Rattling like skeletons


(March 5th, 2017)

Stalin died on this day in 1953. It was a peaceful passing, in his own bed. His corpse was embalmed and treated and put on display next to Lenin’s, and the people passed by in their hundreds of thousands, never realizing till then just what a little guy–five foot four inches–Stalin had been. The powers of life in death in such compact form. Had a single man ever had such total control over so many people over such an expanse in the history of humanity? Nyet. Stalin was unsurpassed.

And then, suddenly, he was gone. For days vast mobs filed the streets in extraordinary public grief. So vast was this grief that the body of Prokofiev, who died the same day as Stalin, was stuck in his house for three days such was the press of flesh in the streets. The official state journal of music mentioned the composer’s death on page 116. The first 115 pages were dedicated to the musical contributions of Comrade Stalin. Perhaps you’ve forgotten the musical contributions of Stalin. They seem to have disappeared quickly.

His instrument of terror, Beria, was arrested that June, when a bunch of leading party leaders and functionaries and generals grabbed him, quite unsuspecting, at a dacha outside Moscow. Beria’s associates and underlings, all cold eyed KGB men, were picked up across the country in a final bloody purge. Some were arrested, others dispatched on the spot. Beria himself was held in some discomfort for six months before they got up the nerve to try him. He was accused of being a traitor, a pervert, a terrorist and a counter revolutionary. He was found guilty on all counts except perversion (though he was as evil a sexual predator as there has ever been) and sentenced to death, and as he pleaded for his life in a rather pathetic fashion, a general (chosen by lots, I believe), after stuffing Beria’s mouth with a rag to shut him up, put a revolver to his forehead and blew his vile brains out. Thus ended Stalinism, two days before Christmas. Beria’s corpse was taken outside and burned, the ashes scattered in the nameless taiga, where they dissolved into nutrients, feeding birch trees that rattle in the Russian wind like skeletons every December 23.


Leventy Beria

Stalin on the phone


It occurred to me several years ago [back in the 1990’s] that Stalinist Russia would have been an impossibility without the telephone. A call is made, a man arrested. Another call is made, the man is shot. Bureaucratic terror emanating via phone lines. There were mailed instructions, of course, and couriers, and telegrams. But a phone added a voice. You hear Beria on the phone and you respond instantly. The phone gave immediacy, extending Stalin’s absolute power the length and breadth of Russia because he could order–or his minions could order–an arrest or execution instantly and personally. There could be no delay. No dissembling. No shuffling of papers or death sentences lost in the mail. Not that things weren’t shuffled or lost in the mail. But doing so risked the wrath of someone higher up and a phone call. A phone call to you. Or a phone call to someone about you. Death and terror whisked across the Soviet Union in fractions of a second. I wonder if, during the height of Stalin’s purges in the 1930’s (when a million at least were shot, and ten million sent to the Gulag), people stared in dread at a ringing telephone, knowing they had to answer, and if it would be the last time.

But now I wonder if such a vast purge would have been an impossibility with the answering machine. I mean, if no one is there to hear the command, will it be obeyed? Stalin’s calls would be answered, of course. And Beria’s. But down the line, an assistant of an assistant of an assistant people’s director of security, would their calls be answered? Arrests and executions piling up unheard on feebly blinking answering machines, or perhaps heard but unacknowledged, allowing warnings and escapes. Oh how we hate leaving messages. Imagine then Stalin, leaving a message after the tone.


Stalin at his desk at the height of the Purge. His phone is a remarkable decadent thing, thoroughly bourgeoisie, a contrast with the massive black utilitarian phones that appear on his desk in all the museum replicas.


Operation Bagration

June 22, 2014 will be the 70th anniversary of the beginning of Operation Bagration, when the Russians broke the back of the mighty Wehrmacht, the German army. It’s not very well known in the West, partly due to the drama of D-Day, partly because of the Cold War and perhaps mainly because until perestroika the records of the Red Army were inaccessible to historians outside the USSR. But it’s well known to Germans. More of them were left there than on any other field with the possible exception of the Stalingrad campaign. Bagration was the most massive defeat ever inflicted on the Wehrmacht, the most massive success ever achieved by Russia’s Red Army, and probably the most underappreciated war changing event of WW2.

Military history isn’t easy to understand. It’s complicated, the terminology difficult, the concepts counter-intuitive. Plus people get killed. Sometimes lots and lots of people, and you can see why that bothers the average reader. So basically it’s difficult to comprehend for the vast majority of people because there’s no way to visualize it without being confused or grossed out. So let’s picture it this way. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are teams in the National Football League. It’s been a rough game. The Germans blitzed the Russians in the first quarter. The Russians held their own in the second and scored big as the clock ran out. The third quarter was a brutal slugfest but the Russians wound up dominating the field. In the fourth, after the kickoff the two teams met at the fifty yard line. The Nazis misread the Russian signals, the ball was snapped, there was a cloud of dust, and the only German players left standing were running for their lives towards their own end zone. That play was Operation Bagration.


Russian infantry aboard T-34 tanks approaching German positions somewhere in Belarus during Operation Bagration.

The Russians managed a surprise attack along a front of several hundred miles–the entire central portion of the Russian Front, what the Germans had designated as their Army Group Center–and blitzed through with remarkable speed. The Red Army achieved massive superiority wherever they attacked (ten Russian tanks to every one German tank, for example) and the German army units facing them were annihilated. Many divisions were completely destroyed. Nearly all the rest were reduced to remnants. Vehicles–from Tiger tanks to trucks to horse carts–were destroyed or abandoned.  There are stunning photos of roads littered with equipment that had been left pell mell as the retreating columns were overrun by Russian tanks and blown apart by waves of Russian aircraft, like negatives of photographs taken on the same roads in 1941.

Destroyed German column

Destroyed German column in Belarus, 1944

Indeed by 1944 the Russians had such control of the skies on the Russian Front that German units could move only by night, and in June the darkness lasted only a few hours, leaving the retreating Germans visible for twenty hours a day. The Russian air force was merciless. Tank busting Sturmovik ground attack aircraft destroyed German vehicles by the hundreds. And then behind German lines in the woods and marshes were hundreds of thousands of partisans, organized, well armed and devastatingly effective. Between the Red Army, Red Air Force and the partisans, the Germans were under assault by Russian forces on all sides, front, flank, rear, from above and even from inside, where partisans popped up out nowhere.

Russian partisans behind German lines somewhere.

Russian partisans.

Some of the German forces took refuge in towns and cities, giving them some respite from tanks, planes and partisans, but trapping them far behind the advancing Russian armies. They either surrendered–fifty thousand were taken at Minsk–or were destroyed by Russian infantry and artillery in vicious urban conflict. Among the units making their escape west, the renowned German military discipline often disintegrated, turning a thorough defeat into a panicky rout. The degree of the collapse is borne out by the losses among general officers–never before had so many German generals–thirty one of Army Group Center’s forty seven division and corps commanders–been killed or captured in one campaign. Three weeks into the offensive a triumphant Stalin had those fifty thousand German prisoners from Minsk paraded, twenty abreast, through Red Square. The humiliation must have been total, even surreal. Afterward the streets where they’d marched were washed down, an insult if there ever was one.

German prisoners paraded through Moscow, July 17, 1944.

German prisoners paraded through Moscow, July 17, 1944.

Those prisoners were but a fraction, though, of the German losses throughout the offensive. In a two month period, from June 22 though August, a half million German soldiers of Army Group Center were lost–killed, captured, wounded. That is a loss of fifty percent. And the damage went deep. When divisions surrendered en masse, and when Russian tanks overran rear areas, officers, non-coms, specialists, skilled mechanics, logistics experts, administrators, instructors, and medical personnel were killed or captured. The bones and sinew of a military machine, lost forever. You can’t replace those people with 17 year old conscripts. Conscripts don’t know anything, and the people who would have taught them were dead or being paraded through Red Square.

Looking at the Warsaw Rebellion from the far bank of the Vistula.

Watching the Warsaw Rebellion from the far bank of the Vistula.

The Russian offensive ran out of steam two months later outside Warsaw, hundreds of miles west of where it started. Russian casualties (as always) had been high, the soldiers were exhausted, tanks worn out, supply lines over reached. The Red Army units settled down on the eastern bank of the Vistula river to regroup and rest and rearm. It had reconquered all of Belarus–left utterly ruined by the Nazi administration and the retreating Wehrmacht, evoking promises of revenge by the Red Army–and half of Poland. That’s a lot of Lebensraum. To the south the Balkan front caved in throughout autumn all the way to Hungary. And in the west, the Allied forces at last broke into the open and virtually annihilated another German army, the survivors running till they reached the German border and dug in. Meanwhile in Prussia an attempt was made on Hitler’s life (Operation Valkyrie they called it) by Wehrmacht officers who could read the writing on the wall. It failed. Retribution was savage. And in Warsaw Stalin let the Nazis put down the rebellion by the Polish Home Army. The Russians watched it all from across the Vistula. It would have been so easy to intervene, but Stalin had no use for the Poles in charge. He had his own plans for Poland. The Germans leveled Warsaw block by block, adding it to the long list of cities utterly destroyed during Operation Bagration. Nazi nihilism and Soviet realpolitik came together that summer on the banks of the Vistula. But Warsaw, like Valkyrie, was only a sideshow.

Replacements for the Eastern front, November, 1944.

Replacements for the Eastern front, November, 1944.

After Operation Bagration Hitler no longer had any way to prevent the Russians from conquering Germany. It was simply a matter of time. So it’s a lucky thing for the western allies that we did land on June 6. Luckier still that we broke out of Normandy when we did and in such spectacular fashion. We’d been bogged down in the hedgerows while the Russians were moving twenty miles a day through the German armies. It is said–you heard it over and over this past June 6–that D-Day was the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. It wasn’t. The beginning of the end was June 22 in Belarus. We helped. Operation Overlord was hard fought, costly, and in the long run, a decisive Allied victory and complete humiliation for the German Army in France. But in terms of scale, Operation Bagration, like everything on the Russian Front, was much larger, the fighting more violent, the destruction more total, the losses much larger. It was war on a scale that matched all the other theatres of WW2 put together. When two giant totalitarian civilizations fight to the death, everything else pales. And with Operation Bagration the Soviets delivered the mortal wound. The Reich would survive ten more months, and would even manage one last offensive in the west, the Battle of the Bulge, and attempt one disastrously around Budapest, but they were the thrashings of a dying animal.

German soldiers, somewhere on the eastern front 1944-45, captured by Russian soldiers and stripped of their boots.

Young German POWs in 1944-45, stripped of their boots by their Russian captors. Military age had dropped to fourteen after the losses in Operation Bagration, and uniforms weren’t always to be had.

I say it was lucky for the Allies that we landed when we did because I think the real significance of the Normandy invasion was that it put the western democracies back on the continent. And just in time. After Bagration the Third Reich was effectively over, it was just a matter of when. It still functioned as a state, the Final Solution roared full blast, and it kept churning out cannon fodder (another million of whom died, mostly in Poland and the eastern provinces of Germany), but there was absolutely nothing the Germans could do that would keep the Red Army from rolling all the way to the Rhine. Even if Overlord had never happened and all the panzer divisions and Waffen SS and veteran infantry units in France had been transferred east, the Russians would only have been delayed. Perhaps the remnants of Army Group North trapped on Latvia’s Courland Peninsula till the end of the war would have managed to escape before the Red Army reached the Baltic and cut them off. Perhaps East Prussia and Silesia could have held out a little longer. Perhaps.

Some of the Red Army's several thousand Katyusha Rocket launchers pounding German positions on July 22. Thirty thousand guns opened fire on the front lines of Army Group Center for two hours before the infantry and tanks joined in.

Some of the Red Army’s several thousand Katyusha rocket launchers pounding German positions on July 22. Thirty thousand guns bombarded the front lines of Army Group Center for two hours, before Red Army infantry and tanks went in for the kill. German survivors remembered it as the most terrifying barrage of the entire war.

But at most that would have delayed the Russians two or three months. The remaining German armies in the East–full of old men and Hitler Youth armed with rifles captured from the Belgians and French and Dutch and whomever–were just stopgaps. In January of 1945 the Red Army rolled from Warsaw to the outskirts of Berlin, annihilating another German army group. In April they attacked again, taking Berlin and stopping only when they came into contact with the Western Allies—the American, British, French, and Canadian armies pushing east as fast as the autobahns could carry them. It was only then that Germany surrendered. But Germany would not have surrendered after the fall of Berlin had the western allies not been on the continent, or more realistically had we invaded later in the summer or early autumn and still been fighting in France. Hitler would not have shot himself in the Fuhrerbunker, not with all his wonder weapons and fantasies and SS and Hitler Youth fanatics. He would have had Himmler and Goebbels and Goering and Bormann and all the rest with him, he would have had Speer to keep the last factories running, and V-2 rockets and ME262 jet fighters, and some excellent generals. They would have put together one last rag tag line west of Berlin to defend the string of bombed out cities, concentration camps, frightened people, slave laborers, and Nazi officials that made up the Third Reich. And then the Russians would have utterly destroyed that line in the middle of summer and pushed on to the Rhine. All of Germany would have been under Stalin’s control, one big German Democratic Republic. That is something to wonder about. East Germany went from Nazism to Stalinism almost instantly…it proved a far easier transition than denazification and democracy. Would it have been the same though out a united Germany under Soviet control? We had to build up West Germany’s institutions from the ground up. In East Germany all they did was change the name on the door.

Geman Panzers IVs with crews in a vision of unimaginable violence.

German Panzers IVs with silent crews in a vision of unimaginable violence.  Atop the tank, a Russian soldier.

Seventy years later all that remains of Hitler’s empire in the east are the dead. The Russian dead fill graveyards by the millions, soldiers, civilians, entire populations of Jews. There are also hundreds of thousands of German soldiers buried in cemeteries in the former Soviet Union. That’s remarkably decent of the Russians, considering. Belarus hasn’t been quite so forgiving. Nazi rule was especially brutal there. A quarter, maybe even a third of the population died. Virtually all the Jews were murdered. Nearly half of the population forced from their homes. Nine thousand villages reduced to scorched earth. If you had to pick one land where the Third Reich reached its zenith of barbarity, that place would be Belarus (with Poland a close second). Even so, hundreds of thousands of German soldiers’ remains have been located and disinterred and reburied. Some go home. Some go to cemeteries established in Russia just for German war dead. And they find another forty thousand a year. It’s all done quietly, no parades, no speeches. The authorities in Minsk say they know the whereabouts of another hundred thousand or so German remains. The vast majority would have died during Operation Bagration. Belarus must be thick with them. They must litter the forest, those German bones. I suppose they must be buried. Loose bones seem to make us nervous, no matter what side they were once on.

Operation Bagration. The Russians in red, the Germans blue.


Victory Day

An abandoned German Panther tank in Belarus after Operation Bagration. An abandoned German panzer in Belarus.


I’m writing this on May 9th, which is Victory Day in Russia, and in the Ukraine and Belarus and throughout the former Soviet Union. Today is the day that, in 1945, what was left of the Third Reich surrendered. For the peoples of what was then the Soviet Union, it commemorates their victory over the Evil Empire that set out to annihilate them and failed. The victory was total, the cost unimaginable. Millions and millions of people, tens of thousand of villages, millions of homes, all gone. Most of their major urban areas utterly wrecked. Russia lost about 13% of its people, dead. The Ukraine about 16%. Belarus 25%. Photos of Moscow and Leningrad right after the war show boys and old men and not many in between. It took the Soviet Union thirty years to reach its pre-war population levels. And those are just the dead. Not the scarred or shattered or simply stunned. Not the scared. Just those who would never know how it all came out in the end. But it ended well, you wish you could tell them. The good guys won. The greatest victory in the greatest war of all time. The greatest of everything. The most mammoth human undertaking of all time, the Russo-German War.

No one ever thinks of it like that, but it was. It was actually one of the most extraordinary creations of humankind. It was the largest enterprise humans have ever carried out. Virtually none of it was driven by anything other than military necessity or totalitarian whim. The Russo-German War was also the most destructive enterprise ever, even within the context of a world war. Nothing else comes close. It probably consumed materials at a rate never surpassed. And the only thing that has ever surpassed it for sheer man killing was probably one of the plagues. The plagues inadvertently unleashed by conquistadores that swept the Americas, maybe, or those brought by Mongols from China that devastated late medieval Europe. Those pestilences took their sweet time, though, they lolled about, spreading death in successive waves. But the Russo-German War got all its killing done in a three years and eleven months. Lumped together the German, Soviet and Jewish dead and come out with ghastly averages that someone calculated. A little over 600,000 dead a month, averaged out. You can break that down by week and day. Even by hour. 826 people–soldiers, civilians–died every hour on the Eastern Front. Fourteen a minute. Every four seconds someone died, mathematically speaking. In reality, though, death came with no respect for averages. A shell cut clean through a half track at Kursk, decapitating all eight men aboard instantly. That screws up the average right there. Figure in the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff with its complement of 9,400 refugees dead in less than an hour, or the 34,000 Jews (33,771 to be exact, as Einsatzgruppen totals always were) murdered at Babi Yar in two days, or the 157,593 Red Army soldiers executed for cowardice–generally meaning they retreated–in the first year of the war (which is close to half of the total US dead from all causes in all of World War 2) and it becomes apparent just how screwy those averages are. There were days or even hours of mass carnage, and doubtless there were midwinter days so cold that fighting virtually stopped across wide stretches of the front and the only dead were those who froze to death.

You’ll notice how none of that sunk in, not even with me and I wrote it. The problem with trying to write about the Russo-German War is that the scale of awfulness was so vast it’s nearly impossible to conceptualize. A list of numbers with lots and lots of zeros. For instance, there were 70,000 villages destroyed. Try and visualize that. We can’t. We can’t visualize thirty million corpses either, let alone thirty million funerals. Though who knows how many funerals there actually were. In Leningrad the frozen dead filled warehouses to the eaves. You can walk though a wood in Belarus and the bones lie bleached under dead leaves. A child in Volgograd (née Stalingrad) picks up an old grenade and joins them even now. So many dead. Numberless numbers. The prayers for the dead must have numbered in the billions. An infinity of tears, sighs and shrugs. Numbers fail. They fail me now, fail you reading this. They certainly fail the dead.

If numbers fail, words don’t. Some of those dead left diaries. Some letters. Some, being Russian, wrote poetry. Nicolai Mayorov explained that

It’s not for us to calmly rot in graves.
We’ll lie stretched out in our half-open coffins
And hear before the dawn the cannon coughing,
The regimental bugle calling gruffly
From highways which we trod, our land to save.

We know by heart all rules and regulations.
What’s death to us? A thing that we despise.
Lined up in graves, our dead detachment lies
Awaiting orders. And let generations
To come, when talking of the dead, be wise;
Dead men have ears and eyes for truth and lies.

Alas, he lay stretched out soon enough, near Smolensk. I know nothing of the circumstances, or even when, just that he died somehow in fighting around Smolensk. He might have been blown up by a mortar or cut down by a machine gun. Perhaps he stepped on a mine. Or froze to death. Or was the unlucky tenth man in a unit punished through decimation (and thus, by pure chance, would be one of those 157,593 executed for cowardice.) Whatever. It just seems all the more random because he wrote such beautiful verse. His was an ending that would have mystified Alexander Artemov, who wrote (in a rough translation)

I cannot understand the people fighting
And I feel pity for the soldiers shot.
Sometime we all will die, and it is frightening,
But why make someone’s long life so short?
I hope for the justice on the planet, I hope for the peaceful quiet life.
The world can’t any more be violent, can it?

But it could, and he was killed soon afterward somewhere on the front. Meanwhile, down on the shore of the Black Sea, the brilliant Vsevolod Bagritsky wrote

We rose at dawn,
When night crept close to day.
The wind that blew was fresh and light
and fitful,
A little briny and a little bitter

like there was no war at all. But there was, it was Odessa in 1941, where “homes go up in flames and topple to the ground”, and even though young Vsevolod swore a stanza later that they’ll not surrender the city, ever, they did. It was only a poem. A beautiful poem, even in translation, but just a poem nonetheless. War trumped verse every time. He could always write another. Or could have, had a sniper’s bullet not taken him, pen in hand, outside Leningrad. Another long life cut short. Literary immortality is a cold comfort. Given the choice between surviving the war or having people write essays about your brilliant flame being snuffed out mid-verse, it’s unlikely that Vsevolod Bagritsky would be too thrilled about me writing these lines about him now, not this way. No one wants to be a tragedy. A martyr, maybe, but was there even a need for martyrs when people are dying at a rate of 600,000 a month?  The dead were just ciphers, one of the averages that, with the dead laid end to end, would circle the world two times. Or back and forth across the length of the Soviet Union six times. Or stacked 2,500 miles high.*

Again the numbers fail me in their sheer vastness and I look to words instead. To the war poets. Like how we remember the poems of World War One–Wilfred Owen‘s Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, as under a green sea, I saw him drowning–to put us right in the trenches and feel what they felt. Russian war poems do the same. More than all the numbers, more even than all the often stunning footage in all the documentaries on television, the verses of the Russian poets give us an inkling of what the Russo-German War truly was. The numbers provide scale, but the words give us sensations, emotions, images, thoughts. Thoughts often–too often–of men who never made it to Victory Day. They are a race of poets, the Russians, a civilization madly in love with words. During the siege of Leningrad poets read their verse into microphones and the words emanated from omnipresent speakers all across the starving city. Even the Germans could hear it from their trenches. Fifty years later survivors of the siege could still recite the lines they’d heard floating above the frozen streets. They remembered corpses on the pavement and words in the air.

Yet what bothers me, somehow, are the unknown poems that were written in those years. Ones you don’t see in anthologies or posted on websites. How many are there, thousands? Do they fill old letters home? And if so, what do the poems talk about? Can you see what their authors saw? Hear what they heard? And then, even more unknowable, how many of these poems were composed but never put to paper? More thousands? The thought of it stops me cold. Unknown lines snuffed out by the crack of a sniper’s rifle. Back to numbers again. I keep going back to numbers. 20 million dead equals x number of poems never written. Lines dreamed up but never spoken. I wonder just how many poems blew wordlessly over Russian fields.

Victory Day has meaning. It’s not just a holiday. Not just fireworks. It’s something a dead poet had put into words but never finished, and we’ll never know what that was. He’s just bones now, and the words just air.

Victory Day Victory Day

Photo by Aleksandr Petrosyan.

Notes: Continue reading