Military history

And We Remember All

alt

The myth of Ivan began in the midst of war. It was a product of the Sovinformburo, of wartime songs and poetry, and of the stories people loved to read. Even the troops, sometimes, imagined themselves as romantic volunteers, heroes who would do battle for the motherland. Real combat did not coincide with the ideal, but the propagandists’ wooden soldier was a useful figure to invoke before an operation and again when the survivors had to struggle with their exhaustion and shock. The simple hero and his skilful, selfless officers were models that gave the men a sense of purpose, glorified the brutal business of killing, and offered a cloak of indemnity for crimes that no one wanted to acknowledge. Given the soldiers’ love of irony, such mythic figures also – and simultaneously – served as objects for crude, self-deprecating jokes, for Ivan was not always master of his weapons or his body, let alone of the latest party directive. But though men mocked the stuffy rules and the solemnity, wartime propaganda keyed into some basic human needs. And it was just as important after the firing stopped. When the conscript army dispersed and soldiers rejoined the civilian world, the notion of the brave and simple rifleman gave them dignity, a public face, whatever private stories they kept to themselves.

The slogans that the men had used acquired an almost holy resonance with time. The Soviet motherland was an inviolable space, its people bound together in their loyalty. But the repetition of familiar words concealed real changes in their meaning. Patriotism, in 1941, was a radical, liberating, and even revolutionary ideal. The notion, in fact, received a moral boost when Hitler’s troops invaded from the west. At last, true patriots had an invader to repel, rather than shadow traitors conjured up by the secret police. The surge of faith in 1941 even revived the ghost of internationalism, for to be patriotic, in the Soviet sense, was once again to be the proud leader of the proletarian campaign for universal brotherhood. It was to be opposed to fascism, the very cruelty of which, as it became manifest, forced millions to place their hope in socialism. More immediately, patriotism was a matter of self-defence, the collective struggle of the entire Soviet people against aggression. For those who entered into it – the majority of Russian, and probably even Soviet, citizens – the mood was self-righteous. ‘Our cause is just,’ Molotov assured the Soviet people in 1941. However far their army marched, and whatever atrocities it committed, most did not stop believing that.

Mass death and suffering rendered the patriotic impulse sacred. The worst outcasts of the post-war years were the supposed betrayers of the motherland. But while it lost none of the sanctimonious passion of 1941, the meaning of patriotic pride had changed by the war’s end. The cause turned inwards, focusing on Stalin’s state and also, above all, on Russia.1 Instead of aspiring to freedom, patriots would henceforth – wittingly or not – become complicit with the repression of minorities, large-scale arrests, and above all, a bleak and deadly dogma that had almost nothing in common with the libertarian promises that had drawn such crowds to Palace Square in the revolutionary months of 1917. The new Soviet patriotism would be used to condemn and exclude all kinds of dissidents in years to come. War veterans, many of them still intoxicated with the original idealistic brew and still breathing the old pietism, were trapped. They could not be unpatriotic and they could not stand against the government. This was the country (and, in the early post-war years, the leader) in whose name oceans of blood had been spilled. It did not take the veterans long to turn into conservative bastions of Soviet rule.

The process was not smooth, and there were always issues that made former soldiers boil with rage. Among them was a campaign launched by Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, to cut the size of the army.2 Coming on the heels of his famous denunciation of Stalin, the so-called secret speech of 1956,3 which confused and appalled many ex-soldiers, the apparent betrayal of the armed forces caused widespread disquiet. But the Indian summer of the veterans’ long affair with their state was soon to come. Leonid Brezhnev, whose own war record would not have merited a footnote if chance – including the wartime loss of his more talented potential rivals – had not propelled him into the political élite, emerged as the Soviet leader after 1965. His dedication to Bolshevik ideology was slight, his drive for power far stronger. Rather than trying to revive flagging Soviet unity by appealing directly to revolutionary ideals, he saw the war myth as a way of rebuilding the nation’s faltering sense of purpose. The years of Brezhnev’s rule would turn into a golden age of concrete and hot air, a time of state-sponsored multi-volume histories of the war, of solemn speeches of commemoration, hand-outs, new medals and the mass design and construction of memorials.4 The message was that the nation had fought as one, that young lives had been lost and that new generations owed the past (and also their current leaders) limitless loyalty and gratitude.

The veterans, now in their middle age, were called upon to play a patriotic role again. They had always gathered to remember the war, but now they were encouraged to go into schools, talk of their battles, and fire the romantic imaginations of young citizens.5The idea was to bind a generation that had never known the war more closely to the Soviet ideal. A mythic soldier, the Soviet hero, returned to stake his claim upon the nation’s loyalty. This man was stern, moral, and unflinchingly courageous. In many stories, conveniently, he was also dead. Although most veterans remember the great anniversary of 1965, the twentieth year after the victory, as the high point of war commemoration, the historical phoenix that rose from Stalingrad and Kursk in the 1960s was emblematic, two-dimensional.6 And real pressures worked to keep it so. Once the official histories had been passed by the censor, for instance, it was forbidden to publish any fact about the war that was not already in print.7 The archives themselves, those cities of manila files, were closed to almost everyone, and certainly to scholars. Whole areas of wartime life, including desertion, crime, cowardice and rape, were banned from public scrutiny, and several specific crimes, such as the Katyn massacre, were buried under mountains of denial.8 In place of the truth, so complex and so comprehensibly human, the state built a glittering and specious edifice of myth.

Few veterans had much to gain by challenging this. For one thing, the myth suited them. Many used their war records as proof of character in the careers they later chose. War service, or at least the loyal kind, earned soldiers generous pensions, while denigrating what became known as ‘the great exploit’ would always seem like insulting the dead. The hero myth was also partly true, or true enough to make successive generations grateful. To rummage through it all in search of weaknesses and crimes might end in collective tragedy; it might even raise questions about the value of Soviet power itself. Brezhnev’s regime would never lack for foreign critics, and that gave its supporters an excuse to advocate strict unity at home. ‘War is war,’ the veterans would say. And then it would be time to sing the songs again, get out the photographs and reminisce. The shadows of the past were dispelled by the glamour of collective glory, the accusations dissolved into euphemism. After all, even Stalin had referred to rape, famously, as ‘having a bit of fun with a woman’.9

The set and props for Brezhnev’s remake of the war epic are still in use across his former empire. When it came to monumental masonry, Soviet output, even in the years of stagnation, was prodigious. The densest concentrations were clustered around former battlefields, and famous sites are still the best places to look for them. There is a granite monument, for instance, on the Sapun rise outside Sevastopol. It is composed of overbearing lumps of polished rock, like a prefabricated cathedral without a roof, or even like a giant crematorium, since gas jets feed a pallid line of eternal flames and pre-recorded music pipes out from loudspeakers hidden in the walls. Like most memorials, this one commemorates a triumph, the recapture of the Crimea, not the defeats of 1941. In Kiev, the scene of the Red Army’s great humiliation in the same year, a giant Mother Russia celebrates the city’s liberation in the same spirit. She towers over the banks of the Dnepr, her drawn sword raised to guarantee that she exceeds in height all other landmarks, including the nearby cupolas of the medieval Caves monastery. Her skirts swirl above another staple item of Brezhnevite mass production, the war museum. This one is the usual squat, graceless agglomeration of pointlessly extensive red-carpeted spaces. A visitor who is determined to see everything must walk for hours, mostly in semi-darkness, tramping the corridors that link the rooms where medals, blown-up photographs and guns moulder beneath the dusty flags.

The irony, in these two cases, is that the Kiev and Sevastopol memorials stand on the territory of independent Ukraine, a country that is no longer part of the Soviet Union and whose links with Russia itself have been weakened since the Orange Revolution of January 2005. There is, in fact, no political home anywhere for the patriotism that these buildings commemorate. Some young Ukrainians, and certainly the descendants of populations in the west, round Lvov, resent the monstrous presence of monuments that celebrate a war that brought them nothing except pain. And this is also true in other former Soviet states. If the concrete had been lighter, if there had been less of it, the national governments in several former Soviet republics might have thought of clearing the great lumps away when they toppled the Lenins and Dzerzhinskys in their public squares. But the memorials are too massive, too heavy to dismember. Their removal might also leave a crater that could not be filled. Russia is not the only country that paid a high price for Hitler’s war. It continues to matter that Ukrainians were the national group that bore the largest number of civilian casualties on the Soviet side. In Belarus, too, some cities lost one in four of their population. Whatever the citizens of these republics think of Soviet power, the memory of those deaths remains important, and it is bitter and personal for the millions of survivors. Commemoration is not an irritant to be swept aside.

For Russians, the story is slightly different, for this was largely Russia’s war, and certainly it remains a touchstone for those who are struggling, in the confused, post-imperial present, to find anything to celebrate in their country’s last hundred years. The Museum of the Revolution in Moscow is a good place to see how these tensions are playing out. Formerly a shrine to the achievements of the Communist Party, the museum was refitted after 1991, when the very idea of communist achievement had become an oxymoron. Today’s museum displays the bitter fruit of the utopian project. In one room there are photographs of queues; in another, scraps and relics from the Gulag. Two further rooms display a selection of the presents that Stalin received from comrades all around the world. The cabinets are stuffed with kitsch: painted china, woven rugs, cut glass and inlaid hunting knives. For some reason, the gift that his admirers in Mexico selected for the great leader was a stuffed, gold-plated armadillo, which stands on fragile golden feet in its glass case.

Most of the exhibits in the museum are new, but two of its rooms have not been touched. The first houses formal cabinets of medals, portraits and regimental flags. The second, where the light is always low, is draped with camouflage netting. There are helmets and rifles caught up in the web, and recorded gunfire echoes in the gloom. ‘People seem to need it,’ the curator explained. ‘We have never been asked to change those rooms.’ The opposite may well be true; there may still be a real demand. Another Moscow attraction, the Park of Victory in the Great Patriotic War on Pokhlonnaya Hill, was under construction when communism fell. At that moment, some critics urged planners to allow the site to revert to pine forest.10 But the work continued, and the park is now complete, an eclectic fantasy of gold leaf and marble in the Disneyland style. Its vast war museum, which sprawls round the parade ground, is a white monster whose faux-classical colonnade would have delighted Mussolini.

An industry has taken over the business of war commemoration. The beneficiaries of its peculiar economy are seldom veterans themselves. Instead, they tend to be state functionaries, soft-fleshed and middle-aged. Their self-importance is nourished by frequent anniversary dinners, large-scale planning meetings, and even by the arrogance of sixty-year-old triumph. ‘British,’ a woman in uniform remarked as she checked my passport at the door to the administrative block behind the museum in the Park of Victory. ‘They were on our side, weren’t they?’ I nodded meekly, biting back a comment about 1939. It is absurd to argue about decisions that were made by strangers who are so long dead. ‘You can go up,’ she said. ‘But it was not good that it took Churchill so long to open the second front.’

To criticize this cult of patriotic war still sounds like carping. ‘If you do not like the war the way it was,’ the poet Boris Slutsky wrote, addressing the young, ‘try winning it your way.’11 It is a refrain that war veterans of many different points of view can echo. Soviet history has been a battleground since the archives were opened in the 1980s, but the soldiers claim to hold true to the real war. The Russian state, however, has abandoned the old dogma in at least one important way. Faced with the loss of an empire, and with it, of a mobilizing creed, Gorbachev’s successors in the Kremlin chose to turn to one of the ancient pillars of Russian identity, the Orthodox Church. ‘I call those politicians podsvechniki,’ a veteran quipped in disgust. He was punning on the Russian word for candle,svechka, and the effeminate associations of podsnezhniki, snowdrops. Today’s Russian leaders are always well-represented at church festivals. Vladimir Putin carries his pious candle at the great ceremonies in the cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, a building that is an exact replica of a church that his Bolshevik predecessors blew up in 1931. And just as they bless former agents of the KGB in their new role as statesmen, priests of the Orthodox Church must now pray for Red Army dead.

Religious faith was not widespread among soldiers during the war. There were a few believers, but most used prayers and ritual gestures out of superstition, as spells, crossing themselves to ward off death. After two decades of godless socialism, most Red Army soldiers fought without looking for priests, and many rejected religion absolutely. It is incongruous, then, that today’s Park of Victory in Moscow should include a cathedral. Several hundred miles away, at Prokhorovka, the builders have just finished another, designed to look exactly like the kind of nineteenth-century Russian church that 1930s komsomols liked to demolish. In place of traditional frescoes, the walls inside are decorated with the names of the Soviet soldiers who died in the battle for Kursk. The vault is massive, too high to capture in a single photograph. The cruciform shape also defies the camera, for the church is a traditional one, octagonal within and built around a central dome. And though the lettering for every name is small, there is not one inch of plaster on its eight walls that is not covered in writing. The numbers overwhelm imagination, and the monument at least makes sure that visitors will be aghast. But every soldier’s name is now a hostage in the Russian church.

The Orthodox Church’s claim might well have provoked a clash of dogmatisms, but few veterans have complained. Some even find that churches suit their taste more than the offerings of socialist realism that were favoured in the Brezhnev years. Incense and priests seem fitted to the grim business of mourning, and in its guise as the soul of their nation, the Orthodox Church offends today’s elderly far less than does pornography or the materialism of the new rich. But the new piety also has a way of troubling the very old. When they look back at the war, they remember how death seemed simple, part of the patriotic fight. The comrades of their youth died for a cause, whatever happened afterwards. By contrast, their own deaths, as they approach, have become confusing. It is hard to be sure what lives spent under communism mean now that the ideology has gone. It is even harder, for the grand old men, to make sense of post-Soviet death.

It was Anatoly Shevelev who described this dilemma best. ‘My wife was dying,’ he explained. ‘She had throat cancer. They made her have nine operations in the end. She became a Christian believer because of that. I don’t have any time for it myself, I am an absolute atheist. I go to church sometimes because I like the music. But anyway, my wife asked me to pray for her. It was a problem because I don’t know a single prayer, and I hadn’t been to church, really, in my life. But when I came back from the cathedral that day and told her what I’d said, she threw her arms round me. She was so grateful that she wept. She knew, you see, that I’d done the best that I could.’

Shevelev cleared his throat and began to recollect that prayer. ‘Dear God,’ he began, ‘forgive me that I have been an atheist all my life. Not because I chose to be but because from my childhood no one took me to the church. I was brought up in an atheist world. I admire the Russian Orthodox church, and these days I’ve started to value it, because if it had not been for the church, there would have been no Muscovy, and that was the foundation of our state. So I have no quarrel with the church really, and in my own defence, please remember that I, along with millions of other atheists, saved our motherland. By doing that, indirectly, we saved your Orthodox Church. I’ve come to pray for the recovery of my wife, please, God. And forgive me,’ he paused. ‘How did I finish? … That’s right. Forgive me because for my entire life I have been a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.’

alt

The changing context of politics has influenced the way that the war is commemorated and even imagined in today’s Russia. It is the same with soldiers’ memories, most of which also incorporate gleanings from later war stories, from cinema and poetry as well as from the distant past. The only evidence that has not changed – the depredations of mice, damp, insects, and sixty years of dust notwithstanding – is that of documents. Archival sources echo with authentic voices from the past, the idiom of soldiers and their government as it was recorded in the very midst of war. It would be a mistake to see these records as the bearers of objective truth. Whole areas of soldiers’ lives never found their way into print, including most front-line humour, many impious grievances and the details of excess and atrocity, but archived letters and other papers are a welcome corrective to the prim reverence that seems to surround most public discussion of the war in Russia. They offer the best means of understanding the character of the army and the spirit in which the soldiers fought, especially as these changed over time. The main problem is not lack of material but the need to follow shifts in meaning. Words and ideas that looked quite clear in 1945 often began the war with other connotations and darker prospects.

A classic instance is the idea of the motherland. From Tolstoy onwards, all writers have noted Russian soldiers’ love for Russian soil. The same might be said for others – Georgians, for instance – although each culture differs in its sense of home.12 The concept is now clear enough again, at least for people who were never Soviet at all, but motherland, for the early Soviet generations, was a troublesome idea with no clear boundaries or single meaning. It may have been a village or a region, but it was also the entire space, a multinational empire in all but name, in which ‘we’ Soviets lived. Ethnic diversity, in Soviet culture, was more likely to generate confusion than pride. As with patriotism, the invasion of 1941 made things clearer, at least at first. Motherland became the space that the invaders sought to take from ‘us’. The arrogance of Hitler’s Germany, and its implied assumption that backward Russia would buckle and collapse, inspired real anger among Soviet troops, and that by itself helped some endure the first terrible weeks.13

Strong as it was, however, the notion of the motherland would change. It continued to be something that a man could love, but Red Army soldiers learned new ways to imagine it as the war progressed. Peasants from rural backwaters came to glimpse the ruins of Pskov, to see the mountains of the Crimea, the cliffs along the Dnepr. Their sense of what they were defending widened as they marched and fought. It mattered, naturally, that after 1943 the march was westward, towards Berlin. Home must have seemed less glamorous before, when it was clouded by the enemy’s pungent smoke. From the beginning of 1943, as the army moved on from Stalingrad, the image of the motherland, an abstraction, acquired a fresh, intense connection with political geography. Soviet borders would soon cease to be distant ideas, becoming wide rivers and real hills instead. It was all ‘ours’, from the vineyards of the Black Sea to the dunes of the Baltic. But ‘ours’, at a time of intense national chauvinism, gradually came to mean ‘Russia’s.’ The idea that a republic in this great empire might choose independence, to the veterans who still gather in their close-knit clubs and associations, remains almost insulting.14

At the time, beyond the myth, there were conscripts of other types, and many of the kind that had to be coerced and threatened. The myths of Ivan and of motherland take little account of western Ukrainians or even of the ragtag of Belorussian teenagers swept up into the colours in the summer of 1944. They take little note of ethnic loyalties that were not Russian ones, and none of simple reluctance to fight. The Red Army used threats and bullets to force many of the doubters into uniform and keep them in the field. Brutality, physical and verbal, was always part of front-line culture. Violence and terror were used after the war to quell insurgency across the Baltic and western Ukraine. These stories have re-emerged since the Soviet Union’s collapse, they are documented in archives, but most have yet to be explored by history. They suggest that some soldiers, the forgotten ones, must have been driven almost entirely by fear.

At last there is some territory that anyone can understand, or so it is tempting to think. Fear seems so natural in this appalling world that someone who did not know the region’s history might use it in explanation of almost everything. But it is a mistake to assume that these Soviet people, survivors in a universe of violence, would respond like a nation used to peace. This is not to say that fear was unimportant – it was ubiquitous – or even that life was simply cheap, but in this brutal, lethal world, fear was relative. It had to be weighed, a habit that Red Army men had often learned from childhood. As deserters showed in 1941, for instance, mere threats were not enough when the Germans appeared more terrible than any commissar and death most certain under enemy fire. By 1944, the balance had changed, and it was clear that the Red Army had the upper hand in the regions where new recruits were being drafted. This was the era of the ‘1943 partisan’ and others who opted, despite justifiable fear, to join the winning side before it was too late.

The war created a landscape where every choice was potentially deadly for soldiers and civilians alike. To join the army, ironically, may even have looked like a way of taming the nightmares. It was less dangerous, for many, than the genocidal regime of the Nazis. It was less unpredictable, and less brutal, than wartime labour camps. And above all, military service had a meaning, a value. This was clear enough in the case of members of guards regiments and the Communist Party, but the sense of collective purpose extended far beyond this small élite. The army scarcely bothered to train members of its punishment battalions, for instance. Indeed, its whole approach was calculated to humiliate them, to make them feel less than human. They could also be almost certain that their next battle would end in death. Some deserted, others panicked, and the vast majority would die. It is a testimony to the culture of the times (and to the power of the post-war hero myth) that some survivors should remember pride, a sense of purpose, amid their recollections of slaughter and fear.15 They were victims, outcasts, wretched men. But hatred of the enemy was a sure way – their own, not the army’s – of putting their fear and outrage to work.

If fear was not enough to make men fight, then neither, on its own, was ideology. This, too, was something that would change, another word whose meaning needs careful reconstruction. The idioms of progress and morality were central to many Soviet people’s sense of themselves. Ideology encompassed a range of different things, not a simple and universal code. ‘We believed,’ officers, soldiers and surviving NKVD officers insist. Mikhail Ivanovich, the young OSMBON officer, believed for his entire life, which ultimately took him into the ranks of the KGB. Even at his death, in 2002, he demanded a communist funeral. His belief sustained him when he had to shoot at fellow Muscovites. It reinforced the physical strength that enabled him to complete a forced march across 150 miles of icy swamp behind the German lines. He was, in that sense, typical of other former peasants who found adventure and promotion through military service. It would be unwise to assume much love for communism among the rural population as a whole, but where the new ideas struck root, they could be embraced with a fanaticism that calls to mind the Inquisition or the new jihad. This kind of ideology was really faith, and it was ruthless and personal.

Stalinist ideology had shaped the language of the time, becoming part of everybody’s universe by 1941. Even a semi-literate conscript would recognize a politruk and know what kind of role he played; even a peasant would have learned to pronounce the clumsy adjective ‘proletarian’. But the more formal, systematic kinds of ideological understanding of the pre-war era were accessible only to those with the education to grasp them. At the extreme, such beliefs now appear absurd. ‘Please send me something I can read,’ a wounded cadet wrote home from his hospital bed in 1941. ‘Something that’s not about the war. One of the classics, maybe Lenin’s “State and Revolution”.’16 The war itself exposed the naïveté, even the irrelevance, of bookish Marxism–Leninism. As the fighting unfolded, a new kind of understanding took hold, a cruder set of beliefs that almost any soldier could share. It was one thing to sign up in a haze of patriotism, after all, and another to go on thinking about classlessness and dialectics as the order came to rush the guns. No rifleman was likely to resort to Marx as the air started vibrating and the screams began.

Moskvin’s reflections trace the path that many communists of the pre-war era would follow. Initially, though he was reasonably thoughtful and already a soldier of some experience, the politruk subscribed to a kind of fantasy, the dream of all those pre-war films. In the first hours of the war, he believed that his own side had to win. It was the judgement of history, and individual lives counted for little beside that. Faith in that old lie would shatter in the blast of German guns. The credulous utopianism of 1938 either dissolved or it gave way to something else. In Moskvin’s case, and those of thousands like him, belief survived because to die for nothing was unthinkable. There was no easy alternative, either. If a Soviet communist was going to have faith, it would be shaped somehow by Soviet paradigms, and even non-believers in the party’s lore borrowed from its vocabulary. For all that, however, wartime belief was grimmer, less sophisticated and more immediate. It was better, through those bleak nights in the forest, to cheer for Zhukov and Stalin than to have nothing in which to place a faltering faith. Ideas were less important than a sense of purpose, and in combat itself, mere survival was probably utopia enough.

Victory, and even the first signs that defeat had been postponed, changed the nature of belief again. As Stalin pointed out in 1943, the army’s progress was proof that Soviet communism worked. There were all those tanks, those heaps of shells, those planes, those skilled young men to use them. But front-line soldiers made their own judgements about meaning. Their kind of communism was a far cry from the grey world of the theoretical manuscripts. The soldiers put their faith in progress, in the collective, and in the value of acquiring skills. What they called communist belief was about the victory of a just cause over the darkness. It was proof that, with the right kind of will and effort, all the pain of the pre-war decades would work out right. It was also a kind of membership pass. If a person was a good soldier, a good comrade, then small misdeeds were unimportant.

By the end of 1942, moreover, pre-war concepts of ideology were less important to a soldier’s sense of his place in Soviet destiny than military experience and training. Even after the demotion of the political officers, ideologically based pep talks continued at the front, but now nation and  leader were calling on soldiers to know tactics, to learn the proper use of weapons and the value of commands. In terms of the army’s success, the turn to professionalism was crucial, and the party, for a while, was openly subordinated to the army’s own commanders. But for a soldier – whether an officer or a technician with a single task to master – the image of a ‘good’ soldier, the personal goal, was a combination of patriotism and manliness (a word much used in wartime poetry), loyalty to the collective and professional skill. The skill gave soldiers their confidence, the collective the warmth, often the love, that sustained them through battle. If those shaded into a decision to join the Communist Party, it would have been a relatively small step in their minds. But it was not the ideology of 1937, or even the teaching of purist political commissars, that wartime recruits would have had in mind as they took their new party oaths.

After the war (and even before Zhukov had accepted Germany’s surrender), front-line collectivism would become a target for Stalin’s regime. According to this state’s own reckoning, the veterans were heroes, but it was never likely that the dictator would allow them to apply their hard-won confidence and public spirit to the task of governing at home. The tragedy of the veterans, or part of it, was that their sacrifice counted for almost nothing in the shaping of post-war politics. True, their symbolic value was enormous. But they were used, not consulted. An ideal soldier took the place of all the diverse, the opinionated and self-confident fighters who came back from the front. While this hero was praised, the real veterans were misunderstood, idealized in ways they did not choose, and ignored or rebuffed everywhere else. In Brezhnev’s time, it suited those in power to turn old soldiers into tame, even boring, paragons of developed socialism. No doubt future regimes will evolve uses of their own for the symbols of patriotic war. When the last veteran is dead, there will be no limit upon the words and ideas that the heirs of Russia’s victory can attribute to its heroes, but for a little longer there remains a check. While the soldiers are alive, they can still speak out for themselves.

alt

The place to find the old soldiers in Kursk is in a chilly looking building that is still referred to as the Officers’ Club. The mansion, now somewhat neglected, stands in the shadow of the former cinema, a building which, in 2003, was being restored to its original status of cathedral. The whole site was a maze of scaffolding and heaps of sand when I visited, although it was the very eve of the sixtieth anniversary of the tank battle. The local veterans’ association was holding a meeting, as it always did, in a large room around the back. To step inside was like crossing some fault in time, for Lenin frowned from the walls and there were dismal rows of memoirs in the glazed shelves underneath. The room could not have changed in twenty, maybe thirty years. A huge table occupied most of the space, as if the people were an afterthought. But there they were, stern and austere, failing to hear the chairman as he spoke amid the din of tractors and drills. It was nine o’clock in the morning and they had all arrived promptly, used to discipline.

Their chairman had offered to give me five minutes of the meeting’s time. The idea was that I would say my piece, take down some names and then sit quietly while the meeting transacted its other business. The arrangement was awkward, for it put me in the role of interloper, but it was probably my foreignness that rankled most. I explained that I was looking for volunteers to interview. As ever, I said that I wanted people to tell me what they remembered, and I promised not to pry for secrets. There was a hesitation, then somebody told me that I should go back to Moscow. There were books, he said, to tell people like me whatever stuff we seemed to need to know. The faces round the table closed as quickly and decisively as sea anemones around a rock pool. But then, as always, someone called me over to his chair and asked me to explain again. It was the marvellous Anatoly Shevelev, and when I had described what I was doing for a second time (and promised cognac in the place of tea), he agreed to come to my room the next morning. His generosity inspired the others. The next day, when I had set a banquet out in my hotel room, borrowed a samovar, and piled up blank cassette tapes on a desk, I found a queue in the lobby downstairs. The first person arrived for a late breakfast around nine o’clock. It would be nearly fourteen hours before the last group left.

That night, I dreamed of shelling, saw the bodies, woke up in a knot of Russian words. Part of my mind had picked up the horror that was always implied in the soldiers’ tales. But though my own imagination had supplied the blood and flames, the veterans had not dwelled on the grotesque when we talked. As they recounted life before the war, life between battles, and their individual tales of adaptation to the peace, the soldiers could be vivid raconteurs, but their battle stories were as bland as any formal histories of war, the horror disembodied, safe. Even the veterans who talked for hours – and to each other, for the interviews tended to overlap – had kept such details out of their accounts of violence. Rather than trying to relive the grimmest scenes of war, they tended to adopt the language of the vanished Soviet state, talking about honour and pride, of justified revenge, of motherland, Stalin, and the absolute necessity of faith. When it came to accounts of fighting, the individual was set aside, shut off, as if we were all looking at the story through a screen. There were bodies, and there were tears, but there was no blood, no shit, no nervous strain.

This reticence had troubled me when I began the research for this book, but by the time I got to Kursk I had begun to understand. The veterans’ detachment was not merely a feature of their old age, some weakness of psychology to be pathologized and healed, nor was it simply self-defence. Instead, the images that veterans used, and their choice of silences and euphemisms, hinted at the secret of their resilience. Back then, during the war, it would have been easy enough to break down, to feel the depth of every horror, but it would also have been fatal. The path to survival lay in stoical acceptance, a focus on the job in hand. The men’s vocabulary was businesslike and optimistic, for anything else might have induced despair. Sixty years later, it would have been easy again to play for sympathy or simply to command attention by telling bloodcurdling tales. But that, for these people, would have amounted to a betrayal of the values that have been their collective pride, their way of life.

The war gave veterans very little. The assumption, beloved of a certain kind of well-nourished romantic conservative, that war makes nations stronger and more positive would not stand two minutes’ exposure to the reality of Stalingrad. I asked every veteran I met if their army service had improved their lives, and most told me about the things that they had lost. The list included youth, years of freedom, health, and then the scores of people: comrades, parents, families. True, many soldiers received useful training, but most believe (correctly or not) that their skills could more easily have been acquired in peacetime. As for the loot, the feather pillows and the children’s shoes, they were poor compensation for material loss and scant comfort for veterans’ families in the lean years after the war. War pensions used to be worth a great deal. In the hard times of the 1990s, some veterans helped adult children and grandchildren to feed and warm themselves by sharing these regular benefits, but these days even the handouts have started to lose value, turned to cash in an inflationary world. The only gain that significant numbers of the old soldiers did acknowledge was that the misery of war itself had made them value their survival more. This love for life is one of the most attractive qualities they share.

The veterans of Kursk were winners. They were neither former prisoners nor convicts from a punishment battalion. Their silences defended them from memories of injustice, though it would be impertinent to tell them so. But none of them sailed through the war undamaged. It is a measure of their strength, and of their survival, that they can talk at all about shelling, sniping, decomposing limbs and wounds. It is a measure of an entire generation that it kept its dignity. Perhaps their very reticence helped these soldiers to victory. Morale, after all, is largely based on hope. And memory, for them, is sacred, live. ‘What do the old men talk about when they come back to remember?’ I asked the curator of the museum at Prokhorovka, Russia’s greatest battle site. ‘They don’t talk much,’ she answered. ‘They don’t seem to need to. Sometimes they just stand and weep.’

Notes – 11 And We Remember All

1 On Stalinism and Russian nationalism among veterans after 1945, see Druzhba, p. 43.

2 Like Stalin, he also sacked Zhukov. See Robert Service, Twentieth-Century Russia, p. 372.

3 Khrushchev attacked what he described as the cult of Stalin’s personality, and with it, many of the excesses of Stalin’s dictatorship. See N. S. Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, trans. Strobe Talbott (London, 1970), pp. 559–618.

4 For the memorials, see Michael Ignatieff, ‘Soviet War Memorials,’ History Workshop Journal, 17 (Spring 1984), pp. 157–63.

5 For further evidence, see Ignatieff, ibid., and Nina Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead, which traces the Second World War cult over forty years.

6 On 1965 in the veterans’memories, see Kolomenskii almanakh, vyp 4 (Moscow, 2000), p. 238.

7 R. W. Davies, Soviet History in the Gorbachev Revolution (Houndmills, 1988), p. 101.

8 For the story of Katyn, which emerged only after 1990, see R. W. Davies, Soviet History in the Yeltsin Era (Houndmills, 1997), pp. 18–19.

9 This was a comment made to the Yugoslav diplomat, Milovan Djilas. See Djilas, Conversations with Stalin (New York, 1962), p. 111.

10 For the whole story, see Nina Tumarkin, ‘Story of a War Memorial’, in Garrard and Garrard (Eds), World War II, pp. 125–46.

11 See George Gibian’s ‘World War 2 in Russian National Consciousness’, in Garrard and Garrard, ibid., pp. 147–160.

12 Georgian veterans tended to be even more ‘Soviet’ in their outlook than Russians, not least because the notion of Georgian homeland is fragmented and, in the present, still troubled by ethnic hatreds inside the republic’s territory.

13 Werth, p. 155.

14 Druzhba, p. 43. The persistence of this kind of nationalism was apparent in the interviews I carried out in Georgia and eastern Ukraine in 2002 and 2003.

15 The testimonies in Rodina, 1991, 6–7, especially pp. 61–3, confirm what surviving members of punishment battalions said to me.

16 M. Gefter (Ed.), Golosa iz mira, kotorogo uzhe net (Moscow, 1995), p. 41.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!