To mark today’s 75th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa and the Wehrmacht’s massive invasion of the Soviet Union, I have written a short story about one of my favourite subjects. Throughout the five years I’ve been obsessed with and studying the Eastern Front, the story of the last defenders of Brest Fortress has always stood out to me. The Fortress in Belarus was one of the first Soviet strongholds to fall; but brave soldiers remained hidden within the walls, beneath the floors, and around the complex for weeks after it was overrun. These soldiers displayed great courage in their dedication to fight the enemy, as they chose to hide and create resistance even as they were starving and running out of water.
It’s in thinking of stories like these that I am so motivated to write about the Eastern Front. I want these stories to be known; they must be known, and if I can make them known in any way then I must. Also when thinking of these stories, my own efforts seem so inadequate. My story below, although I worked hard on it, just doesn’t do heroic deeds like those seen at Brest Fortress justice. But I will always try nonetheless. Farewell, Motherland imagines the last days of two of those last defenders. Their final days must have been bleak, but their endurance shows that their spirit was never broken. I hope I have portrayed that well.
The message scratched into a wall at Brest Fortress, left by one of its courageous defenders. It reads, “I am dying but I do not surrender! Farewell, Motherland. 20 July 1941.” Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Sergei Semyonov (Stauffenberg). CC-BY-SA 3.0
“You say we’re to wait until the Fritzes are all relaxing, eh?” Pasha drawled sceptically. “I don’t see how we’ll be able to tell when they’re asleep. It always looks like midnight down here.”
“Shut up,” Volodya growled. He could only just make out his comrade’s hunched outline, but he sent a scowl in Pasha’s direction all the same. “If you’d be quiet, then we’d at least hear them walking around.”
“Don’t bite my head off,” Pasha shot back. “My commentary at least enlivens the atmosphere a bit. Makes it a bit less dead. We’re the only breathing things down here… except for the worms and the rats.”
“I didn’t hear a commentary, it all sounded like complaining to me,” Volodya replied, pausing in the middle of his sentence to smile. Pasha and his stupid jokes. Maybe down here, in the dry, unwelcoming darkness, they were good for something. “Anyway, shut up for a minute. It’ll do you good to quit griping and listen for awhile.”
What a pleasant change; Pasha obeyed without a word, and the two men craned their necks toward the rough floorboards above them. There was absolutely nothing to see, so all they could do was try to hear what was going on in the room overhead.
“There’s nothing,” Pasha announced, before Volodya had even gotten focused. “Face it, Volodya, we’re never going to figure this out. I say we just burst out now and let them have it, before they find us and before we starve.” The floorboards creaked overhead, dumping a shower of dust and splinters onto both of them. “Ugh, my eyes! What an atrocious little cellar this is, anyway!”
“You dolt,” hissed Volodya, grasping blindly for the idiot’s collar. “Concentrate, why don’t you? The fascists’ footsteps are worth more than all the clever things you’ll ever say! And this cellar’s our saving grace, in case you’d forgotten. We’d be dead or ashamed like Kuzakov and Nazhinsky without it.”
“Okay, okay, fine!” Pasha yanked at Volodya’s hand, wheezing. “You’re right about that. But cut me some slack, okay? You outrank me, but only by a few months. And only because you’ve got a heart of stone and no sense of indecision! As it is, I’m a grunt, and a thoughtful one; so I’ve got to do some grumbling. If I don’t, who knows… I could end up like Vova Federov.”
“Vova Federov?” Volodya knew the name, but couldn’t ascribe it to anyone in particular.
“Yeah… the kid from Gomel, who vomited enough for a horse when he saw his first dead man. Then he stabbed himself in the foot with his bayonet and jumped off a bridge before he’d been a soldier for a month.”
“Right,” Volodya relinquished his grip on Pasha’s collar. “What a coward.”
“Well, there you have it.” A puff of dust into Volodya’s face signalled that Pasha had leaned his back against the earthen wall. “A lack of grumbling will turn this brave Soviet into that sort of a coward.”
Volodya shrugged. “Grumble away, then. But quietly. I’m listening.” And he turned his face back to the floorboards. He enjoyed a few minutes of silence; but of course Pasha the parrot couldn’t keep his mouth shut for long.
“What’s the plan, anyway?” Pasha was whispering, but that didn’t make his interruption any less irritating. “Once they’re asleep, what do we do?”
“For goodness’ sake, can’t you keep your words in your own head for once?!” Hissed Volodya, slamming his fist down onto the dry, sandy ground.
“Well, I thought it might help if I was prepared, but if you don’t think so, then fair enough…”
Now Volodya leaned his head against the crumbling wall. He knew Pasha was right; annoying, but right. “Okay, but pay attention. I won’t explain it twice, and I’m only taking questions now– not in twenty minutes, when you’ve worked out all the things that might go wrong.”
“But, Volodya,” Pasha protested, “don’t you want a second opinion? Surely we want the plan to be as perfect as possible.”
“The plan’s never going to be perfect,” Volodya replied after a pause. “There’s only one thing we can do now, and that’s figure out the most productive way for us to die.”
That shut Pasha up for a bit, but all Volodya could hear was his comrade’s anxious breaths and the fascists’ jackbooted footsteps above.
“I bet you’re glad you let me grumble now,” Pasha muttered presently. “If I were Vova Federov, I’d have topped myself not to avoid the fascists, but to avoid coming in here.”
“It’d be much more peaceful if you were Vova Federov, then,” Volodya smiled.
“Yeah, much more peaceful,” echoed Pasha. He paused and sighed, almost inaudibly. “So what is your plan?”
“You’ve still got grenades, right?”
“Two of them– I thought about using one when I seemed to be cornered, but then I found my way in here.”
“You mean, you followed me in here,” interjected Volodya.
“Well, at least I’ve still got my grenades… remind me why I shouldn’t use one on you?”
Volodya chuckled. “Because you’re lost without me, that’s why. Anyway, listen to the plan. Once the fascists are quiet and have forgotten all about our resistance, we’ll burst out and give them a magazine full. Then we’ll throw our grenades before they can return fire; and in the confusion, we’ll reload and shoot some more.”
“I’ve only got twelve rounds left,” objected Pasha. “Twelve rounds don’t go far.”
Volodya let out a pained sigh– Pasha could always think of something wrong. “We won’t go far, either! Don’t bother yourself with that. Just hope that you’ll have the time to get those twelve rounds off.”
“Am I allowed to save a round for myself?”
“You saw how many fascists poured into the Fortress. I doubt you’ll have to.”
There was a pause; even the scurrying rats seemed to fall silent and Pasha the parrot had nothing to say.
“Well, how long do we have to wait?” Finally he spoke, tapping what sounded like the butt of his Mosin impatiently. Volodya ignored this annoyance.
“As long as we can hold out without getting too weak. I’ve got half a canteen of water left.”
“Oh, alright then. That’ll last for at least a week.”
“Don’t get smart,” Volodya shot back. “Of course, it all depends on how long you can keep your mouth shut, too.”
Pasha snorted in reply, and Volodya smirked as a thought came to mind. “You know, Pasha my old comrade, you might make it out of this after all. Your nonstop chatter might entertain the fascists enough that they decide to keep you alive.”
Pasha laughed so hard that Volodya had to smack him to shut him up. As the floorboards creaked and the dust floated down, Volodya took a deep breath of the stuffy, dry air. “The fascists will be going to bed soon. After tonight, it’ll only be a few more days of this.”
“I know,” Pasha said, fidgeting like a child. “But after a few more days…”
Volodya ignored his suggestion. “We won’t be waiting long, the days will go fast. Three or four days isn’t a long time when we’ve both had twenty-five years here.”
“Well, not here, ” Pasha protested. “Twenty-five years here, in this little cellar, would be enough to drive anyone nuts!”
“You’re a moron,” Volodya looked towards Pasha’s dark figure, chuckling. “I’m spending my last few days with a moron.”
Pasha sounded thoughtful. “A moron, and a friend?”
“Yes, Pasha, a friend.”
“Well, that’s something! I thought you’d be grumpy with me right to the end.”
“There’s time yet… are you going to be talking even as we burst out and hammer the Fritzes?”
Volodya could hear the sad smile in Pasha’s voice. “I’ll be talking alright. I’ll be the last thing they hear!”