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Leonid Veger, scout

Written by Leonid Veger
Published on Wednesday, 28 October 2009 13:04
Last Updated on
Read 12397 times

Leonid Leonidovich Veger, born in 1924 in a family of convicted anarchists living in Solovki. Volunteered for the Red Army after finishing middle school in 1942. In 1943 was seriously wounded and received Category 2 Disability status. Was accepted into the Engineering/Economics department of the Moscow Aviation Institute in 1944, and graduated in 1949. Worked in factories and research institutes and obtained Masters and Doctoral degrees. Published 5 monographs and over 100 scientific articles. Most recently employed as a senior researcher at the Economics Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

A «pro forma» attack

For two weeks now our Guards brigade is fighting alongside a brigade of naval infantry. We each take turns to lead the attack against the German defenses while the other unit replenishes itself. This time, it's the naval infantry's turn, and they mount a particularly inspired attack. They always did it differently from us — we attacked in complete silence, while their loud «Urrra-a-a!» made even our skin crawl, and technically we were behind them. It's almost as if you couldn't stop them, that even their wounded would keep crawling forward until they tore the enemy apart with their teeth (these days, paranormal experts would call it a «massive energy wave» rolling before the attacking infantrymen, suppressing and scattering any opposition - L.V.).

It was just like that this morning. First the Germans fell back from their trenches, then from some warehouses in front of the township, then from the township itself. They were in such a panic that they left behind a truck loaded with bottles of schnapps. Skeptics later claimed that they have done so on purpose. Regardless, within the hour all the surviving attackers drank themselves to unconsciousness.

When the Germans counterattacked a little while later, there was no-one left to repel them, and they retook the township. Those infantrymen sprawled out in the open were shot where they lay, while the ones sleeping it off in backyards and other hidden places remained undiscovered for the time being.

While this was taking place, our brigade had started to occupy the abandoned German trenches and the scout platoon deployed forward to one of the warehouses. One of the naval infantrymen ran back from the township and told us what happened. The platoon commander took him down to HQ, then came back an hour later and told me:

- Leonid, take the platoon and lead an attack.

He chose me quite deliberately. I was a conscientious, na?ve 18-year old kid, a member of the Komsomol who, if that wasn't enough, wanted to prove his bravery to his comrades. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that we had to attack the township and rescue the naval infantry. I started getting ready, when suddenly I noticed that my platoon has disappeared — the guys «camouflaged» themselves as soon as the commander came back from HQ.

- Vanja, where's the platoon? Who do I attack with?

He looked around and took note that the platoon has, indeed, disappeared.

- Take the partisans — he said.

A small band of partisans was attached to our platoon a few days ago after we liberated Mineralnye Vody.

- Vanja, how am I supposed to attack with just seven guys?

- What can you do — you'll have to manage somehow. It's an order straight from the HQ. And the battalion is just getting up to the frontline. Go on, don't worry, they'll support you.

- Follow me! — I ordered the partisans and dashed out of the warehouse. The partisans followed. We ran for about a hundred meters before the Germans started shooting, then went to ground. The second dash was made under fire, and so we had to go down after thirty meters. I took time to plan my next run — mentally marked out a spot about twenty meters ahead where I'd drop, and a small depression nearby into which I could crawl to get some cover. Everything happened exactly as I planned it — and now I'm hugging the ground in the little depression, apparently a former puddle, and suddenly I feel that something just isn't quite right. I look back without lifting my head from the ground and see that I'm alone. The partisans, unused to open combat, lost their nerve and disappeared.

And so now I'm stuck all alone in the middle of some township square. The Germans are shooting at me from the nearest houses, about two hundred meters away. I shift my spare ammo disc to my side and try to push myself further into the former puddle. The brain is working feverishly:

- What to do? Get up and run all the way back? That won't work, they'll just shoot you down. Open fire on the Germans — they're close enough, and very visible.

The instinct for self-preservation kicks in:

- So you'll kill a few Germans, but then they'll never let up until you're dead.

Finally, I decide to just play dead. After a while, the Germans stop shooting, I quickly glance in their direction and see them concentrating near the houses, getting ready to attack. I figure I need to scram before I become the attack's first casualty — I look around, and see a chicken coop about thirty-forty meters to the left and a bit back. I wait for an opportune moment, then suddenly jump up and leg it for the coop as fast as I can, and finally drop behind one of the walls. The Germans start shooting again, the bullets are punching right through the clay walls but it's not aimed fire this time, not as dangerous. When the shooting finally dies down, I wait for another half hour or so, and start running back to the warehouse, swerving like a rabbit trying to throw the hounds off my trail. The Germans are still too busy getting ready for the counterattack, and almost completely ignore me. Back in the warehouse I find the platoon commander and tell him about the failed attack. I'm shocked as he praises my efforts instead of berating me.

Later on, an acquaintance working comms at the HQ told me the battalion CO sent a report to his superiors that the order to counterattack the township was carried out, but that the battalion was repulsed. After hearing that I understood that at the front, some attacks are made «pro forma».

Attacking for show

As darkness fell our unit relieved a worn out, barely existent cavalry regiment. They went to the rear to take replacements while we occupied their trenches. For some reason, the place was strewn with Cossack sabers — apparently, having discovered their uselessness the cavalrymen discarded them just like we had thrown away our bayonets. Our officers, barely older than any of us, immediately put the sabers on and wound up parading around the trenches with them all evening.

Our scout platoon took up several trenches near the bunker with the battalion HQ. We were probably going to attack in the morning, but meanwhile there was nothing to do to pass the time. Several of us from the platoon climbed out from the trenches and went for a «stroll» through no man's land.

Even after all these years I can't figure out what made us do things like that. No-one gave us any orders, and we weren't old enough or wise enough to understand the importance of scouting out terrain before an attack. Most likely, we were spurred on by curiosity, or by a boyish lust for adventure.

And so, we walked towards the German trenches, carefully peering into the darkness and listening to the distant sounds of the front: the rumble of artillery, the bursting of gun and mortar shells (I remember, I was astonished and even frightened by the silence that greeted me when I first woke up in a rear-area hospital — L. Veger). For some reason though, we didn't hear the usual bursts of small arms and machine gun fire as we neared the German trenches.

Then we came upon the first trench line. We got to within 50 meters, but still, no gunfire, no voices. We could have turned back, but somehow kept crawling forward, expecting a bullet in the gut at any moment. Finally we got to the trenches and saw that they looked completely empty. We decided to check if the Germans are just sleeping in their bunkers without any sentries — two guys went to the right while I moved to the left along the trench lip without jumping in. After some distance, I saw a communications trench going back to the German rear and followed it. The trench ended in front of a bunker. The door was closed; I paused for a moment. Opening the door with the Germans still inside was pretty risky. At first I thought of just tossing a grenade in through the ventilation shaft, but then decided to chance it with the door.

With my SMG readied in my right hand, I carefully pried the door open with my left and pushed my way in. The bunker was silent, and after my vision adjusted to the gloom I saw that it was quite empty.

As usual, the Germans had left in an orderly fashion. All the bottles emptied, nothing edible left behind. I went back outside and joined my companions. We searched a few more bunkers, failed to find anything interesting and, seeing as it was almost first light, started a leisurely walk back to our lines.

Just as we got to our trenches and turned in, we were roused by a great deal of noise. The battalion was getting ready to attack the German trench line. Unusually, the attacking force included the entire battalion HQ headed by the CO himself. I went up to him and told him that the German trenches were empty.

- How do you know? — he asked suspiciously.

- Because we were there llast night.

I saw some doubt in his eyes. It must be said that, empty trenches or not, the bullets still kept whistling overhead. There are always stray bullets whistling over the frontline, seemingly born out of thin air. Even when there aren't any Germans in front of you, the bullets are still whistling. The veterans hardly pay them any attention — you can't spend your whole time at the front crawling around on your belly. First-timers, on the other hand, always react to them, and that's how you spot the new guys at the front.

Regardless, the attack went in by the book. The attacking infantry dashed forward, went to ground, then got up and dashed forward again, the signals man was stringing the field telephone line behind the battalion CO. We were walking alongside, fully upright, and feeling very uncomfortable: serious, mature, respected commanders were crawling on the ground right next to us while we just strolled along. We heard the CO report back to brigade HQ that he is personally leading the attack, that the assault is proceeding as planned, that they're getting ready for the final push towards the German trenches.

For their personal participation in the attack, the battalion HQ officers were decorated for bravery by the brigade.


- I can't give you leave,— said the battalion CO.— You have to get permission from the brigade commander, and he still hasn't gotten back to HQ. You really can't live without seeing your aunt?

- Well yeah, she was practically my mother. She took me in after mom died, and I was living with her in Essentuki the last three years.

- Fine, go without leave, but I want you back here by morning.

A couple of hours before this, our battalion entered Zheleznovodsk, only about 20 kilometers from Essentuki which was liberated a day earlier. One of the town's streets led in the right direction, and I cheerfully marched along imagining the reaction of the girls in my class seeing me in uniform. Near the edge of town I went to the last house and banged on the door. Back in those days, especially at night, most residents would just stay still hoping for whoever it was to move on. But, after becoming convinced that I wouldn't just go away, an old man's voice sounded:

- What do you want?

- Where's the road to Essentuki? — I asked.

- Just keep going down this one.

I kept marching on. After a couple of kilometers I ran into a pack of jackals tearing at a dead horse in the middle of the road. I walked up to about ten meters away, and still they wouldn't run off.

«The nerve of them,— I thought, and let of a burst with my SMG in their direction.— And a lot more of them now, too!» Of course, that wasn't surprising — there was no shortage of food for them. Whole hosts of bloated equine corpses were strewn alongside the roads. Sad, really. They're completely unprepared for modern war — can't hide in a trench or a cellar, can't even lie down. Meanwhile, the air is swarming with bullets, shells, shrapnel.

Some time ago we were bivouacked next to a horse-drawn battery. During one of the bombing raids, one of their horses — a beautiful load horse whom we all liked to watch when he was led down to the river every evening — lost half its face to a piece of shrapnel. The eyes were there, still looking at us, but instead of the front part — the nose, the mouth — there was only white bone. His minder, an elderly soldier, had tears in his eyes when he led the horse out of the township to put him down. And even though we were used to death, for some reason we all were really sad about this one horse.

I kept on towards Essentuki. Finally, I started seeing familiar landmarks — the «English Garden», the railroad crossing. The city park, where just six months before my friends and I were hanging out, listening to open-air concerts, prancing around on the dance floor. Just a little while longer, and I could knock on my aunt's door. Won't auntie be surprised. Expecting her joyous welcome, I began to sing. For whatever reason, it was some dumb jazzy tune:

I like my girl, yes sir I do,
Her walk as light as an elephant's,
Her long nose and her bald spot too,
I still do like her, yes I do....

- Comrade soldier! — my singing was suddenly interrupted.— Your documents!

A patrol walked up to me. The soldiers all looked too clean, too polished. Probably hadn't seen combat yet. I cheerfully explained to them that I was from the scout platoon of the 1st Battalion 7th Brigade 10th Guards Airborne Corps, and that I was going to visit my auntie, who happens to live right around that corner there, and that I had to get back to my unit by morning.

- Your leave pass,— demanded the patrol leader.

- Are you kidding me guys?! What leave pass? The brigade HQ was who knows where and the battalion CO just let me off for the night without a pass.

- Not my problem. Give me a leave pass.

We argued like that for some time.

- All right, let's go. We'll sort this out back at the town administration.

Seeing that there's no way around this, I went with them.

The town administration happened to be in a former hospital building. The officer on duty, for some reason wearing a naval uniform, was situated in the director's office.

- We got a deserter,— reported the patrol leader.

For the umpteenth time I explained my side of the story. The officer was visibly nodding off and barely paying attention to me.

- Take his weapon, put him inside with the rest. We'll sort this out in the morning.

The patrol, back near the door, started moving at me, and I just lost it. The rest happened almost like in a dream — I jumped to the side, raised the SMG from my hip, took the safety off and pointed it the patrol. For whatever reason, the first words out of me were full of pathos:

- The Guards never give up their weapons! I'll shoot if necessary!

The patrol froze up, somewhat confused. In the strained silence, the officer's hand inched closer to his holster. I pointed the SMG at him. Fortunately, he turned out to be a cool customer, and broke the tense silence with a calm command:

- All right, take him away as is.

The detention hall contained about thirty disarmed soldiers, some standing, some sitting, some sprawled on the floor. Several were drunk. I found myself a spot and lay down, dark thoughts on my mind. Instead of strolling along the town, parading before the girls, I was in the jailhouse. Tomorrow they'd probably ship me off to a penal unit, and that'd be the last I see of my battalion, my comrades. After a while, I finally drifted off to sleep.

In the morning, we got some new guards and they took us out to the backyard to relieve ourselves. Afterwards, the prisoners started back to the detention hall. I was standing in the corner of the yard ignoring the proceedings as if they had nothing to do with me. The guard let one prisoner back in after another, and after the last one looked at me quizzically. I kept standing still, half-facing him, keeping my weapon conspicuous. I was trembling on the inside, and deathly afraid to look him in the eye and betray myself. He kept looking at me for a while, then turned around and went in after the other prisoners.

I remembered this hospital well. A year ago the doctors here gave me 24 shots in the belly after a dog bite. After strolling around the yard a little more, I confidently marched up the porch and got back on the street through a side entrance.

I almost ran from that place, as if I had wings.

- Comrade soldier! — I suddenly heard an imposing voice. My heart skipped a beat. Did someone notice my escape after all? I turned my head to see a short major dressed in a brand new uniform walking towards the town administration.

- Why aren't you saluting a superior officer?

«Honey,— flashed in my mind.— I'd kiss you all over, not just salute you. Thank God you just want me to salute you. I'd do anything for you not to take me back to that place.»

With feeling, and in a humble voice, I begged for his forgiveness and swear to never again break protocol. He gave me a brief lecture, then let me go.

I ran to my house through some side streets, and knocked on the door. Once, twice. Silence.


As per the documents archived by the Stavropol Region Investigative Commission tasked with finding and investigating the crimes of German-Fascist occupiers and their collaborators in the town of Essentuki committed during the period of its occupation from 11 August 1942 to 11 January 1943, the list of (Jewish) citizens of the town of Essentuki shot by the occupiers includes Veger, Marija Moiseevna, aged 43, listed as living at 8 Frunze Street.

Supporting documentation: FR-1368, op.1, d.69, l.4

Seal of the Stavropol Region State Archive

Archive Director Signature: O. K. Aref'ef

Archive Assistant Director Signature: V. A. Vodolazhskaja

I caught up with my battalion three days later. My CO looked at me in surprise and said:

- And I'd already filed the paperwork about your desertion.

Going after a «tongue»

It's been several hours since we went out into the neutral zone on this night in February 1943. Our mission is to bring back a German prisoner, a «tongue». The action is very straightforward — we walk towards the German trench line, hoping to break in and capture someone. But twice already on this night we've run into German pickets. They start shooting, the rest of the German line opens fire, and we have to pull back. So far, no-one's been killed or wounded. In the darkness we shift half a kilometer to the left and start towards the German trenches once more. The Germans again discover our presence and open fire, and we have to pull back. Still no casualties.

We're probably not going to get a «tongue» tonight. Most of the team is made up of rookies, replacements who were sent to our battalion just a few days ago. The team is led by a captain who also hasn't seen combat yet. He's the only captain in our battalion — even the battalion CO is technically just a lieutenant. They probably gave this mission to the captain to rein him in a bit, and so we're not trying especially hard, probably pulling back earlier than we should. The few veteran scouts among us keep quiet and just let things develop.

After a third failed attempt, we move to the left once more. Suddenly a few of us recognized this place — the other night, we chatted up some scouts from a neighboring unit right around here.

- Good place for an attack,— I said, looking at the shallow slope running from our trenches all the way to the German lines.

- Sure thing,— replied the neighboring unit's scout,— but rumor has it it's mined.

Now the team has reached this exact spot. The night is almost up, and we only have time for one more attempt. We take a smoking break at the bottom of a gulley, then start towards the Germans.

- I think there's a minefield around here someplace,— I venture hesitantly.

I feel someone's fist punch me in the side.

- Who's asking you? — hisses the platoon second Klochkov. I look at him in surprise and hurriedly consider the situation. It was, as they say, a difficult one. We've been trying to capture a «tongue» all night long and have nothing to show for it — and no casualties. Someone might think we just spent the night hiding out somewhere. We need for someone to at least get himself wounded.

The team moves out. I shift towards the middle of the group, behind one of the other soldiers, and start walking in his footprints. A night walk over a minefield is no easy feat. Every step leaves you practically paralyzed with fear. Every time I lift my foot to step forward, I think that this time there'll be an explosion and I'd lose my…well, what does an eighteen year old boy fear to lose the most? And I could almost physically feel it happening.

I try to change my walk, moving forward with my knees held together. Better my legs ripped off than my…but walking like that, I can't quite reach the footprints made by the soldier in front of me.

We walk forward for another five minutes. Then suddenly, black-red flame bursts out of the ground. An explosion sounds. For a moment, I instinctively shut my eyes, and when I open them, the soldier walking in front of me has disappeared. It was like a miracle — he was just there, and now he's completely gone. Everything falls completely silent — no moans, no sound at all, the team just freezes. Then everyone slowly turns 180 degrees on one foot and starts walking back. Soon, we make it back to the gulley and start the ascent towards our own trenches. Somewhere in the back of each of our minds is the thought that we did all we could, and that we could now get some sleep.

New Year's Eve

December 31, 1942, our 7th Guards brigade was walking along the empty Sal' steppe. Again with the endless walking, and everyone was hungrier than usual to boot. Our rations have been cut. The trucks with our food and our New Year's presents were captured a couple of days ago when the drivers got lost in the steppe and ended up driving straight into a German position. And we wanted those presents so much! Of course, one can understand the truck drivers. In the Sal' steppe there aren't any recognizable features, and almost anyone can get lost without any effort.

The endless road twisted between sandy hills. The terrain was very monotonous. Suddenly, up in the sky, we spotted two big chicken-like birds flying across our front. You almost knew they were well-fed. Someone let off a shot, then another, and another. The birds kept flying, unperturbed. A few soldiers started sending up bursts from their SMGs. One by one, the soldiers raised up their rifles, SMGs, carbines, pistols, anything that could shoot down the birds. Soon, almost two thousand weapons were firing up at the sky, while the birds flew on oblivious to danger. The din was incredible, like there was a great battle taking place. Several commanders were running among the men, shouting something, but you couldn't hear them over the gunfire. It almost seemed a miracle that the birds were still flying on — but then one hit an invisible wall, and one of its wings stopped flapping. The bird didn't seem to understand what has happened and tried to right itself with the other wing, but then another bullet reached it and the bird started to drop towards the ground. Almost simultaneously the second bird froze in mid-air and began falling as well.

Several dozen soldiers took off towards the falling birds around a nearby hill. I didn't see what quite happened when they got there, but at least there weren't any casualties.

We moved on, discussing the incident. Darkness started to fall. We completed one more stage and bivouacked for the night. All around us was the same steppe with the same sandy hills that we saw all day long. About ten of us from the scout platoon found cover in a depression, and were sitting on the ground silently, resting. We tried to start a fire with some wet brush, but it just wasn't working. And then, to top things off, they told us that there'd be no supper. The blistering wind isn't making things any better — sitting around in the cold night, and with wet clothes on, is anything but comfortable. I suddenly remembered that it's New Year's Eve, our gloomy New Year's Eve. No-one was sleepy yet. We scouts have gotten used to soldiering mostly at night: throwing out pickets, trying to capture a «tongue», carrying ammo up to the combat companies, escorting someone up to the front, helping the cook and his kitchen around from place to place, etc.

After a little rest, I took my SMG and went for a stroll around the bivouac. After a bit I noticed some horses tied to a beam in the nearby valley and headed towards them. The horses were alone, each with a bag of some oats or something hanging from its neck. I felt up one of the bags and determined that it was filled with corn cobs. I took one out, first giving the horse a light slap in case it decided to bite me. The corn was half-eaten and covered in green horse spit. I wiped it off on the side of my greatcoat and popped it in my mouth. The corn was dry, hard like rocks. I retrieved some more corn in the same fashion, put it in my pocket and continued on, chewing vigorously.

It was now almost completely dark. I noticed some light not too far ahead. It turned out to be a fire, with several people from the battalion staff sitting around. There was a wooden railroad tie next to the fire — the staff hauls around a supply of them to start campfires in the steppe. I stood still in the darkness for a while, then began to slowly drag the tie away from the fire. Pull — pause, pull — pause, and soon I was far enough away to start dragging the tie at normal speed towards our bivouac.

The guys were still resting on the cold ground, shivering. I took out a bayonet, broke off a few small pieces of wood. When there were enough to start a fire, I woke up the platoon second Klochkov, who has a good tinderbox, and we started a small campfire. Together we quickly finished cutting up the rest of the railroad tie and soon enough the fire grew bright and hot. We moved in towards it, the cold wind blowing at our backs. The fire made things a little warmer. I finished off the corn in my pocket, which now seemed pretty tasty, and turned in. As I fell asleep, I remembered that it's New Year's Eve, and decided that it hasn't been such a bad one.

I woke up from the feeling that my leg was on fire. Turns out I was lying practically in the campfire itself and my greatcoat was smoldering with a part of it already gone. And so, I spend the first few days of 1943 walking around in half a greatcoat.

How people become optimists

December 1942, the Sal' steps. Another forced march. We've been pounding the ground for over 10 hours. Fatigue takes over the whole body. Every now and then someone falls down, we step over him and move on. The more courteous ones manage to take two steps towards the curb before going down. They say there is a truck following us that's picking up the stragglers. It's very tempting to just give in to fatigue and fall down on the curb, but our pride won't let us.

We've thrown out our gas masks and bayonets a long time ago, and now we're discarding helmets, bullets, grenades, everything that has even a little weight.

I parted with my bayonet a month ago, just after I arrived at the front. The parting was quite dramatic…back in training, I was pretty good with the bayonet due to my quick reflexes. The platoon commander always called on me for demonstrations during bayonet drills. And so, in my dreams I imagined distinguishing myself in bayonet combat at the front. When I actually got to the front, I treated my 3-sided friend very gingerly, even though everyone else threw theirs away after the first forced march. My bayonet proved pretty uncomfortable for them, especially at night, when we often slept on some floor practically on top of each other. Still, I ignored their «requests» that I get rid of my bayonet and awaited the chance to show off my hand-to-hand combat skills. One morning, after waking up a bit later than the others, I discovered that my bayonet was gone. The guys just sat there grinning. If you ever see any hand-to-hand fighting in a movie about the Great Patriotic War, don't believe it, it's a lie!

In the morning our chief of staff joked: «The war is won with soldiers' legs,» and we all laughed. It didn't seem quite as funny now. It's always raining or snowing out in the steppe, the cold wind blows incessantly, the legs keep churning in the sandy mud. There is almost no vegetation, just some dry brush. There aren't any places of habitation, either.

They give us our dry rations: a bit of fish and a piece of corn bread. It's almost impossible to stand back up after a rest stop. It's getting dark, and we're still marching and marching.

Finally a few voices: «We're here.» We fall to the ground. After a while, the wind and wet snow force us back up. We look around — no buildings, just naked steppe. The soldiers are lying on the ground. It's impossibly cold. The rain, snow and wind don't stop. I notice some remnants of an old defense line, and decide to look around out of habit. My search for a hiding spot takes me further and further away from the bivouac. Hooray! I find a small slit trench about a meter deep. With my last bit of strength, I break off some brush and spread it around the trench floor. I manage to find some leaves and make an improvised roof, then pile some dirt on it. The palace is ready. I climb in, the snow isn't getting through, it's quite cozy actually. I take off my greatcoat and use it as a blanket, and gradually warm up. The fatigue starts to melt away.

As I'm starting to drift off, I recall my frustration with pre-war life. But almost instantly it's gone, replaced with a feeling of warmth. Just before I fall asleep, I make my Second Great Oath: if even under the most difficult conditions I can still dig out a little slit trench to live in, I will count my lucky stars and never think of complaining about my lot in life.

Combat reconnaissance

- As of right now, you're under the captain's command,— said the platoon CO Vanja pointing at some artilleryman.

The captain looked our small scout platoon over with some skepticism, and started leading us towards the front. About a minute before, the battalion CO's adjutant whispered to us in passing:

- Combat reconnaissance.

Those are probably the worst words for a scout platoon to hear. The scouts are used to acting at night, in secret. Combat reconnaissance means mounting an overt attack, with no artillery support, just so that someone could pick out the German fire points while they are shooting at you.

The scout platoon can usually avoid combat reconnaissance, it's too valuable to waste like this. Unfortunately, our CO is the hapless Vanja who just couldn't get up the nerves to insist that they send an infantry platoon instead of us. On top of that, as usual, he stayed behind.

The captain leads us forward pretty well. This isn't a night advance, when you can walk to the front in more or less a straight line, but a daylight crawl when all open ground is avoided. For about half a kilometer we move parallel to the frontline along a small gulley. Then a short dash into the next gulley — this place is sniper ground, and there are new bodies every day. We finally make it to our forward trenches, then walk down the line to a small stream. We continue on through the tall grass to a small river in the middle of the no man's land.

The river's shoreline is strewn with bodies of our soldiers. For some reason, all of them look like they are from Azerbadjan. Most likely, their unit concentrated here for an attack early in the morning, but waited around too long and got cut to pieces by fire from the high riverbank on the German side. Our battalion will probably take the same route in a day or two, and so really needs to pick out the enemy firing points if the attack is to have a chance. Too bad the exercise might cost us our lives.

The place is familiar to us. We've been here several times before, in the predawn hours, looking through the dead men's belongings. But then one time a sniper's bullet hit the SMG hanging around the waste of the platoon second Klochkov. Since then, we've made a point of steering clear of this place. This time is no exception — we take the long way around, and down towards the river.

About ten meters from the shore, we sit down and the captain gives us a short speech:

- Here's the mission. On my order, force the river. The Germans open fire. I map out the firing points.

The captain takes out a pencil and a map and barks:

- Forward!

I had a clear picture of what would come next. Even though I was still only 18, it's been a month since I joined the scout platoon and I've become an experienced soldier. First, the veterans are going to stall for time. One will start tightening his belt — you can't run at the enemy with a loose belt! — another will be carefully checking his ammo, the third will pull his cap on extra tight. The new guys, seeing this, will also find some urgent business to attend to, anything to postpone the moment of truth. The captain will repeat the command with the aid of some expletives, and the platoon will start towards the river. While we're trying to get across, the Germans will fire at us with their rifles and machine guns, and for some among us this river will become a final resting place.

And so, the order came — «forward!» Without waiting around for the captain to repeat himself, I sprung up and alone ran towards the river. I saw the guys look on in surprise out of the corner of my eye — but before I could process the image I was already in the water, using all my energy to keep moving forward. The German shore, covered with thick growth, was about fifty meters away. I kept thinking that in a few seconds I'll be hit by a German bullet, say from that hill on the right. It was very hard to run. The water was up to my waist and seemed extremely dense. My greatcoat was flapping around my knees, slowing me down. But regardless, the opposite shore was getting closer and closer, the water was getting shallower and shallower, and finally I plopped down on the ground between two big tree roots without a scratch on me. I looked back and saw the guys just start to enter the water. A machine gun began barking from the hill on the right…

In the evening Klochkov, who yet again somehow managed to survive, got us two flagons of alcohol from the platoon CO. Everyone got a double portion. (In our unit it was customary to give alcohol after an attack rather than before — that way the survivors got a bigger portion.) The first round was in memory of the guys who bought it down at the river. After the second round I got to thinking: «did I do the honorable thing running out first, without waiting for the others? I was absolutely sure that the Germans weren't peering down their gun sights, and so I'd probably be able to make it before they figured out what was going on. Didn't some old military oath say: 'Do not spare thyself for thy comrades'? And I sure did spare myself this time…»

An hour later, the platoon CO called me in.

- The headquarters allocated us some combat decorations. I've decided to recommend you for the Military Merit medal. [A lower-tier decoration like the Distinguished Service Medal — Transl.]

- Don't bother, Vanya,— I said, still tormented with doubt.— I didn't deserve it.

Ivan looked at me thoughtfully and, evidently deciding that I'm not happy with such a lowly decoration, said:

- All right, we'll give you the Medal of Valour.

I kept turning him down.

- Look, I can't give you anything higher. They gave us just one Order, and that one's for me. Now, a medal is something you've certainly earned. The captain said that you went in first today, and led the platoon in the attack.

- All right, fine,— I said. And thought to myself «whatever happens, happens. Lets the Fate to decide.»

I did never get that medal.

The first attack and the first oath

Finally, a real combat. I'm lying in a small ditch, there's no-one anywhere near me, bullets are whistling over my head. Yeah, this is a real combat. It wasn't like that before. When I joined up, I was first sent to an artillery battery, we just kept sending shells out into the blue without ever seeing what we were shooting at. Later on, in a mortar unit, I dropped mines into a mortar barrel, they flew off to explode somewhere, but I still didn't have that feeling of actually being in battle. A week ago, during another unit reconstitution, I concealed my artillery and mortar experience from everyone and got assigned to an ordinary infantry company. And now — my first attack. The German trenches are about five hundred meters in front of me. For now, we've only made the first run at them, and the enemy fire is not yet very thick. I ran forward a bit quicker than most and wound up out in front all alone. I'm feeling quite proud of myself, mind you, my nearest comrades — Fedor on the left and Petr on the right — are still somewhere behind me.

Now Fedor crawls up almost past me. I have to get ready for another run towards the enemy. The bullets are flying much thicker now, the body isn't quite as willing to get up off the ground, but I have to make it get up. I note a little hillock towards which I'm going to run, and the spot of cover I'm going to crawl into once I get there. I focus, tense up and uncoil like a spring. Bent over like a cripple I run forward, get to the hillock, drop to the ground. The fire gets even more intense. There's a strange feeling that the bullets are nipping at the greatcoat on my back (this feeling was very accurately captured by the singer B. Okudzhava — «…The bullets kept hitting our backs so hard…» — L. Veger).

Fedor and Petr somehow keep up with me. I'm going to have to get up and face the bullets again. How can I do this? But now, I don't have a choice — Fedor is already ahead of me. I crawl a few meters to the right on my side, like a giant crab, get up, run forward. On the fly I spot a small patch of cover ahead, behind which I can drop down again. It's someone's corps. I run to it, drop down — made it, somehow. I'm still alive, and still ahead of everyone. Time to relax for a bit.

Suddenly, my brain is filled with existentialist thoughts and memories from my schoolboy days. At 17 or 18, many young men succumb to thoughts espoused by Byron and Lermontov's Pechorin that all life is useless, ordinary, that you're just treading down the same road as millions of others before you, that there will never be anything truly new in your life. And now, these dark thoughts are dancing around in my head as I huddle behind a corpse as bullets whistle over my head. For some reason, I broke out into a fit of nervous laughter — I think that if anyone had seen me just then, they would have thought I'd completely lost it.

As I regain my composure, I make the first oath I've ever made in my entire life. Lying on the ground, pressing myself into the dirt, my head resting on a corpse that's shuddering from enemy bullets, knowing that I will soon have to get up and risk my life yet again, I told myself: «No matter how bad or how difficult life gets, I will never, ever think of ending it voluntarily. I will strive to hold on to it with all my strength. I didn't make it into this world just to leave it so soon.»

Petr is still to my right. Fedor has disappeared. I have to get up. How can anyone do this? For the umpteenth time, I regret throwing away my helmet during a forced march a couple of weeks ago — we were throwing away everything we could then, helmets, gas masks, bayonets, grenades, bullets.

Without lifting my head I glance to the left — Fedor is still missing. But others have almost caught up with me on both the right and the left. It's time. I tense up, bring my arms and legs under my body, crawl a bit to the side, wait a few seconds, then jump up and keep running.


The 167th Cadet Brigade was formed in a rather unusual manner — from scrapings off the very bottom of the barrel. After German troops took Rostov and burst out into the wide open spaces of the Kuban' in the summer of 1942, cadets at military academies in the Northern Caucasus and Trans-Caucasus regions were hurriedly formed into several infantry brigades. In the process of doing so, every academy, including mine own, the Ordzhonikidze Military Academy, divided its cadets into the «clean» and the «unclean». I wound up as one of the latter. A majority of the «unclean» cadets were your classic «bad seeds» from the Cossack settlements dotting the region, as well as some ex-convicts.

How I, a straight arrow with top marks in both combat and political courses, found myself among the «unclean» cadets was not entirely clear to me at first. It didn't seem to have anything to do with my being Jewish, at least, since a classmate of mine named Jasha Richter wound up among the «clean» cadets (by the way, at the end of the 10th grade he was still 17, and so technically he was exempt from conscription — but he went down to the recruiting station and got himself called up regardless — L. Veger). After trying to think of any «sins» I may have committed recently I recalled that a couple of months ago I had a run in with my section leader. He yelled a racial slur at me, I pushed him, and we had a typical schoolyard fight (he was the same age as I), which wound up being broken up by the battalion commissar passing by. At the evening roll call they doled out our sentences: the section leader was demoted back to a regular infantryman, while I got 10 days in the brig. Of course, I didn't think this one fight was big enough of a «sin» to be transferred out of my unit along with all the «unclean» cadets.

Thinking back, I think the real cause of the whole thing was my mother. At nineteen, she left her nice Jewish family behind and went off to fight for freedom and justice along with all the other revolutionaries. She had wound up joining the anarchists, who continued to fight even after the Soviets came to power. After a few arrests, in 1922 she was exiled to Solovki, where I was born. Naturally, when the time came for me to fill out my first ever entrance application, the one to the military academy, an honest and principled member of the Komsomol that I was I dutifully wrote down that my parents were purged.

In all, our academy had about 50 «unclean» cadets. We were shipped by rail to Baku, where similarly sized «unclean» groups from the other academies were being gathered to ultimately form the 167th Cadet Brigade.

As I realized later on, I lucked out in being assigned to an artillery battery. Since we didn't actually have any guns, we wound up learning our new trade from a purely theoretical standpoint. I did get to be personally responsible for one of our horses (ours was listed as a horse-drawn battery — L. Veger), a large, bony colt. My relationship with my horse was rather complex — I was a little careless while brushing him, and not at all willing to share my sugar ration. He tried to kick me at every opportunity, and absolutely refused to recognize my authority over him.

Soon after our brigade was formed, the situation at the front grew even worse. The Germans were rapidly advancing towards the oilfields at Grozny in Chechnya. One day, our brigade was gathered up and loaded into railcars, and we moved out by that evening. My battery still didn't have any guns — they had told us that we'd get them when we'd arrive at our destination. They didn't even have enough rifles for everyone in the brigade. Still, the train sped us towards the front. At some point during the night, our guys showed off their uncontrollable nature. A few of them somehow managed to climb on top of the moving train, and — God only knows how — clean out the railcar with our food stores. Soon enough all of us were stuffing ourselves with bread and meat rations.

Early in the morning, we were unloaded near some village in Osetija. The battalions began to dig trenches a couple of kilometers away from the village, while my battery stayed put, still waiting for its guns. For the next few days, things were pretty quiet as we awaited the advancing Germans. I can only recall one specific episode. Our battery commander was an ex-con who'd done time in labor camps on the Belomor-Baltic Canal. Come to think of it, all our section and platoon leaders were ex-cons — I think that was because of the similarities of life in the army and in the labor camps. And they were, as a rule, a little older, a little more worldly, and could actually get the rest of us to follow their orders.

In any case, one day, our battery commander, who had a habit of giving me the least pleasant details, assigned me to the night watch for the third night in a row and against regulations. I lost it and told him that I'll shoot him like a dog the moment combat starts. The CO was taken aback by my threat, I think it even scared him a little, and reported me to our commissar. That night, the commissar called me in — and by the way, the officers in our brigade were also considered «unclean», but mostly for some minor failing during a previous battle, with service in our brigade substituting for an outright demotion. Our commissar was a harsh, silent man; he never gave us any political briefings, and somehow appealed to me. On my way to his quarters, I was ready for pretty much any degree of punishment. Threatening to shoot your commander was considered a serious offense, especially since, rumor had it, this had actually happened a few times. After hearing out my excuses, rather than berate me the commissar told me in a fatherly tone that the battery isn't fully staffed, that there just isn't anyone else who can be assigned to the night watch, and that even he couldn't get his regulation pistol and was lucky enough to scrounge up a carbine. In the end, the commissar gave me a reprimand and sent me on my way.

The next day, the Germans reached our defenses. They bombed and shelled us incessantly. Our battery didn't have any way of supporting our infantry or conducting counter-battery fire — we still didn't have our guns. After a while, the Germans brought up their tanks, and the 167th Cadet Brigade ceased to exist. Two thousand 18 year old kids, yesterday's schoolboys, were erased from existence. Someone had to be sacrificed, and they were it. Of course, it's not like they were angels. They didn't recognize the rule of law, or any moral norms. They were the product of the remaining vestiges of the Cossack self-rule, half-bandits, believing only in strength. In the olden days, they would have likely wound up in the peasant armies of Ermak, Razin, or Pugachev. In our highly regimented and tightly controlled way of life, they would have had a truly hard time. May God judge them, and those who had sent them to their deaths without adequate weapons or training…

By evening, the sounds of combat moved to somewhere behind us. Green rookies, all of us, we didn't understand that we were being encircled and were about to share the fate of our comrades in the infantry battalions. No-one wanted to give the order to retreat (by that time, Stalin had already issued his famous order to shoot anyone who falls back from the front — L. Veger). In fact, no-one who could give that order could be found — all of our commanders just disappeared. In the end, our commissar — the same commissar I'd gone to the night before — wound up saving all our necks. He just led his horse out of the stable and moved out. We took this to mean «do like I do», got on our horses (bareback — we didn't have any saddles), and trotted after him. How he could orient himself at night, in unfamiliar terrain, and with sounds and flashes of combat all around us, I will never know. Well — he wasn't completely without help. At some point during the night we were joined by a local Chechen, about thirty, very friendly. He told us that someone with a blood feud against him had just showed up in his village; it must have been pretty serious for the Chechen to leave his home and family behind. All night long he never strayed from the middle of our group.

We trotted after our commissar for the entire seemingly endless night. At dawn, we decided to take a brief rest. It was nearly impossible to get off our horses, without saddles, ours and the horses' skins were rubbed raw, and as the blood dried out we practically merged to our mounts. After we finally made it back on the ground, we could only walk around half-bent, legs spread far apart.

It turned out that by dawn there were a lot fewer of us than when we'd set out the evening before. Some of the guys apparently took off for their home villages during the night. I let my horse graze for a bit, and noticed a white sheet of paper on the grass. It was one of the leaflets dropped by a German plane, the text went something like «People of the mountains! Remember the councils of Shamil! Throw the Russians off your lands…» and so forth.

After a while, some kids from a nearby Chechen village ran up to us, offering us food in exchange for our weapons. We were pretty hungry, and traded away whatever we could. I exchanged a fistful of bullets for a meat-filled pastry and quickly consumed it.

Then, we accomplished the impossible: got back on our horses and continued to trot towards our lines. Around noon, we stumbled on a blocking detachment. They ordered us to turn over our horses and make our way to the unit reconstitution area. We didn't even get to say our good byes to the commissar, he was just sent off somewhere and we parted ways without even knowing his name, as so often happens at the front. I didn't say good bye to my horse, who'd pretty much saved my life, either. Didn't even stroke it once before I left. The war had made us into cruel lone wolves.

The Swiss system

It happened that the staff on my medical evacuation train was mostly female, with the exception of a few guards and the train crew. These were yesterday's schoolgirls now thrust into the role of nurses and medical aides. Their life was comprised solely of exhausting rides transporting wounded soldiers from the front and of waiting in rear areas to be sent back to the frontline for more wounded. Truth be told, during these waiting periods the girls led a mostly carefree existence. There were choir rehearsals, concerts for the locals, competitions with the choirs from other trains. Every evening they gathered in a cabin at the front of the train, which served as something like a club.

One night, the girls got into a debate over how to properly kiss and who among them is the best kisser. In the end, they decided to settle the debate with a competition, and as the only male in attendance that night I was nominated to be the judge. I made no attempts to resist, even though I had no experience whatsoever in the matter.

The seven kisses received during the first round left me perplexed — it was impossible to tell which one was the best. At that point, I spontaneously came up with something resembling the Swiss system and called for a second round. There, I eliminated Nina, who gently pecked me on the cheek and flew off to the far corner of the cabin in embarrassment.

After the third round I cut Vera — she didn't kiss me quite the way I'd expected. A few days later she told me that she just couldn't do it «properly» in front of all the others.

The final pair consistent of Second Lieutenant Tasja and a volunteer from Baku named Raja. Their kisses were top notch — long, and with embraces. The audience objected to the embraces, as they weren't mentioned in the rules of the competition, but I insisted that, as the train was rocking, I could only properly assess the quality of a kiss with proper body support. It was impossible to tell which girl was better. I kept calling for new rounds until the onlookers protested. In the end, I had to announce that both girls tied for first place.

When I woke up the next morning, I found myself facing a doctor's stare.

- What's the matter with your lips?

I wanted to say something, but just couldn't move my lips.

The Wound

- Where'd you disappear off to? — I was accosted by the scout platoon commander.— The battalion CO ordered us to set up some pickets, and I'm missing all my soldiers!

- Hey, we were defending the warehouse. Threw back two attacks, but then they captured it. I barely had the time to jump out the window.

- You and your tall tales. Go!

- Van', at least give me a partner.

- Make do without.

I climbed out of the trench and walked back towards the warehouse from which I had recently fled. After a hundred meters or so, I stumbled upon a transformer booth and went to ground behind it. Fighting off sleepiness, I peered through the darkness towards the Germans.

Suddenly I saw some human shapes. I readied my SMG, waited for them to come a little closer and was almost about to pull the trigger when I heard something resembling Russian words. After letting them come even closer, I recognized that they were indeed Russians, climbed out from behind the booth and called out to them. They were startled at first, but then came closer; turned out they were from that naval infantry brigade that took the township yesterday, then found a truck full of schnapps and drunk itself into a stupor. After sleeping it off in some backyards, they managed to evade the Germans, who had now retaken the township, and were trying to make their way back to our lines. I pointed them towards our trenches and went back into my hiding place.

After an hour or two, the story repeated itself as two more naval infantrymen came upon me in search of our lines.

Some time later, I spotted more shapes coming towards me. When they came closer, I came out from behind the booth without bothering to raise my SMG.

- Guys, this way,— I called out to them.

The «guys» made some strange motion and I saw a flame burst on my right. It felt like someone knocked me on the shoulder with a two-by-four. I dropped my SMG and started to run, but then came back for my weapon. The Germans had disappeared, I grabbed the SMG and started towards our trenches.

After finding the platoon commander, I reported that the Germans are approaching and that I'm wounded. For some reason I thought that I was missing my right arm, and started to beg Ivan to finish me off. Instead, Ivan called out for a medic. The nearby medical station happened to be in a full state of readiness, as we were scheduled to attack the township in a couple of hours. I turned out to be the first wounded soldier of the day. Someone got me to a nearby road and on a horse-drawn cart, and as the cart began moving I lost consciousness. I came to on the operating table.

Borja's sweet behind

Borja Rimburg was an imposing 20-year old scout who had been with the brigade since the day it was formed. He was called up from his second year at the mathematics department of the Minsk University, and happens to be the hero of this particular episode.

One snowy February night in 1943 I found myself standing in the window of a warehouse near some township, giving occasional short bursts from my weapon towards some shadows in the distance, which could equally have been German soldiers or random snowdrifts. Someone on the other side of the warehouse was helping me out with his own bursts. In this manner, we managed to hold the warehouse for some time — though, in truth, we could have abandoned it long ago. Our soldiers cleared out of this position before nightfall, and even my scout platoon had fallen back to new positions. These ran about a hundred meters back from the warehouse, right along the old German trench line. The two of us knew that we would be right to fall back as well, but felt that we could still hold the warehouse for just a little while longer, and the Germans had to take this particular warehouse before they could mount an attack on their old trenches.

After a brief lull, I heard my mystery partner start firing again from the other end of the warehouse, and looked out the window. Man-sized shapes swarmed in front of the building, though it was impossible to tell whether each was a snow flurry or a man in winter camouflage. I started firing long bursts all the same. Then I heard the other guy stop shooting and did the same.

I was tired and wanted to rest a bit. I let my weapon's barrel drop down to the ground and leaned against the window frame. Suddenly, something startled me, although there were no sounds. I looked towards the warehouse doors in alarm and saw silhouettes in winter camouflage. Germans. They stood there motionless, peering into the darkness of the warehouse. I quickly crossed the warehouse with several silent leaps and jumped out of a window facing our lines. After safely reaching our lines, I rejoined my platoon.

At the time, I didn't bother to think what had happened to my mystery partner. At the front, this attitude was par for the course. The war constantly shuffled people around, and we never really had the time to get to know each other. Every attack made by the battalion would knock out almost all of its soldiers as casualties. All those tales of frontline camaraderie you so often see in post-war literature refer to events that took place in forces far more stable than infantry — artillery, aviation, etc.

The same night after the firefight at the warehouse, I was wounded while on picket duty by a German patrol. My first hospital was located in a township school not far from the frontline. We rested on some mattresses strewn along the floor. The sun was shining, and the sounds of distant combat were still pouring through the windows while wounded soldiers moved about the corridors on crutches. Suddenly, I saw a strange figure — a man moving on all fours but with knees facing up. When he crawled a little closer, I recognized Borja Rimburg.

- You're alive?! — I exclaimed in surprise.— They told me that you went missing a day ago.

Borja explained what happened. Turns out, he was the other soldier in the warehouse that night. Unlike me, he didn't notice the Germans pouring in through the door until it was too late, and escape was impossible. He dropped into a hole in the floor and kept still. After a while, one of the Germans shone a light into the hole, but either thought he was a corpse, or else some rags — either way, he moved on and took up a post nearby. Through the night, Borja kept hearing him stomping his feet to keep warm.

- Hey, what about your cough? — I asked him. It so happens that Borja was prone to coughing fits, particularly whenever stealth was of the essence. They'd almost booted him out of the scout platoon for this, but his other qualities prevailed and he remained the most senior scout in our platoon.

- Never coughed or moved the entire night.

- So how'd you get wounded?

Borja pointed to the soles of his feet and slapped himself on his rear end.

- Froze it off.

He spent the entire night sitting in that frozen hole in the warehouse floor. The frostbite got those areas touching the ground.

A nurse appeared in the doorway and, with a smirk, called out:

- Rimburg, to the operating room!

The other wounded chimed in with some words of encouragement.

- Borja, don't straighten up or they'll cut off the front, not the rear.

- Borja, don't let them cut all the way.

- Borja — did you really freeze that off as well,— I inquired.

- Nah, they're just kidding around. They're going to cut some more off my backside. Didn't cut enough to get to the living tissue the last time.

And so, Borja began to crawl towards the operating room.

For the next couple of days, Borja's backside was at the center of everyone's attention. The jokes never stopped coming, though Borja just shrugged them off with a smirk. Then, we got sent to different hospitals, and I never saw Borja afterwards. If anyone knows anything about him, please let me know.


В наш век научно-технической революции свойство, называемое самообучаемостью, признается весьма ценным. На фронте оно тоже было крайне необходимо, помогая быстро осваиваться в новых опасных ситуациях.

Для примера опишу поведение типичного юноши во время двух бомбежек. Когда он попал под бомбежку впервые в жизни, в нем все дрожало от страха. Казалось, что каждая бомба летит именно в него. Он метался по окопу, то собираясь выскакивать из него и бежать, то прижимался к его стенкам. И в то же время, помимо его сознания, какой-то центр в мозгу собирал информацию: фиксировал порядок захода немецких самолетов на бомбежку, действия, предшествовавшие сбросу бомб, траекторию их полета и неизвестно, что еще.

Спустя месяц этот юный, но уже опытный солдат вел себя во время бомбежки совсем по-другому... Эскадрилья «юнкерсов» приближалась к колонне автомашин, застрявших в пробке на въезде в Грозный. Группа солдат, остаток разбитой части, искавшая сборный пункт, отдыхала в двухстах метрах от шоссе. Все эти дни их никто не кормил, каждый питался, как получится, и они были постоянно голодны.. Наш герой, например, выменял у чеченского подростка чурек за гранату.

Увидев, что немецкие самолеты собираются бомбить колонну, он помчался к ней, под бомбежку. Навстречу бежали шоферы и солдаты, сопровождавшие грузы автомашин. «Юнкерсы» уже образовали, как обычно перед бомбежкой, круг. Начинать они собирались с хвоста колонны, и он помчался к голове. Все это время, что бы он ни делал, он каким-то образом следил за самолетами. Продолжая бежать, отметил, что первый самолет вошел в короткое пике и выпустил серию бомб. «Это не мои,» — зафиксировал он и вскочил в близстоящий грузовик. Ничего интересного. Быстро выскочил и запрыгнул в следующий. Наконец-то. Берет из большого фанерного ящика буханку хлеба и одновременно смотрит в небо: очередной «Юнкерс» сбросил очередную порцию бомб. «Не мои». Оглядывает кузов. Многообещающий наполненный мешок. Протыкает его кинжалом (к тому времени он выбросил трехлинейку и обзавелся АВТ — автоматическая винтовка Токарева со штыком-кинжалом — Л.В.). Посыпался сахарный песок. Подставляет карман.

Круг «юнкерсов» сместился к центру колонны, взрывы уже недалеко. Пожалуй, пора. Но тут ему попался на глаза ящик банок с маринованными огурцами. Гурманство победило осторожность. Он отдирает кинжалом несколько планок, хватает бутыль. Бросает взгляд в небо. Летят. «Мои». Кидается к борту, спрыгивает и что есть сил несется от шоссе. Боковым зрением улавливает яркую вспышку там, где только что стояла машина, и бросается на землю. Пронесло.

Надо сказать, что на фронте встречались люди, не умевшие или не желавшие приспосабливаться. На передовой их жизнь довольно скоро прерывалась...

Командир первой роты вызывал всеобщее уважение солдат. Это был статный, широкоплечий среднего роста мужчина, с открытым, доброжелательным лицом. Он выделялся среди других командиров тем, что носил белоснежный новый полушубок. Даже командир батальона, значительно реже попадавший в опасные ситуации, носил неяркую серую шинель. Но главное, чем он заслужил наше уважение, было то, что он сам водил роту в атаку. Как сейчас помню его выбирающимся ранним утром из окопа, поднимающимся в полный рост и идущим на немцев. За ним поднималось его ближайшее окружение, а затем и вся рота. Даже, несмотря на предупреждения, он не менялся. Все также носил белый полушубок и сам водил роту в атаку.

Вообще-то после каждой атаки выбивало — убивало и ранило — подавляющую часть роты. Но ему сильно везло, и он воевал чуть ли не месяц. За это время освобождались должности в штабе, и он, как и другие, мог бы перейти туда, но он почему-то оставался ротным. Мы, разведчики, понимали, что так долго продолжаться не может. Командир нашего взвода разведки как-то вечером сказал: «Бинокль у него хороший. Вы присматривайте за ним».

...Подбирать бинокль выпало на мою долю... Мы пошли в очередное наступление. Рота выбила немцев из окопов и должна была захватить населенный пункт. Я увидел командира роты вышедшим из-за угла дома и что-то рассматривающим в бинокль. «Зачем он вышел? Достаточно было высунуть голову. Ведь немцы совсем близко,» — подумал я. И вдруг он упал. Я подбежал к нему. Он лежал на спине, разбросав руки. Над переносицей виднелась рана. Из нее периодически вырывался фонтанчик красно-серого вещества.

Рядом лежал бинокль.

What we drank at the front

During the war, the urge to drink seemed to be inseparable from soldiering. We drank everything we could find. While our academy class was in Georgia, we drank the local grape moonshine — chacha. A good chacha is a bit like Scottish whiskey. When we were fighting in Northern Osetija, we drank a corn moonshine — araka. Most basements of abandoned Osetin houses contained at least one, sometimes two 20-liter bottles of fairly strong araka.

When the fighting moved into the Kuban' region, we switched to beet moonshine. You could tell that the Cossacks didn't have centuries-old traditions of making moonshine, and a thin crust of esthetes among us pointedly didn't respect this beverage. Near Krasnodar, things improved a bit with wheat moonshine.

Officially, we were given alcohol in only two cases: 100 grams before an attack, or else when there was so much alcohol that there wasn't any place to put it. I remember once, near Pjatigorsk, after we had captured some wineries we each got a glass of a fabulous dessert wine for several days in a row. I think it was the «Sil'vaner» — honestly, I hadn't found anything better since.

The «attack rations» were actually given out not before, but after an attack — this way, the survivors got a bigger share. Nobody really complained about this, since each soldier thought that, no matter what happens, he will be one of the survivors. And besides, we were Guards Paratroopers, we didn't need any encouragement to attack. Not because we were particularly «conscientious», but rather because we did everything as a unit. The only person in the unit who drank — and usually quite heavily — before every attack was the CO, since he had to be the first guy to stand up out of the trenches.

One particular episode stands out in my mind. One day, after being the first to storm a German bunker, I started hunting for loot (the need to loot your enemy, I think, is something genetic — an African warrior ate his enemy's liver, Napoleon gave captured cities to his soldiers, the soldiers of the First Cavalry Army, as per professor Venzher who famously got into an argument with Stalin himself, upon capturing the Crimea ransacked the local mansions). [The First Cavalry Army as referenced here was a famous Bolshevik formation during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922 — Transl.]

This time around, there wasn't much by way of loot. There were some almost empty bottles on a crate that served as a table, a wet packet of pea soup concentrate and a small cardboard box. Yet again noting German efficiency, I quickly gulped down what little schnapps remained in the bottles, grabbed the concentrate and the cardboard box and rejoined my unit.

The next day, when things had calmed down a bit, I sat down and studied the box. It contained blue rectangular pills and a metal tray. With my schoolyard knowledge of English I could make out the words «dry alcohol» and «two tablets per glass» written on the side of the box.

«You know, the Germans are such an industrious people,» — I thought. «Who else could have thought of this — two pills and there's your drink.» I dropped two of the pills into a mug, ground them up with a spoon, poured some water and started to stir the mixture. The powder settled on the bottom without dissolving. I gave it a taste — tastes like water. Further examination of instructions on the side of the box revealed a small image of a glass sitting on the metal tray with a small flame lit underneath. Aha, got it, there's a reason why I got good marks in Chemistry. I gathered up some dry brush, lit a small fire and started to warm up my mug.

Meanwhile, someone gave the order for the unit to assemble. I hurriedly drained the mug's contents — nothing, still water, the powder wasn't dissolving. I scooped the powder up with a spoon and put it in my mouth. Almost tasteless, like sand…I'm marching along and waiting for the buzz to kick in.

About 30 years later, a chemist friend of mind, remarked after hearing this story: «had a decent chance of kicking the bucket.»

The moral of this story — kids, learn your foreign languages and don't chase a buzz at any cost.

Soldiers' roulette

Risking one's life needlessly, playing games with death, is an often-seen quality among young men. In an American short story entitled «Russian Roulette», two teenagers settle a dispute by alternatively putting the barrel of a revolver with a single bullet to their temple and pulling the trigger. Judging by the name of this game, taking unnecessary risks is one manifestation of the mysterious «Russian soul». In any case, it is difficult to imagine a proper German boy, with his heightened sense of self-preservation and complete absence of an inferiority complex due to his growing up in a healthy and loving family, participating in such a game.

At the front, I only saw one instance of «playing with death» — there were plenty of other ways to prove one's courage, and death stalked all of us regardless.

That day, a few of us from the scout platoon wound up in the trenches of our battalion's first company. During the previous night, we had escorted a field kitchen up to the front — a highly necessary task, since the night before the battalion cook got lost, or just frightened, gave all our rations to who knows what unit, and all our companies went hungry for a full day. In any case, we didn't want to get back to HQ quite yet. I found a small slit trench and took a nap — when I awoke, I saw a fellow scout, Kolja Karlov, in another trench nearby and joined him. The weather was spectacular — it was an Indian Summer — there was almost no shooting, and we passed the time chatting about our prewar lives.

The trench was fairly shallow, and Kolja's head periodically poked over the trench lip. Suddenly, his hat flew off his head. At first, we didn't understand why, but when he picked the hat up we saw a small entry hole at the front where the red star usually goes — and a big exit hole in the back. Strangely, Kolja's head wasn't even scratch. Some conscientious sniper was clearly intent on doing his duty rather than just enjoy the weather. We laughed about it a bit and took heart in Kolja's luck (later on that night, when it finally hit Kolja how close he'd been to getting killed, he drank himself silly and proudly showed his hat off to everyone in the platoon — L. Veger).

While still laughing, I looked around and saw some young soldiers from Siberia in a neighboring trench. They had come in as replacements a few days ago. And then we saw something that made us stop laughing — one of the Siberians climbed out of the trench, stood up to full height, aimed his rifle towards the German trenches and took a shot. At the front this was about as unusual as walking down some street in peacetime and seeing a guy crawl forward on all fours. Anywhere near the frontline, with its constantly zipping bullets and the occasional shrapnel, the norm was sitting down in the trench, crawling along the ground or hunched darting from cover to cover. To stand up to one's full height over the trench lip was plainly insane. For a moment, I thought that he'd seen some important target and took a shot, and looked over the trench lip — but there was nothing. The German trenches were about half a kilometer away, and there didn't seem to be anything special going on there.

After taking his shot, the Siberian jumped down into the trench. Kolja and eye looked at each other in wonder, then continued with our chat. Just then, another Siberian jumped out of the trench, stood up, fired without aiming, reloaded, fired again and jumped down. We finally realized that the guys were just bored, and decided to play a game of sorts — who can face down enemy bullets the longest. While I was already something of a veteran, I had never seen this particular «game» before that day.

It must be said that most new recruits arriving at the front typically go through three stages. At first, they are recklessly brave, unable to understand the danger they're in; in their youthful egocentrism, each one of them just can't understand how a bullet can kill him, his unique self. After their first attack, when they see their comrades fall to bullets and shells, and when their coats are holed with stray shrapnel, they enter stage two — an absolute panic. A German tank can be two kilometers away, but the panicking soldier is already jumping out of his trench and running as fast as he can back towards the safety of rear areas. And only after stage two do some soldiers enter stage three, that of cold calculation, when a soldier can tell real from imagined danger, suppress his fear, and commit acts of courage when there are no other viable courses of action, without losing his standing with his comrades.

The first Siberian now leaped out of the trench again, quickly fired off three shots without aiming and jumped back down. As he fired his third shot, a few bullets whistled by — the Germans joined the game.

The two competitors were pretty lucky up to this point — the weather and the bright sun were very relaxing to both ourselves and to the Germans, and there weren't many shooters on their side.

The second Siberian began reloading his rifle, getting ready to jump out of the trench again. Kolja and I offered him some advice, as loyal «fans».

- Wait, don't rush it, wait them out for a little bit,— shouted Kolja, remembering the sniper that took off his hat,— let the Germans relax and lower their rifles.

Finally, the Siberian leaped out of the trench. With lightning speed he worked his bolt action rifle for shot after shot. He fired the fourth shot while already jumping back into the trench. Even we saw how white his face got, and decided that, perhaps, the game could now end. But no, the first Siberian now began reloading his own weapon.

- They'll kill him,— said Kolja.

- Not necessarily,— I replied, more in the spirit of starting an argument than anything else,— Well, maybe after the fourth shot.

- You wanna bet they'll get him earlier,— asked Kolja.

- Done.

- Hey, climb out from a different spot,— I yelled to the Siberian.

He gave me a blank stare, but moved over to the other end of the trench regardless. You could tell he's torn between pride and self-preservation. His facial expression alternated between resolve and confusion.

He fired his fifth shot while falling back into the trench. Kolja and I ran over to him. There was a small hole in his hat, right below the place where the red star usually goes.

The next day, Kolja Karlov, as member of the battalion's Party committee, sent off a death notice with the words: «died a brave death». [Common phrasing on Red Army's death notices — Transl.]

The power of words

After many days of a non-stop offensive, there finally came a morning when we didn't have to launch an attack or make a forced march. We just rested in a township captured the night before and waited for reinforcements. That morning, we, the few scouts still alive in the platoon, had been sleeping almost until noon when our platoon commander woke us up and told us that HQ had given the platoon a medal and an Order of the Red Banner. [Not unlike the Silver Star — Transl.]

- Leonid, I'm probably going to have to give the Red Banner order to you,— said our commander. He took out a form from his notepad and started writing down the details of some recent episode. Meanwhile, I took a stroll through the yard of the house where we were staying — suddenly, the head of Nikolaj Mahachkalinskij, a member of our platoon who'd made himself scarce at the start of the offensive, poked out from behind a shed. Calling me over and looking around in alarm he queried:

- So, did they miss me? Anyone mention me?

- Nah, it's cool. Where's the anti-tank rifle? — I asked.

Kolja just swore and shook his head.

There was a whole story behind this particular anti-tank rifle, from before I arrived at the battalion. According to a few old-timers, during one attack the German tanks penetrated all the way to the battalion HQ. The battalion CO personally took up an anti-tank rifle and knocked out one or two tanks (at least, so they say) and repelled the attack. He was made Hero of the Soviet Union, while our scout platoon got to safeguard his anti-tank rifle. Naturally, Nikolaj, as the platoon's newest member, got to be the one to lug it around, and, after a few forced marches, came to absolutely hate it.

Besides that, Nikolaj didn't exactly volunteer to be a scout. As I've already mentioned, the previous platoon commander selected new recruits by marching up to a row of replacements and barking out: «Anyone brave, two steps forward!» That's how I got to be a scout. The new platoon commander, Vanja, instead liked to personally pick out replacements rather than ask for volunteers, and that's how Kolja was chosen. Besides being fairly tall, his main distinctions were the ability to craft elaborate tall tales and to «camouflage» himself — i.e. conveniently disappear whenever things got dangerous.

When Vanja saw Nikolaj this time, he almost tore his head off: «Where were you?!» Here, Nikolaj proved to be at the top of his game and fired off the following «explanation»:

- Well, back on the morning when the German attack started, I was in the trenches of a neighboring unit. The Germans got real close, see, I tossed a couple of grenades at them but the other soldiers there were pretty raw, didn't know how to work the grenades and were afraid to throw them. So they tossed them to me, and I kept chucking them at the Germans, and finally beat the attack back.

- And where's the anti-tank rifle?

- Well you see, Vanja, during their next attack the Germans had us practically surrounded, and I just knew I couldn't get out with the anti-tank rifle. So I took the lock out and dumped it in a ditch and somehow managed to make it back. And then afterward, their company commander just asked me to stay by him until the action died down — and that's where I've been all this time, see.

Of course, in telling his tale Nikolaj managed to throw in many elaborate details of his exploits, most of which I don't even remember at this point. Vanja was buying it hook, line and sinker. By the end of the story, he looked at Nikolaj in amazement, turned to me and said:

- Hey, we should probably give Nikolaj the Red Banner.

I nodded, hesitantly. We went back into the house, Vanja sat down, tore up my commendation form and began to fill out a new one for Nikolaj.

A last-gasp attack

Our battalion has been trying to pierce the German defenses for the entire day. For some reason, nothing works. Usually, when we press hard, they fall back; when they press hard, we fall back. Now, for some reason, they're refusing to retreat, though our own attacks are pretty weak. There is no artillery or tank support, and our replacements aren't particularly eager — go to ground about halfway to the German trenches.

By evening, we find out that there is almost no-one left alive in the companies. During supper, the battalion signals officer comes over and tells us that there was a long conversation with brigade HQ, and we got an order to take the German trenches by any means necessary. The battalion CO nearly cried, told them that he had nothing left, but the brigade told him to attack again in the morning. Every man left alive will go in.

After a while, our platoon commander arrives and tells us to go forward to the trenches of the first company. We were joined by a platoon of about 10 SMG infantry and a few signals men and battalion couriers. In all there are about 30 of us, mostly scouts and support guys who're almost never sent in during a general attack.

Another attack. Back when I was in regular infantry and made it through my first attack I understood that it's just a big meat grinder, the worst thing that can happen to a soldier at the front. You have absolutely no control over the situation, your job is to stand up and move forward under machine gun fire. Compared with frontline infantry, tanks, aviation or artillery feel like a spa — an infantryman's chance of survival is tens of times smaller. Seeing this, at the next unit reconstitution I decided that I'd rather serve anywhere other than an infantry company. So when they'd lined us up on the square and some lieutenant looked us over and ordered: «Anyone brave, two steps forward,» something compelled me to take two steps forward. Of course, I also wanted to be considered brave. Some other guy took two steps. The lieutenant looked at us with some disdained and said: «Let's go!» And that's how I wound up in the scout platoon.

We get to the frontline trenches, catch a few winks of sleep and started to get ready at first light. The field in front of us is completely flat, the only cover — the many corpses of our soldiers piled up over the past few days. We climb out of our trenches and start walking forward in silence. Unlike the naval infantrymen I'd mentioned before, we attack without shouting «Hurrah!» — we, men of the 7th Guards Air Assault brigade, and we attack in silence, relentlessly moving forward. By the way, I've only ever heard battlecries like «For the Motherland!» or «For Stalin!» in the movies.

After about 30 meters the Germans start shooting, with the fire strengthening as we keep moving forward. We go to ground. One dash after another, from one corpse to another, and we keep advancing towards the Germans. Now the mortars start firing. In front of us is an impenetrable wall of dirt, shrapnel and bullets. I hug the ground and wait for the shelling to pass. Finally, the mortars fall silent. Time for another dash. Even though bullets are whistling all around me, I get ready, spring up and run forward.

The German line is very close now, and suddenly I feel that something is off. At first, I don't understand what it is, but then realize that the Germans stopped shooting. Did they actually run away? Can't be. Impossible. Why would they ever want to run away from us — they're in cover, in safety, while we're running at them almost at full height. It's practically like target practice for them — why run away?

Later on, when it was my turn to repel an attack, I understood why. You're sitting in a trench while firing at some German running towards you. You aim, you fire once, twice, but he keeps getting up and running at you like a charmed man. You start thinking that maybe your weapon is damaged, your gun site is off, whatever — and when he gets really close, you're almost certain that he's invincible, that you cannot kill him.

Translated by: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Source: http://lib.ru

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