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
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.
Photo by Aleksandr Petrosyan.
Notes: Continue reading