Military history

Stone by Stone


The second summer of the war blew with an arid wind that offered neither victory nor hope. The campaign that was meant to end with triumph in Berlin now threatened stalemate, if not unthinkable defeat. ‘We never doubted that we would win,’ the veterans have claimed. But the delusion of invincibility, sustained through the first months of shock, could not endure the truth of constant failure. The police did their duty, demanding rigid cheerfulness from everyone. One soldier was arrested merely for observing that ‘we’re retreating, and we won’t be coming back’.1 But by August 1942, the men themselves were getting tired of the despair and shame, of the reproachful stares that followed them as they abandoned, one by one, the gaunt, semi-deserted townships of the steppe. They had been dragging back across the wheatfields of Ukraine, the Don and the Kuban for months. Behind them, somewhere over the eastern horizon, flowed the Volga, the river that divides the European part of Russia from the gates of Asia. Eastwards again stretched thousands of miles of dust, a landscape little changed since Tamurlane, and one that sons of Russia’s gentler, settled heart found alien. Symbolically at least, the time was coming when the army would have nowhere left to go.

The mindset that Stalin’s regime had fostered in its people – in public, optimistic and naïve; in private, wry and cynical – had failed the soldiers in these bitter months. For years, they had been incited to blame their misfortunes on others, the scapegoats that the state chose to call enemies and spies. Stalinism had shaped a culture that discouraged individuals from standing out. Buck-passing, for which its mandarins would coin a special word, obezlichka, became, during the purges after 1937, a matter, literally, of life and death. More than a year into the war, these patterns of behaviour had brought the Red Army to the edge of defeat. Now it was clear that every soldier’s effort, and perhaps his life, would be required. But months of humiliation had left the men edgy, prone to panic at the first rumour of German tanks.2 Morale was at its lowest ebb. ‘We wept as we retreated,’ a veteran recalled. The tears flowed from exhaustion, but they also signalled shame. ‘We were running anywhere to get away from Kharkov; some to Stalingrad, others to Vladikavkaz. Where else would we end up – Turkey?’3

Years of habit drove each man to lay the blame on someone else. Troops from the Russian heartland pointed fingers at Ukrainians, especially the ‘westerners’ from former Polish lands. ‘Whole companies were abandoning the front line, the Ukrainians were melting away,’ Lev Lvovich, now an officer, recalled. ‘They weren’t going to the German side, but just back home.’ ‘Only the Russians are fighting these Germans,’ a young infantryman grumbled at the time. ‘Most of the Ukrainians have just stayed at home.’ As he looked out across the Kalmyk steppe, he added that ‘my own home is a long way from here, too. Why should I lay my bones in foreign soil?’4 The tens of thousands of Ukrainians at the front line, naturally, found other scapegoats for it all. ‘There were many, many cases … where people deliberately shot themselves in the hand, or the shoulder, just in the flesh,’ recalled a Kiev-based infantryman. ‘Then they’d be in hospital and wouldn’t have to go to the front line.’ And there was always a new ethnic minority to blame. ‘There were all those men from central Asia,’ he continued. ‘When it was their mealtime, or after a bit anyway, they’d throw themselves on the ground and start up with their “O Allah!” They were praying, and they weren’t going to rush at the enemy, or even get involved in combat at all.’5 Racism was so prevalent that even Moscow grew alarmed.6 The armed forces, like the society from which they came, were shattering like bombed-out glass.

The tales of cities lost and farmland left to burn or rot arrived in the capital almost by the day. To the north, embattled Leningrad was holding, though the country’s leaders knew that its survival was as fragile as a hair. But to the south, the news was bleak. By late July, Stalin himself could stand no more. Interrupting a report that his chief of staff, Aleksandr Vasilevsky, was delivering, he ordered the general to draft a new command to the troops, a piece of paper that would come to symbolize that summer’s crucial turning point.7 The object was to change the mental habits of a generation. In fact, defeat itself was starting to break the old patterns, and there would be more changes in the coming months. Order no. 227 came at the army’s lowest point, but war itself would be the crucible in which a new mentality was forged.

Order no. 227 was issued on 28 July. At Stalin’s insistence, it was never printed for general distribution. Instead, its contents were conveyed by word of mouth to every man and woman in the army. ‘Your reports must be pithy, brief, clear and concrete,’ thepolitruks were told. ‘There must not be a single person in the armed forces who is not familiar with Comrade Stalin’s order.’8 In ragged lines, huddled against the sun and wind, the soldiers listened to a roll-call of disgrace. ‘The enemy,’ they heard, ‘has already taken Voroshilovgrad, Starobel’sk, Rossosh’, Kupyansk, Valuiki, Novocherkassk, Rostov-on-Don and half of Voronezh. A section of the troops on the Southern Front, giving in to panic, abandoned Rostov and Novocherkassk without offering any serious defence and without waiting for Moscow’s orders. They covered their colours in shame.’ The troops then heard their leaders spelling out what every soldier knew, which was that the civilian population, their own people, had lost almost all faith in them. The time had come to stand their ground whatever proved to be the cost. As Stalin’s order put it, ‘Every officer, every soldier and political worker must understand that our resources are not limitless. The territory of the Soviet state is not just desert, it is people – workers, peasants, intellectuals, our fathers, mothers, wives, brothers, and children.’ Even Stalin conceded that at least 70 million of these were now behind the German lines.9

Stalin’s remedy was embodied in a new slogan. ‘Not a step back!’ was to become the army’s watchword. Every man was told to fight until his final drop of blood. ‘Are there any extenuating causes for withdrawing from a firing position?’ soldiers would ask theirpolitruks. In future, the reply that handbooks prescribed would be ‘The only extenuating cause is death.’10 ‘Panic-mongers and cowards,’ Stalin decreed, ‘must be destroyed on the spot.’ An officer who permitted his men to retreat without explicit orders was now to be arrested on a capital charge. And all personnel were confronted with a new sanction. The guardhouse was too comfortable to be used for criminals. In future, laggards, cowards, defeatists and other miscreants would be consigned to penal battalions. There they would have an opportunity ‘to atone for their crimes against the motherland with their own blood’. In other words, they would be assigned the most hazardous tasks, including suicidal assaults and missions deep behind the German lines. For this last chance they were supposed to feel gratitude. Death (or, the regulations stated, certain kinds of life-threatening injury) was a means for outcasts to redeem their names, saving their families and restoring their honour before the Soviet people. Meanwhile, to help the others concentrate, the new rules called for units of regular troops to be stationed behind the front line. These ‘blocking units’ were to supplement existing zagradotryady, the NKVD troops whose task had always been to guard the rear. Their orders were to kill anyone who lagged behind or attempted to run away.11

Order no. 227 was not made public until 1988, when it was printed as part of the policy of glasnost, or openness. More than forty years after the end of the war, the measure sounded cruel to people reared on the romantic epic of Soviet victory. A generation that had grown up through decades of peace baulked at the old state’s lack of pity. But in 1942, most soldiers would have recognized a restatement of current rules. Deserters and cowards had always been in line for a bullet, with or without the benefit of a tribunal. Since 1941, their families had also been caught up in their record of shame. Like a slap in the face, the new order was intended to remind the men, to call them to account. And their response was frequently relief. ‘It was a necessary and important step,’ Lev Lvovich told me. ‘We all knew where we stood after we had heard it. And we all – it’s true – felt better. Yes, we felt better.’ ‘We have read Stalin’s order no. 227,’ Moskvin wrote in his diary on 22 August. ‘He openly recognizes the catastrophic situation in the south. My head is full of one idea: who is guilty over this? Yesterday they told us about the fall of Maikop, today Krasnodar. The political information lads keep asking if there isn’t some treachery at work in all this. I think so too. But at least Stalin is on our side! … So, not a step back! It’s timely and it’s just.’12

To the south, where the retreat Moskvin abhorred was taking place, news of the order chilled the blood of depressed, tired men. ‘As the divisional commander read it,’ a military correspondent wrote, ‘the people stood rigid. It made our skin crawl.’13 It was one thing to insist on sacrifice but quite another to be making it. But even then, all that the men were hearing was a repetition of familiar rules. Few soldiers, by this stage in the war, would not have seen or heard about at least one summary execution, the laggard or deserter drawn aside and shot without reflection or remorse. The numbers are hard to establish, since tribunals were seldom involved, but it is estimated that about 158,000 men were formally sentenced to be executed during the war.14 However, the figure makes no allowance for the thousands whose lives ended in roadside dust, the stressed and shattered conscripts shot as ‘betrayers of the motherland’, nor for the thousands more shot for retreating – or even for seeming to retreat – as battle loomed. At Stalingrad, as many as 13,500 men are thought to have been shot in the space of a few weeks.15

‘We shot the men who tried to mutilate themselves,’ a military lawyer said. ‘They weren’t worth anything, and if we sent them to prison we were only giving them what they wanted.’16 It was helpful to have a better use for able-bodied men; that much was a real outcome of Stalin’s order. Copied from German units that the Soviets observed in 1941, the first penal battalions were ready well in time for Stalingrad. Though most assignments in this war were dangerous, those in the shtraf units were wretched, one step removed from the dog’s death that awaited deserters and common crooks. ‘We thought it would be better than a prison camp,’ Ivan Gorin, who survived a penal battalion, explained. ‘We didn’t realize at the time that it was just a death sentence.’17 Penal battalions, in which at least 422,700 men eventually served, were forlorn, deadly, soul destroying.18 But there could not have been a soldier anywhere who doubted that in this army, in any role, his life was cheap.

Though Stalin’s order formalized existing regulations, the process of its implementation exposed a real problem of mentalities. Indeed, its reception in many quarters was symptomatic of the very problem that it was supposed to remedy. People brought up in a culture of denunciations and show trials were used to blaming others when disaster struck. It was natural for Soviet troops to hear Stalin’s words as yet another move against identifiable – and other – anti-Soviet or unmanly minorities. The new slogan was treated, initially at least, like any other sinister attack on enemies within. Political officers read the order to their men, but acted, as some inspectors observed, as if it ‘related solely to soldiers at the front … Carelessness and complacency are the rule … and officers and political workers… take a liberal attitude to breaches of discipline such as drunkenness, desertion and self-mutilation.’ The warm summer nights seemed to encourage laxity. In August, the month after Stalin’s order, the number of breaches of discipline continued to increase.19

Obligatory repetition turned the leader’s words to cliché. The new instructions, once ignored, could sound as stale, if not as benign, as orders to eat more carrots or be vigilant for lice. The message was drummed into every soldier’s head for weeks. Some hack in Moscow composed pages of doggerel verse to ram it home. Inelegant in the first place, it loses nothing in translation. ‘Not a step back!’ it rattles. ‘It’s a matter of honour to fulfil the military order. For all who waver – death on the spot – there’s no place for cowards among us.’20 Groups of soldiers, weary of government lies, were always quick to identify hypocrisy, and that autumn they watched their commanders evading the new rules. Few officers were keen to spare their best men for service in the blocking units. They had been in the field too long; they knew the value of a man who handled weapons well. So the new formations were stuffed with individuals who could not fight, including invalids, the simple-minded and – of course – officers’ special friends. Instead of aiming rifles at men’s backs, these people’s duties soon included valeting staff uniforms or cleaning the latrines.21 In October 1942, the idea of regular blocking units at the front (as opposed to the autonomous forces of the NKVD) was quietly dropped.22

Meanwhile, the retreat that had provoked the order in July continued in the south. German troops took another 800 kilometres of Soviet soil on their way to the Caucasus. The defence of their Caspian oil that autumn cost the Red Army another 200,000 lives.23Even at Stalingrad, and even in the fatal month of September, army inspectors would observe that ‘military discipline is low, and order no. 227 is not being fulfilled by all soldiers and officers’.24 It was not mere coercion that changed the fortunes of the Red Army that autumn. Instead, and even in the depth of their crisis, the soldiers appeared to find a new resolve. It was as if despair itself – or rather, the effort of one final stand – could wake men from the torpor of defeat. Their new mood was connected to a dawning sense of professionalism, a consciousness of skill and competence, which the leaders had started to encourage. For years, Stalin’s regime had herded people like sheep, despising individuality and punishing initiative. Now, slowly, even reluctantly, it found itself presiding over the emergence of a corps of skilled and self-reliant fighters. The process would take months, gathering pace in 1943. But rage and hatred were at last translating into clear, cold plans.

The first move was to clear the officer corps of its burden of incompetents. Voroshilov, the champion of the pre-war dream of easy victory, was demoted to a desk job for failures on the Volkhov Front round Leningrad in April 1942.25 In May, Mekhlis was relieved of his Crimean command, and eventually he was also removed from his positions as Deputy Defence Commissar and head of the Main Political Administration of the Red Army.26 Budyennyi, the aging hero of the civil war, was placed in charge of the Red Cavalry. ‘He was a man with a past,’ Marshal Ivan Konev remarked, ‘but no future.’27 Their places were taken by younger, more professional officers with recent battlefield experience; leaders like Zhukov and Konev himself, and generals like Vasily Chuikov, the ambitious forty-two-year-old who led the 62nd Army at Stalingrad.

Mekhlis’s downfall signalled a change of fortune for the army’s multitude of political officers. The first hint of reform was a campaign of whispering. ‘It is not unusual,’ a report ran, ‘for political workers in the units to fail to notice that there has been no salt in the men’s food for three days in a row, although there is salt in the stores; or that the men have had to sit for 30–40 minutes in the canteen without getting their food, for no other reason than that the quartermaster has failed to provide a ladle. And after all this,’ it continued, ‘they claim that they have been engaged in political work.’28 Quite rightly, politruks were also said to be ‘complacent’ about the men’s attitude to order no. 227.29 With Mekhlis gone, there was no one in Moscow to protect them. One group of recruits to the army’s political wing, men who had hoped to make their mark as high priests of the party line, discovered when they reached their training camp that it was their turn to eat the thin soup, go without boots, and shiver in unfinished, overcrowded huts.30 The money seemed to dry up overnight. On 9 October 1942, their privilege within the structure of command ended.31 Politruks still had a role. Their tasks would be to work on political consciousness and morale, and also to keep everyone informed of the official news. But their approval was no longer needed for much else. Military decisions were henceforth to be taken by the generals alone.

Professional commanders would find that they had increasing measures of autonomy. ‘The most important thing that I learned on the banks of the Volga,’ Chuikov would later write, ‘was to be impatient of blueprints.’32 He and his peers cherished the right to make decisions, and not only the short-term kind that any officer takes on the spot. A new pragmatism was apparent everywhere, the measure of a leader shifting from his political background to his competence and skill. The reports that Stalin heard from favoured advisers now dealt with the demands and pressures of contemporary war. They noted the weak liaison between the Soviet Union’s infantry, artillery and tanks. They noted the poor state of military intelligence. They noted, above all, the lack of discipline that led to random fire, wastage of shells, and panic on the battlefield.33 The conclusion they drew was that more emphasis should henceforth be placed on drill and less on comic-strip heroics.

Habits that dated from the civil war were abandoned. There would be no more suicidal leaping on to barricades, no more distracting competitions to see which unit could march fastest or form into the straightest line.34 A new culture was slowly taking shape. Its key values were professionalism and merit. Where a man’s class or social origin had defined him before, the army started emphasizing skill. Orders to improve training, and especially the tactical preparation of infantrymen, streamed from the General Staff.35That autumn, the soldiers massing near Stalingrad heard about a new play by Aleksandr Korneichuk, the text of which was also serialized in Pravda in late August. Front!, which was staged by Moscow’s prestigious Art Theatre itself, was designed to ‘answer the questions of every Soviet patriot about the successes and failures of the Red Army’. As the correspondent of the local soldiers’ paper, Red Army, put it in his review, the play showed that ‘nothing in the Soviet land will sustain an ignorant or unskilled leader – not personal courage, not honours from the past’. The time for ‘conservatism’ was over. The war, it added, ‘would test them all’.36

Hard economic fact would underscore the change of mood. That summer, the Soviets’ capacity to turn out weapons, shells and tanks recovered after months of dislocation. The revival of manufacturing seemed like a miracle. Tanks and aeroplanes soon came to symbolize the Soviet recovery, with Chelyabinsk, the new manufacturing centre in the Urals, earning the nickname Tankograd. Mass production accelerated everything. Manufacture of the world-beating T-34 medium tank, for instance, was adapted so that the turrets could be stamped, not cast. Troops still dubbed it the ‘matchbox’, partly because they expected it to catch fire as readily as its predecessors, which had been nicknamed zazhigalki, ‘lighters’, but also because T-34s poured off the production lines in such prolific numbers after 1942.37 Meanwhile, lend-lease military aid, principally from the United States, began to make a crucial difference to the supply of weapons, aeroplanes and food.38 Studebaker trucks, 200,000 of which were to be shipped to the Red Army by 1945, began to rattle round encampments at the front, and soldiers learned to recognize the taste of Spam.39 It was a small step – and the allied aid package, crucially, did not include the promise of a second front – but for men who had seen raw despair and death the slightest improvement was like a turning of the tide.

The change was subtle, for the men still faced the shortages that left them without basic kit, but that autumn the leadership also began to take an interest in hierarchy and even in style. Defeat was written in the shabby uniforms and depressed gait of too many Red Army men. Complacency about the men’s appearance had to end. On 30 August, a campaign began to get the soldiers’ boots mended and polished, to inspect officers’ uniforms, eliminate dirt, and drill the ranks in self-respect.40 The men themselves were set to cobbling leather soles and sewing seams. Armies of women scrubbed and laundered in makeshift wash-houses near the front. ‘We used “K”soap to get rid of the lice,’ one laundrywoman remembered. It stank, and it ‘was black, like earth. Many girls suffered hernias from picking up the heavy loads, or developed eczema on their hands from the “K” soap. Their nails broke and they thought they would never be able to grow them again.’41 Women workers might suffer, but the prize was a morale boost for élite soldiers. ‘Nina, don’t worry about our uniforms,’ an officer wrote to his wife just before Stalingrad. ‘We dress better these days than any commander from the capitalist countries.’42

Red Army troops repair their boots, 1943

With the new focus upon looks came new features to distinguish a man’s rank. On 11 November, orders were promulgated to establish clear new rules for the award of military decorations. These would soon prove a wild success. In an army where there was no chance of leave, the medals, some of which had romantic names, recalling Russia’s military past, became a vital currency for reward. Eleven million decorations were awarded to members of the Soviet military between 1941 and 1945. By contrast, the United States awarded only 1,400,409.43 The US army often took as long as six months to process individual awards. In Stalin’s army the equivalent was frequently three days.44 The message was conveyed that military professionalism would not go unrewarded. While individuals wore stars and ribbons, the number of units, and even of armies, that were awarded the title and material privileges of ‘guards’ increased from 1942. Individually or in groups, as ‘guards’ or as the wearers of golden or scarlet ribbon, soldiers who made the grade could expect more substantial things than gratitude. Each honour carried specific rights, including increased pay-outs for men’s families and benefits like free travel or extra meat. Officers were singled out still further. In mid-November, they received the news that shoulder boards were going to be restored.45 Rank and authority had not enjoyed such ostentation since the fall of the Romanovs.

Women launder soldiers’ clothes on the 1st Ukrainian Front, 1943

‘They’ll bring the Tsar back next,’ the older men complained. Shoulder boards had long symbolized the arbitrary cruelty of the imperial Russian army. In almost every film of Lenin’s revolution angry soldiers crowded on the screen to rip the gold braid from the jacket of some army toff. A few veteran sergeants, remembering their own rage back then, refused to wear the new boards, risking a tribunal and a charge of insubordination.46 But though the malcontents suspected that their revolution had just been betrayed, some of the younger men thought they perceived the dawning of new hope. According to an officer whom the Germans later captured, some soldiers held the reintroduction of epaulettes – along with the reopening of many churches – to be the first sign that the government was going to disband the hated collective farms.47 The new insignia began to appear on officers’ uniforms in January 1943, and became standard for the entire military that spring.48 By then, the German invaders had been encircled and defeated in the city of Stalingrad, and the Red Army had redeemed its long record of shame. For the first time, soldiers could really think that the pre-war order – bosses, prison camps and all – was coming to an end. They could believe that they were fighting to create the promised, longed-for, better world.

A change of mood, in other words, was evident before the battles at Stalingrad. At this stage, it was barely more than a shift of inflexion, a fragile change of emphasis in letters and in some men’s talk. New policies took months, not days, to influence a culture dating from the pre-war years, while fourteen months of hardship took a heavy toll. Morale was still low. Defeat at Stalingrad would almost certainly have extinguished hope entirely, engulfing it in terror and despair, but even in August and September, a sense of individual responsibility, of a last chance, was emerging. There was a mood of expectation everywhere. As Alexander Werth wrote in his diary in mid-July, ‘Black as things are, I somehow feel that Stalingrad is going to provide something very big.’49


As Stalin’s generals prepared for the battle that would alter the whole balance of morale, another change was taking place within the army. It was a shift of generations. The Soviets entered the war with just under 5 million men in active service. Reserves and replacements flooded westwards in preparation for the battles around Moscow in October 1941, but the carnage of the war’s first fourteen months was indescribable. By the late summer of 1942, a man who had been in the field for six months was an old hand, a real veteran. Large numbers returned to the front after sustaining wounds. On average, just under three quarters of injured men were patched up and sent back to fight during the war.50 But this was still the era of defence to the death. The old army, the army that had seen surrender, mutiny and defeat, was literally dying.

The ghosts of pre-war infantry might well have shuddered to see what was coming next. The most conspicuous innovation, which began in earnest in the summer of 1942, was the recruitment of young women.51 In the first weeks of the war, women had been discouraged from applying for active service roles, but a labour shortage everywhere, at the front line and in the factories, changed everything. That summer, the military expressed itself keen to recruit ‘healthy young girls’.52 To some extent the idea was to shame the men to greater effort. The other goal was to make civilian women more effective, to shame them, too, into forced labour in armaments plants or long hours working on the farms. Either way, some 800,000 women would serve at the front during the war. Smirks and official condescension followed them. Unlike the men, they found it hard to fit their bodies into the heroic mould, to see themselves as warriors. There had been women at the front in Russia’s other wars, but never on this scale.53

Old soldiers did not know whether to call the women feminine or comradely. New female recruits suffered agonies of embarrassment when faced with field latrines (or no latrines). Their uniforms, designed for men, would never fit. They did not know whether to welcome the muscles and dirt that changed their bodies into those of troops. They curled short haircuts, washed with moss, shared tiny scraps of soap. Equally confused, the authorities introduced, on an experimental basis, mobile front-line tea shops, forty-three of which, equipped with hairdressers, small cosmetics counters and supplies of dominoes and draughts, had been deployed by August 1942.54 The same month, a decree was signed that authorized the issue of rations of chocolate, in place of the standard tobacco, to female soldiers who did not smoke.55 One veteran recalled taking a suitcase full of chocolate when she went to the front. Another was disciplined for picking violets after target practice and tying them to her bayonet.56

Femininity turned out to be no obstacle to certain kinds of soldiering. Among the military specialisms to which women would eventually be assigned – and at which, in the field, they could excel – was sniper training.57 Accounts of this hint at the level of expertise that new recruits of either sex might expect to acquire. ‘We learned to mount and demount a sniper’s rifle with closed eyes,’ a female veteran remembered, ‘to determine wind velocity, to evaluate the movement of the target and the distance to it, to dig in and crawl … I remember that the most difficult thing was to get up at the sound of alarm and to get ready in five minutes. We would take boots a size or so bigger so as not to lose much time putting them on.’58 Women like this, or like the aviators of Marina Raskova’s all-female 588th night bomber squadron, which flew its first missions in the summer of 1942, began to make the front pages of newspapers, setting a standard for self-sacrifice, professional pride and patriotism.59 However, those who were not famous struggled with a confused, physically draining role, surviving – they report – only because youth and their comrades remained on their side.

New male blood also replenished the Red Army that season. Despite the losses of the war’s first year, there were more than 6 million troops in the field at the end of 1942. Among the other population groups that the army now tapped were former kulaks and their families, for the law that banned them from front-line service was repealed in April 1942, but the majority were drawn from a new generation. These newest recruits had been teenagers, children really, when the war began. They had anticipated their call-up for some months, over a year, but their expectations and mentality were unlike those of the old guard. For them, army service was not a chore hijacked by circumstance; it was a sacred duty, mortal sentence, fate. Their culture, the idiom of their growing up, had been shaped by the war itself. The process was a brutal, shocking one. Not all were eager. Some evaded service, and new laws had to be passed to force youngsters to take the oath.60 Few, if any, came to the front from secure, settled lives, but they had no time to mull over the discontents that had preoccupied their predecessors in the pre-war years. ‘Just three months,’ one veteran told me, describing the training camp. ‘They taught us fast. And what was there for us to complain about? They taught us, they sent us, they killed us.’61

The training these recruits received was brutal, quick and very focused. ‘Army life is cruel, especially right now,’ nineteen-year-old Anatoly Viktorov wrote to his father. ‘In a short time you have to develop courage, boldness, resourcefulness, and quite apart from that, the ability to hit the enemy accurately with a gun. You don’t get any of these qualities as a free gift.’62 ‘We work for nine hours a day – and if you add the preparation we do by ourselves it’s twelve,’ another young man told his father.63 Thousands of miles to the west, newly recruited German infantrymen were training at the same accelerated pace.64 The Eastern Front claimed more lives than all the other theatres of European war combined, and even Hitler’s army had to change its rules and turn out soldiers fast. However, for new recruits to the Red Army, it was no comfort to know that ‘Fritz’ was suffering a similar stress. For most young Soviets, the struggle to get through those first few weeks alive and fit was utterly preoccupying.

David Samoilov found himself in a camp for infantry officers. The man in charge of his training was a ‘bestial and innate scoundrel’ called Serdyuk. This old hand used drill to torment the new recruits, forcing them to don their gas masks and run out across the steppe at the first hint of dawn. Samoilov had to carry a machine gun on these sorties, and he remembered its weight to the ounce: ‘Base – 32 kg, body – 10 kg, armour – 14 kg.’ He also remembered the meaningless torture of reveille practice. He would be ordered to lie down, get up, dress, undress and repeat the process over and over again. The idea was to reduce the time that each recruit would need until the whole thing took mere seconds, but like all drill, the exercise was also intended to beat the wind out of a dilettante, to turn a man into a soldier. ‘Serdyuk,’ Samoilov recalled, ‘was the first personification of hatred in my life.’65 No one described their training camp with love. ‘We fall in for classes, we fall in for meals,’ another officer trainee wrote to his wife in April 1942. ‘You can’t call a moment your own.’66

Private Aleksandr Karp was assigned to the artillery, leaving to train as soon as he had finished school in the summer of 1942. ‘Reveille is at 5 o’clock,’ he wrote to his grandmother. ‘We wash and all that. Breakfast at last, which usually consists of some kind of kasha with a hunk of sausage, butter, sweet tea and bread, which is never quite enough. Immediately after breakfast, lessons, without going back to barracks. We work for eight hours until lunch.’ After a few weeks, he had graduated from basic square-bashing to the more sophisticated study of weapon assembly and disassembly, target practice, geometry and mathematics. Time was always reserved for political education, which at this stage included reports on the war. The classes ran without a break. By early afternoon, the men were ravenous. ‘Lunch is usually something like soup with grits,’ Karp continued, ‘admittedly with fat, and then for seconds either that kasha again with that same sausage or else dumplings with gravy.’ The men were then shepherded off to spend their afternoon preparing for the next day’s classes, at the end of which came supper. ‘Bread and butter (25 g) and sweet tea (half a litre).’ ‘All our lessons,’ Karp wrote, ‘are in the open air. We have to sit for eight hours in scorching sun, which sometimes means that nothing sticks in our heads … We’re getting used to it a bit now, but we’re all terribly tired.’67

Karp had just left home. He was not interested in vodka or tobacco. Instead, like many others of his age, the young man craved milk, sweets and bread. He was always hungry. He traded some of his rations for sugar and sneaked out of field exercises to buy milk and dried fish from the local peasants.68 That autumn, he begged his grandmother to send more money. Men who had cash could quell their hunger with the berries and nuts that nearby children brought to sell at the barracks. Theft was a problem; new recruits soon learned to hide money and even food. They also had to dodge the bullies who threatened to beat their possessions out of them.69 It was tempting to raid the supplies from local farms, and in Karp’s unit, men stole out at night to dig potatoes from outlying fields. They made small fires and boiled them on the spot, using their helmets as saucepans. More enterprising youths stole chickens or took shots at wild hares. Karp’s own diet was so poor that within weeks he had come out in septic boils.70

As in peacetime, not all the farmwork that the men performed was unofficial. ‘They’ve sent us to the collective farm,’ Karp reported in October. ‘We have in fact been told to dig potatoes. The work is very hard. It was all made far worse this time by the fact that it was very cold and there was even rain with hail in it from time to time. The earth was cold and wet and it was terribly hard to dig in it, looking for spuds … We were all black and filthy, knackered. We worked without a break. They gave us half an hour for lunch. We ate it with the same dirty hands that we had been digging with. The mud poured down our hands and faces and into our mugs … but there was nothing much to eat then anyway.’ When Karp was given time off to recover from another bout of boils, he noted that he would be let off ‘the building work, my lessons, and mucking the horses out’.

Sappers from the 193 Dnepr rifle division building a shelter, 10 December 1943

It was not what they had signed up to do, but at least the digging was good practice for their real work. In November, Karp experienced ‘the toughest day of my training’. He and his mates were dumped on the cold steppe and left to make an earth dugout in which they had to spend the night. These shelters, zemlyanki, were a core part of the Red Army’s survival plan. They could be quite elaborate, with curtained-off rooms, an iron stove and even a window. But all were dug into the earth, concealed with turf or branches, stuffy, cramped and thick with the makhorka that almost everybody smoked. The description that an infantryman sent back to his wife that spring was typical. ‘We live like moles, in the earth,’ he wrote. ‘The walls are made of planks, and so is the roof, although there is no floor or ceiling. We sleep on planks as well, two-storey bunks … It’s just a bit uncomfortable when there is a lot of noise, because up to four hundred people have to live in here.’71

The digging, then, was not a trivial task, and Karp’s team had yet to learn the real knack. ‘We were saved by the fact that they gave us warm things,’ he wrote. ‘Padded clothes and valenki. But all the same we froze to our bones.’ It was particularly bad for each man as he did his sentry duty. Coming back inside ‘it became clear what a great thing a campfire is. That night, we all took it in turns to freeze.’72 The trainees grumbled, but so, unfortunately, did the inspectors who reviewed their work. That autumn, a report written with new standards of training in mind found infantry and gunner recruits wanting in almost every area. It also noted that their discipline was weak, that they were too fond of slipping away without permission and of sleeping at their posts, and that their manner to superior officers was rude.73 ‘We studied for ten years in school,’ wrote Karp sulkily. ‘And now we have to start all over again, working without a break. I’m sick of it. On the other hand, we can’t expect that what’s ahead will be any better.’74

The irony was that most, in fact, expected nothing less. Recruits climbed patiently into the trains that took them to the Volga or the north because they could see no future except through war. The humiliation of the training camp would end, the waiting finish, and they would begin to do a real job. They could also get their revenge, and not just on the invader. The prospect of combat and death loosened the hold of duty, party and the whole communist state. Samoilov remembered his own journey to the front. He and his comrades travelled with the hated senior, Serdyuk. As they put miles of track between their company and the old camp, their tormentor seemed to withdraw into his thoughts. ‘The tragedy of the tyrant,’ Samoilov noted, ‘lies in the fact that his power is never limitless.’ On that train, the balance would shift. It was a story that would be repeated elsewhere as insulted men began to weigh their own value. The hope – or fear, depending on your rank – was that the battlefield would level former differences out. A group of Uzbeks gathered round Serdyuk one evening. Their teeth flashed in the semi-dark, their bodies, muscled from years on the steppe, crowded their victim like the walls of a cell. ‘We’re going to the front, aren’t we?’ asked one of them. Serdyuk looked up into a fixed, confident smile, the ‘slant-eyed glance of Tamurlane’. As soon as he arrived at the unit’s reserve base, he asked to be transferred to another group.75


‘Without exception, we are all worried about Stalingrad,’ a junior officer called Ageev wrote to his wife in October 1942. ‘If the enemy succeeds in taking it, we will all suffer, including the people in our unit.’76 The city that bore Stalin’s name acquired a mythic significance that autumn. ‘I am writing to you from this historic place at an historic time,’ Viktor Barsov wrote to his parents in August.77 His mother guessed correctly where he was. The Moscow press was full of tales from the embattled town; the whole country waited for news. As Barsov put it in another letter that October, ‘I am defending the histor[ic]. t[own]. form[erly]. Ts[aritsyn]. now St[alingrad].’ His boots were soaked through and his fingers stiffened through his thin gloves as he wrote. He was no more a superman than young Karp, and just as preoccupied with hunger, cold and lack of sleep. Instead of steppe, the city that surrounded him for miles was no more than a wilderness of rubble, twisted steel and mud. But his letter suggests a certain pride in his position. Already everybody knew that fighting here was likely to decide the war.

Stalingrad stands on the west bank of the Volga river, the mightiest in Europe. The city, originally named for the Tsaritsa, a tributary of the Volga that cuts it in half, came to bear Stalin’s name in honour of a civil-war campaign in which the future leader had played a conspicuous part. Partly because of this, Stalingrad had been developed as a model city for the region, with open spaces, parks, and pristine-looking white apartment blocks that reflected the river and the summer glare. But even if it had not borne a famous name, the city was important. It was a major centre for engineering and manufacturing industry, it supported a university and several technical schools, and it hosted an extensive network of supply and storage facilities for the armies fighting nearby on the river Don. In 1942, Hitler regarded it as an important bridgehead on the Volga river and as a vital staging post for armies heading south towards the oilfields of the Caspian. He also savoured the prospect of capturing the city bearing Stalin’s name.

The battle to take it began in the heat of the southern Russian summer as Red Army units stationed on the river Don fought to hold off an enemy advance from both the south and west. On 4 August, the German 6th Army reached the southern bank of the Don, which bends east at this point in a great arc towards the Volga. By mid-month, they held almost the entire stretch of territory within this Don bend to the west and north-west of Stalingrad. The Soviet defence was more determined than of late, but conditions did not help to raise morale. On more than one occasion, whole armies gave way to panic, rushing headlong for the barren gullies on the far side of the Don. ‘I am taking part in a very large operation,’ Volkov wrote to his wife in August 1942. ‘For the past few days and still right now I am in the front line. I don’t have time to describe what’s going on, but I can tell you that what’s around me is a very hell. There’s wailing and roaring all around, the sky is splitting with the din, but my eardrums are already used to it. One shell burst just three metres from me, and I was spattered with mud, but I’m still in one piece. But as to what will happen, I can give you no guarantees.’78

In fact, the fighting in the Don country helped to delay the German advance, which mattered later in the campaign when the ice and darkness finally set in. At the time, however, the breathing space seemed made for working on the great city’s defence. As in Moscow a year earlier, citizens were pressed into militia gangs and given shovels, carts and lumps of wood. Tank traps and trenches were prepared, defensive drills rehearsed. None of these preparations would prevent the cataclysm when it came, and local people seemed to sense that fact. While some exhausted Stalingraders dug, their neighbours, no less frightened, were streaming eastwards to the Volga, pulling carts, carrying bundles, driving stock.79 They were rushing to escape from a trap. Many of the bridges across the river had been mined, while the roads were already exposed to sporadic aerial machine-gun fire. Thousands of refugees would never make it to the sallow hills of Asia.

The attack came on Sunday 23 August. That day, 600 German planes circled over Stalingrad. They flew in low, carpet-bombing in relays. By nightfall there was little left above the ground but rubble, searing flame and smoke. ‘The streets of the city are dead,’ Chuikov would write as he toured his new battleground a few days after the catastrophe. ‘There is not a single green twig on the trees: everything has perished in the flames. All that is left of the wooden houses is a pile of ashes and stove chimneys sticking up out of them. The many stone houses are burnt out, their windows and doors missing and their roofs caved in. Now and then a building collapses. People are rummaging about in the ruins, pulling out bundles, samovars and crockery, and carrying everything to the landing stage.’80 Tens of thousands of civilians would never manage to escape. In that first day and night, an estimated 40,000 people died.81

The bitterest and most appalling phase of Stalingrad’s defence also began that August. For a few weeks, the Soviet 62nd and 64th armies retreated from the city’s western suburbs to a few strongholds in the centre and the north. By mid-September, the 62nd Army was holding the city on its own. Its orders were to destroy the enemy – the 6th Army of General Paulus – in the city itself. Soldiers holding the narrow strip of ruined earth along the Volga’s western bank were told to fight as if there were no land across the water on the eastern shore. What that would mean soon became clear. Chuikov’s men, reinforced by any troops who could be shipped across alive, clung to their bridgehead by contesting every house. Inside the ruins, sometimes in the dark, men fought with bayonets and their bare hands to hold each stairwell and each bullet-pitted room.

From October, Chuikov’s soldiers in the city would be supported by well-organized artillery, this time sensibly sited on the Volga’s eastern bank. But the enemy maintained complete superiority in the air. All troops in the city, German and Soviet – and the few civilians who had not succeeded in escaping after the first fatal days – were subject to unrelenting bombardment. So were the boats that brought supplies and men across the river from the Soviet side. The food ran out, bullets ran out, the cooling water in machine guns boiled. The men lived and died amid a litter of corpses and rubble, the bodies blending with the dust. As Chuikov himself recalled, ‘The heavy casualties, the constant retreat, the shortage of food and munitions, the difficulty of receiving reinforcements … all this had a very bad effect on morale. Many longed to get across the Volga, to escape the hell of Stalingrad.’82 His men were close to absolute despair. ‘It is all so hard that I do not see a way out,’ a soldier wrote home that October. ‘We can consider Stalingrad as good as surrendered.’83

For tens of thousands, there could never be escape. True, some of the top brass, as well as some police, shipped out to safer ground, leaving the men to face the wreckage and the flames alone.84 Chuikov himself is said to have requested several times to remove his headquarters to the safety of the other bank,85 but the general had no choice. His orders were to lead the soldiers by example. He had a relatively free hand over tactics, and the promise of daily replacements of men, but there would be no going back. The troops who disembarked at Stalingrad had no option except to fight. One sanction, which Chuikov was never ashamed to use, was the threat of a bullet in the back. The discipline the general maintained was savage even by the standards of Zhukov’s Red Army. But the Volga river, steaming from the heat of German shells, was a barrier more deadly than any secret police line. Just over half a million troops were massed for Stalingrad’s defence in July 1942. Well over 300,000 of these would die.86

The physical toll defies imagination. The day-today conditions on their own wore the men down; it was not just the bombing, the unrelenting noise, the dust, flame, cold and darkness. The city’s defenders relied entirely on the river boats to deliver supplies. As these began to fail, soldiers turned into scavengers, taking the boots, the guns and even writing paper from corpses. The reek of decayed flesh mingled with the hot metal and sweat. There was little enough clean water in the shelters where soldiers huddled at night, so washing was out of the question. Lice, always a problem at the front, infested clothing, gloves, bedding and the men’s own matted hair. Unlike the rats and birds that also moved among the ruins, these vermin were not even good to eat. The men had their own way of describing siege rations. ‘You’ll live,’ they would mutter, ‘but you won’t be able to fuck.’87 The bitter words ignored the fact that they still had to fight. Only the injured, proven in combat, stood a chance of a place on the boats that slipped back to the east bank every night. The hospitals filled up. Their staff worked to exhaustion.

The men’s own view was that ten days were as much as anyone could take. Even the toughest used to say that after the eighth or ninth day they were certain to be wounded, if they did not die.88 Most had grown used to the sounds and smells of war, and old hands felt that they could judge, even predict, their universe. It was the closest they might ever come to controlling the chaos at the front. ‘We knew by the flight of a shell if it would hit you or not,’ a survivor remembered. ‘We could also tell where a mine would land by the noise it produced.’89 But the endless struggle to remain alert destroyed a person’s concentration in the end. The archives do not talk about stress much – the Soviet army operated with less sensitive measures of the soldiers’ health and fitness – but, as one survivor put it, the men became ‘a little less than human’ as they strained to hear the shadows in the dark.90 ‘At least I can say that I saw a lot of heroic things,’ an officer wrote later to his wife, ‘but I also saw a lot of things that the Red Army ought to be ashamed of. I never thought that I’d be capable of the kind of ruthlessness that really borders on cruelty. I thought I was a good-hearted person, but it seems that a human being can hide within himself for a long time the qualities that surface only at a time like this.’91

Men also learned that there were worse outcomes than death. ‘Whether we like it or not,’ the same officer wrote, ‘we all end up thinking – what if I become a cripple? How will my wife react? You absolutely don’t want to think about the possibility of being crippled. Of course, it’s a real possibility, but you want to think of other things – of a full, healthy life.’92 A healthy life, perhaps, or else the catharsis of death. Soldiers began to find a kind of ecstasy in action, even in suicide. Against the blackness of their daily lives, the strangest things glowed with an unexpected light. Some accounts read like scenes from a macabre ballet; that is, the witnesses – all soldiers – had come to imagine action in cinematic terms, while the dead, the principals in these dramas, could not correct the script. Chuikov, who was no sentimentalist, described the death of a marine called Pankaiko in just this way. As the doomed man prepared to lob a petrol-filled bottle at a line of German tanks, a bullet ignited the fuel, turning him into a pillar of flame. But the marine was still alive, and somehow, with some last reserve of rage, or maybe from some grim reflex, he managed to reach for a second missile. ‘Everyone saw a man in flames leap out of the trench,’ Chuikov later wrote, ‘run right up to the German tank, and smash the bottle against the grille of the engine hatch. A second later an enormous sheet of flame and smoke engulfed both the tank and the hero who had destroyed it.’93

Stories like this were soon turned into fable. Amid the violence and death, the guilty pleasure of survival wove strong bonds of brotherhood. The brute simplicity of life pared down to its sinews produced a sense of freedom, while battle itself often seemed like release.94 The party was quick to take the credit. It claimed the soldiers’ valour for its own and called them loyal komsomols and faithful patriots. But though its bureaucrats supplied a rhetoric, the emotion that fired the men was beyond words. Sheer rage combined with something very close to love. The emotion is echoed, at a distance, in the evidence of those who clung to Stalingrad in memory, regarding the city as the scene of their most vivid life. Vasily Grossman, the novelist and war correspondent, was one who did not want to leave. As he wrote to his father, ‘I still want to stay in a place where I witnessed the worst times.’95 Once victory was certain, others claimed to share this view. ‘It was pretty terrifying,’ a survivor told Alexander Werth, ‘to cross over to Stalingrad, but once we got there we felt better. We knew that beyond the Volga there was nothing, and that if we were to remain alive, we had to destroy the invaders.’96

‘I cannot understand how men can survive such a hell,’ a pilot in the Luftwaffe wrote home. ‘Yet the Russians sit tight in the ruins, and holes and cellars, and a chaos of steel skeletons which used to be factories.’97 ‘The Russians are not men, but some kind of cast-iron creatures,’ another German concluded.98 This was outrage speaking, the voice of shock when victory was neither swift nor cheap. But until November, Paulus’s men could still believe that they would beat the Slavic devils, crushing them as they had done for seventeen months. Their German rearguard would support them, their planes deliver vital food, rescue the wounded. As the thermometer dropped and the nights grew longer, however, it was the Red Army, and not the invader, that would take the initiative.

The ruins of Stalingrad were the icon of Red Army stoicism, but it was not within the city itself that the outcome of that winter’s long campaign would be decided. Chuikov’s 62nd Army surely earned the honour of the title ‘guards’, but it was planning, not merely endurance, that would save the Soviet cause. In November 1942, a massive operation, codenamed Uranus, was set in train. Its aim was to encircle Paulus’s trapped 6th Army, cutting off its retreat from the city. As Soviet and German troops duelled over rust and rotting bricks, more than a million men were gathering beyond their horizon. Armies were brought into position on three fronts, forming a giant trap around Stalingrad. They waited only for the signal to move out across the steppe.99

It would not have consoled the city’s defenders, but life was hardly easy for the divisions that converged on the city from bases to the north and east. Supply problems would dog them, too, including shortages of winter clothing. Men died of frostbite and hypothermia before they ever reached the front.100 But the operation, which began on 19 November, was a swift and complete success. Three days later, the 6th Army had been surrounded, trapped in the city that their Führer could not allow them to abandon. The mood among Red Army troops in Stalingrad would lift, though there were months of suffering to come. General Paulus held out till the end of January, and the battle to secure the region as a whole continued for weeks after that, but action and a glimpse of victory raised Soviet morale despite November’s fog. Survivors of the great encirclement campaign would later remember the day the order came to strike the enemy at last as the happiest of their war.101 As Konstantin Rokossovsky’s trap closed around the city, it was even possible for wounded veterans to complain, as one wrote to his wife, that they were lying in hospital and ‘missing all this’.102

For months, Red Army men had nursed envy for the invader, for Fritz, with his well-nourished body and his modern guns. There was even, among the better-educated troops, a kind of cultural awe, for these were the people whose civilization had produced Bach, Goethe and Heine (no one, I found, referred to Marx). There had been signs that German morale was cracking elsewhere on the Eastern Front by October. Soldiers based near Smolensk were said to be depressed as winter closed in yet again, and those returning from the Don to rest in occupied Ukraine were already anxious about the possibility of a Soviet recovery.103 From November, trapped in Stalingrad and on the frozen steppe around it, Wehrmacht soldiers tasted their first despair. ‘Snow, wind, cold, and all around us – sleet and rain … Since my leave I have never undressed. Lice. Mice at night,’ Kurt Reuber, a thirty-sixyear-old German from Kassel wrote to his family in December. ‘There is just enough food to stop us from dying of hunger.’104

While Paulus struggled to resist surrender, the two sides starved in a twilight fog. ‘Clay and mud,’ Reuber explained. Like the Russians, the Germans lived in dugouts. There was not even much wood left to reinforce the walls or roof after the bombing and the fires. In fact, there was almost no vegetation at all amid the rubble. In late December, Reuber observed a scrawny Russian pony that had wandered over to his dugout and was nibbling a piece of broken timber. The shivering creature was so hungry that even this would do for food. ‘Today it will be our dinner,’ Reuber remarked.105 When the last Germans were captured a month later, even their wretched shelters impressed Russian troops.106 Soviet dugouts had been even more primitive and cramped. Their commanders, writing from well behind the lines, were concerned at the darkness, the lack of air and space.107 A woman veteran put it more vividly. ‘Let us just say,’ she told me, ‘that with those people sleeping there, and all their clothes, and a fire – well, it wasn’t a place where you went in to breathe.’

Those last weeks were a calvary for soldiers of both sides. A near equality of misery prevailed. The adversaries locked together, contesting spaces that passed between them, back and forth, each time costing dozens, hundreds of lives. After Stalingrad fell, Alexander Werth toured the ruins and was struck by the battle relics that close combat had left. ‘Trenches ran through factory yards and through the workshops themselves,’ he wrote. ‘And now at the bottom of the trenches there still lay frozen green Germans and frozen grey Russians and frozen fragments of human shapes; and there were helmets, Russian and German, lying among the brick debris, and now half-filled with snow.’108 When the thaw came that spring, another witness saw a chunk of ice floating along the Volga with two frozen bodies, a Russian and a German, fixed on to it just as they had died, clasped in a simultaneous assault.

Described like this, the city might have seemed to be the same nightmare for everyone, but from November there was a crucial difference between the experience of Soviet and German troops. For the invaders, suddenly besieged, Stalingrad was a terrible shock, a catastrophe after the victories of 1941. ‘We have not received any Christmas parcels yet,’ a soldier in Paulus’s 6th Army wrote home on 10 January. ‘They’ve promised us that they’re keeping them behind the lines, and that when we come back they’ll give them to us … We have absolutely nothing to eat, our strength is ebbing away in front of our eyes, we’ve turned into wrecks … I’ve reached the point where I no longer thank the Lord that he has spared my life thus far. I see death every hour.’109 The expectations of Soviet troops had always been less high. They were not dreaming of their Christmas trees, nor of the sweets and cakes that they had never known. If they thought about home, it was about the life their enemy had destroyed. But now, backed up by their spectacular Katyushas and by the first friendly aircraft they had seen since 1941, they seized a chance to take revenge. The Germans, in other words, were facing a kind of anti-progress, losing one by one the things that made them feel human. Red Army men, by contrast, were getting their first scent of real success. Exhausted, filthy, battle-hardened troops prepared to celebrate. ‘The prestige value of having fought at Stalingrad,’ Werth wrote, ‘was enormous.’110


The party took the credit for the spirit that emerged at Stalingrad. The brotherhood and selflessness to which that battlefield gave birth were rapidly adopted as the offspring of its ideology, its wise guidance. ‘Thousands of patriots are proving themselves to be models of fearlessness, courage and selfless dedication to the motherland,’ the soldiers’ front-line paper crowed. ‘After the war, our people will not forget the ones who honourably served their homeland. The hero’s children will be proud of their father. But the names of the coward, the panic-monger and the traitor will be pronounced with hatred.’111 On the anniversary of the revolution that November, a Stalingrad oath appeared in the press, allegedly from the city’s defenders. ‘In sending you this letter from the trenches,’ the men declared, ‘we swear to you, dear Joseph Vissarionovich, that to the last drop of blood, to the last breath, to the last heart-beat, we shall defend Stalingrad.’112

The message was drummed home at mass rallies. It was repeated in the printed orders of the day. Newly arrived men, anxiously waiting to know if fate would send them across the Volga with the rest, were made to sit through lectures on the epic heroes of the past. Courage was a topic that soldiers were forced to discuss in small groups led by their politruks, although no one among them might ever have seen a German, let alone a corpse.113 Films also worked on the men’s consciousness. That autumn, soldiers in camps along the Volga might have seen The Defence of Tsaritsyn, The Great Citizen and – especially for the Ukrainians – a recreation of the life of the Cossack Bohdan Khmelnitsky.114 Epics like these could roll out every few weeks now that the film industry had been mobilized entirely for the service of the front.115 Soldiers were also shown newsreel of Soviet successes, while documentaries, such as the famous Defeat of the German Armies near Moscow, reminded them how bedraggled and beaten the invader had looked only months before.116 ‘You look at our own captured fascist beasts,’ a man remarked, ‘and you know there just aren’t enough ways to punish them for all the atrocities, betrayals and crimes that they’ve committed.’117

It also helped that some of the reserves were well-trained, well-prepared  and fit. The army had begun to look the part. Siberians were valued most of all. They seemed to be professional, not least because many had learned to shoot. They also knew how to take cover and to dig the deep, narrow trenches that provided shelter from tank tracks and airborne shells alike. ‘The most important thing,’ Ageev wrote home at this time, ‘is that there is no more of the “tank-fright” that we saw so much of at the beginning of the war. Every soldier … knowingly digs deeper into the earth.’118 Those who still panicked at the sight of eyeless, sinister machines were trained out of their fear by an exercise (called ‘ironing’) that forced them to lie in a trench while Soviet tanks were driven over their heads. ‘After this,’ a German intelligence report noted of Red Army troops, ‘they all fought with exceptional courage.’119 The men, meanwhile, dismissed their terrors with black humour. ‘The deeper you dig,’ they would mutter, ‘the longer you’ll lie.’120

For all the froth, the real culture of the front could not be hidden from the men. Whatever the party might do, stories of cruelty, deceit and wasted life flooded back. Military hospitals were not sealed off from the civilian world. Local people could smell the blood and gangrene; they often helped to dig mass graves near battle sites. As ever, they also participated in the parallel economy that flourished when the NKVD’s grip was weak. Wounded soldiers traded in guns, watches, pens and even Zeiss cameras;121 the German trenches were full of attractive loot. Meanwhile, a new class of outlaws, deserters, dealt in every trade from cash and weapons to the trafficking of human lives. The NKVD detained more than 11,000 military personnel near the Stalingrad Front between October and December 1942, more than 1,000 of whom turned out to be deserters or former Red Army men now working for the enemy.122 A favourite ruse had been to dress in women’s clothes, though one man, who had been hiding for eleven months, was found buried at the bottom of a grain bin.123

The police could not keep up with the crime wave. Instead, they tried to make examples out of any men they caught. Desertion was the infraction that most offended them. ‘Comrade commissar,’ an NKVD man told his boss as he escorted ten new miscreants, ‘we should fulfil comrade Stalin’s order 227 with these deserters and shoot them on the spot. They’re not saving the motherland, but their own skins.’124 It was a natural response to lawlessness, but overall, the number of deserters, as opposed to criminals, was falling. The weather must have played a part. As the thermometer dropped to thirty degrees below freezing, there was not much chance in Stalingrad for anyone who chose to strike out on their own. However, there were other reasons for compliance in the ranks.

Some reserves on the Volga steppe did not revolt because their lives, paradoxically, were improving. Ilya Nemanov explained how the process worked in his own case. As the son of a so-called enemy of the people, he had not been allowed, at first, to hold a gun. Instead, he had been assigned, back in 1941, to a labour battalion. It was a version of conscription, since he had no choice, but it involved back-breaking work, not battlefields. The government sent him to work on a construction site for evacuated industry in the Siberian town of Zlatoust. The men, a mixture of convicts, conscripts and supposed political misfits like himself, felt that they had been exiled to the middle of nowhere. ‘We worked in Asia,’ Nemanov joked, ‘and came back to shit in Europe.’ Like front-line soldiers, they lived in dugouts, and like the soldiers, too, they worked until they collapsed. Nemanov himself relied on help from a couple of Kazakh herdsmen, who finished his work for him every day so that the group’s norms would be met. The foreman could be rough, the criminals were violent. ‘It is not at the front that war is frightening,’ Nemanov told me. ‘It’s when you’re destroyed, when you have exhausting work to do, when people are dropping around you for no reason, when there’s hunger, when there’s no way you can help yourself – except by risking your life – when they give you frozen potatoes to eat, when you’ll even eat carrion, when you’ll take the rations off a dead comrade. That’s what’s frightening, not bullets!’

At the end of 1942, a group of men from Nemanov’s labour unit were taken off and trained to handle mortars. When they boarded a train heading towards the south, they knew that they were going to Stalingrad. It was bitterly cold. They were apprehensive, exhausted and hungry. One man tried to run away and was taken aside and shot. For several nights they slept in all their clothes and used their own boots for pillows. When they arrived at the front, their first order was to go to the baths and wash. Obediently, the men all rubbed themselves with vicious medicated soap, but then they found out that there was no water left to rinse it off. Gritty and itching, they dressed again, hauled the mortars across their backs and headed out, as Nemanov explained, ‘to where the lives were needed’. Lives, it seemed, but not mortars. ‘We’ll get you some rifles, you’re infantrymen now,’ the men were told. It was by luck that they were spared. ‘We froze, but they never sent us into battle.’

It was a grim version of progress, but for Nemanov the front line was a better place than Zlatoust. Like thousands of other suspect citizens, he knew that war service was likely to clear his good name. He was working his way back into Soviet society as he aimed his unwieldy gun, not serving time like a convict.125 What’s more, the young man had learned skills in the camp that made survival easier now. ‘We were rogues,’ he told me. The men soon made the front a kind of home, adjusting daily life until they felt they had some individual control of it. Like soldiers everywhere, they improvised, and failing that, they stole. Local people were often kind, too, although they had little enough to share. ‘They all loved us,’ Nemanov said, ‘and we used that. One of my mates found a house, walked in and crossed himself. The old lady immediately started up with all that stuff – “You lovely, darling man, my darling” – and sat him down at the table.’ Mistaking the lad for a devout Christian soul, she ladled out the tea and cabbage and a crust of bread. ‘Lots of us,’ Nemanov added, ‘naturally, had affairs. War’s about that – it’s a time of death and love.’ This account squares with others of its kind, with those of men who found the front line – even this one – better than the camps.126 Life was not easy anywhere, but near the front there was a chance that soldiers could carve niches, make connections, for themselves.

The chance of killing Germans was also a source of joy.127 Soldiers had good reasons, specific ones, to hate these foreigners. The men who had seen combat were exhausted, and their dreams would be forever haunted by the stink of war. Others already knew that they would never see their families again, and everyone, including new conscripts, had lost comrades and close friends by this stage. It did not take much effort to foment their hate, but even so the Soviet wartime press encouraged it. Few writers were more popular at this point in the war than Ilya Ehrenburg, the publicist who called on every Soviet citizen to ‘Kill the German. If you have killed one German,’ he wrote simply, ‘kill another. There is nothing jollier than German corpses.’128 But Ehrenburg, whose prose was at its most lurid in 1942, was not the only source of hate propaganda. Simonov, the soldiers’ poet, joined in with ‘Kill Him!’, a lyric exhortation to revenge.129 Cartoonists sketched the enemy in every kind of trouble; Romanians panicking, Italians sneaking under cooking pots, Germans dying. A pun on the Russian word for snowdrop, podsnezhnik, whose literal meaning is ‘under the snow’, showed the thaw that spring giving up new ‘snowdrops’ in the form of German corpses.130 When a Soviet commander died in Stalingrad that winter, the order was to fire a salvo in his honour, ‘not in the air, but at the Germans’.131

Strangely, soldiers in other theatres often envied the action that comrades on the Volga saw. Even the men who knew exactly what combat involved could yearn for a chance to get moving, to re-enter the war. ‘When the devil are we going to attack?’ an officer called Nikolai Belov wrote in his diary in January 1943. The twenty-seven-year-old was stationed near Lipetsk, well to the north of Stalingrad. His unit was within range of the German army near Voronezh, but its orders were to sit and wait. Belov knew just what real war was like. He had joined up as soon as the fighting began. Wounded that first summer, he had been evacuated for treatment, which meant that he had escaped the capture and death that awaited his comrades. Instead, he had returned to active service in the grim summer of 1942, retreating before an enemy that now controlled the entire Russian south.

That Christmas, as Rokossovsky’s armies swept across the snowfields of the Volga steppe, Belov was sitting tight. He found himself digging in, drilling the men and waiting. It was less tiring than the previous July’s long marches, less dangerous than fighting hand to hand in Stalingrad. But it was hardly pleasant. The weather was cold, and the occasional slight thaws brought freezing rain and fog. Every few days there was some German shelling, and then there were the suicides, the desertions, the self-inflicted injuries and brawls. ‘I’ve become terribly irritable,’ Belov added, ‘and I’ve developed this awful apathy towards everything. I feel as if the whole thing is making me as tired as hell. If we could only attack, I’d probably come to my senses again.’132 His chance to test that thought would come the following July. Stuck in his snow-bound dugout, meanwhile, he grew painfully depressed.

It would have been a different tale for everyone if Stalingrad had fallen. Victory was the greatest inspiration of them all. Red Army men began to believe that their efforts might one day bear fruit. Though many knew that they were still likely to die, it mattered that there was some chance of victory. The news from Stalingrad flew round the entire Soviet world. ‘I long to leave and go and live permanently at the front,’ Belov told his diary one night. At the beginning of November, he had been cheered by the story of Allied activity in Africa. ‘It’s a long way, but it seems it’s also quite close. What a comfort.’ But nothing matched his delight at the triumph nearer home. ‘Our soldiers are having nothing but success at Stalingrad,’ he wrote on 27 November. ‘According to the news this morning they have taken 70,000 prisoners since the beginning of the attack. The figures for seized goods are astronomical. Our joy for the soldiers at Stalingrad knows no bounds.’133

Far to the west, Moskvin, who would be listening for news through the new year, was also overjoyed. ‘There’s been a great victory at the front!’ he wrote on 19 January 1943. The tide had turned at last. ‘Every one of us wants to cry with all his might “hoorah!” Stalingrad has turned into a huge trap for the Hitlerites.’ For weeks now, he and his fellow partisans had been hiding out in dark zemlyanki waiting for instructions from Moscow. There had been skirmishes that autumn, and Moskvin at last felt that he had a real job,but boredom and physical hardship had taken their toll as a second winter closed in. Now there was something to rejoice about. As ever, Moskvin turned his pen upon himself. ‘I want to tear out the pages of my diary where I wrote about the collapse of my will,’ he wrote. ‘But let them stay there as a lesson in life that it’s wrong to jump to conclusions just because things aren’t going well.’134

The victory even helped soldiers overlook the hardship of their daily lives. It was as if triumph itself could alter consciousness. Frostbitten Russian soldiers, hungry, injured, desperate, gloated when German troops appeared to suffer more. They seized on every scrap of compensation, every sign that life might change. Their enemy abandoned weapons, trucks and food in its retreat. It was an unimaginable hoard of loot for half-starved Soviet troops. Some gorged themselves on German stores; others fell on the 6th Army’s supplies of spirits, occasionally discovering too late that what the attractive-looking bottles contained was anti-freeze.135 ‘At the moment there are colossal battles going on and terrible things are happening all the time,’ a forty-seven-year-old Red Army man wrote to his wife. ‘But all the same don’t worry about me … The Germans are on the run, we’re taking loads of prisoners and supplies. These days we only eat meat and tinned stuff, honey and all that rubbish, though there isn’t any bread.’136

Most amazing of all were the new prisoners of war. 91,545 men were captured by the Red Army in January 1943. They were in such poor physical condition that they might have perished anyway, but the state of the NKVD’s prison camps made sure of it. Fewer than a fifth received hot food. Among the minority who did, death often followed when they ate too fast. Others dropped dead on the journey to the camps or died of their old wounds or of the typhus and dysentery that consumed their bodies within hours. Poor diet and hunger accounted for two thirds of the deaths in Soviet POW camps in 1943. Those who survived would face a growing threat from the tuberculosis that thrived in their cramped, unhealthy quarters.137 Things would become so bad that even the NKVD took steps to reform the system after Stalingrad, though its motive was to preserve a potential labour force, not to spare human lives. But every haggard, frightened prisoner brought the war’s end closer. That was the main thought in most people’s minds. The victory at Stalingrad felt like a turning point.

‘The Germans are throwing everything away as they run,’ that forty-seven-year-old wrote in his last letter home. He now believed the propaganda about Soviet strength. ‘We’re feeding ourselves with their supplies. The Germans are running, and the Hungarians and Italians are giving themselves up. Just now fifty of our guys took five hundred prisoners, they freeze like flies, they can’t stand the cold at all … There are loads of dead ones on the roads and streets, but the more the better.’138 Less than a month after he wrote these lines, this man also would die. He was no less a victim of the cold than the invaders whom he scorned, but his discovery that fascist troops could be beaten had made the winter bright. Ageev would have understood. ‘I’m in an exceptional mood,’ he wrote to his wife. ‘If you only knew, then you’d be just as happy as I am. Imagine it – the Fritzes are running away from us!’139

Notes – 5 Stone by Stone

1 RGVA, 32925/1/504, 34.

2 See Chuikov’s account in Werth, pp. 444–5.

3 Rodina, 1995, no. 5, p. 60.

4 Interview with Lev Lvovich, Moscow, April 2002; RGVA, 32925/1/504, 34.

5 I have cited one respondent for each of these explanations of wartime cowardice. In fact, almost every veteran interviewed blamed generic central Asians or Ukrainians for the army’s failures at different points in the war. Most also gave examples of ‘good’ representatives of those groups. Indeed, few could name a ‘bad’ one among the people they knew personally.

6 Special orders concerning the national minorities in the army, 17 September 1942. Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 6, pp. 173–4.

7 See Beevor, Stalingrad, pp. 84–5.

8 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 6, p. 153.

9 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2 (2), pp. 276–7. According to more recent Soviet figures, the true number was at least 90 million. See Sidorov, p. 60.

10 Cited in Vasily Chuikov, The Beginning of the Road, trans. Harold Silver (London, 1963), p. 175.

11 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2 (2), p. 278.

12 GASO, 1/1/1500, 31.

13 Cited in Roger R. Reese, The Soviet Military Experience: A History of the Soviet Army, 1917–1991 (London, 2000), p. 115.

14 All figures cited by Overy, p. 160.

15 Erickson, ‘The System’, p. 244.

16 Rodina, 1995, no. 5, p. 61.

17 Gorin’s story featured in a television documentary shown in Moscow in 2002, but he was kind enough to repeat it for me, and to answer questions, in Moscow in the same year.

18 Erickson, ‘The System’, p. 236. This figure is almost certainly too low. At least a million prisoners were released from the Gulag and sent to the front, and most of these served in penal units of some kind, though some were drafted into regular units and used for dangerous tasks like clearing mines by hand. See Chapter 6, below, pp. 174‒6.

19 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 6, pp. 176–7.

20 Ibid., p. 157.

21 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2 (2), 351.

22 See also Overy, p. 160.

23 Krivosheev, pp. 125–6; Werth, p. 408.

24 TsAMO, 1128/1/4, 61.

25 See Volkogonov’s biographical essay in Stalin’s Generals, pp. 317–21.

26 Erickson, Stalingrad, p. 349.

27 Anfilov’s biographical essay in Stalin’s Generals, p. 64.

28 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 6, p. 176.

29 Ibid., p. 161.

30 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2 (2), pp. 372–3.

31 Order no. 307 of the Defence Commissariat, ibid., pp. 326–7.

32 Chuikov, The Beginning, p. 284.

33 TsAMO, 1128/1/4, 61.

34 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2 (2), p. 359.

35 For examples, see ibid., pp. 281–3 and 318–20.

36 TsAMO, 206/298/4, 6. For more on the play, see also Werth, pp. 423–6.

37 Temkin, p. 137; Werth, p. 622. In fact, the T-34 had a diesel engine, which made it less prone to combustion than most previous Soviet models, although plenty of T-34s would burn in combat conditions through the war.

38 See Overy, p. 195.

39 Ibid., p. 197. Veterans remember both these brands by name today.

40 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2 (2), p. 287.

41 Svetlana Alexiyevich, War’s Unwomanly Face, trans. Keith Hammond and Lyudmila Lezhneva (Moscow, 1988), p. 128.

42 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1454, 36.

43 Garthoff, p. 249.

44 Van Creveld, p. 112; RGASPI, 17/125/78, 123.

45 On decorations, see Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2 (2), pp. 360–1; on shoulder boards, see Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2 (3), pp. 30–1.

46 TsAMO, 523/41119c/5, 51 (relates to an artillery regiment).

47 Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, RH-2, 2467, p. 127.

48 V. V. Pokhlebkin, Velikaya voina i nesostoyavshiisya mir. 1941–1945–1994 (Moscow, 1997), p. 150.

49 Cited in Werth, p. 474.

50 Alexiyevich, p. 96.

51 Stalin and the GKO approved the recruitment of women into male combat roles in April 1942. See Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2 (2), pp. 212–3 and 214–5.

52 RGASPI-M, 1/47/26, 175.

53 For a telling discussion of this, see Chuikov, The Beginning, pp. 221–34. The marshal describes the work of women, but always with the condescending tone of one who saw them as mere girls.

54 RGASPI-M, 1/47/49, 87.

55 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2 (2), 285.

56 Alexiyevich, pp. 46–7.

57 The first women snipers were trained from February 1943.

58 Alexiyevich, p. 14.

59 Reina Pennington, Wings, includes a chapter tracing Raskova’s career.

60 Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv rossiiskoi federatsii (GARF), R9550/6/62.

61 Interview, Kaluga, August 2002.

62 RGASPI-M, 33/1/563, 7.

63 Pis’ma s fronta i na front, p. 87.

64 Van Creveld, p. 73.

65 Samoilov, ‘Lyudi’, part 1, pp. 52–3.

66 GASO, 2482/1/12, 12.

67 RGASPI-M, 33/1/19, 52.

68 Ibid., 72.

69 Ibid., 85.

70 Ibid., 84.

71 GASO, 2482/1/12, 7.

72 RGASPI-M, 33/1/19, 101.

73 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2 (2), 281.

74 RGASPI-M, 33/1/19, 36.

75 Samoilov, ‘Lyudi’, part 1, p. 56.

76 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1454, 6.

77 Po obe storony fronta: Pis’ma sovetskikh i nemetskikh soldat, 1941–1945 (Moscow, 1995), p. 43.

78 RGASPI-M, 33/1/360, 106.

79 Chuikov, The Beginning, p. 66.

80 Ibid., pp. 78–9.

81 Werth, pp. 448–9; Beevor, Stalingrad, pp. 104–6.

82 Cited in Werth, p. 450.

83 Cited in Beevor, Stalingrad, p. 201.

84 I. K. Yakovlev et al. (Eds), Vnutrennye voiska v velikoi otechestvennoi voine, 1941–45 gg., dokumenty i materialy (Moscow, 1975), p. 16.

85 The version I heard, related by a retired general, was allegedly based on research in secret military archives. Until scholars can see the documents, the rumours will persist.

86 Krivosheev, p. 125. The total death toll for Soviet troops and airmen is estimated at 470,000 (Overy, p. 212). For the entire campaign, 17 July 1942 to 2 February 1943, the total of Soviet servicemen killed, wounded and missing, according to Krivosheev, was 1,129,619.

87 I heard this from several veterans, and a politer version appears in Temkin, p. 90.

88 Viktor Astaf’ev, ‘Snachala snaryady, potom lyudi’, in Rodina, 1991, nos. 6–7, p. 55.

89Alexiyevich, p. 59. The translator may have meant a mortar rather than a mine.

90 Interview, Kiev, May 2003.

91 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1454, 8.

92 Ibid., 18–19.

93 Chuikov, The Beginning, p. 159.

94 For an analogy, drawn from a different war, see Philip Caputo’s brilliant account in A Rumor of War (London, 1985), p. 268.

95 John Garrard and Carol Garrard, The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman (New York, 1996), p. 159.

96 Werth, p. 467.

97 Beevor, Stalingrad, p. 195.

98 Cited in Chuikov, The Beginning, p. 253.

99 Krivosheev, p. 127.

100 Beevor, Stalingrad, p. 232.

101 Ibid., p. 249.

102 Ibid., p. 263.

103 TsDNISO, 8/1/25, 5.

104 Po obe storony, p. 194.

105 Ibid., pp. 195–6.

106 See, for example, Werth, p. 554.

107 Velikaya Otechestvennaya, 2 (3), pp. 36–7.

108 Werth, p. 560.

109 Po obe storony, p. 213.

110 Werth, p. 468.

111 TsAMO, 206/298/4, 11.

112 Cited in Werth, p. 490.

113 Politruks agree on this, and so, in an assessment of morale, does the historian of Soviet warfare Amnon Sella. See The Value of Life in Soviet Warfare (London, 1992), p. 170.

114 RGVA, 32925/1/504, 29.

115 RGASPI, 17/125/214, 97.

116 See Peter Kenez, ‘Black and White,’ in Richard Stites (Ed.), Culture and Entertainment in Wartime Russia (Bloomington, 1995), p. 162.

117 Pis’ma s fronta i na front, p. 88.

118 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1454, 66.

119 Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, RH2-2467, p. 54.

120 Cited by Vasil Bykov in ‘Za Rodinu! Za Stalina!’.

121 RGASPI-M, 1/47/24, 26–34.

122 RGVA 32925/1/514, 48.

123 RGVA 32925/1/504, 4 and 20.

124 Ibid., 31.

125 Tens of thousands of Gulag inmates applied to be permitted to serve at the front for the same reason. Their service would not only redeem them but reinstate their families as well. See Kozlov, Obshchestvennye soznanie, p. 11; Druzhba, p. 30; Amir Weiner, Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution(Princeton, NJ, 2001), p. 148.

126 Viktor Astaf’ev’s novel Proklyaty i ubity, reissued Moscow 2002, presents this point of view in harrowing detail.

127 The first attacks in November were actually aimed at Romanians, but the point was to get at the enemy. On hatred of the Germans, see L. N. Pushkarev, ‘Pis’mennaya forma bytovaniya frontovogo fol’klora,’ Etnograficheskoe obozrenie, no. 4, 1995, pp. 27–9. Pushkarev, the ethnographer and historian, was at the front himself.

128 See Werth, pp. 411–4.

129 Simonov’s ‘Kill Him!’ is quoted in Werth, p. 417.

130 RGALI, 1828/1/25, 35.

131 Beevor, Stalingrad, p. 219.

132 Belov’s diary, ‘Frontovoi dnevnik N. F. Belova’ (hereafter Belov) is published in full in Vologda, issue 2 (Vologda, 1997), pp. 431–76; For this comment, see Belov, pp. 446–7.

133 Belov, p. 442.

134 GASO, 1/1/1500, 37–38.

135 RGVA, 32925/1/504, 94; Beevor, Stalingrad, p. 264.

136 RGASPI-M, 33/1/157, 2.

137 Sidorov, pp. 83–5.

138 RGASPI-M, 33/1/157, 3–4.

139 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1454, 73.

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