Vas. Grossman // “Red Star” No. 10 (5381) dated 13.01.1943
The road to the battalion goes along the railway tracks, filled with freight trains, through the young snow that fell in the night. We are walking through a wasteland, pitted with bomb and shell craters. Ahead, on the mound, are the dark silhouettes of the water tanks in which the Germans are holed up. This wasteland is clearly visible to German snipers and spotters. But a thin Red Army soldier in a long overcoat, walking next to me, has a calm, unhurried gait, and comfortingly explains:
— Do you think he doesn’t see you? He does. We used to crawl here at night, but now it’s different: he saves cartridges and mines.
My companion suddenly asks if I play chess, and immediately it turns out that he is a chess player of the first category, about to get the rank of a master. I have never had a chance to talk about this abstract and noble game, while feeling that the Germans are watching me, saving their cartridges. I was answering my companion rather absent-mindedly, distracted by reflections on whether those who are stuck in the reinforced concrete tanks are thrifty enough. But the closer we got to these tanks, the less visible they became, receding behind the ridge of the mound.
We walked along the paths on the territory of one of the workshops of the huge Stalingrad plant. Past the piles of the red iron scrap, past colossal steel ladles, past steel plates and collapsed walls. The Red Army soldiers are so used to the destruction done here that they do not notice it at all. On the contrary, interest and curiosity are aroused by an accidentally surviving glass frame in the window of a destroyed factory office, a high factory pipe without a projectile marking, a miraculously surviving wooden house.
— Just look at that, this little house is alive, — the passers-bys would say and smile.
And, indeed, these rare surviving witnesses of peaceful life in the realm of destruction and death look touching.
The battalion’s command post is located in the basement of a huge four-story building of one of the industrial plants. This is the extreme western point of our Stalingrad front line. Like a cape, it juts into the houses and buildings occupied by the Germans. The enemy is nearby, but the Red Army soldiers are doing their household chores confidently and unhurriedly. Two are sawing wood, the third is chopping logs with an axe. Fighters with thermos flasks are passing by. Under the half collapsed ledge of the wall, a fighter sits and diligently locksmiths, correcting the damaged part of the mortar, singing something. An epitome of an artisan man in his habitable workshop.
Meanwhile the building bears the traces of the terrible destructive work of the Germans. Huge black pits, dug by the German “five hundreds” are surrounding it. Concrete walls and ceilings have been caved in by direct hits of aviation bombs. The iron fittings, torn by the force of the explosions, droop and bend like a thin fishing net torn by a huge beluga. The western wall was destroyed by the long-range artillery, the northern wall was collapsed. The walls are pecked by the blows of light shells and mines. But here the walls with narrow long embrasures were created anew by the hands of the Red Army soldiers, from metal and stone broken by the German fire. This ruined fortress did not surrender. It has withstood as an outpost of our defence and it now supports our offensive with its fire.
And today, as yesterday, there is a brutal war going on here. At some points, the trenches dug by the battalion are twenty metres away from the enemy. The sentry hears soldiers walking along in the German trench, hears the arguing that arises when the Germans share food, all night he hears the German sentry tap-dancing in his thin shoes. Everything is targeted here, every stone is a landmark. In these deep, narrow trenches, where people dug dugouts for themselves, put stoves with pipes made of shell casings, where a comrade who shirks from chopping firewood is scolded in a home-like manner, where, sipping deliciously, they use wooden spoons to eat soup brought in a thermos in the course of the messenger round – here the tension of a mortal battle reigns day and night.
The Germans understand the importance of this area for their defence system. It is impossible to stick even an inch above the edge of the trench, without hearing the crack of a German sniper’s shot. They don’t spare the bullets here. But the stone-hard frozen earth, in which the Germans are deeply buried, cannot protect them. Picks and shovels are hammering day and night, our Red Army soldiers are moving forward step by step, pushing the ground aside with their breasts, getting closer to the dominant height. And the Germans feel that the hour is near when neither a sniper nor a machine gunner will help them. And they are terrified by this sound of shovels, they want it to stop even for a short while, even for a minute.
— Rus, go have a smoke! — they shout.
But the Russians are not responding. Then the sound of picks and shovels disappears in the roar of explosions: the Germans want to drown the terrible methodical work of the Russians in the bursts of grenades. In response, grenades are also flying from our trenches. And as soon as the smoke clears and the roar subsides, the Germans hear the knocking of the grave again. No, this earth will not save them from death either. This earth is their death. The Russians are getting closer every hour, every minute, overcoming the stony hardness of the winter earth.
…But here we are again at the battalion command post. Through the ruined wall, on which a plaque has been preserved — “Close the doors, combat the flies”, we pass into a deep basement. There is a ruddy copper samovar on the table here, Red Army soldiers and commanders are resting on spring mattresses, brought here from the surrounding destroyed houses. The battalion commander, Captain Ilgachkin, is a tall, thin young man with black eyes, with a dark high forehead. He is a Chuvash by nationality. In his face, in his hot eyes, in his speech, the Stalingrad restraint is felt. He says it himself:
— I’ve been here since September. And now I don’t think about anything, only about the mound. I’d get up in the morning and stay up until night. And when I sleep, I see it in my dreams. — He excitedly knocks his fist on the table and says: — I’ll take the mound, I’ll take it! The plan has been developed in such a way that there can not be a single mistake in it.
In October, he and the Red Army soldier Repa were obsessed with another idea: to shoot down the Yu-87 with an anti-tank rifle. Ilgachkin made rather complicated calculations taking into account the initial velocity of the bullet and the average speed of the aircraft, compiled a table of corrections for firing. A fantastically smart, yet simple “anti-aircraft gun” was built. A stake was driven into the ground, a bushing was arranged on it, a cart wheel was put on this bushing. The anti-tank rifle was fixed with coulters on the spokes of the wheel, and its body lay between the spokes. And immediately the lean and melancholic Repa shot down three German dive bombers “Yu-87”.
Now the famous Stalingrad sniper Vasily Zaitsev has taken up optimising an anti-tank rifle. He works on adapting an optical sight from a sniper rifle to it, wanting to destroy German machine-gun sites by putting a bullet right into the embrasure itself. And I am sure that he will achieve his goal. Zaitsev himself is a silent man, of whom they say in the division: “Our Zaitsev is cultured, modest, has already killed two hundred and twenty-five Germans.” He is highly respected in the city. The young snipers brought up by him are called “little hares”(1), and when he turns to them and asks: “Am I right?”, everyone answers in unison: “That’s right, Vasily Ivanovich, that’s right.” And now Zaitsev consults with technicians, draws, thinks, jots down.
Here, in Stalingrad, you especially often see people devoting to the war not only all of their blood, all of their heart, but also all the strength of the mind, all the power of thought. How many of them have I met so far — both colonels, and sergeants, and ordinary Red Army soldiers, intensely, day and night, thinking about some particular thing, calculating something, drawing, as if these people defending the city took upon themselves the responsibility to develop inventions, conduct research here, in the basements of the city, where only recently many brilliant professorial and engineering minds were engaged in this endeavour in spacious institute and factory laboratories.
The Stalingrad army is fighting in the city and in the factories. And just as once the directors of the Stalingrad giant factories and the secretaries of the district party committees were proud that a famous Stakhanovite or Stakhanovka(2) worked with them, and not in another city district, so are now the division commanders proud of their notable people. Batyuk, chuckling, enumerates on his fingers:
— The best sniper Zaitsev is with me, the best mortar man Bezdidko is with me, the best gunner in Stalingrad Shuklin is also with me.
And just as once each district of the city had its own traditions, its own character, its own characteristics, so do now the Stalingrad divisions, while equal in glory and merit, differ from each other in many specific and characteristic features. We have already written about the traditions of the Rodimtsev and Gurtiev divisions. In the glorious Batyuk division, the tone of the Ukrainian kind hospitality, good-natured loving raillery is adopted.
Here they like to tell how Batyuk stood at the dugout when German mines whistled one after another into the ravine near the chief of artillery, who was trying to get out of his foxhole, and jokingly corrected the shooting: “Two meters to the right. Now, one to left. Hold there, arty commander!” Here they like to laugh at the legendary virtuoso of shooting from a heavy mortar, Bezdidko. And Bezdidko, whose aim is always true, laying mines with an accuracy of centimetres, laughs and gets angry. While Bezdidko himself, a man with a melodious, soft tenor voice, a shrewd Ukrainian smile, who has 1,305 Germans on his account, laughs lovingly at the battery commander Shuklin, who knocked out fourteen tanks from one cannon during the day: “And the reason he took them out from one cannon is because he had only one cannon.”(3)
Here, in the battalion, they like to laugh, tell funny stories about each other. They talk about sudden night skirmishes with the Germans, they tell how they catch German grenades falling to the bottom of the trench and throw them back into the German trenches, they tell how a six-barreled “fool” “played”(4) yesterday and slapped all six mines on German dugouts, they tell how a huge fragment from a 1-tonne bomb, that can easily kill an elephant on the spot, cut in mid-flight, as if with a razor, a Red Army soldier’s overcoat, padded jacket, tunic, under-shirt and did not damage even a tiniest bit of skin, did not let a single drop of blood come out. And telling all these stories, people laugh, and it all seems funny to you, and you laugh along yourself.
Company mortars are placed in the adjacent compartment of the factory basement. From here they shoot, from here they look at the enemy, here they sing, eat, listen to the gramophone. A thin ray of sunlight penetrates through the shield covering the basement window. The beam slowly crawled up along the leg of the bed, touched the boot of the man lying there, played on the metal button of the overcoat, crawled out onto the table and carefully, as if afraid of an explosion, touched a hand grenade lying next to the samovar. It crawled higher and higher, and this meant that the sun was setting, the winter evening was coming.
One usually says “a quiet evening”. But this evening could not be called quiet. First came a prolonged purring, then heavy and frequent explosions were heard, and all those sitting in the basement said with one voice: “The six-barrel played.” Then the same heavy explosions were heard and then a long distant rumble. And a few moments later, a single explosion went off. “Our long-range from the other shore,” said those sitting. And although there was shooting all the time, and the arrival of an evening in the dark, cold basement became noticeable only by the fact that the sunbeam was creeping upwards, and was already approaching the black, sooty ceiling, it was still a real quiet evening.
The Red Army soldiers started a gramophone.
— Which one to put? one asked.
Several voices answered at once:
— Put ours, that one, you know.
And a strange thing happened here. While the fighter was looking for the record, I thought: “It would be nice to hear here, in a black ruined basement, my favourite “Irish drinking song”(5). And suddenly a solemn, sad voice began to sing:
— There is a blizzard outside the windows…
Apparently, the Red Army soldiers liked the song very much. Everyone sat in silence. They repeated the same place ten times:
— My Lady Death, we ask of you / To wait outside the door…
These words, this naïve and ingenious Beethoven music sounded indescribably strong here. In war, a man knows a lot of hot, joyful bitter feelings, knows hatred and longing, knows grief and fear, love, pity, revenge. But rarely are people in a war visited by sadness. And in these words, in this music of a great and sorrowful heart, in this condescendingly mocking request:
— My Lady Death, we ask of you / To wait outside the door —
there was an indescribable power, a noble sadness.
And here, more than ever, I rejoiced at the great power of genuine art, the fact that Beethoven’s song was listened to solemnly, like a church service, by soldiers who spent three months face to face with death in this destroyed, mutilated, but not surrendered to the Nazis building.
To the sound of this song, in the semi-darkness of the basement, dozens of people of the Stalingrad defence – people who expressed all the greatness of the people’s soul – were solemnly and vividly remembered. I remembered the stern, irreconcilable in an Avvakumov way(6) Sergeant Vlasov, who held the river crossing. I remembered the sapper Brysin, a handsome, swarthy lad, not knowing fear in his Buslaevsk prowess, who was fighting alone – one against twenty in an empty two-story house. I remembered Podkhanov, who did not want to go to the left bank after being wounded. When the battle began, he got out of the dungeon, where the ambulance company was located, and, crawling to the front edge, fired from his rifle. I remembered how Sergeant Vyruchkin excavated the buried division headquarters under a hurricane of fire at a Tractor factory. He was digging with such impetuous fury that foam stood out on his lips. I remembered how, a few hours before, the same Vyruchkin rushed to a burning car with ammunition and knocked down the flames from it. And I remembered that the division commander could not thank Vyruchkin, because Vyruchkin was killed by a German mine. Maybe this soldier’s valour had been passed down in his blood from his great-grandfathers — forgetting about everything, rushing to help those in trouble. Maybe that’s why they gave their family the surname of the Vyruchkins(7).
And suddenly I remembered a letter written by a child’s hand, a letter lying next to a soldier killed in a bunker. “Good afternoon, and maybe evening. Hello, Father. I miss You a lot. Come over, so as to look at You at least for one hour. I’m writing, and tears are pouring down. Written by Your daughter, Nina.”
And I remembered this killed father. Maybe he was rereading the letter, feeling his approaching death, and the crumpled piece of paper remained lying near his head…
I remembered a fighter of the pontoon battalion Volkov. Wounded in the neck, with a split shoulder blade, he went for 30 kilometres, at times by crawling, at times by passing cars from the hospital to the ferry, and cried when he was taken back to the hospital. I remembered those that burned down in the village of the Tractor plant, but did not come out of the burning buildings and kept shooting until the last cartridge. I remembered those who fought for the “Barricades”(8) and for Mamayev Kurgan(9), those who withstood the German attacks in the Sculpture Garden(10), I remembered the battalion that perished in its entirety, from the commander to the left-flank fighter, defending the Stalingrad railway station. I remembered the wide, well-trodden road leading to the fishing settlement on the bank of the Volga – the road of glory and death; silent columns marching along it in the hot dust of August, on moonlit September nights, in the bad weather of October, in the November snow. They walked with heavy tread — anti-armour fighters, submachine gunners, riflemen, machine gunners, walked in solemn stern silence, and only their weapons jingled, and the ground hummed under their heavy step.
How to convey the feelings that came at this hour in the dark basement of the factory that did not surrender to the enemy, where I sat listening to a solemn and sad song, and looked at the thoughtful, stern faces of people in Red Army overcoats.
The city of Stalingrad.
1) The surname Zaitsev stems from the word “hare”.
2) Male and female forms of the honorary title of a best-yielding worker, named after coal miner Alexei Grigoryevich Stakhanov.
3) The quote was written in Ukrainian.
4)A 6-barrel German mine thrower Nebelwerfer, it had several by-names among the Russian troops, among them “fool” and “donkey”; and its shooting is described as “play” for its organ-like characteristic.
6) An area in the Pacific Far-East.
7) Vyruchkin translated as “rescuer” or “one, who comes to help out”.
8) “Barricades” is one of the largest machine-building factories in Stalingrad.
9) Mamaev Kurgan is a dominant height overlooking the city of Stalingrad. When forces of the German Sixth Army launched their attack against the city centre of Stalingrad on 13 September 1942, Mamayev Kurgan (appearing in military maps as “Height 102.0”) saw particularly fierce fighting between the German attackers and the defending soldiers of the Soviet 62nd Army.
10) The Sculpture Garden presently carries the name of Yuri Gagarin. During the War it was also known as “Airport” garden due to the parachute jumping tower built there. Read the history of the Garden and its defence in the translated article Defence of the Sculpture Garden in Stalingrad