The Soviet World

Totalitarianism and War through a Young Girl’s Eyes

1280px-fall_of_warsaw_in_1939
Fall of Warsaw, 1939

Many visitors to this site are probably familiar with the Eastern Front of WWII (or the “Great Patriotic War,” as it’s remembered by Russians and many other former Soviet nationalities). But for those of you who aren’t familiar with the historical and ideological context behind Anna’s story, I hope this brief overview of the Soviet world she inhabited will add some color to the story.

Anna YegorovaAnna’s memoir, told as a series of sixty brief vignettes, offers numerous illuminating glimpses into Soviet life and the cataclysmic events of the 20th Century.

In early chapters, we view many key events in modern Russian history through the eyes of an idealistic young girl who desperately wants to see the good in her world but is often bewildered by its contradictions. Young Anna argues with her mother about whether the revolution has brought progress to Russia; she joins the Komsomol (youth wing of the Communist Party) as a schoolgirl and encourages village peasants to join collective farms; and she participates in Stalin’s Five Year Plans by volunteering to help build the Moscow Metro.

While many of Anna’s descriptions feel familiar to us–sledding in a snowy forest and celebrating holidays with family–some of them have quite an alien, distinctly Soviet flavor. Here’s what she has to say about working at heavy physical labor, deep underground in the Moscow metro tunnels:

Anna, working in the Metro
Anna, working in the Metro

Such was the atmosphere in the mines that we hurried to work every day with happiness in our hearts. What a joy it was to feel useful and needed! As we chipped away at the frozen earth with picks and shovels, we felt fortunate to do such work and to know that after we were gone, we would leave our homeland something beautiful, built with our own two hands. -Yegorova, p. 24

It’s difficult to imagine a modern American teenager expressing this kind of chirpy zeal for manual labor; to American readers, Anna’s words at first glance appear impossibly earnest, even insincere. Many people assume she’s been thoroughly inculcated with Soviet propaganda, or that she’s afraid to say anything that veers from the Party orthodoxy.

Or perhaps it’s simply that the Soviet worldview is all Anna knows. At times, she almost seems to take the regime’s brutality as a matter of course. Here she describes Stalin’s notorious Order 227, of July, 1942, which implemented the severest penalties for retreating units:

“Its essence could be summed up in a few words: ‘Not a step backwards!’

Order 227 said that we must defend every meter of our land to the very last drop of our blood…It declared war on cowards, panicmongers, and those who subverted strict military discipline. The only way to defeat the enemy and save the motherland, the order said, was to obey.”  Yegorova, p. 109

For Soviet citizens, obedience was a matter of survival. But Stalin (and Lenin before him) aspired to alter not only human behavior, but in many ways, the mind itself. Communism was to create a new-and-improved social order by molding a new-and-improved type of Man, at whatever the cost in human life the regime deemed necessary. Unfortunately, Soviet power, with its “end justifies the means” logic, engendered murder and terror on a massive scale and utterly failed to re-shape man into some kind of Socialist Superman.

Instead, it rendered him abjectly fearful and effectively powerless to act independently. In this excerpt from Life and Fate, journalist Vasily Grossman’s epic novel of the Great Patriotic War, Grossman describes the insidious, nearly irresistible power of totalitarian repression on his main character, physicist Viktor Shtrum, and on the human spirit:

“...an invisible force was crushing him. He could feel its weight, its hypnotic power; it was forcing him to think as it wanted, to write as it dictated. The force was inside him; it could dissolve his will and cause his heart to stop beating…

Only people who have never felt such a force themselves can be surprised that others submit to it. Those who have felt it, on the other hand, feel astonished that a man can rebel against it even for a moment–with one sudden word of anger, one timid gesture of protest.” -Grossman, p. 672

But to imagine existence under Stalin’s reign as entirely devoid of light and warmth, or to view Soviet citizens as slavish ideologues, is to grossly oversimplify the matter. The complexity of the human mind and the fullness and multiformity of life itself cannot be painted with a single color, even in dark times. And so there’s more driving the teen-aged Anna’s fervor and her love of the Motherland than fear or indoctrination. There’s real patriotism there, and not of the jingoistic, flag-waving variety. Volunteering to actually do something for her country–in Anna’s case, helping to build what would become Moscow’s magnificent metro system and learning to fly in an Osoaviakhim flight school–gives Anna genuine pride in her work and a sense of being part of something important and larger than herself. Is she closing her eyes to bitter realities, or just making the most of things?

Konstantin Rotov, Krokodil, 1945 (From the Spartacus educational website)

 And what did it mean, exactly, to love your country when you happened to live in the Soviet Union under Stalin–a time of purges and a ravenous Gulag, secret police and forced collectivization, man-made famine and slave labor?

Patriotism, as opposed to nationalism, tribalism, or a simple loyalty to one’s village and family, was no simple matter in the USSR, a vast swath of geography containing many disparate nationalities. It was an empire that spurned those who loved it most. In 1937, Stalin’s Great Terror crescendoed, sweeping away legions of Old Bolsheviks, arguably the staunchest of the true believers in Soviet power and in the repressive institutions that served it. Before it was over, even the NKVD (secret police) itself had been ravaged, as had the Red Army.

Although the repression of this era does not entirely darken Anna’s memoir, shadows of these events appear throughout. In one of the early scenes, Anna is devastated to learn that her favorite brother has become a victim of the purges–declared an “enemy of the people” and sent to Norilsk, a labor camp in the Far North. Later, a letter from him details his harrowing barge journey north along the Yenisey River, in which he and his fellow political prisoners are terrorized by criminal gangs also on the transport. She herself suffers persecution because of her connection to him, a “zek” (a political prisoner in the Gulag system), and is summarily expelled from military flight school. Toward the end of the book, she becomes a victim herself.  Along with many thousands of fellow Soviet soldiers, she is treated with suspicion and interrogated by the NKVD’s “SMERSh” counter-intelligence departments because she has been a POW in a Nazi camp.

(Quoted from Richard Overy’s “Russia’s War”: “In August {1941} the notorious Order Number 270 was issued, condemning all those who surrendered or were captured as ‘traitors to the motherland.'” p. 80-1)

Anna offers us these recollections without judgement–she’s no dissident or disillusioned ideologue, but a consummate optimist who tends to see the good in human beings and their institutions and to view the failings of both as aberrations. It’s possible that some of Anna’s glimpses into the past are blurred by a misty sort of nostalgia–one that’s common to her generation of veterans and survivors of their Great Patriotic War. In “Ivan’s War,” Catherine Merridale’s social history of the ordinary Soviet soldier during WWII, she describes the steadfast patriotism of the war generation and the lingering myth of “Ivan,” the unwavering soldier-hero, that was born in the war’s wake:

War refugees
War refugees (From Yegorova’s personal photos)

Patriotism, in 1941, was a radical, liberating, and even revolutionary ideal…At last true patriots had an invader to repel, rather than shadow traitors conjured by the secret police…for to be patriotic, in the Soviet sense, was once again to be the proud leader of the proletarian campaign for universal brotherhood. It was to be opposed to Fascism, the very cruelty of which, as it became manifest, forced millions to place their hope in socialism.”  -Merridale, p. 373

The wartime generation’s belief in their mythological version of the war–a simple, victorious struggle against Fascist aggression, of Good defeating Evil–imbued them with a sense of fierce pride in a just cause hard-won, and won at an immense, nearly unfathomable cost. The sheer scale of that conflict is difficult to comprehend; but without a sense of it, it’s impossible to understand the veterans’ staunch patriotism, even in the face of their nation’s manifold betrayals of them–not the least of which was its failure to deliver the increased freedom so many soldiers thought the end of the war would bring.

Consider the death toll: an estimated twenty-seven million Soviet citizens died during the war, eight million of them soldiers. Hitler’s aim was not merely to defeat the Slavic peoples of the East, but to wipe them from the face of the earth. Surrender was not an option. The Nazis assiduously followed Hitler’s scorched-earth policy in Ukraine, Belorussia, and Russia, obliterating tens of thousands of villages and towns, leaving the smoking ruins of many great cities in their wake, filling the dank earth with the mass graves of Slavs and Jews, starving Soviet POWs by the thousands, and deporting hundreds of thousands of young people for slave labor.

“A German tank will not pass here!”

According to historian Catherine Merridale, who interviewed more than 200 veterans for “Ivan’s War,”, the soldiers and airmen who took part in this epic conflict and survived it preferred to reflect on the myth of their Great Patriotic War than the reality of it. “...People seldom enjoy revisiting the memory of pain,” (p. 189) she writes; and the Soviet censors made the most of the veterans’ instinct to remain silent about the more complicated aspects of war: desertion, officers’ incompetence, actual Soviet casualty rates, collaboration, and war crimes committed by Soviet soldiers didn’t figure into the official histories. And the survivors’ version, focused on heroic feats and glorious wartime ballads, suited them just fine: “It kept things simple, after all, and allowed a ration of dignity–on Stalin’s terms–to veterans.” -Merridale, p. 189

At the same time, the untold story lay buried deep, nearly forgotten, within the psyche of the wartime generation: Stalin’s 1937 purge of the military, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland in 1939, the suffering of Leningraders left to starve during the blockade, the catastrophic retreats of 1941-2–none of these could exist officially, and so they began to disappear entirely, even from memory:

“As ever in the Soviet world, people were being asked to say one thing, to subscribe in public to one version, while knowing something else, at least with some part of their minds. The Red Army, the people’s savior, was prime territory for the myths.” Merridale, p. 190

Still, most myths arise from a seed of truth. As George Orwell writes:

The truth about atrocities is far worse than that they are lied about and made into propaganda… These things really happened,…even though Lord Halifax said they happened.” -Orwell, “Looking Back on the Spanish War“:

Taran! The weapon of heroes
Taran! The weapon of heroes

Or more to the point, the Germans really did commit atrocities, even though Stalin said they did. And some soldiers really did commit unimaginably, suicidally heroic acts: the mythic infantryman armed with a grenade diving under a tank, the airman ramming a German fighter in flight—these men existed by the hundreds, even though they featured prominently in wartime propaganda posters.

And the USSR really did stand fast against Nazism, arguably playing the largest role of all the Allies in Germany’s defeat. Without question, the Soviets sacrificed the lion’s share of lives in that struggle.

To my mind, stories like these, and like Anna Yegorova’s, are a testament to the inexhaustible spark of the human spirit. A regime like Stalin’s may dim its light, may make it flicker and waver, but it cannot extinguish it outright. Ramming a Junkers 88 in the air is not the act of a slave, nor is Anna’s refusal to cry out in pain in a Nazi camp as her captors tear away her burned skin. Each is an act of freedom, the freedom of the mind to choose hope, courage, and human decency, even in the face of lies and contempt for human life. It  is the triumph of man over ideology.

Ultimately, that’s Vasily Grossman’s message in “Life and Fate“, a gripping and comprehensive portrait of the Soviet people during the war’s turning point. Grossman’s holy fool, Ikonnikov, pens a treatise on the subjugation of man to a specious Common Good, just before going to his death by refusing to work in a Nazi crematorium. Here is his conclusion:

“Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” -Grossman, p. 410

-KG   Bastille Day, 2009

Ju_52_approaching_Stalingrad_late_1942.jpg
A Ju-52 near Stalingrad, 1942

3 thoughts on “The Soviet World

  1. I am just starting to learn about Anna and she was one of the most gutsy women of whom I’ve ever heard. The IL 2 probably took a lot of ground fire as well as being vulnerable to fighters. What skill and courage. It is unconscionable how she was treated after the war. I will read more of this interesting blog about the lady military pilots and life in the USSR.

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