Military history

May Brotherhood Be Blessed


Stalin’s regime waged war in the same spirit as it prosecuted peace. The first rule was that human life counted for little in the scale of history, which meant compared to interests of state; the second, that insiders, the citizens in whose name everything was done, should band together against enemies. By 1943, the first of these was causing strain. The supply of healthy troops was running out. The campaigns that winter would be constrained in practice because manpower was scarce.1 The second rule, however, seemed to be going strong. Kulaks, spies, Trotskyists and members of the civil-war white guard had been admirable scapegoats in the decade leading up to war. But fascists – ‘Hitlerites’ – were real foes. Soviet citizens answered the call to arms in epic style. The collective clarity of purpose that inspired millions was unprecedented, but it was not true that the entire people stood together. The war created hierarchies, winners and losers, millions of dead. And physical separation, hunger and violence do not unite communities. The mythic wartime solidarity that everyone remembers was another sleight of Stalin’s hand. It was possible to believe in it because of the third rule of this regime, which was to control the things people were allowed to know.

Among the winners in the midst of war, at least compared with private soldiers at the front, were the officials who stayed well behind the lines. On 6 November 1943, an invited crowd of them gathered in Moscow to hear Stalin speak. The occasion was the eve of the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. Outside, the early winter capital was grey, subdued by black-out drapes and power cuts. Inside, beneath the chandeliers, the audience basked in self-congratulation. In the twelve months since their last anniversary meeting, the prospects for these people’s world had changed completely. First there had been Stalingrad, with all those German prisoners and dead. But that had been a winter victory. What Kursk had proved was that the Red Army could beat the fascists in the summer, too. Since then, the news had told a story of unbroken success. Smolensk was recaptured on 25 September; the Taman peninsula – gateway to the Crimea – on 7 October. In a feat of remarkable daring (and at shattering human cost), the Red Army had forced the river Dnepr on 7 October, breaching the fascists’ most secure defensive line. And on 6 November, the élite would learn what everybody heard the following day, which was that Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, had fallen to the Soviets at last.

The Red Army was the country’s undoubted saviour, but Stalin used his speech to emphasize that it had not been working on its own. It was time to celebrate the party and the government, the men and women who had stayed at home. He began with some real heroes, those of wartime labour. If the army no longer lacked for weapons and supplies, Stalin explained, it had to thank ‘our working class (stormy and prolonged applause)’. It also owed a great deal to ‘the patriotism of the collective farm peasants’, to ‘our transport workers’, and even, for their initiatives in design and engineering, to ‘our intelligentsia (prolonged applause)’. Stalin’s message was unmistakable: he was declaring revolution vindicated. ‘The lessons of the war,’ he announced, ‘teach us that Soviet power is not only the best form of organization for the economic and cultural development of a country in years of peace, but also the best form for mobilizing all the resources of the people for repelling an enemy in time of war … The Soviet power that was established twenty-six years ago has turned our country – in a brief historical period – into an inviolable fortress.’2

The men and women at the front – or those at least who had survived to join in that November’s celebration – were just as proud of victory, although they tended to assume most credit for themselves. Vitaly Taranichev, the engineer, found a few moments to write home to his wife. ‘It’s one o’clock in the morning,’ he explained, ‘the night of 7 November 1943. I’ve been at my military post since the eve of the 26th anniversary of the Great October revolution … At 1600 hours today we heard the order of our Supreme Commander comrade Stalin about the capture of the capital of our Ukraine, the city of Kiev, by our valiant troops. Natalochka! I can imagine how delighted you must be by this news! The time has passed when the fascists controlled the skies, – today they made a pathetic effort to disrupt the work at our station, but it didn’t come to anything, everything is working like clockwork, and everything is moving forward, towards the west, towards the destruction of fascism!’3

Thousands of front-line soldiers shared this view. They knew that they were on the road to victory. Like many other successful armies, they found themselves embracing some of the values of their nation and culture with new confidence and zeal. They also began to imagine that their sacrifice could build a better world within that framework. Many believed that they were laying new foundations for the peace, perhaps burning away the hatreds and confusion of the pre-war years. Soldiers’ friendships with front-line comrades felt like a foretaste of the brotherhood to come. And then there was the thrill of new machines. The tank battle at Kursk, the evidence of Soviet air superiority that summer, the deadly music of the Katyushas – all this seemed like a vindication of the five-year plans, a promise of a better, mass-producing world. Zhukov, not Stalin, was probably the army’s real hero (and each veteran will happily describe the wartime general he admired most, like sports fans arguing over star players), but even Stalin, because he lived mainly in men’s imaginations, seemed to embody the qualities that success now promised: progress, unity, heroism, deliverance. In word, at least, it looked as if soldiers and leadership subscribed to the same goals.

The starkest ideological lessons were drawn by looking at the legacy of fascism. ‘I’ve had to drive round a good many of the settlements that the Germans have abandoned in the recent past,’ Taranichev wrote home. ‘You cannot imagine what these places, that used so recently to be blossoming centres of population, look like: not one dwelling without damage, everything burned, and what they didn’t manage to burn has been destroyed by aerial bombing.’4 ‘I’ve been marching day and night,’ a twenty-year-old machine-gunner wrote home in October 1943. He had travelled on from Orel to the river Desnya and beyond, crossing country the retreating German army had torched. ‘The population meets us warmly, I didn’t even think that our welcome would be like this. They weep, they hug us, everyone brings us whatever they can.’ The reason for the people’s joy was obvious. ‘I’ve seen how the German burns villages, the bitch. I’ve seen the victims of his violence.’5

For soldiers, the Red Army was now the instrument of collective redemption, the arm of vengeance and of liberation. The greeting that soldiers received from the people of western Russia and eastern Ukraine was often overwhelming. But though many were proud of their collective power, it was also possible, for large numbers of men, to catch a sense of individual progress. The army furthered thousands of careers. Vasily Ermolenko was at school in Kharkov when the war broke out. The first year of the invasion saw his home overrun, his mother trapped and his father enlisted into the Red Army. But young Vasily, now a refugee, received a training. When the Red Army liberated his native city in 1943, he was already working elsewhere on the front as a radio operator and communications engineer. Technology became his life, the more so because every other landmark in it had been wrecked. He joined the party in the spring of 1944. As he noted in his diary at the time, the war had taught him to love his motherland, but it had also confirmed his belief in socialism, ‘which will lead people to a happy life’. In his mind, all the Red Army’s successes had become linked to the party and its leader.6

The party spirit (the Soviets had a word for it: partiinost’) that soldiers like Ermolenko evinced was far removed from the careful sophistry of Stalin’s ideologues. The soldiers’ brand of communism was also distinct from that of their political officers, many of whom had joined the party well before the war. Rank and file belief arose from experience as much as from preaching, and it often co-existed with an impatience for paperwork, a dislike of propaganda. ‘Considerable empirical evidence exists that indoctrination affects troops in much the same way as rain affects a duck,’ a specialist on combat motivation has observed. ‘It glances off their backs.’7 The men’s beliefs, though shaped by everything they had been told (and limited because there was so much that they would never be allowed to say or hear), felt like their own philosophy. ‘If the politruks had let us,’ the nationalist writer Victor Astaf’ev remarked, ‘we’d have lost the war in six weeks … Our first victories started when we stopped listening to them.’8 Front-line ideology was strong and deeply rooted, but it was also so distinct from that of the civilian élite that it might have been evolving in another universe.

The nation tried to make soldiers its own, especially as most were conscripts, everybody’s sons. The press cultivated the image of the bereaved mother listening to stories told by soldiers of her son’s age, of local people supporting the troops as if they were their own. In return, many soldiers learned to love Russia and its people with a new warmth. ‘It was war,’ the soldier in one of Simonov’s famous poems remembers, ‘that brought me together for the first time / With longing for travel from village to village, / With the tear of a widow, with a woman’s song.’9 While the soldiers explored a new and larger motherland, however, they struggled to hold on to the lives that they had left behind, to wives and children, and also to the memory of their younger selves. Combat had estranged them utterly. Front-line troops had long despised the ‘rats’ who followed in the rear, the supply teams, staff officers and caravans of reservists, but as time passed, soldiers were also becoming alienated from the civilians they were trying to save, and even from the families they loved.

Red Army men might have imagined that the bonds that united them to one another had replaced these old loyalties, and to some extent this was true. Life at the front even fostered nostalgia for lost homelands – or for imagined ones – and soldiers who learned that someone from their own province had arrived within travelling distance of their camp would often rush to greet them, hungry for news from home. War was so strange, and Soviet territory so unthinkably vast, that such people were deemed to be instant ‘neighbours’. Women veterans told Alexiyevich that whenever newcomers from home arrived at the front their fellow soldiers pressed around hoping to catch a whiff of the familiar smells that might cling to their clothes.

For all the rhetoric of unity, however, close friendships still aroused suspicion in police circles. The NKVD monitored soldiers’ conversations at the front, while the Special Section, and its successor, SMERSh, whose name was an acronym for the Russian expression ‘death to spies’, pursued each rumour of dissension.10 SMERSh, or some form of it, was a necessary evil. The army was moving west, retaking territory that the enemy had held. In every town there would have been collaborators, men and women who had fed and sheltered Nazis, denounced partisans, or worse, executed orders to imprison or shoot their own neighbours. There were also German agents in the liberated zone, some of them hiwis,11 defectors from the Red Army, whose Russian voices and Soviet style concealed their real allegiances. The threat of SMERSh helped to deter all forms of treachery, as well as terrorizing anyone whose labour was needed for the front,12 but while they struck at real enemies, the informers of Stalinist counter-intelligence also betrayed the spirit of the front. If they could find no real spies, the agents would not hesitate to fabricate a plot, making scapegoats of their own comrades. Soldiers had constantly to watch their tongues. ‘We knew that we could talk about our victories,’ Samoilov wrote, ‘but not about defeats. We knew that our junior officers also walked in this shadow. The fear of “SMERSh” … corrupted the lofty notion of a people struggling against the invader … We seldom knew,’ he added, ‘which people in our midst were informers.’ Although comrades in arms still felt true solidarity, the quality of human relations was marred by ‘the Stalinist bacillus of mistrust’.13

These tensions preyed on soldiers’ minds as the campaigning season dragged into the winter. The closing months of 1943 were a time of continuous movement. Tanks and motorized infantry contested the steep banks of the Dnepr. Whole armies slithered through the fields of sugar beet. Day after day, the heavy rain of the south-west soaked through greatcoats and leather boots. And then the shelling started, and precarious advances across saturated ground. Tanks sank through treacherous mats of sedge, losing entire crews. Infantrymen from central Asia drowned in the Dnepr because they had never learned to swim. Shtrafniki, the members of the punishment battalions, were sent to defuse mines, storm banks of guns or locate hidden foxholes. Soviet death rates were falling, but this was now a campaign of attack. Red Army losses after each engagement ran as high as 25 per cent.14 For men exhausted after the battles of the late summer, the challenges must have seemed intolerable. In other years, both armies had found some moments in the cold months to regroup and make repairs. This time the mild winter of the south allowed for no respite.

Movement meant retaking Soviet towns and villages. The men were often driving through the places where they had grown up. But this was no homecoming. The Wehrmacht had orders to burn the countryside as it retreated west. Whatever had been left after two years of Nazi rule was torched, including livestock and harvested grain. The ruined landscape was made more macabre by the flotsam of battle. ‘There are heaps of German corpses by the roads,’ Belov observed in January 1944. The rotting bodies did not bother anyone, still less excite pity. Local civilian authorities would only become concerned when the weather warmed; typhus had claimed too many lives already.15 For now, as Belov knew, ‘No one’s clearing them away … they won’t move them till the spring.’16 It took the unexpected, incongruities, to surprise soldiers now. As he marched west in the spring of 1944, Ermolenko, a native of Ukraine, watched the migratory birds that he had always welcomed as a boy returning to their nesting sites. The creatures seemed confused. They could not settle. The landscape they were looking for had vanished and the trees where they had nested just a year before had disappeared.17

Nothing would set the troops apart more than the shared experience of combat. Even the men who tried to talk, to tell their wives or friends, found that they could not bridge the gulf between those who had seen battle and all the rest. David Samoilov, who considered his own wartime poetry to be ‘hopelessly bad’, thought that the problem lay in war itself. When people sat down to write after surviving carnage, he wrote later, their goal was not to re-experience the hell but to escape it.18 ‘I can’t write much to you – it’s not allowed,’ a tank mechanic wrote to his mother in September 1943. It was convenient to hide behind the censor’s broad shoulders. ‘When we meet, I’ll tell you about the terrible battles that I’ve had to get through.’19 Ageev tried to explain why he could not write more about the fighting itself. ‘I got back from operations only tonight,’ he wrote to his wife. ‘In these situations the same well-known reaction always sets in. The strain of effort is replaced by inertia. When you’re under stress, you don’t think about anything, and all your efforts are directed towards a single goal. But when the stress is replaced by inertia, which is explained by tiredness, then you really need a bit of a shaking, because for a moment nothing seems to matter.’20

Civilians would never understand about battle. ‘I cannot describe all my feelings and all my experiences,’ another man wrote to his wife. He felt he could not reach her with words, nor she him. ‘The question of our meeting after the victory,’ he continued, ‘that’s what is worrying a lot of us right now.’21 ‘Many of my friends have died,’ an officer called Martov wrote to his family in February 1944. ‘The truth is that we fight together, and the death of each is our own. Sometimes there are moments of such strain that the living envy the dead. Death is not as terrible as we used to think.’22 Grief held the men together as much as shared hardship, but battle marked them out from everybody else. Whatever Stalin said about the whole nation’s collective work, by 1943 most front-line soldiers valued only combat and the comradeship of risk. By setting soldier against civilian, by raising fears of spies and stool pigeons, by setting the frontovik against the whole community of military ‘rats’ who did not fight, the war had shattered, not united, the Soviet people. Worst of all, combat had exiled front-line soldiers from themselves.


‘What’s the definition of effrontery?’ Ageev wrote one evening. ‘Effrontery means being somewhere far behind the lines, sleeping with the wives of frontoviki, beating one’s breast and crying “death to the fascist occupiers” and looking for one’s name in the lists of people who have been decorated for valour.’23 The men had been away for months, and the Red Army made scant provision for home leave.24 As the fear of defeat faded, terrors of a more intimate variety began to haunt the soldiers’ nights. They were crossing Soviet territory now. They knew about the hardship and the crime, the people’s desperation after two winters of total war. The married soldiers saw how local women often acted when they found a willing man, someone with food or cash, perhaps, or even just a guitar and some vodka. They all began to wonder what was going on at home.

Some of their fears were natural to soldiers on any long campaign, but Red Army troops faced more depressing terrors than the prospect of a ‘Dear John’ letter. ‘Write me something about Mama,’ a young lieutenant asked his godmother in February 1944. ‘There’s been no news from her since September 1941.’ The last time he had heard from her, his mother had been in her flat in Leningrad.25 In this, as in so many other cases, there would be no more news again. The fascist occupation had torn families apart.Aleksandr Slesarev, the tank lieutenant from Smolensk province, at least knew that some of his relatives were alive. The partisans had brought one letter out in 1942, a note from his young sister, Mariya.26 It was a catalogue of death and violation under Nazi rule. As the Germans retreated, more letters came, and now – with agonizing gaps – the family’s story began to take shape. As Slesarev fought south and west across Ukraine, he had to wait for weeks to receive news. Mariya wrote to their father in the first instance, and then the old man passed the news on to his soldier sons. Fourteen-year-old Mariya, working from dawn to dusk on the collective farm, could not find time to write to everyone at once.

The family had fled their village before the invaders came. For two winters they had been living in an earth dugout. It was cold and damp and the children were constantly ill, but at least they were alive. ‘They burned Danilkin’s family,’ Mariya wrote, ‘and the Germans took Yashka away. They burned the whole Liseyev family and the Gavrikovs too, and another fourteen girls who were on their way back from work in Yartsevo … At the same time we also lost Uncle Petya, he was coming from Ruchkovo, and the Germans caught him and burned him too.’ Then news came that the Red Army was close. The Germans started seizing cattle and sheep, leaving the local villagers to starve. Winter brought typhus, then pneumonia. There was another string of deaths. ‘At the time of the [Germans’] last retreat, Mama, Yura and I took cover with Uncle Mitya in a trench,’ Mariya finished. ‘Kolya, Uncle Egor and Shura all ran off to the woods at the same time, they were there for four days and nights. They liberated us on 18 March, and [those three] came out of the woods the next day.’27

Lieutenant Slesarev must have been relieved to read that his mother, sister and two little brothers had survived. He sent them money when he could, but inflation, shortages and a severe housing crisis had made their lives desperate. ‘It’s not great for food at the moment,’ Mariya wrote in January 1944, ‘and clothes are really a problem, especially shoes.’28 It was the same in Kursk, the same wherever either of the great armies had been. ‘It’s hard now that we don’t have cows,’ a peasant woman wrote from Kursk province. ‘They took them from us two months ago… We’re ready to eat each other… there isn’t a single young man at home now that they’re fighting.’29 ‘Everything was destroyed by the front,’ another woman told her soldier son. She had lost her home, her cow and her land. She was living, as many did, in a corridor outside her sister’s one-room flat. ‘We have not had bread for two months now,’ wrote another. ‘It’s already time for Lidiya to go to school, but we don’t have a coat for her, nor anything to put on her feet. I think Lidiya and I will die of hunger in the end. We haven’t got anything … Misha, even if you stay alive, we won’t be here …’30

Soldiers felt betrayed by their wives’ hardship stories. The least they had expected, while they risked their lives, was that the state would provide for their families. The begging letters read like accusations. In January 1943, the central committee of the Communist Party responded with a secret resolution on the families of serving troops. Aleksei Kosygin, a rising star, was put in charge of welfare. His job was to make sure that flour, potatoes and fuel would be provided on the usual sliding scale of privilege from officers to men. But officials in the provinces could not turn rubble into houses overnight, nor conjure flour from ash. In May 1944, a survey in the Kursk region found 17,740 orphans and nearly half a million soldiers’ families in need of urgent help. Of the families, just 32,025 were in receipt of pensions and supplies of food.31 The same story was repeated across European Russia. There were over a quarter of a million soldiers’ families on the register in Smolensk region by 1944. More than 12,000 of these were living in earth dugouts. Nearly 11,000 soldiers’ children in the region could not attend the newly opened local schools because they had no shoes.32

A scene of destruction (village of Kuyani; courtesy of the State Archive of the Russian Federation)

The families of decorated soldiers, the heroes, were supposed to get extra help. It was an incentive with genuine appeal. The promise of privileged access to food and heating fuel for their wives and mothers was all it took to convince some soldiers that they were valued more than their comrades. But when the promise was not kept, such men’s indignation was also proportionately greater. Letters of protest, angry demands from combatants who felt entitled to an audience, piled up on bureaucratic desks, but all the outrage in the world could not ease this crisis. In the spring of 1944, rural soviets in some regions were warning that the hunger in their villages would soon lead to fatalities. Hero of the Soviet Union P. L. Pashin went home to one of the affected districts to visit his family. He found them in a desperate condition. He appealed to the local collective farm to issue them with bread or potatoes, but the committee was unable to meet his request. Another Hero’s family was found to be in ‘severe need’ of clothes, shoes and dry accommodation.33 Mariya Slesarev continued to write to her father. ‘It’s a really bad situation for bread,’ she wrote in July 1944, ‘and with potatoes also.’ The prices were impossible. Her brother was sending her fifty roubles a month, occasionally supplementing it with more, but a litre of milk cost fifteen roubles, a cup of salt as much as twenty-four and flour 800 roubles a pood.34

The prices were forced up by wartime spivs, but the army – sometimes illicitly – also sucked local farmers dry. Much as they feared for their own families, some men showed little qualm for other people’s. ‘Everything for the front’ was a slogan that was easily abused. If there was nowhere for soldiers to sleep, they drove the locals from their huts. When they needed horses, they helped themselves from the collective farms. Sometimes they used their new transport to seize and market peasants’ grain. Illegal trading flourished with the army’s unofficial help.35 No rank or type of soldier was blameless. In February 1944, a member of the NKVD’s own border troops was heard asserting that ‘our lot go barefoot and half-dressed, and it’s right that we go looting, or else we wouldn’t be able to survive …’36

One of the key commodities was home brew, samogon. The rough spirit could be distilled wherever sugar and grain or potatoes could be obtained. Troops on patrol noted the barns that held illegal stills and timed their raids for the moment when the stuff was ready. It raised a good price with their mates. Accidents and fights, even murders, were common results of its excessive use. But it was not just fighting that spirit provoked. Samogon was currency. Networks of crime supported its production. Grain was stolen to make it, goods were looted to finance it.37 The Nazis had gone, Soviet power was not yet established, and in the chaos that followed as the front moved westwards a primitive barter economy emerged with raw spirit at its centre and a variety of other goods as change. In October 1943, a group of men stationed near Belyi Kholm in Smolensk province commandeered four tons of potatoes from local collective farms, but they also stole on a more individual scale, helping themselves to flour, sugar, honey and even the peasants’ boots.38 The guilty parties in this case were on a training course for junior lieutenants.

Among the most prestigious items of black-market trade were German goods. They were, everyone knew, well made, advanced, and hard to get in normal times. The law on ‘trophies’, the spoils of war, was redefined and tightened repeatedly in 1942 and 1943. Special teams, made up mainly of women and of teenage boys, were sent around abandoned battlefields and other military sites. Their task was to retrieve whatever debris they might find – bodies, weapons or personal effects.39 The state claimed it all for the war. But there was a pathetic pecking order round this carrion. Front-line soldiers were the first, although their opportunity was usually brief. ‘I came across a German corpse in the corner of one of their field cemeteries,’ Anatoly Shevelev told me. ‘They’d buried all the rest but they missed him. I took his wallet – I was curious, really. There was a photograph in it, his Frau. A photograph and a condom – we didn’t have those. No safe sex in the Red Army. But what I wanted were his boots. I tried to pull them off. But I pulled, I pulled hard, and the man’s leg was so decomposed that it came with the boot. I left him after that.’

Behind the combat soldiers came the support troops, the ‘rats’, as well as any local people who could find their way. The boot Shevelev wanted would have been no problem for experts like these. Frozen or decomposing limbs merely required the right technique. In the winter of 1941, Vasily Grossman met a peasant with a sack of frozen human legs, each one severed as if for harvest. His plan was to thaw them on the stove to make the leather boots easier to remove.40 Meanwhile, discarded helmets and insignia were turned into children’s toys, although the children themselves seemed to prefer grenades and knives.41 Officials collected toys of a more sophisticated kind. Orest Kuznetsov was a military lawyer. One of his perks was to inspect the trophies that the German army left behind before they were packed up for despatch to the rear. In February 1944, he helped himself to ‘a very pretty radio set, which currently does not work, because it needs an electricity supply’.42

The basic norms of peacetime life had long ago dissolved. Among the patterns that emerged was a new attitude to sex. The front line, though not quite a club exclusively for males, was pungent with misogyny. ‘In the army they regard women like gramophone records,’ a young man wrote in 1943. ‘You play it and play it and then throw it away.’43 It was a prejudice that would erupt with vicious force a year later, when the army crossed into Prussia. But attitudes to sex, among both men and women, were already changing. The least offensive of the new arrangements was a matter of short-term, and often mutual, convenience. Male officers were notorious for ‘adopting’ attractive women. Sometimes they added them to the company list, creating a fictitious staff role somewhere so that they could bring a mistress with them on campaign.44 The army slang for the girls involved was ‘marching field wives’, pokhodno-polevye zheny, or PPZh, a pun on the mobile field guns, PPSh. It was not uncommon for a man to have five or more such ‘wives’ at once. And there were always more in line. Ageev knew a lieutenant who reacted to a farewell letter from his pre-war wife by sending a card to the main post office in Moscow and addressing it to ‘the first girl who gets her hands on this’. As Ageev added, ‘This correspondence has been carrying on for some months in the most active manner.’45

‘Wives’ at the front were usually a perk of rank. ‘There was a bit of a tale,’ Nemanov remembered. ‘My commanding officer was fifty, a teacher by profession, the father of soldiers, fierce, though everyone loved him. And he had a twenty-year-old lover, Nina. She was already pregnant. And she liked me. I didn’t get the idea and just carried on without paying her any attention. She invited me to listen to the gramophone, and we stood there together, leaning close to each other. Someone saw us and reported it to the commander, although there was nothing in it. He flew into a rage. He held a pistol at me and said, “If the Germans don’t kill you, I’ll shoot!” But he didn’t shoot me, he just moved me away from her. He made me work as a telephonist, and he gave me the heaviest equipment to carry as well as my rifle.’ ‘You must think I have affairs with the girls, Polya,’ a private soldier wrote in 1944. ‘No, my dear, I’ll never go for that bait. When we meet, I’ll tell you a lot of things about military life. But my character hasn’t changed, and for another thing, if you … have girlfriends you can end up in a punishment unit pretty fast.’46

As long as the men were on Soviet soil, vodka, not sex, was the mainstay of leisure time, but women who lived near their billets knew that trouble started if they could slip out in search of both. Rates of venereal disease were set to soar. The Wehrmacht had done its bit to spread infection wherever it camped. Now it was the Soviet army’s turn. Reports at the time affected surprise, but syphilis infected officers – and even Communist Party members – as readily as the men.47 In Smolensk province alone, the reported (and therefore underestimated) rate of syphilis infection increased by a factor of twelve between 1934 and 1945.48 To some extent, the double impact of invasion and then reconquest explained the scale of the epidemic, but the Soviet attitude to sex was also much to blame. The men received no education and, as Shevelev observed, they got no condoms, either. Soldiers who contracted venereal disease were treated like varieties of traitor. Medical treatment was sometimes deliberately withheld in punishment for what was seen as immorality.49 For some soldiers, the shame – or even the fear of it – was one anxiety too many. Reports of men who shot themselves after contracting venereal diseases began to accumulate from 1943.50 Meanwhile, the civilian authorities considered deporting local women if they were known to frequent troops. They also dreamed (although they had no resources to run the scheme) of forcing them to undergo medical examinations and hospital treatment.51

Women would always find the culture punitive. Soviet morality judged them by a double standard, condemning behaviour that would be admired, or at least condoned, in men. Some of the field ‘wives’ hoped to marry their military patrons, but most were looking, as everyone was, for comfort and intimacy. It was male prejudice that painted them as whores. ‘I’ve had four letters from you,’ Ageev wrote to his wife, Nina, in the early spring of 1944. ‘At least I have some basis for believing that my family has been preserved intact. Nina! It’s the biggest question for all of us frontoviki. What’s going to happen when the war ends. The madness is happening on the men’s side and the women’s with just this one difference, that the women – with the aim of making sure they’ll be set up for the future – forget the norms and go in for ten times more madness than the men do.’52

Veterans often mentioned that the war was cruel to girls. It aged them even faster than the men, especially if they chose combat roles. Nurses and telegraph operators were more prestigious, as girlfriends, than female soldiers. ‘We did not look on them as women,’ veterans told Svetlana Alexiyevich in the 1980s. ‘We looked on them as friends.’53 This was the kindly version, anyway. In fact, the front-line women, wrecked or not, faced prejudice based on their wild reputation. One described what happened after she married her wartime sweetheart. Her new husband’s parents were furious. They thought that he had cheapened their good name. ‘An army girl,’ they barked. ‘Why, you have two younger sisters. Who will marry them now?’54 It was assumed that women slept with officers as a way of getting on. At the very least, a pregnancy would guarantee their escape from the front. Women veterans with medals were treated with suspicion for years after the war. When it was worn by a woman, the coveted medal ‘for military service’ (za boevye zaslugi) was jokingly held to be ‘for sexual service’ (za polevye zaslugi).55

Cruel humour was a mask for insecurities. Laughter – the shared, male laughter of soldiers at rest – was like a kind of whistling in the dark. As long as they joked as a group, men did not have to face their private fears. The boys, recruited straight from school, laughed to conceal their virginity, and it had been a long time since the older, married men had seen their wives. The problem was not just a matter of the passing months. It was that wartime moved at an accelerated pace. Soldiers in their thirties, who might have looked forward, in peacetime, to a last decade of youth, turned into old men overnight. A single day in a trench could age a man like a small death. Their hair turned grey, their skin dried out, the lightness (and numbers of teeth) vanished from their smiles. And then there were the injuries, truncated limbs and scars. ‘There are lots of stories of this kind on both sides,’ Ageev wrote home in 1943. ‘When officers are wounded and lying in hospital, they get a letter from their wives, who have found out about the injury and write to tell them that they are ending the marriage on the grounds of the men’s incapacity …’56

Soldiers imagined that their wives remained the women they had left, still youthful while their husbands aged. If they did not start fretting that these sirens were deceiving them, they feared rejection, knowing what they had become themselves. The faithful Taranichev was afraid that his grey hair would drive his wife, Natalya, away. It was a metaphor for all the change he had endured, the violence that fascinated and appalled him. Ageev was frank about war’s impact on his body. ‘You may ask – what about me?’ he wrote to Nina. ‘I can tell you that the desire … is more than enough, but the fear of catastrophe after two head injuries has forced me to give up the whole idea.’ He had been worried for some months about his grey hair and the premature lines of aging on his face. Now he was telling Nina he was impotent.57


The Soviet wartime myth skirts round divorce, promiscuity and venereal disease. Instead, it focuses on the pathos of waiting, drawing inspiration from Simonov’s famous poem. The images are still, reflective, but real life behind the lines was fraught with change and hardship. Simonov’s poem evokes a woman at home, patiently counting out the days, but in fact soldiers’ wives were obliged to learn new skills, to master techniques for survival and to work exceptionally long and arduous hours. Few had time to sit and count the days as they stared longingly towards the west. Few, indeed, spent much time on their own. Housing was scarce, refugees constantly at the gate, and by 1943 the family that waited back at home was likely to consist of cousins, sisters, neighbours and networks of generations.

Vitaly Taranichev’s family lived well behind the lines, in Ashkhabad, a city that was not far from the border with Iran. He had brought his wife there from her native Kiev before the war. Such grand upheavals were the lot of thousands of engineers like them, moved to the steppe – or in their case, to Turkestan – because the railways or the mines needed their skills. Natalya was installed in a house with Vitaly’s mother. If the arrangement had ever suited the two women, the war made sure that they would feud. First of all, their household lacked Vitaly, the one person they both loved and trusted. But in his place had come a string of refugees. By 1943, the house was home to Taranichev’s mother, wife and two children, to his wife’s mother, newly arrived from Ukraine, to his wife’s sister and her children, and from time to time to a range of ‘wives’ associated with Natasha’s errant brother, Fedor.

The women squabbled over everything from money to the children’s diet. They also competed for Vitaly’s material support. The officer assigned parts of his pay to them by sending money orders, payable each month. ‘I’ve sent you two money certificates for this year,’ he wrote to Natalya in April 1944. ‘One for 350 roubles a month in your name and the other for Mama for 100 roubles. I think you won’t have any objection to this arrangement, since you told me that Mama is always complaining that she has to pay all the taxes and so on … By doing this I’m giving my mother some happiness in her old age – of course, not because of 100 roubles a month, but because I’m taking care of her; you must understand me on this question.’58

The women went on falling out. Each summer, the orchard produced a valuable crop of apricots; Vitaly’s mother claimed them for herself. The children played truant from school; Vitaly’s mother accused the hard-pressed Natalya of negligence. In 1943, Natalya and her mother were reduced to selling some of Vitaly’s old clothes to raise some cash; Vitaly’s mother flew into hysterical tears and swore that they wanted to see him dead. ‘I beg you,’ Vitaly asked Natalya, ‘not to pay attention to words that were spoken in the heat of the moment. I could never believe that my mother would wish you and our children ill … Read these words of mine to her and you will see that I’m right.’ Meanwhile, there was the question of the clothes. Vitaly told his wife to sell his trousers, coat and summer things. He would come home, he said, in uniform. ‘Just keep my shoes, because it will be hard to find shoes in size 45 when the war is over.’59 He also told her to keep their hand gun. They would be grateful for that piece of foresight when the war ended.

Despite his help, and despite her own wages and the income from selling apricots, Natalya and the children suffered. ‘I’ve lost a lot of weight,’ she wrote to Vitaly in the summer of 1943. ‘I weigh 48 kilograms. We all manage with food, my love, however we can …’ It was a story any wife could have written at this time, a tale of hunger, not just making do.60 ‘The canteen at work doesn’t really feed us much,’ Natalya continued. ‘The local administration sees fit to use some kind of blended oil that gleams with all the colours of the rainbow.’61 As for the children, they were going barefoot, running wild. School had become an intermittent event, and discipline at home, with everyone preoccupied, was lax. In the Taranichev household, only the baby, Kolya, still made everybody smile. Natalya had found him some coloured bricks for his third birthday. ‘He can sit at the table and build for hours,’ she wrote to his father. ‘He says, “The Germans knocked it down, and Kolya’s going to build it.”’ The little boy was not yet three when he had learned to shout, ‘For the motherland and Stalin!’62

 Field post arriving for soldiers in the Kaluga region, 1942

Their regular letters were all the contact that Natalya and Vitaly would have for several more years. The post had not improved since 1942, when letters disappeared or turned up after months of inexplicable delay. ‘It’s such a shame that I’m getting your letters so irregularly,’ Natalya wrote in June 1943. ‘I’m getting the ones from March at the moment. But the state of our morale depends on it, doesn’t it?’ She was also concerned about the money – 650 or 750 roubles – that still had not arrived.63 But Taranichev himself was suffering as well. That June, he had received the first bundle of letters from home that he had seen in six entire months. ‘At last,’ he wrote, ‘I knew that you were alive and well, – you can’t imagine how pleased I was when they handed over these letters to me, and for three whole days I’ve been carrying them around in my pocket and re-reading them whenever I have a spare minute!’64 This time he did not mention that the long wait had sown wretched doubt in his imagination, but other letters that he wrote, including sharp rebukes to her, showed that it often did.

In some cases, a soldier hungry for news of his wife might find that he was stationed within miles of his old home. ‘There are some commanders among us, and even more of the soldiers, whose houses are 20–50 kilometres from the front line,’ Ageev wrote to his wife in 1943. ‘But they don’t have the right to go there. There are some cases where women have contrived to work their way to the front (which is absolutely forbidden) to be with their husbands, but it’s rare, and for the most part they intercept them and escort them back in convoys to face an enquiry.’65 It would be three more years, well after the victory, before Vitaly and Natalya would meet, and longer than that before they lived together again. Their children had been fatherless, effectively, for six years. It was a miracle that pre-war marriages survived at all.

The people who adapted best, as ever, were the very young. ‘Those who got married at the front,’ an old couple told Alexiyevich, ‘are the happiest people and the happiest couples.’66 The remark sounds sweet, like a happy ending, but real stories were usually grounded in loss. Kirill Kirillovich met his wife in Leningrad during the darkest months of the blockade. It was 1942, and Kirill and an older, married friend were on point duty near the Kirov theatre. A young woman caught their eye, a teenager in military uniform who carried a Nagan revolver and a gas mask. ‘I’ve lived thirty years,’ the older man said, ‘and I’ve never seen such a pretty policeman.’ Eighteen-year-old Nina was a survivor. That winter, only weeks before, her family had starved to death. Her father had lain dead inside their flat for three weeks before anyone strong enough could be found to move him. Only her youth, the instinct for life, had saved the teenager, but she thought of the choice between life and death in terms of duty. When she had made her decision, she volunteered to donate blood, which meant that she received a guaranteed ration of bread.67 The tiny quantities of food restored her strength.

What motivated Nina to volunteer for night patrol was the desire for revenge. By her own account, narrated through tears sixty years later, she was determined to see the lovely city rise again, determined to avenge her parents. She was also careless of her safety, willing to try anything. When the older man asked, she gave him her telephone number and address. Kirill, still shy at twenty-three, hung back. It was only later, back at the barracks, that he asked for the piece of paper. The couple began to meet in the city’s bombed-out streets and ruins. Both had lost parents since the war began, and neither knew where home would ever be again. In 1944, Nina gave birth to their daughter. That was also the moment when the couple decided to register their marriage. ‘I was a deputy commander,’ Kirill laughed as he told the story. ‘And even then I was ashamed because we had an illegitimate daughter.’

More tenuous were the affairs that sprang up around correspondence. From the earliest days of the war, civilians had been invited to adopt battalions of troops, to write them cheering letters and send parcels and pictures. The morale-boosting work was organized as part of everybody’s contribution to the war, but the letters were escapist on both sides, based on the private hopes that seemed so similar but which in fact related to entirely different worlds. Vladimir Anfilov was another victim of the Leningrad blockade. While he was at the front, his wife, children and two sisters died somewhere in the siege. In March 1944, he announced that he was ready to look for another confidante and friend. His letters to the new woman, the peacetime neighbour of one of the men who served with him, were full of cultural gossip, snippets about the latest film or poem, but they offered no clue about his real life. ‘Tonya,’ he wrote, ‘it’s all so gloomy and it’s best not to think about it.’ A month after their first exchange of letters, Vladimir wanted Tonya’s photograph.68 The letters grew more intimate. Tonya would be heartbroken, months later, when the friend who had introduced them told her that she was just one in a whole string of ‘wives’.

Samoilov helped a young lad called Anis’ko to write replies to the women who sent letters to him. ‘You’re literate,’ Anis’ko said. ‘You’ll know what to write.’ Samoilov ended up composing versions of the same letter to several young women at a time. It always explained that Anis’ko was alone, that his family had been killed and that he was ready to give his heart to any woman who could love him enough to trust him with her photograph. When the replies arrived, Anis’ko would pass them round for his mates to read aloud. He gave it up after the joke backfired. ‘My son,’ he heard one of his comrades reading out, ‘you’re writing to me about love, but I’m already well into my seventh decade.’69

The state was always ready with a project. The Sovinformburo and party organs were not bothered by the lack of comprehension between front-line soldiers and the people at home. They knew that they could foster an imaginary collectivity, not least because so many millions truly were working to support the front. This patriotic impulse was constantly stoked. In campaign after campaign, the state assembled parcels for the front. In February 1942, one of the grimmest months in a hard wartime winter, the citizens of Omsk despatched an entire train to the soldiers around Leningrad. Its cargo included 12,760 patriotic letters, but the twenty-four wagons were also crammed with 18,631 parcels, each of which contained meat, cold bacon, salami, smoked cheese, honey, fish and tobacco. The train was also well supplied with vodka and other spirits, and someone had added 183 watches, stationery, a toilet and 1,500 copies of a special edition of Omskaya Pravda.70

‘Gifts’ for the armed forces did not stop with consumables. Everyone, even the soldiers themselves, was under pressure to subscribe to state war loans, but some enthusiasts went further and bought weapons for the front. In 1943, a hero beekeeper stepped forward in Kursk province. His first gift to the armed forces was 750 kg of honey, but grander ambitions filled his heart. Throughout the summer of 1943, he saved the proceeds of his honey sales until he had raised the 150,000 roubles needed to buy a Yak-9 aeroplane. The new machine would bear his name, Bessmertnyi, which in Russian means ‘immortal’, and the pilot who flew it swore that it was a lucky plane.71 Another patriotic couple donated 50,000 roubles to buy a heavy tank, trained at Chelyabinsk side by side and then served in their own machine, fighting all the way to Germany. A woman called Mariya Oktyabrskaya donated her life savings when her husband died and bought a T-34. She, too, became a tank driver and was killed near Vitebsk in 1944.72 As Bessmertnyi himself put it, ‘The more I work, the more food the Red Army gets, and the nearer becomes our victory over the enemy.’73

While civilians were busily adopting troops, the soldiers were taking on a few strays of their own. The simple kinds of affection were best. Among the veterans I met at Kursk was a comparatively young man – still in his early seventies – called Vasily Andreyevich. He told me how he had joined a regiment when he was just thirteen. It was after the Germans had left, taking his mother and leaving their hut to burn. The boy, an orphan now, had run away to hide in the woods. He was there alone for three days, he remembers, maybe more. He tried to eat pine needles and rough grass. All he could think of was his hunger. And then he stumbled on a Red Army encampment. Sixty years on, his eyes grew wider as he remembered that kitchen. ‘There was an enormous cauldron,’ he told me, ‘and the men were lining up to get a ladleful of the soup from it.’ The boy joined the queue. Realizing that the men all had tin bowls, he took off his cap and held it out. By then, the cook was trying not to laugh, and all the men had realized that they had picked up a new ‘son’. The regiment ‘adopted’ him, providing a uniform and food in exchange for his work – which, naturally, involved cleaning that cauldron every day. ‘All through the war I stayed with them,’ he finished. Even when he was injured in the leg he travelled on, refusing to retire to a field hospital. As he recalled, ‘I could not bear to be separated from that kitchen.’

The cook arrives with soldiers’ soup

The adoption of ‘sons of the regiment’ was so haphazard that no one can say how many children were involved. One estimate suggests that as many as 25,000 children between the ages of six and sixteen marched with the army at some stage during the war.74Some were mere infants. The men took pity on them and treated them as substitutes for the families they missed, if not as mascots. Not all were sheltered from real combat. Some rode in tanks, others hefted rifles or learned to fire field guns.75 It was the only schooling they would get. There were no classes, no fellow children to join them in reading or learning to write. Their bed-time stories were the men’s own tales of heroes and magical knights. Many were already hardened fighters when the army took them on. David Samoilov met a fifteen-year-old called Vanka who joined his regiment from a group of partisans. When Samoilov’s men captured a German prisoner, Vanka asked to escort the man to the compound where some other prisoners were being held. ‘He led him away for a few steps,’ Samoilov wrote, ‘and then he shot him. Vanka could not bear to see a living Fritz. He was avenging his murdered family. Let God judge him, not people.’76

The children almost certainly helped to sustain the men. It was a relief to take care of someone after months of military harshness and routine. If not a child, there might well be a horse or cow – this army marched with a whole range of barnyard stock.77Samoilov’s unit developed a craze for puppies. While they were camped in Poland in 1944, their commanding officer was called away for two weeks. He returned to find the regiment boiling with dogs. Samoilov, too, had his own mutt. When it slept beside him, he wrote, his feeling was ‘almost paternal’. During the soldiers’ working day, the dogs ran wild, barking at anyone who wandered near the camp. The commanding officer, Captain Bogomolov, was appalled. He gave the men twenty-four hours to dispose of every canine in the camp. That afternoon, a makeshift dog show took place in the woods. The price was a litre of vodka for each puppy, and every one was sold.78 Perhaps the locals knew that other regiments would buy them back. A photograph from 1944 shows a tank crew smiling from their cockpit as their mascot, a young dog, grins out as broadly as the men.


The era of front-line counter-insurgency truly arrived as the Red Army thundered west. The Soviets were now deep in territory that the enemy had ruled. Almost every able-bodied male in these regions was suspect. The public, the people in Moscow, thought of these as liberated populations, and it was certainly the case that millions saw the return of Soviet power, after the Nazis, as a true deliverance. Pictures showed smiling children greeting tough Red Army men, while ruined streets in places like Smolensk and Kiev thronged with adults in hungry, grateful crowds. On the ground, however, the agents of dictatorship nurtured their doubts. From 1942, a network of camps was established near the front where anyone the NKVD deemed to be suspect could be detained, even former soldiers whose skills were sorely needed in the ranks.79

 Tank drivers pose with their mascot, 1944

There were two basic policies towards suspected enemies of Soviet power. The first was armed repression. NKVD border troops, backed up by units like OSMBON, hunted and killed known fascist agents and guerrillas in the borderlands from 1943. The conventions on prisoners of war seldom applied.80 Meanwhile, operatives employed by SMERSh gave themselves the task of ‘filtering’ remaining suspect adults in the captured zones. The whey-faced policemen held court in ramshackle front-line camps, sifting through information that included the tales local people told. Suspects had to prove themselves innocent; in this appalling theatre the burden of suspicion fell on anyone who was not dead. Ex-soldiers, for instance, customarily had to provide three witnesses to attest that they were neither deserters, collaborators nor cowards.81 But, though its operatives were indeed looking for spies and enemies, the most important – if unstated – task for SMERSh and its allies was to create a new order. Filtration, like terror, sent a message to the lawless populations of the battlefields. Soviet habits of discipline and fear were set to be rebuilt. Whatever they had thought or done in the anarchic summers after 1941, the people’s loyalty was now owed to one leader and one system of thought.

The collapse of all forms of government in the front-line regions had been total. For months, the Nazis had been fighting for their lives. Even before the catastrophe of probable defeat, too, they had always been an occupying army, not to mention one whose goal was genocide. As they retreated, burning buildings and supplies, they left a wasteland in their wake. The Red Army, as it advanced, moved too fast and was too engaged with military affairs to care about the law. A vast belt of liberated territory on both banks of the Dnepr became the domain of armed gangs. In some places, the partisans had been the only effective government for months. In others, bandits or guerrillas ruled, sometimes under the leadership of onetime officers of the Red Army.82 The security organs set themselves the task of sifting the true patriots from all the rest. Demobilized partisans, the people best equipped to assess local stories from the party’s point of view, played a prominent role in the purging process. As one of these, a weary, soft-voiced survivor called ‘Uncle Mitya’, remarked to Alexander Werth, ‘We shall be merciless with traitors now. It’s no use crying in wartime.’83

Dictatorship was reimposed – slowly – using the bullet or the punishment battalion. In each region’s chaotic network of government offices, a new structure of party rule was hammered into place. Here, counter-intelligence worked beside Communist Party officials, since the party always assessed its members’ records for itself. Communist survivors who were deemed suspect or even negligent were purged. Some were drafted at once into the Red Army. The rest were transferred to the Gulag. Later in the war, they would be joined by the thousands of communist troops who had grown tired or critical as the Red Army crossed into the capitalist world.84

The group at the top of SMERSh’s wanted list, for now, was the Russian Liberation Army (ROA). This was a fascist-sponsored force composed mainly of ethnic Russians and identified with General Andrei Vlasov. The general, a former star in the Red Army, had turned traitor when he was captured on the Volkhov Front in July 1942. He came to symbolize the ragtag of desperate prisoners and disgruntled anti-communists who hoped to save themselves by working for the Germans. In 1943, partisans near Smolensk reported that leaflets bearing Vlasov’s portrait and that of his deputy, Malyshkin, had been dropped in the area, and there were rumours that Vlasov himself had visited Smolensk in July 1943.85 Moskvin encountered ‘Vlasovites’ when his group was surrounded and attacked in April 1943,86 but the term was a catch-all for the armed bands that the Germans liked to use when they destroyed partisan groups. By labelling local collaborators, including anyone who was fed up with partisan extortion, as ‘Vlasovites’, SMERSh fostered rumours of a larger and more sinister conspiracy. It was a technique that had always served the secret police well.

The real Vlasov army, forlorn and poorly equipped, was sent off to France and southern Europe in the late summer of 1943.87 Vlasov’s German paymasters no longer trusted his troops on Soviet soil. Even before that, the general had not been responsible for every leaflet that called on Soviet citizens to resist Stalin’s rule. With or without him, a string of shadowy ‘Liberation Armies’ had been at work in Ukraine and the western provinces of Russia throughout 1943. There were ‘Russian committees’ and ‘People’s Parties of Russia’ in many occupied cities, each working, under German supervision, to undermine Soviet habits of thought. They revived long-forgotten flags and colours, promised (tardily and desperately) to dissolve collective farms, and swore that communism would end. One even used the letters ‘SSSR’, the initials of the Soviet Union, for its own masthead. But in this case they stood for a different slogan: ‘Smert’ Stalina spaset Rossiyu’ – ‘Stalin’s death will save Russia.’88 The whole thing was convenient for SMERSh. Wherever there were real traitors, there could be convincing arrests.

Genuine Vlasovites, in fact, were thinner on the ground than collaborators and hiwis, and neither was as numerous as the rabble of small-time opportunists, local bosses, deserters and crooks. Ideology, as Stalin and Hitler defined it, was less of a priority for wartime populations than the fight for life. Given the choice, large numbers of people might have preferred to escape from dictatorship altogether, and this impulse found reflection in the appeal of nationalist bands. These had been active in some regions since the war began. Some were large and even, for a time, successful, imposing a kind of frontier law in the districts they controlled. In 1944, the most powerful guerrilla group in Ukraine was the UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.89 This movement, thought to number 20,000 members by the end of the war, scored a notable coup in February 1944, when one of its detachments shot and fatally wounded the talented Soviet general Nikolai Vatutin.90 But the UPA’s support would be strongest in the western, recently annexed regions of Ukraine. The history of intermarriage on the Soviet side of the Dnepr, together with its tradition of loyalty to Moscow, ensured that nationalism in this region posed little threat.91 It was anarchy, not organized disloyalty, that disrupted the Red Army’s supply lines and support troops at this stage. Apart from arrests, the best remedy for that was forced conscription. People who served under the red flag, too, could not be recruited so easily by other gangs.

In October 1943, a former soldier called Andreev experienced this form of liberation at first hand. The letter that he wrote to his mother, five pages in length, has the quality of a last testament. It was also the first news he had sent home since he was taken prisoner in August 1941. Back then, Andreev’s unit had been surrounded by tanks, but in the general chaos of the time, he had escaped from the escorting German guards and hidden in a village called Annovka. There he married Oksana, the daughter of the woman who was hiding him. Their own daughter, Nina, was born in 1943. What prompted him to write and tell his mother all this news was the approach of the Red Army. ‘There was a huge battle here today,’ he explained, ‘and I, Oksana and Ninochka had to cower in a hut with all the old people. They say that a military commission is coming here, and that it will examine all the former prisoners of war. The fit ones will be taken for the front, which means that instead of going home I may end up in the front line.’92Andreev passed the tests that SMERSh set up, but he was unfit, untrained and without equipment. He died a few weeks later on the banks of the Dnepr.

Detachments of partisans posed different problems. By this stage, many were working as adjuncts of the Red Army. It was they who disrupted German supply lines before the campaigns at Kursk, Orel and Kharkov. They also helped regular troops to capture the potential informers – ‘tongues’ – who might betray the enemy’s planned manoeuvres. Partisans could send reports from deep behind German lines, informing Moscow about training bases, repair shops and even German pigeon coops.93 Moskvin’s diary for 1943 reads like a list of military engagements, each with its own objective. ‘Every day we have carried out some kind of action against the enemy,’ he wrote in April. Their usual targets were the railways and roads. It was like army life again. The men were formed into battalions, each including about ten explosives groups. They were becoming expert in laying and in clearing mines. At the end of a ‘month of uninterrupted battle’, Moskvin felt ‘the same creative sense that I had when we destroyed the Vitebsk aerodrome in 1941, except that then our tragedy was about to begin’.94

The problem was that renewed battle meant increased numbers of casualties. ‘I am writing for posterity that partisans undergo inhuman suffering,’ Moskvin noted on 25 March.95 The losses could only be made up by recruiting new people. That spring and summer, and especially after Kursk, the task became easier as ‘1943 partisans’ – peasants who saw which way the war was going and resolved to save themselves – made their way to the dugouts and the camps. The Grishin regiment, which included Moskvin’s own battalion, increased in size from about 600 to over 2,000 members by the late summer of 1943.96 All these people had to be retrained. There was the usual rough military drill, including target practice using captured guns. Recruits also needed to learn ‘equanimity in the face of death’ and to combat ‘cowardice, panic and whining’.97 But there were other types of lesson to be learned as well. There was a cultural gulf between the older generation of partisans, many of whom had once belonged, before 1941, to the élite of working-class soldiers and officers, and these young village toughs.98 ‘We have to strengthen the discipline of the whole group,’ Moskvin wrote. ‘We have to improve their relations with the local population, not allowing cases of coarseness and shameful behaviour by Soviet citizens.’

The answer was an arid, brutal discipline. In preparation for the tank battle at Kursk, Moskvin’s battalion was ordered to make a raid on the station at Chaus. When it was over, Moskvin catalogued the dead and injured. Three people had been killed outright and eighteen suffered wounds, among whom three would later die, including the battalion commander, Makarov, and Moskvin’s own friend, Ivan Rakhin. One of the women who went on the raid, a medical officer called Pasha, was critically wounded in the arm. The only way to save her was to amputate the limb, an operation that was carried out with vicious home-brewed spirit for an anaesthetic. They poured it neat into her throat. ‘The woman’s fortitude is striking,’ Moskvin observed, but ‘we took 140 rifles and four machine guns … as well as a new radio’. It was a strange economy of war. Strangest of all, the raid also produced a quantity of French champagne and cognac, tobacco and Havana cigars.99 These would have been outrageous prizes for a band of outlaws in an earth dugout, but they were not the ones who got to taste the wine. Moskvin’s battalion was under strict command. The bosses claimed all trophies for the state.

As the Red Army crashed on to Orel, conditions in the woods of western Russia worsened. The mood in Moskvin’s regiment was tense, but its overall leader, Grishin, seemed to withdraw into a dream world of his own. ‘Only my deep respect for his talent makes me so tolerant,’ Moskvin observed. The retreating German army posed new threats to partisans whose territory had up till then been deep behind the front. Grishin’s instructions were to travel east and join the Red Army as it approached Smolensk, but within days of setting out, he and his men were encircled. They had not reached their own front line. Instead, they faced the vengeful hatred of an enemy that was itself in flight. By 16 October 1943, Moskvin was sure that he would die. ‘I have one main desire,’ he wrote miserably. ‘If it is going to be death, then let it be quick, not with a serious injury, which would be the most frightening of all.’100 By then, as he added, the men had already eaten all their horses. As winter approached, and despite all the triumph to the east, they were starving to death.

The blockade lasted for about three weeks. It was Grishin who enforced Stalinist order. ‘We are encircled,’ he wrote on 11 October. ‘The exits from the forest are blocked. You can hear for yourself that the front is approaching … Therefore, we must hold our positions. Retreat would mean extinction. There must be no cowards or panic-raisers among us. Every honest patriot of our fatherland must shoot such people on the spot.’101 ‘In the last few days life has lost its overall meaning,’ Moskvin wrote on 17 October. He was coming close to breakdown. ‘My instinct for self-preservation isn’t working the way it used to. It’s not gone altogether, but it’s become really dull, like a headache after a good dose of aspirin.’102 These thoughts remained private, for he was a political officer and it was his job to maintain morale. The feelings of less motivated men are clear enough. ‘For leaving his post without orders,’ runs an order dated 13 October 1943, ‘for cowardice, for being panicky and for nonfulfilment of orders, Squad Leader Bacharov is to be shot.’103

Moskvin was destined to escape. On 18 October, just after his most desolate diary entry, he and his men received orders to break the enemy blockade. It was an almost suicidal act. As they rushed at the German lines they were defenceless targets. Fifteen people were killed within a few seconds; one for each metre, Moskvin noted, that they ran. The losses were enormous, but the regiment was free. Its orders were to move south-west, not east, to evade German fire. The manoeuvre was conducted under military discipline, but the group received no help from the Red Army. Moskvin observed, without comment, that it was but a dozen miles away.


The Red Army’s advance provided many opportunities for Stalin to demonstrate his policy on unity and brotherhood. By the end of 1943, almost the entire region of Ukraine was in Soviet hands, but one prize still eluded recapture. Hitler himself was determined to hold on to the Crimea. It was not simply that the peninsula represented a strategic gateway to the oilfields of Romania; it was also a place of striking beauty. The Germans had declared it to be a Black Sea version of Gibraltar, their second homeland, as soon as they had captured it. During their two-year occupation of the peninsula, they had even planned a direct highway from Berlin to Yalta, and there were rumours that Hitler had chosen the seaside palace at Livadiya as his eventual retirement home.104 With both sides set on taking it, the Crimea witnessed fighting as bitter as any in the entire war, but the aftermath, for thousands of the peninsula’s inhabitants, would be crueller still. When Stalin talked about the Soviet people and their great collective epic, there were already tens of thousands who would never share in the rewards.

The liberation of the Crimea was accomplished in the space of a few weeks from April 1944. The Soviet military operation, a co-ordinated strike from both the north and east, was bold, effective and prodigal of human life. It was also physically gruelling. As Alexander Werth observed, the men who headed the invasion from the north, across the grim and fog-bound Sivash marshes, had to ‘spend hours waist-deep or shoulder-deep in the icy and very salt water of the Sivash – the salt eating into every pore and causing almost unbearable pain’ as they laid the first pontoons across the inlet.105 But once they reached the firm Crimean soil, their progress was faster. Within two days the first Red Army troops had reached the capital, Simferopol, which lies at the heart of the Crimea’s inland steppe. Meanwhile, a second group, starting near Kerch, began its rapid westward drive along the coast road to the south, securing Kerch itself and then the port of Feodosia. From there, their way lay round the pointed crags that shelter the resort of Koktebel, and beyond that, passing terraces of vineyards and sunlit forests of beech, they would speed through the Tatar fishing village of Gurzuf, through Yalta, Livadiya, Alubka and – eventually – to the outskirts of Sevastopol itself.

It was spring in the Crimea. The place was an exotic paradise after a winter rotting on the steppe. ‘I spent the May Day holiday in a wonderful way,’ Vitaly Taranichev’s brother-in-law, Fedor, wrote home. ‘In the first place, for fulfilling the military duties that my commanders assigned to me I have been awarded the Order of the Red Star, and secondly it was jolly because of all the wine we drank and the great company.’ He was writing a full week after the party, but he added that ‘I will only be in a sober enough condition to work and to continue with the rout of our enemies tomorrow.’106 The wine was not just local stuff. Since 1941, high-ranking German officers had often spent their leave in the Crimea. To help them to relax, their staff had imported the best products from Alsace, Champagne and the Rhine. No one had time, in the emergency, to pack it up. When they arrived in places that the Germans had vacated days before, Red Army officers like young Fedor could drown in vintage Riesling if they chose. Like many other Soviet troops on this campaign, the young man vowed to make the Crimea his future home.

However, this was not a holiday. The port of Sevastopol remained in the enemy’s hands. As each mile of hinterland fell to the Red Army, more refugee detachments of the Wehrmacht and its Romanian allies arrived in the port city. At the beginning of May, the commander of the German Seventeenth Army in Sevastopol, Generaloberst Edwin Jaenicke, expressed doubts that his troops were in a condition to withstand the predicted Soviet blow. He was replaced by a more loyal Nazi, Karl Allmedinger. Hitler had ordered that there was to be no question of surrendering the port. It had held out for 250 days at the beginning of the war and now it was commanded to sustain a second siege. The city’s readiness for this would be tested at once. On 5 May, two days after Jaenicke’s removal, the Soviets attacked.

The first onslaught came from the north. On 7 May, a second wave advanced towards the famous Sapun ridge, whose name evokes the foaming sweat of horses galloping to reach the higher ground.107 Less than a hundred years before, when British and French forces had faced Todleben’s Russians in the Crimean War, the valley all around had echoed to the sound of cannon fire, the smoke and dust of battle breaking for a second now and then to show a glint of gold braid or a flash of steel. This time the landscape trembled to the shudder of Katyushas and the drone of planes. After the mortars came the men. Some were professionals and some mere boys, some communists and some, the blighted, shtrafniki. But for the most part, they were nothing like the ill-equipped, half-trained conscripts of 1941. The troops of 1944 knew their business, and for this campaign they were well supplied. Soviet industry had filled their ammunition belts, American lend-lease provided them with transport and tinned food. Among the corpses, when the scavengers came by, there would be pickings of watches, knives, pens and Gillette razor blades. Even their boots, these days, were often better than the German ones.108

The port of Sevastopol held less than a week. A more realistic leadership might have evacuated the remaining German troops well in advance of the collapse, but Hitler still refused to cede his prize. Now the frightened, injured and leaderless men who remained in the city panicked before the Soviet advance. Some managed to cram into the few ships that were putting out towards the west, while others surrendered with their backs to the ruined harbour. The rest fled down the coast towards the ancient settlement of Kherson. Its cliff-top ruins would become a killing field. The Soviets trapped the survivors on the limestone rocks and blasted them with every kind of fire. Those who were not cut down in the grey dust drowned when they leapt into the sea. Werth, who arrived within days of the last battle, described the place as ‘gruesome’. ‘All the area in front of the Earth Wall and beyond was ploughed up by thousands of shells,’ he wrote, ‘and scorched by the fire of Katyusha mortars … The ground was littered with hundreds of German rifles, bayonets, and other arms and ammunition.’ It was also ‘scattered with thousands of pieces of paper – photographs, snapshots, passports, maps, private letters – and even a volume of Nietzsche carried to the end by some Nazi superman’.109Estimates vary, but it is likely that at least 25,000 people perished or were captured in this one defeat.110

The liberation of the Crimea was complete by 13 May, but there was one group of Soviet citizens who would not celebrate for long. The Tatars, a people who could claim the Scythians, Goths and Greeks among their ancestors, had lived and farmed in the Crimea for at least 600 years.111 Russian settlement, which dated from the eighteenth century, had never brought them luck. Their loyalties, like their language, their architecture and their easygoing Muslim faith, were more inclined towards the Turks of the Black Sea’s opposite shore. Like peasants everywhere, the farmers among them also hated the collectives, and in 1941, some of them saw the invasion as a chance to throw off the unwanted yoke of Soviet rule. Though many thousands of ethnic Tatars fought in the Red Army, a number of those who remained behind welcomed the Germans as liberators, or at least as an alternative to Stalinist dictatorship. Meanwhile, a small number of the Tatar soldiers held as prisoners of war in German camps had taken the only route to survival, as they saw it, and joined the anti-Soviet Tatar legion.112 Just one week after the rout at Kherson, the entire Tatar population of the Crimea would pay the price.

That night, 18 May 1944, thousands of Tatar families were woken in the small hours before sunrise by a knock on the door. When they answered, they found that their visitors were armed. While the Red Army had been clearing the last fascists from the Crimea, tens of thousands of NKVD soldiers had been brought into the rural settlements and coastal villages where Tatars lived. Now these police were giving orders to pack quickly, to collect the children and to be ready outside, on the road, in fifteen minutes. Many Tatars had seen the Nazis doing much the same in 1941, when local Jews were rounded up, each carrying a precious cardboard case of clothes and food. ‘We all thought we were going to die,’ survivors of this other night recall. The irony was that this time the men with the guns were Soviet fellow citizens.

Just under 200,000 people, or 47,000 families, most of them headed by women or older men, were herded to the stations and locked into cattle trucks that night.113 The process was efficient, quick. Indeed, the NKVD troops already had experience. The wagons that were used to take the Tatars east had just returned from other human transport missions – most recently, the deportation of the mountain peoples of Chechnya, Ingushetiya and the autonomous republic of Kabardino-Balkariya.114 The process, organized by NKVD chief Lavrenti Beria, amounted to a smooth routine. The trucks, as witnesses observed, were still smeared with the faeces and dried blood of the last consignments of deportees.115 There would be stops along the way – if the passengers were lucky – to bundle out the bodies of those who died from heat, thirst or the typhus that soon raged within the crowded cars. About 8,000 deportees are thought to have perished in the air-less, stinking wagons. The rest would have to build new lives from nothing when they arrived in central Asia. They would find little welcome there. Their new hosts, fellow Muslims as well as fellow Soviets, would accept, for a while, the tale that all Tatars, as a people, were traitors.

Some of the deportees were genuine collaborators; some had indeed helped to support the new Nazi regime.116 But many had been dedicated to the Soviet cause. Among the latter were numbers of partisans, including the political officers Ahmetov and Isaev, both of whom, as members of the 5th partisan brigade, had been helping the Red Army as recently as April 1944. At least four Heroes of the Soviet Union, all of them decorated for their part in the Soviet landings at Kerch in November 1943, were also in the trucks.117So were the wives, parents and children of soldiers who were still serving at the front, to say nothing of the families of combatants who had died. While Russian soldiers, including Fedor Kuznetsov, looked forward to new lives in the Crimea, delighted to have found, through army life, a place where they could thrive after the war, the Tatars in the same army would soon find that they had no home.

‘There were thirty-four different nationalities in the forest,’ a partisan who spent her war in the Crimea remembered. ‘Most of them were Russians, of course, but there were Ukrainians, Belorussians, Crimean Tatars, Greeks, Armenians, Georgians, Slovaks, Czechs and Spanish veterans of the civil war. We made absolutely no distinction between them all.’ The citizenship that she assigned to herself, and that she still honours, was ‘Soviet’. It was the label that made greatest sense in the political universe in which she lived, the name that conjured dreams of brotherhood, equality and proletarian justice for all. It also matched the government’s official line, the propaganda of the Sovinformburo. But by the war’s end, 1,600,000 Soviet members of minority ethnic groups had been singled out, tarred with a racist brush and deported – in the Soviet Union’s name – from the lands in which their ancestors had lived. Within a few years – just after the peace – about a third were dead.

Notes – 7 May Brotherhood Be Blessed

1 Glantz and House, When Titans Clashed, p. 180.

2 Stalin, O velikoi otechestvennoi voine, pp. 117–20. In his assessment of the war economy, Richard Overy, among others, follows Stalin in conceding that only a centrally planned system of this type could have delivered the levels of output needed to sustain the Soviet war effort. See Overy, p. 227. This may be true, but it neither vindicates the brutality of the system nor establishes Stalin as the Soviet Union’s wartime saviour.

3 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1405, 50.

4 Ibid., 109–10.

5 Po obe storony fronta, p. 86.

6 V. I. Ermolenko, Voennyi dnevnik starshego serzhanta (Belgorod, 2000), p. 37.

7 Van Creveld, p. 83.

8 Rodina, 1991, nos. 6–7, p. 53.

9 The poem is ‘Remember, Alyosha’, trans. Lyubov Yakovleva, Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry, pp. 619–21.

10 On SMERSh, which was established on 13 May 1942 and was independent of the NKVD, see Viktor Suvorov (pseud.), Inside the Soviet Army (New York, 1982), p. 240.

11 The word comes from the German Hilfswillige, or volunteer helper.

12 On the oppression of labour battalions, see Temkin, p. 53. On hiwis, and their confusion with Vlasovites, see Kopelev, p. 98.

13 Samoilov, ‘Lyudi’, part 1, pp. 52 and 67.

14 Glantz and House, p. 180.

15 TsDNISO, 6/1/1484, 173 (refers to Smolensk region in April 1944).

16 Belov, p. 465.

17 Ermolenko, p. 36.

18 Samoilov, ‘Lyudi’, part 2, p. 56.

19 Po obe storony fronta, p. 99.

20 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1454, 52.

21 GASO, 2482/1/1, 35.

22 Snetkova, p. 38.

23 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1454, 107.

24 Leave was sometimes used as a reward for outstanding bravery, but it was usually granted only after a man was so badly wounded that he would no longer be needed. At the time of Stalingrad (9 October 1942), provision was made for more regular leave (especially for officers), but in practice it was treated as a reward, not a right. TsAMO, 1128/1/4, 32.

25 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1189, 3.

26 See above, p. 127.

27 Pis’ma s fronta i na front, pp. 95–6.

28 Ibid., p. 97.

29 GAKO, 3322/10/21, 296.

30 GAKO, 3322/10/22, 2, 9 and 10.

31 GAOPIKO, 1/1/3478, 7. The CC resolution is reprinted in the same file, ll. 85 ff.

32 TsDNISO, 6/1/1697, 190.

33 GAKO, 3322/10/46, 30 and 41.

34 Pis’ma s fronta i na front, 98. A pood weighs about thirty-six pounds. Even if they supplemented their diet with potatoes, Masha’s family would get through a pood of flour in two months.

35 TsDNISO, 6/1/1695, 144, 219.

36 RGVA, 32925/1/515, 70.

37 TsDNISO, 8/2/109, 15.

38 TsDNISO, 6/1/1484, 33 and 39.

39 See, for example, GAKO, R 3322/10/1, which defines their role in February 1943, following the city’s liberation.

401 Garrard and Garrard, Bones, p. 155.

41 This preference, which survivors attest to, was also noted by local police and the officials in charge of trophies.

42 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1406, 52.

43 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1208, 71.

44 TsAMO, 136/24416/24, 275.

45 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1494, 48.

46 Stroki, opalennye voiny, p. 182.

47 RGVA, 32925/1/514, 47.

48 Yu. N. Afanas’ev (Ed.), Drugaya voina (Moscow, 1996), p. 433. This source claims that the comparable increase among British troops was 200 per cent.

49 Armstrong, p. 164.

50 For an example, see RGVA 32925/1/515, 267.

51 GAKO, R3322/9/93, 15.

52 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1454, 78.

53 Alexiyevich, p. 65.

54 Pennington, Wings, p. 67.

55 Temkin, p. 202.

56 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1494, 48.

57 Ibid., 78–9.

58 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1405, 100.

59 Ibid., 64–5.

60 Hunger was especially severe in the countryside, as rural people often had no right to ration cards. The theft of food anywhere in the Soviet Union was punishable by death. See William Moskoff, The Bread of Affliction, pp. 108–9.

61 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1404, 7.

62 Ibid., 8 and 5.

63 Ibid., 3.

64 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1405, 17.

65 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1454, 61.

66 Alexiyevich, p. 79.

67 On blood donors, see Overy, p. 227.

68 RGASPI-M, 33/1/493, 1–6.

69 Samoilov, ‘Lyudi’, part 1, p. 70.

70 RGASPI, 17/125/80, 3.

71 GAKO, 5166/1/24, 4–7.

72 Reina Pennington, ‘Women in Combat in the Red Army,’ in Addison and Calder (Eds), Time to Kill, p. 257.

73 GAKO, 5166/1/24, 4.

74 Reese, The Soviet Military Experience, p. 110.

75 Leonid Piterskii, ‘Deti na voine,’ Istochnik, 1994, no. 1, 54–60.

76 Samoilov, ‘Lyudi’, part 2, p. 79.

77 Soldiers seem to crave the companionship of animals. On other armies, see Keegan, p. 242. On other front-line dogs, see Bykov, Ataka s khody, p. 189.

78 Samoilov, ‘Lyudi’, part 2, pp. 68–70.

79 V. A. Zolotarev, G. N. Sevost’yanov et al. (Eds), Velikaya otechestvennaya voina, 1941–1945 (Moscow, 1999), book 4, pp. 189–90.

80 For figures relating to Ukraine, see Weiner, p. 173.

81 Velikaya otechestvennaya voina, 4, p. 190.

82 One such band, Leshchinskii’s, was liquidated near Smolensk on the grounds that it had refused to ‘accept the leadership of the Communist Party’. GAOPIKO, 8/1/36, 14–16.

83 Werth, p. 792.

84 Drugaya voina, pp. 318–9; the latter fate awaited Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for instance, and also Lev Kopelev. See Chapter 9, p. 268.

85 TsDNISO, 8/1/9, 10.

86 GASO, 1500/1/1, 42.

87 Overy, pp. 130–1.

88 RGASPI, 17/125/94, 34–6; 17/125/165, 46 and 46r.

89 Early in the war, Ukrainian nationalists had worked with the German army, since both appeared to share the goal of driving out the Bolsheviks. The shaky alliance was already in tatters by 1942.

90 Stalin’s Generals, pp. 296–7; Overy, p. 311. It was in revenge for acts like this that suspected guerrilla nationalists, as well as prominent collaborators, would be hanged in public in Kiev in 1944.

91 See Weiner, pp. 248–50.

92 RGASPI-M, 33/1/73, 1–5.

93 See the report reproduced in Armstrong, p. 735.

94 GASO, 1500/1/1, 40.

95 Ibid., 39.

96 Armstrong, p. 731.

97 GASO, 1500/1/1, p. 44.

98 See Armstrong, p. 45.

99 GASO, 1500/1/1, 46.

100 Ibid., 52.

101 Cited in Armstrong, p. 738.

102 GASO, 1500/1/1, 52.

103 Cited in Armstrong, p. 737.

104 Werth, p. 827.

105 Ibid., p. 830.

106 RGASPI-M, 33/1/1406, 57.

107 As the guides tell you when you walk up to the ridge, ‘Sapun’derives from the Turkish word for soap.

108 Excavations in today’s Crimea still bring the bodies of soldiers to light. As a man who spends his life exhuming such corpses told me, the Soviet dead were much better equipped, by 1944, than those of the Germans they were fighting.

109 Werth, pp. 838–9.

110 Ibid., p. 835; Erickson, Berlin, p. 195.

111 Brian Glyn Williams, ‘The Exile and Repatriation of the Crimean Tatars’, Journal of Contemporary History, 37:3 (July 2002), pp. 325–7.

112 Most of the Tatars in the so-called ‘Tatar legion’, which anyway amounted to no more than seven battalions by the autumn of 1943, were from the Volga, not the Crimea. See S. I. Drobyazko, ‘Sovetskie grazhdane v ryadakh vermakhta’ in the essay collection, Velikaya otechestvennaya voina v otsenke molodykh (Moscow, 1997), p. 128.

113 The figure that most sources quote is N. F. Bugai’s estimate of just over 191,000 people, or 47,000 families. See P. Polyan, Ne po svoei vole (Moscow, 2001), p. 126; Williams, p. 334.

114 On the deportations from the Caucasus, see Polyan, pp. 116–27.

115 Williams, p. 333.

116 For a discussion of Tatar ‘guilt’, see Alan Fisher, The Crimean Tatars (Stanford, CA, 1978), pp. 153–64.

117 Ibid., p. 166.

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