Military history


With the 50th Army

During that September on the Bryansk Front, Grossman visited the headquarters of the 50th Army. It consisted of seven rifle divisions, and was commanded by Major-General Mikhail Petrov.1 The headquarters were housed in an izba.

In the izba are Member of the Military Council [i.e. Commissar] Shlyapin, and Commander-in-Chief Petrov. Petrov is short and large-nosed, wearing a soiled general’s tunic with the Gold Star [of Hero of the Soviet Union] which he received for service in the Spanish campaign [Civil War]. He is explaining at great length to the cook how to make sponge cake, how to make pastry rise, and all about the difference between wheat and rye bread. Petrov is very cruel and very brave. He told us how he escaped the encirclement on foot in his uniform and medals and the Gold Star [because] he didn’t want to put on civilian clothes. He marched alone, in full parade gear, with a club to keep away village dogs. He said to me: ‘I’ve always dreamed of getting to Africa, chop my way through the tropical forest, alone, with an axe and a rifle.’ He loves cats, especially kittens, and plays with them.

Commander of the 50th Army Petrov spoke to a woman in a village seized back from the Germans. ‘So, what do you think of Germans?’

‘They aren’t bad people,’ [she replied]. The general swore at her.

There was one officer who ate very little. A woman said of him: ‘He is so spoilt.’

The general’s cook who had worked in a restaurant before the war stays in the izba. He is critical of the food in the village. The village women are angry with him. They call [the cook] Timka instead of Timofei. His appearance is awe-inspiring.

Timka: ‘When I was working in the front line, I would drive there, gulp down a glass of “denaturate” [industrial alcohol], and I didn’t give a damn any longer. Shells and bullets were whistling all around me, and I was singing and pouring food for soldiers. Oh, they loved me, how the soldiers loved me.’ Timka demonstrates with ballet movements how he poured portions, and sings. It looks as if he’s had his glass today, too.

The adjutants: Shlyapin’s adjutant is the tall, handsome [Lieutenant] Klenovkin. Petrov’s adjutant is short like a teenager, with monstrously broad shoulders and chest. This ‘teenager’ could bring down an izba with one heave of his shoulder. He is loaded down with all kinds of pistols, a sub-machine gun and grenades. In his pockets are sweets stolen from the general’s table and hundreds of cartridges to protect the general’s life.

Petrov watched his adjutant eat rapidly, using his fingers instead of a fork. ‘If you don’t learn some culture,’ the general shouted at him, ‘I’ll send you to the front line. You should eat with a fork, not fingers!’

The general’s and the commissar’s adjutants are sorting out their chiefs’ underwear, trying to borrow an extra pair – the commissar’s adjutant from the general’s, and vice versa. Crossing a small stream, the general jumps over it, the commissar steps in and washes his boots. The general’s adjutant then jumps over, but the commissar’s steps in and washes his boots.

Evening by candlelight. Petrov’s speech is brusque. He responds to the request of a divisional commander to postpone the attack because of the loss of men: ‘Tell him I’ll postpone it when he’s the only one left.’ Then we played dominoes for a long time – Petrov, Shlyapin, a fat-cheeked pretty nurse called Valya, and I. The army commander puts his dominoes on the table with a bang and puts his palm over them, like a real player. From time to time a major arrives from the operations department bringing reports.

Morning. Breakfast. Petrov isn’t hungry. He has a glass [of vodka]. ‘It’s been allowed by the Minister,’ he says with a grin. [A ration of one hundred grams of vodka a day had been authorised.]

Before going to the forward division, the general plays with the cats. We go to the divisional headquarters first, and then to one of the regiments. We leave the car and walk in a field of wet clay. Our feet get stuck in the mud. Petrov shouts Spanish words which sound out of place here, under these autumn skies, on this wet ground.2 The regiment is in combat. It fails to seize the village. There is the noise of sub-machine- and machine-gun fire, the whistling of bullets. The army commander severely reprimands the regimental commander: ‘If you fail to capture this village within an hour, you will have to give up your regiment and take part in the attack as a private.’ The regimental commander answers: ‘Yes, Comrade Army Commander.’ His hands are shaking. There isn’t a single man walking upright. Men are running stooping low or crawling on all fours from one hole to another. They are afraid of bullets, and there aren’t any bullets. They are all covered in mud and wet. Shlyapin is walking around as if on a country stroll and shouts to the soldiers: ‘Bend lower, cowards, bend lower!’

When we arrive at the second regiment, its headquarters are empty. There are three clean cats in the empty house and lots of weapons and icons.

After dinner, the military prosecutor arrives from 50th Army [rear] headquarters. We are all drinking tea with raspberry jam while the prosecutor reports on pending cases: cowards, deserters – among them Pochepa, an old major – [also] cases of peasants accused of [circulating] German propaganda. Petrov pushes his glass aside. In the corner of the document, he approves the death sentence in red capitals written in a small childish hand.

The prosecutor reports on another case: a woman who urged peasants to greet Germans with bread and salt.

‘And who is she?’ Petrov asks.

‘An old maid,’ the prosecutor laughs.

Petrov laughs, too. ‘Well, since she’s an old maid, I’ll replace it with ten years.’ And he writes in the new sentence. Then they drink more tea. The prosecutor says goodbye. ‘Remind them to send my samovar from headquarters,’ Petrov tells him. ‘I am used to having it around.’

Grossman clearly had far more respect for Brigade Commissar Nikolai Alekseevich Shlyapin than for Petrov.

Shlyapin is intelligent, strong, calm, big and slow. People sense his inner power over them.

This visit to 50th Army headquarters later proved important to Grossman’s work. During their long conversations, Shlyapin told Grossman the story of his experiences in the 94th Rifle Division during the terrible summer of the Nazi invasion. A month after the outbreak of war, his division had been part of the smashed Western Front, commanded by General Pavlov. The remains of the division had been attempting to escape encirclement in Belorussia and retreat eastwards to Vitebsk, when they were attacked by the 20th Panzer Division in late July. They had to retreat into the forest, then fight their way out. Shlyapin’s account was inevitably coloured by the Soviet formulae of the time and by exaggerated figures of enemy strengths and losses, yet the basic facts and the heroism of Shlyapin’s leadership were almost certainly accurate. Grossman used the notes from these conversations the following year in The People Immortal. Shlyapin’s death a month after the visit made him yet more determined to honour his memory.

Shlyapin told me all this when we were lying on some hay in a shed. There was thundering all around. Afterwards in the same shed the girl Valya3 wound up the gramophone and we listened to ‘The Little Blue Shawl’.4 Slim aspens were trembling from explosions, and tracer bullets soared into the sky.

At the end of the month, Grossman heard from his father that at least his daughter Katya was safe.

My dear [Father], I’ve received several postcards at once, and two of them were from you. It was the first news that I have had for two months. I am very happy that Katyusha is well, but my sorrow about Mama is now doubled . . . I am longing to see you, but it is out of the question until the chiefs summon me back.

1 Major-General Mikhail P. Petrov (1898–1941).

2 General Petrov had been one of the Soviet ‘advisers’ attached under ‘Operatsii X’ to the Republican Army during the Spanish Civil War.

3 Valya was probably the ‘campaign wife’ of General Petrov. Grossman later fulminates on the practice, widespread among senior officers, of selecting mistresses from their headquarters and medical staff in this way.

4 ‘The Little Blue Shawl’ was a famous song about the promise of a soldier’s girlfriend never to forget him when he departs for the front. She is wearing a modest blue shawl as she waves goodbye. The music was by G. Peterburgsky, the words by Yakov Galitsky. It is interesting, considering Stalin’s subsequent attack on Jews as ‘cosmopolitans’, that most of the Soviet Union’s popular patriotic songs during the war were written by Jews.

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