Military history

A Land Laid Waste

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At last there was a kernel of real hope amid the dreary mass of promises. A year before, when the German army had turned back from Moscow, there had been relief, even modest celebration. But the crisis had been too deep, and the shock of invasion too recent, for anyone to sense a real turning of the tide. Now, like February’s first false hint of spring, the Soviet army’s westward progress appeared to signal the approach of peace. On 26 January 1943, Voronezh fell to General Golikov’s advancing troops. On 8 February, the Red Army marched into Kursk. Just six days later, it had re-entered Rostov, and on 16 February, it liberated Kharkov, the largest and most important city in the region. The places it retook were depopulated husks of cities; nests of fear and hunger, crime and mutual suspicion. Apartment buildings had been mined or shelled, windows blown out, power and water systems wrecked. Uneven soil beneath the melting snow hinted at vast mass graves. The people who had seen it all could find no words for their distress. But Stalin’s propagandists supplied images of triumph. The enemy was on the run, and when he had been driven back to his own lair, when he had been defeated and the dead avenged, the Soviet people would rebuild to make an even better world.

The politicians rushed to make the victory their own. The Red Army, ‘the army that defends peace and friendship between the peoples of every land’, as Stalin called it on its twenty-fifth anniversary that February, came in for plenty of loud praise. It had ‘carried out an historic struggle without precedent in history’, its ‘valiant soldiers, commanders and political workers’ had ‘covered its military colours in unfading glory’.1 But mere soldiers had not done this alone. Stalin’s own role assumed a greater prominence now that there was something glorious to claim. His wise leadership, his ‘military genius’, began to be invoked in explanation of successes for which tens of thousands of people had given their lives. The party, too, now came to feature as the guide and teacher of the masses. The people might regard this as their war, their epic struggle for freedom and dignity, but their leaders were already getting down to work. The first Museum of the Great Patriotic War was established in March 1943.2 The version of the war that it began to generate would soon become the template for official truth.

The birth of the glorious wartime myth was managed all the way along. The censors ensured that words like ‘retreat’ and ‘surrender’ would never feature in the annals of Red Army operations, but more cruelly they also suppressed evidence of the war’s true human cost. The victory at Stalingrad had been won at the expense of just under half a million Soviet soldiers’ and airmen’s lives, but this truth would remain concealed. All the way through, and even at Berlin, more men and women in the Red Army would die than soldiers of the side that they were supposed to be defeating. On average, Soviet losses outnumbered those of the enemy by at least three to one,3 but every pressure worked to hide this statistic. Red Army deaths might go entirely unrecorded at moments when there was no time to mark mass graves, let alone to count the bodies that had been pitched into them.4 The pressure would relent a little after 1943, but even so, it was a common practice for the army to report fewer losses, and even fewer bodies to bury, than it in fact sustained. Graves that contained hundreds of men were marked with the names of thirty.5 Meanwhile, official reports understated casualty rates – and also the loss of Soviet military hardware – while carefully enumerating scores of German deaths. Emotions, too, were censored. Grief was allowed – as long as it stirred soldiers to revenge – but other reactions to danger and pain remained unspoken. The Sovinformburo made sure that nothing that was published referred to men’s fear or doubt. By 1943, even the first year of the war had been rewritten for the public as a tale of grand heroic feats.6

Censorship worked. Sixty years on, many of the enforced silences hold. Government policy was effective in this case because it keyed into much deeper instincts and desires; people seldom enjoy revisiting the memory of pain. The bland version, the glorious one, suited the soldiers and the state alike. It kept things simple, after all, and allowed a ration of dignity – on Stalin’s terms – to veterans. Personal anecdotes, the real ones, began to look as odd as fragments of a coloured picture glued to black and white, and some still do. In 2002, Ilya Nemanov struggled to recall his own response to the grave wound that he had sustained in 1943. Part of his right side had been blown off by a German bomb, and his first thought had been ‘That’s it.’ But then other ideas jumbled across his mind. ‘I remembered that before the war even began my mother had said that they wouldn’t kill me, but my hand would be cut off,’ he recalled. ‘And then a mate in one of the shelters on the way had explained that if your hand was injured, you should try to get them to sew the fingers on again, because if it worked, and there were still nerves there, you might save the hand itself.’7 These thoughts sustained him as he bled into the aching dust, waiting for rescue or for death. But superstition was not part of the official story of the Soviet war, and memories like this, personal ones, became increasingly difficult to recover as the long campaign progressed, let alone when it was over.

The wartime censors’ ambitions were staggering. Nemanov reminded me of another instance, more graphic even than his own story. In January 1943, the siege of Leningrad was lifted. The city was still exposed to German shelling, still encircled, but now convoys of medicines, fuel and flour could cut through by rail where previously they had relied on a fragile – and seasonal – track across the ice of Lake Ladoga. Another year would pass before Leningrad was entirely free, but relief for the desperate remnant of its population had arrived at last. The moment called for reflection, for mourning and some muted celebration, but for Stalin’s men it was a propaganda minefield. They did not like to draw attention to the fact that Soviet people had been left to starve to death, and the ban on discussion extended to the army. In the spring of 1943, when a soldier who was assigned to Nemanov’s unit from the Volkhov Front near Leningrad tried to describe the siege to his new comrades, he disappeared, arrested. ‘He had mentioned starvation,’ Nemanov remembered. ‘That wasn’t something we were supposed to hear about.’

Ol’ga Berggolts, the poet of the Leningrad blockade, discovered the same thing when she visited Moscow at the end of 1942 to broadcast her reflections on the siege. ‘I have become convinced that they know nothing about Leningrad here,’ she wrote to her family. ‘No one seemed to have the remotest idea what the city is going through. They said that the Leningraders are heroes, but they don’t know what that heroism consists of. They didn’t know that we starved, they didn’t know that people were dying of hunger … I couldn’t open my mouth on the radio, because they told me: “You can talk about anything, but no recollections of the starvation. None, none. On the courage, on the heroism of the Leningraders, that’s what we need … But not a word about hunger.”’8

As ever in the surreal Soviet world, people were being asked to say one thing, subscribe in public to one version, while knowing something else, at least with some part of their minds. The Red Army, the people’s saviour, was prime territory for the myths. A set of stereotypical propaganda images – the noble warrior, the courageous Russian son, the defiant partisan – was being struck somewhere inside the Sovinformburo. Real people were picked to represent each type, for there was no shortage of personal heroism from which to choose, but Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, the martyred partisan, or Vasily Zaitsev, the Stalingrad sniper, were ideals, as inspiring and popular – and also as typical of the mass – as sports personalities or saints. Among Red Army men, the hero types were almost always snipers, gunners or members of doomed tank crews. They were relatively literate, in other words, and they were likely to be sympathetic to the Communist Party, while if they were not dead when stardom came, they could at least be certain to behave themselves in public. Although the press selected dozens of private soldiers for star treatment, the style and values that these men displayed resembled those of officers, and certainly those of communists. The culture of the rank and file, the dark world of real men, was jostled out of view.

Soldiers themselves adapted to this double standard. They seemed to have at least two cultures: an official one, which included everything they were allowed to do in front of officers and journalists; and a concealed, almost tribal one, the culture of vodka,makhorka, the lilting sayings – spontaneous verses – that they called chastushki, and crude peasant jokes. David Samoilov, who observed the men with a poet’s eye for the unexpected, summed up this flexibility. In the presence of an officer, he wrote, a Russian soldier would be ‘subdued and tongue-tied’. Perhaps there was no common language to unite commander and man across the divide of ideology and rank; perhaps there was not a great deal to say. There was certainly no time for any words in battle, when, Samoilov said, the tongue-tied private would turn out to be ‘a hero’. The manner of his dying was remarkable, too. ‘He will not abandon a comrade in trouble,’ Samoilov wrote. ‘He dies in a manly and workmanlike way, as if it were his accustomed craft.’ But the price of the subservience and stress had to be paid somewhere. When the officers were off the scene, the same soldier, Samoilov wrote, became ‘querulous and abusive. He boasts and threatens. He’s ready to take a swipe at anything and to come to blows over nothing at all.’ This was not merely boorishness. ‘This touchiness,’ added Samoilov, ‘shows that the existence of a soldier is a burden to him.’9

By 1943, the army had been at war for two years, and at almost every level below that of the high command its ranks were dominated by recruits whose military careers had started since the invasion. The gap between officers and men was closing. No one could doubt the basic cause for which they were all working, and a sense of common interest was vital for morale. The better young officers, including Samoilov himself, worked with the men, attempting to meet them half-way rather than taking cover in privilege.Although entitled to food of his own, and also to private quarters, Lev Lvovich insisted on eating with the soldiers in his regiment, sharing the thin soup and the buckwheat porridge that they all called shrapnel.

It was becoming easier for a junior officer like him to befriend the men because the gulf in experience between the ranks had narrowed so much by this stage in the war. The Red Army of 1941 had almost disappeared. The twenty-six-year-old lieutenant, his head full of advice from an uncle who had served under Nicholas II, set out to encourage and cajole young men and aging reservists, not disaffected veterans. Remembering names was a little easier, too, because he never managed to muster a full complement of troops. As a lieutenant, Lvovich should have commanded 120 infantrymen, but he seldom had to get to know more than sixty. There were never enough recruits and reserves to keep Red Army units up to strength. What this meant was that the young officer could talk to a frightened first-timer personally, although ‘a bit of swearing was often the best thing for the rest of them’. Good relations paid off. As he recalled, the men thought it mere child’s play, during operations, to get rid of an officer they hated, just as Samoilov’s comrades had planned to do. ‘It happened,’ Lev Lvovich assured me. ‘Of course it happened quite a lot.’10

Even the best officers, however, could not entirely close the gulf between the semi-literate and men who could read, between townsmen and all the rest. ‘This was the last Russian war,’ Samoilov wrote, ‘in which most of the soldiers were peasants.’11 True, they were now collective farmers, Soviets, not Tolstoy’s archetypal sons of earth, but all the same they were not fond of taking notes. As the party wrote itself into the war, the voices of the mass of troops were edited or lost. Political officers occasionally reported their talk, but only where soldiers’ comments concerned their own preoccupations – communism, Stalin’s orders, the digest of most recent news. The men’s culture, the bedrock of the soldiers’ fighting spirit and morale, of their survival and perhaps of Russia’s own, would vanish with the settling wartime dust. There are a few survivors still, but even they look back across a fog of time, and they, too, have been influenced by post-war newspapers and films. To reach back to the infantrymen’s world is to explore beyond the range of memory, beyond the scope of the archival mountains of buff-covered files. Even their contemporaries, Moscow-based staff officers and bureaucrats, had trouble understanding soldiers’ real lives. The peasant village was exotic, almost foreign to Stalin’s officials, a site for ethnographers and folklore expeditions. By 1943, the army, with its closed ranks, its male intimacies and its violence, was like another universe.

This universe was ruled by fate, just as the quality of men’s daily lives depended on the weather. If they stuck to the regulations, as soldiers, the men would have no say in their own existence, no right to run away from danger, no way of telling where they would be sent to die or even what they would eat every night. Their response was to develop a cosmology of their own, a system for predicting, and thus taming, the madness that threatened to engulf them. Parts of it were very old, inherited through their fathers and uncles from the armies that had defeated Napoleon. There were taboos about sex – a wounded, even an unconscious, man would die if he touched his own genitals – about swearing, and about the advisability of wearing clean linen before battle. There were many predictions based on the vagaries of the weather. Some men believed it was unlucky to swear while loading a gun, others that a man should never swear before a battle. It was also unlucky to give anything to a comrade before going into combat, and soldiers all had tales of borrowed greatcoats that brought death.12 They also favoured talismans. Many carried a photograph in their tunic pockets; others kept a copy of Konstantin Simonov’s love poem ‘Wait for Me’ folded against their hearts. The veterans explained that they did this for good luck. It was also safe. Officers from the Special Section searched men’s pockets on the eve of any operation, and if they discovered personal, let alone incriminating, information the owner might well end up in trouble with the military police. A scrap of paper that was just like all the rest was reassuring, but it was also beyond reproach.

Religion was a controversial matter for the men. Prayer had always been a woman’s job. Since 1917, the party had taught everyone that faith in God was an outmoded relic. The politruks and many komsomols within the ranks agreed. As one explained to me, ‘When you see the atrocities that are taking place minute by minute, you just think, God! If you’re so omnipotent and just, how can you let so many innocent souls suffer this torment and die? I’m a communist, an atheist, a materialist. To the marrow of my bones.’ The Red Army would give the lie to the old saying that ‘there are no atheists in a foxhole’.13 But though this was a generation that had seldom visited a church, everyone observed the lads who wore small silver crosses round their necks, hiding them under their shirts and explaining, if they were challenged, that the trinkets were gifts from their grandmothers. Some made their own crosses by cutting shapes out of old tins.14 ‘They burned their party cards if they were going to die,’ a veteran remembered. ‘But they did not throw away the crosses.’ Very large numbers – perhaps a majority of rank and filers – crossed themselves in the old Russian way before they faced the guns. The gestures and the words were totemic; echoes, rather than formal evidence, of faith. ‘They said things like, “God save me,” but what they believed, I couldn’t say,’ a veteran explained. ‘I’m an atheist myself, but not very strongly. I came back alive. I suppose I live under a lucky star.’ ‘I had a guardian angel,’ Ivan Gorin explained. ‘I could feel her beside me all the time.’ The angel, he told me, was, in fact, the spirit of his mother.

Faith might have mutated, but one passion that did not falter was the men’s love for their songs. They sang while they were marching and they sang for festivals and parades. They also sang, more mutedly, in hospitals, which is where they swapped lyrics and developed new rhymes.15 The songs that have survived are poignant and lyrical, maudlin rather than tragic. Many were adapted from the patriotic ballads of 1812.16 Others were written at the time by Stalin’s favourite hacks, including Lebedev-Kumach and Demyan Bednyi. Songs about women naturally multiplied, many of them based on a pre-war classic, ‘The Blue Scarf’, whose words promised one of the things men wanted most: a happy ending, a tender reunion between the soldier and his girl. In the same vein, Simonov’s ‘Wait for Me’, with its recurrent promise, ‘Wait for me, and I’ll come back,’ offered a protective totem, a sort of individual spell. The soldier who sang the words – for they were quickly set to music – was thinking of his own survival, for, as the poem concludes, ‘Only you and I will know / how I survived. / It’s just that you knew how to wait / as no other person.’17

A soldiers’ choir on the Kalinin Front, May 1942

New ballads of a different kind dealt with the soldier himself; the simple, stout-hearted and earthy conscript who fought for his motherland. Hack poets such as Lebedev-Kumach wrote Stalin into the lyrics of some of these, but veterans claim to have preferred more traditional material, and the leader does not feature when they sing their wartime favourites today. The most popular song of all, a folk song with its origins in tsarist times, was about a Russian girl, Katyusha. This classic developed hundreds of variations in the course of the war, many of them playing on Katyusha’s new role as a rocket-launcher. Technological versions of Katyusha ended up killing Hitler and his cronies, and her unearthly music deafened and defeated the generic Fritz. What she did not do, on the record at least, was stoop to obscenity. Even subversive irony does not feature in her repertoire. Whatever the men may have sung in private, and political reports describe their ‘crude eroticism’, no one allowed a folklorist to collect disrespectful versions of the army’s songs.18 Singing, like careless talk, was a public act. It was forbidden except at designated times.19

Everyone knew that songs were vital for morale. ‘You can’t have a war without songs,’ a former partisan remembered. ‘It’s easier to die or go hungry if you have a song.’20 Svetlana Alexiyevich found the same when she talked to women who had fought in the war. ‘When I asked them what they remembered best about their departure for the front,’ she wrote, ‘the answer was unanimous. They had sung their favourite songs!’21 Songs were even used to teach the men commands. In 1941, two sergeants wrote a ballad, which they sang in off-key male voices to the new recruits. It was a love story, and each line included one of the commands that every man needed to know – left, right, down, attention, fire!22 The song caught on in other companies, and eventually soldiers sang it as a kind of joke, imitating the voices of their sergeants and commanding officers in the roles of a young woman and her naïve lover.

The point was that music like this worked better than the prim rote-learning of the politruks. Wartime tunes were lilting, easily learned and hummed. They were so attractive, in fact, that even the Germans could fall under their spell. Later in the war, members of a Soviet artillery regiment were surprised to hear a German accordion player on the other side of no-man’s-land playing the song they had been singing since they pitched their camp. A few days later still, a piece of paper was found in a shell case near their lines asking – in broken Russian – for the right words to go with the tune.23

Poetry was just as vital to morale as song, and the two often overlapped. Verse came naturally to Russian speakers, even peasants, for whom it recalled the oral culture of the recent past, and they listened eagerly to recitations of their favourite ballads. The most famous, Aleksandr Tvardovsky’s ‘Vasily Tyorkin’, described a soldier for everyman, a brave but fallible soul who endured shelling, forced marches and even a freezing river crossing with the same stoical good humour and unflinching sense of duty. Crucially, Tyorkin always survived, although his comrades often came close to despairing of his life. ‘Boys – it’s him!’ they shout as he emerges from yet another close call. This time, he has crossed an icy river where ‘even fishes must be cold’. The men stand peering on the bank when ‘Large as life, Vasily Tyorkin / Rose alive – and in he swam. / Smooth and naked, as from bathing, / Out he staggered to the shore.’ The rhythms recall Tennyson or Longfellow, and so, in their cartoon-like narrative, do the words, but Tyorkin is a Russian through and through. As the doctor massages him with alcohol in the recovery hut, he sits up and blearily asks to drink the stuff: ‘“Pity on my skin to waste it!” / Had a glass – and came alive.’24

Verse was easy to learn, pleasant to recite and valuable because it compressed emotion to an intensity that seemed normal in war. As well as memorizing other people’s work, the men themselves wrote rhymes and aphorisms. Their letters home were full of poems: creaking rhymes of love and homesickness, stirring patriotic odes. Caught in the spirit of the times, some wrote about the red flag or the Communist Party. The more romantic took their cue from famous published work. Simonov’s ‘Wait for Me’ fathered hundreds of wartime love poems, while others turned to the Russian landscape or to heroic deeds for inspiration. Those who could not write would memorize and develop the short folk poems, chastushki, that peasants had been composing for generations. Thepolitruks wrote some of these, adapting the folk themes of fate and motherland to the current world of Stalin and the party. But chastushki were as catchy as limericks. The men composed thousands of them, with themes that ranged from grief and thwarted love to the irregularity of field post. ‘Tell me / in God’s name / if my dear is alive / in Stalingrad,’ ran one. The news was often bad. ‘From far away a brother writes, / dear little sister, / they killed before my eyes / your own beloved.’ ‘I’ve had a little letter,’ sang another, ‘that the censor has gone over. / He died heroically / but it doesn’t say any more.’25

Chastushki were the nearest folklorists would get to the coarse humour that soldiers loved. In her old age, Krupyanskaya, the famous wartime ethnographer, told one of her colleagues that the censors had forbidden her to record erotic, satirical, subversive or criminal lyrics. She was not permitted to write down words that denigrated national minorities, including  Jews, and the songs she collected would not be published if they lacked a patriotic theme.26 This strict political correctness guaranteed that she would overlook a large part of reality. The songs and aphorisms that have made their way into Soviet textbooks about soldiers’ lore are prim, polite and Stalinist. Their sentiments were truly part of wartime idiom – people really believed, in some part of their brains, in the ultimate triumph of virtuous communism – but they offer little clue about the way men coped with their tough, dangerous lives. Humour, much of it obscene and most very dark, was central to the front-line way of life.

One problem for outsiders wanting to know more – whether wartime ethnographers or historians writing today – was that the men’s language was meant to exclude strangers from their own close groups. Among themselves, the men larded their sentences with expressions that were so profane that few are willing to repeat them to this day. In its developed form, obscenity amounted to a parallel language on the scale of cockney rhyming slang. The word for it – and the object of many of the crude sexual jibes – was mat, mother. No outsider could follow mat’s staggering twists. A real man not only swore, he used ‘three-storey mother’, piling the profanities in stacks. It was crude, creative, visual and exclusive; strictly for the lads. Little – if any – of it has made its way into the histories of Stalin’s war.

It is the same with soldiers’ humour. Lev Pushkarev was embarking on a research degree in ethnography when the war broke out. He decided to use his time in the army to collect material for a dissertation about the soldiers’ culture. The NKVD quickly found his notes. At first, they wanted to suppress them all, but when they had established, by writing to his university department in Moscow, that he was a genuine scholar, they agreed to let him keep a record of some of the words, the decent ones, to the men’s songs. He came home with a briefcase stuffed with polite ballads and rhymes. Laughter, however, was a different matter. Pushkarev had also been collecting jokes. The NKVD seized his notebooks of these at the outset, and he was forbidden to collect any more. Humour, which sustained so many people and which reflected their authentic, spontaneous voice, was deemed to be too dangerous for record. There must be a file somewhere in the bowels of the Ministry of Defence that contains examples of the men’s uncensored talk. Till that is opened, there is only memory, or failing that, the screeds of poisonous anti-Semitism that German intelligence officers collected from captive soldiers and filed for future propaganda use.

Today, the veterans find it hard to remember the things that used to make them laugh. So much was instantaneous, based on the foibles of an officer, non-Russian or newcomer to the unit. Sometimes, too, there is a hint of shame. Some soldiers hesitate to recollect the way they used to mock specific ethnic groups. Jokes based on bodily functions, too, might have seemed funny once, but now these men are old. ‘I’m not sure I can tell you those,’ people would say to me. It was easy, however, to laugh at the enemy. By 1943, the Germans were alleged to be so desperate for conscripts that they would take men with almost any disability. ‘But I can’t be fit,’ a soldier tells the Berlin medical board. ‘In Russia they shot off both my legs, both arms, both lungs, and even gave me a bad back.’ ‘In that case,’ the doctors reply, ‘nothing can happen now that hasn’t happened to you already.’27 This kind of thing was suitable for satirical newspapers, but the warped landscape of the Soviet state was fertile ground for humour of a more subversive kind. If the military police got hold of you, the men knew all too well, the charges would be absurd and the procedures byzantine. ‘You have to prove,’ the wags explained, ‘that you are not a camel.’28 Another story comes straight from the world ofpolitruks and spies. One evening, an officer is telling a joke to his men. They are all laughing except for one, whose glum expression does not change. The officer calls the politruk over to find out if the man is all right. ‘Have you had bad news from home?’ thepolitruk asks. The man has not. No one in his unit has died recently, either, and he is not feeling frightened or unwell. ‘So why aren’t you laughing?’ the politruk enquires. ‘I’m from another regiment,’ the glum man says. ‘That’s not my commanding officer.’29

Laughter could lighten the heavy atmosphere of propaganda. At times, it also helped to dissipate the cloud of fear. But its other effect was to bind groups of soldiers together, cementing the front-line friendships that sustained each man in this world of extremes. Stalin’s regime was suspicious of groups. All through the war, spies from the Special Section were detailed to pry whenever unsanctioned new friendships formed, but trust was crucial for team-building. Effective tactics demanded that men knew and relied on their mates. Reluctantly, for they despised most sentiment, the country’s leaders began to mimic their enemy.30 From March 1942, units in need of new blood were withdrawn from front-line service before they were allowed to receive reserves and replacements. Ideally, the new formations were supposed to train together for some weeks before they faced real danger as a group.31 This was not always possible, but it was known to work. Team-building was a trick the US army would not learn till after 1945, when it looked back on the mistakes and lessons of this war’s campaigns.32

Red Army friendships might not last long, but they certainly were fierce. At this stage in the war, an infantryman was unlikely to serve with his friends for more than three months before a wound, death or even a promotion removed him from the group. ‘It’s enough for a person to be with you for two to seven days,’ soldiers would explain, ‘and you will know his qualities, all his feelings, the things it takes a year to know in civvy street.’33 It is a testimony to the power of soldiers’ loyalties that many petitioned time and time again, even after each discharge from hospital, to be allowed to get back to their mates.34 ‘We were like a boy and girl,’ a veteran remembered. ‘Like lovers, you’d have said. We couldn’t bear to be apart.’ He was not talking about homosexuality. No one ever broke that taboo. Sex was in any case the last thing on a soldier’s mind when he was hungry, tired and frightened. This was a difference between the front line and the rear, between the trenches and the officers’ mess. Friendships were close, but the pleasures that men shared and talked about at the front line centred on food, drink, warmth and smoking. When David Samoilov’s unit was at the front, the men sat up for hours, ‘tormented without tobacco’. They talked endlessly, and a favourite subject was each man’s wedding. What interested them, however, was not the wedding night and sex, or even thoughts of love and home, but the scale and contents of the feast that had been set for each successive celebration.35

Subversive and passionate, brutal or dark, this was a world that the Sovinformburo did its best to keep well out of sight. ‘Our soldiers’ portrayed in the Soviet press were no more realistic than the brave boys of adventure comics. Survivors had a lot to gain, after the war, by endorsing the myth, but there was one group that had nothing left to lose. These were the shtrafniki, the members of the punishment units. Not many are alive to tell their tales. Ivan Gorin, for instance, was the only survivor in a group of 330 men. All the rest died in a single morning when they were sent, armed with rifles and rushing over open ground, to storm a battery of entrenched German guns. When this man remembers the war, his starting point is a prison.

Gorin’s father had disappeared when the police drove the kulaks away in 1930. That is, he deserted his wife and children and made for the south. Gorin himself was fostered to a family who despised him for his supposed bourgeois roots. It was an inauspicious start. The boy lived on the edge of the illegal world, and when the war broke out he turned to forging ration cards. When he was caught, the judge gave him a choice: the Gulag or the front. He had already decided to fight, for when he was in prison, pending sentence, he had imbibed the patriotic mood. ‘Lots of people asked to go,’ he said. ‘There was enthusiasm for the front even among prisoners.’ At least it felt a bit like tasting life. Soon everyone would learn that it was merely execution by another means.

The shtrafniki discovered that their lives counted for less than those of Budyennyi’s beloved horses. The only food they ever saw was thin grey soup. ‘The old hands told us that we got a tenth of the normal army ration,’ another survivor remembered. ‘Whether that was right or not, our menu consisted of four spoonfuls of food a day … and unlimited quantities of best quality profanities.’ Convicts were herded into camps to await military orders. These barracks were as murderous as the Gulag, and much of their atmosphere derived from it. A man could be skinned alive for losing in a game of cards; he could be murdered in his bed for his boots or a crust of hoarded bread.36 Everyone lived in fear of the starshiny, the old lags who ran everything. Reaching the front, even without a scrap of professional training, came as a relief for the inexperienced Gorin. ‘We wanted to get to the front as fast as possible,’ he said, ‘so as to escape from the torment of that reserve base.’37

Once there, with a gun in his hand, Gorin realized that he was someone officers respected. They could not know, after all, which way he was planning to shoot. ‘We went into battle,’ another remembered, ‘and we never shouted for the motherland and Stalin. We were all effing and blinding. That was the “Hoorah!” of the shtrafniki.’ Gorin agreed, but added that the men regarded their leader with a fatalistic respect. ‘If Stalin dies,’ they muttered, ‘another will come in his place of the same kind.’ They were not alienated nihilists, either. Russians fought on because they believed in a real cause, and even surviving shtrafniki remember their love of the motherland. ‘We all wanted to defend it,’ Gorin said. ‘I think that the criminals felt more devotion, more love for their native soil than the high-ups in the leadership, the bosses.’ And there was pride even in death. ‘He doesn’t run away, the shtrafnik,’ another survivor told journalists. ‘Ordinary soldiers are more likely to do that.’38

The convicts’ life expectancy was short, but their culture, raw and vivid, distinct from that of the party cell and officers’ mess, infused that of the front line as a whole. The same was often true of the criminals who were shipped to the front from the Gulag after April 1943.39 Cast into this most murderous war, their survival depended on skills they had learned first, perhaps, in the hungry villages of the 1930s and then in the hard school of Kolyma. They had the peasant muzhik’s eye for a deal, the convict’s for self-preservation. Brutal conditions made survivors of them all. And yet most of them cared about the outcome of this war. ‘This war was a war of extermination,’ a rank and file soldier later recalled. ‘It stirred up hatred, the thirst for revenge, finally ripening into a cause, which would inspire the Red Army into furious battles over a four-year period.’ It was the bosses, however, ever ready with their slogans, who gave that cause its official name. ‘This cause was named “patriotism”.’40

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The celebrations had been premature. The victory at Stalingrad had wounded the enemy severely, but it had not permanently broken him. Even the gains of February 1943 were not to last. The Soviets held on to Kharkov for barely a month. In March, they were driven back, leaving the city to the fascists once again. It was a bitter moment for the army, and a catastrophe for Kharkov’s citizens, who now faced the redoubled anger of their conquerors as well as the privations of another hungry spring. Far away, in the unimaginable light of the Tunisian desert, Montgomery’s troops were driving Rommel and his men towards the sea. The outcome of the Soviet Union’s war was still unclear.

That spring, the Soviet leadership gathered to consider the coming year’s campaign. On 8 April, Georgy Zhukov, newly created Marshal of the Soviet Union and decorated with the first ever Order of Suvorov, First Class,41 delivered his assessment of the enemy’s most likely plans. Grave and businesslike, he told the General Staff that Germany lacked the resources for a new push in the Caucasus or along the Volga. However, the fascists were far from beaten. Winter was never their best time of year, and nor were the sodden weeks of spring, when melted snow dissolved into thigh-high mud. But for two summers already, their tanks and horses had raced eastwards over sun-baked ground, driving the Soviet army back, encircling whole divisions at a time, instilling panic in too many of the rest. As the days lengthened and the mornings warmed, they would attack again. Zhukov believed that they would choose a narrow front and muster concentrated forces for a direct strike. Their ultimate objective would be Moscow. The blow would come from the places where German forces were strongest, namely the open wheatfields between Orel and Belgorod. Its likely focus would be the region around Kursk, a city in the black-earth zone near the border with Ukraine. The Soviet front line bulged westwards at this point, exposing the Red Army’s flanks from the north-west to the south-west. In Zhukov’s view, the onslaught, when it came, would be designed to devastate. The Wehrmacht was running short of men; this was a battle that would be decided by aircraft, artillery and tanks.42

Zhukov’s assessment, which drew on detailed intelligence from British sources, was correct, although the timing of the blow was difficult to calculate. For once, too, Stalin accepted the military analysis, including the advice to prepare, in the first instance, for resolute defence. It was not what pre-war propaganda had prescribed, with its images of bold strikes at the fascist barricades, but the strategy that summer would be to take the German blow, absorbing it with line after line of defence. Only then, when the extravagant advance had been stalled, would the Soviets go on to the attack. The preparations would begin at once. Training programmes in all types of specialism would be intensified, and preference would be given to men with secondary-school education.43Even front-line troops would face new drills and classes, and tank crews would receive special attention. Once ready, hundreds of thousands of men would march towards the south and west, travelling at night. In anticipation of heavy casualties – a prediction that would prove entirely correct – 450 hospitals and field treatment stations would be refurbished, rebuilt or equipped. Two hundred of these were planned for the Voronezh Front alone.44 Meanwhile, around Kursk itself, and for over 100 miles behind the front, militia groups and soldiers were set to shifting dirt. By July, when the bombardment finally began, a total of 3,000 miles of trenches had been prepared behind the front, criss-crossing in an angular geometry.45 The rich black earth was also sown with metal in unnumbered tons. On average, by July, there were just over 5,000 anti-tank or anti-personnel mines for every mile of fortification.46

The military plan was brilliant, but obstacles remained. Battlefields are not pieces of bland green baize. The future front-line zone was home to thousands of civilians. The next four months would see the army interacting all too closely with the local population. At their best, such relationships were warm and appreciative. Some men found friends who would share their last crust with a soldier from their own side. The local people had suffered – some had survived a German occupation – and almost everyone had a son or husband at the front. Soldiers could count on the support of patriots. ‘The directors of the collective farm and its farmers treated me really well,’ an engineer called Vitaly Taranichev wrote to his wife at the end of 1942. ‘They sent me on my way like a member of the family, they baked pies and biscuits for me to take, cooked some mutton, got hold of some makhorka and all that; I agreed to stay in touch with the kolkhoz chairman, an old guy of seventy who has four sons at the front.’47 It was all very well, but Taranichev was some distance behind the lines at this point, still in the reserve. His hosts had not seen the war as the peasants of the Kursk region had come to know it. In the spring and summer of 1943, parts of the black-earth zone were far from welcoming to anyone.

‘Our conditions are very good,’ Aleksandr Slesarev wrote to his father, who was also in the Red Army. The young man had been on the road for several weeks, but now he and his comrades had dug in. ‘We are living not far from a wood, in zemlyanki of course. Our food is first-class – and apart from that we get an extra ration because we’re at the front. My work is interesting, and I get to travel about.’ His only complaint, which others heartily endorsed that spring, was that ‘there isn’t much free time’.48 Slesarev, who came from Smolensk, was in the newly formed first guards tank army. He was supposed to spend his spring on exercises, improving the co-ordination and field tactics that tank units had so badly lacked in previous years. There were indeed many classes, especially in his own élite formation, but military work was once again neglected, on occasion, in favour of other tasks. That spring, even tank men’s duties would include helping on collective farms and working with the engineers whose job it was to rebuild the region’s communications, stores and hospitals.

Nikolai Belov was still with his rifle division. Based just outside Maloarkhangel’sk in the Orel region, he, too, was working very hard. ‘We’ve got to do some intense training,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘We’ll have to work in earnest again now, and you can’t protect yourself from the intensity of it.’ He was exhausted, but activity agreed with him. By 22 May, after a fortnight in his front-line camp, he had ‘got used to the work a bit’. Practical problems, not depression, would disturb him most that spring. ‘The regiment hasn’t really come together,’ he observed. The training would soon see to that. But nothing he could do would remedy the shortage of guns and other supplies.49

The men in Belov’s regiment did not enjoy the waiting or the drill. Belov himself noted a steady drip of desertions. On 27 May, five infantrymen slipped away from his unit to join the German side. ‘It’s hard to understand what brought that on,’ he wrote. ‘Evidently the general tiredness.’ The Germans were also dropping leaflets, encouraging the men to believe that changing sides would save their lives. On 30 May, two further men would disappear – ‘it’s a real nightmare’, commented Belov. One of them, Belov observed, was a candidate member of the Communist Party.50 The total number of Red Army troops deserting to the German side seemed to be growing by the month. Just over 1,000 were recorded by German intelligence in February. In April, the figure would rise to 1,964, in May, 2,424, and in June, 2,555.51 But these figures do not reflect the real picture. For one thing, fugitives did not always make for the German lines. As the Red Army moved west, the NKVD searched the bombed-out towns for truant soldiers masquerading as civilians. Kursk and its province turned out to be full of them. Many were life-long criminals; others would now begin careers in crime. In March 1943, for instance, the Kursk NKVD reported on a deserter called Ozerov who had escaped to the occupied zone in 1942. An ex-convict before the war, his violence surfaced again when he battered and killed the woman who was hiding him, as well as her elderly mother. He was captured and shot.52

Kursk itself was little more than ruins. In fourteen months, the occupying forces had plundered its factories and stores, destroyed its official buildings and murdered hundreds of its citizens. They had left such residents as they did not murder or deport to starve, or at least to sicken with the diseases of poverty and filth – typhus, dysentery, tuberculosis and syphilis. Those who were still alive to greet the Red Army that spring had witnessed scenes they could never forget, but they had also learned that survival depended on unusual kinds of skill. As the city had emptied late in 1941, the marooned residents had looted anything that they could carry. Months later, they had also taken supplies that the Germans left as they hurried away. Now, with the city full of troops again, the locals sought to feed themselves by selling their eccentric hoards. A woman was apprehended by police in March for peddling sheets. When her flat was searched, she was also fined for the possession of a stockpile consisting of two mattresses, three blankets, forty electric light bulbs and 18 kg of soap. This last was like a kind of currency. One man was found with sixty-seven bars of it, all taken from the German army’s stores, together with eight pairs of trousers, four pairs of German army boots, three woollen blankets and a sewing machine. Another had ten bars of household soap, eighty-seven tins of meat and 500 German cigarettes. Among the other trophy goods were German bicycles and cart-loads of their fine white flour.53

The penalty for holding on to groceries was seldom more than a stiff fine. Weapons were another matter. Violent crime, including robbery and rape, was now a daily problem. Guns were easy to acquire, and gangs formed readily among the orphaned teenagers and army fugitives. Deserters lived by picking pockets in the city streets or stealing pigs and cattle in the villages. Meanwhile, children were injured almost every day as they played with or near to unexploded mines and shells. Most desperate of all were the women who gave birth to children as a result of rape or informal relations with German soldiers. The babies had no fathers now, and the women no means to support them. Everyone was hungry, so there was no sense in keeping bastard mouths to feed. All through that spring, police and passers-by found the depressing bundles in ditches, shallow graves and even piles of rubble. The reinstated city officers wrote each other anxious notes, but they knew that the military effort took priority. There were no resources to police, let alone support, civilians in the region.54 Instead, these same exhausted local people, however unfit for the job, were now ordered to help with physically demanding tasks that ranged from reconstructing roads to digging mud and clearing mines. That May, too, their leaders issued an appeal for them to start donating blood.55

The hardship in the countryside was indescribable. By the spring of 1943, 200,000 people in the region were deemed to be invalids, orphans or other dependants requiring support from state funds of food and fuel.56 The areas of enemy occupation had been plundered, the people’s livestock slaughtered or driven away, their crops destroyed or looted. Suspected partisans had been hanged, and then their neighbours – entire communities – had been punished for good measure. A total of nearly 40,000 houses, over half the region’s entire stock, had been burned to the ground.57 Many able-bodied adults had been dragged off to work for the Reich as forced labourers. There was no one left to rebuild houses, dig the fields or gather what was left of last year’s crop. Terrified householders, many of them widows or lone women with children, had often failed to sow their fields as the snow melted and the ground warmed up in 1942. The collectives were moonscapes of scorched scrub and thorn, nettle and tough wild grass. But the Red Army had played its part in all this devastation, too. The Kursk region had been its front line since September 1942. To prepare for the campaign of 1942–3, the army set out to evacuate civilians who lived within twelve (sometimes fifteen or twenty) kilometres of the front. What followed sometimes looked like civil war. This was not western Ukraine or the Baltic, where the Red Army would encounter resistance as it attempted to reimpose Soviet power the following year. It was not a region of nationalist banditry. But Kursk would prove that soldiers were not always welcome even among ethnic Russians.

The problems began in the autumn of 1942. When soldiers of the 13th and 38th armies arrived in the front-line zone that September to evacuate the villages, the population resisted en masse. Later reports suggested that the operation had been botched, allowing the peasants a chance to get together and foment a storm of rage. However, the real problem, as even the authorities understood, was that the locals feared a trick. This was the army that was losing battles by the day, the army that had yet to prove itself at Stalingrad, and now it wanted to take people’s cows and pigs and drive whole families from their homes. The campaign looked like a repeat of the hated process of collectivization. Troops had been used then, too, in some places, and animals and people had been driven from their homes in the same violent way. Now the soldiers were back to steal everything again. Villagers were told that they would be given tokens for the animals they lost, they were assured that there were lodgings waiting for them far away behind the lines, but – not unwisely – they did not believe a word.

Hunger and fear made the peasants’ anger worse. The crowds who gathered to resist the soldiers were large and organized, 200 in one district, 300, ‘armed with pitchforks, spades and choppers’, in another, while in a third, ‘a hundred and fifty women and youths took part, most of whom were armed with staffs and bricks and suchlike’. This desperate mob hurled missiles at the troops, the women taunting them with cries of ‘deserter’ and ‘jailbird’. ‘If you try to evacuate me,’ an old man told a local official, ‘I’ll kill you. I’ve sharpened my axe and I can kill at least six people with it. And my wife and daughter can kill two each, and there surely won’t be ten of you. And if each household kills ten people, then there just won’t be an evacuation, will there?’58

The threats were real. The 13th Army held back from evacuating its allocated zones, but when troops of the 38th returned to the villages where the first crowds had gathered, they met an armed, furious mob. On 13 October, they were driven back by the entire population of one village, by women brandishing pitchforks and shovels. The next day, neighbouring villagers attacked the soldiers again, knocking out one man’s teeth and cracking another’s skull. However, the soldiers had new orders by then. With the help of NKVD troops, they arrested the most active members of the resistance. They also shot some of the others in the legs, a measure which soon terrified the crowd. But it was not good for military public relations. The region’s leaders, working with the generals themselves, now faced the task of restoring local people’s faith in their defenders. The NKVD would be used for evacuating citizens in future; the Red Army itself would not be sent to confront Russian peasants.59 Its reputation as the people’s vanguard would need some careful nurture in the coming weeks.

Fortunately, a string of real victories, beginning with Stalingrad, was soon to reinforce the army’s image as a liberator. The first appearance of Soviet troops in a town or village that the Germans had abandoned was often greeted with tears of exhausted, desperate relief, whatever followed when the NKVD set to work. But it would be a long time, if ever, before some of the villagers round Kursk would trust authority again. Their fears were grounded in cold fact. In May and June 1943, just weeks before the epic confrontation of the war, General Rokossovsky himself would set his battle plans aside to consider the unsolved disappearance of two cows. It was not the first such case. Three had vanished less than a week before. They had gone missing from farms near soldiers’ billets. And then there were all the official irregularities. ‘In recent days,’ he read, ‘eighty cows have been taken from the population [in the twenty-five kilometre front-line zone], but only thirty receipts for these have been issued. The collective farms have also lost a hundred and fifty horses and almost all their transport equipment. All this,’ the general would read, ‘disrupts the agricultural work of our collectives.’60

Fighting was clearly only one aspect of the war effort as a whole. Food was a real problem everywhere. The army took the lion’s share, and soldiers often ate better than they had done back in their homes, but civilians faced serious want. In 1943, the government printed 10,000 copies of a leaflet telling people how to cook nettles. Two scientists produced another that discussed the calorific possibilities of feral meat. ‘When they kill animals for fur,’ it began, ‘hunters often forget that there is useful meat on the carcasses.’ The scientists pointed out that squirrel meat contained more calories than any other kind save that of the polecat, and certainly far more than pork. Admittedly, a typical squirrel yielded just 200 grams of meat (or so they claimed), but the flesh was palatable, unlike that of wolves, whose pungent carcasses were fit only for pigs. To test this last contention, a commission had gathered at the Academy of Sciences that spring to approve the flavour and nutritional value of a range of creatures from foxes to gophers and mice.61 While the academicians dined, civilians were going hungry. ‘We have had to sell a lot of our things,’ Vitaly Taranichev’s wife, Natasha, wrote to him that March, ‘because everything has become very expensive. It’s enough to say that we spend twenty roubles every day on half a litre of milk for Kolya.’ Their infant son needed the food. ‘If we took that milk away from him, we’d be condemning him to complete emaciation.’62

In front-line regions, the hunger was greater still. There were no men left to rebuild the ruined buildings and barns, restore the roads or sow that year’s new crop. At the start of the agricultural season in 1943, average sowings in individual districts in the Kursk area looked set to fall to less than 10 per cent of their 1941 levels. But the region needed grain to feed its own people, and the army would need food to keep men on their feet. Women worked like animals, sometimes harnessing themselves to ploughs. The land itself was wrecked, and it would not recover quickly in the years to come.

Once again, the soldiers had to roll up their olive-green sleeves and dig. On 12 April, an order to troops on the Central Front required them to help farmers to sow the spring crops, do the ploughing, deal with lambing and transport seed grain to the farms. They were to do this, the order added, ‘without detriment to their military duties’. 63 Meanwhile, presumably without detriment to food production, civilians were formed into militia squads and sent to dig trenches and clear abandoned German mines. ‘It is a shame, when you travel around the liberated villages,’ a Red Army soldier wrote to his family that June, ‘to see the cold attitude of the population.’64 The whole region was plunged in a struggle for survival. The armies that would fight near Kursk trained and prepared in scenes of medieval brutishness.

Soviet refugees, a mother and son, rest on their journey, April 1942 (courtesy of the State Archive of the Russian Federation)

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The battles that they were about to fight would turn the air itself to flame. If tanks represent a certain kind of modernistic dream, then Kursk would see its revelation as apocalypse. The fighting round the salient was set to involve more armour, more machines, than any other in the entire war. That summer, the black-earth steppe of Kursk province would bristle with a total of 70,000 guns and mortars, 12,000 war planes and an epic 13,000 tanks and mobile artillery pieces.65 Vast numbers of troops, including tens of thousands of riflemen, were also gathered round the zone. To guarantee the success of this most vital blow, the Germans brought fifty divisions to the region, including hand-picked SS troops of certified Aryan stock and (more importantly) proven military skill. In all, there were 900,000 German officers and men around the salient by midsummer, but the Soviets were ready to meet them. By late May, they had 1.3 million troops in readiness behind the maze of criss-crossed lines.

By the time these partners would engage each other in July, they had been at war for two entire years. The relationship had been ugly and violent, but like any other it had forced the two sides to learn from and even to mimic each other. For the Germans, what this meant was a new focus on the technology of armour. In 1941, they had possessed no tank that could match the manoeuvrability of the Soviet T-34. They also had nothing to compete with the mighty KV heavy tank, whose armour was almost invincible to anti-tank guns of the time. Their success against these machines owed more to the poor training of Soviet tank crews, and to the Red Army’s general unpreparedness, than it did to any German technological sophistication. Berlin’s answer was to develop two machines, the Panther and the Tiger I, respectively the most advanced medium tank in the field and the most invincible heavy tank of its time. The Panther was less prone to catch fire than the T-34, it offered crews much better visibility, and the radio that was designed for it stood a real chance of working. The Tiger I, meanwhile, was fitted with the fearsome German 88 mm anti-aircraft gun. It threatened to be deadly, not just difficult to destroy. In addition to these metal giants, German factories were now producing a self-propelled gun, the Ferdinand, as well as stockpiles of field-tested types of mortar, rocket and flame-thrower.66

They could demand creative new designs, the best of German engineering, but what the Wehrmacht could not wring out of their leader was more time. In the entire war, German manufacturing industry would produce no more than 1,354 Tiger I and 5,976 Panther machines.67 By 1943, the Soviets were turning out T-34s at a rate of over 1,200 a month.68 One of the Red Army’s advantages that summer was that it had a greater number of field-worthy modern tanks. The Germans might possess a limited stock of truly fearsome machines, but for numbers the Wehrmacht would still rely on obsolete, much older models. The calculation was deliberate on the Soviet side. In 1941, the Red Army had lost nine tenths of its tanks in a matter of weeks, and it had also lost its main production centres in Kharkov and Leningrad. As the tank factories were reconstructed to the east, it was decided to focus on existing models and to turn them out in bulk, a prudent move in view of the disastrous rates of loss that Soviet crews continued to sustain. With a few modifications, the T-34 would continue as the Soviet mainstay through the war.

Refinements, let alone entirely new designs, would have meant delays in the factories and new training challenges for the men. Only a limited amount of innovation was permitted, even after the defeats of 1942. The T-34 was adapted to improve visibility, though tank drivers remember seeing only dust and smoke. A small number of new weapons improved the Soviet arsenal of armoured vehicles and artillery. The most important of these was the SU-152 mobile assault gun, which was designed to carry a 152 mm howitzer. Nicknamed the zverboi, or ‘beast basher’, it was the only Soviet armoured vehicle that could defeat the Panther and the Tiger I in the field.69 This was important, since these newest German tanks were deadly even for heavy KVs. The technological balance between the adversaries had shifted, and the Soviets no longer led the field. But they would not run short of armour again. In this case as in almost every other, the Red Army’s approach to technology was to churn it out and keep it simple.

There was more to Soviet preparation, however, than mere numbers. Indeed, in individual confrontations around Kursk, including the decisive battle near Prokhorovka, the two sides had roughly equal numbers of machines within range of the fighting.70 It was the human, not the technological factor, that weighed heaviest that July. Self-sacrificial, almost suicidal courage was crucial for the victory at Kursk, as the number of Soviet casualties – 70,000 dead in the defensive phase alone – would testify. Equally important, however, was the Red Army troops’ increasing mastery of war. Co-ordination between tank crews had been improved by intense training, while military thinking about the deployment of armour had also moved on. The tank was now a weapon in its own right, not a gas-guzzling substitute for a horse. Five new tank armies, of which Slesarev’s was one, were created in the early months of 1943.71 The skills of the tank crews in these new formations were also improving. Slesarev had begun his military service as an artilleryman. Selected for promotion in 1942, he trained for nearly a year before receiving his first tank command as a lieutenant. A fellow tank lieutenant, twenty-two-year-old Ivan Gusev, described the pressure of his work that summer. ‘Every hour is taken up with fussing over the machines,’ he wrote to his family in June 1943. ‘Sometimes you forget the time and date, you forget everything.’72

The crews that men like Gusev and Slesarev commanded had trained with record speed, but they, too, had been forced to focus more thoroughly than any of their predecessors. Since the evacuation and restructuring of production, the main tank schools were now located near the factories that made the tanks. The process, like all production lines, was economical and specialized. Individual men were trained only to work in the specific model – the T-34, for instance – to which they were to be assigned. Each man, whether gunner or mechanic, was also trained for one specialism within the crew.73 At this stage in the war, the entire round of training like this would take less than three months, though it was later extended. It turned out fresh tank men, in other words, as fast as the Germans could slaughter them.

The job attracted some of the best recruits, especially young men from the towns. In part, it was the glamour of the huge machine. If farm boys had been brought up to imagine themselves driving tractors, lads from the towns might well have dreamed of dashing over open country in an armoured giant, controlling its movements with wheels and levers and monitoring the outside world through a bank of dials. Even the Germans would eventually learn to respect soldiers of this outlook. ‘The Russian townsman,’ wrote the SS general Max Simon, ‘who is highly interested in technical matters, is just as well suited for the modern tank arm as the Russian peasant is for the infantry … It was amazing to see the primitive technical means with which the Russian crews kept their tanks ready for action and how they overcame all difficulties.’74

The tank men’s skill was not just a matter of knowing where to put the spanner. The other quality that Simon observed among these sons of the factory was their determination. ‘An added factor,’ he wrote, ‘is that the Russian worker usually is a convinced communist, who, having enjoyed the blessings of “his” revolution for decades, will fight fanatically as a class-conscious proletarian. Just as the Red Infantryman is ready to die in his foxhole, the Soviet tank soldier will die in his tank, firing at the enemy to the last, even if he is alone in or behind enemy lines.’75 Gusev, who certainly was a communist, put it more personally. At the end of a long day, he told his family, ‘you lie down to sleep late in the evening, you feel a terrible exhaustion in your whole body, you know that you have carried out a great and difficult task, but your heart is full of gladness, a special kind of sensation, a sort of pride or internal satisfaction. These are the best moments of all.’76

A man like this fought for the family and land he loved, he fought for broadly communist principles, but he also fought because he was beside his dearest friends. Friendships among tank men were often very strong. They would spend hours together in a confined space; they shared responsibility for their machine; they often made a tank their own by painting it with slogans – uplifting and uncontroversial messages included ‘Where there is courage – there is victory!’77 More seriously, crews also had to keep the monster in good working order. Gusev’s best friend was another tank lieutenant who had shared a rough fortnight with him that spring when he and three other men had been assigned with Gusev to a captured German tank. ‘We didn’t know a thing about the machine,’ Gusev wrote. Battered and worn, she was ‘capricious’ anyway, and on their first day the Soviet crew managed to travel only twenty-five kilometres in twelve hours. ‘We tinkered with her all day, dirty, hungry and cross.’ They had no rations with them, ‘not even a crust of bread’. The weather outside was filthy, the roads almost impassable on foot, and Gusev expected that the lieutenant, who was in charge, would order everyone to leave the moribund machine and march. Instead, he worked with them for twelve days to repair the tank. ‘In those twelve days,’ Gusev wrote, ‘we would have turned grey if we could have done. There’s no way of writing what we went through.’ The friends were more like brothers by the time he wrote.78

Tank crews were also bound together by the threat of a collective death. After the infantry, whose service was almost guaranteed to end in invalidity or death – or, as they would quip, in ‘the department of health [zdravotdel] or the department of the earth [zemotdel]’ – armoured and mechanized troops faced the most certain danger.79 Of the 403,272 tank men (including a small number of tank women) who were trained by the Red Army in the war, 310,000 would die.80 Even the most optimistic soldiers knew what would happen when a tank was shelled. The white-hot flash of the explosion would almost certainly ignite the tank crew’s fuel and ammunition. At best, the crew – or those, at least, who had not been decapitated or dismembered by the shell itself – would have no more than ninety seconds to climb out of their cabin. Much of that time would be swallowed up as they struggled to open the heavy, sometimes red-hot, hatch, which might have jammed after the impact anyway. The battlefield was no haven, but it was safer than the armoured coffin that would now begin to blaze, its metal components to melt. This was not simply ‘boiling up’; the tank would also torch the atmosphere around it. By then, there could be no hope for the men inside. Not unusually, their bodies were so badly burned that the remains were inseparable.81 ‘Have you burned yet?’ was a common question for tank men to ask each other when they met for the first time. A dark joke from this stage in the war has a politruk informing a young man that almost every tank man in his group has died that day. ‘I’m sorry,’ the young man replies. ‘I’ll make sure that I burn tomorrow.’

The troops that waited on the steppe near Kursk were rightly anxious as the weeks went by. On 8 May, commanders on the four main fronts were ordered to prepare for an attack within four days.82 Less than two weeks later, on 20 May, they were put on to alert again.83 No one doubted that the enemy was planning to attack, but nervous men and officers struggled to predict the exact time. By day, the Soviet encampments hummed with diligent activity, but at night the steppe was treacherously still. ‘Every day there’s something new,’ Belov told his diary on 13 June. ‘Today another two have gone over to the enemy side. That’s eleven people already. Most of them are pricks. On 11 June, our neighbours did some battle reconnaissance. They didn’t find a thing. We’re all sitting in this ravine, it will be a month soon, and there’s just silence at the front.’ The next day brought news of the job they were to do. Within a month, his men would be helping to mount an offensive towards Orel. ‘A big operation is being prepared,’ he wrote. ‘Our division is going to attack in three echelons, and our regiment will be in the second. There will be thirty-five artillery batteries working in the division, not including two Katyusha regiments. It’s going to be pretty interesting.’84 But though he had his orders, Belov would see no action for several weeks. ‘I’ve been in this place longer,’ he wrote, ‘than I’ve been in any one spot in the entire war.’85

The attack came in the first week of July. On the night of 4–5 July, a German prisoner told his Soviet captors that it would begin early that morning. At about two o’clock on the same morning, another prisoner told Soviet interrogators that the onslaught was timed to begin within an hour.86 Even along the vast horizon of the steppe, the sky had yet to fade into predawn. Zhukov ordered an immediate artillery and air attack, a spoiling action that ripped through the night, as he admitted, like ‘a symphony from hell’.87But it was no more than an overture. Undeterred by the Soviet barrage, the Germans launched their own attack, the onslaught that was meant to win the war, from both faces of the salient. To the north of Kursk, not far from Belov’s base at Maloarkhangelsk, the ninth panzer army, commanded by Walter Model, struck at the Soviet lines, concentrating its main thrust in a narrow ten-mile stretch with the aim of breaking through and flooding south into the salient. More than 100 miles to the south, nine panzer divisions, commanded by General Hoth, pushed northwards towards the small town of Oboyan. The troops were the best available in Germany and included the hand-picked SS ‘Death’s Head’ and ‘Adolf Hitler Guards’ units. Their first objective was the highway that connected Oboyan, Kursk and Belgorod to the Crimea and all of south-eastern Ukraine.88 By 7 July, they had almost reached it.

It was the campaign that Belov had been preparing for. The bombardment of 5 July was audible from his own base, although some distance to the south. ‘In the area of Belgorod and along the Kursk–Orel part of our front – to the south of us, there are fierce tank battles going on,’ he wrote on 8 July. ‘The sound of distant artillery cannonades can be heard here.’ So could the music of Katyushas, which gladdened every Soviet who listened. ‘The forces are very concentrated,’ Belov noted the next day, ‘every valley is bursting with artillery and infantry. The nights are just an endless roar. Our aviation is working near the limit of the first defence lines. There’s a mass of tanks.’89 The young officer’s optimism was justified. Red Army units on the Central Front, under Rokossovsky’s command, withstood the German onslaught from the north with a resilience that their enemy could never have anticipated. On the first day, Model’s panzers advanced just four miles. They would make little headway in the week to come, although the defence effort cost the Soviets more than 15,000 lives.90 To the south, however, along the Voronezh Front, a smaller number of Soviet divisions under Vatutin were facing one of the deadliest struggles of the war.

The fighting would involve the 1st guards tank army, including Slesarev and his friends, the 5th guards tank army under Rotmistrov, and the gunners and riflemen of the 5th guards army, the one in which Lev Lvovich, the mild-mannered geologist-turned-lieutenant, was serving. On 5 July, when the onslaught began, the 5th guards army was more than 200 miles behind the front. Rotmistrov’s tank army was at a base not far beyond. Two days later, both would receive the order to cover the distance, on the march and under German bombardment, within three days. The scorching summer heat, the flies and the great clouds of dust were exhausting enough, yet after all that, the men would still need to be fit to fight successive eight-hour battles amid yet more shelling and machine-gun fire.91 Meanwhile, Slesarev and his comrades were already in the direct path of an onslaught whose ferocity exceeded even Soviet fears. Recovering from the unexpected setback of their first day under fire, Hoth’s men, spearheaded by more than 500 tanks,pushed forward towards Oboyan. As Soviet infantry units shattered under the intolerable pressure of bombardment, the 1st tank army was almost the only barrier that held – or tried to hold – on 7 July.92 Slesarev had no time to write home. He was lucky to have survived, but the courage and tenacity of men like him forced Hoth to change his plans. Instead of driving straight for Oboyan, the Germans shifted their objective to a piece of relatively high ground near the small steppe town of Prokhorovka.

The fiercest tank battle in history took place in open fields near settlements with names like ‘October’ and ‘Komsomol’. To have lost here, to have allowed the Germans to push through to Kursk, would almost certainly have meant losing the entire defensive campaign. Six hundred German tanks were poised for this great strike. Concealed in scrub, orchards, and the rank grassland of a wet July, 850 Soviet tanks prepared to halt them. At dawn, as the first light filtered through the mist, the future battlefield was silent, ‘as if there were no war’.93 The first blackbirds began to call across the valley. ‘I watched my friend spreading fat on a chunk of bread,’ a veteran remembered. ‘He was doing it slowly, taking his time. I kept telling him to get a move on because the Germans were coming.’ But he smiled. “Don’t rush me,” he said, with a prescience his friend would later find uncanny. “I’m going to enjoy this. It’s the last meal I’ll eat in this world.”’94 He had finished eating just before 6.30 a. m., when the calm was shattered by the first of hundreds of Junkers swooping to dive-bomb the Soviet lines.95 But it was not to be a repeat of the summer of 1941. This time, there were hundreds of Soviet planes to answer with equal determination. The tank battle began with an aerial dogfight that would fill the air with smoke and burning metal well before the great machines began their duel.

Prokhorovka was destined to be remembered for those tanks. The German and Soviet machines advanced to meet through a fog of smoke and driving rain. By mid-morning, the rolling fields were strewn with lumps of twisted metal and the charred bodies of men. Survivors talk about the summer heat, but in fact the weather that day was cool. What the veterans are probably remembering is the inferno of burning metal, burning fuel and rubber, burning air. Faced with the superior Panther and Tiger tanks, Soviet crews refused to yield. If they could do no more, they rammed their enemy, locking metal on to metal. This was the way that Gusev and his crew would die. ‘The lieutenant’s tank was moving forward,’ friends from his regiment would tell his parents, ‘maintaining fire from every kind of gun. But an enemy shell set fire to the machine. The firing from the burning tank did not cease. The mechanic, selecting the machine’s highest gear, contrived to drive it at one of the enemy’s advancing tanks. The fire from Lt Gusev’s tank continued. They were firing, so they must still be alive. Our tank and Lt Gusev’s tank drove forward at full throttle straight towards the enemy tank. The Tiger wanted to turn round and get out, but it succeeded only in turning sideways. Our burning tank rammed into the Tiger and both tanks exploded. The crew of heroes perished.’96

Tank crews were not the only men who died. Brigades of riflemen and artillery, including Lev Lvovich’s unit, were also sent to hold the tanks. When all else failed, infantrymen would hurl grenades and flaming bottles at the monsters in the spirit of the old war films. They also tackled German infantry, sometimes in hand-to-hand combat. They found the footsoldiers less awe-inspiring than élite tank men and SS. Some of them (and probably some Russians, too) were drunk, their courage stoked with quantities of schnapps,97 but that did not make the fighting less deadly. ‘The sky thunders, the earth thunders, and you think your heart will explode and the skin on your back is about to burst,’ a woman combatant told Alexiyevich. ‘I hadn’t thought that the earth could crack. Everything cracked, everything roared. The whole world seemed to be swaying.’ But this was just the setting for what followed. Hand-to-hand fighting, she remembered, ‘isn’t for human beings … Men strike, thrust their bayonets into stomachs, eyes, strangle one another. Howling, shouts, groans. It’s something terrible even for war.’98 What kept Lev Lvovich going was not his abstract sense of duty but the concrete, the specific hourly goals. Orders would come, he said, ‘to aim for this bank or trench, to focus on this oak tree, aim three fingers’ width towards the left … That sort of thing helps very much.’ It also helped that he was too proud to allow his men to understand that he, too, was afraid.

At least 700 tanks lay charred and twisted on the battlefield by nightfall. The fighting would continue for two more days, but it was the first that decided the outcome of the battle, and also of the whole campaign. Prokhorovka would come to rank in Russian myth beside Kulikovo Pole, the field where Dmitry Donskoi defeated the Golden Horde in 1380, and Borodino, the site of the great battle against Napoleon. Like them, it was regarded as a place where Russia’s sacred destiny was saved. But as then, too, the human casualties were huge. For weeks to come the air for several miles would reek of bloated corpses, decomposing human flesh. Parties of sanitary workers and local volunteers helped to remove the wounded from the area. High-tech gave way to the old world as the heavy bodies were piled on to waiting horse-drawn carts. Local teams would also help to dig mass graves for the soldiers. There is no village in the district that does not maintain such a site today. Unless the Germans retrieved them in time, their own dead would be buried later, piled into massive pits not for the sake of dignity but to prevent infectious disease. Meanwhile, it would be decades before the area was cleared of mines, discarded weapons and metal debris. To this day, children are warned not to explore the woods. The fields were turned to desert, but they bore a bitter crop.

A medical orderly loads a soldier’s body on to a horse-drawn stretcher, 1943

There was not one but several battles at Kursk, arrayed across at least two fronts, but the campaign was regarded as a single struggle by both sides. On the same day as the defence of Prokhorovka, 12 July, the Soviets launched a counter-attack in the north, striking westwards at Orel. In anticipation of this, and to the Red Army’s relief, a portion of Hoth’s assigned tanks had been diverted north before the Prokhorovka battle.99 But the Germans had not prepared for the storm that was to come. At midnight on 11 July, Belov wrote a hasty, excited entry in his diary: ‘We’re going to attack … at Shchelyabug.’ It would be two more weeks before he managed to record another word. As he would put it on the twenty-fifth, ‘There has been absolutely no possibility of making notes in these past days.’ The Red Army had fought its way across the heavily defended German lines. The aim was to disrupt the German central front.100 Belov’s regiment suffered extremely heavy losses – more than 1,000 men – in fourteen days. The compensation was that they were now within twelve kilometres of German-occupied Orel. They had also ‘killed a lot of Fritzes, which is really great’. 101 The battle for the old city was yet to come, but the enemy had been pushed back far behind the lines it held before the campaign had been launched.

Dog teams transporting the injured, August 1943

To the south, meanwhile, Slesarev also found a moment to scribble a note home. ‘You will know from the newspapers,’ he wrote to his father on 18 July, ‘that stubborn and fierce battles are taking place here. We’re beating the Fritzes good and proper, the battles don’t stop day or night. You can hear the “music of war” twenty-four hours a day.’ On the twenty-seventh, he was even more sanguine, his tone an echo of the party’s own victorious mood. Indeed, his letter of that day reflects his new-found status as a real communist. Like hundreds of other tank men, Slesarev applied to join the party on the field at Kursk, marrying his own perception of progress, social justice and victory to the ideological message of the politruks. ‘Hundreds of planes, thousands of enemy tanks, including Tigers and Panthers, have found their grave on the fields of battle,’ he wrote. ‘Tens of thousands of Fritzes have fertilized the Ukrainian earth. The Germans are retreating. The moment to settle our account with them has come.’102

Behind the brave words, there were plenty of exhausted, frightened, even disaffected people. German sources suggest that the rate of Soviet defections increased sharply when battle was joined – from 2,555 in June to 6,574 in July and 4,047 in August.103 The haemorrhage was no longer one-sided, however.104 As the Red Army sensed its approaching triumph, morale among the German ranks was crumbling fast. The process had begun among the non-élite troops well before the campaign’s launch. ‘The SS officers are surprised by the levels of pessimism in our division,’ a lieutenant, Karl-Friedrich Brandt, wrote in his diary on 6 July. If the SS frightened the Soviets, its arrogance and privilege offended German soldiers in the Wehrmacht’s ranks. ‘The very sight of them stirs in our troops, exhausted and strained as they are, a sense of utter class hate,’ Brandt went on. ‘Our soldiers have been drawn from whatever pitiful dregs can still be scraped together in Germany. They [the SS] are drawn from the finest human material in Europe.’105

That summer saw the first large-scale humiliation of those ‘dregs’. As the Soviets pushed forward, Brandt and his men fled so fast that they could not even pray over their dead. ‘We are not even in a condition to establish where each of our men lies any more,’ Brandt wrote on 1 August, ‘because we haven’t been able to snatch away their papers or their soldier’s tags. We have not even had the water with which to wash the poison of the corpses from our skin … How fortunate were the men who died in France and Poland. They could still believe in victory.’106 Now that belief was growing on the Soviet side. On 2 August, Belov went into action for a second time. Three days later he was in the vanguard that would liberate Orel. ‘Last night the Germans withdrew altogether,’ he wrote on 5 August. ‘This morning we arrived in the western outskirts of the city. The whole of Orel is in flames. The population is greeting us with exceptional joy. The women are weeping with joy.’ The next day, his regiment, like all the others in the division, was renamed an ‘Orel Regiment’ in honour of the great campaign.107 That night, too, far away in Moscow, the first 120-gun salute of the war was ordered to mark the triumph. ‘I express my thanks to all the troops that took part in the offensive,’ Stalin’s telegram declared. ‘Eternal glory to the heroes who fell in the struggle for the freedom of our country. Death to the German invaders.’108

To the south, on the road to Kharkov, Slesarev was also on the move. Belgorod had fallen to Red Army troops on the same day as Orel. Now the formations on the Voronezh and Steppe Fronts were racing southwards in pursuit of even larger goals. Slesarev’s mood was bittersweet. On 10 August, his dearest friend was killed, the man with whom he had fought closely from the very first. But the cause he died for was no longer vain. ‘We’re crossing liberated territory,’ Slesarev wrote to his father, ‘land that was occupied by the Germans for more than two years. The population is coming out to greet us with joy, bringing us apples, pears, tomatoes, cucumbers and so on. In the past, I knew Ukraine only from books, now I can see it with my own eyes: the picturesque nature, lots of gardens.’109 Just for an instant, the Red Army could revel in its own hard-won success. On 25 August, it recaptured Kharkov.

Infantry and tanks near Kharkov, 1943

Notes – 6 A Land Laid Waste

1 ‘Prikaz verkhovnogo glavnokomanduyushchego’, 23 February 1943, in Stalin, O Velikoi otechestvennoi voine, pp. 89–90.

2 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 2 (3), p. 97.

3 At Stalingrad itself, German losses were 91,000 prisoners of war and 147,000 dead. Meanwhile, the November–February counter-offensive at Stalingrad alone, excluding the losses sustained in August–October, cost the Red Army approximately 485,735 killed, missing or wounded. Figures from John Erickson and Ljubica Erickson, TheEastern Front in Photographs (London, 2001), p. 137.

4 TsAMO, 223 SD/1/6, 10, gives details of the non-reporting practices of rifle divisions in January–February 1943.

5 Night of Stone, p. 274.

6 For an example relating to fear among the Panfilov men, see RGASPI, 17/125/185, 23. More generally, see D. L. Babichenko, Literaturnyi Front (Moscow, 1994).

7 Ilya Nemanov, interview, Smolensk, October 2002.

8 Druzhba, pp. 33–4.

9 Samoilov, ‘Lyudi’, part 2, pp. 50–1.

10 Lev Lvovich, second interview, Moscow, July 2003. On Samoilov, see above, p. 148.

11 Samoilov, ‘Lyudi’, part 2, p. 57.

12 E. S. Senyavskaya, Chelovek v voine, p. 80; RGALI 1814/6/144, 21 (Diaries of Konstantin Simonov).

13 Stouffer, vol. 2, p. 186.

14 Rodina, 1991, nos 6–7, p. 53.

15 L. N. Pushkarev, Po dorogam voiny: Vospominaniya fol’klorista-frontovika (Moscow, 1995), pp. 34–42.

16 Sidelnikov, p. 9.

17 Translation by Lubov Yakovleva, Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry, pp. 623–4.

18 Ya I. Gudoshnikov, Russkie narodnye pesny i chastushki Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voiny (Tambov, 1997), p. 6.

19 Alexiyevich, p. 46.

20 Interview with Nina Emil’yanova, Moscow, 1998.

21 Sidelnikov, p. 9; Alexiyevich, p. 46.

22 Pushkarev, Po dorogam voiny, pp. 22–3.

23 Kozlov, p. 105.

24 ‘The Crossing’, trans. April FitzLyon, Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry, pp. 561–7.

25 Gudoshnikov, pp. 83–9.

26 Ibid., p. 5.

27 RGALI, 1828/1/25, 35.

28 Temkin, p. 90.

29 Interview, Kursk, July 2003.

30 Van Creveld, Fighting Power, discusses the way lessons were learned.

31 Erickson, ‘The System’, p. 239.

32 On the United States’ army, see Van Creveld, Fighting Power, especially pp. 77‒9.

33 Testimony cited in Senyavskaya, Frontovoe pokolenie, p. 85.

34 The petitions often served as evidence in alleged cases of desertion. See, for example, RGVA, 32925/1/526.

35 Samoilov, ‘Lyudi,’ part 1, p. 69.

36 See Rodina, 95, no. 5, p. 60; the same stories were related to me by another shtrafnik, Ivan Gorin, in 2002. See also Victor Astaf’ev’s controversial novel, Proklyaty i ubity (Moscow, 2002).

37 Interview with Ivan Gorin, November 2002.

38 Rodina, 95:5, p. 63.

39 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 2 (3), pp. 109–10.

40 Temkin, p. 34.

41 Stalin’s Generals, p. 354.

42 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 4 (4), pp. 17–18.

43 Erickson, ‘The System’, p. 246.

44 M. V. Mirskii, Obyazany zhizn’yu (Moscow, 1991), p. 193.

45 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 4 (4), p. 7; Overy, p. 201; Rokossovskii, Soldatskii dolg, pp. 207–10.

46 Suvorov, p. 99.

47 RGASPI-M, 33⁄1⁄1405, 1.

48 Pis’ma s fronta i na front, p. 90.

49 Belov, p. 452.

50 Ibid., p. 453.

51 Bundesarchiv, RH2/2624.

52 Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv kurskoi oblasti (GAKO), R 3322/10/21, 15.

53 GAKO, R 3322/10/21, 1–39.

54 Ibid., 1–3.

55 GAOPIKO, 1/1/3478, 14–15.

56 GAKO, R3322/10/5, 44.

57 GAKO, R3322/10/4, 511; 3322/10/5, 44.

58 GAKO, R 3322/9/106, 12–13.

59 GAKO, R3322/10/8, 27–33.

60 GAKO, R3322/10/14, 58–64.

61 GARF, R9550/6/339 (on nettles) and 527 (wild meat).

62 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1404, 16.

63 GAKO, R3322/10/1, 55.

64 Stroki, opalennye voiny (Belgorod, 1998), p. 71.

65 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 4(4), p. 7.

66 Zaloga and Ness, pp. 163–80; Velikaya otechestvennaya, 4 (4), p. 7.

67 Zaloga and Ness, p. 169.

68 In 1943, Soviet factories produced 15,529 of the standard T-34 tanks and (in December) 283 of the modified T-34-85s. Ibid., p. 180.

69 Ibid., p. 174.

70 See John Erickson, The Road to Berlin (London, 1983), p. 109.

71 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 4 (4), p. 7; Erickson, ‘The System’, p. 239.

72 Po obe storony fronta, p. 52.

73 Erickson, ‘The System’, pp. 239–40.

74 Detwiler (Ed.), vol. 19, C-058, p. 23.

75 Ibid.

76 Po obe storony fronta, p. 52.

77 L. N. Pushkarev, ‘Pis’mennaya forma bytovaniya frontovogo fol’klora,’ in Etnograficheskoe Obozrenie, 1995, no. 4, p. 30.

78 Po obe storony fronta, p. 51.

79 Krivosheev’s figures for 1943–5 suggest that losses among tank crews were roughly half those among riflemen (although the catastrophic months of 1941–2 are not included for lack of information), but in view of the enormous death rates in both cases, the statistic is not comforting. See Krivosheev, pp. 218–9, Table 79 (Red Army Losses by Arm of Service).

80 Erickson, ‘The System’, p. 239; see also Reina Pennington’s contribution to the same volume, especially pp. 257–8.

81 For descriptions, see John Ellis, The Sharp End, pp. 153–4.

82 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 4 (4), p. 26.

83 Ibid., p. 33.

84 Belov, p. 454.

85 Ibid., 456.

86 Overy, p. 203.

87 Ibid., 203.

88 Velikaya otechestvennaya, 4 (4), p. 250.

89 Belov, p. 456.

90 Krivosheev, p. 132.

91 M. V. Ovsyannikov (Ed.), 55 let Kurskoi bitve (Kursk, 1998), memoir of B. Ivanov, pp. 276–7.

92 Erickson, Berlin, pp. 104–5.

93 55 let Kurskoi bitve, memoir of B. Bryukhov, pp. 265–6.

94 Interview, Prokhorovka, July 2003.

95 55 let Kurskoi bitve, B. Bryukhov, pp. 265–6.

96 Po obe storony fronta, p. 53.

97 55 let Kurskoi bitve, memoir of B. Ivanov, p. 277; V. V. Drobyshev (Ed.), Nemtsy o russkikh (Moscow, 1995), p. 28.

98 Alexiyevich, p. 107.

99 Erickson, Berlin, p. 108.

100 Overy, p. 211.

101 Belov, p. 456.

102 Pis’ma s fronta i na front, pp. 90–1.

103 Bundesarchiv, RH2/2624.

104 Belov had observed this as early as July; Belov, p. 453.

105 Nemtsy o russkikh, p. 28.

106 Ibid., pp. 32–3.

107 Belov, p. 457.

108 Cited in Werth, p. 685.

109 Pis’ma s fronta i na front, p. 91.

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