B O O K 2
P A R T 1 2
C H A P T E R 2
The above-cited paradox noted by Rabelais deeply reveals the real and often hidden causes of defeats and victories in military battles. Sometimes it is not bravery, patriotism or military skill that decides the fate of countries and governments, but despair, the psychological state of soldiers and officers. Sometimes I was a witness of absolutely senseless but very brave behavior of young people who wanted to avoid suffering.
At the end of 1940 I was called to the military commission of Bor town and was enquired about my military past, participation in the Civil War, my military duties and ranks. After that they asked why I was repressed. In a week they called me again and informed me that I would be registered as a soldier. I was not worried. After the Civil War Political Management of the Russian Republic tried to send me to Military Academy but I refused, I did not want a military carrier, I wanted to study. When the Second World War began I supposed that former prisoners would be sent to concentration camps. But the fate made the next unexpected turn. I went to Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod) to the Pedagogical Institute. Mobilized people marched along the streets accompanied with women, old men and children. There were many tears and crying but the orchestra played bravura marches. The orchestra stopped playing and a young man on the right side sang:
The war has begun…
More than 20 years ago I sang this song when going to the war against Denikin, Vrangel, ataman Grigoriev. But then I did not think of the sense of this song’s words. Why “All of us will die”? This is obviously senseless. The revolution is made for life. A column of young recruits was walking, young men 17-18 years old. They sang with enthusiasm a well-known song “Kahovka”. I thought of what would happen to these cheerfully walking young men who can’t possibly imagine the horrors of war. I entered the Institute. There was silence in the corridors, the groups of lively students disappeared. Many students and teachers already received call-up papers. A familiar teacher came up to me and said in low voice: “Here we have: “We don’t want somebody else’s land, and won’t give a meter of ours”. The Georgian prophet should better dance a Georgian dance than make forecasts”.
The teacher of history at our school, the head mistress’s husband, was also mobilized; he became a commissar of a battalion though he had never been in the army. At school meetings he spoke only of the last decisions of the Central Committee. On the 10th of July he was mobilized, and on the 2nd of August his family received a notice of his heroic death. His wife changed awfully, her face became yellow, the eyes became sunken, and her face was covered with wrinkles. Everybody felt pity towards her. On the fourth of September my wife and I visited the Yuzovs family. We spoke of school affairs. Our daughters came from Gorky, they told us that the students of senior courses were offered to go to Army as volunteers, nobody dared to refuse. In the evening the pouring rain broke out, spurts knocked on the windows, the wind buzzed. We were sitting till 12 o’clock when somebody knocked violently on the door.
My wife grew pale and began to bite on her nails as she was doing when agitated. We decided that NKVD workers came to arrest me. But it was only a call-up paper from the military commission. I had to come to the Bor military commission on the 5th of September at 7 o’clock in the morning. I felt relieved: it was not jail, but army. This night we did not sleep, but collected things in a sack. At 6 o’clock in the morning we went to the town of Bor, the Yuzovs and several pupils saw me off. In the huge yard near the military commission a lot of people gathered, women wept noisily. Maria Adamovna Shlykov came running with a daughter. A tall man came out of the military commission building and read a list of mobilized people; we were ordered to return our passports. We were ordered to form a column and move to the Volga bank where we were loading to a barge. My wife moved further together with me. We came to the Gorky military commission. I got a permission to call upon my son who was in a hospital. A week ago he fell seriously ill and was hospitalized in Gorky. When we saw our son, we were upset: he was very pale and weak. Again I was leaving my family as in 1934 after Kirov’s murder and did not know when I would come back or whether I would. We had to return to the military commission. The huge building was crowded with mobilized people and their relatives. My wife and I sat on the floor in the corner and spoke all night. I was grieved very much that I could not say good-bye to my daughters. Early in the morning again the list of those mobilized was read out and we moved to Gorky railway-station. There a train of goods vans for us was already standing. I said good-bye to my wife; I parted with my family for 14 years. We were given vans used earlier for cattle; the dust was not removed; only two-store plank-beds were built.
When the train moved, women and children began howling dismally. My wife waved with her handkerchief, tears shedding from her eyes. Somebody threw a sack with black dried crust and peas into the van. I received an upper plank-bed, a young man, Gennady Knyazev, a student of Gorky Pedagogical Institute, was accommodated beside me. An actor of Gorky Dramatic Theatre was near us and a teacher of the Pedagogical Institute was near the window. Rocking under the rumble of wheels I tried to assess the situation. I was sure that in the prolonged and hard war with Germany the USSR would win. There would be enormous sacrifices: for the tyrant sitting in the Kremlin, human life was nothing. German fascism would be destroyed but there would be no forces to get rid of Stalinists-fascists. Knyazev was a talkative young man. He told that only he was mobilized from the third course of the Institute because his father had been repressed. Soon we got to know that many mobilized people had ether their father or brother imprisoned on “political grounds”. In the morning of September 7th we arrived at Vologda. We were led to the railway station by groups of 100, where we received pasta. The railway station was packed with soldiers, some of them wounded. People lied on the dirty floor. It was similar to the situation during the Civil War. 20 years passed since then, and it was the same disorder, the same clumsiness of the Russian colossus. Our train moved to the north. German airplanes flew and threw bombs in a rather chaotic way. Every time after a strong explosion a huge man with a black beard went down on his knees and crossed himself. He was religious and he said that he would not take weapons in his hands. Our train stopped in the open field near Segezha. We were brought here to evacuate a paper-mill, but it turned out that the paper-mill had already been evacuated. We had nothing to do, except wandering in the empty town; the inhabitants had been evacuated with the paper-mill. We saw a lot of bomb-holes. Old men and women wandered about the town, they cried and implored us to take them into our train. Their children left them without means for living. In this way the Eskimos used to behave, when they went to a new place, they left their weak parents in the frost and they gradually were frozen to death. Here is the “progressive” mankind and humanity of our epoch. I spoke with a very old man, his hands shivered, it was a tremor on his face. He said his son was the chief engineer of the paper-mill, he did not want to take his father with him, he said that it would be difficult. We wanted to take several old men to our car, but the commissar of the train objected, he called us “rotten liberals”.
On the other side of the railway there was a big Karelian-Russian village where also old men and women stayed,they refused to leave their native place. They said: “we want to die here, where our grandfathers and grand grandfathers died’. Cows, hens and ducks wandered along the streets, a hen could be bought for a small price. We bought several hens, plucked and fried them on the bonfire. Several days the train stayed in this place, nobody needed us. The commissar of the train tried to find our chief. At last we were submitted to the 20th field construction of the Karelian front. It was situated on the bank of Segozero. We were unloaded from the train and led to the 20th field construction. On the way I admired the charms of the north. Segozero was almost square, surrounded with mighty woods of conifers and Karel birches. We saw partridges and heard wood- grouses. Segozero is to the north-west from Onega Lake and to the West from Vygozero. This lake system became the basis of the Belomor-Baltic canal. We slept in the open. Everybody was dressed in summer clothes; I only had a light cloak. A strong wind blew from the lake, I was freezing. Knyazev also was chilled to the bone. We found some planks and lied. Somebody slept in fishermen’s boats. In the middle of the night we were woken up and ordered to embark on the fishermen’s boats. We crossed Segozero and reached a big fishermen’s village. Here also only old men and women stayed. Though most of the houses were free the chiefs decided to accommodate us in a big barn with wet fishermen’s nets on the floor. We were so tired that lied on this wet but soft bedding. Soon everybody began to cough, and the chiefs offered us to go to the vacant houses. Gennady, I and two actors went to a house where a chimney smoked. A kind little old woman met us, she was very amiable. She immediately put a big kettle with potatoes into a Russian stove. The old woman asked us about the war, we could not say anything comforting. When we took off our wet clothes, sat in the warm house and began to eat hot potatoes it seemed to us that we found ourselves in a heavenly place. Then a big Samovar was put on the table; we felt happy. Earlier, a partisan detachment of about 200 soldiers went through the village. In the evening the detachment came back, the soldiers were sent to the same houses where our men had been. In our house the commander of the partisans stayed, a stumpy young man in a Caussac hat.
A young Karel came with him with an order of Red Star on his breast, he was a local hunter, he knew all the paths, and he was the guide of the partisan detachment. The detachment was going to the rear of the Finnish military units. The young partisans looked very tired, dressed in light clothes; many of them had high shoes with puttees instead of boots. After several days we learned that almost all the regiment was annihilated. Who will be responsible for the death of these people, who were sent to death? We were directed to Maselsky .The road was difficult, many broken bricks and big boulders in our way, the remnants of glaciers. We were very tired when we came to Maselsky. This small town is to the South from Segezha and to the South-East from Segozero. By this time the Finnish units already captured Sortavala in the North of Ladoga lake and Suoyarvy in the North-East and were moving in the direction of Maselsky. They were moving in the North of Petrozavodsk. Probably, because of that the 20-th field construction decided to strengthen this strategically significant area using our detachment. It was the next folly of our “strategists”: ill-assorted mass of Gorky citizens, untrained, was not a military unit.
All that showed the utmost confusion not only of the 20-th field construction but of the whole Finnish front in the autumn of 1941. We were to dig trenches, there were not spades enough, we dug in turn. When the construction works were finished a gun was brought and we received rifles. I was appointed a commander of section. A field kitchen came, we were given hot cabbage soup with meat; it appeared that in Maselsky railway station there was left a store-house with a lot of food when the executive personnel ran away. Red Army units went through Maselsky - mostly untrained young soldiers. They were dressed in old greatcoats and torn boots. Many of them had sore feet and moved slowly. Such military units were thrown against the Finnish Army.
The North autumn came. The sky was covered with grey clouds, it rained continuously. We stood in trenches with water up to our knees. Only in the evening we got warm near an iron stove. We were accommodated in houses near Maselsky station. The walls were covered with bugs; cockroaches were running on the floor. The whole night we struggled with the insects. There was no bath-house, the linen was not changed and lice appeared. But newspapers came regularly. We read about the brilliant leadership of our beloved leader.
I fell ill with pneumonia and was sent to medical unit to Segozersk. There were only two beds in this unit. The doctor, a young woman, paid little attention to me, she was always running somewhere. In two days Gennady Knyazev arrived with appendicitis fit. Unexpectedly Karel scout appeared; he said that Finns were at 10 kilometres from Segozero. Panic arose, the doctor did not come, though Knyazev had second appendicitis fit, I had high temperature 39 degrees C. Early in the morning we heard noise, footfall of running people, hysterical shouts of women and children. In spite of our hard condition Knyazev and I went out. We saw a large group of people including our doctor climbing on Lorries with children and baggage. Two Lorries moved and there remained one. We asked to take us but they answered that they took people only according to the list. We moved to Segozero, but were also late: a tug with a barge already left, loaded with children, women and a group of soldiers. We felt like outcasts. But we had to do something. We walked to Maselsky station along the bank. Wherefrom we had the strength? With difficulty we went 5 kilometres and suddenly saw a group of soldiers in grey greatcoats and boots. We took them for our Karelian units and soon understood that we were mistaken. They were Finns. We ran to the wood and lied in a hole half full of water. They did not notice us; they were busy with the tug on Segozero. Finnish officers watched the tug and barge through field-glasses, one of them shouted: “Embark to the bank, nothing will be done to you, you will stay in your houses.’ But the tug continued to move forward. The Finnish officer cried: “If you won’t stop, we will shoot.” The tug went on. Then the Finns began to shoot at the tug from a small gun, and immediately hit the target. We heard hart-breaking yells of women and children. Many people plunged into the water. The Finns stopped shooting, the officer speaking Russian said: “It is your fault.” Knyazev and I continued to lie in the hole, we even forgot our diseases. Looking out of the hole I noticed that somebody was swimming to the bank but was strangely waving his hands, he was drowning. I whispered to Knyazev that we had to save the drowning man. Knyazev tried to stop me, he said that the Finns would find us, but still I crawled to the bank and pulled out a quite weakened boy about 12-13 years old. Both of us crawled to the hole. Knyazev was right, the Finns noticed us. Several men came to the hole and began to shout laughing: “hu ve paive (hellow).” We rose, water flew down from our clothes, our faces and hands were covered with mud. We were led to a wide asphalt road. I saw for the first time a regular unit of Finnish army.
At the head of a column several officers went dressed in rather light clothes. After them motorcyclists followed and further a column of cars and Lorries with officers and soldiers. About 100 captives were collected. We were witnesses of a rather funny scene. Between captives a Carel coachman with a horse and a carriage was. The carriage was loaded with boxes of butter. The coachman addressed the Finns in the language known to them and asked to take butter and to let him go home. One of the officers ordered to give butter to the captives. The captives, between them officers, rushed to the carriage, captured the boxes, hastily threw off the covers and began greedily eat the butter and fill their pockets with it. Finns looking at this scene were laughing. Gennady and I did not come to the carriage. I felt sick to see it. A Finnish officer came up to us and said: ”Take the butter, please.” I shook my head. Then one of the captives ran to us and tried to shove butter into our pockets. I sharply pushed aside the hand of this complaisant man. After that Finns began to watch me with interest.