Military history

Sheathe the Old Sword


May 9 was a glorious day in Moscow. That night, just after one o’clock, the familiar voice of Yury Levitan, the Sovinformburo’s wartime announcer, had confirmed that the war with Germany was over. The news flew round the city within minutes. People woke their neighbours, abandoning the caution that normally regulated social contact in the capital city. Whole families rushed out into the streets, the men clutching the bottles that they had been saving for this very hour, and a great party began that would roar into the coming evening. Dawn would bring yet more people to town, and as many as 3 million had crushed into the open spaces round the Kremlin by the afternoon. A day like this would have been unforgettable enough without the night to come, but then, well after nine o’clock, as the spring horizon began to fade, hundreds of searchlights were switched on. They flooded the famous ensemble of buildings – the art deco hotel façades, the crenellated walls and towers – with waves of purple, red and gold. A fleet of planes flew low above Red Square, releasing coloured flares into the darkness, and then the fireworks were lit, the best that even Russians could remember. ‘For once,’ wrote a delighted Werth, ‘Moscow had thrown all reserve and restraint to the winds. The people were so happy,’ he added, ‘that they did not even have to get drunk.’1

The victory seemed to belong to everyone. There was no real distinction, for a moment, between factory workers and office staff, typesetters, engineers, collective farmers and the designers of tanks; they had all paid a price, not least in prodigious effort, for the defeat of fascism. But no one felt prouder, or more entitled to claim ownership of this victory, than the soldiers themselves. ‘On these joyful, happy days these lines are being written in Berlin by me!’ Orest Kuznetsov wrote to his sister on 10 May. He was scribbling on a postcard of Unter den Linden, blotting out the German caption with his army pen. ‘There are no words,’ he wrote, ‘you can’t choose them, to reflect the future joy of this victory, a participant in which you have been and saw it all with your own eyes, walking round the centre of the “den” as a conqueror, as the owner. The faces of every officer and soldier shine with the indescribable joy of our achievement! The Great Patriotic war is over – it is a golden book of history. I congratulate you on this great Festival!’2

Few people were in any mood to weigh the price that had been paid for this euphoric day or even to forecast what peace might cost in future. A calculation like that might well have raised some doubt about the victory itself. Could a nation consider that it was triumphant when approximately 27 million of its citizens were dead? What plaudits could the army really claim when twice as many civilians as soldiers had died? It was a strange species of victory that left 25 million people homeless, living in zemlyanki or squeezed into windowless corridors. Only Poland could claim that it had lost proportionately more, and it was now a bitter, shattered semi-colony.3 The Germans, certainly, had paid a heavy price, and almost three quarters of their military losses – human and material – were accounted for along the Eastern Front. The Red Army had truly punished and defeated the invader, but the toll was heavier for the Soviets than for their adversaries.4 It is a testimony to the scale of wartime carnage that the estimates of military losses should vary by margins of millions. The nearest anyone has come to a consensus is to say that no fewer than 8.6 million Soviet military personnel were killed during the war, either as prisoners in Nazi camps or on the battlefield. This is the ‘safe’ figure – there are much greater estimates – but nonetheless it represents nearly a third of the total number of men and women who were mobilized into the Soviet armed forces.5

The Soviet dead included many of the country’s best, fittest, and most productive citizens. Three quarters of the men and women who died in military uniform were aged between nineteen and thirty-five. Of the generation of young men that was born in 1921, the conscripts who had been called up in time for the battles of Kiev and Kharkov, or for the calvary of Stalingrad itself, up to 90 per cent were dead. The war left whole towns without young adults, and for some years into the future there would be fewer young couples and fewer children. In other words, besides the grief, a burden that Soviet women, in particular, would bear for decades, there was a long-term economic price, even for death. And in terms of strict profit and loss, the war had cost just under three and a half trillion roubles, an estimated one third of the Soviet Union’s national wealth.6 For the exhausted and depleted labour force, the prospect of rebuilding must have seemed almost as daunting as another winter under fire.

Nonetheless, pessimism was in short supply that May. In Russia, and in large parts of the Soviet empire generally, civilians paused from their work in the fields or among ruined buildings to celebrate deliverance. The victory seemed to attest that this people could never be enslaved. The Soviet state, their Soviet system – and their now revered leader, Stalin – had also secured a pre-eminent place in world affairs, the right to determine futures that stretched beyond the pre-war borders. At the front, in Berlin, Prague and across central Europe, soldiers – and young officers especially – allowed themselves to dream of the utopia to come. The notion that a better life would be the people’s just reward was commonplace. ‘When the war is over,’ a Soviet writer had remarked in 1944, ‘life in Russia will become very pleasant.’ His hope – like that of millions of others – was that the new friendship with America and Britain would bear lasting fruit, that the Soviet Union’s prestige in the world would open doors that had been shut since 1917. ‘There will be much coming and going,’ he continued, ‘with a lot of contacts with the West. Everybody will be allowed to read anything he likes. There will be exchanges of students, and foreign travel will be made easy.’7

Each person’s hopes reflected their experience and interests. Officers, for the most part, favoured reforms that maintained Soviet discipline and a conservative morality, but they still believed in the changes to come, and many felt that they had a right, even an obligation, to put their views about the peace to the government. Since 1942, military personnel had been learning how to think. In 1945, they brought their new-found skills and sense of individual responsibility to bear on post-war reconstruction. The task would be hard work at first, but these people were used to that. Real change, not promises of future happiness, was the priority now. ‘To search for friends in the future,’ a fictitious teacher tells a veteran in a story from this time, ‘is the doom of loneliness.’8Konstantin Simonov captured the determined, hopeful and reformist mood in the musings of another fictional character, Sintsov. ‘Something wasn’t right even before the war,’ the veteran reflects. ‘I’m not the only one who thinks it; practically everyone does. Both the people who sometimes talk about it and the people who never do … Sometimes, it is true, I think about the time after the war simply as a silence … But then I remember again how the war started, and I already know that I don’t want it to be the same after the war as it used to be.’9

The question was exactly how to implement this change, and even where to start. Again, Red Army officers were never lost for words. Still billeted wherever they had seen the victory salutes – forgetful, maybe, of the Soviet world that waited to the east – they wrote to their advocate back in Moscow, to the Soviet president, Mikhail Kalinin. ‘I have a series of considerations to put to the next meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet,’ a lieutenant wrote that July.10 Like thousands of others, he had seen what a dictatorship, admittedly a fascist one, looked like when it was viewed from the outside. He had also been to Maidanek, and the impression made by its death camp lingered in his mind. The law on political prisoners, he wrote to Kalinin, should be reviewed. The Soviet state had Maidaneks of its own. If there had ever been a justification for these, the sacrifice that citizens had made swept it away. It was a view whose echo could be heard in almost any army camp. Whatever guilt the people had incurred before the war for failing Lenin’s great historic cause, for failing their own destiny, it had been expiated now. The shadows of the 1930s deserved to be exorcised.

The lieutenant’s criticisms were not confined to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. He also tackled the issue of the collective farms. ‘Give the land to the people themselves,’ he suggested. He had been listening to his men and knew their view on peasant life. With them, he had seen the condition of agriculture in Romania and Poland. Compared with the abundant world of fat Romanian cattle and well-stocked barns, the memory of Soviet collectives was like a miserable dream. And then there were the smaller things, the irritations that his men had asked him to convey. They wanted to receive their letters more promptly, he wrote, and they wanted the families of their dead comrades to receive parcels just as their own people did. They also wanted to be sure of a fair bread ration for everyone. Finally, like soldiers everywhere, they wanted to complain about the yobbish violence on ravaged, lawless Russian streets. ‘We need to fight all kinds of hooliganism.’11

A similar list might have been written by almost any officer that summer.12 The idea that its sacrifices in the war had earned the Russian people something more than slavery was almost commonplace, and the perception was made sharper and more urgent by the ghosts of the dead. A price so high, surely, could not be paid for nothing. The idea that so much blood bought only war, that it paid for the ambitions of dictators and not for any of their people’s dreams, was unthinkable. Officers’ letters that summer asked for more freedom, more education, and a livelier cultural life. One man wanted a unified Ministry of Works to supervise the building of new homes, the provision of food, and the refitting of hospitals. Another, anxious about the neglect of education in the war, asked for a Ministry of Culture with powers to supervise all aspects of literary life, from the provision of public libraries to the editing of newspapers.13 But none, not even the reformers, demanded democracy, let alone Stalin’s scalp. The relative modesty of their claims against the Soviet state – especially in view of the sacrifice that had been made – makes the leader’s reply even more callous. For there was never any chance. Not one request on these forgotten lists would ever be fulfilled.

It could be argued that the dreamers always wanted more than a devastated country could deliver. Even personal freedom, when there was so much work to do, was a luxury. To Stalin’s mind, only forced labour and compulsory unpaid ‘voluntary’ work could guarantee national recovery. By 1950, the Soviet economy was claimed to be twice the size it had been in 1945.14 This growth was not achieved by fostering the people’s leisure interests. And other post-war governments in Europe, including Britain’s, were also obliged to call for austerity. The war impoverished Europe for some years, but the oppressiveness, the lack of trust, and the sheer violence of late Stalinism exceeded any economic or security requirement. There had to be some other reason for the darkness that closed in.

Veterans of a contemplative disposition were apt to blame themselves. They realized too late that they had spent their energy at the front line. Many were injured, even permanently disabled, and few escaped some kind of stress and shock. They were also haunted by disabling guilt. A cloud of collective depression stalled and then blocked such people’s eagerness to call for change. ‘The dead are watching me,’ a soldier says in a poem of 1948, and it was a feeling all would have recognized. As Mikhail Gefter, himself a veteran and survivor, would later recollect, the doubt that ‘tortures memory’ is the thought that ‘I could, but did not, save them’.15 For some, the most absorbing peacetime project of the future would be the search for their comrades’ graves.

All found it difficult to adapt to peace. In war, an officer gave orders and they were fulfilled, his life was organized around clear goals, and there were secret little pleasures – plundered cognac or a pretty front-line wife – to compensate for military rigours. Infantrymen also had narrow daily worlds, and as peace loomed the routines and close comradeships seemed curiously safe. With the war over, there were no absolute priorities, no rules. Some soldiers found that they could never make the change. To this day, many veteran combatants get up at five-thirty, a habit that retirement and the inertia of poverty still cannot break, but at the time the real diehards could hardly bear the very thought of peace. They listened hungrily to rumours of another war, this time with Britain and America.16 Some even claimed to have seen the first lines of wounded men in Simferopol.17 It was tempting to hold fast to old anxieties and patterns of familiar stress. War justified the only way of life most of these people could imagine, while peace meant facingthe complicated worlds that they had left and even taking cognisance of all that they had lost.

Other post-war governments would work harder to help their veterans adapt.18 Some did so despite the hardship and cost of war. It was difficult everywhere, but no other combatant nation emerged with quite the cold dictatorship that Stalin built. War alone was not to blame for this, and nor were veterans or memories of death. It was Stalin himself, the leader who took credit for the victory while Zhukov’s ink was still wet on the page, who determined the post-war relationship between people and state. Stalin, that is, and the swarm of acolytes and bureaucrats who flourished in the system that his brand of government created. As the spontaneous joy of early May began to cool, the leaders of a dictatorial regime made plans for their own victory parade. The people’s carnival was to be superseded by a ceremony along proper Soviet lines, something that put every person in their place.

It took several weeks to finalize the scheme. By then, some people had begun to wonder whether grandeur was what they wanted. Some muttered about the expense, others about their private grief. ‘I won’t be going to the parade,’ one Muscovite observed. ‘They killed my son. I’d rather go to a requiem.’19 Others of the same view began to call for a day of mourning, or even an annual week of it; no gesture could do justice to the loss that gaped in people’s lives. For the next fifty years, real memories would infuse the annual victory holiday in early May with a solemnity that other socialist festivals, including the anniversary of Lenin’s coup and Red Army Day, would lack. Wartime bereavement was a shadow that would never lift. For some, it meant the end of family happiness. ‘I have two children and no help from anywhere,’ a woman muttered to someone. ‘That’s why I don’t have a chance of celebrating, and I’ve got nothing to be pleased about.’20

Anxiety, loneliness, and the fear of penury would grow more troubling for widows and orphans as winter approached. But still, that June, the consensus favoured a state event, something to embody and contain the chaos of pride, victory, shock and apprehension for the future. As usual, that meant a rehearsed ceremony and a hand-picked crowd. The cost must have been staggering. Selected soldiers, sailors and airmen were brought home from Germany and the Baltic. The cavalry got to shine its boots, the regimental bands tuned up, tanks, guns and death-dealing Katyushas were lovingly oiled. Whole companies of cadets from Moscow training schools, future artillerymen and engineers, took lessons in advanced parade-ground drill.21 Each gesture and each step was choreographed, including even those of Zhukov and the generals. The only thing that could not be controlled – apart from Zhukov’s grey horse, which was known for its bad temper – was the Moscow weather. The grand parade, the culmination of four years of war, took place on 24 June in drenching rain.

The change of mood since 9 May could scarcely have been clearer, though thousands of Muscovites, still shocked and overjoyed by the war’s end, might well have overlooked the shift. Instead of happy chaos, this was a day of geometrical precision. Red Square was filled with shapes, not individual people. Each rectangle in the parade was composed of scores of uniformed men. In the best traditions of authoritarian states (but for its massive scale, the event could have been a Nazi festival of sport), they all moved to exact routines, none even looking in a direction that had not been agreed and rehearsed in advance. The parade was blatant with gold braid. This was an army with a sharp hierarchy and strong leaders, not a people’s militia or even the sword of the world’s proletariat. Zhukov himself reviewed the troops, perching on that tetchy grey and soaking in the endless rain. The themes that day were triumph and authority. The victory, it was made clear, was about Germany’s defeat, not Russia’s liberty. In a grand gesture of conquest, the captured German colours, each topped with a silver eagle, were hurled down in a pile before the Lenin mausoleum. They might have gleamed in the June light. Instead they made a sodden pile of red and black in the grey damp.

Stalin watched from the safety of his stand. He was, by all accounts, exhausted, and he had visibly aged. But he had lost none of his anxious jealousy. That night, at a banquet for 2,500 Red Army officers and men, the leader would propose a toast to the Soviet people. It should have been the supreme moment of glory and gratitude. Instead, the words he used might well have made an entire nation shudder. For though Stalin acknowledged that this had been a real people’s war, he was in no mood to elevate rivals. The time for homespun pride was past. While they might have been hailed as heroes, the people who had struggled, the millions whose efforts had kept the soldiers fed and bullets in their guns, became ‘the little screws and bolts’ in the great engine of his state.22They were to be no more significant in the next decade than the replaceable parts of a machine. A peace on terms like this would be a disappointment to many civilians, but for frontoviki, with all their hopes and new-found strengths, it would turn out to be a kind of death, a loss of self. In many ways, it was also a betrayal.


‘We’ve been living in peacetime conditions for about a week already,’ Taranichev wrote to Natalya on 15 May. ‘The cannons and machine guns aren’t firing any more, and the planes aren’t flying; we don’t have to observe a blackout any more – we work at night with the windows open and breathe the fresh air. But … there is still plenty of work to do. We will probably be here for a couple of months at least.’ It was no real hardship, as he went on to explain. He and a comrade had been billeted with a family near their base in Czechoslovakia. Their hosts were deferential, generous. ‘They offered us every convenience: we had a bath as soon as we arrived and we have been given a room of our own with wonderful beds and snow-white linen.’23 There was even a radio in the room – another excellent German one – that Taranichev (notwithstanding the kind hosts) already planned to take home when he left. Indeed, a good part of his letter was about the parcels that were on their way to Ashkhabad. His other main preoccupation was the future. Like his comrades, he yearned to know the date he would go home.

The bulk of front-line troops were stationed in central and eastern Europe. Their demobilization was not just desirable in human terms, for the Soviet state could not afford to keep an army several million strong in uniform. But what the older men dreamed of – a swift, joyful reunion with their families – would not be possible for most. No army simply dissolves overnight. And while it finalized its plans to debrief and transport over a million men, the Soviet state was content to use soldiers as cheap labour for some of the tougher jobs in construction and transport. As Taranichev hinted, these ranged from rebuilding the roads to securing the ruins of Berlin and dealing with the human columns of former prisoners and refugees. If soldiers in the European theatre were bored, it was only because the peace would always be dull – thankfully – after the extreme world of the war. But some Red Army men still had some fighting left to do.

The war did not end on that much-celebrated evening in May. In August 1945, ninety divisions of the Red Army found themselves stationed in Manchuria. Some of these were drawn from the Far East, from Soviet Mongolia; but others, including the group that Ermolenko travelled with, were simply ordered east from stations in the Baltic and central Europe. Ermolenko himself had been in uniform since 1942. The last action he saw in Europe had been the battle for Koenigsberg, one of the bitterest of 1945. His surprise order to take the train east followed an argument with a superior officer in late April. Six weeks later, while his former comrades cracked open another crate of bottles in Berlin, he was setting up his radio station in the shadow of the Grand Khingan mountains. ‘We heard with interest that there has just been a law on the demobilization of soldiers aged thirty and above,’ he told his diary on 28 June. ‘It’s not for me. No one is leaving here for now.’24

The fighting in Manchuria was short but savage. Ostensibly, the Red Army had been sent east to honour obligations to its allies. If human blood could buy goodwill, the Soviets would pay. In eleven days of fighting, 12,031 Soviet troops would die, the victims of a war that could have little meaning back at home.25 What Stalin was really doing was attempting to secure the Soviet Far East, as well as backing up his claim to valuable territories such as the Kurile islands and Sakhalin. Swift action became more important after 6 August, when the United States dropped its atomic bomb on Hiroshima, foreshadowing the war’s end and making Soviet aid appear redundant. The very day that Soviet hostilities against Japan began, indeed, a second bomb would devastate Nagasaki. Washington’s terrible demonstration of its power was a warning that Stalin was swift to heed. The Red Army went on to the offensive, mounting an attack over some of the remotest and least habitable land in Asia. Stalin’s dream was to occupy a portion of Hokkaido island. A few more weeks of fighting could have realized that hope. What Ermolenko was witnessing, in other words, apart from hunger, fear, and personal confusion, was one of the first shots of the cold war.

The shadow of this new conflict would haunt the Red Army in Germany as well. Ostensibly, the allies – America, Britain, France and the Soviet Union – were still working in harness, assisting each other with supplies, the restoration of communications and the all-important repatriation of displaced persons. But tensions were never far below the surface. The Bomb, which crystallized relations between the two sides, was scarcely mentioned in the soldiers’ writings in August. It may have seemed so appalling that it could only be accommodated after Molotov declared it safe, announcing to the world that Russia could make one of its own. But fear of America was not the main problem among Red Army veterans in Europe. From Moscow’s point of view at least, the most dangerous development in their ranks was the soldiers’ half envious, half naïve admiration for the lords of capitalism.

The superpowers were destined to be enemies for decades, but for a while their soldiers seemed to be making friends. The attraction was based on respect, gratitude, and complementary social skills. American troops enjoyed the Russians’ spontaneity, their talent for impromptu drinks and music.26 Red Army men were grateful for the razor blades, the cigarettes, the bright packets of gum. For Soviet utopians, too, Chicago was a prototype, these square-jawed, healthy men the models for their own children to come. America was starting to look dangerously glamorous. The devil, they say, always has the best tunes, and it worried the politruks that blues and jitterbug was gaining ground on the Red Army’s hymns. The longer they remained in Germany, the more uncertain – from an ideological and disciplinary point of view – the war heroes seemed likely to become.

It took a while for wartime discipline and the fear of the shtraf unit to crumble among victorious Soviet troops. The new mood developed in a setting of lawless devastation. The Red Army’s own campaigns had destroyed Germany, but now – just like their former enemies – they had to make a life amid the dust and rubble that they had created. A stone’s throw from Berlin itself, for instance, was the city of Potsdam. In July 1945, this once-elegant suburb would become the setting for a summit meeting between Stalin, Churchill, and the new American president, Harry Truman. But it was no luxury spa. Scarcely a single large building remained intact. On 14 April, Allied bombers had destroyed the city’s main industrial plants, as well as the power stations, railway depots, food warehouses, water treatment plants and the tram park. When the Red Army reached it on 27 April, it was already without supplies of medicine, clean water, electricity or gas. Its civilian population had received no fresh supplies of food for two entire weeks. Without clean water or functioning sewers, they were living amid filth and rapidly spreading disease, including typhus and dysentery. Children were especially vulnerable, but the population as a whole was close to moral and physical collapse. To make matters worse, the city had become a staging post for refugees. Finally, in late April, it would host a pitched battle, complete with all the devastation of the howitzers and mines.27

The reconstruction of this wasteland – and the scores of others like it – would have been a daunting task at any time. There were no resources to call upon, no food or fuel reserves to spare. Just as seriously, there was a shortage of experienced personnel. Typically, the Red Army employed its less able officers to take charge of reconstruction after the front line had moved on. In Potsdam, the teams of men who helped to rebuild bridges and clear up the streets were staffed by individuals who were unfit for front-line service, by ex-prisoners of war and by volunteers drawn from the thousands of expatriates the Soviets discovered as they liberated German soil. ‘Many of these … are extremely undisciplined,’ the military authorities lamented. They ‘take part in drinking sessions and in looting’. Getting the locals to assist was essential, but most civilians feared to work. The women whose job was to cart away the rubble that blocked Potsdam’s streets knew that they risked assault and rape. On one occasion, all six young women in a work brigade were raped at the end of their working day. The bodies of others would turn up like old timber in the piles of debris that littered the streets.28

After the peace, rape was sporadic, provoked by impulse or the arrival of new troops. Some German officials believed the Soviets tacitly sanctioned it, especially on public holidays, which were perilous times for women near the soldiers’ bases.29 Frontoviki now claim that the offenders in cases like this were rearguard rats and civilians, but there is evidence against all groups of men. Indeed, the mood that allowed for disciplinary infringements was often strongest among former front-line soldiers. Back home, staff officers and politicians were enforcing distinctions of rank, but at the former front a cosy familiarity was developing between officers and men. Ironically, the effort of defeating fascism had been a catalyst for breaking down the fear and mutual suspicion that Stalin’s regime had worked so long to engineer. It was against regulations, for instance, but many officers habitually used the friendly and informal ‘ty’, for ‘you’, in place of the more formal ‘vy’ in conversations round the camp. Sergeants were the worst offenders, and old soldiers especially, but even lieutenants seemed to neglect the rules, including those that detailed how to wear the correct uniform.30 As they settled down, assigned the chores, and whitewashed the new barracks walls, the soldiers’ lives, viewed from outside, had begun to look like versions of domestic bliss.31

During the war, good officers had learned to know their men, to lead them by building their trust as well as showing who was boss. Too often now – or too often as far as the NKVD’s observers could see – these same officers were making themselves comfortable amid the men, condoning crimes if that helped everyone to thrive. Beyond their base, a whole country was in collapse, but inside the perimeter life could almost feel pleasant. At Potsdam that June an army village sprang up round the troops. The soldiers built it themselves, creating versions of bourgeois houses by seizing timber, glass and even window frames from German ruins. Their main preoccupation after that might have been called housekeeping. It was such a domestic business, such a matter of bedlinen, eggs and heating fuel that a report at the time referred to their activities as ‘self-service’.32 There were even gramophones – another piece of loot – on which the men could play American jazz and jitterbug. And self-service did not stop at the barracks fence. Elsewhere in Germany, soldiers were taking food from farms, demanding regular supplies of eggs and meat. One captain was caught with a haul of three horses and a pony trap, 30 kg of butter and twenty-one live geese. Another had demanded that the German population near his base deliver a daily tithe consisting of 100 eggs and twenty-five litres of milk.33

A good deal of this requisitioned food was sold on for stupendous sums in cash. The black market continued to do well. Almost no item was deemed valueless. Even if the wires were down, a telephone receiver had a future somewhere in Europe. The trick was only to find a buyer. In one small town, Red Army troops corralled a total of 1,500 bicycles within a few weeks of the peace. Fuel was also a valuable commodity, especially as soldiers themselves liked to screech through narrow streets in lend-lease trucks and stolen motorbikes. And for the connoisseur, there was a chance of works of art. Many German treasures, including valuable paintings and other objects looted from western Europe, were designated as reparations by the Soviets in 1945, but the warehouses in which the crates awaited shipment were no more secure than any other army base. The black market that dealt in art involved soldiers of every rank, including military police.34 Later on, such people might embark on even more perilous deals. By 1946, the highest prices could be fetched for hard currency, tickets and precious safe conducts to the West.35

As usual, the Soviet authorities monitored everything that locals said. ‘It is clear,’ one report read, ‘that apart from a few genuine anti-fascists, the entire population is unhappy with the presence of the Red Army on German soil, and hope and pray for the arrival of the Americans or English.’36 Germans expressed their views in a variety of ways. Bilingual signs appeared outside the few cafés or bars that still functioned, the Russian text inviting custom while the German ‘translation’ proferred some form of disdainful abuse.37 More seriously, soldiers who went out on their own at night, or even travelled in small groups, were likely to turn up at first light with their throats slit or a bullet in their skulls.38 If the occupation were to last, and above all if the Soviet zone were not to be a drain on Stalin’s resources, some kind of rapport needed to be built between the Red Army and its reluctant hosts. It was not just a case of taming ex-frontoviki. The core of professional soldiers and their officers was outnumbered by conscripts, ex-prisoners and displaced Soviet civilians. All were in shock, uncertain that the war had really ended. That June, the political administration set to work to build a new consensus for the peace.

The first step was to put a stop to hate. On 11 June, an order from the Red Army’s political administration removed the words ‘Death to the German occupiers!’ from the mastheads of all magazines and newspapers for military circulation. In their place appeared the blander slogan ‘To our Soviet homeland!’39 Soldiers also heard lectures on the errors of their former idol, Ehrenburg. The idea was to turn their minds to other things than killing Germans. Violence, however, had become something of a habit. It would take more than slogans to reverse the hatred that haunted veterans for years. Zhukov, fresh from his triumph in Moscow’s Red Square, applied practical threats. ‘Many complaints continue about robbery, rape and individual cases of banditry on the part of individuals wearing Red Army uniforms,’ he observed in an order dated 30 June. He gave his army just five days to put a stop to anti-German acts. Henceforth, he ordered, all troops should be confined to army premises unless they were engaged in official business and closely supervised. In answer to the growing problem of Red Army officers and men who took informal German ‘wives’, the new order stipulated that anyone seen entering or leaving a private house was to be arrested and punished. Knowing that officers connived with men in every kind of crime, the marshal added that any officer deemed incapable of maintaining a strict disciplinary regime was to be named and recalled from service.40

The order had some effect in the weeks that followed. Each military base, at least, reported a drop in recorded crime. Later, investigations would suggest that officers were still colluding with their men, suppressing details of infringements to keep Zhukov’s military police off everyone’s backs. But there is a consistency to the figures that suggests a real change of mood.41 Zhukov’s prestige and the men’s deep regard for him may well have played a part. So did the gradual effects of peace. Rape, for instance, became less common from late June, but one reason for this was that soldiers were striking up more stable friendships with the local women. Some would even form households of sorts, hoping to stay and make a life where chance had thrown them. The practice was so common that only the most brazen immorality was disciplined, such as the case of an officer who had left six ‘wives’ pregnant from Poland to Berlin.42 According to the Mayor of Koenigsberg, the only Germans in his town who were adequately fed that winter were the women whom Soviet troops had made pregnant.43 The most frequent military crimes from the late summer would be drunkenness, failure to wear proper uniform, and lack of respect for senior officers.44 The thirst for vengeance had abated.

The other problem in the zone was to persuade the men that peacetime work was important. Frontoviki, including former members of punishment units, scoffed at the idea of discipline and regular working hours. ‘I’ve seen it all,’ one veteran remarked. ‘They’ll never keep me here.’45 Men who had trained their bodies and their minds to kill must have found guard duties a bore, and many resented clearing debris from Germany’s streets. It was widely felt, indeed, that German civilians should be given the dangerous task of mine clearance, and in many cities squads of volunteers did this work under military supervision in exchange for extra food.46 But at least the disarming and demilitarization of the Soviet zone felt like a real job. The dismantling and shipping of the large factories that were to be seized as reparations must have been a stranger task. Wherever they saw evidence of German wealth, the men would wonder why the war had been started at all, what such rich people could have wanted with their Soviet land. But through it all, whatever their demeanour, Red Army men had to believe that they were victors. Whatever tasks they undertook, they had to think that life was getting better from now on. Frontoviki, with all their problems, were an élite within the occupied zone.

It was a different matter for the other Soviet troops, the ones whose war had ended with their capture. Only a fraction of the millions of prisoners taken by Hitler’s forces in the first years of the war were still living in 1945, but the total number of prisoners had been so great that there were still thousands of men in central Europe waiting for rescue when the peace was signed. If they had hoped for swift release, let alone for reinstatement in their former homes, they were mistaken. On 11 May 1945, Stalin signed the order that provided for the establishment of another web of camps in central Europe. There were to be forty-five on the 1st and 2nd Belorussian Fronts alone, each one designed to hold up to 10,000 men. By June, there were sixty-nine camps for special prisoners on Soviet territory and a further seventy-four in Europe.47 Their purpose was to intern former Red Army soldiers who had been prisoners of war with the intention of ‘filtering’ them, which meant looking for spies, fingering cowards and assigning punishment to so-called ‘betrayers of the motherland’.

The fate of one, P. M. Gavrilov, who was among the very few survivors of the battle of Brest in 1941, would prove the quality of Soviet justice. Gavrilov was a real hero. Although he had been wounded, and although certain that he would die, he fought to his last bullet, saving one grenade to hurl at the enemy as he passed out from loss of blood. His courage so impressed the Wehrmacht (which was seldom given to sentimental acts) that German soldiers carried his almost lifeless body to a dressing station, whence he was taken to a prisoner-of-war camp. It was for this act of ‘surrender’ that he stood accused after the liberation of his German camp in May 1945. His next home was a camp again, this time a Soviet one. In all, about 1.8 million prisoners like him would end up in the hands of SMERSh.48

Building prisons to hold these ‘special’ veterans was a challenge when resources were stretched, but Soviet secret policemen were always willing to adapt. ‘The camp is located well outside the town,’ an NKVD report on a likely facility commented that summer. ‘It is enclosed with secure fencing, and has structures suitable for housing special contingent prisoners.’ Nazis had always known exactly how to build a jail. The site, just beyond the town of Oranienburg, was the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. Thirty thousand people had been murdered there under the recently defeated Nazi regime. The Red Army had liberated it on 22 April, finding a few hundred survivors in conditions so desperate that many would die before doctors could save them. But though the gas chambers were empty and the guard-posts abandoned, it was a well-built and convenient prison. For years to come, it would house consignments of expatriates waiting for the attentions of SMERSh, the cells and darkness, and the train ride to the east.49

The most miserable fate was reserved for the so-called ‘Vlasovites’, most of whom had also been prisoners of war at some stage in their lives. They included the men who had caved in and agreed to fight for the Reich rather than face starvation in the camps. A minority were also active anti-Soviets, especially the leaders of the so-called national legions from the Caucasus, the Baltic and Ukraine. Some of these ended their war in western Europe, since they had been fighting in France and Belgium. Like tens of thousands of other Soviet citizens, they would be solemnly ‘repatriated’ by Stalin’s former European allies in the eighteen months that followed Berlin’s fall. In all, about 5.5 million Soviet citizens had been sent back to their former homeland by the end of 1946. Of these, something like a fifth were either executed at once or sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labour. Others took their own lives, and even those of their accompanying families, rather than face the mercy of Soviet military police.50

Detachments of Red Army guards whose job was to escort these men forgot about Soviet brotherhood. Their politruks told them that Vlasovites were the worst traitors, and soldiers treated their prisoners accordingly. Entire groups would be robbed, their cases opened and the soap, tobacco, razor blades and socks removed for sale. ‘I took his shirt to clean my gun,’ a soldier told military police. It happened all the time.51 ‘Specials’ were treated as convicts while they awaited filtration. The onus was always on them to prove their innocence. The process could take months, even years. SMERSh and its successors were still ‘filtering’ displaced persons in the 1950s.52 While they waited, the wretched prisoners faced insults and bullying, and the same treatment would continue when they were assigned to labour camps. By August 1945, just over half a million were already at work. Quotas of former prisoners and ‘traitors’ were assigned to the coal-mining and power industries, to construction work, timber, steel, fisheries, engineering, chemicals – anywhere labour was needed and money was scarce. The condemned were supposed to be grateful to Stalin for sparing their lives.

The conditions for the disgraced men, as one survivor remarked, rivalled the hardships of a Nazi camp. Ex-combatants were sent to the Caucasus to work in timber yards with neither outer clothing nor footwear. With no solid housing and no means of bathing, they had no defence against the endless plagues of lice.53 Others went hungry, and most worked without pay. ‘I won’t pay you a penny,’ one labour organizer told his team. ‘You were sent to us as betrayers of the motherland, as self-seekers, and you’re just here to work.’ The foreman of a Siberian mine assured a member of his work contingent that ‘a ton of coal is dearer to us than your life’.54 His hatred drew on bitter roots. Many of the toughs who managed former soldiers had originally been victims themselves. The camps and mines of Siberia were ruled by former kulaks, the peasants whom communism had dispossessed in the early 1930s. Now they could vent their rage on disgraced soldiers. ‘As soon as your officers’ backs are turned,’ one of them hissed, ‘we’re going to kill you with hunger and hard labour. And you deserve it because in 1929/30 you were the ones who dekulakized us.’55

The Soviet authorities pressed for the repatriation of the ‘specials’ for several reasons. They wanted to make examples of some traitors, and in almost every case they feared, as Richard Overy puts it, that Vlasovites in western Europe would prove to be ‘undesirable witnesses against communism’.56 But on their journey home, the prisoners would often turn out to be equally undesirable advocates of capitalism. There was always some contact between prisoners and their Red Army escorts. Thousands of thesefrontoviki had been impressed with the capitalist farms and private businesses they had seen, and they discussed it all with their new prisoners. ‘I never had enough to eat in my whole life,’ one young soldier declared. ‘So how come they live in such a cultured and orderly way in Poland, when we have none of that?’57 The former Vlasovites could laugh at such naïveté. Poland, they explained, was backward, war-ravaged, scarcely a place to envy. Some of them had seen France, Holland, even Belgium. An entire contingent of Georgian troops had been billeted on foggy Texel island; Ukrainians had been sent to fight in France. ‘Belgium is a country of high culture,’ one veteran told his audience. ‘It has a highly developed economy. You can live well there.’ When some smart komsomolsnapped back that the Belgians had high rates of unemployment – a common Soviet defence when faced with the glamour of capitalism – the veteran’s reply was ready. ‘Oh yes,’ he agreed. ‘The women there have nothing to do, so they can exist exclusively for love.’58

The party’s answer was the usual combination of lectures and cold threats. Soldiers and prisoners alike were subjected to homilies with titles like ‘Comrade Stalin’s views on the goals of the Red Army and Soviet people and on relations with the population of Germany’, ‘The fundamental economic tasks of the USSR’ and ‘We must be more watchful on alien soil’.59 Meanwhile, SMERSh listened and watched for treacherous talk. ‘Filtration’ was to be the fate of every former prisoner of war or deportee, and many buckled under the weight of suspicion. But even good frontoviki were watched for signs of weakness. The only sanction that Stalin’s regime could use on a mass scale was the labour camp. During the war, the population of the Gulag had dropped sharply, mainly through hardship and death. By 1946, the camps were filling up again.

Red Army soldiers had not triumphed so that they could run a jail. The longer Soviet troops remained in Germany, the less they cared for Moscow’s homilies and threats. A culture developed among the old hands. Drink, women, secrets and hard currency were its main constituents. Eighteen months after the peace, it was clear to Stalin’s officials that almost no veterans could be allowed to remain abroad. Their influence was too liberal, too damaging to the regime of discipline and ideological rigidity. Those who had worked with former prisoners of war and Vlasovites were deemed to be the worst. By the spring of 1947, the Soviet military authorities in Germany had come round to the view that all soldiers with two or more years of service on German soil (which meant all combat veterans) and also anyone who had worked closely with candidates for repatriation should be sent home without delay.60 They were to be replaced by more reliable, younger, less capricious types. The frontovik was fine for winning wars, but authoritarian military rule demanded people with the souls of bureaucrats.


The first soldiers to be demobilized were told of their good fortune at the end of June. The military authorities began with selected categories of men aged thirty or over (these were deemed to be ‘in the older age groups’) and also with women who did not have important specialisms. It was assumed that older men would be the keenest to get home and also that they might have family responsibilities to tend. ‘You should set up a committee and demobilize all soldiers of thirty and above,’ a letter to Kalinin demanded, as if on cue, on 20 June. ‘We all agree about that … What am I going to do with my wife if I’m over thirty and I still don’t have a single son? In five–ten years a man will lose his chances with the female sex. The season for that doesn’t go on after age thirty-five to forty, it’s not a secret to anyone.’ A law on demobilization followed three days later, although it was far from comprehensive, even for the older men. ‘What would you do,’ the same impatient veteran continued, ‘if every soldier demanded to go home on the same day? Our guards and officers wouldn’t be able to do a thing, because they want to go home too. It’s the power of the people.’61

The reality was that the soldiers were trapped, at least in the short term. For one thing, the abused, bomb-damaged transport system that stuttered between Berlin and Brest could not take them all home at once. From their own government’s point of view, however, the real problems were inside the soldiers’ minds. To send them home without careful preparation was too much of a risk in ideological terms. The dismal, bloody victory needed its garland of heroes, which meant laying the ground for their reception, and that would take time and thought. Then there was the danger that the veterans might brag about capitalism or about life without collective farms. They might talk of brutality, of front-line executions, SMERSh, or even the horror of battlefield death. The free thinking that had started to stalk the front would have to be suppressed before it could infect the civilian world.

Demobilization, then, began to be presented as a kind of privilege, not as the duty of a grateful state to every man and woman who had fought for it. The politruks called more of those eager small-group meetings and explained what was wanted. Their duty, the soldiers were told, was ‘to keep military and state secrets as closely at home as at the front. Let the demobilized person preserve his warm recollections about the unit and about his wartime friends.’ But let him not discuss much else. ‘We had to sign something,’ the veterans admit. In fact, they were warned that their demobilization, and the material assistance that went with it, depended on their agreement to keep most of their wartime experience to themselves, from death rates and atrocities to missing rations and cold feet.62The veterans’ discretion now, which often borders on a string of outright lies, dates back to the moment when they signed that document.

And sign they did, for it was only then that the business of real life could begin. True, some soldiers would choose to stay and make their careers in the military – Kirill was one – but the majority were anxious to get home. The chosen men and women were issued with civilian clothes and a pair of shoes. They were given travel passes and the papers that would see them safely home. They also hefted packages of food and other small gifts from a grateful state. Their luggage would soon overflow the racks and boxes of their passenger trains, spilling into the corridors and contributing to the shared fug of tobacco, garlic, damp blankets and diesel. Soldiers demobilized from Erfurt in 1946 could expect to be issued with ‘a sports suit, sweater, underwear, leather and slippers’, as well as, for officers only, ‘a pair of women’s shoes’. They also received 5 kg of sugar, 10 kg of flour, a kettle, spoons, a carpet bag, a towel, and some biscuits for their journey home.63 Most also received money, the sum depending upon their rank and length of service.64 But this largesse was offset by continual surveillance. The men were warned not to attempt to carry weapons home. Their bags were searched before they left the base.65 The ritual was futile, for anyone could help themselves to weapons and explosives any time by digging in the scarred fields at home.

Eventually, with the inevitability of a dream, the moment came to cross the boundary, to walk away from army life for good. Most veterans recall an aching loss. However much they yearned for home, it was a sudden wrench to leave the boys. The last few hours such men spent at a base were given up to speeches and to singing. ‘We sang our manly, stern soldiers’ marching songs,’ Pushkarev wrote. But these were the songs of victory. The real emotion surrounded the music of defeat, the songs of loss and homesickness from 1942 – ‘Wait for Me,’ ‘Zemlyanka’, ‘Oh, the Long Road’, ‘Dark Night’ – the songs that had sustained a vanishing generation as they struggled with despair.66 The tunes would never sound the same again, nor evoke so much meaning. Many of the men would cry before their trains pulled out. As they said goodbye to the people who knew just what war was about, to the only people who could ever understand their stories, they were losing their true spiritual family. They would miss them – and most would keep in touch with almost all of them – for the rest of their lives.

It must have been a strange ride home. There was that inconveniently heavy bag to stow, and then the smaller one, the knapsack with the tobacco and the travel pass. Inside this was the salvage of a war, the material evidence of all that a man had seen and experienced. In almost every instance, that began with medals – for victory, for service, for valour, even a grand red star or red banner. Then came the photographs. During the war, press photographers earned petty cash by taking snapshots of the troops, portraits to send home to the wife, group pictures to remind them of their mates. Already, as the train rattled towards Brest and Smolensk, the men on board must have been thumbing these, wondering at the looming shapes of guns, the sunlight through last summer’s trees, the smiles on young faces long dead. However long they lived, there would never be time to explain all this. And the gifts, the shoes and watches, these seemed to have a different meaning now. At the front, they had been easy booty, fragments of abundant victory. But now, as the world of triumph and comradeship began to fall away, they became totems, precious, rare, and at the same time tarnished by the secret guilt of having lived, not died.

The trains crossed the border again, this time heading eastwards and home. They passed the familiar string of Belorussian and then Russian towns, the names that had been shouted in euphoric triumph as the Red Army stormed west. Now, though, the men had time to look, and some would notice what the war had cost. Belorussia was a wasteland, Kiev blackened and destroyed. Whole swathes of farmland looked neglected, for there were fewer people living than five years ago and scarcely any men or horses to take on the heavy work. The landscape was deadly as well, seeded with unexploded shells and mines. Bridges and tracks had been repaired, but the men who chose to hitch a truck ride for the last miles home would find the roads in chaos: broken, muddy and still cluttered with the skeletons of tanks. It was one thing to glimpse all this in wartime, in a crowd, to know that all you had to do was fight. It was another to look at the pitted ruins of Leningrad, Pskov or Stalingrad and understand that the whole landscape would have to be cleared, secured, and rebuilt. Berlin had looked little better, but it had never been these soldiers’ own responsibility, their future.

There would be one more act in every soldier’s odyssey before civilian reality took hold. As ever, Stalin’s feral face presided. His portrait was emblazoned on the trains, his name written across the banners that fluttered above the local party hall. But the ceremonies of welcome for returning veterans were heartfelt. It had not been the party alone but hundreds of families who paid for the flowers that decked veterans’ trains as they pulled into Kharkov, Kursk or Stalingrad. At every halt along the way, indeed, the red carpets had been unrolled, and the men had been offered gifts and food. There had been music – those Red Army hymns – and in some places there had been a real orchestra to play among the Stalins and the scarlet flags. Every platform had been a sea of red cloth, flowers, and cheering crowds. At its best, one of those early journeys was like an extended party.

Perhaps this festive mood carried the soldiers through the shock of coming home, but there is no doubt that it was a tense and even terrifying time. They might have longed for this and even thought of little else, but the veterans’ reunion with parents, children, wives and friends was overcharged with feeling. As their train pulled into its final halt, the men would see a crush of people surging forward, eager strangers, so many women. They scanned the crowds, the printed summer frocks, the children with their photographs of vanished, younger men. And when they found their own people, they must have realized again, in a second, what the war had meant. Caught in the flash of cameras that July, the veterans look like members of a new species. Dusty and sunburned, blinking in a long-forgotten light, they seem to bear no relation to the civilians who press around them. They certainly look older, and their skin, as their own children reach to kiss it, looks tough and dry as leather. And yet, as the pictures also show, the moment shone with real joy.

Demobilized troops arrive in the town of Ivanovo, 1945

The welcoming ceremonies had been planned in detail by the local branches of the party. Attending to the former soldiers’ needs was not just a matter of proper gratitude – although it certainly was that. The orchestrated welcome was also meant to flood men’s minds. Where politruks had influenced the soldiers’ thinking at the front, the local party activists busied themselves providing education and approved kinds of entertainment. The men were kept supplied with newspapers and propaganda sheets. Their hostel rooms were provided with soft drinks, sweets and tobacco. Married men whose families had travelled down to meet them were sometimes put up in hotels until a horse and cart arrived to take them all back home. Single men, and especially the homeless, who faced long periods in transit, were given food parcels to supplement the ordinary ration cards civilians could use. They were also treated to lectures. In Kursk, which housed many transient ex-soldiers, that summer’s programme featured talks on the international situation, the heroic past of the Russian people, the life and times of Maxim Gorky, and ‘medical themes’, presumably lice, drinking and VD. Over 2,000 people attended. They also showed up for the free cinema shows and concerts that the town authorities laid on. Ex-soldiers could not be left to smoulder on their own.67

A train carrying demobilized soldiers arrives in Moscow, 1945

More seriously, someone had to attend to housing, family life, and work. Some of the ‘hotels’ where the men would stay were little more than tents. Wherever the Germans and then the Red Army had been, houses with solid walls were few. Men might go ‘home’ to find their wives and children in a one-room flat with no kitchen, no water and a leaking roof. They might find everyone in an earth dugout, worse even than the ones they remembered from Stalingrad or the Crimea. Local authorities scrambled to find homes for returning heroes after 1945. In Smolensk, a city that had suffered as much as any under the occupation, about a quarter of the returning veterans were still homeless in January 1946.68 But that still made ex-soldiers an élite. In Kursk, even the workshops where the men might get their shoes patched or their worn-out, pre-war clothes repaired were in ruins.69

The first waves of returning soldiers received the greatest applause. Later, in 1946, new groups of veterans would come home to silence, or at best, to a speech and a bread queue. But everyone, even the first, would have trouble finding their feet. Most took a few days off, which the authorities approved. Some used the time to get to know their families. There was so much to talk about, or else so many silences, such doubts. But then came the question of work. At the top of the priority list for demobilization were teachers, especially those with experience in technical subjects, for the state needed its specialists more than ever. Next came students whose courses had been interrupted by war service. Like every veteran, they would go to the head of any queue for college places when the academic year began.70 For those equipped to benefit, war service could be the start of a better life.

The first groups to be demobilized also included veterans with seven or more years of service, the elderly (in army terms), and soldiers who had received three or more serious wounds. Typically, these unskilled men were destined for the farms. Well over half the troops came home to rural areas, to villages that they had left four years or more before. By January 1946, nearly 44,000 soldiers had been demobilized to the Smolensk region alone. Of these, 32,000 had found jobs in agriculture. A few had been madekolkhozchairmen or the leaders of the many rural work brigades. A veteran commanded some respect, at least if his body were whole. But the majority, three quarters of the total, had come back from the front to mud and cockroaches again.71 In 1946, the harvest failed. In Ukraine and southern Russia the people starved, their bodies swelled, and tales of strange murders, and even of cannibalism, began to circulate. Some returnees might well have wondered what it was that they fought and suffered for.


They would have struggled, certainly, to find the promised better life. Their moment in the limelight was to be short-lived. It is probably never possible for post-war societies to cherish veterans enough. There are too many reasons to spurn the returning strangers, especially after the gaps that their departure left behind at home have closed. The Soviet state, and many individual families, made a genuine effort of welcome for the veterans it chose to celebrate in 1945 and 1946. The ones selected for disgrace and exclusion, naturally, soon vanished from view. But it would not be long before even the most triumphant of returning soldiers became old news in a country struggling to forget. Stalin would set a new official tone. He was proud to take credit for the victory but reluctant to share it. He was also aware that stories of his own mistakes were waiting to be told, especially those that focused on the debacle and slaughter of 1941. His solution was typically simple. The rivals for his victor’s crown, including Zhukov, were demoted, disgraced or imprisoned from the spring of 1946. By 1948, within three years of the peace, public remembrance of the war was all but banned.72 There were still attempts to commemorate the dead, and commissions that worked to clean up and arrange clusters of military graves, but veterans of a reflective turn of mind could well have wondered if their state did not prefer dead heroes to the living kind.73

Initially, the easiest thing to offer to returning combatants was material help. Each meeting of Kalinin’s soviet seemed to propose a new pension or handout for the sick, the orphaned, the widowed and demobilized. The needy families of veterans were supposed to receive heating fuel – logs or turf – as the winter approached; they were given sacks of flour and potatoes. They were supposed to head the queue for whatever housing had been patched up and deemed habitable, and their children were exempted from school fees, issued with clothing coupons, and promised more milk. The veterans themselves received a pension, graded by their length of service, rank, and any injury. But all these scraps and packets were controlled by overworked officials of the state. Resources in each town or village were managed by local networks, bureaucrats who had spent their war at work behind the lines. To veterans, these office wallahs were a breed apart, ‘rats’ whose priorities would never match their own. The tensions between those who had fought and those who stayed at home found expression in quarrels over flats and heating, food and children’s shoes.

The situation was even more poignant in the case of invalids. In the first months of peace, it was beyond official means to calculate the total number of these men, and many of the critically ill would die before the end of 1945. However, by the spring of 1946, the state reckoned that there were roughly 2.75 million surviving invalids of the war.74 Like everything this government would touch, these people were considered in a range of categories, depending on the extent of their disability and their need for hospital care. All received pensions as a form of compensation for their inability to work, and many were entitled to parcels containing delights like kasha, dried fish, and eggs. They were also supposed to receive the best available medical attention, and here things became more difficult. Many hospitals were housed in shacks or former schools; there were so few sound buildings left.75 Then there were shortages of doctors, nurses, drugs and prosthetic limbs. Young men who had lost their legs were forced to trundle around on their own home-made carts, and maimed beggars became a common sight in Russian towns.

The disabled were handicapped in several cruel ways. True, the Soviet Union was desperately poor, unable to meet the most basic needs for lack of funds, but the blind, the deaf or crippled might have tolerated that, at least for a time. It was the public attitude that hurt. This was a haunted nation, but it was also a nation trying to forget. The jazz and foppish clothing that enjoyed an unofficial vogue among the young in 1946 were part of a larger quest for release, for deliverance from the shadow of wartime austerity. Disabled people were a nuisance, an embarrassment. Since most had once been foot soldiers, they usually lacked education, influence or cash.76 Instead of gratitude, Ivans like this could meet resentful silence. The more they talked about the war, the more they made their case, the more unwelcome they became, the more irrelevant. The last blow fell in 1947, when Stalin ordered that the streets of Soviet cities should be cleared of beggars, many of whom were amputees. Maimed veterans who had chosen urban life were herded back into trains, this time bound for the north, and especially for an island on the far side of Lake Ladoga, Valaam. Stalin’s unwilling lepers often died in exile.77

For those who lived in the remoter villages, the peasant riflemen, a disability of any kind was a different kind of trap. A man with one leg or no arms could not get on a horse and ride,78 but it might be scores of miles to the nearest rail station. The peasant hut became a prison. An invalid could be deprived for years of medical attention, company and work. The state occasionally proposed new training schemes, but the details were an insult to men who had fought. Blind veterans, for instance, were encouraged to learn to play musical instruments. The idea was to lift them out of depression, to help them earn their keep, but many had no aptitude for music, or no desire to learn it, let alone to busk like beggars on the street.79 People’s real skills were left to rot for want of more imaginative help. For their part, invalids began to avoid medical care. Faced with imprisoning hospital walls, the petty tyranny of orderlies, it seemed a better plan to stay at home, nurse memories and soothe the pain with samogon.80

Drink was the remedy of choice for pain of a more universal kind, the shock and trauma that followed the war. There was little official recognition of war’s psychological effects and almost none for the condition that is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. For one thing, everyone had nightmares. The entire nation had suffered, even children. To complicate matters still more, such violence, though new in its scale and vehemence, was not unprecedented in a country that had seen both civil war and state repression over several decades. It was not clear where the line should be drawn between the shock, depression and exhaustion that everyone felt and genuine psychological disorder. Physicians went on noting cases of contusion, and they also responded to the most acute problems, with diagnoses of neurosis, schizophrenia and mania piling up on hospital desks. But veterans were unlikely to get treatment for battle shock. They might be given vitamins, and in extreme cases they might be locked away, but most were urged to think of duty and get on with life.81 Madness carried a real stigma, and dependency of any kind was treated as weakness.

Conscientious doctors still observed and made note of changes that official dogma was unable to explain. For a few months after the war’s end, there were increases in blood-pressure problems, digestive complaints and even heart disease,82 but these could readily be dismissed as the universal effects of wartime life. Moreover, the post-war hospitals to which sufferers were referred were so uninviting, and the treatments so uncertain, that the number of sufferers who were prepared to report symptoms dropped rapidly from 1946.83 When veterans talk of the good old days, the great communal struggle, they never mention the sleeplessness and long-term malnutrition that afflicted almost everyone. They also forget the untreated toothache, the chronic infestations of lice, the diarrhoea and boils. The soldiers who survived to tell their stories for this book were a small élite in purely physical terms. War injuries, poor diet and strain would shorten millions of lives.

No fantasy of the good war, however, was stronger than the idea that the people pulled together. It was tempting, of course, to look for hidden benefits to balance the war’s obvious cost, to hope that all the suffering had brought out something good. And it is true that singleness of purpose – and achievement – gave some people an extraordinary inner strength. But the idea of a warm community was either propaganda or wishful thinking. For those whom the state punished, post-war life was cruel. For all the rest, it was a time when relief was tinged with disquiet. Everyone would find, too, that Soviet society was visibly harder, more brutal and cold.

The policies and public style of Stalin’s ruling clique would set the bitter tone. Their vengeful treatment of liberated prisoners of war, the calls for sustained vigilance for spies, the new rounds of arrests and trials all worked to fuel suspicion, not build communities. The veterans were not to blame for Stalin’s genocidal schemes, but many would connive in them, becoming willing heirs of tyranny. For those who could not face a quiet night, there were still regions where the war had yet to end. In Ukraine and the Baltic, nationalist guerrillas went on fighting until the late 1940s. Special troops, the successors of Mikhail Ivanovich’s OSMBON, were ranged against them, backed up by security police. By 1950, an estimated 300,000 people had been arrested and deported from western Ukraine. Large mass graves continue to surface from beneath those pretty orchards and neat lupin fields.84 Red Army veterans who fulfilled their wartime dream of moving to Ukraine would settle on stolen land, in empty houses that were thick with ghosts. So would the thousands who moved to the Crimea, a favoured place for soldiers to retire. The crime against the Tatars was officially ignored. For veterans, the coastal villages of the Black Sea were attractive enough to soothe whatever doubts might linger in their minds. They were the conquerors, after all, and this was Soviet soil.

War itself, too, had shattered Soviet family and social networks and debased further the values of mercy, co-operation, and even simple good manners. Society was divided, and all sides viewed the others with dismay. Prisoners, ex-soldiers, and civilians were almost like unrelated tribes. Veterans like Vasily Grossman were shocked by the callousness of post-war cities. It was, he wrote, as though ‘ordinary people had made an agreement to refute the view that one can always be sure of finding kindness in the hearts of people with dirty hands’.85 But the comradeship of the front line was also set to shatter in the peacetime world. Crimes like theft and drunken violence would persist even when the peace was signed. They were, if anything, made easier by the movements of people, refugees, and settlers, not to mention all the guns.86

The family ought to have been a haven for war-damaged men. Stalinist propaganda, and much post-war writing, tried to present it that way.87 But as they rattled home on those garlanded trains, few soldiers could have anticipated the toll that war had taken on domestic life. The so-called home front had been very hard on women. Some, working like oxen, had given up on femininity for good.88 It served no purpose, brought no joy. In rural areas, too, there were almost no males. ‘I was left with three sons,’ a widow told Alexiyevich. ‘They were too young to look after each other. I carried sheaves of corn on my back and wood from the forest, potatoes and hay … I pulled the plough myself and the harrow, too. In every other hut or so there was a widow or a soldier’s wife. We were left without men. Without horses, they were taken for the army, too.’89 These women would grow tough, unblinking. Some even nursed resentment against the army that had abandoned them to the Germans for so many months. When their invalid husbands returned home, the shelter that they gave them was not always warm. Indeed, some women deliberately married invalids in order to claim the handouts – pensions, food, fuel and medical supplies – that their husbands’ documents provided for.90 The trick was to know where to sell them on.

‘What games did we play?’ a man who grew up in this grim decade wondered for a moment. ‘We didn’t play much at all. We had to grow up fast.’ It was the truth. Children were taught that there was more to life than games. Many had gone without schooling for several years, including Slesarev’s young sister, Masha, and the thousands of ‘sons of the regiment’ who were now coming home. As they recalled, no extra teaching now would ever buy those years of schooling back, and nothing could wipe out the images of war. Masha Slesareva, who was already working full-time in the fields at fourteen, was typical of the millions of children who started work as soon as they could shift a shovelful of earth. But though war’s children could not remember much fun, some pastimes had proved unforgettable. ‘That’s it,’ one man recalled. ‘We used to play “the ravine of terror”. We used to throw grenades into this gully near the town and wait to see which ones were live.’ The game had cost his best friend both his hands.91

Home, then, was not the haven that the soldiers had dreamed about as they sat up writing to their wives. Even the couples who managed to rebuild their lives together were aware of a gap, of a blank space that no amount of talking could enliven. It was a cruel payment for the waiting and the letters. Vitaly Taranichev and Natalya Kuznetsova would pull through, but the journey towards reunion was difficult. Vitaly’s letters grew more impatient through the summer of 1945. By August, even his army food was poorer, especially after his deployment to western Ukraine. In September, there was a spark of hope that he might be demobilized, but instead he was moved south-east, to yet another haunted region, Chechnya, where his job was to rebuild the rail links near Groznyi. His requisitioned quarters were nearer to Ashkhabad. ‘Our apartment has two rooms and an enclosed verandah,’ Vitaly wrote home. ‘The second room is not a through-room, and I’ve taken it. If you can come, we’ll be really nice and comfortable; we’ll even be able to cook and eat together.’92

Vitaly could not get leave, so the travelling and the strain fell on Natalya. In October 1945, she took time off from her own engineering job, queued and bought tickets, left the children, and embarked on an unscheduled adventure. She took a train west over the semi-desert to the Caspian, crossed the inland sea by steamer and then fought her way on to another train into the foothills of the Caucasus. The journey to and from Chechnya would have taken longer than the brief time that she had with her husband. For Vitaly, so used to travelling, the price seemed well worth paying, but Natalya was unsettled by it all. ‘Your silence really makes me miserable,’ she wrote to him when she got home. ‘You haven’t written a single line to me since I left. You don’t want to write anything … Perhaps you were disappointed by the way I was, and you have already stopped thinking about me the way you used to do before our meeting in Groznyi?’ It was the November holiday, and Vitaly was, in fact, writing at the same moment. ‘My landlady and I talk about you all the time,’ he began. ‘I have become so used to your being here that every time I come home I half expect to find you.’ He was unable to imagine her insecurity before the uniformed, preoccupied stranger that he had become. ‘Can it be, Vitya,’ she wrote, ‘that you are not the same as you once were, and I am no longer dear to you any more? It’s so hard for me to think like that. I’m waiting impatiently for you at home,’ she finished. ‘I need to know by looking in your eyes exactly who you really are.’93Ten months later, she was still waiting.

Vitaly’s and Natalya’s story was about as good as homecomings would get. Another story, that of Valentina and her husband, was probably more typical of younger men. As Valentina explained, she and her husband, married just before the war, had spent almost no time together before he was called up to the front. They were still almost strangers, and the war would perpetuate the gulf. His letters home were regular, but they arrived at intervals, in bundles, scored through by the censor’s pen. They also had to find Valya at the munitions factory to which, as a chemist, she had been evacuated. She worked there for the war’s duration, supervising a production line that hummed without a break. Her own shifts could be ten hours long, or twelve, and all that time the NKVD watched her every move. As she recalled the war, the strain was still clear from her voice, although a patch of light relief came from an unexpected source. ‘The German prisoners were nice,’ she said, referring to the prisoners of war who worked near her own site. ‘They were so clean. They even swept the shelves they kept potatoes on.’ I asked her if she ever talked to one. ‘Talked?’ she replied. ‘We danced with them. They were the only men for miles, and they were such good dancers, too.’

Her husband had his own experience of Germans. Valya’s file of wartime papers contained photographs of the soldier, sometimes in uniform, sometimes half naked, lolling in a boat. Berlin had been a good billet for the young man. It would be 1946 before he would come home. Again, the reunion worked, or rather, it did not end in divorce. He and Valya lived together until his death in 2001. They even had a son, although the young man, like so many others, had died before his father, a victim of the Soviet scourge of heart disease. The family were comfortable, respectable, and privileged to live in a private, three-bedroomed flat in the heart of Moscow.

Valya let me read her husband’s wartime letters. She even invited me to dictate some of them into my tape recorder as she busied herself making tea. And then I noticed that she was sobbing, as if the memory were too painful to bear. I thought at once it was my fault. I put the recorder away and went to comfort her, guilty that I had revived old grief. ‘Oh no,’ she said as we carried the cups and biscuits through. ‘I don’t mind the old letters. But they were such lies. All that stuff about love and homesickness. All the time he was with her, the German woman. They even had a child. He left her the day after their baby was born.’ Valya’s rage was murderous. She never wanted the man back, but apartments were difficult to get, and married couples – especially veterans’ families – took precedence. All the same, when she became pregnant at the end of 1946, Valya could not bear to carry the child. Abortion was illegal, dangerous, but somehow she managed to find a doctor who would perform one, and somehow she went through with it.

Stories like this would lie beneath so many tight-lipped silences after the war. The sacrifice, the epic hope, would peter out in the quest for a larger room in the communal flat, a holiday in newly Russified Crimea or maybe a collection of kitsch ornaments made from tank parts (clocks made from dials were briefly in demand).94 The flurry of altruism that had enlivened the first weeks of the victory, like the vogue for jazz, soon faltered. The favoured veterans were privileged, and it would be these small advantages, the knowledge that the neighbours envied them, that bound them, like a sort of post-war middle class, to Stalinism. Little advantages, that is, and the terror of chaos, disorder, arrest, and vengeance from anyone that post-war politics chose to exclude. The war that the heroes had fought had not been a campaign for holidays or sausage. It was a betrayal, albeit small, when the soldiers’ passion was allowed to dissolve into small lies, vodka, and homemade jam. But the real tragedy, the perfidy of Stalin’s final years, was the theft that forced decent citizens to acquiesce in tyranny because of fear, the theft of almost every grand ideal that they had fought to save.

It was not a question of the long term: the Soviet Union’s collapse, communism’s ultimate defeat. Those problems waited for the veterans’ old age. The first betrayals were immediate. At the top of the list were the collectives. They would stay, and often it would be the veterans themselves who had the job of trying to make agriculture work. They even helped to export the detested model to the reconquered Baltic and western Ukraine, as well as watching it established in Soviet-controlled territories like Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Then there was Soviet brotherhood, the hope that everyone could pull together to build a society where class, religion and ethnicity were no longer divisive. That one was trampled by the hate campaigns, the deportations, and the racist language that Soviets learned from their Nazi invaders. Among the victims of the new Soviet chauvinism, cruelly, were Jews.95 The Gulag swelled, hungrily drawing new contingents – including veterans themselves – into its twilight of forced labour.96 Even the arts, so dear to soldiers at the front, were subject to obscene and stifling attack, as were many of the poets and writers whose work had tried to capture the truth of the war.97 Once more, Stalin’s dictatorship relied on exclusion and fear, and the people with the most to lose (albeit pitifully little) became its strongest supporters.

There is no doubt that Russia – and much of the Soviet Union – would have suffered terribly if Hitler had succeeded in capturing Moscow back in 1941, if Stalingrad had fallen or wartime Soviet government dissolved. Just as seriously, the whole of Europe, and even the United States, would have faced an unthinkable catastrophe. Stalingrad, Kursk and Berlin were real victories, and not for Moscow only but its allies, too. Their human cost was paid by Stalin’s people, and whether they were willing soldiers or not, all but a small minority believed that they were on the right side in a true, just war. There had not been one kind of soldier, one Ivan, but there was one aspiration, and it was not served by fostering a tyranny no less oppressive than the one all had been fighting to destroy. Unfortunately, the Soviet people, who had acquiesced, however unwillingly, in the emergence of Stalinism and who had also fought and suffered to defend it, would now permit the tyrant to remain. The motherland was never conquered, but it had enslaved itself.

Notes – 10 Sheathe the Old Sword

1 Werth, p. 969.

2 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1406, 70.

3 One reason for that was the annihilation of Polish Jews, which reduced the population by approximately 3 million. Poland’s total losses, approximately 6 million people, amounted to about 20 per cent of the pre-war total. See John Keegan, The Second World War (London, 1989), p. 493.

4 Figures vary, and to some extent, since all are estimates, it is impossible to compare the scale of losses. But a recent Russian account suggests that the ratio of Soviet to German military losses was 1.3:1 (even taking into account the losses of each adversary’s allies). In terms of battlefield deaths, the true figure may be higher than 1.6:1. SeeVelikaya Otechestvennaya Voina, 4, p. 292; Glantz and House, pp. 292 and 307; Krivosheev, pp. 152–3 and 384–92.

5 Overy, pp. 287–8.

6 The official exchange rate in 1940 was 5.3 roubles to the dollar, but this has little real meaning in view of the currency controls in operation throughout the Soviet era. Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voina, 4, p. 294; Overy, p. 291.

7 Vsevolod Vyshnevsky, cited in Werth, p. 942.

8 See Vera S. Dunham, In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction (Cambridge, 1976), p. 11.

9 Cited in Drugaya voina, p. 298.

10 GARF, 7523/16/79, 173.

11 Ibid.

12 GARF, 7523/16/79 contains several others, including a demand for general amnesty and numerous requests to review the penal code.

13 Ibid., 17.

14 Overy, p. 292.

15 Dunham, p. 9; Merridale, Night of Stone, p. 323.

16 The rumour was repeated even in the soldiers’ letters home. See, for example, Snetkova, p. 48.

17 E. Yu. Zubkova, Obshchestvo i reformy, 1945–1964 (Moscow, 1993), p. 43.

18 On adaptation, see Ben Shephard, A War of Nerves (London, 2000), pp. 328–9.

19 Moskva voennaya, p. 708.

20 Ibid., p. 707.

21 Lists of the military participants occupy an entire number of Voenno-istoricheskii arkhiv – 12 (3), 2000. The instructions for the day are printed in ibid., no. 8, 2000, pp. 259–77.

22 Werth, pp. 1002–3.

23 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1405, 157–8.

24 Ermolenko, p. 143.

25 For more detail of the campaign, see Glantz and House, pp. 278–82.

26 For an account, see Joseph Polowsky’s testimony in Studs Terkel, A Good War: An Oral History of World War II (New York, 1984), pp. 444–50.

27 GARF, 7077/1/19, 7–10.

28 GARF, 7399/1/3, 126.

29 Cited in Naimark, p. 74.

30 GARF 7317/7/147, 7317/7/118, 31.

31 GARF, 7077/1/19, 13.

32 Ibid.

33 GARF, 7399/1/3, 153–4.

34 Ibid., 125–7.

35 Ibid., 34; 7317/7/147, 76.

36 Ibid., 98.

37 GARF, 7077/1/178, 10–11.

38 GARF, 7399/1/3, 95.

39 GARF, 7399/1/1, 2.

40 Ibid., 14–15.

41 An example among many was Frankfurt on the Oder (GARF 7399/1/3, 11–15), where discipline had ‘become better than before’ by early July. See also GARF, 7317/7/124b, 36–9, which relates to Berlin.

42 GARF, 7317/10/23, 48–9.

43 Naimark, p. 74.

44 GARF, 7399/1/1, 16.

45 GARF, 7317/7/124b, 5.

46 On the duty of Germans to die for the clean-up, see GARF, 7523/16/79, 215.

47 Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voina, 4, p. 191.

48 Ibid.

49 GARF, 7077/1/178.

50 Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voina, 4, 191–2; Overy, pp. 302–3. For a discussion of the repatriations in general, see Nikolai Tolstoy, Victims of Yalta (London, 1977).

51 Incidents and interviews appear in GARF, 7317/20/15, 42–68.

52 Velikaya Otechestvennaya Voina, 4, pp. 192–3.

53 GARF, 5446/48a/13, 9–11.

54 Ibid., 26–7.

55 Ibid., 27.

56 Overy, p. 302.

57 GARF, 7317/7/124v, 18–19.

58 GARF, 7317/20/13, 76.

59 GARF, 7399/1/3, 42; 7317/20/13, 74.

60 GARF, 7184/1/65, 180.

61 GARF, 7523/16/79, 163.

62 TsAMO, 136/24416/24, 19–21.

63 GARF, 7184/1/57, 347–8.

64 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2(3), 378.

65 GARF, 7184/1/57, 347.

66 Pushkarev, Po dorogam voiny, p 160.

67 GAOPIKO, 1/7/3755, 53.

68 TsDNISO, 6/1/2005, 16.

69 GAOPIKO, 1/13755, 5.

70 GARF, 7523/16/54, 1.

71 Smolensk figures from oblast records (TsDNISO, 6/1/2005, 12–16) and district reports (6/1/2005, 24, 47).

72 This story is told in Nina Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead, p. 104; Garrard and Garrard, Bones, pp. 215–6.

73 On the fulfilment (or otherwise) of Sovnarkom resolutions on war graves, see GAKO, R3322/10/81, 33–4. Simonov’s call for a kind of Soviet orderliness in place of the soldiers’ own tastes in memorials is noted in RGALI, 1814/6/144, 52.

74 GARF, 5446/48a/2657, 161.

75 Of 1,913 buildings commandeered as hospitals by May 1945, 333 were former educational institutions and eighty-four their former halls of residence. GARF, 5446/48a/2657, 161.

76 TsDNISO, 37/1/264, 8.

77 Tumarkin, p. 98.

78 GARF, 8009/35/20, 2.

79 Ibid., 2–3.

80 Night of Stone, p. 315.

81 For literary examples, see Dunham, pp. 10–11.

82 Report from Leningrad hospitals, TsGASPb, 9156/4/321, 14–15.

83 Night of Stone, p. 305, also referring to reports from post-war Leningrad.

84 See Overy, p. 312.

85 Grossman, Life and Fate, p. 141.

86 On Leningrad, see Ehrenburg, p. 11.

87 See Dunham, especially Chapter 13, pp. 214–224.

88 Doctors working in rural areas near Leningrad at the time would find that peasant women also stopped menstruating, which they ascribed to a kind of mourning, but which may as easily have been the result of poor diet and heavy manual work. See Night of Stone, pp. 312–3.

89 Alexiyevich, p. 206.

90 GARF, 8009/35/20, 2–3.

91 Night of Stone, p. 314; see also Werth, p. 520.

92 RGASPI-M, 129.

93 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1404, 131; 33/1/1405, 118.

94 For Vera Dunham’s tart summary, see In Stalin’s Time, p. 214.

95 See Overy, pp. 309–11; Bones, pp. 219–28; Night of Stone, p. 273.

96 Applebaum, Gulag, pp. 414–23.

97 Night of Stone, pp. 317–9; See also Robert Service, A History of Twentieth-Century Russia (London, 1997), p. 319.

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