( my traditional June 22nd article)
"And the marble of lieutenants,
The plywood monument'
B. Slutzky (in translation)
In a very good WWII novel "The Young Lions' by Irvin Shaw there is a scene when Noah Akerman spends his first night with his future wife Hope. That takes place on the June 22nd. They listen to the radio after making love and hear about the German invasion of Russia. Then Hope says, "I will remember this day, June 22nd forever."
I first read that book in Russian translation. I remember feeling a profound disbelief and disgust when I read that episode. How could a person associate that day with something joyful, something positive. On that day my dad was bombed in a children's camp. On that day thousands died and that was only a start of the slaughter. That day did not live in infamy. It lived in horror.
Now, after 70 years had passed since that day, in another country and watching the bombing of Libya I understand Hope better. Horrors are a part of life anyway; joys of true love are rare. Her own world was complete at that moment and although Noah Akerman eventually was sucked into the mangle of war, that very day would be the only shining beacon in her life further on. Somebody must remember something good about every day.
The young Soviet Army lieutenants knew that well. The whole group of them were former poets and writers; those of them who survived became the founding fathers of the so-called "prose of lieutenants'- the first series of publications about the true face of the war. Those who did not survive got the plywood monument. But not only that. They became a legend. That legend comes with whatever remained of them as people and here's what one of them said ,
-In that horror we experienced freedom beyond measure.
I was always wondering about the deep unfairness of the people's perceptions. Freedom is associated only with something specifically Western. To claim the understanding of freedom you must be born in the democracy. You must then live under the freedoms of the free world. Free, free- we hear that noise all the time. Here, in the US the WWII is described as the struggle of the forces of freedom against the forces of totalitarian regimes. How does Russian fit here? How does the real winner of that war fit the perception molding? The proper way to find out should be to understand what kind of people they were, those 30.4 million drafted men and women volunteers who were summoned by Russia to fight for her. Or maybe not just for her. How did they say,
- .. That fight to death is not for fame and glory but for the very life on Earth..'
This is something puzzling here, right? Those people were supposed to be oppressed, gloomy, marginal after more than 20 years of dictatorial rule. They were supposed to be happy that someone from outside came to liberate them from that government of theirs. Instead they rallied around it and proclaimed a Holy War. And in that war they saw a freedom beyond measure. Paradox? Or a challenge?
They were very young those lieutenants. Most of them died in battle before they had a chance to kiss a girl. The cadets of the Podolsk military artillery school constituted two battalions armed by old cannons. They received an order from the general, future Marshal Zhukov to delay for three days the movement of the elite German tank division towards Moscow. That division before was in the tank group which sliced France in half. German tank division of course was supported by abundant infantry and aviation. And they were mostly SS. There was only one similarity between Germans and Russians ; Germans were as young. And there was one most significant difference- it was a Russian soil.
The Podolsk cadets were smart. They graduated with honors post mortem. The tank division could not move any further for three days. And when after three days it moved it was not a division anymore. And on their way now there two fresh Siberian armies.
In the novel "Storm' by G. Stewart a retired general of WWI in charge of the levees muses about the dilemma of the water rising: if it rises enough it can disrupt the businesses of the townsfolk but if he opens the levees the towns will be spared but the farmland down below will be flooded and damaged forever. And the businesspeople from the town push and push him to open the levees. He can't understand them. To him the farmlands are eternal and businesses are something which is not tangible. He can't sacrifice the farmlands. He still uses the war logic when he sometimes had to engage his boys in seemingly senseless attacks. But no, those attacks helped other boys on other fronts and how do you win the war otherwise? He was in the domain of real things. Farmlands were real things. He was there to protect them.
So why could not the German division slice those cadets like it sliced France? Or maybe it is not the right question to ask? Maybe the proper understanding starts with humility: it is obvious that those cadets possessed qualities we lack. What were those qualities? Freedom of soul? How? And why weren't Germans their match?