Military history


On the Donets with the Black Division

Grossman was with the 37th Army, near Servernyi Donets, forty kilometres south-east of Kharkov. They faced the German Sixth Army, which was now commanded by General Friedrich Paulus and which Grossman would encounter at Stalingrad.

Visit the division commanded by Colonel Zinoviev, a Hero of the Soviet Union, born 1905, and a peasant. ‘I am a muzhik,’ he says of himself. He joined the Red Army in 1927 and served with the frontier guards troops in Central Asia. He commanded a company during the Finnish Campaign. He spent fifty-seven days surrounded by the Germans (a feat for which he received the medal Hero of the Soviet Union).

‘The most frightening thing of all,’ Zinoviev told us, ‘is when they are crawling. You shoot at them with machine guns, fire mortars and artillery. You crush them, but they crawl, they crawl. And now I try to persuade my soldiers: “Crawl!” He has studied at the [Frunze] Academy, but it is hard for him to speak fluently. He is shy and stumbles over his words. He is ashamed of being such a simple man.

The division consists entirely of miners. All the men come from the Donbass. Germans call it the ‘Black Division’. The miners didn’t want to retreat. ‘We won’t let a single German cross the Donets.’ They call their commander ‘our Chapaev’.1

In the first battle the division was attacked by one hundred German tanks. The miners stopped the attack. When the Germans breached a flank of the division, the divisional commander galloped on a horse along the front line shouting: ‘Miners, forward!’

‘Miners don’t retreat!’ the soldiers shouted in reply.

‘They sleep in the forest when it’s minus 35° centigrade. They aren’t afraid of tanks. “A mine is more frightening,” they say.’

The divisional commander’s creed is: ‘The key character here is the Red Army soldier. He sleeps in the snow and is prepared to sacrifice his life. And it isn’t easy to sacrifice one’s life. Everyone wants to live, including heroes. Authority is gained through daily conversations. A soldier must know his task and understand it. One has to speak to soldiers, and sing and dance for them. But authority shouldn’t be cheap, it is hard won. I learned this in the frontier units. And knowing that soldiers trust me, I know they will fulfil all my orders and risk their lives. When it is necessary to take a little town or block a road, I know that they will do it.’

Severe frost. The snow is creaking. Icy air makes one catch one’s breath. The insides of one’s nostrils stick together, teeth ache from the cold. Germans, frozen to death, lie on the roads of our advance. Their bodies are absolutely intact. We didn’t kill them, it was the cold. Practical jokers put the frozen Germans on their feet, or on their hands and knees, making intricate, fanciful sculpture groups. Frozen Germans stand with their fists raised, or with their fingers spread wide. Some of them look as if they are running, their heads pulled into the shoulders. They are wearing torn boots, thin shinelishki [greatcoats], paper undershirts that don’t hold the warmth. At night the fields of snow seem blue under the bright moon, and the dark bodies of frozen German soldiers stand in the blue snow, placed there by the jokers.

Again, [frozen] Germans standing up. One of them is in his underwear, in a paper jersey.

In a village which has just been liberated, there are five dead Germans and one dead Red Army soldier lying in the square. The square is empty, there is no one to ask what’s happened, but one does not need this to be able to reconstruct the whole drama. One of the Germans was killed with a bayonet, another one with a rifle butt, third one with a bayonet, two were shot. And the soldier who killed them all was shot in the back.

Grossman, who preferred working with just a couple of colleagues or on his own, had to join a much larger group of war correspondents.

The izba is crowded with dozens of people. There’s confusion, the headquarters is in the process of setting itself up. A beautiful girl is there in an overcoat which is too big for her, a big ushanka [fur hat] which keeps falling over her eyes, and huge valenki[felt boots], but one can tell there is a sweet, slim girl underneath all this ugly grey stuff. She is standing there looking lost, not knowing where she can sit down. She is holding a red handbag in her hands. This lady’s handbag, which has seen better days, looks stunningly sad in these grey military surroundings. A soldier slaps her on the back jokingly, but with full force. Suddenly she begins to cry. ‘Forgive me, Lidochka,’ the soldier says to her. ‘I’m a miner, I’ve got heavy hands.’

Back in peacetime, we always used to put on the wrong galoshes in the hall. Now, about fifteen photographers and reporters sleep in one izba, and there’s a terrible confusion all the time – ‘Whose valenki are these? Whose foot bandages, mittens, hats?’2Everything looks the same to people who were civilians the day before. This does not happen with soldiers.

The owners of the izba told us how the Germans fled from the village under the fire of our artillery. They were carrying their belongings which they hadn’t had time to pack; they were panic-stricken, some fell into the snow and sobbed.

‘We had a German here who brought with him a cat from Poltava [Sixth Army headquarters]. The cat knew him. When he walked into the house, the cat would run to him and rub against his boots. He fed it with fat, pure fat. And when they fled, he took the cat with him, he was so fond of it.’

‘The divisional doctor was quartered here. He used to work all night. He worked like an ox. He wrote and wrote and then shouted into the telephone like a raven: “Kamyshevakha! Kamyshevakha!” and carried on writing, regardless of the light. He worked like an ox. And he would shout at his orderly: “Why is the Russian so quiet?” He liked it when I chopped wood in the mornings. They would wake me up specially.’

A woman told us: ‘She was a good cow, and young. [The Germans] caught her because they wanted to eat something fatty.’

The artillery commander gave the order: ‘At the retreating whores, fire!’

Gun-layers and mortarmen, such as this one wearing a pilotka fore-and-aft cap, would sometimes receive flamboyant fire orders from their commanders at moments of triumph. When they reached Berlin, it would be: ‘At the lair of the Fascist beast, fire!’

Colonel Zinoviev allowed Grossman to go through the divisional war diary over the previous months.


Komsomol Secretary Eretik had wanted, when dying from a serious wound, to throw a grenade, but he didn’t have enough strength. The grenade exploded in his hand, killing him and some Germans.

A damaged plane was drawn away by oxen. Soldiers carried their wounded commander Muratov for twelve kilometres.

Red Army soldier Petrov says: ‘At the front we have bad leadership.’

A reconnaissance party of six men headed by Junior Lieutenant Drozd didn’t return from their mission. Drozd was found afterwards with two bayonet wounds. He was dead and his revolver was missing, but documents and money were on him. The soldiers weren’t found.3

Turilin and Likhatov tore up their [Communist] Party membership cards.4 Gulyaev declared: ‘Why dig trenches, they are useless.’

Red Army soldier Tikhy5 tried to rape the owner of the house where he stayed for the night. Fearing retribution, Tikhy darted out of the house, took a rifle, jumped on a horse and left in an unknown direction. The search for Tikhy has still brought no positive results.

Mass complaints from soldiers about the complete absence of letters.

A handwritten leaflet was dropped from a plane on the town of Yampol: ‘During a morning service in the city of Jerusalem, the Saviour’s voice was heard. Those who pray, even just once, will be saved.’

Junior Lieutenant Churelko shouted at his soldiers: ‘You swine! You don’t like me because I’m a Gypsy!’ After that, he jumped on his horse and wanted to go to the front line. They stopped him, and he wanted to shoot himself.

Red Army soldier Duvansky was driving his ox and was hitting the ox with a rifle butt. The butt broke when he hit the ox, and the rifle went off wounding Duvansky. He was sent to hospital and brought to trial.

Communist Evseev lost his notepad. Some Red Army soldiers found this notepad. In it he kept a hand-copied prayer.

Reconnaissance men Kapitonov and Deiga [presumably on a scouting mission behind enemy lines] changed into civilian clothes and visited a meeting where Germans were holding the election of a starosta [village leader in German-occupied territory].6Germans shouted: ‘Those who aren’t locals, stand up!’ They stood up and were arrested.

Menu of a German field kitchen. In the morning – breakfast: coffee, usually without sugar, and bread spread with dripping (pig fat). Dinner consists of one course: borscht or soup (meat soup). Supper: coffee and bread. Second course with meat is given to them once a week.

In response to Comrade Stalin’s report, Nurse Rud donated 250 cubic centimetres of her blood, and Nurse Tarabrina 350 cubic centimetres.

During breakfast at the headquarters battery, a frog was found in the soup.

Soldier Nazarenko carried two heavily wounded men out of the line of fire and after that he killed ten fascist soldiers, one corporal and one officer. When someone said to him: ‘You’re a hero,’ he answered: ‘Is this heroism? To reach Berlin – that’s heroism!’ He added: ‘One would be all right with Politruk Chernyshev in combat! He crawled up to me in the heat of the battle, laughed and cheered me up.’

Three German sub-machine-gunners were surrounded in a field by some haystacks. This was at night. ‘Surrender!’ [the Soviet soldiers shouted]. There was no reply. It turned out that they were standing there dead, leant against a haystack, frozen solid. Apparently, practical jokers had placed them there during the day.

Grossman, as well as gleaning what he could from official reports, carried on noting down vignettes and snippets of conversation from military life.

Divisional commanders: ‘I am at . . .’ ‘I am on the line.’ The inevitable phrase: ‘My neighbour on the left is letting me down.’ ‘Oh, neighbour, neighbour.’ ‘This booty is mine.’ ‘It was my anti-aircraft men who shot down that German, but he came down in the neighbour’s sector, and the neighbours claimed that they had shot him down.’ ‘One is always having trouble with one’s neighbours.’

If a division has managed to break through, its commander says: ‘My neighbour is holding me back.’ And the commander who is left behind, says: ‘It’s easy for them to say that. While I received the main brunt of the battle, of course it was easy for them to push on.’

On a clear frosty morning, izbas produce smoke like battleships in harbour. There is no wind. Not a breeze, and several dozen smoke pillars stand like props between the snowy white of the ground and the sky of cruel blue.

Immediately after the battle ended, a crowd of women rushed out into the field, to German trenches, to get back their quilts and pillows.

In a Ukrainian village, the khata houses are being whitewashed after the departure of the Germans, as if after a dangerous, infectious disease which devastated the village.

When Germans entered a house, the cat left and stayed away for three months. (Stories like this circulate in all the villages.) Presumably the cats sense strangers, or know the smell of Germans.

Reading between the lines of Grossman’s account, villagers who had been under German occupation were nervous about how they might be treated by the Soviet authorities. Many of them had destroyed their identity documents and needed to be reassured that they would not be punished.

In the morning, Kuzma Ogloblin came back to the village which had just been liberated. He was the chairman of the village soviet and had been with the partisans. He is dark and solid like cast iron, wearing a black sheepskin coat and armed with a rifle. Theizba became crowded with people. Ogloblin said: ‘Don’t be afraid of anything. Just get on with life. You should hand in any German boots. I myself, for example, hit a vehicle with a grenade. It had three hundred pairs of boots in it, and although I needed boots, I didn’t even take a single pair. What do you want documents for? We all know each other. Don’t be afraid, live! The Germans are done for. They won’t be back.’

Return to Voronezh. Night in a field hospital. We meet a woman doctor. It is dark. There is only a weak light from the coals in the stove. The doctor becomes talkative, she recites poetry and philosophises. ‘Excuse me, are you, er, blonde?’ Rozenfeld asks. ‘No, my hair is completely white,’ she replies. An embarrassed silence.

A wounded man: ‘Comrade Major, we are having a furious argument here. May I speak to you?’

‘What, what?’ The major is alarmed.

‘Well, we were discussing whether Germany will exist after the war?’

The wounded men demand newpapers and snatch them from medical orderlies: they want to smoke.

A hospital train is standing on the track. There are military trains all around. Whenever Ulyana, Galya or Lena want to climb into a heated freight [teplushka] wagon, soldiers appear at once out of nowhere ‘helping’ nurses into the wagon. Screams and laughter are heard all over the station.

We said goodbye to the field hospital. I remembered again how on my way to the front I had dropped in to see the commandant. I was hungry and they put a plate of wonderful home-made Ukrainian borscht in front of me. Just when I was raising the first spoonful to my mouth Bukovsky stormed in shouting: ‘Hurry up! Let’s run. The train is moving already.’ I rushed out after him. That borscht haunted me for weeks.

We change on to an ordinary [civilian] train. It is very crowded. The inspector says to a man in a black coat: ‘Give these soldiers your seat, they are here on the train today, and tomorrow they will perhaps be dead.’ A soldier, an Uzbek, is singing loudly in Uzbekian. The whole carriage can hear him. The sounds seem absurd to our ears, and the words are unfamiliar. Red Army soldiers are listening to him attentively, with a caring and embarrassed expression. There isn’t a single grin or smile.

Grossman once again heard stories from the enemy-occupied territories.

An old man was waiting for the Germans to arrive. He put a tablecloth on the table, and laid it with different delicacies. The Germans came and robbed and looted the house. The old man hanged himself.

Regimental commander Kramer. He beats Germans devilishly. When he became ill during a battle and had a forty-degree temperature, they poured some boiling water into a barrel, this fat man climbed into the barrel and recovered.

The January general offensive, launched on Stalin’s insistence and against Zhukov’s advice, had proved unsustainable, as the realists had feared. The German Army was not on the point of collapse, as Stalin had claimed after the successful counter-attacks near Moscow in December. Grossman came across some reports from the fighting in the First World War which had an uncomfortably familiar tone. Such implicit criticisms of the handling of the offensive in his notebook was almost as dangerous as copying down negative comments and ‘extraordinary events’.

From the order by General of Artillery Ivanov to the commanders of the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 11th Armies: ‘26 January 1916. Almost all our attacks in the recent battles possessed the same characteristic pattern: the troops broke through a sector of the enemy’s line, forced the remains of the enemy’s front-line troops to abandon trenches and fortifications, followed them uncontrollably and then, attacked in their turn by enemy neighbouring units or reserves, retreated not only back to the captured line, but, having found no support in them as they had just been taken, often back to the positions before the attack, usually having suffered great losses . . . A tactical victory without strategic results is an expensive and beautiful but useless toy.’ These observations made by generals then and those made in the Zaliman area this winter are stunningly similar.

More about poverty. The sad but beautiful poverty of our people. Wounded men are treated to a piece of herring and fifty grams of vodka if seriously wounded. Sheets. Fighter pilots who are now performing great deeds – their drinking glasses are made from bottles with the necks crudely broken off. Their [unty] sheepskin boots have no heels. A political officer [tells a quartermaster corporal]: ‘[This pilot] should be given another pair, his feet get cold.’

The corporal shakes his head. ‘We haven’t got any.’

‘That’s all right,’ says the pilot. ‘I’m warm enough.’

The shortage of equipment was largely a consequence of the disastrous retreats of 1941 when so much kit and so many stores had been abandoned in the retreat. The only way to obtain replacements was to bribe a quartermaster with vodka, a solution which angered many soldiers.

1 Chapaev, Vassili Ivanovich (1887–1919), was a Red hero of the Russian civil war, famous for having defended the line of the River Ural, but he drowned in it when swimming for the shore with a bullet in his shoulder.

2 The Red Army, like the Tsarist Army, did not believe in socks. Soldiers wore foot bandages a little like puttees, inside their boots. There was a strong belief that foot bandages were far more effective in preventing frostbite.

3 Evidently, the soldiers were suspected either of killing the officer themselves, or of having abandoned him.

4 The most frequent reason for tearing up a Communist Party membership card was a fear of execution if it was found by the Germans.

5 Tikhy means ‘quiet’ in Russian.

6 The term ‘reconnaissance’ in the Red Army covered both the usual sense of the word and military intelligence on a local level. It would appear that these spies were untrained and unimaginative.

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