Military history

Black Ways of War


The summer lingered till the first week of October. It was an alien, an uncanny, treacherous season. Perfect weather ripened crops whose fate would be to mellow, colour, choke and rot. Across the steppelands of Ukraine, fields that had teemed with cattle were now rank with weeds. Berries ripened in the woods untasted; few people were around to care. Those who passed by heading east were not travelling for pleasure. On Moscow’s orders, entire industries were being crated up and moved to the deep hinterland; it seemed as if the whole world was bound for the rails. Families who had no special rights, no contacts, set off on foot along the roads. Columns of dust followed the people and the carts, the droves of livestock, children, and the long thin lines of troops. After the refugees had gone, and after the last Soviet soldiers, the tanks came, and the trucks and horses, and the plague of grey-clad men.

The Baltic, Belorussia and most of Ukraine were all in German hands by the end of August 1941. Kiev itself fell in the middle of September. By then, too, Leningrad had been cut off from its main sources of supply. The railway at Mga, the last transport route into the city, fell to the invaders in late August. Now German heavy guns and fighter planes closed in on Russia’s second capital, their sights fixed on its industry, its wealth. The Wehrmacht was so sure of victory on this front now that some troops were diverted south to seize an even greater prize. Hitler’s orders were to capture Moscow and then to gouge it from the earth, to turn the city into a huge lake. That autumn, German troops looked set to carry out their task. On 2 October, they captured Orel, and by mid-month they had taken both Kaluga, on the Oka river to the south-west of Moscow, and Kalinin, modern Tver, towards the north. They were within a hundred miles of the Kremlin.

Red Army soldiers faced the prospect of a complete rout. By contrast, their enemy seemed vigorous and optimistic. ‘The SS and the tank divisions went into attack with such enthusiasm that you would have thought that what they had just come from was not four months of heavy fighting but a long rest,’ Erich Hoepner, the commander of panzer group four, wrote in an arrogant report.1 His men had just motored south from the Leningrad Front to join Guderian’s in the campaign for Moscow. Killing appeared to feed their appetite for war. ‘The number of Soviet military deaths was even greater than the number of prisoners we took,’ Hoepner went on. ‘Each night the villages went on burning, colouring the low clouds with a blood red light.’2

The Germans blamed the weather for what happened next. Hoepner would claim that the capital’s defensive trenches and mines were no barrier to his determined men. His losses, he wrote, were heavy, but those of Moscow’s defenders were more catastrophic still. The snow, at first, seemed no deterrent either. Hoepner was at Borodino, barely sixty miles from the Kremlin, when he brushed the first dry flakes from his greatcoat. But then the rain began, the Russian autumn rain that goes on falling day and night for weeks. It was this rain, so unexpected and prosaic, that ‘snatched from German hands the victory that we had almost won’. The Wehrmacht was sunk axle-, knee-and fetlock-deep in heavy grey-brown mud. ‘It took two days and nights,’ Hoepner recalled, ‘to cover ten kilometres, if you could travel on at all.’ The wheels of trucks and carts spun uselessly, forcing the vehicles to sink deeper; men cursed and shivered in the all-pervading damp. ‘Our supplies were cut off absolutely,’ Hoepner continued. ‘Ammunition, fuel for our vehicles and bread soon came to be worth their weight in gold. We could not even transport our wounded to safety.’ Somewhat grudgingly, as if the Soviets were cheating in a fencing match, he added that the enemy had used the time to bring forward its trained, experienced reserves. The mud was no impediment to railways that ran eastwards across the steppe.

The Red Army deserves more credit for stalling the Nazi advance than Hoepner gave it. With nothing left but their pride and despair, some soldiers fought with suicidal courage. But there was no denying the depth of the Soviet crisis. In less than four months, the Red Army had lost more than 3 million men, hundreds of thousands of whom had been captured in the great encirclements at Kiev and Vyaz’ma that autumn. An army that had fielded nearly 5 million troops in June could now muster just over 2.3 million.3Reserves and new conscripts were drawn up behind the front line, but there could never be enough, even in a country of Russia’s size, to compensate for such a crippling loss. By October, too, nearly 90 million people, 45 per cent of the pre-war population, found themselves trapped in territory that the enemy controlled.4

The Red Army had the first call on manpower then and later in the war, but the industries that supplied and maintained its troops needed resources, too. Labour would always be a problem, since the workforce was now little more than half its pre-war size.5 But the most immediate economic crisis was the loss of plant. Roughly two thirds of pre-war manufacturing had taken place in territories that the Germans seized in 1941. Anything that could be moved in time had been evacuated beyond the Volga to the Urals, but serious losses could not be avoided. Not many guns were made in August and September 1941. Four fifths of Soviet war production was ‘on wheels’.6 Moscow’s defenders soon ran out of shells that autumn. They ran out of cartridges. They even ran out of the guns with which to fire them. The equipment to assemble more was still packed up in crates. New factories were thrown together inside wooden shacks, the workforce labouring around the clock, but even then production would not pick up for some months. In December 1941, an entire reserve army, the 10th, arrived for service without heavy artillery or a single tank.7

The German boast was that the Soviets were finished. It was a mistake, but an easy one to make. The same thought had crossed the minds of many Soviet civilians that autumn. In Moscow, the scene of June’s naïve patriotism, embittered citizens prepared to flee. Hoepner was gratified by the panic that his tanks created. ‘A large part of the population fled,’ he wrote. ‘Valuable equipment in the factories was destroyed. The approach of the tanks and infantry units of the fourth tank group brought terror to the red capital. Looting began. The Soviet leaders made off to Kuibyshev on the Volga.’8 Stalin, in fact, remained in his capital city, a stand that rekindled many people’s hope. But even his presence could not quell the panic that October. With enemy troops in its very suburbs, Moscow almost collapsed from within. ‘Those were dreadful days,’ a textile worker remembered. It started on 12 October, but the crisis came four days later. ‘My heart went cold,’ the woman recalled, ‘when I saw the factory had closed down. A lot of the directors had fled.’9 So had the managers of other plants, some party bosses from the city’s local wards, and almost anyone who could squeeze into a car and ride out east.

The state’s answer was to prepare a war on its own people. If they would not behave like epic heroes of their own accord, then NKVD guns would force them to. Special troops were stationed around the capital. Their brief was to defend it from invaders outside and defeatists within. The most important of these secret bodies, and the forerunner of the post-war Soviet Spetsnaz, was the Motorized Infantry Brigade of the NKVD Special Forces, OSMBON. Among its members was Mikhail Ivanovich, the son of peasants but one of the beneficiaries of Stalin’s rule. Like Kirill, this man had found promotion and adventure in the army. In his case, the initial attraction was the opportunity to prove himself at sports like boxing. More than 800 athletes would join OSMBON in 1941.10To be enrolled was to be part of a select and glamorous élite. Now that élite was asked to save the capital, and they felt honoured in the role.

Mikhail Ivanovich’s specific duty was to defend the Spassky Gates, keeping a vigil from the second floor of the GUM building. His sniper’s rifle was ready to fire at anyone – civilian or soldier – who threatened the sector under his guard. But looting was more of a problem than enemy troops. Mikhail Ivanovich was unemotional. ‘It was necessary, absolutely necessary, to establish order,’ he recalled. And yes, we did shoot people who refused to quit the shops and offices where food and other goods were stored. Meanwhile, Mikhail Ivanovich’s colleagues made sure that Moscow itself would not surrender. The people could die with their city if it fell. Strategic buildings – including the Bolshoi Theatre – were mined. The Special Forces’ own radio headquarters, which was housed in Moscow’s Puppet Theatre, was set to blow up with the rest.11

The battle for Moscow, which resumed in mid-November when the grey mud froze, came to be counted among the Red Army’s decisive victories. Hoepner’s tanks took the riverside town of Istra, with its golden-domed cathedral of the New Jerusalem, on 26 November. But his men were exhausted, the veterans among them muttering that even in its darkest days the First World War had known no harder fighting. Their ordered blitzkrieg had dissolved into a hell of hand-to-hand combat; their rich new land had drained of pleasure in the vicious cold. Even their darkness, as Hoepner observed, was dissipated in chaotic light as tracers flashed and glittered on the snow.12 Red Army troops, by now, were dressed in the camouflage suits they had adopted for winter campaigning since the Finnish war. Unlike their adversaries, they were also prepared for the cold. Looming out of the dark like phantoms, they unnerved their German conquerors. And then they fought, it seemed, with new determination and new stealth. By late November, it was clear that the German tanks would get no further before Christmas. Then, on 5 December, the Red Army attacked in its turn, driving the enemy back from the capital and breaking, link by link, the chain that threatened to encircle it.

Credit for Moscow’s defence usually goes to Georgy Zhukov. Stalin’s political entourage had failed, and now the generals were fighting back. The other heroes were the reserve troops – twelve entire armies – that were brought to the front that October.13 But the capital was also defended by conscripts from its hinterland, and even by intellectuals, old men and students. This second group went into battle with the mindset and the preparation of civilians. Back in July, Stalin had called on people to join a levee en masse, and plans for Moscow’s citizens’ defence, the opolchenie, swung into operation immediately. Each district of the capital raised its companies of volunteers. Anyone who wanted to, almost, could serve. Their ages ranged from seventeen to fifty-five. As one survivor put it, most believed that they were destined to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution that November in Berlin. ‘The newspapers, cinema and radio had been telling our people for decades that the Red Army was invincible,’ recalled Abram Evseevich Gordon. Like everyone else, he too believed that ‘under the leadership of the Communist Party and our Great Leader any enemy would be defeated on his own soil’.

Soviet infantry in their trenches, winter 1941

Male volunteers of Gordon’s age soon graduated from digging trenches. By August, opolchentsy had joined the defence of the strategic highways leading out of Moscow. Gordon himself was sent out to the old Kaluga road. He recalled the grim faces of his ‘most unmilitary’ comrades as they set out to defend the capital, some on bicycles, others on foot. At their new base they received uniforms, drab black affairs that made them look, they thought, like Mussolini’s fascists, although in fact the worn garments had probably been captured in Poland in 1939. They also saw some Polish rifles, although not every volunteer was armed. And then their training started, which, to Gordon’s horror as an urban dweller and an intellectual, involved mastering horsemanship. Their instructor, an old cavalryman called Kovalchenko, used training methods that recalled the days of Napoleon and Kutuzov. The recruits had to ride bareback for hours at a stretch, enduring unaccustomed pain until the bloodstains from their blisters began soaking through their pants. ‘The only escape from this torture,’ Gordon wrote, ‘was the medical tent.’ Meanwhile, the news coming from the front grew bleaker, ‘though we did not want to think the worst’.14

Other cities went through the same procedures when the call to arms went out. In many places, militias showed courage, if not conspicuous success. Alexander Werth regarded the response of his native Leningrad as a model of local patriotism, but the use ofopolchentsy there involved heartbreaking loss of life. Wherever they were made to fight, unprepared and unmilitary opolchentsy would die in their thousands. Others never expected to join combat. In Fatezh, a small town in Kursk province, the 3,000 volunteers who stepped forward in July had received no training by September 1941. They did not know how to hold or aim a gun. Many had never fired one in their lives. They had not even decided where to locate the main defensive positions round the town. Among collective farmers in the region the appeal for volunteers fell on unwilling and resentful ears, while in nearby Kursk itself training sessions were poorly attended after the first heady week. Even communists neglected blackout and no smoking rules.

Some people still believed that their country’s huge size would protect them. As late as the last week of September, the danger to Kursk province felt distant enough for locals to focus on other things, including their own private plans to get away.15 They paid a high price six weeks later when the region was crushed by the tracks of German tanks. But some had calculated that obsolete guns and home-made bombs were useless in the face of this invader anyway. There were plenty of deserters in the villages with fatalistictales to tell. Near Moscow, too, Gordon heard terrible stories from the lips of refugees. By day, the volunteers were buoyed up by collective spirit; at night their private fears ran free.

Like many other opolchenie groups of its kind, Gordon’s division was absorbed into the Red Army in August. In the presence of members of his local Communist Party branch, he and his friends took the Red Army oath and exchanged their black uniforms for the infantry’s olive green. By then, he estimated, most of them had scarcely handled a real gun. Gordon had fired a training rifle twice. These men became the refounded 113th rifle division that September; refounded because the first division with that number had been wiped out near the Soviet border several months before. This version, too, would be consumed and reborn in the coming weeks, first in October 1941 and again in the opening months of 1942. Gordon’s incarnation of the division was destroyed in a single day.

The disaster took place in the skeletal woods of birch and pine that line the Warsaw highway leading to the capital. Gordon’s division had the task of blocking the predicted German advance, but the men panicked at the first whiff of an enemy. Like greenhorn soldiers anywhere, they could not hold their fire. By the time the enemy was within range, they had almost no bullets left. The Molotov cocktails ran out next. Gordon watched young researchers he had known from Moscow University’s geology and physics faculties hurling bottles of burning kerosene at looming German machines. The lucky ones died instantly. Others suffered terrible injuries, dying slow deaths in the woods after their friends had retreated or facing the mercy of the German SS detachment that went round the next day to clear debris from the battlefield.

Only 300 members of Gordon’s division survived till nightfall, and most of these would perish in the coming days as they tried to break out of the German ring that now surrounded them. Gordon himself was captured. He would have died in the camps, but the vast size of his column of prisoners saved him. The bemused German guards could not keep watch on everyone, and Gordon slipped away into a haystack, hiding overnight and through most of a second day. His own future would lie with the regular army, but he never forgot his first comrades in arms. In a final irony, he observed that they included many, patriotic to the last, whose names had not been entered correctly in the Red Army’s rolls when they made the transition from opolchentsy to regular troops. Their papers were not in the required order, and that meant that they counted as missing in action. The rules on this were unambiguous. The state regarded them as deserters. Instead of praise and much-needed financial help, their families carried the stigma for another fifty years.16


The slaughter of Gordon’s 113th rifle division stalled a panzer unit for a day or so. The waste of life and talent for so little gain was heartbreaking. But these were months when men were dying in their tens of thousands. Whatever else Stalin’s regime might lack, it did not begrudge human lives. The Germans put the carnage down to some trick of exotic guile, declaring the Red Army to be ‘the craftiest and most stubborn enemy that we have ever faced’. If you want to resist a Russian-style attack, a captured report advised that winter, ‘you need strong nerves’.17 But German observers had also noted the lines of special troops behind the riflemen, the men with machine guns who waited to cut the stragglers down. ‘As a rule,’ a report of the time declared, ‘they do not fight out of some ideology, nor for their Motherland, but out of fear of their officers, especially their commissars.’18 ‘Fear and hate,’ agreed another observer, ‘leave Russian soldiers to fight with nothing but the courage of desperation.’19

The soldiers were indeed afraid. Among Moscow’s defenders were some, like the famous twenty-eight ‘Panfilov men’, who fought to the last bullet in part at least because retreat would mean tribunals and a death sentence.20 But threats were not sufficient on their own. For one thing, some still dreamed of simply giving up. The illusion that fascism would turn out to be no worse for Slavs than Stalin’s rule was a temptation to these hungry and exhausted men. ‘We should stop fighting,’ a soldier in the 16th Army muttered to his friends that October. ‘It won’t make any difference whether we beat the Germans or not.’ ‘Half of our collective farmers are against Soviet power,’ added another. ‘Our generals shouted on about how we were going to defeat the enemy on his own soil, but it’s turned out the opposite. We Russian people have been betrayed by our generals.’ His friends seemed to agree. ‘They are trying to starve us to death now. They’ll kill us all,’ another rifleman complained. ‘They treat the Red Army like dogs.’21Secret police wrote all this down, not least because the bitterness so readily translated into action. That October, nearly 130,000 people were detained in Moscow for ‘breaches of military regulations’. Nearly 5,000 of these were Red Army deserters, and 12,000 more were charged with evading military service.22

Desertions on this scale were evidence that tyranny alone could not make heroes out of frightened men. It merely wasted yet more lives. The number of death sentences that military tribunals passed rose steadily between November 1941 and February 1942. The accused, most frequently, were charged with desertion and fleeing the battlefield.23 While all armies take measures of this sort to some extent, even this leadership was horrified by some tales of its own brutality. Investigators singled out a case where a lieutenant had shot a soldier for no reason (or none that they could see). In another case, a commissar shot his sergeant for smoking and a major for outspoken language. It was a cruel regime, but even so the desertions continued. The men feared battlefield death and mutilation more than their gun-toting commissars. ‘You won’t need to be in the army long,’ a soldier wrote home, ‘perhaps a month or so, before, no doubt, you end up in the German meat-grinder.’24

Stalin, the expert, observed that terror was becoming ineffective. In October 1941, anticipating the army’s total collapse, he ordered that ‘persuasion, not violence’ should be used to motivate the men.25 Obediently, the political administration and Sovinformburo took every measure to ‘persuade’, maintaining a stream of distortions and lies about the army’s courage and the enemy’s distress. It did not work. ‘Don’t believe the newspapers,’ a soldier wrote. ‘Don’t believe the papers or the radio; the things they say are lies. We’ve been through it all and seen it all, the way the Germans are driving us – our own people don’t know where to run; we’ve nothing to fight with; and when the Germans catch up with us, our men have nothing to escape in. We’ve got no fuel, so they abandon our cars and tanks and run for it …’ Another bleakly added that ‘they make us keep our mouths shut’.26

The task of inspiring these wretched men should have fallen to their officers. Some of these would prove to be extraordinary men, but many, including some of the most efficient, were tyrants whose coarse language and rough discipline came straight from the primeval world of the village. The rest were often so inexperienced that seasoned troops despised them as mere boys, or worse, as bureaucrats. The worst offenders here included men promoted in the atmosphere that followed Stalin’s purge, the ones whose talents had appealed to politicians. It was absurd to think these people could inspire anyone. Konstantin Simonov described the type. At Kerch, in 1942, he met an officer he called Sorokin – ‘I can’t quite recall his name’ – who struck him as ‘unwarlike, knowing nothing about war. His only good quality,’ said Simonov, ‘was the fact that he knew he understood nothing, and so he did whatever he could not to interfere, or if he had to, he just made it look as if he was involved, although he was not really doing anything at all.’27

‘We never saw an officer,’ surviving opolchentsy muttered as they limped home from the front. ‘The generals ran away, they changed their trousers, and left us to fight.’28 Their story is repeated among divisions of experienced troops. In October 1941, the commander of the 50th rifle division of the 5th Army, Dorodnyi, reported that his men had received none of the artillery support they had been promised for the defence of Moscow’s Mozhaisk highway. ‘We had to hold the tanks at bay with rifles and machine guns,’ he complained. The commanding officer, General Kamera, listened for a few moments before barking that the artillery commander, Vasyukov, should be shot at once. The measure was beside the point. Vasyukov and his big guns were still needed for the next morning’s campaign. ‘I’ll look into it,’ Kamera replied, and climbed into his car. ‘I never saw him again,’ Dorodnyi wrote. ‘He seems to strengthen his authority by doing nothing, letting other people shed their blood.’29

The officers who remained in the field, men like Dorodnyi, acted from a sense of duty and probably from military experience that dated from the civil war. Some were professionals, and some stiffened their trained resolve with real communist faith. The men, however, had fewer incentives. If they stayed in the field that winter, it was from inertia, from loyalty to their friends, or from the team spirit that the shared experiences of terror, hardship, and isolation from their former lives instilled.30 Their worlds had shrunk, their desires attenuated. Instead of choosing a future, they had become the creatures of their fate. The world beyond the lines of trenches and the army’s controlling routines was frightening in its own right, and the tales that were coming through from refugees and stragglers made it seem more terrible and uncanny still. But one emotion could be singled out among the confused impulses of almost every serviceman that winter, and it was the desire for revenge.

‘At last after half a year I am on your trail,’ Misha Volkov wrote to his wife in February 1942. ‘My joy is without bounds today, though it will be complete only when I receive a letter from your hand.’ That consummation came soon after. ‘Today is the happiest day of my life,’ the artilleryman wrote. ‘At last, after all the searching, I have found you.’ Volkov had been tortured by his worries. The last time he had seen his wife, she and their daughter had been settled in their home in Kiev. There had been no time for letters after that, for Volkov himself had been at the front line, and then, in September, Kiev had fallen. The rumour was that all its Jews were dead. Desperate for news, Volkov wrote to everyone he knew. Finally, in the new year, he made a public appeal on the radio. Three letters came from people he had scarcely met. His wife was safe. They told him how to find her new address.

‘In the last eight months I’ve been through quite a lot,’ Volkov wrote. ‘But my troubles can’t be compared in any way with all that you, no doubt, have been through. First that time in Kiev, then the evacuation and the uncertainty over me. I can imagine how difficult all that must have been for you, but at least you did not stay in Kiev to fall into the hands of the fascist monsters.’ For once, he wrote, the papers were failing to blacken the enemy enough. He was beginning to understand what he was fighting for. ‘However much they write in the newspapers about their atrocities,’ he went on, ‘the reality is much worse. I’ve been in some of the places where the beasts have been. I’ve seen the burned-out towns and villages, the corpses of women and children, the unhappy, plundered residents, but also I’ve seen the tears of joy when these people encountered us … The spirit of these places has affected me and it has grown in all our soldiers …’31

Men like Volkov had no chance of returning home. They had to trust the army as a whole, even the state, to protect families in danger. If they had doubted Moscow and its ideology before, and even if they went on doing so in a part of their minds, the only way to sleep at night would be to attempt to believe that Stalin, the government, and their own fellow soldiers would take care of the people whom they loved. And they were learning fast about this war. They might not have believed the rumours in the first few weeks – the propaganda machine had always generated lies – but before long they could see and touch the evidence for themselves. That winter, the first mutilated bodies – burned, butchered, bruised and left to freeze in the thin snow – were found and photographed by front-line Soviet troops retaking villages near Moscow.

Their enemy seemed to rejoice in violence. Escaping refugees told of mass shootings, the torturing of partisans. The fascists drank and laughed as the corpses of their victims burned on petrol-sodden pyres. ‘According to the local people,’ wrote a man from Smolensk, ‘on 13 December 1941 the enemy locked captured Red Army men in a four-storey building surrounded by barbed wire. At midnight the Germans set fire to it. When the Red Army soldiers started jumping from the windows the Germans fired at them. About seventy people were shot and many burned to death.’32 Some Wehrmacht soldiers treasured souvenirs of violence. A snapshot found in the breast pocket of a fallen German infantryman that winter showed the massacre of Kovno’s Jews. Another showed a German soldier contemplating two hanged Russians swinging from a rope. Even the most hardened Red Army men could not ignore the gruesome truth these pictures showed. It was no longer wise to argue that any dictator would do if Russia could just have some peace.

The massacre of Jews at Kovno (photograph found in the pocket of a German NCO captured later in the war, courtesy of the State Archive of the Russian Federation)

German soldiers with the bodies of their Russian victims (another photograph that its German owner had cherished, courtesy of the State Archive of the Russian Federation)

Not every soldier reached this view at once – some never did – and few reached it with ease or lightly. It was as if each person’s world, their pre-war world, had to collapse, to fail them, before they understood the purpose of their lives. Volkov had nightmares about his wife and child; Moskvin, in his dark hut, had to rethink his communism. Older men seemed to look back over their time, the dream-like years of state-directed change, with something like bewilderment. The past now shimmered like a story-book paradise. Contrast alone made every image clearer. Those years of peace, years that had seemed so hard, had been accepting, easy, safe; a time of opportunities that each man valued only now, in retrospect. But strangely, when there could be no escape, the rush of wartime action brought a sense of renewed worth. ‘It’s like the way that a healthy person is not aware of his body,’ a soldier wrote of this feeling. ‘It’s only when something starts to hurt that you understand what health really is.’33

The fear of death also gave some people – including grown men in their late thirties or older – their first real taste of life. At this stage, the effect was often bleak. Veterans fell prey to fatalism; a sense, based upon fact and not on premonition, that though they had just learned to value life they were as good as dead. Their hopes now focused, if they had them, on their families and children. ‘It’s hard to know how long I will remain alive,’ a man wrote to his wife in January 1942. She was expecting their first child, but he knew he would never see it. He told her that he could not describe the things he had witnessed at the front. Instead, he wanted to think about her future and that of the child. ‘Deal with my things as you see fit,’ he wrote. ‘They are yours, as I am yours and you are mine. Simochka, whether it is a boy or a girl, please bring it up according to your own beliefs. Tell it about me, about your husband and its father.’34 ‘You couldn’t say that I’m alive – no,’ another soldier wrote to his wife and daughter. ‘A dead person is a blind one, and for that reason the only thing that interests me is your life, my only concern is to remember you.’35

The pre-war sense of homeland dissolved just as quickly as the dream of easy victory. Gordon had been a naïve internationalist at school. The first Germans he met were prisoners, an officer and two infantrymen. One of the soldiers was a worker. ‘He didn’t understand at first,’ Gordon recalled, ‘what the interpreter meant when he asked him how a proletarian could take up arms against the land of the Soviets, the first homeland of the proletariat of the whole world. He answered that most of the men in his unit were either peasants or workers, and that for them the “fatherland” was not Russia but Germany. That answer made us all reflect on the meaning of the phrase “The Soviet Union – homeland of the world proletariat.”’36 So did first-hand exposure to that homeland’s cold realities: forced marches, blizzards, fog, hunger, and digging, endless digging in chill, clammy earth. ‘The party told us that there was nothing dearer than motherland,’ a Belorussian veteran declared. But the way that motherland was imagined was changing for everyone. For some, like Moskvin, the notion enlarged to encompass a new landscape, villages, unlettered peasants, and dour local fighters whose toughness equalled his own. For others, the idea narrowed, shrinking away from universal brotherhood in a xenophobic tide of holy Russian chauvinism.

It was at this time, in the late autumn of 1941, that Stalin began to revise his own rhetoric regarding the motherland. His address that November at the Red Army’s state parade on the twenty-fourth anniversary of Lenin’s revolution spoke of Russia’s heroic past. The bitter trials of the civil war, when Lenin’s government so nearly died, were recalled at length – nothing else was possible on this of all occasions – but older epics joined them in a catalogue of struggle. Russian soldiers were called to emulate their ancestors: Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoi, Minin and Pozharsky, Alexander Suvorov, Mikhail Kutuzov.37 ‘May you be blessed,’ the leader continued, ‘by Lenin’s victorious banner!’38 Russia’s defending troops could also hope for blessings from the Orthodox Church. From the first day of this war, Metropolitan Sergii of Moscow and Kostroma had insisted that it should stand by the people in their struggle.39 The state’s pre-war restrictions on worship were gently eased. But though they cherished totems – tin crosses or copies of poems – formal religion, so comforting to some civilians, was little use to soldiers at the front. Rage and hatred, which the state also nurtured, were more likely to inspire men on the brink of combat. In 1941, Pravda dropped its peacetime masthead, ‘Proletarians of all lands, unite!’ The slogan that replaced it was ‘Death to the German invaders!’

‘I never lost the feeling that this was a genuine People’s War,’ wrote Alexander Werth. ‘The thought that this was their war was, in the main, as strong among civilians as among the soldiers.’40 It would have been hard to remain neutral after witnessing the effects of that year’s German conquest. When Kursk fell in November, its able-bodied men were rounded up and interned wherever the barbed wire could be unrolled. The lucky ones were herded into the central cinema; most others shivered in the open air. They were not fed at all. Then they were made to work, and those who failed to satisfy their captors were beaten with rubber truncheons and threatened with death. On the second day of the occupation, fifteen communist activists, including four young women, were made to dig graves in the black loam near the central square, and then each one was shot. Rumour had it that about 700 other young women had been rounded up and forced to work as prostitutes in makeshift brothels for the German troops. ‘The streets are empty,’ Soviet intelligence reported. ‘The shops have been looted. There is no mains water and no electricity. Kursk has collapsed. Life there has frozen.’41

Kursk had not been a city with a large community of Jews. If it had been, it would have seen larger mass graves, more killing, and even more fear as newly blooded executioners enjoyed the privilege of power. The mass shootings in any town began as soon as the Wehrmacht arrived. Some, such as the massacre at Kiev’s Babi Yar, were carried out by special Einsatzgruppen, but many, including the shooting of 650 Jews at Klintsy, 540 at Mglin, 350 at Kletna and thousands more in the old Jewish Pale, were treated as routine military operations. The first killings terrified local people, but as a Soviet agent near Smolensk observed, eventually their effect was to harden them. ‘They laugh at the Germans now,’ affirmed a report in 1942. ‘People have become braver in the face of death, they know that they must fight the enemy with every ounce of their strength.’ There had been many willing collaborators in the early weeks, but by that first autumn the people’s ‘hatred of the enemy’ was ‘growing and growing’.42

Moskvin observed the same shift in the peasants’ mood. In late August 1941, the politruk came close to absolute despair. The shooting of Jews would not have troubled his peasant hosts, he realized, for they blamed them for most of the troubles communism had brought. Their anti-Semitism went hand in hand with a ‘fanatical belief in God’, a faith that the invading Germans wisely indulged everywhere. Some even volunteered to become fascism’s local agents – politzei – but at heart it was not politics but survival that impelled them. ‘After each battle,’ Moskvin noted, ‘they rush to the field to loot the corpses for whatever they can find.’ The dearest hope of these peasants was for an end to Soviet power, but in September 1941, they learned that the Germans had ordered that the collective farms should stay. Like the pre-war Soviet authorities, the conquerors cared only for the ease with which the peasants’ grain could be collected and shipped off. It was an irreversible mistake. ‘The mood of the local population has changed sharply,’ Moskvin wrote on 30 September. His heart still sickened at the news that reached him from the front. Like everyone around him, he was desperate for advice.43 But he was no longer in danger of cheap betrayal.

Moskvin was also lonely. The army of his memory glowed with the warmth of comradeship, but regular troops could have corrected him about the chance of this. At this stage in the war, few referred to their mates in any letters home. The primary groups, ‘buddies’, that mattered so much to American soldiers in Vietnam seem hardly to have featured in the shadow of defeat. Units were butchered and entire divisions smashed. The survivors, shocked and exhausted, were redeployed piecemeal wherever men were needed. Tank and air crews, both of them types of soldier who form strong bonds through mutual dependence and shared risk, were not as evident at this stage in the war as they would be from 1943. And the army was in retreat, disordered, scattering across a giant space. Men still formed friendships in this extreme world, truer and stronger than their peacetime ones, but most were doomed to loss. Peer loyalties, indeed, could well be retrospective, grieving. The strongest sentimental ties, in 1941, were often with the dead, the strength of every soldier’s resolve made holy by blood sacrifice.

The other missing character in the soldiers’ imaginary worlds at this stage in the war was Stalin. Moskvin scarcely mentioned him. The leader was an irrelevance in his remote village. Only the memory of peace seemed still to conjure the great man. Older people would never forgive the betrayals of 1929, the pain of poverty and loss. Now Stalin was failing them again. But the young, and the millions who rethought their universe as they watched comrades die, looked for solace as the winter drew on. This was the process by which the leader turned into a totem, the one constant that promised rescue, remained strong. The Stalin who fulfilled this role was not the same man, in imagination, as the leader of the 1930s; or rather, he represented the lost paradise remembered from a vanished world. He was a talisman, a name, a hollow image that some privately abhorred. But it was better, in this darkness, to find something to believe in than to die in utter desolation.

According to the patriotic myth, whole armies used the same slogan to raise their spirits on the brink of battle. Though German veterans mainly recall the Soviets’ blood-curdling ‘Hoorah!’, the official war cry that millions of Red Army survivors remembered later was ‘For the motherland! For Stalin!’ In recent years, some old soldiers – especially those who were never officers – have expressed doubts about the use of this phrase. ‘Did we shout that?’ Ivan Gorin, a soldier and the son of peasants, laughed. ‘I’m sure we shouted something when we went at the guns, but I don’t think it was that polite.’ The officers and policemen were too far back behind the lines to hear. Those who used the slogan, however, had good reason to chorus the familiar words. Whatever Gorin claimed later, or writers like the veteran Vasil Bykov, superstition forbade swearing on the eve of battle.44 And it would have been hard to have agreed on an alternative expression without alerting the secret police. Though the men muttered lots of things, and all used the drawn-out, terrible ‘Hoorah!’, the famous words may also have been as common as survivors have claimed. The point was that it hardly mattered what names the men used. They needed a war cry, a loud noise that united every pair of lungs and forced their muscles on. The sound, and not the meaning, was the point. The slogan became sacred in its own right. And then the real man slowly assumed the charisma surrounding it.45

At this early stage, however, the people who cared most about Stalin and his image were the propagandists. Despite the pressures of likely defeat, some officers considered that time should be spent, as it had always been, fostering myths and grooming spurious internal enemies. In February 1942, a recruit from Siberia was sent north to the Volkhov Front near Leningrad. The ski battalion he had joined was broken up by German fire within a week, and he was redeployed to a regular infantry division, the 281st. This was a war of position, and he and his comrades spent their days digging new trenches, dodging shells and wondering what they were fighting for. ‘All we knew,’ the old man later told his children, ‘was that we were fighting for the motherland.’ His surname, Khabibulin, suggests that motherland for him had once been to the east of Russia itself, which probably explains why he was picked when the Special Section needed a scapegoat. The pretext was a casual remark he made to a Ukrainian soldier who had botched an attempt at shooting his own thumb off. ‘You could have done that better,’ Khabibulin observed. ‘They’d have demobilized you.’ The young man asked him sharply if he did not want to fight. ‘What can I say?’ Khabibulin answered. ‘We’re fighting.’ And then, less cautiously, and maybe out of pity for the boy, he added something about the sad loss of life.

Khabibulin was arrested three days later and accused of fomenting opposition to the popular struggle on behalf of the motherland and Stalin. The charges carried the death penalty, but Khabibulin escaped with a ten-year sentence, part of which, ironically, he served in a prison where Stalin himself had languished forty years before. So he survived, and much later, after the fall of communism, he was able to see his own files at the KGB. It was then that he learned how other men, his comrades, had agreed to testify against him, and how the investigators had been obsessed, of all things, by his attitude to Stalin. The depositions would have been dictated by police; they tell us more about the state’s own propaganda needs than about real soldiers’ thinking at the time. So it is interesting that a man who scarcely seemed to have given the leader a thought until his arrest found testimonies that quoted him as saying, ‘I won’t fight for Stalin. If it’s for Stalin, I won’t fight.’46


When they were fighting, the men scarcely thought of food, but every other waking moment was coloured by incessant hunger. Their usual diet, according to a politruk who served in the defence of Moscow, was breakfast at 6 o’clock, including soup ‘so thick that a spoon could stand in it any way up you liked’, a lunch of buckwheat kasha, tea and bread, and then more soup and tea at nightfall. A medical orderly supervised the preparation of all food, testing each dish before it could be served up to the men.47 In 1941, the daily ration for front-line soldiers theoretically included nearly a kilogram of bread, 150 g of meat, buckwheat, dried fish and a healthy lump of lard or fat.48 But even the politruk conceded that ‘in battle, it was much harder with food’.49

Artillerymen dining beside their weapons, 1941

What that meant was that most combat soldiers received nothing but dry rations, and sometimes nothing at all, for days on end. ‘We’re living in dugouts in the woods,’ a soldier wrote home at this time. ‘We sleep on straw, like cattle. They feed us very badly – twice a day, and even then not what we need. We get five spoonfuls of soup in the morning … we’re hungry all day.’50 Mere discomfort, in those conditions, was the least serious consequence. That winter, temperatures dropped well below thirty degrees of frost. ‘Seven of our lads have frostbite in their legs,’ a soldier wrote to his mother in February 1942. ‘They’re in hospital now. We had to go seven days without a crust, we were exhausted and starved. I’ve done nothing since I got back but eat. My legs have started swelling up a bit at night, I eat a lot, and my stomach aches all the time.’51 Even the bureaucrats became concerned. That winter saw a stream of orders about hot food and vital supplies for the front line.52

Men were also short of basic clothing. Russian people feel the cold like every other European does. They have no magic inner warmth, whatever their shivering opponents thought as the October rain began to turn to sleet. After the Finnish war, the General Staff had reviewed the whole question of cold-weather gear for Soviet troops, and there is no doubt that valenki, padded jackets and trousers, fur gloves and warm hats saved thousands of lives in the Red Army through the war. One of the stock characters of Soviet wartime farce, by contrast, was the ‘winter Fritz’, the hapless German forced to clothe himself in stolen mitts, newspaper padding and some babushka’s outlandish drawers.53 But the Red Army had problems, too. With manufacturing at a near standstill, new supplies could not be guaranteed. In 1942, for instance, the Soviet footwear industry would turn out enough boots to supply just 0.3 pairs to every person in the land.54 Storage, repairs and salvage were vital for mere survival. But habits learned through years of coexistence with state bureaucrats and planners could be difficult to break. In September 1941, inspectors found a forgotten shipment of 266,000 pairs of army trousers stacked without covers and already dripping with mildew.55 Tens of thousands of winter boots awaited overdue repair while hundreds of recruits faced winter without footwear of any kind.56 By the next spring, the situation was so critical that officers and men who served behind the lines were barred from receiving greatcoats with their summer kit. Instead, they had to be content with cast-off padded jackets from the front.57

The black market grew and flourished. All kinds of military property were diverted or filched, including boots and other clothing, fuel, food and even kitchen pots.58 Tobacco had become so scarce by 1942 that Muscovites would light a cigarette and offer passers-by the chance, for two valenki, to take a puff.59 Army supplies – wholesale, anonymous and so easy to steal – were treasure even honest patriots could not resist. Another thriving trade sprang into life in response to the introduction, on 25 August 1941, of a front-line ration of vodka. The idea was to issue every soldier on active duty with 100 g per day. Special officers were charged with measuring the portions, and the unused surplus was supposed to be accounted for every ten days.60 But vodka is too precious to be treated with such pedantry. Officers and men who were not entitled to a ration helped themselves from the stores. Hard-pressed quartermasters sold them off.61 In Moscow, Simonov observed, people were drinking more vodka than tea by January 1942. Drunkenness remained a problem among front-line troops,62 and everyone knew that the supply would increase after a battle. ‘It was always good to serve with the infantry,’ a survivor remembered. ‘The infantry or the artillery. The death rates among them were highest. And no one was checking how much vodka we sent back.’

Humorous portrayal of the ‘Winter Fritz’, from a Red Army theatrical review called ‘The Thieving Army’, February 1942

No one checked up on the dead, either. ‘Not rarely,’ ran one of Mekhlis’s mealy-mouthed notes, ‘the corpses of soldiers … are not collected from the battlefield for several days and no one cares, although it would be entirely possible to bury our comrades with full military honours.’ He mentioned a case where fourteen bodies had lain unburied for five days, a not surprising outcome in December, on frozen ground, with every soldier needing to conserve his strength. ‘Corpses on the field,’ Mekhlis observed, ‘have a political resonance that affects the political–moral condition of the soldiers and the authority of commissars and commanders.’63 More urgently, the dead had possessions that living soldiers needed more. New uniforms were reserved for each new army as it formed; front-line troops needing fresh supplies relied on recycled clothes and equipment. ‘After very severe battles,’ recalled a politruk, ‘we had to send our soldiers back into the field to gather the dead with their weapons so that we could use them again the next morning.’64 That December, Mekhlis would order that all bodies should be buried promptly with the proper respect (and careful documentation).65 Ten months later, the authorities complained that corpses were still being pitched into trenches and shell holes, or worse, that they were being left out for the rats. As for their possessions, a further order, dated 29 November 1942, listed the items that burial parties were expected to retrieve, including ‘greatcoats, tunics, hats, padded trousers and jackets, sweaters, gloves, boots and valenki’.66 Burial teams were not considered to have recovered a corpse unless they also carried back a gun.

Death was probably a better fate – if it were swift – than capture for Red Army troops. ‘Our treatment of prisoners of war,’ a German intelligence officer observed in February 1942, ‘cannot continue without consequences. It is no longer because of lectures from the politruks, but out of his own personal convictions that the Soviet soldier has come to expect an agonizing life or death if he falls captive.’67 The knowledge made Soviet troops fight bitterly and fuelled deeper hate. ‘If the Germans treated our prisoners well,’ a colonel told Werth in 1942, ‘it would soon be known. It’s a horrible thing to say, but by ill-treating and starving our prisoners to death, the Germans are helping us.’68

The tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers who surrendered in June and July 1941 never imagined the fate that awaited them at German hands. But by the late summer, terrible stories had begun to spread. In August, Moskvin met the first of the many escaped soldiers that he would harbour in the coming months. The man’s account would chill his blood. ‘They say there’s no shelter,’ Moskvin wrote, ‘no water, that people are dying from hunger and disease, that many are without proper clothes or shoes. They are treated like slaves, shot for the slightest misdemeanour, or just from mischief, for a kind of fun.’ Ukrainian captives, who already enjoyed, if they so chose, a kind of privilege within the camps, were encouraged to finger communists and Jews. The victims suffered beatings, dug their graves, and died with bullets in their backs.

Moskvin sustained one of his frequent stabs of spiritual pain. ‘I realize how naïve our army training was,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘We excluded the idea of becoming prisoners entirely from our view of what was acceptable in war, but what we told the soldiers and ourselves was that the enemy would use prisoners to extract secrets, that he would torture people to persuade them to betray. All our examples were drawn from the last war, the imperialist war, and from notions of class war. But now we’re dealing with the Gestapo and the SS, and as far as they’re concerned we’re nothing more than reds.’69 It was a lesson others also slowly learned. This enemy was not fighting a cartoon battle with the Bolsheviks; its sole aim was to wipe them out.

‘In the town of Rzhev there is a concentration camp with fifteen thousand captured Red Army soldiers in it and five thousand civilians,’ ran a smuggled report of December 1941. ‘They are holding them in unheated huts, and they feed them one or two frozen potatoes each a day. The Germans threw rotten meat and some bones through the barbed wire at the prisoners. This has made them ill. Every day 20–30 people are dying. The ones who are too ill to work are shot.’70 It was a holocaust that devoured millions. Until the German rout at Stalingrad, most Soviet prisoners were held near the front line. ‘Many of them died on the bare ground,’ a German witness admitted at Nuremberg. ‘Epidemics broke out and cannibalism manifested itself.’ ‘It was not until well into 1942,’ Werth commented, ‘that the surviving Russian war prisoners began to be looked on as a source of slave labour.’71

Among the minority of captured soldiers who survived, a disproportionate number belonged to non-Slavic ethnic groups. They owed their lives to German racist fantasies and to the handful of quixotic nationalists, based in Berlin, who had escaped from their own countries during the troubled founding years of Soviet power. These men now toured the camps in search of fellow countrymen. The rescue that they offered was conditional. Those they selected were considered to have volunteered for the so-called legions – Georgian, Cossack, Turkestan – whose sacred duty was to free their homelands from Bolshevism. But the men’s choice could seldom be described as free; their decisions say more about the torment they endured than about their real loyalties.

Ibrai Tulebaev escaped in just this way. In 1942, he was recruited for the Turkestan legion, but he defected back to the Soviet side in 1943. The police who interrogated him filed every detail of his account of the camps that he survived between August 1941 and the spring of 1942. The first of these was on Polish soil. It consisted of twelve blocks, each housing between 1,500 and 2,000 inmates. The men were penned inside at dusk. Any who stepped outside were shot. Each night, ten or fifteen of them died in this way. By day, the German guards used prisoners for target practice and baited some of them with dogs. Sometimes they placed bets on the animals – not on the men – to see which could fight hardest. There was so little food that hungry prisoners ripped flesh from corpses. Disease killed those who survived German sport. But Tulebaev was moved on; the Germans had noted his ethnicity and had already begun to segregate potential nationalist freedom fighters. They had a cruel way of breaking the men’s hearts. In December 1941, Tulebaev calculated, there were about 80,000 prisoners in his new camp. Most were in the light uniforms they had been wearing back in June. By February, all but 3,000 or so had died of cold, malnutrition, typhus and dysentery. Twelve men were shot for cannibalism that December; too few survived for punishment to matter much when the snow melted in April.72

The same stories were repeated in camps across Poland, Belorussia and Ukraine. At Dubno, they beat men to death. In Minsk, they tortured naked victims with alternate jugs of icy and of boiling water. Wherever prisoners were held, the politruks and Jews were shot as soon as they were recognized, and then the Germans started sifting out the non-Russians. It would be months before the new legions were fit to bear arms on the German side. Many had first to spend weeks in special hospitals recovering from the purgatory of their imprisonment. They were not always fully conscious of the turn that events were about to take. ‘They did it for an extra crust of bread,’ the daughter of Georgia’s wartime nationalist leader, Shalva Maglakelidze, told me. ‘They knew my father had saved their lives.’ Maglakelidze, who had not set foot on Soviet soil since 1921, believed that he was raising an army to liberate his people. The Georgians he rescued, by contrast, were clutching at a slender chance of life.

The threat of death was sometimes just as real for the people who found themselves on the wrong side of German lines. This was a war, they soon learned, of annihilation; a war of scorched earth, mass deportation and easy, public slaughter. With little information and no faith in either the Soviet or the German state, each person had to weigh the options for his own survival. In July 1941, thousands of local people joined the German side as politzei, agents of Nazi power in the occupied zone. Some were willing enough; they were the ones who celebrated the coming defeat of every hated feature of the empire that they saw as a Soviet, Bolshevik or even Jewish monster. Others made their choice on impulse, to avoid imprisonment or a bullet. ‘During the retreat of the Red Army our agitation was very weak,’ a Soviet intelligence report conceded in September 1942. It insisted that many joined the politzei and the 1,000-strong paramilitary ‘Ukrainian legion’ that had terrorized the partisans of the Smolensk region that summer to escape death or torture in a German prison camp, but the implication was that, for others, the Soviet dream (if it had ever held appeal) had soured.

In Soviet eyes, the problem was that far too many people in the occupied regions, finding themselves leaderless and stateless, had ‘listened to the Hitlerites and followed them’. 73 Moscow’s answer was to reach these people through a new group of combatants: the partisans. Scant planning had been made for guerrilla war in the months leading up to Barbarossa, but the potential of partisan detachments was soon understood in Moscow. ‘There must be diversionist groups for fighting enemy units,’ Stalin had ordered in July 1941. ‘In the occupied areas intolerable conditions must be created for the enemy and his accomplices.’74 The wartime myth still celebrates these tough guerrilla fighters, the men and women who cut German supply lines by blowing up railways and bridges, the heroes who prepared the way for the Red Army’s troops. That was indeed part of their work – a costly part – but it is doubtful that their true value was sabotage. As a 1942 report put it, ‘nature abhors a vacuum’.75 The partisans’ main task was to maintain the grip of Soviet power.76

Mikhail Ivanovich’s OSMBON unit was among the first to hazard the route back into country that the Germans held. His task was to round up Red Army stragglers, shoot provocateurs and shape some kind of discipline behind the lines. The groups of partisans that he helped form became the face of Soviet power in the remote woods of Smolensk province. His men brought more than discipline; their revolvers were backed up with the promise (not always kept) of supplies. Later, they would also help to establish the routes by which letters (carefully censored) could be exchanged across the front-line zone. News from the ‘big country’ off to the east fostered new hope and loyalty in some beleaguered villages.77 OSMBON troops even wooed the peasants by helping them in the fields. They carried out agitational work, collecting and disseminating Sovinformburo reports to counteract German propaganda. They organized party meetings to celebrate anniversaries, teach hygiene and basic survival tactics, and generally to remind people of the joys of Soviet life. Their efforts helped to form a new, parallel army in the woods. By November 1942, according to Soviet reports, there were about 94,000 partisans behind the German lines from the Baltic to the Crimea. Just under 10 per cent of these were in theSmolensk region.78 It was to them that Nikolai Moskvin eventually turned.

The politruk had not been able to decide, at first, if he should join the partisans or make for the nearest Red Army base. Rumour reached him in October 1941 that there was fighting near Vyaz’ma, but then the trail went cold, and he began to fear that the army had fled beyond his reach. What sustained him through the first snow was the news, brought by escaping prisoners, of Stalin’s speech of 7 November, the address made to soldiers in Red Square. ‘Everyone is still at their posts,’ he wrote. ‘Soon there will be a celebration everywhere.’ But this relief was premature. It would be months before the fugitive could make a bid to break through to the Soviet zone. In March, when the winter began to lift, he headed east, his goal the Red Army beyond Kaluga. Moskvin was captured as he neared the German lines. German troops took him to the camp at Granki, a front-line holding station, little more than a large yard. There he met the survivors of the previous autumn’s encirclement at Vyaz’ma. They had been in the camp for six long months. ‘If you haven’t seen this,’ Moskvin wrote, ‘you won’t be able to imagine the utter horror of this human tragedy. I saw it with my own eyes. People were dying of exhaustion, cold and beatings.’

Moskvin was not destined to die with them. Healthy and determined, he still had the will to evade guards who were themselves cold and depressed after the winter. Six days after his capture he was on the run again. But he had lost his papers. Loyal though he was, he knew that the reds could easily shoot him as a deserter. It was this knowledge that impelled him to head west, not east. That June, he joined a partisan group made up of former soldiers like himself. ‘It’s really satisfying to fight the fascists this way,’ he wrote jauntily that month. ‘We can get them on the roads, from hiding, with almost no cost to our own men.’ On 29 July, his battalion killed a group of German guards, taking a score of politzei as prisoners and seizing two new machine guns. ‘I’m really doing business,’ he wrote. And then, in August, came the best news of the year. ‘A really great joy for me today,’ he wrote. ‘I’ve received three letters at once from the big country.79 My parents are alive. Mariya is alive. Hurrah!’

If letters could get through and men escape, then many partisans, including skilled fighters, might also have gone back to strengthen the Red Army. But the state had use for them just where they were. As ever, the policy was callous, for though the men had orders to remain, they received neither food nor weapons. ‘We have instructions to stay in the triangle near Smolensk and keep on fighting,’ Moskvin noted in September 1942. His optimism had begun to ebb. ‘The winter will be hard. Half our men don’t have the rightshoes or clothes.’ Like the outlaws they had become, his troops began to desert. Moskvin himself would soon curse Moscow’s callousness. ‘We’re supposed to live by stealing from the enemy and appealing to the locals,’ he wrote, but there was nothing for it but to extort food if everyone was starving. ‘In many places groups of enemies masquerading as partisans are engaging in banditry,’ a party report from Smolensk alleged. However, the looters were more likely to be Soviet men. ‘It’s not surprising that local people run off and complain to the Germans,’ Moskvin confirmed. ‘A lot of the time we’re just robbing them like bandits.’80

Once again, the Germans’ own atrocities were all that held the Soviets in place. ‘At present,’ a partisan leader stated, ‘the situation is this: we in the forest believe that communism (which 70 or 80 per cent of us hate) will at least let us live, but the Germans, with their National Socialism, will either shoot us or starve us to death.’81 ‘Are you alive? I don’t know,’ a soldier called Vasily Slesarev wrote to his wife, three sons and daughter in December 1941. It would be seven months before he heard from them. They, too, were trapped behind the German lines. It was a letter from his twelve-year-old daughter Mariya, brought out by partisans, that told the older man their news. ‘We had already started to think that no one was alive, but it looks as if you are and Shura, though we have not heard from Sergei,’ the child wrote. Near Smolensk, in her village, there had been deaths. ‘Papa,’ Mariya went on, ‘our Valik died and is in the graveyard at Sumarokovo. Papa, the German monsters set fire to us.’ The family home had been razed to the ground on 30 January 1942. Survivors and their animals had been driven away. The boy Valery had died of pneumonia in the damp shelter where his family were hiding. ‘Many people have been killed in the villages round here,’ Mariya told her father. ‘And all they think about is the bloodthirsty monsters, you can’t even call them human, they’re just robbers and drinkers of blood. Papa, kill the enemy!’82


Among the many secrets of this war was its true cost. On 23 February 1942, Red Army Day, Stalin announced that the Germans had lost the advantage. The Red Army was driving them towards the west, he said, and it had cleared them completely from the provinces of Moscow and Tula.83 Fighting talk like this was one of the few resources that the leader still commanded.84 In reality, those weeks in February were among the darkest of the war. Moscow had not fallen, but Leningrad was under siege, its citizens facing a ‘white death’ by starvation. To the south, the Crimea, with its strategic command of the Black Sea coast and the gates of the Caucasus, was almost entirely in German hands. Only the port of Sevastopol, besieged and under constant fire, still held out through the winter. Tula, as Stalin said, was free, but almost every other town and city to the west had been destroyed. The Germans had certainly lost large numbers of men, and Stalin was also right to say that their reserves were stretched. But Soviet losses had been greater by far. In addition to nearly 3 million captured men, the Red Army had lost 2,663,000 killed in action by February 1942. For every German who was killed, twenty Soviet soldiers had died.85

These figures should have been enough to cause a collapse of morale, if not a revolution, on their own. But they were not released. No one could calculate the total human cost of the war they were living through. Civilians who witnessed fighting, like the soldiers who fought, knew plenty about individual battles, but their knowledge was anecdotal, and even they could scarcely have guessed the true scale of the carnage. The very magnitude of the Soviet people’s loss put it beyond imagination. And no figure could ever represent the truth of so much pain, or even the enormous heaps of bodies; rotting, semi-frozen flesh. The dead were not yet skeletons, their graves not yet those solid monuments of black granite. Their faces still showed shock and agony, their fingers clutched at mud and snow. In some places, the bodies lay on other bodies, heaps of human corpses rising up as if to stem some bloody tide. The only places where images like this were known and shared, apart from front-line camps, were hospitals. It was not for nothing that cheerful komsomols were sent to sit with convalescing troops, to read them letters, poems and selected extracts from the press. Only at night were the real stories whispered round the wards.

The most desperate, that spring, came from the south. The men caught up in campaigns there learned to expect and even welcome death. ‘We used to say that whoever survives this winter will live a long time,’ a soldier who fought near Feodosia, in eastern Crimea, told his diary. The road along the coast was strewn with bodies, but his comrades could not bury them because of German fire. ‘I’m ready now,’ he added, ‘for a death of any kind.’86 With Sevastopol still in Soviet hands, a major expedition had been launched in December 1941 to liberate eastern Crimea. Its aim was to take the Kerch peninsula and use it as a bridgehead to relieve the pressure on Sevastopol and recapture the entire region. The project was doomed. As one young conscript wrote in February, ‘Our troops have abandoned Feodosia. What was the point in taking it, if we had not made preparations for its defence? If we’ve got to take every city twice like this, then maybe in 1945 we’ll get to the end of this war.’87 A Soviet force remained in the lowlands round Kerch, the easternmost point on the Crimea, but its prospects were bleak. In early May, the Germans attacked for a final time, driving the Soviets towards the narrow strait that separates Kerch and its ancient harbour from the Russian mainland.

Kerch saw several kinds of tragedy that spring. First came the fighting itself. Stalin’s favourite, Lev Mekhlis, was put in charge. For him, the struggle was a matter of morale. What that meant in practice was that military preparation for the last defence was minimal. ‘Everyone had to go forward, forward!’ Simonov, who witnessed some of it, recalled. Ten kilometres behind the lines, he observed, there was nothing; no support, no reserve and no transport. Mekhlis believed that trenches sapped the spirit of aggression. None was ever dug. This was particularly unfortunate, for beyond the port itself, the landscape of the Kerch peninsula is gently rolling steppe, treeless and sometimes marshy, offering no shelter to men fighting for their lives. The infantry divisions of the 51st Army, many of them Georgians recently arrived from an entirely different countryside and climate, had neither plan nor cover as they faced the guns. Simonov was horrified when an initial round of German shelling left the land strewn with more corpses than he had seen at any time in the whole war. ‘There were no officers anywhere,’ he added. ‘It all took place on an open, muddy, absolutely barren field.’88 The next day, more infantrymen were driven over the same ground, passing the bodies of their comrades in the fog as they rushed on towards their deaths. A hundred and seventy-six thousand men were slaughtered at Kerch in just twelve days.89

The outcome was as Simonov predicted. In mid-May, the last remnants of Mekhlis’s army boarded small boats and set off across the five-mile strait towards the mainland. But the German advance had been so swift that many – several thousand – remained trapped in limestone hills behind the town. These men and women looked down on the strait below – they must have dreamed of walking across it – and knew there could be no escape. What came next was anguish of a kind that even this war would see only once or twice. It was typical because it involved individual courage, shattered faith and then a cruel waste of life. It was unique because the drama took place underground. The heroes of the story found their graves in a maze of tunnels deep within the Crimea’s rock.

The officers of the Special Section, hardened agents in the mould of Mikhail Ivanovich and the OSMBON, took charge at once. Barking their orders and fingering loaded guns, they gathered every straggler and mustered the men. Then they produced a group of local guides, people who knew the landscape and its secret caves. These men led the entire company into a quarry, an enormous labyrinth of pits and tunnels from which the stone to build a fortress for the port’s defence had been taken eighty years before. This cave city would now become the soldiers’ home. Three thousand people, including nurses and refugees from Kerch (these people had survived one episode of German rule and knew to fear a second even more), huddled away into the darkness. They dragged their horses and their guns; they carried bundles of supplies. If they had glanced behind them as they shuffled down into the earth, they would have glimpsed the grassy steppe, the blue spring light, burgeoning yellow tansy and the crimson splashes of the first poppies. These colours would have been the last that they saw. Few would blink in daylight again, or even feel a cool breeze on their skin.

The cave city was organized; that is, the men from the Special Section knew their work. They split their company into detachments and assigned clear tasks to each. Some were organized into sentry rotas; others sent off down dank tunnels to look for hidden exits, search for water or scrape together any food or fuel. The men in charge made their headquarters in the largest, safest cave. The hospital was set up in the deepest one. It was soon needed. Without a regular supply of food, the refugees began to eat the flesh of horses that had died in the escape. Three months later, this meat was still the only food they had. At first, scouts from the quarry made raids to the surface, seizing whatever they could steal and harassing the German guards who watched over the site, but in a few weeks all that stopped as well. The quarry people were trapped. As they waited for death, they lit their darkness with thin, stinking candles made from burning strips of rubber tyre.

The Germans planted explosives around the exits from the site. Rocks and splinters rained down on the fugitives below. Then poison gas was released into the tunnels, killing all but a few score of the Soviet defenders. These last died hungry and despairing in the next few weeks, but they did not surrender. In Soviet myth, the quarry at Adzhimuskai became another Leningrad, a Brest fortress, a place where heroes held out to the last. But in fact, these brave men and women had no choice. Although some of the officers, the Special Section men with their revolvers and their survival training, must have escaped and reported the tale, the others were forced to remain. They were kept in the pit at gunpoint, threatened with death by comrades from their own side. If they would not behave like heroes, choosing a noble end, they would die from a Soviet bullet in the neck.90

The fall of Kerch sealed Sevastopol’s fate. Since the previous autumn, the city had been holding out, although it was a grim shadow of the Black Sea resort that Messerschmidts had bombed a year before. In late May 1942, the defenders heard that German troops were converging on the city, and some of its residents – women, the elderly and children – were evacuated by sea from the port that week. Among the many who remained was the writer and humorist Evgeny Petrov, who died during the last days of the siege. The NKVD guards, meanwhile, disposed of their prisoners – allegedly in caves near Inkerman – and then made their escape into the night. The bombardment began. There were so many planes, the naval officer Evseev wrote, that there was no space above the town for them to circle. The sound, ‘a hellish cacophony’, was so constant and deafening that citizens found any silence troubling. ‘And the heavier the bombing,’ Evseev remarked, ‘the greater and more strong became our rage and hatred of the enemy.’

It was a passionate but futile anger. By early July, Junkers were flying as low as 100 metres above the northern suburbs of the city. The pavements and boulevards where sailors had once strolled were strewn with corpses now, the lovely buildings gutted, thick with smoke. ‘Heat,’ Evseev wrote. ‘We were all desperately thirsty. But no one had any water in his flask.’ He and a group of other men had taken shelter in the caves and tunnels underneath the port. Someone was sent to find water, and the others passed the time by dreaming of the things they might have liked to drink: ‘lemonade, kvass, seltzer water, beer, and, if you please, ice cream. But we agreed on one thing. We’d drink anything, even if it was not cold fresh water, even if it were polluted, even if it had been flowing through the corpses.’ He added that ‘We had been drinking water from under corpses for several days.’ The bodies had been thrown into the concrete tanks and reservoirs around the town. As Evseev commented, ‘We never managed to clear them out.’

Evseev was among the many who escaped, shipped off the coast within a few days of the city’s fall. Thousands of others, many of them military personnel like him, remained behind to face a pitiless enemy. ‘The city was unrecognizable,’ Evseev lamented, looking back from an army truck. ‘It was dead. The snow-white city of a little while ago, Sevastopol the beautiful, had turned into a ruin.’ As the men boarded their boat to cross a perilous Black Sea, they swore they would be back to take revenge.91 It was a brave boast, and one that some eventually fulfilled, but for the 90,000 or so women and men of the Red Army and Fleet captured with the town, it offered little hope.92

The Soviet retreat continued. Kharkov had fallen to the enemy in May. With the Crimea securely under their control, the Germans now launched an attack on Rostov, a vital gateway to the Caucasus and to the Volga citadel of Stalingrad. By mid-July, most of the Don basin was occupied. Only Voronezh, to the north, held out. Staryi Oskol was taken, the Don crossed. ‘The majority of our commanding officers are cowards,’ a young man called Gudzovsky wrote. ‘Surely we did not need to run away, we could have stood our ground and faced them. Give us an order to go west! To hell with retreating! I’m sick to death of pulling back from the places where I grew up.’93 It was the last thing he would write before his death. The army could not even save the local people it would leave behind. ‘They shared their last crusts with us,’ a front-line officer remembered. ‘I ate that bread and knew that in an hour I’d be leaving, retreating. But I said nothing! I didn’t have the right! … If we had told them, they would have run away as well, and then there would have been bottlenecks along the road for us.’94

The old man added that he felt ashamed. The army was failing in the rawest human terms. Many civilians in the threatened districts lost faith in Soviet troops that summer. ‘God knows what’s going on,’ a woman from a village wash-house hissed at two soldiers one evening. ‘We work and work, and they are just abandoning our towns!’ One of the men shot her a pained look and walked out. The other thought despairingly of his own home, Voronezh, which was under fire and which, because the road north was still blocked, he could not even dream of defending.95 Worse news was to follow. On 28 July, the Soviet people learned that Rostov and Novocherkassk had fallen. There was no stronghold now between the Germans and the Caucasus, and little to detain them on their way to Stalingrad.

Notes – 4 Black Ways of War

1 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 15: 4(1), Moscow, 1997, p. 40. The captured German document is Hoepner’s ‘Storming the Gates of Moscow: 14 October–5 December 1941’, dated December 1941.

2 Ibid., p. 41.

3 Krivosheev, p. 139; Erickson, ‘The System’, p. 225.

4 S. G. Sidorov, Trud voennoplennykh v SSSR 1939–1956 gg. (Volgograd, 2001), p. 60.

5 Ibid., p. 61.

6 Erickson, p. 233.

7 Erickson, ‘The System,’ p. 238.

8 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 4 (1), p. 41.

9 Werth, pp. 238–9.

10 V. I. Yutov and others, Ot brigady osobogo naznacheniya k ‘vympely’, 1941–1981 (Moscow, 2001), p. 45.

11 Interview with Mikhail Ivanovich, April 2001; M. M. Gorinov et al. (Eds), Moskva voennaya, 1941–1945: memuary i arkhivnye dokumenty (Moscow, 1995), p. 103.

12 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 4 (1), p. 56.

13 Overy, p. 118.

14 A. E. Gordon, ‘Moskovskoe narodnoe opolchenie 1941 goda glazami uchastnika’, Otechestvennaya istoriya, 2001: 3, pp. 158–61.

15 Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv obshchestvenno-politicheskoi istorii kurskoi oblasti (GAOPIKO), 1/1/2773, 18–21.

16 Gordon, pp. 158–63.

17 Report dated 14 January 1942, Knyshevskii, p. 227.

18 Ibid., p. 226.

19 Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, Oberkommando des Heeres, RH2-1924, p. 23.

20 Overy, pp. 116–7.

21 Knyshevskii, p. 184. Report from Volokolamsk Front, 27 October 1941.

22 N. D. Kozlov, Obshchestvennye soznanie v gody velikoi otechestvennoi voiny (St. Petersburg, 1995), p. 24.

23 Knyshevskii, p. 313.

24 Moskva voennaya, p. 167.

25 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 2 (2), pp. 108–9.

26 Moskva voennaya, pp. 167–8.

27 RGALI, 1814/4/5, 42.

28 Tsentr dokumentatsii noveishei istorii smolenskoi oblasti (TsDNISO), 8/1/212, 4.

29 Knyshevskii, pp. 187–8.

30 Omer Bartov, in his study of the Wehrmacht, also suggests that harsh discipline, a raw ideological belief and the fear of death created bonds of a kind between the men. See The Eastern Front, 1941–45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare (Houndmills, 1985), pp. 144–5.

31 Archive of the Komsomol, hereafter RGASPI-M, 33/1/360, 3–8.

32 TsDNISO, 8/2/99, 1–2.

33 E. M. Snetkova, Pis’ma very, nadezhdy, lyubvy. Pis’ma s fronta (Moscow, 1999), p. 1.

34 RGASPI-M, 33/1/276, 4.

35 Stroki, opalennye voiny. Sbornik pisem voennykh let, 1941–1945, 2 izd. (Belgorod, 1998), pp. 115–6.

36 Gordon, pp. 160–1.

37 Alexander Nevsky defeated the Teutonic knights in 1242. Dmitry Donskoi’s defeat of the Tatars followed in 1380. Minin and Pozharsky drove out the Poles in the seventeenth century and the last two generals, Suvorov and Kutuzov, led the campaign against Napoleon in 1812.

38 Stalin, ‘Rech’ na parade krasnoi armii’, in O velikoi otechestvennoi voine Sovetskogo Soyuza (Moscow, 1947), pp. 37–40.

39 Moskva voennaya, pp.44–5.

40 Werth, p. xvi.

41 Kursk NKVD report, GAOPIKO, 3605/1/307, 1–3.

42 TsDNISO, 8/1/25, 7–8.

43 Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv smolenskoi oblasti (GASO), 1500/1/1, 16–18.

44 See Vasil Bykov, ‘Za Rodinu! Za Stalina!’, Rodina, 1995, no. 5, pp. 30–7.

45 On swearing, see E. S. Senyavskaya, Frontovoe pokolenie: istoriko-psikhologicheskoe issledovanie, 1941–1945 (Moscow, 1995), p. 83.

46 Memorial essay no. 2272: ‘Memoirs of Valish Khusanovich Khabibulin,’ Ed. Nina Pavlovna Bredenkova (Tyumen’ 2002).

47 TsDNISO, 1555/1/3, 3–5.

48 Knyshevskii, p. 355.

49 TsDNISO, 1555/1/3, 5.

50 Moskva voennaya, p. 167.

51 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1395, 6.

52 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 2 (2), p. 155.

53 See photo on facing page, which is a typical representation.

54 Sidorov, p. 60.

55 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 2 (2), p. 114–5.

56 Ibid., p. 155.

57 Ibid., pp. 114–5; 193–4.

58 Ibid., p. 166, 6, p. 120.

59 Werth, p. 370.

60 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 2 (2), p. 73.

61 Ibid., pp. 252–3; 166 (on thieving).

62 For an example from the battle of Moscow, see Knyshevskii, p. 184.

63 Cited in Knyshevskii, p. 164.

64 TsDNISO, 1555/1/3, 3.

65 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 6, p. 97, order no. 307 of Glav PURKKA.

66 TsAMO, 206/298/2, 15, 49–50.

67 Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, RH2-124, p. 22.

68 Werth, p. 422.

69 GASO, 1/1/1500, p. 15.

70 TsDNISO, 8/2/82, 50.

71 Werth, pp. 705–7.

72 RGASPI, 17/125/169, 5–8.

73 TsDNISO, 8/1/25, 12.

74 ‘Vystuplenie po radio’, 3 July 1941, in Stalin, O velikoi otechestvennoi voine, p. 15.

75 TsDNISO, 8/1/25, 12.

76 See John A. Armstrong (Ed.), Soviet Partisans in World War II (Madison, 1964), p. 3.

77 On field post in general, see Velikaya otechestvennaya, 6, pp. 76 and 134.

78 Ponomarenko’s figures, from RGASPI 69/1/19, 129.

79 The ‘big country’ – bol’shaya zemlya – was the partisans’ term for the unoccupied part of the USSR.

80 GASO, 1500/1/1, 25–35; TsDNISO, 8/2/99, 17.

81 Armstrong, p. 170.

82 Pis’ma s fronta i na front 1941–1945 (Smolensk, 1991), pp. 77 and 94–5.

83 Stalin, O velikoi otechestvennoi voine, p. 43.

84 Bundesarchiv, RH2-1924, p. 21.

85 Overy, p. 117.

86 V. L. Bogdanov et al. (Eds), Zhivaya pamyat’: pravda o voine, vol. 1 (Moscow, 1995), pp. 392–6.

87 Rodina, 1995, no. 5, p. 68.

88 RGALI, 1814/4/5, 32.

89 Werth, pp. 388–9.

90 Information from the Adzhimuskai museum and from local people in Kerch.

91 Evseev, cited in Knyshevskii, pp. 334–7.

92 Werth, p. 398.

93 Rodina, 1991, nos. 6–7, p. 68.

94 Ibid., p. 60 (voenyurist Dolotsev).

95 Zhivaya pamyat, (diary of Vladimir Ivanov), p. 388.

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