Military history

THREE

On the Bryansk Front

Ortenberg allowed Grossman and Troyanovsky no time to rest in Orel after their escape. They were ordered back to work on the Bryansk Front, which would soon suffer the full force of Operation Typhoon when General von Bock’s Army Group Centre launched its offensive against Moscow.

Drive to the front. Two Red Army soldiers in a lush empty garden. A quiet clear morning. They are alone, they’re signallers. ‘Comrade officers, I am going to shake some apples off the tree for you, right now.’ Heavy soft thuds of apples falling. On the ground in the silent abandoned garden. The mournful white house of the landlord, it’s abandoned once again and its second master is gone, too. A new master will be here soon. Yet the soldier’s face is happy and dirty. He is holding a heap of apples in his hands.

A old woman says: ‘Who knows whether God exists or not. I pray to Him. It’s not a difficult job. You give Him two or three nods, and who knows, perhaps He’ll accept you.’

In empty izbas. Everything has been taken away, except for icons. It’s so unlike Nekrasov’s peasants, who would first of all save icons when there is a fire, leaving other pieces of property to burn.1

A boy keeps crying all night. He has an abscess on his leg. His mother keeps whispering to him quietly, calming him: ‘Darling, darling.’ And a night battle is thundering outside their window.

Bad weather – gloom, rain, fog – everyone is wet and cold, yet everyone is happy. There is no German aviation. Everybody says in a pleased way: ‘It’s a nice day.’

The approach of the Germans prompted the more foresighted peasants to turn livestock into hams and sausage which were easier to conceal.

Slaughter of pigs. Terrible screams making one’s hair stand on end.

The interrogation of a traitor in a little meadow on a quiet, clear autumn day with a gentle, pleasant sun. He has an overgrown beard and is wearing a torn brown russet coat, a big peasant hat. His feet are dirty and bare, his legs naked to the calf. He is a young peasant with bright blue eyes. One hand is swollen, the other one is small – it looks like a woman’s hand, with clean fingernails. He speaks, stretching words softly in Ukrainian. He is from Chernigov. He deserted several days ago and was captured last night on the front line when he was trying to get back to our rear wearing this almost opera-like peasant costume. By chance he was captured by his comrades, soldiers from his own company, who recognised him, and there he is in front of them now. The Germans had bought him for a hundred marks. He was going back to look for headquarters and airfields. ‘But it was only a hundred marks,’ he says dragging out the words. He thinks that the modesty of this sum might make them more forgiving. ‘But that makes me uncomfortable too, I see, I see.’ He isn’t a human being any more, all his movements, his grin, his glances, his noisy, greedy breathing – all that belongs to a creature that senses a close and imminent death. He has trouble with his memory.

‘And what’s your wife’s name?’

‘Wife’s name, I remember. Gorpyna.’

‘And your son’s?’

‘I remember his name, too. Pyotr.’ He reflects for a while and adds: ‘Dmitrievich. Five years old.’ ‘I’d like to have a shave,’ he continues. ‘The men are looking at me, and I feel embarrassed.’ He strokes his beard with his hand. He picks at grass, earth and chips of wood, in quick, frenzied movements, as if doing some work that will save him. When he looks at the soldiers and their rifles, there’s an animal fear in his eyes.

Then the colonel slaps his face, shouting and crying at the same time: ‘Do you realise what you’ve done?’ The guard, a Red Army soldier, then shouts at him, too: ‘You’ve disgraced your son! He won’t be able to live with this shame!’

‘Don’t you think I don’t know what I’ve done, comrades?’ the traitor says, addressing both the colonel and the sentry as if they might sympathise with him in his trouble. He was shot in front of the company where he had been a soldier only a short time before.

Major Garan received a letter from his wife. As he was busy with work at that moment, he sternly put the letter aside unopened. He read it later and then said with a smile: ‘I didn’t know whether my wife and son were alive or dead; I had left them in Dvinsk. And now my son has written to me: “I climbed on the roof during an air raid and fired at aircraft with a revolver.” He’s got a wooden revolver.’

Grossman wrote to his father still desperately concerned about his mother and his daughter Katya. He did not know that Katya had in fact been sent to a Young Pioneers’ camp well to the east.

I am in good health, feeling well and my spirits are high. Only I am worried day and night about Mama and Katyusha, and I so want to see all my dear ones. I’ll probably be allowed to spend a few days in Moscow in about three weeks. I’ll have a good wash then and a proper sleep with no boots on – that’s now my idea of supreme comfort.

Grossman also wrote to his wife shortly afterwards. This letter, dated 16 September, like those of any front-line soldier, provides very little information except the reassurance that the sender was still alive on the date when it was sent.

Dear Lyusenka,

I am seeing a lot of interesting things. I keep moving from one place to another all the time, that’s what life at the front is like. Are you writing to me? A drop of pitch fell on the card from the beam in the bunker while I was writing.

Look through Krasnaya Zvezda. Two or three of my articles are published there every month. They would be an additional hello to you from me.

Your Vasya

Soviet citizens were desperate for news of the war, but newspapers gave little reliable news in 1941.

Two days earlier, Krasnaya Zvezda had just published his latest article. It was entitled ‘In the Enemy’s Bunker – On the Western Axis’.

German trenches, strongpoints, officers’ and soldiers’ bunkers. The enemy has been here. There are French wines and brandy; Greek olives; yellow, carelessly squeezed lemons from their ‘ally’, slavishly-obedient Italy; a jar of jam with a Polish label; a big oval tin of fish preserve – Norway’s tribute; a bucket of honey from Czechoslovakia. And fragments of a Soviet shell are lying amid this fascist feast.

Soldiers’ bunkers are a different sight: here one won’t see empty chocolate boxes and unfinished sardines. There are only tins of pressed peas and chunks of bread as heavy as cast iron. Weighing in their palms these loaves that are similar to asphalt in both colour and density, Red Army soldiers grin and say: ‘Well, brother, that’s real bread!’

1 Nekrasov, Nikolai Alekseevich (1821–1878), poet. His Polish mother taught him about the plight of the Russian peasantry, the main subject of his work, especially ‘On the Road’, ‘Homeland’ and Red-Nose Frost.

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