Ivan's War

Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

Catherine Merridale

Picador

Ivan's War
ONE
MARCHING WITH REVOLUTIONARY STEP
 
 
Whenever people think that they will have to fight a war, they try to picture what it will be like. Their stories seldom correspond to reality, but forecasting is not the purpose. Instead, the idea that the boys will soon be back or that the enemy will be destroyed with surgical precision, like the myth that it will all be over by Christmas, serves to foster a confident, even optimistic, mood at times when gloom might be more natural. In 1938, as the momentum for large-scale war gathered, the citizens of Stalin's empire, like Europeans everywhere, attempted to allay their fears with comforting tales. The Soviet vision of future conflict was destined to inspire a generation of wartime volunteers, but the images were created deliberately, by a clique of leaders whose ideology had set them on the path to international hostilities. The favored medium of communication was the cinema. The epic struggle of utopia and backwardness played out in moving pictures, black and white, with stirring music swelling on the soundtrack. At other moments, Soviet people opened their newspapers to columns of portentous diplomatic reportage; their country was preparing for battle. Butthough the news available to citizens was full of threat, films were designed to inculcate the view that the people's vanguard, the Red Army, was certain to triumph, and very quickly, too.
The greatest epic of the time was Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, an anti-Fascist parable of Russian victory over German invaders. Although it is set in the thirteenth century, in the age of Slavic princes and Teutonic knights, Eisenstein's great spectacle, released in 1938, makes direct reference to the politics of the 1930s, even to the point of adding swastikas to some of the Teutonic knights' shields and standards. The message was not one that Soviet audiences, attuned to every nuance of state-controlled propaganda, would miss. For all its deliberate sermonizing, however, the film, which boasted a musical score by Sergei Prokofiev, endured as a classic of Soviet cinema. Inferior productions with similar themes stood the test of time less well. But in the 1930s their audiences were rapt. And while, on the surface at least, Alexander Nevsky was set in the deep past, for moviegoers who preferred to look forward, another film, Efim Dzigan's If There Is War Tomorrow, also released in 1938, foretold Russia's victory in the face of a future invasion, the one that kept people awake at nights.
Efim Dzigan set out to reassure. The impact of his hour-long film was created by blending fictitious action with clips of genuine newsreel, splicing documentary footage into an unfolding fantasy of effortless victory. The message--resolute and stoical but also full of hope--was strengthened by the repetition of a musical refrain with words by the popular songwriter Vasily Lebedev-Kumach.1 If There Is War Tomorrow struck so live a chord with Soviet audiences that they went on watching it even after the real war began. By the winter of 1941, the invader had overrun a third of Soviet territory. The planes that droned across Dzigan's black-and-white screen had been destroyed, the tanks burned out, the brave soldiers corralled in prison camps. It was no longer possible to dream that this war would be over soon. That winter, the audiences crowding into old schoolrooms and empty huts included evacuees from Ukraine and Smolensk, people whose homes were now in German hands. Huddled together, relying on one another's breath for warmth, they needed patience as the hand-cranked dynamo was turned. All the same, a spell seemed to be cast.2 This film was not about the war butabout faith. That faith, and the images that sustained it, was part of what defined the generations that would bear the brunt of Russia's war. In the terrible years ahead, people would hum the music from the film to keep their spirits up. As they marched across dusty steppe, as they strummed guitars by the light of a campfire, it would be Lebedev-Kumach's song that soldiers often sang.
The film's action begins in a fairground, probably the newly opened Gorky Park, Moscow's Park of Culture and Rest. The Kremlin towers are visible in the distance, each topped with a glowing electric star. It is night, but the city is full of jollity, with Ferris wheels and fireworks and young people strolling about with ice creams in their hands. This is the socialist paradise, and it is a place of well-earned leisure, happy couples, brightly colored food. There is an innocence about it, crimeless, sexless, blandly without sin. In this land, Stalin and his loyal aides do all the worrying so that the children of the revolution can be free. But their freedom is under threat. The film cuts to the Soviet border, where Fascist troops, antlike, are climbing into tanks. There is no chance that we will sympathize with them. These are not the seductive species of villain but absurd buffoons. Their officers wear large mustaches, look pompous, and move with the bowlegged gait of cavalrymen. The infantrymen crawl, the airmen stoop. Throughout the action, they speak German, but they are more like cartoon Prussians from a children's book than genuine leather-booted Nazis. Even the swastikas on their helmets and collars are slightly eccentric. This is picture-book Fascism, not the real thing.
The invasion takes place at night. It could be frightening, and we may briefly worry for the stout young woman who is making soup a stone's throw from the front, but border guards hold the aggressor at bay. Our housewife joins the men, throwing off her apron and taking her place in the line of skillful gunners, proving that patriots can turn their hands to anything. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of a series of perfidious attacks. The next comes from the air. The Fascist biplanes buzz with menace, but danger is averted for a second time. Soviet planes, a fleet of shining new machines, take to the skies, and at this point the audience should recognize the aces who have rushed to pilot them. There is Babushkin, the hero of an arctic rescue missionseveral years before, and Vodopyanov and Gromov, star aviators, their names printed across the screen in case we did not manage to identify their faces right away. The 1930s were the age of heroes, and pilots were the true elite. In a scene whose irony would become apparent three years later, when the Luftwaffe mounted its devastating attacks of June and July 1941, the famous aces run audacious raids into the Fascists' lair, destroying enemy aircraft on the ground and flying home without a single loss.
And now it is the Red Army's own turn. The volunteers stream in from every corner of the Soviet land. There is an old man with a gray beard in the line for recruitment. He fought against the White general Anton Denikin in the civil war and he wants another crack at the enemy. He holds a fist toward the screen, assuring us that the villains "will remember this from last time." The Fascists, like the Whites, have become the sworn enemies of right-thinking citizens everywhere. But not all citizens are fit to fight, and we now learn that front-line service is to be regarded as a privilege. Working and waiting are the lot of older people and the very young. Some women will remain at home, too, but others, every bit as trained and warlike as the men, line up in uniform, jaws set, prepared to do great deeds. It is not just Russians who come forward. The commissar for defense, Kliment Voroshilov, appears in his best uniform and appeals to the peoples of the east, the Uzbeks in particular. Hard-bitten men in sheepskin hats respond at once. Voroshilov's speech becomes a turning point for everyone. Soon Soviet troops will attack, driving the Fascists from their trenches. The war is going to be fought on the aggressor's soil, and it is going to be won.
The story never gets more frightening than that. Whenever Soviet forces engage with the enemy, the Fascists end up running for their lives. Not all the fighting is high-tech, and in fact the biggest set-piece battle in the film involves cavalry and bayonets, but there is no blood. Indeed, there is only one serious wounding. Its victim is a member of a tank crew who joined up in the first wave, together with his brother, and set off eagerly for adventure. The men--accompanied by a pretty young nurse--spend a few moments trundling happily along in their Soviet tank, a surprisingly spacious vehicle with a cabin that looks like the inside of a trailer. They could be heading off on holiday, even at the pointwhen their machine grinds to a sudden halt. Our hero, smooth and cheerful as a young Elvis Presley, is undaunted. He grabs a handy wrench and climbs out through the hatch. There is a bang, the sound of a man at work, and though we cannot see the actor we can hear him whistling the theme song as he puts the problem right. But then the music stops in a flurry of gunfire. Inside, the brother's face sets in a mask of grief. A couple of seconds of suspense follow, accompanied by violins, so we may catch our breath in expectation of a tragedy. But Stalin's children need not cry for long. The young man's hand has been hurt, but that is all. Once he has climbed back in and the nurse has bandaged him, he is as good as new. The whole crew starts the song again, and off they go to win the war.
The story ends in Berlin. Soviet planes, wave after wave of them, are flying in formation like so many wild geese. They are not dropping bombs. Their payload is made up of leaflets calling on the population to put down their arms and join the international proletarian socialist revolution. The message is timely, for on the ground a large meeting is already under way. The workers in this other land are preparing to break the chains of capitalism. Slogans fill the screen. War, we are told, will lead to the destruction of the capitalist world. The fighting will not take place on Soviet soil. These reassuring messages are backed up by fanfares and more banners. The audience is smiling; it is saved. As the music fades, another slogan reminds us that the price of freedom is to be prepared for war. To be prepared, that is, to ride to Berlin in a shiny tank, to be a handsome pilot or a pretty nurse, to point a gun at a healthy man and shoot him down without spilling a single drop of blood.
The dream of quick and easy victory might not have been so potent if it had remained confined to the big screen. It might not have been quite so devastating, either. The problem, by 1938, was that the fantasy had affected real strategic thinking. "Decisive victory at low cost" was not just a vision of the propagandists; it was the Red Army's official goal. Dzigan's script may have helped to inure citizens to war, but less constructively it was also the scenario for a generation of military thinkers. In 1937, when Stalin replaced his leading strategists with people chosen for their political, as opposed to purely military, distinction, a new approach to national security was adopted in Moscow. In the past, a gooddeal of planning had gone into strategies for defense. Now the entire orientation of Red Army training was directed at offensive operations. The plans and training exercises needed for prolonged defense were scaled down, as were the fledgling preparations for partisan operations inside Soviet territory.3 The notion that the enemy would be repelled and beaten on his own soil was not just a romantic dream; from the late 1930s it was the centerpiece of Stalinist military planning.
It was as if a whole people shared a delusion. As Hitler and his generals were drilling the greatest professional army on the continent, Stalin's advisers seemed lost in fantasy. There had been dissident voices--powerful ones--but by 1938 the critics had vanished into the silence of the prison camps, the covert graves. If the Bolsheviks could win the civil war, the propagandists shrieked, if they could dam the Dnepr, banish God, and fly to the North Pole, then surely they could keep the Fascist invader at bay. History, the ineluctable drive that was moving all humanity toward a common goal, was on their side, after all. The delusion was expressed in many other films of the era, including one that features yet more tanks. In this production, The Tank Men, the hero, Karasev, is ordered to make a reconnaissance raid across the enemy lines. But he decides to go beyond the call of duty. He engages the sinister enemy in battle, cripples a few machines, and then drives on toward Berlin. When he gets there, he pushes on into the Reichstag and takes Hitler prisoner. "Well done, Karasev," his mates applaud when he returns. "There's not a damn thing left for us to do!"4
In 1938, the audiences who watched these films would leave the hall and step into a real Russian night. The cheerful crowds and well-lit parks that people had seen on the screen would be nowhere in evidence. Instead, their path home would lead through bleak construction sites, along the muddy paths between poor peasant shacks, or past desolate streets where lights glimmered for just a few blocks before they gave in to the dark. Many would be going home to apartments so crowded that two families and three generations were packed into one room. Others, the young, might well be finding their way back to dormitories, barrack style, where dozens of boarders slept in rows. The revolution had not made these Russians rich. It had not even made their land the great industrial power of its own boast, although the rate ofchange was prodigious, the output staggering. But what distinguished them from other hard-pressed workers struggling to survive was the belief that they were the chosen. They might be hungry, ill-shod, crowded into slums, but they were working to transform the world. They had to win. That was the public face of Soviet culture, anyway.
 
 
The Soviet state was born in war. If any nation should have known the face of violence, it was this one. First there had been the tsar's war against Germany, in which more Russian soldiers died than those of any other European state.5 The prospect of defeat in this, the First World War, along with the hardship that came with the war effort, sparked the riots of February 1917, the outburst of popular rage that toppled the tsar and swept a new government into power. But it took yet another upheaval, the Bolshevik coup under Lenin, to bring the tsar's exhausted troops back home. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, by which the new state dropped its former allies, Britain and France, in favor of a truce with Germany, brought peace for a few weeks at the beginning of 1918. Those servicemen who had not managed to desert rejoiced at the news that they no longer had to fight. But civil war followed, a conflict that blazed across the future Soviet world like a consuming fire, recalling soldiers to the colors and conscripting bystanders of every age. Its violence, more bitter even than conventional fighting, was only one aspect of this new war's cruelty. Wrecked towns and villages were also ravaged by epidemics--typhus in particular--while harvests failed and entire regions starved. By 1921, when the fighting ended in all but the last corners of the emergent state, most Soviet people knew exactly what war really meant.
The greatest promise of the new regime was peace. The word itself had been the most potent element in Bolshevik propaganda back in 1917, and there would be few things, in years to come, that Soviet people wanted more. But though the leaders talked conciliation, declaring that their long-term goal was nothing less than harmony and brotherhood, their policies set them on a collision course with the rest of the world. Marxism-Leninism assumed a prolonged war with capitalism, and while the struggle was certain to end with Communism's triumph,no one believed it would be bloodless. As the ultimate victory of Communism drew closer, the ideologists explained, its opponents would fight with ever more determination, clinging for dear life to the power and wealth they had amassed. Some kind of armed conflict was bound to erupt before the world reached its final state of brotherhood and plenty. More locally, there were still remnants of those same elements--bourgeois capitalism, imperialist oppression--to be overcome. The state, the self-appointed instrument of the people's will, set about extirpating them. Class war--a brand-new kind of violence--raged for the next decade. By 1938, its casualties approached fifteen million dead and many times that number homeless, broken, orphaned, or bereaved.
The prospect of a golden future and the fear that enemies were gathering to subvert it formed the carrot and stick of the Stalinist dictatorship. Opposition to aspects of official policy endured, and so did cynical evasion and crime. But this was no humdrum tyranny; it was a state that aimed to transform human lives. To some extent, a person's response depended on his age. The revolution was a watershed, and anyone who had a stake in the old world was likely to feel threatened by upheavals in the new. For older people, fear and hardship threw a chilling shadow over Communism's dawn, while memories of war and terror fostered cautious vigilance. But the young--the generation that would contribute the majority of soldiers after 1941--grew up learning the bright language of hope. Any schisms were largely concealed. For years before the war, the Soviet population had been trained to work as one. Each November and May, when it was time to celebrate the gains of revolution, the crowds turned out in their millions to march and sing. Stalin's image, reproduced on countless posters and banners, gazed down upon the spectacle of unity. In reality, the people who would form the core of the Red Army and fight the coming war were divided by everything from generation to class, ethnicity, and even politics. The thing that kept them together, molding them into a nation that remained distinct from any other, was their almost complete isolation from the outside world.
Within this sealed universe, the most contentious issue was the transformation of the countryside. The Soviet Union was still a country where four-fifths of the population came from villages. For generations,the sons of peasants had shouldered packs and tramped off to the cities in pursuit of work. But they often left wives and children behind, and almost all dreamed of returning one day, if only to die. The Russian countryside, or that of Ukraine, the Caucasus, the steppe, was a vision of motherland that anyone born there was bound to cherish. Its traditions, folklorists imagined, stretched back to the dawn of time. This was not true--Russia had changed dramatically even in the nineteenth century--but it was a comforting fantasy, especially for uprooted people who now worked at construction sites and in steel mills. For the peasants themselves, what mattered was their land, their stock, and the next harvest. In 1929, this whole economy and way of life would be turned upside down.
The Soviet government had decided that its agricultural sector was inefficient. Peasant farming, a culture ingrained even more deeply than religion, had to be streamlined, managed more efficiently, controlled. In the winter of 1929-30, police and volunteers spread out across the countryside to impose a second revolution, this time from above. Their aim was to create collectives, abolishing individual farms and setting up a system based on mechanized wage labor. To give it a more revolutionary bite, the campaign was cast as a new class war, and its enemies--the scapegoats of the coming agony--were identified as the wealthier peasants, the kulaks, a social category largely invented for the purpose. Kulaks were destined to lose everything: their stock and equipment, their homes, their civil rights, and frequently their lives. In the spring of 1930, the countryside came close to open war. In the years that followed, millions of those who worked the farms would flee to the cities, unable to support themselves on the irregular rations of grain that took the place of wages. Millions more would starve. By 1939, the rural population had declined from twenty-six to nineteen million households.6 Of the men and women who had disappeared from the countryside, an estimated ten million were dead.
No policy would cause more anguish during Stalin's rule than collectivization, and none provoke so much opposition. It was a constant irritant despite the fact that its prime victims remained invisible. Famine victims were silent even as they died, while exiled kulaks were forced to vanish, largely, from the public gaze. Their lives and deaths in sparselypopulated settlements to the far north and east were an irrelevance as far as Moscow was concerned. Kulaks were not even considered suitable candidates for army service. Their children, too, were treated as suspect. Members of the second generation tended to begin their military service working like slaves in labor battalions, building factories and digging rock, not fighting at the front.7 But even supposedly loyal peasants, the surly, taciturn majority, included millions who resented the collectives and all the hardships they had brought. Many were hungry, overworked, disoriented. As the state requisitioned more and more grain from the countryside for sale abroad, families scattered like chaff. People were forced to live like vagabonds, moving around in search of food and work. When these sons of the village were called up, they made uncertain soldiers. At best, they resented and feared their arbitrary government. At worst, they waited for a chance to put things right.
The new collectives survived. They weathered the storm because enough people believed in them, and believed with sufficient passion to withstand the violence that attended their creation. During the campaign of collectivization, words seem to have blinded Stalin's activists to the reality before their eyes. A leaden language muffled other people's pain. "I did not trouble myself with why 'humanity' should be abstract," wrote one activist, the future Red Army officer, Lev Kopelev, "but 'historical necessity' and 'class consciousness' should be concrete." 8 "Historical necessity" called for armed gangs and mass arrests. The task of enforcement was assigned to secret police troops. The gangs included simple thugs as well as affectless professional bullies whose careers stretched back to tsarist times, but their vanguard was made up of real enthusiasts. "In the terrible spring of 1933 I saw people dying from hunger," Kopelev recalled. "I saw women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing, but with vacant, lifeless eyes. And corpses, corpses in ragged sheepskin coats and cheap felt boots, corpses in peasant huts ... . I saw all this and did not go out of my mind or commit suicide ... . Nor did I lose my faith."9 The new Russia had staked its claim against the old.
Like the Red troops in Dzigan's film, the forces of the Stalinist regime were set to win. For one thing, the peasants, numerous as they were, remained remote, a population fragmented by distance, dialect,and their own misery. Decisions were taken in Moscow, not in some mud-locked village miles from the nearest road. In a democracy, dispossessed peasants might have formed a powerful faction, their protests stirring others to take up the cause. But a democracy would not have driven the peasants into collectives in the first place. Soviet power offered no outlet for protest: unless a person was religious, his choices were to nurture his resentment in obscurity or to embrace the new regime and hope for a better future. Religious faith offered an alternative set of beliefs for a large minority, but even the churches were powerless against the propaganda of this state, and all the more so because collectivization was accompanied by an assault on organized worship. Churches were closed, turned into barns and pigsties, priests arrested, believers exiled. And with religion shattered, no creed could stand up to the Communist worldview, no group sustain itself for long without collapsing under state pressure. The very depth of people's suffering increased their sense of isolation. As one survivor remarked, "Tragedy is not deep and sharp if it can be shared with friends."10
But repression alone could not have achieved the state's triumph, nor could the idealism of an elite of young activists. The Soviet state commanded real support among large numbers of ordinary citizens. Such people's fundamental motives were more positive than fear, more tangible than hope. "Life is getting better," the huge posters told them, "better and more joyful." Inch by inch, and almost shamefully, for millions it was. With Europe and America in economic depression, the Soviets could boast of full employment and rapid growth. A village boy who sought work in the towns would not be looking long. The older generation might not manage to adapt, but for the young the prospects seemed to be getting brighter. Moreover, as a worker in the Soviet state, a young man might bask in a patriotic pride. By 1938, the Soviet Union had the largest engineering industry in Europe. The proof was there for all to see in airships, dams, and polar icebreakers. Millions of tons of coal were dug from Soviet earth each year--166 million in 1940. "In all fields," Pravda wrote on the last New Year's Eve of peace, "our successes have been stupendous."11 Readers would all have known about the tanks and planes. The Soviet state had more tanks at its disposal in 1941 than the rest of the world combined.12 But more immediately, peoplecould also point to improvements at home. Things had been so bad for so long, after all, that almost anything looked like progress.
Here was a paradox. Stalin's regime proclaimed its altruism, commanding its citizens to forsake private property. But one of its most potent selling points was the material prosperity it promised, an abundance that was measured, even in the censored newspapers, in terms of wristwatches and bicycles, not merely public goods. In consequence, although the papers did not usually mention it, a population already hardened by suffering and violence learned to look for opportunities at every turn. Even before the war, Soviet citizens could be resourceful when it came to trade, stockpiling, and the networking that makes black markets hum.13 In the land of brotherhood, most people's first thoughts centered on themselves. Publicly, the rhetoric was all about collective happiness, but this was also pictured in material terms. Wristwatches, the symbol of modernity that people seemed to covet most, were still a dream for almost everyone. But one day, ran the tale, the factories springing up everywhere were bound to produce them. Lev Kopelev painted the future in similarly concrete terms. "The world revolution," he wrote, "was absolutely necessary so that justice would triumph." When it was over, there would be "no borders, no capitalists and no fascists at all ... . Moscow, Kharkov and Kiev would become just as enormous, just as well-built, as Berlin, Hamburg and New York ... . We would have skyscrapers, streets full of automobiles and bicycles," and "all the workers and peasants would go walking in fine clothes, wearing hats and watches."14
For the time being, the state provided citizens with small compensations that appeared to presage more, though the planners' choices could seem callously ironic. This was a land where children had been left to starve as famine raged in 1933, and many Soviet villages would remain sunk in poverty for decades to come; even the cities faced shortages of meat and butter, while bread rationing continued until 1935. The quality of mass-produced staples was always suspect, and there were constant rumors of dust or sand in the flour, gristle in place of meat. But Anastas Mikoyan, the minister responsible for food supplies, had plans to cheer things up for everyone who had a spare ruble to spend. His aim was to provide the people with irresistible snacks, sohe focused the might of the planned economy on the task of processing frankfurters and ice cream. The Soviets had imported new mass-production methods from America and Germany, allowing fast food of a basic kind to be manufactured in prodigious amounts. There might not be fresh vegetables, there might not be much milk, but there would be ice cream for everyone. The new industry was portrayed as a harbinger of the good life that was soon to be. The more processed the food, moreover, the greater its supposed appeal for a generation hoping to transform the world. How could the Soviet people not be glad when they could eat not only plain but even cherry, chocolate, and raspberry ice cream?15
"We never went hungry." Those who grew up in the towns of the prewar years remembered only happiness. "And there was no crime, either." Their rosy view revealed more about the censored press and the romance of hindsight than about real life. Pilfering and theft were rife in the 1930s, while the exploitation of personal connections was often the only way to secure valuable goods.16 One writer recalled standing in line all night outside a Moscow shop when his mother wanted to buy him a new suit. "Even so," he added, "we had to wait for five hours in the shop, emerging at 1:00 p.m." The suit itself had cost a month's wages.17 But what mattered to people now was that they could actually buy suits. It had not been so long since there had been no goods of any kind for purchase, and soon there would be none again. Moreover, back in 1938, few people in the Soviet Union had the means to compare their quality of life with that of foreigners. Their leaders constantly told them that they lived in a better and more equal society, a place where the right kind of effort would soon deliver abundance for everyone. For all they knew--and most believed it--the lines in capitalist countries were even longer, the workers not permitted to wear suits at all.
Whatever else, the Soviet regime offered work. Not surprisingly, its most enthusiastic supporters were the people whose careers flourished in a fast-changing labor market. One of the best routes to a richer life, at least for those of humble origin, was military service. Even peasants (with the exception of kulaks) could make new futures for themselves this way. The first people to discover the opportunities that military service could offer under Soviet power were the tsarist conscripts who puttheir First World War experience at the disposal of the Red Army. Almost the entire officer elite of Stalin's army in the Second World War had started life as peasants and followed this route. Ivan Konev, one of the future heroes of Berlin, was born in the province of the Northern Dvina in 1897. He would have spent his days as a laborer in the local sawmill had he not been called up to fight in the tsar's war. Similarly, young Semen Timoshenko was fated to till fields in Odessa province until he was conscripted to serve as a machine gunner. In 1940 he would succeed Voroshilov as commissar for defense. Ivan Vasilevich Boldin, who played a conspicuous role in the first days of Hitler's invasion, was born in the Volga region and took his first job as a village baker just before the First World War. Even the greatest of them all, Georgy Zhukov, the marshal who claimed the laurels for Berlin, was born in a village, although he moved to Moscow as a youth to learn the cobbling trade.18 Each of these men built their professional careers during the civil war. Their political convictions inclined them to fight for the Reds, and the army repaid them with promotion, fulfillment, and substantial quantities of cash.
Their efforts paved the way for other aspirants. Many professional soldiers, future officers, made careers despite the whirlwind that had swept through the villages of their birth. Kirill Kirillovich's story unfolds like a fable for the time. I listened to it in his flat in Moscow, a prestigious address a stone's throw from the Park of Victory and the Borodino Panorama Museum. He began with the war itself. He remembered that he was in Tallinn, the capital of the Soviet Union's newly acquired republic of Estonia, when the news came. Night after night that summer, German planes--Kirill remembered them as "Messers"--had flown over the port city.19 The artillerymen in Kirill's unit obeyed their orders not to fire. But in the early hours of 22 June 1941 they received new instructions. "We were told to consider the situation a genuine state of war," Kirill recalled. "We were not afraid. I suppose it was our age. I wouldn't want to have to do it now. But I can truly say there was no fear. Perhaps we were just trained to be that way." The next few weeks were confused, sleepless, and demoralizing. "We had to prepare," Kirill told me, "for the surrender." He instantly corrected himself: "I mean for leaving Tallinn." The seaborne evacuation of Soviettroops from the Estonian capital was an operation that would later be described as "harrowing ... a kind of Dunkirk without air cover."20 Kirill insists that no one doubted that the Soviet side would win. They had been trained that way as well.
Kirill was twenty-one when the war started, but he was already a lieutenant, having been promoted at record speed as a result of his education. "I wanted to be independent," he said. "The military was a career. I went to a special artillery school." Students attended the usual classes, but there were extra sessions in the evenings and at weekends, when they were sent on exercises. "Most children did that kind of thing," Kirill explained, remembering the militaristic spirit of the 1930s, "but we did more of it. Mainly training with rifles." They also worked particularly hard at mathematics and at German, as if in conscious preparation for the war that everyone expected they would have to fight. "We knew it was coming," Kirill confirmed. Every newspaper and wall poster warned Stalin's people about Fascism, and so did every broadcast speech that talked about the world. "We saw the films. There was one I remember, the title was something like 'Professor Mamlok.' It was about what people would suffer under Fascism. It told us exactly what Hitler would do if he were in power here. We knew," he added, "about the Jews in Germany."21
Kirill was talented, but he was also lucky. The place he was sent was more than just a high school offering a bit of rifle practice. His fellow students included Timur Frunze, the son of the late commissar for war, as well as Sergo Mikoyan, son of the ice cream king, and even Vasily Stalin. These boys turned up with bodyguards and slipped away in smooth black cars at the end of class. It would be easy to assume that Kirill, like them, was born to privilege. But his story is complicated, poignant, and in many ways more typical of his generation. Kirill was neither wealthy nor secure. He did not come from Moscow or even from Russia, he did not speak the Russian language fluently, and when he arrived in the Soviet capital he was penniless. Listening to him, it is not hard to understand why soldiers of his kind were grateful to Stalin's regime. It is not hard at all to understand their loyalty in war.
Kirill was born in Dubrovno, a small town in rural Belarus, in 1919. His early memories are of the countryside: the horses that came down tothe Dnepr River to drink as the sun set, the fields of flax and beets stretching away, the yellow dust in summer and the autumn mud. The whole community was poor. On Saturdays, the girls would walk to town barefoot, carrying their only pair of boots so that the leather would not get ruined. His family could not own land because they were Jews. Instead, his mother worked as a weaver at the local factory, which was the main employer, apart from farms, for miles around. Kirill's father had died of typhus just before the boy was born. He was his mother's only child. But there were half brothers and sisters, the children of his father's first wife, and it was one of these who brought the boy to Moscow. No one suspected that he would decide to train for the artillery, working all night to improve his arithmetic and languages, but a teacher noticed him and helped ease his path to the elite high school. When his family opposed his decision, all he could say was that he needed an education of some kind. There was no chance of that in Dubrovno. Children who stayed there would barely have learned to read and count before they had to join their parents at the mill.
With Kirill gone, his mother was left alone in the family house. Her idea was to join the others in Russia, but she kept delaying, insisting that it would take her some time to pack. Kirill dismissed her excuses, seeing instead the inertia, the fear of the unknown, that kept her from leaving home. "Mother was scarcely able to read," he explained. "It was like that in her village. Almost everyone was illiterate. She wrote me one letter after the war began. I could hardly make it out. The writing was so difficult. She said that she was going to leave, to come to Moscow to our sister. But she never did. She was there when the Germans came. I knew at the time what that would mean, but I waited till the war was over before I went back to find out." In 1941, Dubrovno's Jews were driven like cattle into the main square. When he revisited the place, Kirill asked people who had once been his neighbors to describe what had happened next, but no one chose to recollect the scene. All they could say was that the bodies, probably including his mother's, lay somewhere in an unmarked trench.
Kirill has reason, then, to thank the Soviet power that saved his life, trained and promoted him, and in some way avenged his mother's murder. He is nostalgic for the Soviet past, though not for Dubrovno orpoverty. What he remembers is the discipline that formed him, the rewards for hard work, and his own faith in victory. He knew the system had its cruel side. He had seen plenty as a child. Dubrovno was not far from the Ukrainian border. The refugees from the successive famines there began to turn up after 1929. They brought their stories of collectivization, of the slaughter of animals, the looting, the fear. Soon after that, his own family, too, was hungry, though the potatoes they grew on a corner of land saved them from starvation. Nothing would shake the young man's faith in socialism. What he went on to witness in the war would make his belief firmer yet. He still thinks that collectivization brought more benefits than costs. The horses grew thinner, he remembers. People were hungry for a while. But all this was just a prelude. In time, the peasants would have tractors, each of which could do the work of a dozen men. One day there would also be hot water and electricity. Kirill was back in Tallinn later in the war. He saw what Nazi rule had done. He knew, and not from that visit alone, which system had destroyed his world and which rebuilt it brick by brick.
 
 
"Education has brought amazing results," a German officer discovered as he marched through Soviet territory in the summer of 1941. "On the wall of every Russian schoolroom I found a large map of Europe and Asia on which all of Russia was marked in bright red while the rest was shown without color. The insignificant size of the European peninsula was contrasted unmistakably with the vastness of Russia." Beyond the schoolrooms, he reported little skepticism in adults below the age of fifty. Only the very old or the religious dared to be critical of Soviet power. "I talked with many young soldiers," he reported, "farmers, laborers, and also women." All of their thinking was patterned along the same lines, and they were all convinced of the infallibility of that which they had been taught." Twenty years of schooling and propaganda seemed to have borne fruit. To the racist officer's surprise--for he considered Russians to be inert and long-suffering, more animal than man--the state had even instilled the need for "enthusiasm, initiative and vigor, the most essential prerequisites for great accomplishments not only in peace, but still more in war."22
What this German was observing was the impact of a national policy whose aim, for twenty years, had been to engineer new kinds of consciousness among the young. There was still widespread hardship, to say nothing of resentment of the collectives and of harsh working conditions in factories and on construction sites, but the crucial generations, the soldiers who would fight at Stalingrad and Kursk, were born into the Soviet system and knew no other. Though older people might never be reconciled to the new world, and younger ones might joke and make cynical remarks, the language and priorities of Soviet Communism provided the war generation with the only mental world they knew, not least because alternatives were excluded. Even the offspring of peasants, the most resentful section of the population, had no opportunity to develop a different political outlook, or not on a public scale. Children's training began from the moment they stepped through the door of nursery school. As future Soviet citizens, they would start to learn about the revolution as soon as they could pick out the Cyrillic letters forming Stalin's name. Where once their grandparents had chorused extracts from the Psalms, these children chanted lessons on the triumphs of electrification, science, and Communist morality. They also learned to be grateful that their elementary schools existed in the first place, for it was the Soviet regime, they were told, that cared to cultivate their literacy.23 By 1941, there were 191,500 primary schools among the Soviet Union's villages and farms. Twenty-four million children were enrolled in them. If they worked hard, the best of them might be picked to join the 800,000 youngsters who were accepted at the country's 817 colleges and universities each year. The very fortunate might even win a place at one of the Red Army's special military academies.24
All children were taught that love for their motherland involved preparedness for future wars. While their parents were laboring to bring in the grain or working long shifts to help fulfill the nation's economic plan, they learned that military service would be an adventure, a privilege. It would mean taking up the banner of the revolution, continuing the struggle for which the heroes of their Soviet picture books had died. Some Nazis might have envied Soviet educators their task. For one thing, unlike Nazism, Communism had been in power for more than twenty years when the war came, so that several entire generations hadlived under its influence. For another, there were no defeats to be explained, there was no stab in the back, as Germany claimed to have suffered in 1918, to avenge. The Soviets spoke only of success. But both regimes presented service--military or civil--as an honor to which the elite alone could aspire and portrayed death as something from which no hero would shrink. Such lessons motivated certain kinds of youth to train for war, whatever happened later on the battlefield.
Soviet students harked back to the civil war and celebrated the Communist Party as their inspiration and guide. The party in turn identified itself with military struggle, presenting the Red Army as its instrument of progress, weaving ideology and war together. Every child would learn about the army's record and in particular about the historic success of the Red troops against the massed ranks of the Whites. While other European children were reading about the Somme, Verdun, and Passchendaele, Soviet students learned about the Don Front and the struggle to save Petrograd. In their free time, they played at "Reds and Whites." The implication was that future conflict would be just the same and in particular that morality and ideological passion were the keys to victory. "Our teachers were the people who had taken part in the revolution, in the civil war," wrote one future Red Army combatant. His physics teacher always came to class in a soldier's uniform, complete with green tunic and gaiters.25 It was his way of being prepared to take up a gun again, just as he had taken it up in 1918 when the revolution faced its crisis. The pupils he taught would never doubt that they lived in a beleaguered, embattled state. Many believed that their own happy lives depended on armed struggle and pure-hearted sacrifice.
In this way, schoolchildren--those from towns, at least--imbibed ideology and patriotism together, identifying field trips and sports clubs with the faces of Lenin and Stalin. When they volunteered to clear snow from the streets on their free days, they were inspired, in part, by faith in future progress. The altruism natural to young people was channeled into a sense of duty to the party. They studied, hiked, and trained to improve the world, to change it, to build a better one. "It was both possible and necessary to alter everything," a Muscovite, Raisa Orlova, recalled. "The streets, the houses, the cities, the social order, human souls." She believed firmly in the new life, a life in the future. It wouldstart, "properly speaking," when she lived "in a new and sparkling white house. There I would do exercises in the morning, there the ideal order would exist, there all my heroic achievements would commence." 26
Young adults had many opportunities to test their would-be heroism. The state was keen to acquaint them with weapons, drill, and maps. By 1938, the voluntary organization Osoaviakhim, which translates roughly as the Society for Air and Chemical Defense, had been training youngsters for more than a decade, its membership topping three million each year. Serious and hearty in what had become the Soviet tradition, the society offered classes in everything from marksmanship and map reading to first aid.27 Young volunteers spent weeks in summer camps, embarking on forced marches, digging practice foxholes, and bandaging notional fractures of one another's healthy limbs. Osoaviakhim's members also led the way when the state needed money. They were the ones who painted campaign banners to raise the cash for building new planes, and on some paydays they would even stand outside factory gates, red armbands to the fore, to collect money from workers as they came off their shifts.
The dream that teenagers all shared was of powered flight. No other experience expressed that generation's fantasy of progress and modernity with quite the same intensity. For a time, in the early 1930s, the trademark craft was the dirigible, and youngsters campaigned for the cash to fund an airship named for tubby, smooth-faced Voroshilov, the defense commissar. Airships hung over Red Square on the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in November 1932, and more were planned as part of the new state's invincible defense. But by the late 1930s, it was the plane, albeit just a wooden biplane, and above all the parachute that inspired youths to take part in the military clubs. Parachute jumping became a national craze. Towers were built for practice jumps in many city parks. By 1936, there were over five hundred of them, backed up by 115 new parachute-training schools. Young Soviet citizens would make nearly two million jumps in that one year. The state-run Krokodil, a satirical magazine, even suggested that the bell towers of churches could be converted for the new sport.28 Joking apart, it has been estimated that the Soviet population included more than a million trainedparachutists at the end of 1940. It was ironic, one of many ironies, that parachute troops would prove marginal to the war effort when the crisis came.29
The craze for training camps was not purely about defense, at least as far as the young people who took part in them were concerned. Social activity of approved kinds was regarded as a sign of good citizenship. Young people who wanted to get on in the world knew that they had to join things, show their zeal. The elite of clubs was the komsomol, the young Communists' league, and anyone who aspired to a good career, or even to a place at university, would join it. Most joined anyway because it was a place to make new friends. "It was only later," a former officer recalled, "that I realized that in fact it was necessary for my career." This man, Lev Lvovich Lyakhov, studied geology before the war, a subject that he chose because, like so many others of his generation, he was entranced by travel and adventure. The komsomol and Osoaviakhim were well known for their good field trips. To grow up in these years was to enjoy the clutter of equipment, the collective discipline, the hiking boots and summer camps and marching with red flags. It was also a matter of gymnastics, and not just the physical kind.
Belonging was treated as a proof of faith. Lectures on ideology were so much a part of daily life that no one thought it odd to hear them in a social setting, including at an Osoaviakhim camp. The days of philosophical analysis and free debate were gone. Instead, youths who itched to try out their new skis or parachutes would have to sit through lectures on such exhortatory themes as "Let us strengthen the international links of the working class of the USSR with the working class of capitalism!"30 The clumsy phrases sounded as ungainly in Russian as they do in translation, but these young people had grown up with them. The Russian language had evolved in step with Soviet man, losing the sharpness and elegance of the tsarist years. The multisyllabic Latinate slogans of the new regime were now as common as the garlic on a peasant's breath. Awkward acronyms--partkom for party committee, komsomol for the young Communists' league, kolkhoz for collective farm--were ordinary currency by 1938. Each linguistic innovation from the government gave rise to new slogans and longer words. Young people knew no other way.
Another acronym made sure that no one was tempted to ridicule it all. In 1917, Lenin's comrade Feliks Dzerzhinsky was put in charge of internal security in the new state. He assembled a secret police force with terrifying powers and called it the Extraordinary Commission, Chrezvychainaya Kommissiya in Russian, abbreviated to Cheka. It would go through several changes of title, although its fondness for murder, torture, and imprisonment without trial would remain the same. By 1938, and for the entire period of the war, it would be known as the NKVD, the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. Its main task was to enforce the state's will, and its victims included party members, army officers, intellectuals, and even loyal engineers. The NKVD was many things in one: police force, spy, and prison warden, provider of forced labor, judge, executioner, and burial service. It also had a paramilitary branch, which monitored dissension and indiscipline among soldiers, though certain detachments were also trained to fight. But in the last few years of peace, its main role was to run a system of surveillance, summary arrest, and state terror that would almost destroy the regime that it claimed to serve. Young komsomols and parachutists would have known of its work. Many of the arrests and even the death sentences were public. But protest was not possible, and nor, in any real sense, was discussion. There were no outlets for dissent, and critics would have found no public audience. "You become an accomplice even though you are an adversary," a former Bolshevik wrote later, "because you are unable to express disapproval even if you are ready to pay with your life."31
Illegal arrests and mass executions had been state policy during the civil war. Thereafter, the scale of police terror was greatly reduced, at least for a decade or so. But in December 1934, the popular chairman of Leningrad's Communist Party committee, Sergei Kirov, was shot while working late in his office. His assassination was the pretext for a fresh campaign of fear. First came arrests and show trials in which leading figures from Lenin's time were publicly disgraced and sentenced to death. These were followed by more secretive operations, including mass arrests and disappearances. Piles of bodies appeared in city-center cemeteries, each victim having been shot at close range with a police gun.The purges, in which tens of thousands of innocent people were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately, in unnumbered cases, executed without trial, cast a shadow across all areas of public life. The armed forces were not immune, despite the certainty of war. In June 1937, the deputy minister of defense (and former chief of the general staff), Mikhail Nikolaevich Tukhachevsky, was arrested. Many of his senior aides, including several civil war heroes, were also implicated in the trumped-up case. The entire group was put on trial, found guilty, and sentenced to death on charges that included conspiracy and treason. No one believed the tales, but no one could express their disbelief out loud. Two years later, a local official in the city of Kursk was arrested for using old newspapers to protect the surface of his desk during a public meeting. One of them, dating from before the purge, showed a photograph of Tukhachevsky's face.32
While happy workers licked cherry ice cream, their revolution steeped itself in blood. To be an enemy of the people--a kulak, Trotskyist, foreign agent, parasite--was to be cast out of the community of true believers forever. Even those who escaped with their lives would pay a cruel price. By the end of the 1930s, the population of the Gulag, the network of NKVD prison camps and labor colonies, exceeded 1,670,000.33 Those who remained at liberty, Stalinism's loyal sons and daughters, were bound together by shared awe, shared faith, shared dread. They sang the revolutionary anthems loudly, as if the sound might drown the protests or the echo of thousands of shots. And they tried to find ways of making sense of the unspeakable. "I regarded the purge trials of 1937 and 1938 as an expression of some farsighted policy," Kopelev wrote. "I believed that, on balance, Stalin was right in deciding on these terrible measures in order to discredit all forms of political opposition once and for all. We were a besieged fortress; we had to be united, knowing neither vacillation nor doubt."34
It was as if people could build walls in their minds. In private, they might have their own stories, their private doubts. But their public persona was deferential, Soviet, delighted to breathe the same oxygen that flowed into Comrade Stalin's lungs. "The sun shines on us in a different way now," ran a popular song. "We know that it has shone on Stalin inthe Kremlin, too ... . And however many stars there may be in the sky, there cannot be as many of them as there are thoughts in Stalin's brilliant head."35 Irony, that staple of Second World War culture in Britain and the United States, was never part of Stalinism's public style.36 Zhenya Rudneva, who would become a flying ace and die in 1944, kept a diary before the war. As she wrote: "In ten days it will be Constitution Day, in seventeen days, the elections to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR ... . How can I not love my motherland, which gives me such a happy life?"37
People like Rudneva were not automatons. They all had stories, and they all had inner worlds. But they survived by learning to fit into the framework of the state, adopting individual routes toward the longed-for secure and productive life. It was far easier, as even the doubters found, to join the collective and share the dream than to remain alone, condemned to isolation and the fear of death. A veteran of Stalingrad told me about his own process of choice. Ilya Natanovich fought unflinchingly in 1943, remaining in the field until he was wounded so badly that he was left for dead. The courage that sustained him as he lay on the frozen steppe defies imagination, as does the pain he suffered from an arm and shoulder wound that never healed. He agrees that his Soviet identity, the optimism of Stalin's people, helped to build his resolve. But only months before this episode, Ilya Natanovich, an infantryman in Stalin's army, might easily have fallen victim to the purge. The problem was his background, although his sharp mind and sense of humor must have made things worse. It was never a good idea to be perceptive, let alone to laugh.
Ilya Natanovich was born in Vitebsk province, part of today's Belarus, in the summer of 1920. His father was a Bolshevik, but it was his mother's family, his aunts, who brought the color and excitement that made his childhood such fun. They would turn up without notice, blowing in from Warsaw or Moscow, talking as they stepped across the threshold. They would still be talking as he lay awake in his room, listening to the grown-ups laughing and arguing round the dinner table. On summer nights, as the dawn broke, someone might open the piano and then the songs would start--Russian songs, Jewish songs, anthems of the revolution. "I knew from my childhood that I was growing up ina family where interesting things were happening," he recalled. "Things connected to revolution."
Ilya's aunts had been involved in the revolutionary underground for decades. They were old hands by the time of Lenin's coup of 1917. One had worked in a secret revolutionary group in Baku, the oil port on the Caspian Sea. It was there that she encountered the young man who later gave himself the name Stalin. Ilya's own image of the future leader was shaped by a tale she liked to tell about his cruelty. One afternoon, she said, it must have been in April, sometime before 1904, she and a group of comrades were out for a walk. Their path lay by a river that had swollen after the spring thaw. A calf, newborn, still doubtful on its legs, had somehow become stranded on an island in the middle. The friends could hear its bleating above the roar of the water, but no one dared to risk the torrent. No one, that is, except the Georgian, Koba, who ripped off his shirt and swam across. He reached the calf, hauled himself out to stand beside it, waited for all the friends to watch, and then he broke its legs.
Ilya Natanovich lived half his life in that man's shadow. His father was the first to suffer directly. The Bolshevik revolutionary had made good, and by the 1930s he was a senior official in Stalin's government. The trappings of power included an apartment in Moscow and a new wife, younger than the first, childless, and unencumbered by loquacious relatives. Ilya and his mother and brother were installed in a separate residence, and it was this arrangement, probably, that saved their lives. In 1937, Ilya's father was arrested. He disappeared forever, and although his estranged family escaped the terror, they were tainted by their association with an enemy of the people. This burden, combined with young Ilya's Jewishness, dictated the choices available to the teenager. Advised by a sympathetic teacher to give up his plan to study at the prestigious foreign languages institute and instead to set his sights on a teaching career, Ilya pursued his studies at a humble college, avoiding even the komsomol for fear of unwelcome inquiries. When war broke out in 1941, his request to serve at the front was refused; he was sent to a building site in the Urals to help construct a factory. It was only when the army was in danger of collapse that he was permitted to transfer to the infantry, but although he fought at Stalingrad, he never managed to wipe the slate clean of his father's supposed shame. After thewar, he took a job in the provincial city of Smolensk. It was a long way to a decent library--eight hours by train to his beloved Moscow--but he was inconspicuous, and that meant relatively safe.
Ilya Natanovich ought to remember Stalin with disgust. He ought to recall angry conversations around the table when those lively and observant aunts dropped by. But what the veteran remembers, with a smile of recognition, is an attitude that borders on religious faith. "When we heard him speaking on the radio," he explains, "and there was a pause, we used to whisper: There, Stalin's having a drink." The image may have come from Konstantin Simonov's famous novel, The Living and the Dead, where people who are listening to Stalin's greatest wartime speech in July 1941 catch their breath each time he takes a drink. Veterans' memories are often overlaid with images from books or films. The war was so long ago, after all. But then Ilya Natanovich remembers more. "It was like listening to the voice of God," he adds. "And I dreamed about him like a father. I dreamed, of course, about my own father as well. I still do. When the repressions started, I began to have some doubts ... . I didn't believe that my father was guilty, or any of the other people I knew. But Stalin embodied the future. We all believed that."
"Our generation lived through 1937 and 1938," another veteran recalled. "We were witnesses to those tragic events, but our hands were clean. Our generation was the first to be truly formed after the revolution." This man had been at school when the first show trials were staged. He read about the purges on wall newspapers, the sheets of newsprint that were pinned up like posters for people to stand and read. Whatever his private thoughts, he kept his faith in the utopian cause. He believed, too, in the victory that had been described so vividly in the war films of 1938. The same faith would impel millions of young people to volunteer as soon as they heard the news of the invasion. Faith in the cause could make them fight, but faith was no defense against German shells. This was the generation that the war devoured. As this same veteran recalled, there were 138 young people in his rifle regiment. After their first battle, 38 were left, and ten days later there were only 5.38 The state, with all its promises, had let them down. "They were prepared for great deeds," the historian Elena Senyavskaya remarked. "But they were not prepared for the army."39
Copyright © 2006 by Catherine Merridale