev, she had still not heard from Vladimir, so she wrote him a letter in Moscow, packed some belongings on a horse and cart and set off with Leonid and her parents, moving slowly east on the smallest country roads to avoid the German planes, which dropped their bombs on the main highways. She had no idea that Vladimir was speeding west towards them in his chauffeured limousine. ‘Travelling on the highway from Smolensk, he could not have been more than a few kilometres away when we passed each other,’ concludes Leonid.

Vladimir got to Krichev just in time to see the Germans entering the town. From the meadows on the opposite bank of the Sozh River he watched the town’s wooden houses go up in flames, he heard the screams, and then the shots. Thinking that his family was about to be massacred, Vladimir tried to cross the river and reach the town by foot to rescue them, but he was stopped by the retreating Soviet troops. Believing that his family had probably been killed, he returned to Moscow. The next day the letter from his wife arrived: she was heading towards Briansk, 200 kilometres east of Krichev, and would travel on to Stalingrad, where she had relatives. Maria thought it would be safer than going back to Moscow, which, it was rumoured, was about to fall to the Germans.

Going back to Moscow proved to be Vladimir’s undoing. Shortly after his return he was arrested and sentenced to ten years in a labour camp for ‘defeatist talk and panic-mongering’. In a conversation with a work colleague at the Mosgaz Trust he had talked about the chaos he had witnessed at the front. Many people were arrested for such talk in the first months of the war, when the Soviet authorities desperately tried to suppress all news about the military catastrophe. The NKVD in Moscow built the arrest of Makhnach into a ‘Trotskyist conspiracy’ among the city’s leading energy officials and made dozens of arrests. It was not until the autumn that Vladimir was able to get word to his wife about his whereabouts. On the long train journey to Siberia, he threw a letter from the window of his carriage addressed to her in Stalingrad. A peasant picked it up and posted it:

My dear ones! I am alive and well. Circumstances prevented me from writing to you earlier. Do not worry about me. Look after yourselves. Maria, my beloved, it will be hard for you. But do not give up hope. I am going to Siberia. I am innocent. Wait for me, I will return.1

The German assault was so powerful and swift that it took the Soviet forces completely by surprise. Stalin had ignored intelligence reports of German preparations for an invasion. He even dismissed last-minute bulletins confirming a massive German build-up on the frontier as a British ploy to lure the Soviet Union into war (he had the bearers of this information shot as ‘British spies’). The Soviet defences were in total disarray. After the signing of the Nazi–Soviet Pact the old defensive lines had been abandoned; the new fortifications, hastily constructed in the occupied Baltic states, had hardly any heavy guns, radio equipment or minefields. They were easily overrun by the nineteen Panzer divisions and fifteen motorized infantry divisions that spearheaded the German invasion force. Soviet units were rushed towards the front to plug the gaps, only to be smashed by German tanks and planes, which had control of the sky. By 28 June, six days into the invasion, German forces had advanced in a huge pincer movement through Belorussia to capture Minsk, 300 kilometres into Soviet territory, while further north they had cut through Lithuania and Latvia to threaten Leningrad.

Konstantin Simonov saw much of the chaos on the Belorussian Front. When the war began he was called up to the front as a correspondent for an army newspaper and sent to join the political department of the Third Army near Grodno on the border with Poland. Travelling by train, he arrived in Borisov early in the morning of 26 June, but could not travel any further because the line to Minsk was under heavy bombardment. Simonov disembarked and found a driver to take him on to Minsk by car, but they soon came up against the Soviet forces falling back in disarray. German planes flew overhead, firing on the troops with machine-guns and dropping bombs on to the road. The soldiers fled into the woods. An officer was standing in the middle of the road, shouting at the men that he would shoot them if they did not turn around. But they simply ignored him. The woods were swarming with soldiers and civilians trying to find cover from the German planes, which swooped above the trees, firing on the crowds below. Simonov was nearly killed when a captured Soviet plane mowed down several people around him: it flew so low above the trees that he could see the faces of its German crew. When it was dark he stumbled back on to the road and found a commissar, ‘a young unshaven man with a pilotka [fore-and-aft cap], a winter coat and for some reason a spade in his hands’. Simonov introduced himself as a journalist and asked for directions to the Front Headquarters. ‘What headquarters?’ asked the officer. ‘Can’t you see what’s happening here?’2

Simonov retreated with the army to Smolensk. The roads were full of soldiers and civilians – women, children, old people, many of them Jews – heading east on every type of cart, or walking on the road with heavy bundles of household possessions on their backs. In the first days of July he passed through Shklov and Orsha – ‘quiet rural towns’ inhabited by numerous Jewish families, including his wife’s relatives, the Laskins. Stopping for water at a house in Shklov, Simonov was asked by the frightened Jews if he thought they should flee. He advised them to stay, assuring them that the Germans would be routed by the Red Army before reaching Shklov. A few days later, the Germans captured Shklov. They killed nearly all the Jews, some 6,000 men, women and children, whom they shot and buried in a pit outside the town. On 16 July, the Germans took Orsha, and set about building a Jewish ghetto. Most of Orsha’s Jews were transported to the Nazi death camps in 1943, although some, like Samuil Laskin’s brother Iakov, a doctor in Orsha, ran away to join the Red Army.3

Looking back on the catastrophe of 1941, Simonov would come to realize that its origins were rooted in the policies of the Stalinist regime. By the middle of the 1950s, when he began to write his great war novel The Living and the Dead (1959), Simonov had come to recognize that Stalin was to blame for the disaster, not just because he had failed to understand the situation and prepare for war in 1941, but more fundamentally because his reign of terror had created so much fear and mistrust that the country was virtually incapable of coordinated action in its self-defence. Simonov did not see this at the time – his advice to the Jews of Shklov was clear evidence of his belief in the propaganda version of reality – but from 1942 he began to grapple with these troubling ideas in his war diaries (on which he later drew for The Living and the Dead). It became clear to him that the fundamental problem of the Soviet armed forces in 1941 was the climate created by the military purges of 1937–8. He saw that the Terror had undermined the officers’ authority and made them fearful of taking responsibility for military decisions and initiatives in case they were punished by superiors, or denounced by the commissars and other political officers (politruki) who watched their every move. They waited passively for decisions from above, which always came too late to make a positive difference to the military situation on the ground.4

None of these ideas was printable, of course, in the war years (or, for that matter, at any other time before the ‘Thaw’ of 1956). What Simonov had written in his diaries could never have been published in Krasnaia zvezda, the main Red Army newspaper, for which he worked as a correspondent from July 1941. Censorship was tightened on the outbreak of the war. Through the Soviet Information Bureau (Sovinform-biuro), created on the third day of the war to control all printed and radio reports, the government attempted to conceal the military catastrophe from the public and manipulate the news to boost morale. Journalists like Simonov were expected to give their reports a positive and optimistic gloss, even when they were writing about disasters at the front, and what they wrote was in any case nearly always cut or changed by the censors.

Simonov was in a particularly difficult position. Arriving in Moscow on 19 July, three days after the German capture of Smolensk, he was the first correspondent to return from the Belorussian Front. People in the capital had no idea about the extent of the military debacle. News of the fall of Smolensk had been suppressed to avoid causing panic (it was not until 13 August, following the failure of Soviet forces to regain a foothold in the town, that the information was finally released). Muscovites bombarded Simonov with questions about the military situation. But he could not answer truthfully without running the risk of being denounced, like Makhnach, for ‘defeatist talk and panic-mongering’. So he resolved to hold his tongue and keep to himself his depression, which, he noted in his diary, ‘even people close to me mistook as a sign of exhaustion’. Writing in the press, Simonov struggled to find something positive to say about the events he had seen. ‘It seemed impossible to write about what had actually happened,’ he recalls. ‘Not just because it would not have been printed, but also because there was something inside me’ that would not accept so dark an outcome. He needed to find some sign of hope in the catastrophe. The incident he focused on had taken place amidst the chaos of the retreat to Smolensk. Simonov had seen two men, a captain and a brigadier, walking west, against the human tide, towards the front. The last remaining men of their platoon, which had been wiped out by a German bomb, the two men were driven, it seemed to Simonov, by some innate sense of patriotic duty, in which, as time went on, he came to see the seeds of a future Soviet victory.5

In the absence of any reliable information from the Soviet media, rumours spread and people started to panic. It was said that the government had fled; that there was treason in the army staff; that the Soviet leadership was preparing to abandon Moscow and Leningrad. It was even rumoured that the German bombing of the capital, which began in mid-July, had been led by the famous Soviet aviator Sigizmund Levanevsky, who had disappeared on a flight across the North Pole to the USA in 1937. The journalist N. K. Verzhbitsky recorded in his diary a conversation with ‘a lively old man’ in a Moscow street: ‘Why hasn’t anybody spoken to us on the radio?’ the old man said. ‘They should say something – anything, good or bad. But we are completely in a fog, and must all think for ourselves.’ Stalin’s absence from the public scene added to this feeling of uncertainty. Apparently, he had suffered some sort of breakdown in the first days of the war: he locked himself away in his dacha and took no interest in anything. It was not until 1 July that Stalin returned to the Kremlin and not until two days later that he made his first war speech to the nation. Pausing frequently, as if distressed, to take a drink, Stalin addressed the Soviet people as ‘my brothers and sisters, and my friends’. He called on them to unite for ‘the life-or-death struggle’, which he described as a ‘war of the entire Soviet nation’. It was the first time that Stalin had defined the Soviet people in such fraternal and inclusive terms: there was no longer mention of the class struggle or ideology. Simonov recalls the impression the speech made on himself and the soldiers at the front: ‘Nobody had spoken to us like that for a long time. All those years we had suffered from the lack of friendship. And in that speech, as I recall, it was the words “My friends” that moved us to tears.’6

Despite the galvanizing effect of Stalin’s speech, the outbreak of the war witnessed an explosion of open talk and criticism of the Soviet regime, prompted perhaps by the uncertainty or the release from fear. ‘One hears conversations that only a short time ago would have led to a tribunal,’ Verzhbitsky noted in his diary on 18 October, when the Germans were a few miles from the capital. Much of this disgruntlement came from peasants and workers, who criticized the lack of preparation for the war, the stringent labour discipline, the reduction of food rations, the coercive conscriptions and the flight of the Party bosses to the rear, which had left ordinary people to face the invasion on their own. In Leningrad, where half the city’s Party members took flight in the first six months of the war, the anti-Soviet mood of the workers was so strong that some even welcomed the prospect of a German victory. The many strikes and workers’ demonstrations in the first months of the war signalled a return to something like the revolutionary atmosphere of 1917. At one demonstration in the Ivanovo region, in October 1941, when the Party bosses tried to calm the crowds, the strike leaders shouted to the workers: ‘Don’t listen to them! They know nothing! They’ve been deceiving us for twenty-three years!’ At factory meetings workers showed that they were not afraid to blame the Communists for the outbreak of the war and the defeats at the front. According to the NKVD’s surveillance groups, there were many workers and peasants who welcomed the invasion on the grounds that it would sweep away the Soviet regime. It was a commonplace that only Jews and Communists had anything to fear from the Germans.7

The government responded to this vocal opposition by declaring war on ‘panic-mongerers’. Thousands were arrested and many people shot for loose (‘defeatist’) talk about the situation at the front. Roza Vetukh-novskaia was arrested on the third day of the war and charged with treason against the motherland. When she got to her prison cell she found that she was one of many women who had been arrested for something they had said: ‘This one said that the German army is stronger’; ‘That one said that our crops are poor’; ‘Yet another said that we work like slaves in the kolkhoz’. Most of these women were ordinary workers and peasants. Irina Shcherbov-Nefedovich was arrested in Leningrad on 30 July, one week after she had been denounced for ‘panic-mongering and spreading rumours’ by a Party worker at the Institute of Vaccines where she worked. It turned out that all she had done was to tell a friend about the bombing of Smolensk, which she had heard about in a radio broadcast by Sovinformbiuro. Sentenced to seven years in a labour camp near Khabarovsk, she died there in 1946. Irina’s husband and daughter were never told what had happened to her. They assumed that she had died in the bombing of Leningrad. It was not until 1994 that they learned the truth about her death.8

On 20 July, after the fall of Smolensk, Stalin assumed control of the military command (Stavka) by appointing himself Commissar of Defence. He sent Marshal Timoshenko, the former defence chief, to take command of the Western Front and launch a counter-offensive for the recapture of Smolensk. For a while the German advance towards Moscow was slowed down, not least because part of the German army was diverted to the south to seize the rich agricultural land, the mines and industries of Ukraine. Convinced that economics was the key to victory, Hitler thought control of these resources would help make the Third Reich invincible. During August, Hitler focused on the conquest of Ukraine, allowing the Red Army to push the Germans back on the Smolensk–Moscow front. On 6 September, Soviet forces briefly regained control of the outskirts of Smolensk, before falling back for lack of basic military equipment. Further north, on 25 September, the Germans reached the shores of Lake Ladoga, effectively surrounding Leningrad. Wanting to preserve his northern troops for the battle of Moscow, Hitler decided to lay siege to Leningrad and starve its population out of existence rather than to try to conquer it. In strictly military terms the fate of Leningrad had little real significance for the outcome of the war, which would be decided on the Moscow and the southern fronts. But as the birthplace of the Russian Empire and the Revolution, and as a citadel of European values and culture in Russia, Leningrad had a huge symbolic importance. This goes a long way towards explaining why it was not abandoned by the Soviet command; and indeed why most of its population chose to stay in the besieged city in the autumn of 1941, when Leningrad was cut off from virtually all its food and fuel supplies (perhaps a million people, or one-third of the pre-war population, died from disease or starvation, before the siege was lifted in January 1944). Meanwhile, to the south, the German advance continued slowly, because the bulk of the Soviet forces had been stationed here to protect the rich industrial and food resources of the Ukraine. A huge pincer movement by the Germans managed to encircle Kiev and its eastern hinterlands. After several weeks of desperate fighting by the Soviet troops, in which nearly half a million soldiers were killed or taken prisoner, the Germans took the city on 19 September, though much street fighting continued after that. By the start of October, with Kiev captured and Leningrad besieged, Hitler concentrated his forces on the conquest of the Soviet capital. He vowed that Moscow would be totally destroyed, its ruins flooded by an artificial lake.9

As the Germans swept across the country, millions of families were broken up, as relatives were caught behind the front. Many children were at summer camps when the invasion began and could not be returned to their families before the German troops arrived. Decades later parents were still trying to trace them through public organizations and advertisements. Thousands of children ended up in orphanages or roamed across the country, joining children’s gangs or even units of the Red Army (according to one estimate there were as many as 25,000 children who marched with the army at some point in the war).10

Iurii Streletsky was twelve years old and living in an orphanage in Leningrad in 1941. His father had been arrested in 1937, and his mother exiled to Vyshnyi Volochek, half-way between Leningrad and Moscow. When the war broke out the orphanage was evacuated to Arzamas near Gorkii. During the journey, Iurii jumped off the train and ran away. He had been unhappy at the orphanage. He joined a children’s gang, which lived off petty thefts from railway travellers, but he soon became disgusted by their criminality and turned himself in to the police. The police handed him over to the NKVD, which sent Iurii to a military aerodrome in Arzamas, where he worked as an apprentice engineer. The engineers stationed there adopted Iurii as their mascot. They gave him alcohol and cigarettes and set him up with girls, who were attached to their unit. When twenty of the engineers were transferred to Tbilisi in the spring of 1942, they took the boy with them. Iurii had pleaded with the soldiers to let him go along. He knew that he had been born in the Georgian capital, though his family had left when he was very young, and remembered going there as a child to visit his godparents. He also knew that his older sister had gone to live with them after the arrest of their parents. During the journey to Tbilisi the soldiers concealed Iurii. He had no papers for the trip and would have been arrested, had he been discovered. ‘They were very kind to me,’ Iurii recalls:

They were risking a great deal by taking me along, but none of them complained, and they all gave me food from their own rations. They were fond of me and felt sorry because I had no family. When we approached Stalingrad our train was stopped by a patrol. The two NKVD guards asked to see my papers. They wanted to arrest me when I said that I had none. But the soldiers insisted that I was one of them, and refused to give me up to the two guards, who agreed to let me go for a hundred grams [of vodka].

In Tbilisi Iurii parted company with the soldiers and wandered round the city, hoping he would recognize the place where his godparents lived. Eventually he went to the city offices and obtained a copy of his birth certificate, which proved to be the start of a paper trail leading to them. From then on, Iurii lived with his godparents, who were both engineers, and his sister. Iurii became an engineer as well.11

The evacuation of the population from the western regions of the Soviet Union also broke up families. Eight million children were evacuated to the rear. The main priority was to rescue the industrial stock from cities under threat from the Germans. Three thousand factories were dismantled and transported east – to the Volga and the Urals and beyond – in more than a million railway trucks between June and December 1941. Factory workers and their families travelled east with them. Entire institutions were relocated with their staffs: government and public offices, universities and research institutes, libraries, museums, theatre companies and orchestras.12

For many families evacuation was a mixed blessing. Natalia Gabaeva was eleven years old when she was evacuated from Leningrad to Omsk, to a special children’s home belonging to the Union of Artists. Her mother, a painter, remained in Leningrad, so she could be close to her husband Sergei, a former exile who lived in Peterhof, near the city, and worked in the Agricultural Institute. In 1941, he moved to live with his sick and elderly father, a retired museum worker, in the basement of Leningrad’s Hermitage. Every day he visited his ailing mother, who was divorced from his father, in a distant suburb of the former capital. Natalia was a ‘spoiled young girl’, as she herself recalls. From Omsk she wrote ‘frightful letters’ to her mother, begging her to come and join her. ‘In one letter I even threatened to walk to Leningrad, if my mother did not come.’ In September 1941, she got her wish. Natalia’s mother arrived in Omsk. She had left Leningrad just before the Germans put up the blockade. Sergei suffered in her absence. He fell ill in the first weeks of the siege. He wrote to friends of his desperate need to see Natalia. But when he had the chance to leave Leningrad on one of the last flights from the city, in October 1941, he turned it down. As the sole support of his parents, he could not bring himself to leave them. Sergei understood that he would not survive the siege: people all around him were dying. On 1 January 1942, he wrote to his mother that his only wish was to see Natalia once more before he died. Five days later he was killed when the Hermitage received a direct hit from a German bomb. Throughout her life Natalia was haunted by a sense of guilt about her father’s death: she felt she was to blame for his abandonment by her mother, who might have helped him to survive if she had stayed with him in Leningrad. ‘I’ve been tormented by the same question since my childhood,’ Natalia recalls: ‘if my parents were threatened by some terrible danger, and I had it in my power to save only one of them, which one would I choose? I tried to banish the question from my mind, I couldn’t answer it, but it kept coming back.’13

Natalia Gabaeva with her parents, 1934

Marianna Fursei was four years old in 1941. She came from an intelligentsia home in Arkhangelsk. Her father Nikolai was an artist and a musician. Her mother, Vera German, was a teacher from a family of famous pedagogues in Leningrad. They met in the Solovetsky prison camp, where both of them were prisoners, in 1929, and were exiled together to Arkhangelsk, where their son Georgii was born in 1933, and Marianna in 1937. In January 1941, Nikolai was arrested for ‘anti-Soviet agitation’ and sentenced to ten years in a labour camp near Arkhangelsk. Vera died of typhus in 1942. Marianna and her brother remained in the care of their grandmother, Anastasia Fursei, who had lived with the family in Arkhangelsk. During the first year of the war, food supplies to Arkhangelsk were drastically reduced: the town became a near-famine zone. The children became ill. By the spring of 1942, Marianna was so weak with hunger that she could no longer walk; it seemed only a matter of time before she would die. Anastasia could not cope. The doctor she consulted, a well-known TB specialist called Zina Gliner, advised her to give the girl away for adoption to a family that could afford to feed her and perhaps save her life. At first Anastasia refused, in the hope that Nikolai would soon return from the labour camp. But when she found out that he had been shot (in September 1942), she reluctantly took the doctor’s advice, gave away her granddaughter and went with Georgii to stay with friends in Irkutsk in Siberia. ‘Forgive me. I beg you not to curse me,’ she wrote to the German family in Leningrad. ‘I gave away Marinka [Marianna]. It was the only way to save her life.’ There was little else that Anastasia could do: Marianna was too sick to make the journey to Irkutsk; there were no other relatives in Arkhangelsk to care for her; and while the German family had kept in touch with Anastasia, the siege of Leningrad had ended any hope of delivering the girl to them.

Marianna was adopted by Iosif and Nelly Goldenshtein, who came from a large Jewish family in Mariupol, in south-east Ukraine. Iosif was a senior-ranking Communist in the Soviet air force who had been sent to Arkhangelsk in 1942. When, at the end of September 1942, the German army attacked Mariupol, Iosif flew back to try to save his family. Instead he witnessed a dreadful massacre. As he approached his family’s house, he heard screams from the courtyard. He could only watch from a distance as Hitler’s troops lined up nineteen of his relatives, including three of his own children, and shot them through the head. Traumatized by this experience, the Goldenshteins were desperate for a child to love, even – or perhaps especially – one as sick as Marianna, whom they could care for and nurse back to health.

Anastasia with Marianna and Georgii Fursei, Arkhangelsk, 1939

Marianna’s maternal grandmother, Vera German, wrote to Anastasia in Irkutsk, asking for the name and address of the family that had adopted her granddaughter. But here there was a critical mistake: instead of writing Goldenshtein, Anastasia wrote the name Goldshtein in her reply. By the time the siege of Leningrad had been lifted, and Vera’s family was able to begin their search for Marianna, the Goldenshteins had moved to Tbilisi, and all trace of them in Arkhangelsk had vanished. In 1946, Georgii returned to Leningrad, where he was determined to study at the university: he was just thirteen years of age, too young to remember the Goldenshteins’ real name; and he never spoke with the Germans about his lost sister. Georgii had left behind his grandmother in Irkutsk, promising to come back for her later, but he never did. She died there in a home for invalids in 1957.14

The Goldenshteins were kind, well-meaning people, who loved Marianna as their own daughter. Knowing that her parents had been arrested as ‘enemies of the people’, and that her father had been shot, they tried to protect Marianna (and perhaps themselves) by keeping this information from her. They told Marianna nothing about her parents, although they encouraged her to become a musician like her father (in fact, she became a teacher, like her mother). The Goldenshteins belonged to the Communist military establishment in Tbilisi. Marianna grew up in this privileged environment and adopted many of its values and customs. She always thought of the Goldenshteins as her parents, and called them ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’. But some time around the age of eleven she began to realize that she had once belonged to a different family. The traumatic memories of her early childhood, so deeply buried in her consciousness, began to surface. The catalyst, it seems, was an incident at a Pioneer camp when Marianna was excluded by the other children from an expedition into the forest because, as they said, she was a ‘foundling’. Slowly, Marianna began to piece together the fragments of her former life in Arkhangelsk. She never spoke about these recollections to the Goldenshteins. But her growing sense that she was not ‘family’ focused her unhappiness, and perhaps her teenage resentments, both against the Goldenshteins, who were very strict with her, and against her real parents, who, she concluded, had abandoned her. Marianna explains:

Every night Papa would inspect my school work. I could not go to bed until it was perfect… And Mama was too ill to protect me. She had TB. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, I was expected to do all the household chores… When my mother and father were angry with me, I would think: if only I was living nearer Arkhangelsk, I would run away and find my grandmother [Marianna did not know that she had died]. My parents might be cross with me, but my grandmother would surely not be so angry. Then I would remember that I had no real mother or father. And that made me totally shut down. I was only rarely able to cry.15

On 1 October 1941, Stalin ordered the evacuation of the government from Moscow to Kuibyshev on the Volga. Panic spread in Moscow as the bombing of the city became more intense. There were reports that German troops had broken through the Soviet defences at Viazma, a few days’ march from the capital, on 16 October. At railway stations there were ugly scenes as crowds struggled to board trains for the east. Verzhbitsky reported that people were paying 20,000 roubles to go by car from Moscow to Kazan. The panic was partly based on memories of famine from the Civil War. And indeed the food situation quickly became desperate. Huge queues formed at all the shops, and there was widespread looting, which mass arrests did little to control. Verzhbitsky summed up the public mood in his diary on 17 October:

Who is the author of all this mess, this general flight, this thievery, this confusion in our minds? People talk quite openly in a manner that three days ago would have got them arrested. Queues, endless queues, nervous people on the edge. The hysteria has spread from the leadership to the masses. They’ve begun to remember and count up all the insults, oppressions, injustices, the bullying and bureaucratic machinations of officialdom, the contempt and arrogance of Party members, the draconian orders, deprivations, deceptions and the boastful self-congratulations of the newspapers. It is terrible to hear. People now speak from the heart. Can a city really hold out when it is in such a mood?16

On the same day, Stalin made a radio broadcast pledging to stand by the city to the end: it was a decisive turning-point. People rallied to the defence of the capital, motivated more by local patriotism for Moscow than by any allegiance to the Soviet regime. Muscovites recall that the inhabitants of the city all congregated in the centre – the outskirts were almost completely empty – as if from a collective impulse of self-defence or an unconscious need to unite against the enemy. A quarter of a million civilians dug ditches, carted food and medicines to the front and took injured soldiers into their homes. Tens of thousands volunteered for the citizens’ defence to fight alongside the regular soldiers, scratched together from the shattered armies that had fallen back from the Belorussian Front and reinforcements from Siberia who were thrown into battle directly on their arrival in Moscow. Under General Zhukov, military discipline was gradually restored. The new spirit of determination was symbolized by Stalin’s decision to hold the Revolution Day (7 November) parade on Red Square as usual: the troops marched past the Lenin Mausoleum, and were then sent straight off to the front. According to K. R. Sinilov, the Commandant of Moscow, the parade had a critical effect on the public mood. Before the parade the letters he received had been mostly defeatist: many people wanted to abandon Moscow rather than expose its population to danger. But afterwards people wrote with messages of defiance.17

These few weeks of desperate fighting determined the outcome of the war. By mid-November the German forces were bogged down in winter mud and snow. They were unprepared to survive a Russian winter and exhausted after marching for five months without a break. For the first time since the invasion had begun, they were taking heavy casualties. In December, the Soviets launched a counter-offensive and by April they had pushed the Germans back towards Smolensk. The defence of the capital was a huge boost for Soviet morale. People started to believe in victory. The country was still in a terrible position. By the end of 1941, it had lost 3 million troops, more than half the number that had begun the war; much of Soviet industry had been destroyed; while 90 million citizens, nearly half the pre-war Soviet population, lived in territories occupied by the Germans. But Moscow’s survival was crucial: having failed to capture the Soviet capital, Hitler’s forces stood no further realistic chance of defeating the Soviet Union.


Simonov went to war with a photograph of Valentina Serova in his breast pocket. He kept her image near his heart. In the last six months of 1941, when Valentina was evacuated to Sverdlovsk, he overwhelmed her with love poems. The poet fell in love with the woman he imagined in his poetry:

I want to say you are my wife,

Not so I can tell them you’re my own,

Not because our true relationship

Has long been guessed and generally known.

I do not boast of your beauty

Nor of the fame and fortune you have found.

Enough for me the gentle, secret woman

Who came into my house without a sound.18

Simonov did not write to his real wife. Zhenia Laskina had been evacuated with their son Aleksei, her parents, Samuil and Berta, and her two sisters, Fania and Sonia, to Cheliabinsk in the Urals in September 1941. The three sisters worked in the Cheliabinsk Tractor Factory, the biggest of the plants to be reassigned to the manufacture of tanks in a city that was nicknamed Tankograd. Sonia and Zhenia worked in the procurements offices, while Fania was a norm-setter (responsible for fixing the targets of production and the rates of pay). The Laskins all lived together in one room of a two-room flat which they shared with another family. ‘It was cramped, but warm and friendly,’ remembers Fania: ‘we were all very close.’ Simonov’s parents had also been evacuated to the Urals, to Molotov. Unlike Simonov, they stayed in touch with Zhenia, whom both of them adored. Towards the end of December, Simonov was given a few days’ leave for the New Year. He did not come to Cheliabinsk or Molotov, but went instead to visit Valentina in the nearby city of Sverdlovsk. She refused to receive him – she was about to return to Moscow – so he flew to the Crimea, where a major offensive had just been launched to retake the Kerch peninsula from the Germans.19

Valentina continued to resist Simonov’s approaches. Her affections lay elsewhere. She had, it seems, a brief affair with Stalin’s son, Vasily, and then fell in love with the military hero General Rokossovsky, whom she had met in the spring of 1942 whilst performing at a Moscow hospital, where he was recovering from battle wounds. A veteran of the Civil War, Rokossovsky was arrested in 1937, but released from the Butyrki jail in 1940, when he and his wife and daughter settled in Kiev. On the outbreak of the war, Rokossovsky was recalled by Stalin to Moscow and given the command of the Fourth Army near Smolensk. He took part in the crucial battles for Moscow in the autumn of 1941. When Kiev was occupied by the Germans, he lost contact with his wife. Rokossovsky believed – or wanted to believe – that he was free for Serova. He did not expect to see his wife again. But two months after he met Serova, Rokossovsky’s wife appeared with their daughter in Moscow. They had been evacuated from Kiev just before the Germans occupied the Ukrainian capital. In Moscow she soon heard of the romance between her husband and the film actress, who was still pursued by Simonov. The love-triangle had become the gossip of the Soviet elite, which dubbed it the ‘USSR’ (Union of Serova, Simonov and Rokos-sovsky). Determined to break up the affair, Rokossovsky’s wife complained to Stalin, who disapproved of his leading generals being distracted by personal affairs. In July 1942, Stalin ordered Rokossovsky to take up the command of the Briansk Front, south of Moscow, and focus his attentions on the war. Throughout that summer Valentina tried to revive the romance. Hopelessly in love with the handsome general, she flew out to the front to visit him. But after Stalin’s intervention, Rokossovsky refused to receive her. As it became clear that her passion for the general would not be reciprocated, Valentina softened towards Simonov, who had continued to send her gifts and poetry. She slept with him but said she was not in love with him. Sometimes she exploited him in cruel and humiliating ways. Once she even made him deliver one of her love letters to Rokossovsky at the front.20

By this time the ‘romance’ of Simonov and Valentina had become the subject of a cycle of lyric poems known by everyone. Their love affair became an established fact in the nation’s literary imagination even before it existed in reality.

The most famous of these poems was ‘Wait For Me’, written in the summer of 1941, when Simonov was a long way from conquering Valentina’s heart:

Wait for me, and I’ll come back,

But wait with all your might,

Wait when dreariness descends

With the yellow rains,

Wait when snowdrifts sweep the ground,

Wait during the heat,

Wait when others are given up

And together with the past forgotten.

Wait when from distant places

Letters do not arrive,

Wait when all who’ve waited together

Are already tired of it.

Wait for me, and I’ll come back,

Don’t give your approval

To those who say you should forget,

Insisting they are right.

Even though my son and mother

Believe I’m already gone,

Though my friends get tired of waiting,

Settle by the fire and drink

A bitter cup,

So my soul should rest in peace…

Wait. Do not make haste to join them

In their toast to me.

Wait for me, and I’ll come back,

Just to spite all deaths.

Let the ones who did not wait

Say: ‘It was his luck.’

It’s hard for them to understand,

For those who did not wait,

That in the very heat of fire,

By waiting here for me,

It was you who saved me.

Only you and I will know

How I survived –

It’s just that you know how to wait

As no other person.21

Simonov had written these love poems for Valentina and himself. He did not think that they were suitable for publication, because they lacked the mandatory ‘civic content’ of Socialist Realist poetry. ‘I thought these verses were my private business,’ Simonov said in 1942. But living in the dug-outs at the front, he had recited them to the soldiers, who wrote them down and learned them by heart. The men found an echo of their own emotions in these poems and encouraged Simonov to publish them in Krasnaia zvezda. In December 1941, when Simonov returned on leave to Moscow, several of his poems were broadcast on the radio and then published in Pravda. ‘Wait For Me’ had the greatest response. The poem was reprinted hundreds of times in the press. It was copied out and circulated in millions of private versions by soldiers and civilians. It became a hit song. In 1942, Simonov wrote the screenplay for a film (Wait For Me) in which Valentina played the leading role. A stage version was produced by theatres in cities across the land. Soldiers copied out the poem in their albums and notebooks. They kept it in their pockets as a talisman. They engraved the poem’s main refrain on tanks and lorries and tattooed it on their arms. Lost for words to express their own emotions, they simply copied out the verse in letters to their sweethearts, who responded with the same pledge. ‘My darling Volodenka,’ wrote one woman to her lover at the front. ‘I have not heard from you for a long time. But I’ll wait for you, and you’ll come back.’ Soldiers wrote their own love poems in imitation of ‘Wait For Me’, often adding some individual details from their own experience.22

The main reason for the poem’s huge success was its ability to voice the private thoughts and emotions of millions of soldiers and civilians, who linked their hopes of survival to the idea of reunion with somebody they loved. One group of soldiers wrote to Simonov in May 1942:

Whenever your poems appear in the newspapers, there is huge excitement in our regiment. We cut the poems out and copy them and pass these copies round by hand, because there are not enough copies of the newspapers, and we all want to read the poems and discuss them. We all know ‘Wait For Me’ by heart. It says exactly what we feel. For all of us have wives, fiancées or girlfriends back home, and we all hope that they will wait for us, until we return with victory.23

Everybody was involved in his own private version of the universal romance encapsulated by the poem – a tale of ‘You’ and ‘I’ against the background of the war. But romantic yearning was only half of it. The poem also voiced the soldiers’ deep anxiety about the fidelity of wives and girlfriends left behind. Many soldiers’ songs expressed that worry. One of the most popular had its origins in a song sung by women after the departure of their menfolk, but it had a resonance among the troops, who sang it as they went into battle:

I wanted to say so much to you,

But did not say a word.

Quietly but firmly you whispered in my ear:

‘Don’t love anybody except me!’

Do not worry when you go to war,

I will be true to you,

You will return from victory, my soldier,

And I will hold you firmly in my arms!

Variations on ‘Wait For Me’ also stressed fidelity. One group of soldiers from the Urals sang:

I shall wait for you, my darling,

I shall wait steadfastly.

I shall wait for the Urals winter,

For the flowers in the spring…

Another version added motifs, like the nightingale, from traditional Russian folk songs:

I shall wait, you will return, I know.

Let the yellow rains fall,

I shall wait for you, my sweet nightingale,

And believe with all my strength in our happiness…24

Soldiers passed harsh judgement on wives who were unfaithful to their husbands at the front. As the war went on, the suspicion of infidelity placed a growing strain on many families, not least because the majority of women (who had to live in the real conditions of the war) could not hope to match the ideal image of Soviet womanhood (the waiting girlfriend, the loyal and faithful wife) portrayed in propaganda films, plays and poems such as ‘Wait For Me’.25

Simonov himself became involved in a case of soldiers’ outrage against an unfaithful wife. In September 1943, he was attached to the Third Army on the Briansk Front. A few days after one of the commanders had been killed in action, a letter for him arrived from his wife in Vichuga, northeast of Moscow, in which she told her husband that she was leaving him for another man. Having opened the letter, the soldiers felt that they should answer it. They asked Simonov to write on their behalf, and told him what they wanted to say. But Simonov was called away to a different sector of the front before he had time to pen the text. Two months later, when he was in Kharkov to report for Krasnaia zvezda on the Nazi murders of the Jews there, he suddenly recalled his unfulfilled promise to the soldiers. Simonov still had the woman’s name and address, but instead of writing directly to her, he wrote the poem ‘An Open Letter to the Woman of Vichuga’ to give public voice to the sentiments of the soldiers. As he explained to the Party Secretary of Vichuga, in the poem he ‘cited many of the exact phrases and expressions the troops had used themselves’ when telling him what he should write to the unfaithful wife.26

I am obliged to inform you

That the addressee did not receive

The letter which you posted

Without a hint of shame.

Your husband did not get the letter,

He was not wounded by your vulgar words,

He did not wince, or lose his mind,

He did not regret the past.

So your former husband has been killed.

All is well. Live with your new one.

The dead cannot hurt you

In a letter with superfluous words.

Live, without fear or guilt,

He cannot write, he won’t reply

He won’t return to your town from the war

And meet you holding another’s hand.27

According to the poet Margarita Aliger, the key to the appeal of ‘Wait For Me’ and the other poems in the collection With You and Without You (1941–5) was the way they managed to express universal feelings in such an intensely personal voice. Soviet readers had rarely encountered such emotional and erotic poetry as they found in Simonov’s wartime verse. Before the war, the public and the private had been counterposed as cultural and political opposites. During the 1920s and 1930s there was no room for intimate or private themes in the public-oriented poetry of the Soviet Union. Couched in terms of ‘We’ (or ‘He’ in poems that portrayed Stalin as the voice of every Soviet citizen), poetry was dominated by the grand collective themes of the Revolution (even Mandelshtam declared that lyric verse was inappropriate for Soviet art, because the historical epoch no longer had ‘any interest in the human fate of the individual’). But wartime Soviet culture saw the gradual merging of the private and public. Poetry became more intimate. It took on personal themes. It talked about emotions and relationships, which gave it a new status and authority. In the words of the poet Semyon Kirsanov:

War does not lend itself to odes

And much in it is not suitable for books,

But I believe that the people needs

The spirit of this open diary.

(‘Duty’, 1942)

‘Wait For Me’ was the first major sign of this aesthetic shift. It conjured up a private world of intimate relationships independent of the state. Because it was written from the feelings of one person, it became necessary to millions. With the noise of battle everywhere, with shouting officers and barking commissars, people needed poetry to speak to their muted emotions; they yearned for words to express the sorrow and anger, hatred, fear and hope that agitated them. ‘Your poems live in our feelings,’ a group of soldiers wrote to Simonov in 1945. ‘They teach us how to act with other people, especially with women, and for that reason they are loved by all of us. You alone have managed to express our deepest thoughts and hopes.’28

For all the private impact of this poetry, its propaganda uses were clear for all to see. Poems such as ‘Wait For Me’ were powerful weapons in the Soviet campaign to maintain morale. The emotions they expressed helped to foster a kind of primary-level patriotism, centred on the family, comradeship and love, which, in turn, provided a foundation for the broader Soviet concept of national solidarity. Although Stalin was rumoured to have said that only two copies of ‘Wait For Me’ should have been printed (‘one for him and one for her’), the regime was in fact very quick to exploit the poem’s popularity. According to Aleksandr Shcherbakov, the head of the Main Political Department of the Red Army, the Kremlin even considered moving Simonov away from the danger of the front because of his value as a poet. The Party leadership had become alarmed by a stanza in one of his poems that hinted at martyrdom (it was a romantic gesture to Valentina) and Shcherbakov was ordered to advise him to be careful. After the success of ‘Wait For Me’, Simonov quickly rose to the top of the Soviet cultural establishment. He won the Stalin Prize in 1942 and again in 1943. He was rewarded with a luxury flat in a new building on the Leningrad Highway in Moscow (until then, when he had been in Moscow, he had lived in the editorial offices of Krasnaia zvezda). For the first time in his life he had a maid. Well paid for his journalism and his poetry, he became rich, all the more so since there was nowhere to spend his earnings at the front and most of his personal expenses were picked up by the authorities. He only had to draw on his royalties when he wanted to send money to his parents, or to Zhenia for his son.29

As Simonov’s fame and fortune increased, he became more attractive to Valentina. She had always been drawn towards powerful and influential men, who could protect her from the consequences of her spoilt biography. Thanks to Simonov, Valentina was getting leading roles in films and plays. By the spring of 1943, the glamorous, romantic couple were regularly featured in the Soviet press, sometimes appearing together at the front. The image of the separated lovers of ‘Wait For Me’ reunited in reality was too good for the regime to resist as a morale boost for the soldiers. But in fact the two were not married until October 1943, and all the evidence suggests that it was only shortly before then that Valentina agreed to marry Simonov. At the time of their wedding, Simonov was still legally married to Zhenia Laskina (there is no record that he ever divorced her), although he had left her three years previously. The wedding itself was hastily arranged. There were only a few guests, among them Stalin’s daughter Svetlana and his son Vasily, who brought a personal blessing from Stalin. After the ceremony, Simonov left immediately for the Briansk Front. Apart from two brief spells, when Valentina came to visit Simonov, once in 1943 on the Briansk Front, and another, when she toured the front near Leningrad with him, the newly married couple did not see each other until the end of the war. Even when the war was over, Valentina and Simonov led quite separate lives: they had their own apartments, each with a maid, on the same floor of the building on the Leningrad Highway. Valentina began to drink a lot. She was often drunk in the middle of the day. According to the memoirs of her friend, the actress Tatiana Okunevskaia, Valentina was unhappy in the marriage, and drinking was her way of getting through the day (for Simonov, by contrast, it was a way to get her into bed). One may question the reliability of Okunevskaia’s memoirs, which are deeply coloured by her intense hatred of her former husband, Boris Gorbatov, a close friend of Simonov, against whom she also bore a grudge.* It may well be that Valentina had at some point been in love with Simonov – possibly when she looked up to him as a figure of importance in the Soviet cultural world – and that her drinking had a different origin. But there is no doubt that their marriage was a stormy one, a long way from the propaganda image of domestic bliss produced by the Soviet authorities to give the public something happy to believe. There were constant arguments, interrupted by passionate exchanges, not least in Simonov’s love letters and poems to Valentina from the front; but there were no children, until Maria, born in 1950, by which time Valentina had betrayed Simonov in numerous affairs.30

Serova and Simonov on tour, Leningrad Front, 1944

Not everybody was so fond of ‘Wait For Me’. Some people thought that it was sentimental, that the intimate emotions of which it spoke were inappropriate for public consumption.31 Simonov’s own mother, Aleksandra, was one such person, though her reservations had as much to do with her personal dislike of Valentina and her disapproval of her son’s behaviour towards his family as with her natural aristocratic reserve about the display of emotion. She took particular exception to the lines ‘Even though my son and mother / Believe I’m already gone’, which she thought showed a lack of respect for her and for every mother in the Soviet Union. After attending a poetry reading in Moscow where Simonov recited ‘Wait For Me’ to Valentina, seated at the front of a packed hall, Aleksandra wrote to her son from Molotov in December 1944:

Kirunia! We talked today on the telephone, which prompted me to finish my letter… because it contains all the thoughts and worries I’ve had in recent times. You’ve arranged your life in such a way that I can’t talk openly with you. I cannot say what is in my heart, what I feel and think, in snatches of conversation while we’re being driven around by your chauffeur, and yet I feel I must keep trying.

And so, my dear, I have to speak the bitter truth and tell you that I am troubled by your private life. I felt this at the reading, and I felt it painfully for a long time afterwards… I understood a lot that evening…

As I see it, K. Simonov has done something great, he has summoned youth to love, he has spoken about love in a clear voice, which is something new in our literature and poetry, where heroes loved and lived their lives in a strictly regimented way… To do so, he drew on his own intimate feelings, and as the rumours circulated, people became curious. The audience in the hall that night was not made up of thinking people who had come to listen and reflect. They were a mob, which had no qualms about standing up and jostling for a better view of ‘that woman’ – a woman they measured and envied but did not like very much, a woman you undressed in front of them. I don’t think she could have enjoyed the experience… These theatrical performances show your character in a bad light; they do not make amends for your mistakes. It is painful to watch you surround yourself with this grubby crowd of hangers-on, as you have done in recent years; you’ve found neither the strength within yourself nor the understanding of life in general to see them for what they are… You and she, she and you, that is all we’ve heard in the past few years… and it seems to me that in this vulgar show there is only egoism and caprice, but no real love for anyone.32

Only a mother could have written such a letter. No one else could have given Simonov such a stern and bitter reprimand. Aleksandra had strict ideas about ‘decency’ and ‘correct behaviour’ and, being something of a pedagogue, did not hesitate to tell people how they should behave. She disapproved of her son’s marriage to Valentina, a ‘selfish, capricious and moody woman, whose behaviour I simply cannot stand’, as she wrote in a letter to her husband, Aleksandr, in May 1944. She did not like the way her son had ‘crawled’ into the Soviet elite, and, judging from the tone of her letters congratulating him, did not put much store by his receipt of the Stalin Prize and various other honours. She accused him of being selfish, of neglecting her, of failing to appreciate the sacrifices she had made to bring him up. Although Aleksandra had a tendency to dramatize events and, like every mother, wanted more attention from her son, there was a moral basis to her reprimands. In one revealing letter, in which Aleksandra reproached her son for not writing to her for two months (‘and then suddenly a two-line note typed out by your secretary arrives… Cela brusque!’ [sic]), she berated him for thinking only of his own ease and happiness with Valentina, whilst she and Aleksandr lived in poverty, ‘as do all of us in Cheliabinsk’:

The comfort you enjoy, which you have earned, is the sort of comfort that you once knew only from history books and from the stories of my previous life, which I told you when you were growing up – a time when your well-being was my only joy. I was born in another world. The first twenty-five years of my life [1890–1915] were spent in conditions of luxury, I did not even have to undress myself. Then suddenly, that life was destroyed. But I began to live again – through my hopes for you. I washed and cooked and went to the shops and worked all day, and it was all for your sake. I say frankly: I think I have earned the right to live half as well as the son I raised. I have earned the right to live in a comfortable room, with somewhere I can wash.33

But the main reason for her disapproval lay elsewhere. Aleksandra was concerned for Zhenia and her grandson, Aleksei, a sickly little boy, who suffered periodically from TB. Neglected by Simonov, Aleksei was growing up in the shadow of a famous father whom he rarely saw. ‘Wake up, Kirunia, what is wrong with you?’ Aleksandra wrote to Simonov in 1944:

What has happened to the decency that marked you so clearly as a child? You have kept it in your conduct at the front but lost it in your private life, in your behaviour towards the people who should be the closest to your heart!… In the nursery where Alyosha [Aleksei] spends his days there is a boy whose father, who is just a sailor, picks him up every evening. And he’s just an ordinary boy. Alyosha’s spiritual qualities are fast developing… You could learn to be a better person, a richer person spiritually, by staying close to him… The other day he came back from the nursery and declared that he had the best granny in the world, the best mummy, and then he thought, and said: ‘and the best daddy in the world’. Kirunia, your son still believes in you, in his dear childish heart the belief in a papa still exists, he wants to have a papa, a real papa, and there is still time for you to become one. Believe in yourself, my son, as Alyosha believes in you. Return to yourself, to your true and decent self, believe in yourself, in your work, which for you was always the most valuable aspect of your life, and then believe in us, the people close to you, who love you and believe in you. Concentrate your will – you were always proud of it and now you need it more than ever if you are to become your true self again.34

Aleksei and Simonov, 1944

If Simonov’s relations with his mother deteriorated during the war, his relations with his stepfather, Aleksandr, became closer. ‘It appears that Papa and I have exchanged places in your affections,’ Aleksandra wrote to Simonov in 1944, ‘and that you have become more affectionate to him than you are to me. I understand the reason why – you need him now at a time of war – and I value it.’35 Aleksandr was a military man. He had brought up his stepson to be conscientious and obedient, disciplined and orderly – military values which Simonov had placed at the centre of his own identification with the Stalinist regime during the 1930s. But the young Simonov, acutely aware of having the wrong class background, had always felt uncertain of his position. It was only in the war, when rank was defined less by social class than by the performance of one’s duties to the state, that he found his place in the system.

Army service itself was thrilling to him. Promoted to lieutenant-colonel in 1942, Simonov wore his new authority with graceful ease and style. The writer Iraklii Andronnikov remembers him as ‘a real Russian

Simonov in 1941

officer with fine bearing, calm and self-assured in his uniform, with shiny leather boots and a pistol in his belt. He had white teeth and a sunburned face. He wore his cap tilted slightly to one side.’ The war years were the happiest in his life: they defined it. ‘I have quickly grown accustomed to the military uniform and way of life,’ Simonov wrote in 1942, ‘so much so that I cannot even imagine how I will get on when the war is over and I have no military reports to write, no trips to make to the front, and I have to manage without the thousands of friends I’ve made in dozens of armies.’ Margarita Aliger recalls that he spent the war in a sort of fury of activity. ‘He wrote from all the crucial fronts, rushed back to Moscow, “wrote himself out”, and rushed off again to the places where the fighting was most dangerous. He would never stay in Moscow for more than a day or so, and often only for a few hours, enough to go drinking with some friends.’ Through the war Simonov gained in self-possession and proved his courage to himself. Sexually, too, he grew in confidence. He had many lovers, including Marina Chechneva, the ace bomber pilot and Hero of the Soviet Union. According to one of his later lovers, Simonov had a special attraction to women dressed in military uniforms. He liked to have sex on a Nazi flag, which he had recovered from the front.36

The war shaped Simonov’s entire outlook on the world. His values were measured on a military scale. ‘The army is a sort of school,’ he later said. ‘Serving in the army teaches one for life to carry out one’s duties to society. Not to have this strict sense of duty is not to be a complete human being.’ Simonov was meticulous and diligent in performing his duties, rigidly adhering to routines and rules, rational to the point of seeming cold and uncaring, and sometimes rather domineering in his dealings with people. In many ways his model of behaviour was a figure he had introduced to Russian prose: the officer-intelligent who understands the logic of the orders handed down by the authorities and carries them out conscientiously. In later years, he tended to judge people by the way they had behaved during the war:

Not to blacken the name of someone

But to know them in the dark

The winter of forty-one

Gave us a true mark

And if you will, it is useful from here on,

Not letting it slip from our hands,

With that mark, straight and iron,

To check now how someone stands.37

Simonov applied this harsh measure to Lugovskoi, his charismatic teacher at the Literary Institute who had inspired a whole generation of Soviet poets. Lugovskoi was badly shaken by an incident in 1941 when he was serving at the front and fell under heavy bombardment. Retreating through a town that had been attacked by the Germans, he had stumbled on a bombed-out house where he found the blown-up bodies of several women and children. Lugovskoi suffered a nervous breakdown. He was evacuated to Tashkent. Many friends came to Lugovskoi’s assistance, including Elena Bulgakova, the widow of the writer Mikhail Bulgakov, who tried, unsuccessfully, to lift the ban on the publication of Lugovskoi’s poetry (which had been condemned as ‘politically harmful’ in 1937). Sonia and Zhenia Laskina also reached out to Lugovskoi. They wrote to him with deep affection and friendship. ‘You must come to Moscow,’ Zhenia wrote in 1943, shortly after the Laskins had returned to the capital from Cheliabinsk. ‘You are needed here, and people always come when they are needed. We are not just people, but your friends, you cannot refuse friends.’ Sonia even promised to marry Lugovskoi (‘I shall surround you with the comforts of a family’) if he returned and lived with them in the Laskin apartment in Sivtsev Vrazhek, where eight people were already cramped in the three tiny rooms. But Simonov had no such sympathy. He considered Lugovskoi’s remove to Tashkent a sign of cowardice and ceased to count him as a close friend.38

The war was the making of Simonov as a ‘Stalinist’: that was when he placed his faith in Stalin at the centre of his life, when he assumed his place in the regime’s hierarchy of political and military command, internalized the values of the system and accepted the directions of the Party leadership. Simonov had joined the Party as a candidate member on the outbreak of the war, becoming a full member in 1942. As he later explained, he had joined the Party because he wanted to have a say in the direction of the war effort – he thought that was his duty as an officer – and he did not think the war could be won without the Party’s leadership. The Party ‘alone was a mass force, capable of making the necessary decisions and sacrifices in the conditions of war’, and he wanted to be part of that force. Simonov identified with the Party, and in particular with its leader, even to the point of growing a moustache, brushing back his hair in the ‘Stalin style’, and posing with a pipe.

Simonov in 1943

According to Dolmatovsky, Simonov did not smoke the pipe but adopted it as a ‘way of life’.39

Simonov’s major service to the Party was through his writing. He was an outstanding military journalist, at least the equal of Vasily Grossman and Ilia Ehrenburg, although Grossman, who is better known to Western readers because of his later novels, such as Life and Fate (published in the West in the 1980s), was the better novelist and morally perhaps the more courageous man. This was not a matter of physical bravery. Simonov never shied away from the fiercest point of the fighting. He reported from all the major fronts in 1942: from the Kerch peninsula, where the Soviet attempt to retake the Crimea from the German forces ended in catastrophe during the spring; from the Briansk Front, where the Red Army lost Voronezh in July as the Germans drove south-east towards the grain supplies of Ukraine and the Don and the rich oil-fields of the Caucasus; from Stalingrad, where the Germans launched their first attack, fighting street by street for the Soviet stronghold, in August; and from the northern Caucasus, where the Germans pushed the Soviet forces south to Krasnodar and Ordzhonikidze by December. The only front from which Simonov did not report was Leningrad, where the city continued under siege for a second year, though he did write from the ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, where Lend-Lease supplies from the Western Allies began to arrive on British ships in the summer of 1942.

As a military man, who had himself experienced the bloody fighting at Khalkin Gol, Simonov understood the war from the soldiers’ point of view as well as from the viewpoint of the officer who was obliged to carry out his orders from above. His war reporting was distinguished by its direct observation and humanity. But he also fully accepted the propaganda role the regime assigned him as a journalist. All his war reports were written with the aim of strengthening morale and discipline, fostering love for Stalin and hatred of the enemy. He wrote that patriotic Soviet troops were fighting for the glory of Stalin. ‘United by their iron discipline and Bolshevik organization,’ he reported from Odessa, ‘our Soviet forces are dealing to the enemy a heavy blow. They are fighting without fear, without tiring in the struggle, as we have been taught by the great Stalin… For our Odessa! For the Motherland! For Stalin!’ In Simonov’s reports Stalin’s leadership was a constant inspiration to the Soviet troops. For example, he wrote about an officer he had encountered on the front near Stalingrad who ‘gained all his strength from the idea that our great leader directs everything in our enormous cause from his office in Moscow and thus invests in him, an ordinary colonel, part of his genius and spirit’. He had expressed the same idea in his poem commemorating the anniversary of the Revolution on 7 November 1941:

Comrade Stalin, do you hear us?

You must hear us, we know that.

Neither son nor mother in this frightful hour,

It is you we remember first.

Simonov’s belief in Stalin was genuine. In later years he never tried to deny it. In his memoirs, he acknowledged that the huge significance which he had attributed to Stalin in this poem ‘had not been an exaggeration’ of his true opinion.40

Some of his war correspondence served the regime’s campaign to get the troops to fight. In August 1941, after the collapse of the Soviet front, Stalin had issued his merciless Order Number 270, condemning all those who surrendered or were captured as ‘traitors to the motherland’. Several senior commanders were arrested and shot, including the commander of the Western Army Group, General Dmitry Pavlov, who had made a desperate effort to hold the front together in the first weeks of the war. The wives of captured officers were also subject to arrest (even the wife of Stalin’s son, Iakov, who was captured by the Germans in July, was arrested and sent to a labour camp). Simonov accepted – and argued in his reports of 1941 – that the collapse of the Soviet front had been caused by the ‘criminal behaviour of certain generals, at best cowards and at worst German agents’, who ‘were shot deservedly’. He also peddled the idea that the bravest soldiers were the ones least likely to be killed – a propaganda myth that encouraged many troops to fight in situations where they were almost bound to die.41

Alongside this service to the Stalinist regime, Simonov pursued yet another objective in his war writings, especially in the unpublished notes and observations which he later used for his great war novel The Living and the Dead. A Soviet patriot and firm believer in the Soviet Union’s victory, he attempted to discern the signs of that victory in the actions, ideas and emotions of the people. He had spotted the first sign amidst the chaos of the Soviet retreat in June 1941, when he had seen the two junior officers walking west towards the front at Minsk to locate their military command.42 Simonov could not forget this scene – it symbolized for him the patriotic spirit of the ordinary people – and he would return to it in his later writings as he struggled to develop a populist conception of the Soviet victory. But at the time he had only a vague sense of the forces that moved the people to fight.


Simonov arrived in Stalingrad in September 1942, at the height of the battle for the streets. The last Soviet defenders were confined to the factory districts of the north, the area around the railway station and the small hill in the centre, while all around them the city had collapsed under the bombardment of the German tanks, artillery and planes. Simonov was astonished by the extraordinary determination of the Soviet soldiers to fight for every street, and every ruined building, against the superior German forces. Even as the Germans pushed them back towards the river bank, the Soviet soldiers would not give up the city and evacuate to the eastern shore of the Volga, where the main Soviet army was massed. It was this determination – a spirit that cannot be explained by military discipline or ideology – that tipped the scales in this decisive battle of the war.

In his diary on 16 September, A. S. Chuianov, the head of the Stalingrad Defence Committee, recorded a conversation he had overheard between a group of newly arrived troops and a wounded soldier who had been evacuated from the burning city:

‘What is going on in the city?’ [the men asked the wounded soldier].

‘There’s no making head or tail of it. Look,’ he pointed with his good arm towards the Volga – ‘the whole town is on fire.’

‘But why is it burning for so long?’ the troops asked in astonishment.

‘Everything is on fire: the houses, the factories, the land, all the metal is melting…’

‘And the people?’

‘The people? They are standing! Standing, and fighting!…’

The courageous determination of the Soviet forces was indeed decisive in the war and cannot be dismissed as a propaganda myth. Yet its origin has never been satisfactorily explained. Why did so many Soviet soldiers fight with such fierce disregard for their own lives in the battles for Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad and a dozen other Soviet cities?

Terror and coercion provide part of the explanation. The practices of the pre-war terror system were reimposed to keep the soldiers fighting in the war. At the height of the Soviet collapse, on 28 July 1942, as the Germans threatened Stalingrad, Stalin issued the notorious Order Number 227 (‘Not One Step Backwards!’), calling on the troops to defend every metre of Soviet territory ‘to the last drop of blood’ and threatening the severest punishments for ‘panickers’ and ‘cowards’ who shirked their duty.* Special ‘blocking units’ (zagradotriady) were set up to bolster the existing NKVD units: their orders were to sweep behind the Soviet front and shoot any soldiers who lagged behind or tried to run from the fighting. During the course of the war approximately 158,000 soldiers were sentenced to be shot (many more were shot without any formal sentencing or record of their deaths); 436,000 were imprisoned; while 422,000 were made to ‘atone with their blood’ for the crimes they had ‘committed before the motherland’ by serving in the special penal battalions (shtrafroty) used for the most dangerous tasks, such as clearing minefields or storming German fortifications. The impact of Order Number 227, like the terror system in the army as a whole, should not be exaggerated, however. The Order was enforced at desperate moments, like the battle for Stalingrad, when an estimated 13,500 Soviet troops were shot in the space of a few weeks. But otherwise the Order was frequently ignored by the commanders and their political officers, who learned from experience that military unity and effectiveness were not served by such wholesale drastic punishments. Indeed, despite the introduction of the Order, desertion from the army continued to increase, prompting even Stalin to acknowledge that terror was becoming ineffective as a way to make the soldiers fight, and that other means of persuasion should be developed.43

Appeals to the patriotism of the Soviet people were more successful. The vast majority of Soviet soldiers were peasant sons: their loyalty was not to Stalin or the Party, which had brought ruin to the countryside, but to their homes and families, to their own vision of the ‘motherland’. As Stalin put it to Averell Harriman in September 1941, the Russian people were fighting ‘for their homeland, not for us’. To appeal to them, Soviet propaganda increasingly jettisoned Soviet symbols in favour of older images of Mother Russia that carried greater weight among the troops. Thus Stalin’s picture became less conspicuous in 1941–2, the period of military catastrophe (although he reappeared as the national figurehead and inspiration of the Soviet victories in 1943–5); the ‘Internationale’ was replaced by a new national anthem; new Soviet medals were produced featuring military heroes from Russian history; and the Church was granted a new lease on life, as the state lifted many of its pre-war political controls on religious activities in exchange for Church leaders’ moral support in the war. The result of this communion between Church and state was a curious blend of religious faith and Soviet belief. The journalist Ralph Parker saw a Siberian soldier at a Moscow railway station preparing to leave for the front. He was listening to a broadcast on the loudspeaker, and when he recognized Stalin’s voice, he crossed himself and cried out ‘Stalin!’44

Soviet propaganda also played on the emotions of hatred and revenge. By the winter of 1941, the German invasion had brought so much suffering to Soviet families that all it took to get the people fighting was to fan their rage against the enemy. According to Lev Pushkarev, a young soldier and ethnographer who made a detailed study of the culture and beliefs of the Red Army rank and file, it was hatred of the Germans, more than anything else, that made the soldiers fight. The force of this emotion was so powerful and unpredictable – containing as it did much pent-up fury over the suffering people had endured long before the war – that it needed to be carefully manipulated by propagandists to focus it against the foreign enemy. Poets played a vital part. Simonov was one of several Soviet writers, along with Ilia Ehrenburg and Aleksei Surkov, who lent their literary talents to the hate campaign. ‘Kill Him!’ was the best known poem in this call to arms. Written by Simonov in July 1942 – at a desperate moment of the war when the Germans threatened to break through to the Volga and the Caucasus – it was essentially a reiteration of the fight-to-the-death spirit of Order Number 227. Officers would read the poem to their men before they went into battle to instil in them the spirit of defiance and determination to fight to the end:

If you cherish your mother,

Who fed you at her breast

From which the milk has long since gone,

And on which your cheek may only rest;

If you cannot bear the thought,

That the Fascist standing near her,

May beat her wrinkled cheeks,

Winding her braids in his hand;

If you have not forgotten your father,

Who rocked you in his arms,

Who was a good soldier

And fell in the Carpathian snows,*

Who died for the Volga and the Don,

For the future of your native land;

If you cannot bear the thought

That he will turn in his grave,

That his soldier’s portrait on the cross

Should be smashed on to the ground

And stamped on by a German

Before your mother’s eyes…

Then kill a German – make sure to kill one!

Kill him as soon as you can!

Every time you see him,

Make sure that you kill him every time!

Simonov’s play The Russian People strove for a similar effect. Published in the pages of Pravda at the end of July 1942, it was performed in theatres across the Soviet Union. The play was very weak, but extremely timely, and its message – that all Russians were united against the enemy – caught the mood of defiance (it won the Stalin Prize in 1943). Aleksandr Werth, who was in Moscow to report for the Sunday Times, witnessed a performance at the Moscow Art Theatre:

There was complete silence for at least ten seconds after the curtain had fallen at the end of the third act; for the last words had been: ‘See how Russian people are going to their death.’ Many women in the audience were weeping.45

Coercion, patriotism, hatred of the enemy all played a part, but perhaps the most important element in the soldiers’ determination to fight was the cult of sacrifice. The Soviet people went to war with the psychology of the 1930s. Having lived in a state of constant revolutionary struggle, where they were always being called upon to sacrifice themselves for the greater cause, they were ready for war. As Simonov remarked, the people were prepared for the privations of the war – the sharp decline in living standards, the breaking up of families, the disruption of ordinary life – because they had already been through much the same in the name of the Five Year Plans.46

This readiness for personal sacrifice was the Soviet Union’s greatest weapon. In the first year of the war, especially, it was essential to the Soviet Union’s survival, as it struggled to recover from the catastrophic summer of 1941. The actions of ordinary soldiers and civilians, who sacrificed themselves in huge numbers, made up for the failures of the military command and the paralysis of nearly all authority. The ethos of sacrifice was particularly intense in the ‘generation of 1941’ (people born in the 1910s and early 1920s), which had been raised on the legendary tales of Soviet heroes who consecrated themselves to the interests of the state: record-breaking pilots and Stakhanovites, Arctic explorers, soldiers of the Civil War, Communists who went to fight in Spain. It was in emulation of their feats that so many youthful volunteers rushed into war. The call to arms in 1941 connected them to the heroic tradition of the Russian Civil War and the Five Year Plan of 1928–32 – the two great romantic episodes in Soviet history when great things were supposedly achieved by collective enterprise and sacrifice. In the words of the poet David Samoilov (who was twenty-one when he joined the army in 1941): ‘The Civil War – that was our fathers. The Five Year Plan – that was our older brothers. But the Patriotic War of ’41 – that is us.’ Many soldiers derived the strength to fight from a sense of being part of this continuum: ‘I am following in the footsteps of our father, who died fighting in the Civil War in 1919,’ wrote Leonid Kurin, a junior lieutenant, to his sister in 1943.

He fought for my life. Now I am fighting for the lives of your children… Sonia, I have thought a lot about dying – is it frightening or not? It is not frightening when you know that you will die for a better future, for the happiness of our children. But you have to kill a dozen Germans before you die.47

The generation of 1941 fought with selfless dedication and heroic bravery, even recklessness, from the first day of the war. It bore the greatest human cost. Only 3 per cent of the male cohort of soldiers born in 1923 survived until 1945.* Older men fought more cautiously – and were the ones who tended to survive. Viacheslav Kondratiev, born in 1920 and injured several times during the war, recalls that the older soldiers tried to help the younger ones:

They fought more skilfully, more soberly, they did not charge ahead, but held us young ones back, because they understood the value of life more than we did. I had one such protector, a forty-year-old man, who often told me that I had to respect my own life, even in a war.48

Rita Kogan was just eighteen when she joined the army in 1941. She was one of the million Soviet women who served in the Red Army and its partisan units – a number representing about 8 per cent of all Soviet combatants (though many more women were active in supporting roles, such as transport, supplies and medical assistance).49 Rita was born in 1923 to a Jewish family in Rechitsa, a small industrial town in Belorussia. It was, she says, a ‘modern family of the Soviet type’. Her father was a factory manager, her mother an accountant, and Rita and her sister were brought up in the ‘Soviet spirit of those times’, without Jewish customs or beliefs or the influence of grandparents. Rita’s world-view was shaped by her school, the Pioneers and the Komsomol. ‘I saw the Pioneers and the Komsomol as a type of children’s army that fought against injustice wherever it appeared,’ she recalls. ‘If at school I saw a boy who was bullying a girl or a smaller boy, I would deal with him so harshly that he would run to the teachers to complain.’ The ethos that inspired her was enshrined in the widely read children’s book by Arkadii Gaidar, Timur and His Team (1940), which tells the story of a juvenile militia in a dacha settlement near Moscow that guards the homes of Red Army officers who are away at the front. Timur’s story encouraged the military aspirations of many adolescents. And the training they had received in the Pioneers and the Komsomol (the organized marching and drilling, the strict discipline and subordination to authority, the paramilitary games) served explicitly as preparation for the Red Army. Being a girl was no bar: propaganda put forward positive images of Soviet women bearing arms and generally promoted the militarization of women as a mark of sexual equality.

Rita was finishing her last year at school when the war broke out. Evacuated with her family to Stalingrad, she found work as an accountant in a school, but desperate to do something more directly for the war effort, she pleaded with the local Komsomol to enrol her in their military school. The Komsomol refused (at eighteen she was too young, they said) but sent her to work in a munitions plant, where she assembled parts for aeroplanes. In the summer of 1942, the Soviet press publicized the heroic feats of young Red Army women volunteers who were fighting as snipers and anti-aircraft gunners during the defence of Stalingrad; barely out of school, few of them had fired guns before. Rita was determined to follow their example and once again appealed to the Komsomol. Again she was refused and told to continue working in the factory. ‘I was furious,’ she recalls. ‘I had volunteered to fight, I said that I was ready to sacrifice my life, and they treated me like a little girl. I went straight home and cried.’ Rita formed her own group of young Komsomol women; together they ran away from the factory and applied to a military school that was training telegraph and radio operators in preparation for the launching of Operation Uranus, the Soviet counteroffensive against the German forces around Stalingrad, in November 1942. Rita joined the class for Morse-code signallers. She was sent with a group of girls to the headquarters of the South-west Front, between Stalingrad and Voronezh. During late December, she took part in Operation Little Saturn, when the combined forces of the South-west and Voronezh Fronts broke through to the rear of the German armies on the Don. ‘The senior communications officer to whom we reported at the front headquarters was an elderly gentleman, who had served in the tsarist army in the First World War,’ recalls Rita. ‘He had no idea how to deal with us girls, and spoke to us in a kindly manner, instead of giving us firm orders. But he was a first-rate specialist and protected us from the other officers, who looked for sex from us.’ In January 1943, Rita was stationed in an observation point on the front near Kharkov when it was overrun by German troops: struggling to escape with her radio equipment, she had her first taste of battle, killing two attackers in hand-to-hand fighting before managing to get away, severely wounded. After she recovered she went on to serve as a radio operator on several fronts; she fought as a gunner in Marshal Konev’s First Ukrainian Front against the Germans near Lvov in July 1944, before eventually reaching Budapest with the Fifty-seventh Army in January 1945.

Reflecting on her determination to fight against the Germans, Rita could be speaking for the whole ‘generation of 1941’.

I was just eighteen, I had only recently left school, and I saw the world in terms of the ideals of my Soviet heroes, the selfless pioneers who did great things for the motherland, whose feats I had read about in books. It was all so romantic! I had no idea what war was really like, but I wanted to take part in it, because that was what a hero did… I did not think of it as ‘patriotism’ – I saw it as my duty – that I could and should do everything in my power to defeat the enemy. Of course, I could have simply worked in the munitions factory and sat out the war there, but I always wanted to be at the centre of events: it was the way I had been brought up by the Pioneers and the Komsomol. I was an activist… I did not think of death and was not afraid of it, because, like my Soviet heroes, I was fighting for the motherland.50

This was the spirit that Simonov attempted to explain in Days and Nights (1944), a story based on his diary observations of the battle for Stalingrad. For Simonov it was not fear or heroism that made the soldiers fight, but something more instinctive, connected to the defence of their own homes and communities, a feeling that grew in strength, releasing the people’s energy and initiative, as the enemy approached:

The defence of Stalingrad was essentially a chain of barricades. Together they were linked as a large battlefield, but separately each one depended on the loyalties of a small group who knew that it was essential to stand firm, because if the Germans broke through in one place, the whole defence would be threatened.51

As Stalingrad showed, soldiers fought best when they knew what they were fighting for and linked their fate to it. Leningrad and Moscow proved the same. Local patriotism was a powerful motivation. People were more prepared to fight and sacrifice themselves when they identified the Soviet cause with the defence of a particular community, a real network of human ties, than with some abstract notion of a ‘Soviet motherland’. The Soviet propaganda that invoked the defence of ‘rodina’ (a term that combines the local and the national meaning of ‘homeland’) tapped into this sentiment.

Contrary to the Soviet myth of wartime national unity, Soviet society was more fractured during the war than at any previous time since the Civil War. Ethnic divisions had been exacerbated by the Soviet state, which scapegoated certain national minorities, such as the Crimean Tatars, the Chechens and the Volga Germans, and exiled them to regions where they were not welcomed by the local populace. Anti-Semitism, which had been largely dormant in Soviet society before the war, now became widespread. It flourished especially in areas occupied by Hitler’s troops, where a large section of the Soviet population was directly influenced by the Nazis’ racist propaganda, but similar ideas were imported to places as remote as Kazakhstan, Central Asia and Siberia by Soviet soldiers and evacuees from the western regions near the front. Many people blamed the Jews for the excesses of the Stalinist regime, usually on the reasoning of Nazi propaganda that the Bolsheviks were Jews. According to David Ortenberg, the editor of Krasnaia zvezda, soldiers often said that the Jews were ‘shirking their military responsibilities by running away to the rear and occupying jobs in comfortable Soviet offices’.52 More generally, this gulf between the front-line servicemen and the ‘rats’ who remained in the rear became the focus of a widening divide between the common people and the Soviet elite, as the unfair distribution of the military burden became associated in the popular political consciousness with a more general inequality.

But if there was no genuine national unity, people did unite for the defence of their communities. By the autumn of 1941, 4 million people had volunteered for the citizens’ defence (narodnoe opolchenie), which dug trenches, guarded buildings, bridges and roads, and, when their city was attacked, carted food and medicine to the soldiers at the front, brought back the injured and joined in the fighting. In Moscow the citizens’ defence had 168,000 volunteers from over thirty nationalities, and another half a million people prepared for defence work; in Leningrad, there were 135,000 men and women organized in units of the citizens’ defence, and another 107,000 workers on a military footing, by September 1941.53 Fired up with civic patriotism, but without proper training in warfare, they fought courageously but died in shocking numbers in the first battles.

Comradeship was also crucial to military cohesion and effectiveness. Soldiers tend to give their best in battle if they feel some sort of loyalty to a small group of trusted comrades, or ‘buddies’, according to military theorists.54 In 1941–2, the rates of loss in the Red Army were so high that small groups seldom lasted long: the average period of front-line service for infantrymen was no more than a few weeks, before they were removed by death or injury. But in 1942–3, military units began to stabilize, and the comradeship that men found within them became a decisive factor in motivating them to fight. The closeness of these friendships naturally developed from the dangers the men faced. The mutual trust and support of the small collective group was the key to their survival. ‘Life at the front brings people closer very fast,’ wrote one soldier to the fiancée of a comrade, who had been killed in the fighting.

At the front it is enough to spend a day or two together with another man, and you will find out about all his qualities and feelings, which on Civvy Street you would not learn in a year. There is no stronger friendship than the friendship of the front, and nothing can break it, not even death.

Veterans recall the intimacy of these wartime friendships with idealism and nostalgia. They claim that people then had ‘bigger hearts’ and ‘acted from the soul’, and that they themselves were somehow ‘better human beings’, as if the comradeship of the small collective unit was a cleaner sphere of ethical relationships and principles than the Communist system, with all its compromises and contingencies. They often talk as if they found in the collectivism of these groups of fellow soldiers a type of ‘family’ that was missing from their lives before the war (and would be missing afterwards).55

By January 1943, Uranus and Little Saturn had forced the Germans back to the Donets River, 360 kilometres west of Stalingrad, where the spearhead of the German army, a quarter of a million men, was cut off by the Soviet troops. Battling as much against the cold and hunger as against the Soviet enemy, the trapped Germans kept up an intense resistance – they were terrified of capture by the Soviet troops – losing more than half their number before finally surrendering on 2 February. The victory was greeted by the Soviets as a major turning-point. It was a huge boost to morale. ‘Up till then,’ wrote Ehrenburg, ‘one believed in victory as an act of faith, but now there was no shadow of doubt: victory was assured.’ From Stalingrad, the Soviet army pushed on towards Kursk, where it concentrated 40 per cent of its soldiers and three-quarters of its armoured forces to defeat the bulk of the German forces in July. Kursk definitively ended German hopes of a victory on Soviet soil. The Red Army drove the demoralized Germans back towards Kiev, reaching the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital by September and finally recapturing it on 6 November, just in time for a massive celebration in Moscow for the anniversary of the Revolution the next day.56

The bravery and resilience of the rank and file was a decisive factor in the Soviet military success. Another was the transformation in the structure of authority within the Red Army after the first disastrous twelve months of the war. Stalin at last recognized that the intervention of the Party in the military command (not least his own as the Supreme Commander) made it less efficient and that commanding officers were best left on their own. Zhukov’s appointment as Deputy Supreme Commander in August 1942 – enabling Stalin to step back from the active control of the armed forces – signalled a new relationship between the Party and the military command. The stategic planning and running of the war effort were gradually transferred from the politicians of the Military Council to the General Staff, which now took the lead and merely kept the Party leadership informed. The power of the commissars and other political officers, a legacy of the military purges of the 1930s, was drastically reduced in military decisions and eliminated altogether in many of the smaller army units, where the commanding officers were left in sole authority. Released from the Party’s tight control, the military command developed a new confidence; autonomy encouraged initiative and produced a stable corps of military professionals, whose expertise was crucial to the victories of 1943–5. To reinforce this professional ethos, in January 1943, the Party leadership restored the epaulettes that had been worn by tsarist officers, a hated symbol of the old regime that was destroyed in 1917; in July the title ‘officer’ was brought back to replace the egalitarian ‘comrade’. Gold braid was imported from Britain, whose officials were incensed at shipping what to them were fripperies, although in fact the braid was far more significant than that.57 Medals also played a vital role as a reward for the military professional. Eleven million medals were awarded to Soviet servicemen between 1941 and 1945 – eight times more than awarded by the United States. It took only a few days for the Soviet soldier to receive his reward after an operation, whereas US soldiers usually waited for six months. Soldiers who had distinguished themselves in battle were also encouraged to join the Party by a lowering of the requirements for entry from the ranks.

Changes in the industrial economy also contributed to the Soviet military revival. In 1941–2, the Red Army had been poorly equipped compared to its adversary and therefore suffered enormous losses. But during 1942–3, dramatic improvements in the production of tanks, planes, cars, radars, radios, artillery, guns and ammunition enabled the formation of new tank and mechanized divisions, which fought more effectively and at far less human cost. The rapid reorganization of Soviet industry was where the planned economy (the foundation of the Stalinist system) really came into its own. Without state compulsion, none of the necessary changes could have been achieved in such a short period of time. Thousands of factories and their workers were evacuated to the east; virtually all industrial production was geared towards the needs of the military; railways were built or redirected to connect the new industrial bases of the east with the military fronts; and factories were placed under martial law to tighten labour discipline and productivity. Under the new work regime there were severe punishments for negligence, absenteeism and unauthorized leave, or simply being late for work (failure to arrive within twenty minutes was counted as ‘desertion from the labour front’). There were a staggering 7.5 million court convictions for these crimes during the war years.58 In most factories seventy-hour weeks became the norm, with many workers taking all their meals and sometimes even sleeping in their factories, for fear of being late in the morning. Comprehensive rationing was introduced to reduce costs and keep people at their place of work (where they received their rations). Finally, a vast new army of Gulag labourers was mobilized through mass arrests to supply the country with much needed fuel and raw materials.

One of the least-known aspects of the Soviet war effort is the role of the so-called ‘labour army’ (trudovaia armiia), which numbered well over a million conscripts. It was used for various tasks that could not be performed by free labour. There is no mention of the ‘labour army’ in official documents, which talk euphemistically of the ‘labour service’ (trudovaia povinnost’) and ‘labour reserves’ (trudovye rezervy), both terms that conceal the element of compulsion, but in fact the conscripts in these categories were unpaid labourers, subject to the same conditions as the prisoners of the Gulag. They worked in convoys under guard and were used for the same labour tasks (timber felling, construction, factory and agricultural work). Unlike the Gulag prisoners, many of the conscripts of the labour army had never been arrested or sentenced by a court. Most of them were simply rounded up by the NKVD and military units from deported nationalities, especially the Soviet Germans, who were exiled from the Volga region to Siberia and Kazakhstan on the outbreak of the war, although the labour army also contained large numbers of Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Kalmyks, Finns, Romanians, Hungarians and Koreans.

Rudolf Gotman was born in 1922 to a Lutheran German family from the Crimea. The Gotmans were categorized as ‘kulaks’ and exiled to the wilderness near Arkhangelsk in 1931. When the war broke out Rudolf was picked up by the NKVD as a ‘German national’ (in fact his ancestors had lived in Russia since 1831) and sent to work in the coal mines of the Donbass. There he was conscripted by a labour brigade made up of a hundred young men from ‘German’ families and sent to work in a food-processing factory in Solikamsk, in the northern Urals. In the autumn of 1942, the men were sent to a nearby logging camp to fell timber. They lived in barracks, slept on wooden benches, and were given starvation-level rations. Made to work in freezing temperatures, more than half the brigade members died in the first winter. The NKVD guards, who supervised the brigade, showed no mercy for the ‘German’ boys and called them ‘Fascist scum’. Rudolf survived by virtue of the fact that he was injured and taken to hospital: otherwise he would have died from exhaustion. He remained in the labour army for the next fourteen years. He worked in factories, Soviet farms and construction sites and was even sent to the Caucasus to build dachas for Stalin, Molotov and Beria. He did not receive any pay until 1948, and was not allowed to leave the labour army until 1956, as part of the general amnesty for Gulag prisoners.59

It was not just ‘non-Russians’ who were rounded up by the labour army. Former ‘kulaks’ were also vulnerable to conscription. Ivan Bragin from the Suksun region in the Urals was mobilized by the labour army in the autumn of 1943, ten years after he had been exiled as a ‘kulak’ to a ‘special settlement’ attached to the pulp-and-paper mill at Krasnokamsk near Perm. Almost blind from the chemicals used at the mill and semi-paralysed with rheumatic pains, Ivan was sent to work at a logging camp near Kotlas. Conscription was a punishment for complaining after he had not received his full ration at the mill. Unable to cope with the heavy labour at the logging camp (he could barely see the trees he was meant to cut), Ivan soon fell ill in the freezing temperatures. ‘My legs have swollen up,’ he wrote to his family in Krasnokamsk. ‘They are so big that I cannot even put my trousers on.’ The food in the camp was very bad and not sufficient to maintain his strength. The work was terribly hard. One day in the autumn of 1943 Ivan collapsed from exhaustion. He was taken to a hospital, where he slowly recovered. In January 1944, Ivan wrote to tell his family that his feet were ‘showing signs of life at last’. He was hopeful that he would soon be released from the hospital and that as an invalid he would be allowed to return to his family. It was a treacherous winter journey from Kotlas to Suksun, 1,000 kilometres away, and Ivan was afraid to leave before the spring, in case he became ‘dizzy from the frosty air and fell down on the ice’, but he was determined to walk back once he had regained his strength. ‘All I need is a pair of large felt boots and I shall come home.’ Ivan was released from the labour camp in February 1944, long before he was fit to begin his long journey. He never made it home. A few hundred metres from the hospital he slipped and fell on the icy road and froze to death.60

Ivan Bragin and his family, 1937

Gulag labour also played an important part in the wartime economy, producing perhaps 15 per cent of all Soviet ammunition, a large proportion of the army’s uniforms and much of its food. The population of the camps declined during 1941–3, as half a million prisoners were released to ‘redeem their guilt’ by fighting at the front, but from the end of 1943 it increased sharply, as the Soviet army swept across the territories abandoned by the Germans and the NKVD units, which followed in its wake, arrested hundreds of thousands of people suspected of collaborating with the enemy or of supporting nationalist insurgencies opposed to the Soviet regime. The exploitation of this Gulag labour force became more intense during the war. In mines and logging camps, prisoners were driven to the brink of death to increase fuel supplies, while rations were reduced to the bare minimum required to keep them alive. In 1942, the rate of mortality in the Gulag labour camps was a staggering 25 per cent – that is, one in every four Gulag workers died that year.61

Alongside the logging camps and mines, a new type of Gulag economy developed in the war, one in which prison labour was attached to factories and construction sites in large-scale industrial zones (Gulag cities) under the control of the NKVD. The Norilsk complex in the Arctic Circle is a good example of this new type of industrial development. The Norilsk region’s huge reserves of nickel, platinum and copper were discovered by geologists in the 1920s, but the first large survey was not carried out until 1930, when the precious ores became essential to the programme of industrialization. Norilsk contained about a quarter of the world’s known deposits of nickel (used in the production of high-grade steel) and over one-third of its reserves of platinum. The natural conditions of the region were highly favourable for mining and processing these ores because of the large deposits of coal, which served as a power supply for smelting and transportation to the Kara Sea. But the region was virtually uninhabitable. Winter temperatures dropped to minus 45 degrees. There were almost constant snow blizzards. It was dark for several months a year. And then in the summer the ground turned into marshland, and human beings were eaten by the mosquitoes. No labourers would go to Norilsk of their own accord.

In 1935, the development of the region was handed over to the Gulag administration of the NKVD, which had a growing reputation for managing large-scale building projects in remote regions where the civilian ministries were reluctant to operate (the Ministry of Heavy Industry, which was responsible for metallurgy, had refused to take on the Norilsk project). The Norilsk camp and mining complex were dug from the permafrost by 1,200 Gulag prisoners using only pickaxes and wheelbarrows. By 1939, the number of prisoners had risen to 10,000, though many more had died in the meantime. The Gulag administration in Moscow became impatient with the slow progress. In 1939, the first director of Norilsk, Vladimir Matveyev, was arrested and sent to a labour camp for fifteen years. He was replaced by Avraam Zaveniagin, the dynamic former head of the mining complex at Magnitogorsk. The appointment was a sign of the importance which the regime attached to the project at Norilsk. The military demand for high-grade steel made the nickel of Norilsk vitally important in the war. Norilsk’s work regime intensified. From 1941 to 1944, Group A prisoners (who worked in production or construction) had less than three days off each month (many former prisoners do not recall any days off work at all); all the prisoners worked eleven-hour shifts; and fewer days were lost through bad weather (during snowstorms they would walk to work by holding on to ropes). Zaveniagin introduced a system of incentives and rewards – better living quarters, clothes and food rations, even small monetary rewards – for ‘Stakhanovite’ prisoners who exceeded their norms (about one in five in 1943). He also increased the number of free workers and ‘volunteers’ (there were about 10,000 by the end of the war) by offering them managerial and specialist positions. But the biggest growth took place in the number of prison labourers, which reached 100,000 by 1944.62

Prisoners were brought to Norilsk from all corners of the Soviet Union, especially from Ukraine, the northern Caucasus and the Baltic region, where the mass arrests of ‘nationalists’ and ‘collaborators with the enemy’ were largely motivated by the need to supply the Gulag with labour. The long journey to Norilsk began by train to Krasnoiarsk, the capital of the Siberian administrative region in which Norilsk was located, 2,000 kilometres to the south of the labour camp. From Krasnoiarsk the prisoners were brought by steamboat on the Yenisei River to Dudinka, the port for the Norilsk complex, and then transported to the camp by rail. The Arctic wilderness around Norilsk was so remote that there was no need to build a fence for the labour camp. No prisoner in his right mind would think of trying to escape, and no one ever did (although there were tales about escapes across the Arctic Sea to Alaska, 5,000 kilometres away).63

Vasilina Dmitruk was fifteen when she was sent to Norilsk. Born into a large peasant family in the Ternopol region of western Ukraine, she was one of several dozen women accused of supporting the Ukrainian nationalist partisans and rounded up by the NKVD units attached to the Red Army after the recapture of her village in 1943 (the young men were all conscripted by the Red Army). Taken to the local town, the girls were beaten by their Russian NKVD interrogators until they

Norilsk Labour Camp and Mining Complex (Gorlag) Based on a map drawn by Leonid Konovalov, a prisoner of Norilsk, in 1949. Konovalov’s map is unreliable in teh numjbering of the camp zones, and the ‘execution area’ may not have been as large as the prisoners imagined it. (source: MM, f. I, op.I, d. 242)

confessed to ‘treason against the motherland’ (a charge which many of them could not understand because they did not speak Russian). They were then tried (again in Russian) by a military tribunal, which sentenced them to ten years in Norilsk. They were put to work on the construction of the Norilsk aerodrome. Despite the freezing temperatures, their only shelter was a large tent, which they shared with several hundred other young Ukrainian women, who had been brought to Norilsk in a similar fashion.64

Anna Darvina was sixteen and studying at a school in the town of Uiar, 120 kilometres east of Krasnoiarsk, when she was rounded up as a ‘voluntary labourer’ and sent to Norilsk. She was one of about a thousand so-called ‘Komsomol volunteers’ who were brought to Norilsk by force from the Krasnoiarsk region in September 1943. ‘A large crowd met us at the station in Norilsk. There was a choir and an orchestra,’ Anna remembers.

It was cold when we stepped out of the train. We had left in our sandals, but there was already snow on the ground. The people were very poor. They were dressed in rags. But they gave us blankets and felt boots. They thought that we were volunteers. They had been told that we were the orphans of soldiers who had been killed in the war. But in fact all of us had been captured and sent by the military, without any choice on our part. There was a war, and the military needed all of us, however weak, as labourers.65

Semyon Golovko was eighteen when he came to Norilsk in 1943. He was born in the Stavropol region of the northern Caucasus, the second of eleven children in a Cossack family which was categorized as ‘kulak’ and lost all its property during collectivization. Semyon’s father and older brother were both killed in the Red Army near Smolensk in June 1941. As the oldest surviving male, Semyon was left in charge of his family. He gave up school and went to work as a tractor driver on a collective farm to support his mother and the other nine children. In September 1942, as the Germans overran the northern Caucasus, Semyon joined the Red partisans, but he was captured by the Germans, who forced him to join their auxiliary police (Schutzmannschaft) by threatening to shoot his family. Four months later, the area was recaptured by the Red Army. Semyon was arrested as a ‘collaborator with the enemy’ and sent to Norilsk. He worked in various mines and factories and soon became a brigade leader and even a Stakhanovite. He won several medals for his contribution to the war effort as a Gulag labourer.66

Olga Lobacheva, a leading mineralogist, was sent to Norilsk in 1944. Following the arrest of her husband in 1938, she was sentenced to eight years for ‘counter-revolutionary agitation’ and ultimately ended up in a labour camp in Siberia. While in the camp, she gave birth to a son who was sent to an orphanage. In the autumn of 1943, Olga was drafted as a specialist by the NKVD and assigned to the Norilsk mines. For six weeks she was imprisoned in Marinsk, 350 kilometres west of Krasnoiarsk, where a whole convoy of geologists and other mining specialists was gradually assembled from the labour camps of Siberia. Transferred to Krasnoiarsk for the long journey north, Olga was declared unfit to travel by a medical commission (she had pneumonia) and was sent to the Taishet labour camp, 400 kilometres to the east. Taishet was known by prisoners as the ‘camp of death’ because it was full of invalids and old people who were left to die. Shortly after her arrival in Taishet, Olga was drafted once again by the NKVD. Despite her pneumonia, she was reassigned for immediate transfer to Norilsk. She travelled in a convoy of engineers, electricians, metallurgists and builders, flying from Krasnoiarsk in a special NKVD plane to speed up the arrival of these specialists. Olga worked as a geological researcher in the technical sector, where she was reunited with many of her friends from university.67

Among those friends was Elizaveta Drabkina, the young girl who had recognized her long-lost father Sergei Gusev, the Bolshevik revolutionary, in the canteen of the Smolny Institute in October 1917. Elizaveta had been arrested as a ‘Trotskyist’ in December 1936 and sentenced to five years in the Iaroslavl jail. In 1939, her sentence was extended to fifteen years, and she was sent to serve them in the Norilsk labour camp. For the first three years she worked in the coal mines, but then she was transferred to the technical sector, where she was employed as a translator of imported books and manuals. Elizaveta worked like a real Stakhanovite, from genuinely patriotic commitment. She felt that she was contributing to the Soviet economy through her work in the labour camp. Between 1941 and 1945 she appealed to join the army at the front on four separate occasions. Her appeals were denied, but Elizaveta was nonetheless rewarded for her industry with a room in the zone for specialists. She lived there with her husband, Aleksandr Daniets, the son of a repressed Bolshevik, who had been arrested in 1938. They had previously been friends in Leningrad. Their former neighbours from Norilsk recall them as a quiet couple with a dog. Drabkina was deaf, the result of an accident in the mines, and this made it hard for them to socialize. They had a small circle of friends with whom they formed a Marxist study group – the works of Marx and Lenin were available in the camp’s library – but they were suspicious of outsiders. In 1945, a member of their circle was arrested and later executed for ‘counterrevolutionary agitation’. Suspecting that their circle had been infiltrated by a prisoner working for the NKVD, they closed down their study group and went underground, meeting their friends secretly on the road to the graveyard when they walked their dog. Elizaveta and her husband were both fluent in several languages. When they were at home, they spoke in French to protect themselves against unwanted listeners in the next room.68


Some time at the end of the 1940s Akhmatova was walking with Nadezhda Mandelshtam in Leningrad when she suddenly remarked: ‘To think that the best years of our life were during the war when so many people were being killed, when we were starving and my son was doing forced labour.’ For anyone who suffered from the terror of the 1930s, as Akhmatova had done, the war must have come as a release. As Pasternak would write in the epilogue of Doctor Zhivago (1957), ‘When the war broke out, its real horrors, its menace of real death, were a blessing compared with the inhuman power of the lie, a relief because it broke the spell of the dead letter.’ The relief was palpable. People were allowed to act in ways that would have been unthinkable before the war. By necessity, they were thrown back on their own initiative – they spoke to one another and helped each other without thinking of the political dangers to themselves; and from this spontaneous activity a new sense of nationhood emerged. The war years, for this reason, would come to be recalled with nostalgia. They were remembered as ‘a period of vitality’, in the words of Pasternak, as an ‘untrammelled, joyous restoration of the sense of community with everyone’.69

For the writer Viacheslav Kondratiev, that feeling of belonging was the defining feature of the time:

We are proud of those years, and this nostalgia for the front stirs all of us, not because they were the years of our youth, which is always recalled with fondness, but because then we felt ourselves to be citizens in the truest sense of the word. It was a feeling which we did not have before or afterwards.70

The renewed sense of personal and collective responsibility was evident, especially in the period from 1941 to 1943, when the infrastructure of the Stalinist regime had virtually collapsed as a result of the German invasion, and people had to rely on their own resources and make their own decisions about how to act. The historian Mikhail Gefter, then an army doctor, describes these years as a period of ‘spontaneous de-Stalinization’:

Before our eyes – a person subject to the whim of fate, unexpectedly, in the face of death, finds the freedom to take command of himself… As an eye-witness and a historian I can attest: in ’41 and ’42 there were a multitude of situations and decisions that constituted a process of spontaneous de-Stalinization… We remained Russian, Soviet, but in those years the universal human spirit also entered into us.

For Ada Levidova, who spent the war years working in a medical institute, this spontaneous de-Stalinization was reflected in a shift of power from the Party officials, who formally controlled the hospital, to the doctors and nurses: ‘There were far too many instances when a crucial life-and-death decision needed to be made by the people on the job, without authorization from the authorities, when we had to act, or improvise, without regard for the official rules.’71

People had a sense of being needed by the war effort. They felt that they could make a difference. From this feeling of involvement they derived a sense of civic freedom and individual responsibility. Hedrick Smith records a conversation in the house of a Jewish scientist in the early 1970s. The scientist had said that the war was ‘the best time of our lives’ and explained to his shocked friends:

Because at that time we all felt closer to our government than at any other time in our lives. It was not their country then, but our country. It was not they who wanted this or that to be done, but we who wanted to do it. It was not their war, but our war. It was our country we were defending, our war effort.

According to Kondratiev, a veteran of the front, even the most humble soldier, who was constantly abused and made to feel insignificant by his commanding officers, became his own general when he went into the attack on the battlefield:

There nobody can command you. There you’re in control of everything. And in defence too you have to have your wits about you… otherwise the Germans will break through… You feel as if you hold the fate of Russia in your hands, and that everything might turn out differently, but for you. In peacetime in our society, nothing depended on the individual. But in the war it was different: everybody felt their personal involvement in the victory.72

For the ‘generation of 1941’, which had grown up in the shadow of the cult of Stalin and the Party, this new freedom was a shock to the system. ‘The military catastrophe of 1941–2 forced us for the first time to question Stalin,’ recalls the literary historian Lazar Lazarev, who went to war directly from high school in 1941:

Before the war we had not questioned anything, we believed all the propaganda about Stalin, and believed in the Party as the embodiment of justice. But what we saw in the first years of the war forced us to reflect on what we had been told. It made us question our beliefs.73

The atmosphere presaged the change of values in 1956, the opening year of the Khrushchev ‘thaw’, when Julia Neiman wrote the poem ‘1941’:

Those Moscow days… The avalanche of war…

Uncounted losses! Setbacks and defeats!

Yet, comrades of that year, tell the whole truth:

Bright as a torch it flamed, that shining year!

Like crumbling plaster, subterfuge flaked off,

And causes were laid bare, effects revealed;

And through the blackout and the camouflage

We saw our comrades’ faces – undisguised.

The dubious yardsticks that we measured by –

Forms, questionnaires, long service, rank and age –

Were cast aside and now we measured true:

Our yardsticks in that year were valour, faith.

And we who lived and saw these things still hold

Fresh in the memory, and sacred still,

The watches, rooftops, and barrage balloons,

The explosive chaos that was Moscow then,

The buildings in their camouflage attire,

The symphony of air raids and all-clears –

For then at last seemed real

Our pride as citizens, pure-shining pride.74

As citizens claimed new freedoms, the ideological influence of the Party and the cult of Stalin inevitably weakened. Although it nearly doubled in its size during the war years, the Party lost much of its pre-war revolutionary spirit, as the most committed Bolsheviks were killed in the fighting of 1941–2.By 1945, over half the Party’s 6 million members were serving in the armed forces, and two-thirds of them had joined it in the war. This rank and file differed significantly from the Stalinist Party of the 1930s: it was more pragmatic, not so ideological (or even trained in Marxist-Leninist ideology), less inclined to view the world in terms of class and impatient with bureaucracy.75 The new mood was summarized by Pravda when it argued, in June 1944, in sharp contrast to the Party’s pre-war principles, that the ‘personal qualities of every Party member should be judged by his practical contribution to the war effort’ rather than by his class origins or ideological correctness. According to Lazarev, who joined the Party from the ranks, Bolshevik ideology played almost no role in the war, and the pre-war slogans that advanced the cult of Stalin and the Party lost much of their power and significance:

There is a legend that the soldiers went into attacks shouting, ‘For Stalin!’ But in fact we never mentioned Stalin, and when we went into battle it was ‘For the Motherland!’ that we shouted. The rest of our war cries were obscenities.

The war gave rise to a whole new repertoire of anti-Stalin rhymes and songs, like this one from 1942:

Dear Joseph Stalin!

Now you’ve lost Tallin!

The food we get is bad!

You’ll lose Leningrad!76

For many people the war was a time of liberation from fear of the regime. It was a time, perhaps the only time in their entire lives, when they were forced to act without regard for the political consequences of their actions. The ‘real horrors’ of the war focused all their attention, while the potential terrors that awaited them at the hands of the NKVD somehow seemed less threatening, or easier to cope with in the general struggle. During the conversation recorded by Hedrick Smith, the Jewish scientist recalled an incident from the war years:

I was in Kazan in my room sleeping… and in the middle of the night someone from the Cheka came and woke me up, and I was not afraid. Think of it! He knocked on my door in the middle of the night and woke me up and I was not afraid. If some Chekist had done that in the thirties, I would have been terrified. If it had happened after the war, just before Stalin died, it would have been just as frightening… But then, during the war, I was absolutely unafraid. It was a unique time in our history.77

To an important extent, the new sense of freedom was a product of the regime’s relaxation of political and even religious controls after 1941. Children born to ‘enemies of the people’ especially benefited. If they were willing or qualified to work in areas that met an urgent wartime need, their spoilt biographies were much less of an obstacle than they had been before the war. Though not official policy, it was common practice for pragmatic officials to turn a blind eye to the social background of applicants for jobs and student courses that needed to be filled.

Yevgeniia Shtern was born in 1927 to a family of Bolshevik officials in Moscow. Her father was arrested and shot two years later as a ‘German spy’. Her mother was sentenced to five years in the labour camps of Kolyma. Yevgeniia was sent to live with her grandmother in the Altai region of Siberia. In 1943, she returned to Moscow and lived with her aunt. The teachers at her school, where she was allowed to study as an external student, recognized her capabilities and protected her. One day in the summer of 1944, Yevgeniia was passing by the university when she saw a notice inviting high-school students to apply to the Physics Faculty of Moscow University. She had never liked physics, she was not good at it, but she recognized the opportunity to enter Moscow University, the most prestigious university in the Soviet Union. Encouraged by her aunt, she decided to try. ‘I was just sixteen,’ recalls Yevgeniia.

In the questionnaire [which she was obliged to fill out as part of the application process] I did not mention that my parents had been arrested. I wrote that my father had been killed… I think that they would have taken me in any case, because there were not enough people wanting to study physics, and at that time, in 1944, there was an urgent need for physicists.78

The war years offered similar opportunities to Antonina Golovina, the ‘kulak’ daughter who learned to conceal her social origins. Antonina’s ambition had been to study at the Institute of Medicine in Leningrad. She applied in 1941, but while her high-school grades were certainly good enough for her to be accepted at the institute, she was refused admission probably, as she believes, on the grounds of her suspicious social origins. The outbreak of the war ended her dreams of Leningrad, which came under siege. Antonina worked as an assistant teacher in the village school at Pestovo and then in 1943 applied to Sverdlovsk University. An old school friend, who was a student there, had suggested that she might get in because Sverdlovsk needed doctors and the university had relaxed the rules of admission to the Faculty of Medicine. Despite her ‘kulak’ origins, Antonina was admitted to the university. She soon emerged as one of the best students in the faculty. She had the full support of her professors, who kept the secret of her social origins. ‘For the first time in my life I was allowed to progress on my own merits,’ she reflects. After the siege of Leningrad was lifted, in January 1944, Antonina applied to the Leningrad Institute of Pediatrics to continue with her studies. She did not have a passport to live in Leningrad, and her ‘kulak’ origins would normally have disqualified her, despite the warm letters of support from her teachers at Sverdlovsk. But Leningrad desperately needed pediatricians to care for the tens of thousands of sick and disturbed children orphaned by the siege. In the words of the official who recommended Antonina’s admission to the institute, it would have been ‘a sin to reject such a student at this time’. Without a passport to live in Leningrad, Antonina could not be officially registered as a student at the institute, so she became one of fourteen ‘illegals’ (all from ‘alien class backgrounds’) studying ex officio, all housed together in a basement room. As an ex officio student Antonina could not get a stipend. She could not take out library books, or eat in the student cafeteria. She worked illegally as a waitress in the evenings to support herself. In 1945, the fourteen students were at last put on a legal footing, provided with passports and registered at the institute. The director of the institute, a pragmatic Communist, had appealed on their behalf to the Leningrad Party Committee, insisting that the students were urgently required for the city’s needs. For Antonina this official recognition was a major boost to her confidence. It partially released her from the fear that she had felt so acutely before the war, enabling her to think more critically about the nature of the Soviet regime and its consequences for her family.79

The regime’s concessions in the religious sphere also had wide-ranging effects. The relaxation of controls on the Church led to a dramatic revival of religious life from 1943 to 1948 (when most of the concessions were reversed). Hundreds of churches reopened, attendances increased, and there was a revival of religious weddings, baptisms and funerals.

Ivan Bragin’s family had strong connections to the Church. He counted several priests among his relatives, and his wife, Larisa, was the daughter of a priest. Those connections were rigorously concealed in the 1930s, when the family was dispossessed as ‘kulaks’ and sent into exile in Krasnokamsk: Ivan and Larisa did not go to church; they did not wear crosses; they hid their icons in a chest and hung a portrait of Stalin above the doorway where the icons were traditionally displayed. They encouraged their children to join the Pioneers and participate in anti-religious activities in order to avert suspicion. But after 1944 the family began to return to religious ways. The children were all baptized in a nearby village church, which had been reopened in 1944 after the villagers collected money for a tank. Larisa brought out her most precious icon from the chest and fixed it in a corner of the room, where it was half-hidden only by a curtain. She crossed herself before the icon when she entered or left the room. ‘Gradually,’ recalls her daughter Vera,

we began to celebrate religious holidays, and Mama told us about them. She would prepare a special dish, although that was difficult during the war. She always said: ‘We have food on the table, so it is Shrovetide. And if there is none, then it is Lent.’ We celebrated Christmas, Epiphany, the Annunciation, Easter, Trinity.80

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the war years was a new freedom of expression. People spoke openly about the loss of relatives, they related feelings and opinions in a way that would previously have been unthinkable and they engaged in political debates. The war’s uncertainties, including the uncertain survival of Soviet power, had removed the fear of talking about politics and even criticizing the regime.

Vera Pirozhkova recalls returning to her home town of Pskov in 1942: ‘Everyone was talking openly about politics and without any fear.’ She records an argument between two sisters: one aged twenty-two, the wife of a Red Army officer at the front, the other, seventeen, who was an ‘ardent anti-Communist’. When the elder sister denied any knowledge of the labour camps, the younger one was scornful: ‘You didn’t know?’ she said. ‘The whole country knew about the camps, and you didn’t? You didn’t want to know, you hid behind the back of your officer and pretended to yourself that everything was fine.’ On another occasion, the younger woman criticized her older sister for claiming not to know about the problem of unemployment, even though a number of their relatives had not been able to find jobs before the war. ‘How could you not know? Unless after your marriage you completely forgot about your family and did not care how poor we were.’ Before the war, comments Vera, when the older sister’s husband had been living with the rest of the family, no one would have dared to speak so freely, if only from the fear that he might report them.81

Food queues were a particularly fertile breeding ground for political discussion and complaint. Anger and frustration united people there and gave them courage to speak out (which is also why the queues were frequented by informers and police). ‘Anti-Soviet views are openly expressed when supplies run out,’ reported one group of informers from various lines outside Moscow shops in April 1942. An old man in a queue for kerosene was heard to say: ‘The Party-parasites are everywhere. The bastards! They have everything, while we workers have nothing but our necks from which to hang.’ To which a woman added: ‘And that’s why we are in a mess.’ In another Moscow queue the following conversation was reported by informers:

DRONIN [a soldier]: It would be better if we were living now as we lived before 1929. As soon as they introduced the kolkhoz policy everything went wrong. I ask myself – what are we fighting for? What is there to defend?

SIZOV [a soldier]: It is only now that I have understood that we are slaves. There were people like [the Bolshevik leader] Rykov who tried to do something good for us, but they got rid of him. Will there ever be another person who thinks of us?

KARELIN [a carpenter]: They told us that the Germans were all ragged and louse-ridden, but when they arrived in our village near Mozhaisk, we saw how they were eating meat and drinking coffee every day…

SIZOV: We are all hungry, but the Communists say that everything is fine.82

Tongues were loosened to a remarkable degree. Roza Novoseltseva recalls an encounter with a Moscow shoemaker in 1942. She had just returned to the capital, five years after the arrest of her parents. She had never really questioned the Soviet regime about their arrests. Although she believed in her parents’ innocence, she was prepared to accept that ‘enemies of the people’ actually existed, ‘alien elements that needed to be cleared away’, as she herself described them in 1938. But her visit to the shoemaker changed her view. While he fixed her shoes, he cursed the Soviet government, blaming it for all the country’s woes and telling her the story of his own unjust arrest during the 1930s. He clearly did not think about the dangers of talking in this way to a complete stranger like Roza. The frankness with which he spoke – something she had never before encountered – made her ‘stop and think about these things’ for the first time in her life.83

The army’s ranks were also an important arena for criticismand debate. The small groups of trusted comrades formed by the soldiers at the front produced a safe environment for talk. ‘We cursed the leadership,’ recalls one veteran. ‘Why were there no planes? Why were there not enough artillery rounds? What was the reason for all the chaos?’ Another veteran recalls that soldiers had no fear of repression for speaking their minds: ‘They thought little about it… Soldiers living with the risk of death were not afraid of anything.’ In the spring of 1945, Lazar Lazarev returned from the front to spend some time in a Kuibyshev hospital:

Like all soldiers, I had a loose tongue in 1945. I said exactly what I thought. And I spoke about the things in the army that I thought were a scandal. The doctor in the hospital warned me to ‘watch my tongue’, and I was surprised, because I thought, like the rest of the soldiers, that I had a right to speak, having fought for the Soviet state… I often heard the soldiers from villages complain about the collective farms, and how it was necessary to sweep them all away when the war was won. Freedom of speech was at such a level that it was thought entirely normal to air views like these.84

From this kind of talk the outline of a new political community began to emerge. The increased trust and interaction between people gave rise to a renewed civic spirit and sense of nationhood. At the heart of this transformation was a fundamental change of values. Before the war the climate of general mistrust was such that no community was capable of forming on its own, without direction by the Party; all civic duties were performed as orders from the state. But in the war civic duties addressed something real, the defence of the country, which brought people together, independent of state control, and created a new set of public attitudes.

Many people remarked on the change. The writer Prishvin felt, as he noted in his diary in 1941, that ‘people have got kinder since the war began: everybody is united by their fear for the motherland’. He also felt that class divisions had been erased by the national spirit that had arisen in the war. ‘Only now do I begin to understand that “the people” is not something visible, but something deep within us,’ he wrote in 1942. ‘The “people” means much more than peasants and workers, even more than writers like Pushkin, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, it is something within all of us.’ Others experienced this wartime national unity as a new feeling of solidarity in their work place. Ada Levidova noted a new ‘closeness’ among the staff of her medical institute in Leningrad, which cut across the old professional hierarchies:

The institute became our home. The boundaries between the professors and the ordinary workers disappeared. There was the feeling of a common cause, of a shared responsibility for the institute, for the patients, for our colleagues, which made us very close. This spirit of democracy (for that is what it was), the feeling that we were one family, was sensed by all who survived the siege of Leningrad. It remained with us after the war.

The commander of an infantry platoon reported that the war had made him think again about human values and relationships:

At the front people soon discovered what the most important qualities in others were. The war was a test, not just of their strength but of their humanity as well. Baseness and cowardice and selfishness were immediately revealed. Instinctively, if not intellectually, human truths were understood in a very short time – truths which can take many years to learn, if they are learned at all, in times of peace.

Little wonder that the war appeared to many as a sort of spiritual purification, a violent purging of the ‘inhuman power of the lie’ that had stifled all political discussion in the years before. ‘The war forced us to rethink our values and priorities,’ remarks Lazarev, ‘it enabled us, the ordinary soldiers, to see a different kind of truth, even to imagine a new political reality.’85

This rethinking became more widespread as the war neared its end and much of the vast Soviet army entered into Europe, where the soldiers were exposed to different ways of life. By the start of 1944, the Soviets had amassed an army of 6 million men, more than twice the size of the German army on the Eastern Front. In June 1944, just as the Allies launched the invasion of northern France, the Red Army burst through the bulk of the German forces on the Belorussian Front, retaking Minsk by 3 July and pushing on through Lithuania to reach the Prussian border by the end of August. Meanwhile the Soviet troops on the Ukrainian Front swept through eastern Poland towards Warsaw. In the southern sector, where the German forces soon collapsed, the Red Army swept across Romania and Bulgaria to reach Yugoslavia by September 1944. The Soviet advance was relentless. By the end of January 1945, the troops of the Ukrainian Front had penetrated deep into Silesia, while Zhukov’s Belorussian Front had reached the Oder River and had Berlin in its sights.

Hardly any of the Soviet soldiers had ever been to Europe. Most of them were peasant sons who had come into the army with the small-world views and customs of the Soviet countryside and an image of the wider world shaped by propaganda. They were not prepared for what they discovered. ‘The contrast between the standard of living in Europe and our own in the Soviet Union was an emotional and psychological shock, and it changed the views of millions of troops,’ observed Simonov. Soldiers saw that ordinary people lived in better houses; they saw that the shops were better stocked, despite the war and looting by the Red Army; and that the private farms they passed on their way to Germany, even in their ruined state, were far superior to the Soviet collective farms. No amount of propaganda could persuade them to discount the evidence of their own eyes.

The encounter with the West shaped the soldiers’ expectations of the future in their own country. Peasant soldiers were convinced that with the end of the war the collective farms would be swept away. There were many rumours of this sort in the army, most of them involving promises by Zhukov to the troops. Retold in a million letters from the soldiers to their families, these expectations spread throughout the countryside, resulting in a series of peasant strikes on the collective farms. Other soldiers talked about the need to open the churches, about the need for more democracy, even about the dismantling of the Party system root and branch. The film director Aleksandr Dovzhenko remembered a discussion with a military driver, a ‘Siberian lad’, in January 1944. ‘Our life is bad,’ the driver had said. ‘And all of us, you know, just wait for changes and improvements in our lives. We all wait. All of us. It’s just that we don’t all say it.’ ‘I was astonished by what I heard,’ Dovzhenko noted in his diary afterwards. ‘The people have a tremendous need for some other kind of life. I hear it everywhere. The only place where I don’t hear it is among our leaders.’86

Officers were in the forefront of this army movement for reform. They openly expressed their criticisms of the Soviet system and their hopes for change. One lieutenant wrote to the Soviet president Mikhail Kalinin in 1945 with a ‘series of considerations to put to the next meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet’. Having been to Maidanek, the Nazi death camp in Poland, and having seen the consequences of a dictatorship in Germany, the officer demanded an end to arbitrary arrests and imprisonment in the Soviet Union, which, he said, had its own Maidaneks; the abolition of the collective farms, which he knew were a disaster from what he had been told by his own troops; and a list of other, more minor grievances, which his soldiers had asked him to convey to the president.87

Party leaders were understandably anxious about the return of all these men with their reformist ideas. For those who cared to look back at history, there was an obvious parallel with the war against Napoleon in 1812–15, when the returning officers brought back to tsarist Russia the liberal thought of Western Europe which then inspired the Decembrist uprising of 1825. Political activists attending a conference at the Second Belorussian Front in February 1945 called for efforts to counteract the pernicious influence of the West:

After the war of 1812 our soldiers, having seen French life, compared it with the backward life of tsarist Russia. At that time the French influence was progressive… The Decembrists came to see the need to struggle against the tsarist dictatorship. But today it is different. Maybe the estates of East Prussia are better off than some collective farms. That impression might lead a backward person to conclude in favour of the landed estates against the socialist economy. But that is regressive. So there must be a merciless struggle against this frame of mind.88

There was particular concern about the influence of these Western ideas on Party members, more than half of whom were serving in the military by 1945. Their demobilization, the leadership assumed, was bound to infect civilian organizations with dangerous liberal notions of political reform.

In fact such ideas were already spreading among civilians, especially within the political and educated classes. The alliance with Britain and the USA had opened Soviet society to Western influence long before the end of the war. After years of isolation, Soviet cities were flooded with Hollywood films, Western books and goods imported by the Lend-Lease agreement with America. Millions of people got a taste of what life in the West was really like – not the ideal of Hollywood perhaps, but a long way from the gloomy images retailed by Soviet propaganda during the 1930s. Restaurants and commercial shops reappeared on Moscow’s streets, suggesting perhaps that something like the NEP might be restored. All this fuelled the expectation that life in the Soviet Union would become easier and more open to the West once the war was over. As the writer and propagandist Vsevolod Vishnevsky put it in a speech to the Society for External Cultural Relations in the summer of 1944:

When the war is over, life will become very pleasant… There will be much coming and going, and a lot of contacts with the West. Everybody will be allowed to read whatever he likes. There will be exchanges of students, and foreign travel for Soviet citizens will be made easy.

Ideas of political reform were openly discussed by the intelligentsia without fear of censorship (and perhaps with the approval of the Party leadership, which was willing to offer such inducements to keep the people fighting until the end of the war). ‘A large circle of the intelligentsia was for liberalization,’ recalls Simonov. ‘There was a general atmosphere of ideological optimism.’ For most people in these circles liberalization meant a ‘dialogue’ with the government about reform. Few people were prepared to challenge the Communist dictatorship openly, but many wanted greater involvement in political decision-making so that they could open up the system from within. In the words of the poet David Samoilov:

Civic duty to our minds consisted of serving political missions in whose usefulness we believed… It was our sense that if we took on a civic mission, we were entitled to honesty from the government… We needed an explanation of its ideas and to be convinced of the wisdom of its decisions. We certainly did not want to be the witless executors of whatever the government was pleased to do.

Even economic reform was an acceptable topic for discussion. Ivan Likhachyov, the director of the Stalin Factory in Moscow, the biggest car producer in the Soviet Union, advanced the idea of introducing an internal market into the industrial economy with more finanicial freedom at the local level to stimulate the workers through higher rates of pay – a programme that would change the fundamental nature of the planned economy. Some economists, too, were openly critical of the planning system and suggested a return to the market to stimulate production after the war.89

In this atmosphere of public openness, people felt emboldened to question the principles and values of the Soviet regime in their private lives as well.

Elga Torchinskaia, a teenage Stalinist before the war, recalls a particular episode that made her reconsider her political beliefs. As an activist in the Komsomol, Elga had been sent with a group of students from the university to dig ditches outside Leningrad during the defence of the city in 1941. The students slept in the trenches. One of them was less than satisfied with the conditions and complained to the leader of the brigade, who responded by punishing him, bullying him and finally denouncing him at a meeting of the Komsomol. The student was arrested and sent to jail. For Elga this act of persecution was a moment of awakening. When her father had been arrested, in 1937, she had assumed that he must have done something wrong. She had believed the regime’s propaganda about ‘enemies of the people’. But now she saw that people were arrested for no reason. She joined a group of students to protest against their friend’s arrest, but to no effect. From this point Elga began to view the Komsomol and Party in a different light, not as democratic institutions, but as enclaves of an elite that abused its power. She thought about resigning from the Komsomol and ceased to attend its meetings. Her new perceptions carried over to her actions in the communal apartment where she lived throughout the siege of Leningrad:

It was a pleasant apartment. There were rarely arguments. But there was a woman who lived in the room at the back: she was always arguing with her husband, a drunkard, who beat her. Then she joined the Party. Suddenly she became very self-important. She took over our room. She had bread, she had furniture, she had everything. And I actually dared tell her that I did not agree with the Party. I remember it very well. I could have been arrested.90

For Marksena Karpitskaia, working in the Public Library in Leningrad and living on her own in a communal apartment after the arrest of her parents, the moment of awakening came when she herself was summoned to the NKVD headquarters and pressured to join in the denunciation of a retired tsarist officer who hung around in the library and helped the staff with petty tasks in order to stay warm. When she refused, the NKVD interrogator turned to her and said that it was no wonder because she herself was the daughter of an ‘enemy of the people and therefore you protect such enemies’. The insult caused something to snap in Marksena, and from some inner sense of justice, some need to defend both the harmless officer and her parents, she launched herself into a brave if foolish act of defiance:

I exploded with rage. I said that nobody had yet proved that my parents were enemies of the people, and that what he was saying was itself a crime. For me that was suddenly clear. But imagine my saying it! Only the foolishness of youth could have possessed me to be so brave! He jumped up and came towards me, as if to hit me. No doubt he was used to beating people. I stood up and grabbed my stool, as if to protect myself. He would have hit me had it not been for the stool. He came to his senses, sat down at his desk and asked for my papers.

A few days later, Marksena received an NKVD order to leave Leningrad. But she refused to go. ‘Leningrad was my home, it was everything to me, and the idea of leaving it was inconceivable,’ recalls Marksena. ‘I thought, why should I go? The only thing I have is this little corner [in the communal apartment]. Let them arrest me, I will not leave.’ The next day Marksena was helped by one of the senior librarians, Liubov Rubina, a courageous Party member, who defended many Leningraders from the NKVD terror in the war and post-war years. Rubina had known Marksena’s stepfather – a former secretary of the district Party cell – and considered him a decent man. She herself had lost a brother and a sister in the purges of the 1930s (she would lose more relatives in the anti-Jewish Terror of 1948–53). An outspoken Communist, ‘she did not mince her words in criticizing Stalin and the other leaders of the Party,’ Marksena recalls: ‘they were all “reptiles” in her view’. Rubina made up a bed for Marksena in her office and told the library staff to conceal her whereabouts from the police. Hiding the girl was a courageous act that could have landed Rubina in jail, but such was her moral authority among the librarians that no one said a word, and Marksena lived there for the better part of a year. ‘She took care of me as if I was her child,’ recalls Marksena. Their conversations in Rubina’s office were a political education for Marksena, reconnecting her to the values of her parents, who had never had the freedom to speak so openly:

Rubina was an extraordinary person, brave and strong, a Communist idealist, with a deep commitment to justice for everyone. She allowed herself to speak openly to me. We talked about everything – not just about Stalin. There was one conversation in which she told me that collectivization had been a terrible mistake that had ruined the country; and others where she said that the White Sea Canal and other building projects had all been built by prisoners… She talked about the arrests [of 1937–8] and said that my parents had been innocent. She explained many things that I had not understood. She talked all night. She knew that I would not betray her, that I would not say a word to anyone, and when she talked to me she opened up her heart.91


Simonov was in Berlin for the final battle of the war. ‘Tanks, more tanks, armoured cars, Katiushas, lorries in their thousands, artillery of every size,’ he wrote in his diary on 3 May:

It seems to me that it is not divisions and army corps but the whole of Russia that is entering Berlin from every side… In front of the huge and tasteless monument to Wilhelm I a group of soldiers and officers are being photographed. Five, ten, a hundred of them at a time, some with guns and some without, some exhausted, some laughing.92

Five days later Simonov was in Karlshorst to report on the signing of the German surrender. He then returned to Moscow for the victory celebrations and parades.

The centre of Moscow was filled with soldiers and civilians for the festivities on 9 May. Samuil Laskin’s nephew Mark was struck by the crowds outside the US Embassy on Manezh Square who had ‘gathered with home-made placards in support of the Allies and cheered wildly when the American diplomats and soldiers waved to them, many of them holding whiskey bottles, from the windows and the balconies’. It seemed to him the closest thing that he had seen since 1917 to a ‘street demonstration for democracy’. Later, Mark returned to the Laskin apartment at Sivtsev Vrazhek for a family celebration. All the Laskins – Samuil and Berta, Fania, Sonia, Zhenia and her son Aleksei – had returned to Moscow from Cheliabinsk in 1943. ‘We drank a toast to the victory,’ Mark recalls, ‘we drank to Stalin (a toast to him was mandatory), and there was joy in all our hearts.’ That evening there were even more people in the centre of Moscow to salute a giant portrait of Stalin, the ‘father of the nation’, which was raised above the Kremlin and illuminated by projectors for crowds to see from miles around.93

Six weeks later, on 24 June, there was a formal victory parade on Red Square. Riding on a white Arab stallion, Marshal Zhukov led the column of troops and tanks out on to the square in pouring rain, while military bands played Glinka’s patriotic hymn ‘Slavsya!’ (‘Glory to You!’). Two hundred soldiers carrying Nazi flags marched to the Lenin Mausoleum, where they turned to face Stalin and flung their flags to the ground. At a grand banquet for his senior commanders, Stalin made a famous toast to the ‘tens of millions’ of ‘simple, ordinary, modest people… who are the little screws (vintiki) in the great mechanism of the state, but without whom all of us, marshals and commanders of the fronts and armies, would not be worth a damn’.94

The victory was greeted by the Soviet people with universal joy. This was a moment – perhaps the only moment during Stalin’s rule – of genuine national unity. Even prisoners in the Gulag’s labour camps received the end of the war with patriotic pride: they felt that they had made their contribution to the victory and no doubt hoped that it would mean an amnesty for them. ‘Never in my life have I kissed so many people out of simple joy and happiness,’ wrote one ALZhIR prisoner to her son on the evening of 9 May:

I even kissed the men. This was the first day in our seven-and-half-year separation when I forgot all my sorrows and suffering. In the settlement [the outer zone of the prison camp] they are playing the accordion, the young ones are dancing. It is as if we were not here, but there, with you.95

Gradually the soldiers returned home. Many men and women experienced enormous problems of adjustment to civilian life. Two million came back from the war as invalids. Criminally neglected by the Soviet authorities, from which they received a tiny allowance, they found it hard to get jobs; many ended up as beggars on the street. An even greater number returned from the war with psychological wounds, battle stress or trauma or schizophrenia, but since few of these illnesses were recognized by the Soviet medical profession and veterans themselves were far too stoical to report them, the true scale of the problem remains unknown.96

For others the return to ‘normal life’ was full of disappointments. The loss of homes and families, the difficulty of communicating their experiences in the war to friends and relatives, the absence of the comradeship and sense of mutual understanding they shared with other soldiers at the front – all led to widespread depression in the post-war years. ‘Most of my old comrades from the army drank themselves to death or killed themselves when the war ended – one killed himself only recently,’ Kondratiev wrote in the 1990s.

We felt unwanted, handicapped… We were insulted when Stalin compared us to nothing more than the ‘little screws’ in a machine. That is not how we felt at the front. We thought then that we held the destiny of Russia in our hands, and we acted accordingly, in the belief that we were citizens.

Reflecting on these years, Kondratiev wrote:

We had beaten the Fascists and liberated Europe, but we did not return feeling like victors, or rather, we felt that way for a very short time, while we still had hopes for change. When those hopes did not come true, the disappointment and the apathy, which we had at first explained to ourselves as physical exhaustion from the war, seized hold of us completely. Did we really understand that, by saving Russia, our Motherland, we had also saved the Stalinist regime? Perhaps not. But even if we had understood it, we would have fought in the same way, preferring our own home-grown totalitarianism to the Hitlerite version, because it is easier to bear violence from one’s own people than from foreigners.97

Families were harder to reconstitute than the soldiers had imagined in their letters home: sweethearts did not wait for them; women did not match up to the soldiers’ dreams; and marriages collapsed from the strains of separation and return. In his play So It Will Be, written in the summer of 1944, Simonov tells the story of an officer who returns to Moscow from the front. His wife and child have long gone missing in German-occupied territory, and the officer is sure that they are lost, so he starts a new life, marrying the daughter of a professor. The play’s main idea, that people would need to move on when the war ended, could not have been further from the message of ‘Wait For Me’.

The ending of the war coincided with the first mass release of prisoners from the Gulag. The eight-year sentence received by millions of ‘politicals’ in 1937–8 came to an end in 1945–6 (other prisoners, whose sentences expired before 1945, had to wait until the ending of the war for their release). Families began to piece themselves together again. Women took the lead in this recovery, sometimes travelling across the country in search of husbands and children. There were tight restrictions on where former prisoners could live. Most of them were banned from residing in the major towns. So families who wanted to be together often had to move to remote corners of the Soviet Union. Sometimes the only place they could find to settle was in the Gulag zone.

Nina Bulat was released from a labour camp in Magadan in 1945. She travelled 16,000 kilometres to retrieve her daughter Inessa from an orphanage in Iaroslavl (where she had ended up following the death of her grandmother) and bring her back to live with her in the camp in Magadan. She had little choice in this matter: she had been released with ‘minus 100’, a legal restriction limiting the movement of many former prisoners and prohibiting them from settling in a hundred listed towns.98

Maria Ilina’s odyssey was even more arduous. Formerly the director of a large textile factory in Kiev, she was arrested as the wife of an ‘enemy of the people’ in 1937 (her husband was a high-ranking Party official) and sentenced to eight years in the Potma labour camps in Mordovia. She was released in 1945 and set about finding her children. At the time of her arrest, Maria’s two-year-old daughter, Marina, and her two older sons, Vladimir and Feliks, were taken to a distribution centre. Their grandmother, already burdened with several grandchildren after the arrest of her other daughter in 1936, had refused to take in the children. Vladimir, who turned sixteen shortly after his arrival in the distribution centre, was arrested there as an ‘enemy of the people’ and sentenced to five years in a labour camp in Magadan. Feliks was sent to an orphanage in Kiev; Marina to a different orphanage in the nearby town of Bucha and then, in 1939, to another one in Cherkassy, 200 kilometres to the south of the Ukrainian capital. From the Potma camps, Maria had written to officials throughout the Soviet Union to learn where her children had been sent. She found no trace of Vladimir, who died an unrecorded death in Magadan some time before 1942. It took Maria eighteen years to discover anything about Feliks, who had been evacuated with his orphanage to the Terekty region of western Kazakhstan after the outbreak of the war. She finally learned that in 1943, when he was only twelve, Feliks ran away from the orphanage and wandered through the country on his own for several months, ending up in the remote town of Cheremkhovo in the Irkutsk region of Siberia, 2,500 kilometres to the east, where he got a job in a factory.

She had better luck with Marina. It so happened that one of the doctors in the orphanage at Cherkassy, Antonina Mazina, had a sister who was in the same labour camp as Maria. Through her, Maria received regular reports on her daughter’s health from the workers of the orphanage. Marina had fallen ill with scarlet fever shortly after her arrival at the Bucha orphanage. She was close to death. But when she arrived at Cherkassy, Antonina nursed her back to health. She took Marina home to live with her own daughter (also called Marina) until she was well enough to return to the orphanage. Antonina brought her food, halva and sweets and told her they were sent by her mother. It was not often true – small amounts of money came irregularly from Potma (and there were some food parcels from Marina’s grandmother until the outbreak of the war) – but the doctor understood that the young girl needed hope, she needed to believe in a loving mother, if she was to survive. ‘I had no recollection of my mother,’ recalls Marina.

I had no real idea what a mother was. But the older children in the orphanage would often speak about their mothers and say how kind they were – they would talk about how happy they had been before the war, about how they were never hungry, because there was always bread and butter, and nice sweet things to eat – so in my mind these sweets, the chocolate and the halva, became symbols of the kind and ideal mother I imagined for myself… These were not just sweets that I had been given by anyone – they were ‘Mama’s sweets’.99

Antonina Mazina with her daughter Marina and Marina Ilina (left), Chimkent, 1944

In 1941, the orphanage was evacuated from Cherkassy to Chimkent in southern Kazakhstan. But through the workers at the orphanage, who went on writing to Maria, the family connection was maintained. Marina was still too young to write to her mother by herself (she did not receive any schooling until the age of ten) but the caretakers wrote on her behalf, adding their own standard phrases to present the orphanage in a positive light:

Chimkent, 1 January 1944

Greeting res[pected] Maria Markovna!

I am writing to you from your daughter Marinochka: ‘Mama I remember you. Will you be home soon? I miss you very much. I am living well, they feed us well. I can sing and dance and soon I will go to school. Mama, send me your photograph. Goodbye, I kiss you, your daughter Marinochka.’

I asked her what else she wanted to say, and she said this was enough. Her health is fine. She is a happy child, loved by all the other children in our collective… We are writing regularly to her grandmother in Kiev. Photographs cost 22 roubles in a private booth… Send the money if you want one…

Care[taker] Aleksandra Zakharovna Gerasimchuk.100

The orphanage returned from evacuation in 1945, but it was relocated in the ruined buildings of an estate near Lvov, on the Ukrainian border with Poland, instead of Cherkassy. Antonina disappeared. Marina waited for her mother. ‘I had never seen her picture, I did not know what she looked like, but I felt that I was waiting for my mother, as one might wait for God, a saviour,’ she recalls. Mothers came for other children at the orphanage. ‘I was madly jealous of them all, and dreamed that my turn would come next.’ Marina did not realize that these other children were different from her – their parents were not ‘enemies of the people’ but had simply been separated from their children in the war – but she overheard the ‘whispered conversations’ of the caretakers at the orphanage and registered the phrase ‘an enemy of the people’, which she ‘sensed meant something bad that could not be talked about’. Throughout 1945, Marina wrote to her mother on a regular basis. She was by now in the second class at the school in the orphanage and could write in her own hand. Typically the teachers told the children what to write, again including some standard phrases to let their parents know that they were happy at the orphanage. But Marina’s letters managed to communicate a different mood. On 17 August she wrote to her mother:

Hello Mama, how are you? Mama, write to me, just one letter, so I know you have got mine. I have written to you seven letters but maybe you have not got one of them. Mama, I am well, I am not sick. It is already winter here and very cold but even so we go to school. Mama, come for me or send for me soon, I am sick of being here… The other girls do not hit me but there are sometimes fights. Mama, I suppose that you will come and get me in the spring.

Marina did not know what it would mean to be with her mother, but she was unhappy in the orphanage. She presumed that, like the other children, she had been separated from her mother because of the war and that with the war’s end her mother would come for her; then she would enjoy the happy life which the other children had told her all about from their memories of living with their families before the war.101

Marina’s mother was released from the labour camps at the end of 1945. Forbidden to return to Kiev, she stayed with friends in various towns, while she went in search of her children. Through the husband of her niece, a Party activist and historian, she made contact with the poet Pavlo Tychina, a member of the Stalinist elite in the Ukrainian capital (although in private he was critical of the regime), who found out her daughter’s whereabouts. Marina remembers the arrival of her mother in a chauffeur-driven car used by members of the government. A crowd of children had gathered at the entrance to see who had come for the lucky girl:

‘Someone’s come for you,’ everyone was telling me… I came out. There was a strange woman there. I did not know what to do. I was afraid of being punished if I ran up to her and embraced her. I knew that the caretakers did not like it when the children flung their arms around someone who had come for them, because it showed the orphanage in a bad light. We had to give the impression that everything was fine, that we were reluctant to leave… But also I was very shy. Mama later said that there was no joy at our meeting, that I looked afraid. I was afraid of everything… I remember thinking that I might not be taken. No one had told me that the woman was my mother. And I didn’t know it was her, because I had never seen her, not even in a photograph. She was no longer young. She was wearing an old shawl on her head which looked as if it had been loaned to her to help her look respectable. She was not dressed like a lady, she had no furs, no hat, no pretty things. She looked poor and unhappy, like an old woman. She did not look like a mother, not as I had pictured her. What was a mother in my mind? Someone beautiful and smartly dressed, young and striking, full of life… But this woman had grey hair.102

Marina’s mother took her to Lvov, where they stayed in a hotel. They ate soft rolls with cocoa for breakfast, Marina’s first experience of such luxuries, which she would remember all her life. After a few days, they went to Cherkassy, where they lived together in a small room in a hostel. Marina went to school. It was very difficult for the two of them to overcome their estrangement. ‘For the first weeks I did not talk at all with my mother,’ recalls Marina.

I was a wild child from the orphanage and did not want to speak. And she didn’t try to force me, she was afraid of me herself… Maybe she saw something wild in me and was trying to figure out how to handle it… My mother later said that I was not just very shy but also timid and frightened. I would not go to her when she called and would never call for her. For a long time I would say ‘vy’ [the formal ‘you’] to her, and would not call her ‘Mama’. Something stopped me saying that, a wall inside me. I had to force myself to call her ‘Mama’ – it took a long time.

Although they lived together for the next twelve years, they never formed a close relationship. They were both too damaged to open up to each other. Marina’s mother died in 1964. She never talked to her daughter about what she had experienced in the labour camps. ‘She was too afraid to tell, and I was too afraid to ask,’ recalls Marina. Whatever she found out about her mother’s life in the labour camps she learned from Maria’s Gulag friends. She did not even know about her lost brothers, until 1955, when Feliks reappeared and Maria learned that Vladimir had died. Falling into deep depression, Maria withdrew into herself and never spoke about the past. ‘We lived together in almost total silence,’ remembers Marina.

It was terrible. To this day, I do not understand. Why was she so frightened to speak? I think she did not want to burden me. She wanted me to be happy, not to make me bitter about life in the Soviet Union. She knew that everything that had been done to our family had been an injustice, but she did not want me to think that.103

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