Military history

Exulting, Grieving and Sweating Blood


April and May are often warm in the Crimea, but in Belarus, more than 500 land-locked miles off to the north, the wind across the marshes is still cold and sour. In 1944, the state that was called Belorussia was a desert; bleak, snow-covered, wasted by two armies and three years of war. Nikolai Belov had been trapped for nearly six months in its landscape of ice and mud. As an officer, he could not complain about his lodgings. He had a cabin lined with local logs, not an oozing dugout; unlike his men, too, Belov was well supplied with food and heating fuel. But the monotony of the Belorussian winter depressed him, the endless pine and fetid swamp suggesting shipwreck. He was bored, apathetic and restive. To pass the time, he tried to read biography, starting with a life of Napoleon. In April 1944, he finished the second book of his war. Its hero was a Georgian general who had fought and died at Borodino. The general’s name was Bagration. If Belov had known what Moscow was planning next for him, he might have smiled at the irony.

Operation Bagration, which he was just about to join, was one of the largest military campaigns of the entire war. Far to the west, the Allied forces under Eisenhower were preparing to launch their own great attack, Overlord, the forcing of the English Channel and the start of a long push through France. But the Soviet campaign to drive the German army out of Belorussia was no less ambitious than the D-Day landings. It was also more costly, and ultimately, more momentous. Planned for the early summer, it would be delayed by endless wrangles over supply and logistics. In the end, with a symmetry that was unintended, it was launched on 22 June, the third anniversary of Hitler’s Barbarossa.1 Like Barbarossa, too, it would tear through the country like a storm. If it had not been for Stalingrad, and then for Kursk, Bagration – which Stalin named for his Georgian fellow countryman – might well have looked like the war’s greatest turning point.

In fact, the operation on the Soviet Union’s western marches virtually escaped the kind of epic treatment that historians would later accord to Stalingrad and Kursk. For one thing, it was overshadowed, in western Europe and the English-speaking world, by the drama that was taking place at the same time in northern France. Bagration was also swallowed by the triumphs that came after it, as if, in some way, it was no more than a grand prelude. But above all, the army that would fight it, though still the Red Army, could no longer pretend to be the gallant underdog. Before Bagration, Soviet troops were still working to liberate their own country. When it was over, they were poised for conquest, facing westwards across Europe in a manner that – in central European minds at least – raised spectres of an alien horde. The story of the Soviet Union’s patriotic war would be much easier to tell if it could have a happy ending. But what came after Bagration, in keeping with the brutal nature of the times, was not the shapely stuff of fairy tales.

Zhukov and his colleagues had learned a great deal since 1941. The planning of Bagration showed just how much they could achieve on a grand scale and also how far they had moved ahead on issues like co-ordination, secrecy, deception and detailed tactical preparation. The Red Army was also by this stage the best-armed ground-based force in Europe. Among the tons of weaponry that it deployed that spring, there was an average of 320 artillery pieces for every mile of the front line.2 But the background to Operation Bagration was no less tense, no less demanding on a human scale, than the months leading up to Kursk. The miracle was that soldiers who had been in action for months, if not for years, were able to galvanize their minds and bodies to fight on at all.

That winter, most of the men were bewildered, tired and shocked. ‘The patriotic wave of the summer and autumn is receding,’ the hopeful German spies wrote to their masters in Berlin in January 1944. Within the ranks, consensus favoured rapid peace. The soldiers seemed to want no more than just to drive the fascists off their soil. Taking the war abroad, fighting for other lands, was not worth months of hardship or another winter in a trench.3 The older men now longed for home, while new recruits, many of whom were not Russians, tended to lack the sense of purpose of the patriots of 1941. Almost all had reason to complain. Many now marched with injuries that would bedevil them for ever, shortening their lives. The war had changed more than their bodies, too. By this stage it had swamped their thoughts, altered their language, distorted their tastes. It left each of them so exhausted that they could sleep at their guns, in clammy trenches, on the backs of tanks. They could sleep anywhere, in fact, but few were given chance enough. Most front-line troops had scarcely rested since the whirlwind of the previous autumn.

Red Army soldiers on the Central Front sleeping after battle, 1943

For those who survived it, Kursk had been intoxicating, and the onward march to Orel and Kharkov the progress of heroes. There was a pause in September, and sometimes even a few days when front-line divisions were in the same place for long enough to write letters or mend their boots. ‘I’m giving my lice a chance to sleep,’ Belov wrote on 9 September. For the first time in weeks, he sat for an entire afternoon. The fighting had not stopped, but now, as a staff officer, it was Belov’s job to organize it all. He hated the work, longed for an active role and pined for the men’s company and for the next jolt of adrenalin.4 He was already addicted to war, just as he was also repelled and wrecked by it. But he would find plenty of action in the next few months. By early October, Belov’s division had reached the river Sozh, which flows south into the Dnepr through the city of Gomel. ‘We are making war on Belorussian territory,’ he noted. By late November, they were almost on the Dnepr itself. It was progress, it was another step towards triumph, and yet it was still wretched, grinding, hard. ‘We’ll have to spend the winter in the woods and marshes,’ he wrote on 28 November. ‘We began our attack at ten o’clock. In twenty-four hours we’ve made about six kilometres. We’ve got no ammunition or shells. There isn’t enough food. The rear units have fallen behind. A lot of people have absolutely no footwear at all.’5

Belov’s staccato notes sketch the bare outlines of collective misery. The Red Army was preparing to deliver the last blow that it would need to strike  on its own soil, but many troops were in a poor state for campaigning. The host of men that seemed so alien when it reached Europe, whose vanguard excited such terror, was indeed filthy, stinking and unkempt, but few soldiers would choose to be that way. They did not dwell on their wretchedness, perhaps, because it was by now so much a part of life. By the end of 1943, daily realities like lice, rheumatic aches and unhealed sores were too familiar to note. Few soldiers saw a dentist at the front, though many city-bred young men regretted – for a week or two – that toothpaste was so hard to find. Eventually, like everyone else, they got used to a different kind of mouth. Toothache joined haemorrhoids and conjunctivitis on the list of irritations that soldiers just lived with, as they lived with rats. In March and April, unhealed wounds and bleeding gums announced the first scurvy. No orders from Moscow could produce cabbage when the stores were down to tea and dry buckwheat. The early spring was the worst time, after the long winter and well before the first green crops had grown. And early spring – late March in the Crimea, May in Belarus – was also the season of the mud.

That April, as always, migrating geese skimmed east across the Pripet marshes to their nesting sites. Belov heard his first lark. For three months, however, he and his men had been stuck fast, waiting for orders, digging in ‘like moles’.6 It was a pause, but not a rest. For one thing, they were still obliged to move from time to time, though each location was as uninviting as the last. For another, there were still plenty of enemy shells. ‘Fritz does not let us poke our noses out,’ Belov complained. ‘Everything is shot up, even at night it’s dangerous to move from one building to another.’ It was also wet. ‘Everything is melting,’ he complained. ‘There will be a terrible amount of mud here, and it won’t clear up till June.’7 He was right about that. ‘Time is going slowly again,’ he wrote in April. ‘The days drag endlessly. There’s nothing worse than defence.’8

That spring’s inaction – or rather, the dull round of lectures, drill and training – simply cleared space for the sour thoughts to surface. Whatever followed in the next few months, that late winter and spring were bleak for almost everyone. ‘Enthusiasm for a military advance,’ a German report claimed, ‘is still out of the question.’ Among the men, resentment found its expression in demands for home leave, brawling, and a rash of self-inflicted wounds.9 Belov indulged his depression, a lassitude mixed with resentment at his wasted life. ‘In the last while I’ve been feeling an acute tiredness from the war,’ he wrote in mid-December. ‘It must be because of that, I suppose, that I dream of my family and of my peacetime situation every night. But it’s all useless, of course. The war isn’t going to end this winter. My head aches.’ A month later, his letters home were ‘sour, scrappy’. He had never, he wrote, experienced such apathy.10 Even the news – the liberation of Novgorod and the final relief of Leningrad – evoked no real joy. Ermolenko, stationed in Ukraine to the south, felt much the same. ‘After three years of war,’ he wrote in May, ‘the Soviet soldier is tired, physically and morally.’11

Fatigue like this was too common to excite medical concern. Belov fell ill with a severe cold that spring, but the doctors discharged him after three days in a field clinic. They had to treat too many cases of tuberculosis to waste time on anyone whose lungs were sound. The medical attitude to tribulations of the mind was similarly brisk. Stress, let alone a complicated diagnosis like PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, was as foreign to the Red Army’s medical orderlies as the hysterical indispositions of the bourgeoisie. A generation before, Russia had led the world in its understanding of battle stress, drawing conclusions based on conflict in the Balkans and Far East, but individual trauma, like individual desire, was a concept alien to Stalinism.12 Soldiers were part of a collective; good morale their duty, not their right. Those who complained, malingered or showed signs of cowardice were likely to face punishment – a bullet or the shtraf battalion.

The Red Army’s dismissal of psychiatry in this war – or rather, its obliviousness towards it in the field – means that few records about this aspect of morale have survived. Without them, it is easy to forget that these soldiers were prey to the same emotions as their allies. It was the men’s attitude towards such feelings, not the human stress response itself, that varied between armies. Belov would not have thought to call his apathy a sign of battle strain. He would never have dreamed of attributing the suicides and ‘accidents’ that proliferated as the war dragged on to its traumatic burden.13 Unlike their British and American counterparts, the only kind of mental disorder that wartime authorities in the Soviet Union would always recognize was one that had a clear organic cause. The rest were weaknesses, personal failings, something to cover with shame. Unnumbered thousands of soldiers, weak with exhaustion and repeated stress, were executed for desertion in the field.14 Other mental casualties vanished from the records when they were killed; too tired, perhaps, or too confused, to survive yet another round of shells. Psychiatric wounds were real enough, but only extreme cases, including instances where men developed schizophrenia after their call-up, were recognized.15 Estimates vary, but it seems likely that only 100,000 of the Red Army’s 20 million active-service troops would eventually be counted as permanent casualties of the mind.16

For doctors operating in this war, ‘trauma’ meant physical damage, concussion or contusion to the brain. In interviews in 1996, I was unable to persuade groups of veteran medical staff that any other kind of battle shock existed, beyond the qualms and exhaustion that all soldiers can feel. ‘Contusion’, implying shell damage, was an acceptable term, but they had never heard of trauma in the current western sense. Mishearing me, they asked me to explain what I meant by this new thing, this ‘post-dramatic [sic] stress’.17 Their surprise is not difficult to explain. Textbooks from their days at the front did not refer to mental trauma and nor did the memoirs of their fellow doctors or even of the combatants themselves. Panic was weakness, it was shame, and shame was written out of this war’s history along with drunkenness and crime.

The ignorance of medical orderlies in the field, most of whom were trained in the 1930s or even, with some haste, during the war itself, reflected a deliberate policy choice. Behind the lines, there were still specialists with all the necessary expertise, as well informed as any in the United States or Britain. Some of the older ones had led the European debate on stress during the First World War. As late as 1942, there had been some high-level discussion of shock, a conference or two,18 but the ideas never reached the front-line teams. Indeed, there were no psychiatric staff below the level of entire fronts and armies.19 Resources were one problem; another was that military psychology, if not the treatment of the sick, had taken a different turn since Stalin’s rise. A good deal of experimentation was devoted to a kind of Taylorism, the mental preparation of each soldier to fit the machine or weapon that he would have to use. Warfare was deemed to be susceptible to the same rules as mass production.20 Men and machines would work in harmony. No allowance was made for hysteria.

Some symptoms could not be ignored. Men suffering from mutism, convulsions and fugue states could not stand in straight lines, let alone clean and assemble guns or handle delicate equipment. They were generally treated close to the front line, not least because the larger hospitals were overflowing with wounded and dying men. The treatment was basic. Injections always seemed to help – they had a sort of mystic potency to peasants who had no idea of medicine. Let the men sleep, the idea went, and they will soon recover or at least be well enough to fight. In very many cases, this was true. Rapid attention to the problem – which was only possible at the front line – was also beneficial.

Some patients still refused to heal. Those needing long stretches of rest could be assigned to jobs in the warren of camps and transport depots just behind the lines. They worked as storemen, stretcher-bearers, cleaners, cooks, but only a very few of these would ever see a psychiatric ward. To get there, they would have to sustain their symptoms through weeks of tests and ‘treatments’, including the administration of electric shocks (allegedly to stimulate the nerves) or the use of wet cloths and rubber masks to induce a sense of drowning (to test whether their symptoms were really under voluntary control).21 The brutality of these initial steps presaged the grim world of the psychiatric ward. For those whose diagnosis held, life would be wretched; hungry, loveless, submerged under drugs.22

Along the front, a problem that was not a problem in official terms soon seemed to disappear. In that sense, the Soviet approach to trauma was effective. American troops, whose symptoms were taken very seriously, dropped out of active service at four to six times the Red Army’s rate in this war.23 Stalin’s soldiers learned that citing battle stress was not the best way to complain of exhaustion, panic and the inability to sleep. Physical injuries, which soon followed the mental ones, provided a more effective ticket home, or at least to a field station and a bed. ‘There was only one thought,’ a veteran later suggested. ‘To be wounded quickly, to get it over with, to get to a hospital, or at least for a convalescence, for a rest.’24 The lucky ones would escape long-term invalidity, but even the tens of thousands of supposedly healthy men who were camped along the Belorussian Front in the spring of 1944 could scarcely be considered whole.

Front-line culture had to evolve to make room for exhausted, frightened and aggressive men. At the same time, it also took on consignments of criminals. Trainloads of murderers and small-time crooks had long been running west out of the Gulag to restock the army, but now almost all felons convicted of banditry, robbery and what were vaguely referred to as ‘counter-revolutionary crimes’ were held close to the front, assessed, and in almost every case, made to serve out their term in shtraf units.25 Originally, these had fought in formations that remained separate from the mass of serving troops, but now the criminals and shtrafniki could find themselves assigned to regular units, their task to carry out the dangerous work, especially sorties behind the German lines.26 More than ever, the culture and the language of the shtrafniki prevailed within the ranks. The press might call the men heroes, but when they gathered at the front, their idiom was that of slaves, or else of convicts.27 It was not just the patriotic rage of 1941 that was fading; a kind of buttoned-up communist morality was disappearing under other values, too.

Violence was everywhere, whatever the men’s current military orders. When they were not in combat, they could quarrel over booty, drink, status  or women. Most often the result was a brawl, but sometimes the authorities were left to deal with corpses. The victims might be found at first light with their heads blown off, or else they might be beaten up with rifle butts.28 Sometimes the motive was euphoria. Where the Germans had set fire to villages as a calculated act of terror, the Red Army was capable of doing so – even on its own soil – by firing at dry straw in an orgy of celebration.29 Drink – which scarcely anyone consumed for the pleasure of the taste – was often involved. Its purpose now – which the Tommies of the First World War would have entirely understood – was just to kill the mind, to escape from the war without leaving one’s post.30 In some units, the men would pool their vodka ration so that each in turn could have the chance to drink it all and lose himself entirely for one night.31

It was the proof strength, not the quality, of the liquor that counted. Chuikov took the precaution of sealing the cellars of fine wine that his men discovered when they overran Nazi quarters in Poland. But sometimes he arrived too late. When he visited one cellar, he found the driver from an artillery regiment already rummaging through the piles of crates. ‘I can’t find any strong spirits like ours,’ the man muttered. He had been working his way through a succession of bottles of fine champagne. ‘This is the sixth case I’ve opened,’ he complained, ‘and all they’ve got is fizzy stuff.’32 Disgustedly, the soldier let the thin liquid spill on to the floor. But though they spurned imported wine, men of his tastes would drink anything that smelled like spirit, including samogon and anti-freeze. ‘When our soldiers find alcohol,’ a Soviet lieutenant confided, ‘they take leave of their senses. You can’t expect anything from them until they have finished the last drop.’ In his view, expressed in 1945, ‘if we hadn’t had drunkenness like this we would have beaten the Germans two years ago’.33

Crime was also increasing with the soldiers’ growing confidence. By this point in the war its scale was nothing short of heroic. The recent improvement in supplies was like an invitation to potential crooks. The business began at the top. Indeed, as the army’s inspectors observed, a ‘significant proportion of officers’ in front-line regions had been tried for large-scale theft and speculation between January 1943 and July 1944. The figures, which were based on ‘incomplete data’ and covered only the first six months of 1944, told their own vivid story. This was an army that was billeted on its own Soviet territory. The glory days of German plunder were still months away. And yet, in that half year, detected thefts by officers alone included 4.5 million roubles in cash, 70 tons of flour and bread products, 22 tons of meat and fish, 5 tons of sugar, 4,872 items of equipment, 33 tons of petrol, seven motor cars and ‘other military property to the value of two million roubles’.34

The global figures were impressive, but a string of individual cases suggested that they were wild underestimates. This was a time when food was currency in every hungry village on the steppe. ‘Back home,’ Lev Kopelev, now serving as a Soviet officer, would muse, ‘there were villages where the war had passed like a column of fire, or where, invisibly from afar, it had sucked out the bread and blood; where a piece of sugar was a thing of wonder, and the children, with their enormous eyes and bluish-white faces, choked and chewed on some kind of mud-black, bitter bread made of the devil only knew what.’35 With stores to spare, a group of officers in the 203rd reserve army put their minds to wartime profit. In two months in the autumn of 1943, they diverted 34 tons of bread, 6.3 tons of sugar, 2.6 tons of fats, 15 tons of grits and 2 tons of meat from the soldiers’ supplies. The trade was used to fund the luxuries that made life better in an army camp. As the report on the criminals’ activities commented, this was a barracks where ‘drinking, carousing and theft were a normal part of life’.36

The following June, an even more ambitious racket came to light among tank officers serving on the first Ukrainian Front. Mere theft was only part of it. The other side was corruption. Officers in the field, it seemed, were eager to secure favours from their military bosses in the capital. The major-general in this case had smoothed his path with a stream of generous bribes to Moscow, including – in just one consignment – 267 kg of pork, 125 kg of mutton and 114 kg of butter. On another occasion, his munificence included five live goats. Meanwhile, among the items that had gone missing from army stores on this one front that June were 15,123 kg of meat, 1,959 kg of sausage, 3,000 kg of butter, 2,100 kg of biscuits, 890 kg of boiled sweets, 563 kg of soap, 100 winter coats, 100 greatcoats, eighty fur gilets, 100 pairs of valenki and 100 pairs of boots.37 Reports of this kind were a weekly, if not daily, event for the military courts. They testify to the presence of large-scale, organized and well-established networks. But this was an army in which there was at least one spy in almost every company. What the reports also demonstrate, therefore, is that corruption extended to the security police, who no doubt enjoyed their live goats and butter, too.

No veteran, of course, remembered any of this later. Thieving was another dark truth that time and collective memory would bury. The consequent shortages were also a source of grievance, an insult that could rankle, and as such they had no place in the bright memory of war. But the losers, naturally, were the men whose stores were being skimmed. On a daily basis, they put up with watery soup, sugarless tea and the lumps of gristle that could not be sold for cash. Even when the food turned up, they might find that there were no bowls or spoons to serve it with.38 Everyone understood that reserve troops should suffer, but even at the front there were whole days when soldiers went without hot meals or tea.39 Complaining could put a man on a charge of anti-Soviet agitation. ‘On verifying the food,’ NKVD officers primly noted, ‘it was found to be of the required standard, and the portions were all in line with current norms.’40 The men had to choke down their fury with the cabbage soup. Statistics for recorded crime concealed the facts:41 if the overall figures in monthly reports are to be believed, fewer than 10 per cent of troops were disciplined for any crime, including theft.42 There could be no truth, then, in soldiers’ complaints, or so their officers alleged, but that was partly because high figures for crime reflected most of all upon the politruks and their bosses. The temptation to hold the statistics down was as hard to resist as the promise of a crate of contraband sardines.

Meanwhile, ordinary men and women found numerous ways to keep the hunger and the cold at bay. Pilfering, which was a sort of compensation for indignity, was one recourse. Another was extorting sheep and pigs from local people. Self-help, which could take many forms, was commonplace. As Zhukov was preparing for the great assault, soldiers in Belorussia were putting in their usual hours on the farms, digging the fields and shifting truckloads of young pigs for fattening.43 As ever, despite the demands of the war, farm work was deemed to be a part of army service. By now, however, it was profitable. Farms kept grain stores and chickens, not to mention larger animals for butchering. Beyond the cow sheds, too, there was more free food in the open country. Hunting accidents became so common on the Belorussian Front in the summer of 1944 that soldiers in the 11th guards army were banned from shooting deer and other wild game.44

Those worn-out boots and greatcoats also had to be replaced. ‘My boots have fallen to bits,’ lamented Ermolenko in July 1944. He was a long way from a depot that supplied American lend-lease. But he was in Belorussia, and he was on campaign. Trade was one option; the hunt for a well-shod corpse or prisoner another. As he put it, ‘I’ll have to find some “trophy footwear” somewhere.’45 Boots were re-soled with leather from the seats of German tanks, coats mended with shreds of tarpaulin. If the Red Army looked bizarre by the spring of 1944, it could at least take comfort from the fact that the enemy, for the most part, looked worse.

This, then, was the titan that was preparing to strike west that summer. The orders to its staff and officers suggest precision and planning. Forward  and rear supply bases were established with fuel and ammunition stocks and generous quantities of food. The heavy guns, at least, arrived intact, since they were usually too large to steal. The rest depended on the vigilance of loyal staff officers. Everyone was working at full stretch, however. The preparations for Bagration, whatever the problems and leaks, were formidable.46 Because so much depended on surprise, almost all aspects of supply had to be carried out in duplicate. The idea was to deceive the German army, to make it think that the attack – if it came at all – would come from anywhere but the so-called Minsk ‘balcony’, the bulge that pointed straight towards Berlin. A massive charade followed: the mustering of troops whose sole purpose was to appear to gather, the clearing of dummy airfields in the forest, the drawing up of precious heavy guns whose destiny was not to fire. The real army only moved at night, its tracks swept clear behind it so that the wide trails of tanks and guns had disappeared by dawn. All radio communications ceased. Even bathing at open points along the route was forbidden.47 The operation was about to prove a huge success, but for the soldiers on the ground, it was, as Belov wrote one weary night, just ‘the old song beginning once again’.48

Almost the last entry in Belov’s journal was written on 18 June. Apart from frantic planning, he had seen little movement for several months, but when Zhukov appeared with two of his most senior aides, Belov knew that the long wait was over. The night manoeuvres started, the tension increased. His men were tired, quarrelsome. ‘There are grounds for thinking that we’ll go into the attack on 21 or 22 June,’ Belov wrote, ‘which happens to be the third anniversary of the war. It’s interesting that 21 June is also four months since we crossed the Dnepr. For some reason I have been feeling physically poor lately, and my nerves are utterly shattered … There are no letters from home, the devil take them. In that regard, I can be very tolerant, because we’ll soon be in battle, and then I’ll forget everything. The whole thing is unpleasant, and pretty strange.’49 These were not the last words that Belov would write, but from that day he never had the time to keep a diary again.


Bagration involved five separate but co-ordinated strikes along the Soviet Western Front. Although the most important was to be the drive on Minsk and westwards through the whole of Belarus, the first attack came in the north, breaking the last resistance of the Finns. To the south, later, Lvov would also be encircled as a separate group of armies struck west over the Carpathian mountains. The progress on each of these fronts was breathtaking. Minsk, the strategic prize, was captured by 3 July. Within three weeks, the troops of Rokossovsky’s first Belorussian Front had crossed the border into Poland.

 Machine-gunners of the 2nd Baltic Front fording a river, 1944

To get there, they had thrown roads made of logs across the swamps. They had forded, swum or sworn their way across the many rivers in their path. Each line of trenches that they took was mined, collapsing, fetid with the stink of rats and shit and death. But they would face and shatter the most redoubtable enemy formation still on Soviet soil. In just twelve days, the German Army Group Centre lost twenty-five divisions and more than 300,000 men.50 The cost to the Red Army also ran to tens of thousands of lives. ‘When we come to a minefield,’ Zhukov would tell Eisenhower later in the war, ‘our infantry attacks exactly as if it were not there. The losses we get from personnel mines we consider equal to those we would have gotten from machine guns and artillery if the Germans had chosen to defend that particular area with strong bodies of troops instead of with minefields.’51 Some divisions, including those that fought near Mogilev, were so broken that they were forced to withdraw and regroup in late July,52 but Belorussia had been almost cleared of German troops.

Most of the men in this great storm had little time to write. An exception was Ermolenko. His diary notes were typically brief, but they were true to the communist idiom that he now espoused. ‘At last we have started to attack on our part of the front,’ he wrote on 22 June. The Soviet air force – supported, now, by a fleet of American planes based in Ukraine – had been bombing the German lines for two weeks. In the skies above the Pripet marshes, the red star now enjoyed the absolute dominion that the swastika had exercised exactly three years earlier. On the ground, however, the men waited for orders of their own. The drive on Minsk, the central campaign of Bagration, began in a storm of artillery fire. ‘At 16.00 hundreds of weapons opened fire with hurricane force,’ Ermolenko went on. ‘Thousands of tons of murderous metal flew over the German positions.’ Within two hours ‘the German positions were hidden by a veritable wall of smoke and dust’. The enemy was so far away that this smoke was the only clue to the locations of the dugouts, trenches and the lines of guns. Those guns now began firing in their turn, and the entire front was swallowed up in a hot yellow fog. The casualties would be enormous. But the shaking earth and smell of flame felt like the Red Army’s reply – long overdue – to the insult of three years before. ‘Everyone’s mood,’ Ermolenko noted, ‘immediately lifted.’ German intelligence reports that month found just the same.53 In contrast to some of the defensive operations of the previous three years, this was a campaign that made Soviet soldiers glad.

In Belorussia, the army’s swift progress was helped by the co-ordinated work of partisans. Moskvin, however, was nursing a neck wound that would plague him for the rest of his life. His war was coming to an end, though it would have an awe-inspiring finale. Camped in the woods near Mogilev, the politruk had seen no Soviet troops in combat since 1941. Now he could hear the pounding of the heavy guns and see the red stars on the swooping planes. Everything was new, everything spectacular. The Red Army of his memory, defeated and shamed, had been transformed into a technological marvel. To witness it, after so long, was electrifying. ‘And now,’ he scribbled on 4 July, ‘we are in the Soviet rear! The Red Army passed by like a typhoon. The enemy has scuttled off in disarray. Four days ago we were on occupied territory, and today the front is two hundred kilometres away from us.’ The pace of it all, after such a long wait, was breathtaking. ‘Even the Germans did not manage this in 1941.’54

The chance of action on this scale was one thing that helped the soldiers to fight. It was better to get out and kill some Fritzes than to sit around burning off lice. The men longed for a chance to do the job, to put away the books and boot-black and get on. But officials ascribed the success of the troops to talk and comradeship. For weeks before the great assault, the political officers were detailed to discuss aspects of it in small groups with soldiers of every rank. They also listened to the men, hearing out their worries about home and their growing concerns for the future. The success of these conversations depended on the individuals, both man and politruk. Sometimes the whole thing was an insult or a sinister waste of time, though that was less true of the pep talks that experienced veterans gave to the new recruits. ‘These personal talks,’ Chuikov insisted, ‘meant a great deal.’55 More tangibly, the men were offered cash and even leave incentives to take German prisoners or shoot down planes. The prices varied, but a German plane could be worth a week’s pay, while the capture of a German officer at the front might (in theory) promise a man an extra two weeks’ leave.56 Even a rumour of a reward could be inspiring, the prospect of some extra cash more enticing than chatting to thepolitruk.

The Germans themselves came as a surprise. By now, large numbers of Wehrmacht soldiers were laying down their guns. One of the largest groups included the survivors of July’s Soviet encirclement of Minsk and Bobruisk. Almost half the area’s fascist defenders, some 40,000 troops, were killed. Their bodies lay in the streets and ditches like fallen apples, split and rotting. But that left 57,000 men, including several senior officers. Their captors, the Soviets, had learned how to keep prisoners alive since Stalingrad, but there was no prospect of comfort. Most prisoners were taken to interrogation camps – abandoned German ones often served very well – before they were deployed to the forced labour projects that were springing up across the Soviet Union.57 The men from Minsk were treated differently. They were herded into trains as usual – those NKVD wagons worked without a break that summer – but then they were transported straight to Moscow. A unique demonstration had been organized.

Stalin wanted the world to know that there were still real enemies along the Eastern Front, that D-Day had not eased the pressure on his men. Fifty thousand captured soldiers from a single battle were brought on to make the point. The prisoners, like captives in some ancient Roman triumph, were paraded beneath the Kremlin walls. They marched briskly and passed by twenty abreast, but still it took three hours for the entire host to pass. ‘Some were smiling,’ Pravda’s correspondent told readers. They were glad to be alive, and possibly, like tourists, glad to see Russia’s historic heart – or so the patriots assumed. But the audience could not fail to conclude that Germany was broken, Russia the victorious power.58 Prompted by the political officers, whose lectures now included information about Germany’s manpower crisis and the mobilization of teenagers and the sick, Red Army soldiers had begun to notice that their prisoners were not storm troopers any more. Many were semi-invalids, malnourished and covered in sores. Some were teenagers, others weary shopkeepers or clerks. ‘They all looked pitiful,’ Ermolenko wrote in late June when he had prisoners of his own. ‘They are like bank clerks. Many of them wear glasses. This, no doubt, is the result of total mobilization in Germany.’59

Like Ermolenko, most soldiers concluded that the Germans were as good as defeated. The moment of triumph was intense, heartbreaking and bittersweet. The threat to the motherland was past. Even the territories that the enemy had occupied lay open for the Soviets to take. Like most Ukrainians, Ermolenko had never seen the villages of Belarus. ‘Most people speak the Belorussian language,’ he wrote in some surprise. The evidence of German destruction was everywhere, from ruined buildings to fresh-turned mass graves. Whatever joy the men felt at their victory, it would always be coloured by their rage, their hatred of the invaders. But other feelings now surfaced as well. Ermolenko was convinced that the local people welcomed him. Their red flags fluttered from the ruined buildings in his path. ‘The girls in the villages are very pretty,’ the soldier decided. ‘Many of them dress in national costume. I should come here after the war and marry one of them.’60

Away to the south, another soldier, the tank officer Slesarev, was also falling for a new country. ‘I am writing to let you know that I am alive and well,’ he wrote to his father. ‘I have not written to anyone for some time,’ he explained, ‘because I have been on the road for ages. We travelled day and night, for four whole days and nights we did not sleep. This summer I have been in a lot of places.’61 His favourite was western Ukraine, with all its little hills and orchards. ‘The nature there is wonderful, there are pretty towns and villages, abundant gardens, lots of sweet and sour cherries.’ In contrast with the cheerless winter steppe, the gardens round ruined Lvov, ablaze with lupins, marigolds and roses, must have looked like a glimpse of Eden.

The problem was that these places were hardly Soviet lands. It was one thing to retake a Russian city like Orel, or even a loyal provincial capital like Kharkov, but as the Red Army moved west it crossed into the territories that Stalin had annexed after 1939. Ermolenko might not have looked beyond the anxious smiles of the young women in the streets, but many villagers in western Belarus were mistrustful of their supposed liberators. To them, all that had occurred was the exchange of one imperial master for another. What’s more, they knew already that the red flag was a harbinger of fear. Their farmsteads bore the recent scars of forced collectivization and the accompanying mass arrests. It was worse in western Ukraine. Lvov, the capital of Ukrainian nationalism, would never accept the authority of Moscow. The nationalists’ pre-war message, that supra-national empires were bent on crushing Ukraine’s noble culture, seemed proven by events of recent years. Lvov had seen violence on violence: the Soviets, the Wehrmacht, bandits, SS murder squads and partisans. What mattered to the locals now was to avoid enslavement. They knew how Stalin treated nations that defied his rule.

The same story would be repeated later in the Baltic, where the Red Army symbolized all that was hated about Bolshevik dominion. At least, the anxious locals muttered, the Nazis had brought order, driven out the reds. For that, many had welcomed them and even applauded their racist, anti-internationalist, anti-Slav and anti-Jewish policies. No one could forget the arrests and deportations of 1939, the swelling prisons and the echoing of shots. Significant numbers of Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians had helped the Germans, including the murder squads, because that seemed the way to build a decent, ordered, European life. Now they would have to watch the war unfold in helpless apprehension. Perhaps, just possibly, the Americans would reach the Baltic first. That was the dream in Tallinn and in Vilnius that summer. It was the gall within the Soviet triumph, the seed of greater bitterness to come. As they swept north and west, Soviet men and women, Russians and soldiers from further east, would face successive populations who were either hostile to them or at best suspicious of their entire way of life.


Stalin had prepared the army for its new task earlier that year. His speech on 1 May 1944 had confirmed that German fascist troops had been driven out of three quarters of the Soviet territory that they had occupied. ‘But our tasks cannot end with the clearing of enemy troops from within the bounds of our motherland,’ he announced. ‘The German troops today are reminiscent of a wounded beast, which has to creep away to the border of its own lair, Germany, to lick its wounds. But a wounded beast that goes off to its lair does not stop being a dangerous beast. If we are to deliver our country and those of our allies from the danger of enslavement, we must pursue the wounded German beast and deliver the final blow to him in his own lair.’62 The Russian word for the beast’s lair wasberlog, and from this time some Soviet troops renamed Berlin accordingly. The slogan ‘To Berlog!’ was written in red paint on the sides of many travel-hardened T-34s. German intelligence reported that komsomols and officers especially were eager for the new challenge.63

The front-line press worked hard to convince soldiers that any westward advance would be an adventure. It was also sold as justifiable revenge. As soon as the first detachments crossed the border, newspapers started featuring pictures of tank men and gunners planting red flags on the foreign soil.64 But all the propaganda was not idle. There was real resistance to be overcome. The truth was that not all Russian soldiers, and far from all the recruits from other Soviet lands, were keen to step across the international border.65 A young man like Slesarev could revel in the tourist aspect of his job because he was heart-free, but older men, the fathers and husbands, and the tired ones, the injured in body and mind, believed that their job would be completed when the last fascist was driven from Soviet soil. They had no desire to fight on beyond that point. The rest of the world, which had left Russia on its own so long, could sort out Europe for itself. Behind that view lay fear, and not merely the fear of death. No one knew, among the mass of Russian troops, just what capitalism was, for none had seen it. For thirty years they had been told that it was dangerous, a monster (Pravda’s cartoonists were inventive) poised to undermine the workers’ happiness. To cross the border would be little stranger than stepping on to the moon.

This view was common among peasant soldiers from Russia and the countries to the east, but the greatest resentment was expressed by a group new to army life, and ironically, also a group whose knowledge of the capitalist world came at first hand. These were the recruits from the newly liberated zones, from western Ukraine and the western provinces of Belorussia. These people – survivors of the darkest times – now found themselves swept into the Red Army and forced to take the Soviet oath. Large numbers of the new recruits had been reared in nationalist traditions that were antipathetic to the Soviet, internationalist, cause.66 Few felt any allegiance to Moscow. Many had to be drafted forcibly, even at gunpoint,67 while others were pushed into the ranks when NKVD troops threatened reprisals on their families.68 The conscripts knew that many of their Russian comrades regarded their mere survival of Nazi rule as evidence of guilt, a dark stain to be washed away with their own blood.69 Now they faced an indeterminate period of service in what – effectively – was a foreign army. ‘They are treated as second-class soldiers,’ German intelligence reported. ‘They are branded “zapadniki” [westerners], and treated like prisoners, with mistrust.’70

The first Soviet troops to cross into the capitalist world did so in the spring of 1944. Their journey to Romania began in the south-western provinces of Ukraine. The crack troops in the advance guard were seasoned professionals, but the reserves that followed to augment their ranks looked like a caravan of refugees. Few had received the correct papers, let alone a training, political or military. They did not march into Romania; some sauntered, others limped along. In some units, up to 90 per cent of them had no shoes, let alone the standard boots. In one group, fifteen were marching in their shirts and underclothes. Their discipline was weak when they arrived. Indeed, large numbers of them never did arrive, since it was so easy to slip away.71 Those who remained resented their exposure to danger, the fact that they were being sent to the front ‘so soon before the end of the war’,72 but they could at least hope for some compensation. Loot was the ultimate reward for hardship, a temptation that many could not resist.73 It had been little more than weeks since their own country had been recaptured by Moscow’s troops, and now they were encamped in another one. The point was that this time they were the occupiers.

Romania was not Prussia. This first incursion on to foreign soil was not an orgy of revenge. The shock to both sides was also mitigated by the fact that most Red Army troops were billeted in underpopulated country. Bucharest, with all its glittering temptations, was still several months of campaigning away. Meanwhile, there was a relaxed, almost blasé, attitude to ideology among the troops. Their political officers had almost given up working on their Soviet consciousness.74 The Sovinformburo urged that more should be done to publicize Romanian atrocities, to instil hatred, but no one seemed inclined to work at this. Indeed, some units would not hear a lecture about ideology for months. Soldiers were either fighting – and the enemy, backed up at first by German officers, could be cruel – or they were encamped in the rear, where the danger of war seemed almost like a dream. In some areas, Romanian soldiers laid their weapons down and begged the Soviets not to shoot.75 The only casualties in the 251st rifle regiment that May were victims of carelessness and horseplay in their own encampment.76 It was in this context that some of the former victims of German rule in Ukraine would test the skills that they had learned from the Aryan supermen.

Moldavian wine would play its part. A group of Soviet engineers made themselves rapidly at home during their mission to rebuild the region’s roads and bridges. One officer was drunk for ten entire days. The alcohol removed whatever sexual inhibitions any of the men retained. As they watched officers leading their neighbours off at gunpoint, local women would soon learn to hide. Two sergeants who raided a village near their camp in search of women discovered that every hoped-for prostitute had fled. Their revenge was to shoot a local woman and her daughter and to try to rape their neighbour. A particularly calculating man posed as an intelligence agent and demanded that the women in his district present themselves for inspection. The one he chose and raped was later found buried in a trench with a Soviet bullet through her skull. Checks were carried out one night in May in the town of Botoshani. One hundred soldiers, mainly officers, were found in bed with local women.77 Thefts and extortion from civilians were daily occurrences, but there were also systematic schemes. One group of entrepreneurs ordered the villagers near their posting to bring them 200 sheep. When these were delivered, they demanded another 200 for the next morning.78 No doubt, as any officer would do, they had already made sure of the transport and the market for their meat.

This kind of story caused alarm among political commissars. That June, a special resolution on the state of political education among the troops in Romania was passed in Moscow. The politruks were told to get their textbooks out.79 The example of the second Ukrainian Front in Romania was also used as a warning to others. Far to the north, near the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, Ermolenko heard a lecture about the Romanian ‘excesses’ that August. ‘The Red Army is a just army,’ he wrote afterwards. ‘We are not robbers or marauders. Of course, if we meet armed resistance we will destroy it. But we will not allow illegal robbery and murder.’ The trouble was that it was just a few days since he and ‘the boys’ had ‘gone for trophies’ themselves.80 Their orders seemed to be confused. The world around these men was already violated, wrecked. Everyone had lost the things they treasured. Sometimes, the men received direct orders to live off the land. Property rights, which Soviet citizens always found perplexing, had little meaning in shattered, even deserted, territory. And then there was the desire for revenge, to say nothing of the soldiers’ simple, obvious material needs. The politruks could preach, but even they were unclear of the rules. And every day, the trucks would rattle past with crates of booty for staff officers at home.

In all, the late summer of 1944 was a disorienting, anxious time. The liberating army, the vanguard who had fought to free their mothers and wives, was evolving into a rabble. New kinds of men were taking the places of the dead, but that was not the only change. Even the veterans, the heroes of Kursk and Orel, were facing unimagined challenges, temptations they could not resist. Exhausted men, freshly bereaved again by battle, surveyed the border through a web of emotion. This was epiphany, and there would be no going back. It was far better, as Lev Kopelev would learn, to turn a blind eye to some kinds of disorder and just get on with life. ‘I was saturated with French cognac,’ he remembered, and ‘my shoulder bag was stuffed with Havana cigars … They made you dizzy at first; then you got used to it. The constant inebriation from the cognacs, schnapps and liqueurs, and the biting smoke of those powerful cigars, seemed to steady us against the nastiness of what was going on all around.’81

Though each would find the border at a different time, no one can forget what he felt. Every veteran has a tale to tell. ‘We wept when we saw the houses,’ one man told me. ‘Such pretty houses, small, and all of them painted white.’ A former peasant, Ivan Vasilevich, now living in Moscow province, remembered how he took a fancy to the cattle. The farm where he was billeted that summer was empty. The owners had fled, as thousands did, when they heard the first Soviet guns. The corn could take care of itself, but no one had attended to the cows for days. Ivan Vasilevich admired them, touched them, felt the solid flesh. More urgently, he set about milking them. Their lowing was the sound that he would remember most vividly from these first days.

Ivan Vasilevich would milk many other cows before the peace, and he would feed them, too. ‘The animals were hungry,’ he remembered. ‘There was a haystack nearby. So I fed the animals straight away. They had to eat. And then I thought I’d leave their barn open. They could feed themselves when we had gone.’ The private farms were fascinating to this child from a collective, used to communist neglect. ‘It was interesting to compare them,’ he began. ‘I mean, because I was brought up in this same thing, in agriculture.’ He stumbled, trying not to say something. Like thousands of others, he had discovered a truth that raised doubts about the entire war, about the revolution and about the Soviet dream.82 So far, the dawning understanding was still dim, uncertain. But it could never be forgotten. ‘The word for it is rich,’ he said. ‘The capitalist farms were richer.’83


Soldiers had various ways of dealing with the real face of capitalism. Some were envious, some intrigued. Later, when they entered Germany, their main reaction would be rage. No one could understand why wealthy Germans wanted to invade their neighbours to the east, why anyone who had this much could ever search for more. ‘I’d just love to smash my fist into all those tins and bottles,’ was one soldier’s response.84 Wherever they went in Europe, Red Army men were repelled as well as fascinated by the burzhui, the bourgeoisie, with their ordered lives and strange views about property. But that summer, the burzhui that the armies in the south were meeting were Romanians; former enemies, but scarcely storm troopers or millionaires. The sight of the better lives that theseburzhui led inspired resentment and even anti-Soviet talk among the men. If communism was so good, they argued, why did these peasants live so much better?85 Instead of putting Romanian farms to the torch, the soldiers satisfied themselves with looting them.

The shock of relative plenty would be the same in Poland, except that there was less in that blighted countryside left to take. But as they crossed its sandy plains and pine woods, Soviet troops were forced to confront a new, equally painful, issue, a fresh betrayal of cherished belief. Internationalism had disappeared from Stalin’s rhetoric when war broke out, but the myth that Soviet troops were on a liberating, a fraternal, mission was revived as they crossed the border. In theory, Poles were supposed to see themselves as beneficiaries of Soviet power. As victims of fascist aggression, their people awaited liberation. That, indeed, had been the original cause of the Allied declaration of war in September 1939. Back then, however, the Soviet Union had been Hitler’s ally, and Poland had been dismembered by both dictatorships at once. Now that the Red Army was fighting beside the democracies of Europe and the United States, its arrival in Poland was supposed to be a cause for celebration. Fascist occupation, after all, had truly been a nightmare. But ethnic Poles had good reason to wonder what they might expect from Stalin’s cynical embrace. There is a joke that some Poles still relate that starts when a small bird falls from the sky into a cowpat. A passing cat is kind enough to rescue it but then, naturally, eats the bird. ‘The moral,’ a Polish friend explained, ‘is that not everyone who gets you out of the shit is necessarily your friend.’

In the short term, some Poles were willing to fight beside Red Army troops. The first Polish army on Soviet soil was formed in April 1943. Poles broke open the route to Lublin for Chuikov’s 8th guards army in July 1944, and they would go on fighting with these men until the fall of Berlin ten months later.86 However, Stalin’s sympathies were never with the Polish nation, and most Polish soldiers knew it. They would complain that their uniforms and kit were sub-standard, that they were not issued with warm clothes as winter approached and that they were given the most dangerous military tasks.87 Their morale would plummet furthest when they heard news of the fate of their fellow countrymen in Warsaw.

In August 1944, encouraged by the real prospect of their liberation, Warsaw’s nationalist underground staged an uprising of Polish citizens. Its aim was to destroy the German garrison. With Rokossovsky’s troops camped on the Vistula, the chances for concerted action appeared bright. But the Warsaw rising failed. The Polish capital’s entire population paid in blood. As thousands of its citizens were slaughtered, Hitler ordered that the  entire city should be razed. What most outraged the Polish troops was that the Soviets made no effort to intervene. Rokossovsky’s men were probably in no condition to relieve Warsaw in August 1944, and it would have been difficult for Stalin to find fresh reserves.88 The momentum of Operation Bagration had been used up in the great strike at Minsk. But the destruction of Polish nationalists in Warsaw suited Stalin’s long-term goals. The tragedy, like the 1940 Katyn massacre, would poison Russo–Polish relations for decades.

In answer – or at least by way of self-justification – the Soviets would claim that they were fighting for a cause that transcended national interests. Internationalism had been downplayed since the war began – Russian troops themselves had found it redundant when they met their putative German brothers at the front in 1941 – but the idea that the Soviet Union was a unique, pioneering, supra-national state was never abandoned. Former Red Army troops and partisans still claim that their identity was ‘Soviet’, a way of getting over the awkward divisions between the ethnic Russians at the front and all the rest. The Poles, like the zapadniki, could simply join the brotherhood. That way their future in the Soviet system, as opposed to fascist tyranny, was guaranteed.

This neat answer would never fit the facts. For one thing, Stalin himself had embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing. By the summer of 1944, the Gulag and the central Asian labour camps were overflowing with Volga Germans, Chechens, Tatars, Kalmyks and other so-called ‘punished’ groups. Ukrainians and Poles began to join them in the last year of the war. Ethnicity had replaced economic or class status as a pretext for wholesale arrest.89 Soviet rhetoric did not work among the people, either. Russians might claim that there were no distinctions between ethnic groups in uniform, but they were not in a minority at any point. ‘We were all the same’ is an imperialist thought, dismissing the claims and perspectives of subaltern peoples. Large numbers – millions – of Poles, Ukrainians, Georgians, Jews, Kazakhs and all the rest fought beside Russians, some of them explicitly for Soviet power, but minority groups were neither identical nor invisible within the army. There was even a slang, and usually derogatory, word to describe them.Natsmen, an ugly term formed from the Russian words for ethnic minority, captured, amalgamated and dismissed individuals whose homes might have been anywhere from Odessa and Tallinn to Ulan Bator.

Ironically, it was the Jews who seemed most readily at ease with the internationalist dream. The Soviet state, officially, deplored and punished anti-Semitism. In this respect, it marked an advance on tsarism and a stark  contrast with the Third Reich. Its internationalist rhetoric, like its appeal to science and to the superiority of urban values, also attracted a people whose history had fixed them mainly in the towns. In 1941, Jews signed up in their thousands for the Soviet cause. Students from Moscow set their books aside; young communists in government roles asked to be assigned to the front. Jews were among the keenest volunteers for every kind of army service. Not all the volunteers were Soviet-born. Refugees streamed east from Poland and from western Ukraine in the spring of 1941, finding their way into the Red Army by summer. As they would learn when their families perished in the old homelands, their loyalty to Stalin’s cause was justified.

The Red Army itself boasted a set of regulations about anti-Semitism, including a stipulation that the insulting zhid (yid) should not be used in reference to Jews. Soldiers were liable to punishment if they made anti-Semitic remarks or used offensive, racist language. Idealistic communists (many of whom were in fact Jews) believed that Soviets had truly overcome the hatreds of the tsarist past, but it would only have been in a burst of passionate idealism that a Jew could have seen the Red Army as a benign environment. Official rhetoric was scrupulous, but among themselves the soldiers – and even many officers – were liberal with their racist jibes. The authorities’ response, too, was generally feeble. The NKVD kept a record of the cases that it heard, together with the penalties imposed. A thirty-one-year-old got five days in the guardhouse for telling a Jewish comrade that ‘My father despised yids, I despise them, and my children are going to despise them too.’90 Another soldier was expelled from the komsomol for spitting ‘What are you on about, Jew-face?’ at another rifleman. It was better than fascism, but there was a long way still to go.

The jokes, that humour that the NKVD controlled so closely, were worse. According to the vulgar story, Jews in the army had pulled off their usual trick. In other words, they had managed to dodge the front line and secured the safer office jobs. When tens of thousands fled their homes in the first months of war, they were christened ‘Tashkent partisans’ after the city where so many had found refuge. ‘They have formed a battalion by themselves,’ a joke went among Russian troops, ‘and conquered Tashkent and Alma-Ata.’91 ‘The soul of a Jew is always at the front line,’ went another, ‘but his body stays behind the Urals.’ The context was contemporary, but the basic stereotypes were primeval. Jews were even said to favour crooked rifles.92

Other rumours built on ancient themes of Passover blood sacrifice and cabbalistic magic. Jewish doctors were accused of passing wounded Russians fit for active service before they could even stand.93 An anecdote from 1944 played on the theory of international Zionist conspiracy. Rifleman Abram Abramovich keeps coming back from battle with trophies: a German gun, German maps, even the colours of a German regiment. When he is decorated for his deeds, someone asks him how he has managed to do quite so much. ‘Ach,’ he replies, ‘I have a friend on the German side, Mark Markovich, and he brings me the German stuff and I take Red Army trophies round to him.’94 The story may have made some soldiers laugh, but if they had paused to look at their German enemies, they would have noticed that there were no Mark Markoviches left.

The persecution of Jews was one fascist atrocity that Soviet publicity evaded. The core of the problem, from 1944, was an imagined hierarchy of suffering. This was a war in which Russia saw itself as the most important victim. It had been invaded, its land violated. It had stood alone while Europe slept; its people had bled themselves white in the defence of Stalingrad. The Soviet Union waged this war, but more Russians served in the Red Army than any other ethnic group, and soldiers frequently – and in their view, generously – overlooked distinctions among their comrades, calling them all ‘Russian’ in their hearts.95 Russian soldiers were the largest single group among the multitude who starved and died as German prisoners of war, and Russian civilians suffered unimaginably in the years of invasion and struggle.96 On almost any reckoning there could be no comparison between the price that Russia and the other Soviet peoples paid for war and that paid by their allies. But victimhood, at home as well as on a diplomatic stage, was like a kind of capital. Internationally, it permitted the aggrieved party to claim substantial reparation, to say nothing of allowing a certain moral leverage. At home, it raised a storm of patriotism which was Soviet in name but generally Russian in nature. The epicentre of it all (his Georgian nationality notwithstanding) was Stalin himself. While the people had suffered, Stalin had laboured and bled with them. He was identified with every moment of their pain.

The details were genuinely appalling. More than 3 million Soviet (principally Russian) prisoners of war were killed in Nazi camps, many as a result of direct acts of brutal – and illegal – violence. Even a German witness, a soldier writing about the Wehrmacht’s successes in 1942, was surprised at the effect of his own regime. His prisoners, who were entitled to food and shelter (and even, arguably, to Red Cross parcels), had been reduced by fear and hunger to such a state that, as he wrote, ‘They whined and grovelled before us. They were human beings in whom there was no longer a trace of anything human.’ Perhaps that judgement helped their captors to torture the men. The German guards amused themselves by throwing a dead dog into the prisoners’ compound. ‘Yelling like mad,’ the witness wrote, ‘the Russians would fall on the animal and tear it to pieces with their bare hands … The intestines they’d stuff in their pockets – a sort of iron ration.’ The very few who did not perish in these camps remember the terror, the humiliation and the dark stories of lyudoedstvo, the dismemberment and eating of corpses.97 No other army suffered on this scale, not even in Asia.

Civilians, too, would endure every kind of violence. From the first days of the invasion, in 1941, the Wehrmacht declared war on partisans. In reality, bystanders were shot or hanged alongside real guerrillas. Then came the requisitioning of food and other property. The famine that resulted was so desperate in some regions that local people would turn up at German camps ‘and ask for relief or beg to be shot’.98 Hardship resulted in epidemics among the civilian population of the occupied zone, the most serious of which, in 1943, was typhus. Nearly 7.5 million Soviet civilians are thought to have been killed under the Nazi occupation, the greatest numbers in Ukraine (3.2 million), Russia (1.8 million) and Belorussia (1.5 million).99 But other victims did not even remain in their homes, since the other major impact of Nazi control was the enslavement of civilians for forced labour. At least 3 million men and women (one famous Russian source gives a figure of over five million) were shipped off to the Reich to work as slaves. Many of these – probably more than 2 million – were worked so hard that they joined Europe’s Jews in the death camps, discarded by the Reich for disposal like clapped-out nags sent to the knacker’s yard.100

Russia’s long torment, then, was real, and like most cases of persecution, it created in the sufferers a sense of outrage, of entitlement, of solidarity. No one had borne the weight of war more patiently, no one had fought or endured more. That was the story, and it became a political refrain. However, Russia’s access of outrage – and Stalin’s pre-eminence within it – could not have been sustained if two specific truths had been considered. First, the group that faced the Nazis’ most concentrated violence, a cruelty unparalleled even in this most vicious war, was not the Russian people but the Jews. Second, Soviet citizens in the occupied zones, including thousands of Ukrainians and Balts, had not only colluded in the genocide but welcomed and abetted it.

It was the army that made all the discoveries, soldiers who knew the most about the real fate of Jews. The first evidence of the mass killings was unearthed near Kerch in 1941, when Soviet troops began their ill-fated attempt to retake the Crimea,101 but it was not until the great march west from 1943 that the full picture began to take shape. A harrowing story emerged from Krasnodar, where 7,000 Jews were gassed in an experiment involving special sealed wagons (the NKVD had already mastered a version of this technology in 1937, but it was a shock to see it used by someone else). When the mass grave was found, a group of corpses was ceremonially exhumed, dressed in fresh linen (as befits a Russian corpse) and buried with full honours before weeping crowds.102

Russian POW with his prisoner number (courtesy of the State Archive of the Russian Federation)

The secret of the ravine near Kiev, Babi Yar, which held the bodies of at least 100,000 Jews by the end of 1943, was printed in the Soviet press in tones of justifiable outrage. But it had been a real challenge for the Sovinformburo. Those Jewish corpses, petrol-soaked and stained with ash, raised spectres that Moscow could not confront. The Holocaust, as one account puts it, was ‘an indigestible lump in the belly of the Soviet triumph’.103 Moscow could never approve of the mass killing of Jews, but nor was it eager toaccord to them a special place in the myth of the war. If it had done so, Russia would have had to share its victimhood, and its communist leadership would also, by implication, have been forced to countenance the idea of a special closeness between Jews and Bolsheviks, a notion that Stalin had done his best to extirpate (not least by arresting Jewish comrades) for years. Those bodies, like those of Polish officers in the woods near Smolensk, threatened to pollute the fragile ecologies of Soviet righteousness and Russian certitude.

Equally dangerous was the fact that some Ukrainian nationalists had welcomed the genocide at the time. The drive for ethnic purity that beset central Europe in the 1930s and 1940s was not confined to Germany, and nor was loathing of the Bolsheviks. During the German occupation, the head of the wartime Ukrainian government himself had delivered the view, in 1941, that ‘Jews help Moscow to consolidate its hold on Ukraine. Therefore I am of the opinion that the Jews should be exterminated and [see] the expediency of carrying out in Ukraine the German methods for exterminating the Jews.’104 Sturdy, peasant-farming Ukrainians were encouraged to loathe all ‘Jewish-Muscovite proletarians’. Some responded by joining the murder squads.105 But to repeat all this now would be to shatter the brittle framework of Soviet brotherhood. It would certainly jeopardize Moscow’s relations with the bulk of the Ukrainian population, including those who were currently fighting in its name across the Western Front.

The answer was to edit every report from the killing fields. Stories of genocide were presented as parts of a larger and appalling whole. Special care was taken to make sure that the burdens Russians had borne were emphasized. While the investigators were preparing the first report on the first death camp that the army discovered, readers of Pravda learned about a place in Ukraine where Red Army prisoners had starved, and even of a camp where Russians had been infected deliberately with typhus and allowed to die.106 The policy of censorship was helped by the fact that the truth, as it emerged, was so appalling that it tended to overwhelm imagination. When Alexander Werth filed his first report from a Nazi extermination camp, ‘The Death Factory’, for the BBC, the corporation would not broadcast it. The story was so terrible, its directors argued, that it could only be another Soviet propaganda stunt.107

The truth began to surface in the summer of 1944. Lublin lies just beyond the Polish–Soviet border. When the Red Army freed it in July, they found a town scarred by the occupation and bombardment. However, despite the damage, it remained the attractive mass of churches and whitewashed houses that it had been for centuries. Its secret, like a cold shadow, lay just two miles away. Maidanek was the first extermination camp that any army would discover. It was a vast and tightly organized facility, a group of prisons, gas chambers and chimneys that covered twenty-five square kilometres. One and a half million people had been murdered there. The smell of corpses and of burning flesh forced Lubliners to shut their windows. They could not breathe, and even with the windows shut, they could not sleep. The scale of the atrocity shocked every witness at the time.

Maidanek foreshadowed the genocide before the discoveries of Auschwitz and Belsen. There was the forlorn little road, the barbed-wire fence, the watchtowers. An entrance gateway arched above the track, and looming in the mist beyond were barrack huts and sinister-looking chimneys. There was a gallows, strongly built and square, in every yard. There were concrete shower blocks, the units labelled ‘bath and disinfection’. These were the chambers into which thousands of frightened, naked human beings had been herded, roughly, half-guessing their fate. As he toured them, Werth found himself reflecting on those last moments, imagining the blue crystals of Zyklon tumbling through a ceiling grille and gently steaming into life. He was standing where the SS guards had stood, watching the room as they had done. Averting his gaze for a moment, he looked down at the concrete yard. At his feet was a blue mark, a scribble that still just made out the word vergast. A skull and crossbones had been scrawled beside it. ‘I had never seen this word before,’ he wrote, ‘but it obviously meant “gassed” – and not merely “gassed”, but with that elegant little prefix ver, “gassed out.” That’s this job finished, and now for the next lot.’108

Werth claims that Pravda covered everything, but this is not quite true. The reporting was vivid, and its impact must have been immense, but Jews were not presented as the main victims. Conveniently, perhaps, Maidanek was a genuinely mixed-race camp, and its victims included large numbers of Europeans, Russians and Poles, as well as ethnic Jews. That catholicity made it the easier to describe in the press. By contrast, the existence of the camp at Oświȩcim (Auschwitz) was not reported to the Soviet public until 7 May, just hours before the victory, although the Red Army had found it (and counted out each set of clothes, over a million of them) in January 1945.

It is an open question what the soldiers thought about it all. At Maidanek, they were ordered to make a tour of the whole camp. At Auschwitz, too, they saw each horror for themselves. The images of atrocity helped to reinforce their hatred of Hitler, to make them pitiless and brave. So did the sight of Klooga, outside Tallinn, where murdered Jews were piled among great stacks of logs, soaked in petrol, and torched like lumps of kindling.109 The pictures of the charred remains show Red Army troops standing in the snow nearby, viewing the ghastly shapes while plain-clothes officials catalogue them for history. But what these soldiers later read was not the same as what they knew. Pravda helped to form an alternative set of memories, to cover images so terrible that they could neither be considered nor forgotten. In place of the appalling reality of the Final Solution, the paper offered a simpler lesson to its readers: Soviet rage was justified; Russian revenge was just.

Bonfire of logs and corpses photographed as evidence of German war crimes, Klooga, Estonia (courtesy of the State Archive of the Russian Federation)

Those lessons help to explain the violence that followed. The things that fascists did, in soldiers’ minds, had long been kept apart from anything that ‘we’ – they – might ever do. Soviet propaganda had debased the enemy to such an extent that he was scarcely human. There could be no comparison with ‘us’. Meanwhile, the Russian people’s victim status called for revenge and reparation. Within a few months, atrocities in East Prussia – Soviet killings, rapes and thefts – would be perpetrated under the concealing cover of a double standard. The same inconsistency applied to the treatment of ‘our’ Jews. When a Russian muttered that the Jews were better dead, it was not quite the same as when a fascist did it. In 1944, the NKVD heard men muttering that ‘Hitler did a good job, beating up the Jews.’110

The army, or rather, some of its invalid veterans, brought its rough prejudices back to share with Soviet civilians. The stories were predictable enough. Jews did not fight, they said, but sat around in warm offices or anywhere that money might be found lying about. Then came the jokes, the judgements, the resentment. In the early summer of 1943, members of the editorial board of the army newspaper, Red Star, even discussed the need to find and publish some stories of Jews who were heroes of the Soviet Union or front-line generals. Something needed to be done to avert racial violence. ‘There is a real agitation for pogrom,’ one of them wrote that May.111 The predicted lynching followed months later. Kiev’s pogrom of 1945 began after a fight between two drunken Ukrainians and a Jewish NKVD agent. The agent shot his assailants, whose funeral became the spark for anti-Jewish riots.112 But post-war Russia, very soon, would target Jews with all the power of the state. From 1948, they were the objects of new arrests, denunciations and public humiliation. They lost their jobs, they lost esteem, their children were denied the education that had been their right. Finally, Jews were the intended victims of the last great purge of Stalin’s life.113

When I collected testimonies for this book, I found that Jews were disproportionately represented among the veterans who talked. This was not accidental, and nor was it some prejudice of mine. One reason is that veterans still believe that they should keep Soviet secrets. The state whose rules they promised to uphold has gone, but many hold on to it because it is the only stable image in their political imagination. For Jews, so many of whom were marginalized in the post-war world, it may be easier than it is for ethnic Russians to see these old rules as absurd. Then there are questions of loyalty, for Jews suffered when communism fell and few have reason to welcome the new and chauvinistic Russian state. So it is easier for them to talk. The stories that I heard were vivid, terrible, humorous and often sad, but they were never tales of office staff. Jews were among the most determined combatants on every Soviet front. They had a great deal to avenge. Beyond that, members of this special generation tended to be loyal to the internationalist cause, to the utopian dream of communism, to just war, revolution and new forms of brotherhood. Nemanov fought near Stalingrad and onwards towards Kursk; Kirill survived the siege of Leningrad and led his men through Prussia. They both took part in some of the most dangerous operations of the war.

I remember a morning spent with another Jewish combatant. Boris Grigorevich was born in Kiev. His parents were both Jews, though he identified himself as Soviet. ‘Was there racism?’ he repeated, smiling at my question. ‘Of course not. We were all Soviet citizens, all the same.’ His best friend, as he explained, was a Mingrelian from the Caucasus. ‘We were like brothers,’ he told me. The friend had died, but ‘I am still part of his family, they treat me like a son.’ That was not his last word on the subject, however. I asked him what his fears had been during the long nights before battle. ‘I was afraid of being thought a coward,’ he answered. ‘I knew that I was a Jew, and so I had to prove that I was not afraid.’ It would be years before he knew for certain that his father had been killed at Babi Yar.

Notes – 8 Exulting, Grieving and Sweating Blood

1 Accounts of the precise starting point vary because of the scale of the operation. In some places, the first shots were fired on 21 June. Elsewhere the starting date is taken as 22 or 23 June.

2 The front itself was about 450 miles long. Werth, pp. 860–1.

3 Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, RH2-2338, 1 (January 1944).

4 Belov, p. 468 (21 March 1944).

5 Ibid., p. 462 (28 November 1943).

6 Ibid., p. 465 (12 January 1944).

7 Ibid., p. 468 (13 March 1944).

8 Ibid., p. 470 (7 April 1944).

9 Bundesarchiv, RH2-2338, monthly report, March 1944, pp. 1–2.

10 Belov, p. 464 (12 December 1943); p. 465 (17 January 1944).

11 Ermolenko, p. 39.

12 See Catherine Merridale, ‘The Collective Mind’, Journal of Contemporary History, 35:1, January 2000, p. 41.

13 Generally, they were lumped together with other ‘amoral’ or ‘extraordinary’ incidents. If they were explained at all, it was with reference to any suicide note or final remark that existed. Since the soldiers themselves did not know the word ‘trauma’, they naturally attributed their agony to more immediate causes, often unrequited love or political disappointment. For examples from Belarus in 1944, see RGVA, 32925/1/516, 177.

14 For a parallel discussion of the death penalty in the British army at this time, see David French, ‘Discipline and the Death Penalty in the British Army in the War against Germany during the Second World War’, Journal of Contemporary History, 33:4, October 1998, pp. 531–45.

15 I am grateful to Professor Simon Wessely for drawing my attention to the correlation between the statistics for Soviet mental casualties and the average incidence of adult-onset schizophrenia.

16 Richard A. Gabriel, Soviet Military Psychiatry (Westport, CT, 1986), p. 47. This estimate is based on interviews with survivors and their psychologists, as a result of which Gabriel produced a rough figure of 6 per thousand mental casualties for the Red Army as a whole. However crude, this figure compares strikingly with the equivalent 36–39 per thousand in the US army in the Second World War.

17 See Night of Stone, p. 304. The consensus among psychiatrists in Russia had shifted by 2002, when I asked these questions again. Contact with European and American medicine had clearly changed the prevailing wisdom, at least among doctors currently in practice. But retired wartime medical staff, including nurses and psychiatrists interviewed in Kursk, Smolensk and Tbilisi, had not changed their position.

18 The point is made in Amnon Sella’s optimistic book. The Value of Human Life, p. 49.

19 Gabriel, p. 56.

20 I am grateful to Dr V. A. Koltsova, of the Moscow Institute for Military Psychology, for sharing this unpublished material with me in 2002. See also Albert R. Gilgen et al., Soviet and American Psychology during World War II (Westport, CT, 1997).

21 Gabriel, p. 63.

22 Some were released, although they carried the stigma of mental illness for ever. Many of these ended up in prison camps later in life. Others joined the colonies of the crippled in the White Sea and lived out their lives in isolation. The worst fate, probably, was to remain in a Soviet psychiatric hospital of this era.

23 Gabriel, pp. 42–8.

24 Vyacheslav Kondrat’ev, cited by George Gibian, ‘World War 2 in Russian National Consciousness,’ in Garrard and Garrard, World War II and the Soviet People (London, 1993), p. 153.

25 Order of the deputy defence commissar, no. 004/073/006/23 ss; 26 January 1944, Velikaya otechestvennaya, 2 (3), p. 241.

26 On the use of convicts for this work, see the captured report of the 4th tank army, Bundesarchiv RH-2471, p. 16, 4 August 1944. See also RH-2471, 33 (prisoner of war reports). Temkin (p. 124) also recalled that a convicted murderer was used for reconnaissance work in his own unit.

27 Viktor Astaf’ev, Tam, v okopakh (Vospominaniya soldata) (Moscow, 1986), p. 24.

28 Examples are to be found in GARF 7523/16/388, which contains the records of the commission that dealt with the reinstatement of medals to soldiers who had been convicted of crimes at the front.

29 Drobyshev, p. 94.

30 For a parallel from the British army in the First World War, see Frank Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die (London, 1933), p. 194.

31 Drobyshev, p. 94.

32 Vasily Chuikov, The End of the Third Reich, trans. Ruth Kisch (London, 1976), p. 40.

33 Drobyshev, p. 94.

34 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 14, p. 619; report dated 1 October 1944.

35 Lev Kopelev, No Jail for Thought, trans. Anthony Austin (London, 1977), p. 38.

36 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 2 (3), pp. 265–6.

37 Ibid., p. 295.

38 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 6, p. 247, on the sorry state of the kitchens in the reserve political units of the 2nd Baltic Front.

39 TsAMO, 523/41119s/1, 17; see also similar reports from German intelligence, RH2-2338, 10 (1944).

40 RGVA, 32925/1/516, 177 (April 1944).

41 RGVA, 32925/1/515, 139–40.

42 RGVA 32925/1/516, 4 and 178.

43 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 14, 590.

44 TsAMO, 523/41119s/1, 169.

45 Ermolenko, p. 52.

46 See Overy, pp. 238–9; Erickson, Berlin, pp. 198–200.

47 Chuikov, Third Reich, p. 27.

48 Belov, p. 469 (31 March 1944).

49 Ibid., pp. 473–4 (18 June 1944).

50 Glanz and House, p. 209.

51 Cited in Garthoff, p. 237.

52 Erickson, Berlin, p. 225.

53 RH2-2338, 44-07, 1‒2.

54 GASO, R1500/1/1, 63.

55 Chuikov, Reich, p. 28.

56 RH2-2467, 118, for the leave. Cash incentives for planes and ‘tongues, see RH2-2338.

57 Sidorov, pp. 99 and 108.

58 Pravda, 19 July 1944; Werth, p. 862.

59 Ermolenko, p. 46.

60 Ibid., p. 50.

61 Pis’ma s fronta i na front, p. 92.

62 Stalin, O velikoi otechestvennoi voine, pp. 145–6.

63 RH2-2338, March and April 1944.

64 See, for example, Pravda, 26 August 1944.

65 German intelligence reports consistently stressed this. See, for example, RH2-2338; 4408 (monthly intelligence report for August 1944).

66 On ethnically based Ukrainian nationalism, see Amir Weiner, Making Sense, pp. 240–1.

67 See Leo J. Docherty III, ‘The Reluctant Warriors: The Non-Russian Nationalities in Service of the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War 1941–1945,’ JSMS, 6:3 (September 1993), pp. 432–3.

68 RH2-2468, 35.

69 Ibid., 80.

70 Ibid., 35 and 38.

71 Details from RGASPI, 17/125/241, 93–4.

72 RH2-2468, 35.

73 A point made specifically – and understandably believed – by German intelligence. See RH2-2338, 44-09, 1.

74 This finding confirms the comments in RH2-2468, 80.

75 RGASPI, 17/125/241, 88.

76 Ibid., 89.

77 Ibid., 91–2; 95.

78 Ibid., 95.

79 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 6, pp. 292–5.

80 Ermolenko, pp. 59 and 62.

81 Kopelev, p. 53.

82 The agitation department’s concern was fully justified. See Senyavskaya, Frontovoe pokolenie, p. 91.

83 For other evidence of this, see Bundesarchiv, RH2-2338, 45-02, 2–3.

84 Beevor, Berlin, p. 34.

85 Their comments were faithfully collected. For examples from the summer of 1944, see RGVA, 32925/1/515.

86 Chuikov, Reich, p. 34.

87 RH2-2468, 6–7, 27.

88 See, for example, the assessment in Glantz and House, p. 214. A more detailed account is given in Erickson, Berlin, pp. 247–90.

89 Weiner, p. 149.

90 RGVA 32925/1/516, 176 (April 1944).

91 RH2-2337, 58.

92 The idea was that these shot around corners.

93 Bundesarchiv, RH2-2337, 70–71.

94 These jokes are among those recalled for me by veterans, and they came up in more than one interview. They can also be found, lovingly collected, in Bundesarchiv, RH2-2337, the Wehrmacht’s own report on Soviet anti-Semitism.

95 For a 1943 soldier’s letter to exactly this effect, see Senyavskaya, Frontovoe pokolenie, p. 83.

96 In fact, civilian casualties were highest among Ukrainians, and proportionately, though not numerically, highest of all in Belorussia.

97 Werth, pp. 702–6.

98 Bartov, The Eastern Front, p. 132.

99 Velikaya otechestvennaya voina, 4, p. 289.

100 See ibid., p. 289; see also Vserossiiskaya kniga pamyati, 1941–45 (Moscow, 1995); Obzornyi tom, p. 406; Glantz and House, p. 51.

101 Werth, pp. 387–8.

102 Ibid., 702; Bundesarchiv, RH2-2337, 104.

103 Garrard and Garrard, Bones, p. 174.

104 Weiner, p. 260.

105 For a discussion of this, see Garrard and Garrard, Bones, pp. 180–7.

106 Pravda, 3 August 1944.

107 Werth, p. 890.

108 Ibid., p. 892.

109 Ibid., p. 702.

110 RGVA 32925/1/515, 2.

111 RGASPI, 17/125/190, 16.

112 I have heard a number of explanations for the pogrom in the city’s Podol district. This one was offered to me by Antony Beevor and is based on archival documents he saw in Moscow.

113 Overy, pp. 309–11; on the Doctors’ Plot, see Louis Rapoport, Stalin’s War Against the Jews (New York, 1990); Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Last Crime: The Doctor’s Plot (London, 2003).

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